Normal, Illinois

May 1, 2022 / Ellie Stephan

The silos were where the starry-eyed adolescents of Normal Community High School came to dream. They were our gathering place.

I grew up in a town called Normal, Illinois.

Normal is the mural uptown — a mosaic of bricks, each painted with love from local artists. Normal is everyone’s parents working at State Farm Insurance and half your high school going to Illinois State University. Normal is Eastland Mall, with its haunted, empty storefronts, gray, dingy carpet, and a food court of one restaurant. Normal is walking into Coffee Hound and always seeing someone from your church. Normal is riding your bike across town, ordering out of the colorful ice cream window, and sitting on a sun-filled patch of grass to listen to live music.

And it’s surrounded by cornfields. In every direction. For hours. Hills aren’t in its vocabulary – there’s a flat, endless horizon of fields. For what Normal lacks in breathtaking mountains and sparkling skyscrapers, it makes up for with the art in its sky. Its sunsets fill the infinite horizon with swaths of orange, yellow, purple, and pink that descend with the Sun, leaving as fast as they came. The sunsets paint the corn golden and give Normal its glow.

So, if my friends and I had nothing else to do, we’d drive into the country to watch gold unfold in the sky. Specifically