The day? January 3, 2016.
The setting? The Main Line of southeastern Pennsylvania, a historic branch of quintessentially upper middle class towns off of an old train line out of Center City, Philadelphia, where the women wear Lululemon and tote around their yoga mats in outlandish Vera Bradley bags while the men wear Brooks Brothers and LL Bean (to the country club on weekends, of course). It is a region as suburban and landlocked as they come, yet the landscape is dotted by little residential reservoirs and bubbling “water features.” Some of these are natural, fed by the many tributaries that flow into the great Delaware River, but an equal number are man-made, carved into the land by neighborhood councils to increase already inflated property values.
The mission? Find Leopard Lake.
I first heard of Leopard Lake six years ago in French class. It was June, the classroom was stuffy, and, to make matters worse, our teacher was grilling us on les mots de vacances – vacation words, like sunscreen, bathing suit, the beach. Oh God, how we wished we were already at the beach. My French teacher, dear old Madame Kirby, decided to say something that might rouse us out of our collective dreamy stupor. She began telling us, with the air of an enchantress revealing the existence of a mystical land far, far away, that The Main Line has a beach.
No, Madame, we most certainly do not have a beach. A Farmer’s Market? Yes. America’s largest mall? You bet*. A beach? No. You have to go to Jersey for that, sorry.
But, no, Madame Kirby told us, brandishing her hands majestically. There really is a plage with beaucoup du soleil where one could bronzer, and that magical place was called Leopard Lake.
That night I excitedly grilled my mom on the existence of such a beach and she confirmed it with maddening nonchalance. She, in fact, had a friend that was moving there to “live on the water.” Oh boy, do I gotta see this. The idea was thrilling. In the summers, you see, we had to travel long, sweaty hours through parking-lot traffic to get to the Jersey Shore, and the particular Jersey beach my friends and I prefer is Cape May, aka Exit 0, aka literally the southernmost tip of the state of New Jersey and a 3 hour drive. And on Memorial Day? Fuhgeddaboudit. The people who lived along the route to the beach would set up folding chairs to watch us shore schmucks as we tried to get home. We were their holiday parade.
Back at home, we had pebbly spots in the woods by creeks that we had personally christened and would pretend were beaches (e.g. “Sharp’s Landing” in Sharps Woods by my friend’s house) but the idea of an honest-to-goodness sandy beach inside my town, no matter how small, a casual 5 minute drive away? It seemed too good to be true.
And, well, it was. To my chagrin, Leopard Lake proved to be inexplicably difficult to find. For a car-less schlep like teenage me, it actually proved impossible. Every once in a while, most often on a languid sunny afternoon spent lounging by the pool, I would float the idea of trying to track down Leopard Lake and we would set about to Googling, to no avail…
And then my parents retired to a real beach up north. This big, beautiful beach pictured above, in fact, so it’s not really an issue anymore.
And maybe that’s why when I was on the train from new home to old for New Year’s Eve I stumbled upon the location of this mystical lake completely accidentally. I was no longer its lustful seeker, so finally it came and found me.
I was killing time on Instagram, as one does, scrolling around my own photo map when I noticed a rather large swatch of blue that, upon further zooming, was plainly labeled Leopard Lake. I yelped with recognition (only mildly alarming the passenger beside me) and immediately sent a screenshot to my friend who I knew would remember my forgotten quest.
After all this time, how could it be this simple? Does Instagram really know things Google doesn’t? A few minutes online revealed to me that, maddeningly, wonderfully, Google seemed to have updated sometime between when my interest waned and when I made this beautiful discovery.
I was gazing out over a romantic view of the Connecticut coastline from a gently jostling train, intermittently paging through Eat, Pray, Love, a bit sleepy and a bit excited and awash with holiday nostalgia, all on top of the fact that I am already a natural sap with a proclivity for finding life’s little metaphors, and so I proceeded to spend the rest of my trip buzzing internally about how this incident was full of signs (about the virtues of letting go and allowing the ~Universe~ to provide, etc) and full of lessons (about persistence and patience, etc) and, most importantly, an invitation for serious adventure.
My little jaunt home now had a mission.
Ultimately, the mission proved absurdly easy to complete. My best friend and I got into my car, turned the radio on and began to drive, equipped with our Instagram map and a full tank of gas. And then, quite suddenly, before Justin Bieber even had time to finish apologizing, we were there. Leopard Lake turned out to be hidden behind trees off of a side street of a road I had driven down more times than I could ever count – one of those residential arteries whose official name I only had the haziest notion of but along which three of my best friends lived, each down their own side street in their own little cluster of houses. None of their side streets, however, had their own lake.
For a while all we could do was pull over beside it and laugh – laugh until our sides hurt, laugh until we snorted and then laugh some more. How could it have been right here this whole time? Not even on the other side of town – right here, in our area, an area we proudly sped through without any need for direction or care, the place where we had grown up that we thought we knew better than the backs of our hands.
Of course, it was another sign, another lesson, another metaphor.
Open your god damn eyes.
Now, in our defense, we were not exactly welcome here and this was immediately apparent. There was no parking for non-residents so our exploration was hurried by mild anxiety that someone would take leave of their mansion to yell at us to move our car. And, while it may have been a casual 5 minute drive, given the design of suburbs, the walk would have been a hot and treacherous hour of hugging the shoulder while BMWs whizzed by, cursing us for taking up space.
But, nonetheless, we had found it. After all this time, here it was: a big figure eight of dark blue water gleaming in the December sun, flanked by a playground, tennis courts and, yes, Madame Kirby, a patch of sandy beach.
Itch scratched, mystery solved, lesson learned. But I had promised an adventure and by the time we had stopped nosing around this posh neighborhood and hurried back to our car we had been out of the house for a grand total of 12 minutes. That just wouldn’t do.
My little neighborhood where I grew up was a short drive away. It is an eclectic assortment of homes ranging from squat stone houses to large estates set back from the road and shrouded by enormous evergreen trees. One of these estates is at the end of my very street and is owned by a mysterious mogul who is, and I stress this, never there. Because why would he be? Rumor has it that he is young, single, and owns seven other homes around the world. No big deal.
His sprawling acres, therefore, are constantly unkempt, minimally maintained by gardeners to prevent the wild from fully reclaiming the territory, but nonetheless always marching indefatigably in that direction. In the middle is a sizable swampy pond.
You can imagine that this was a real thorn in my side growing up – there it was, a beautiful body of water in walking distance from my house, everything I ever wanted, guarded by two weird sphinxes and a rusted gate put up by a guy who was never around to pay the land any attention. I nursed a few radical notions of rousing a populist movement to seize that land for the good of the neighborhood and turning the pond into a park. Alas, my neighbors merely raised their manicured eyebrows at this and turned away, and I was forced to pass that gate daily and gaze inside – wistful, longing, unsatisfied.
So on that day, thrilled as we were with our Leopard Lake victory and feeling a little rebellious, we drove over to my old neighborhood and sneaked inside the grounds.
Take that, anonymous ungrateful rich guy (don’t take it personally, my distaste for you is purely symbolic).
We crept around within the gate, giggling, our hearts hammering, half expecting an alarm to go off or a canned admonishment to “get off the grass!” to ring out across the field. Nothing, of course, happened. Look at those leaves – this guy does not care about this place.
Despite the utter lack of danger, the unshakable we’re not supposed to be here feeling shepherded us off the property within a few exhilarating minutes.
We hurtled into my car, slamming the doors, breathing heavily and beaming at each other. “Where to next?” my friend asked. Our life of crime had just begun.
It ended as quickly as it had come, though. We just don’t have it in us, I suppose. The third pond we found was a complete dud. It was the centerpiece of one of those truly nightmarish suburban complexes of row after row of beige stucco house after beige stucco house. The homes were so tightly packed that we could only see slivers of the water they surrounded, and further inspection led us to locked gate after locked gate that we just didn’t have the heart to climb. Frankly, the brown water it guarded just didn’t look worth it.
Our quest came to an end here as we had a nacho date with friends we were now running late for, but we were completely thrilled with our modest results. This exploration had revealed to us little undiscovered nooks and crannies of a place we had come to take for granted, a place that I no longer have the luxury of taking for granted now that it is no longer my own. The Main Line is no vacation destination (unless you are an avid shopper taking a bus tour to the King of Prussia Mall or, less often, a Revolutionary War buff getting lost in Valley Forge National Park) but there is still adventure to be had if you are okay with being a little bit ridiculous and decide to embrace the beauty in the mundane.
Remember, I’m a sap, okay? I’ll force a lesson out of everything.
*King of Prussia Mall > Mall of America, in terms of retail space. Look it up. Or don’t. It’s not that important.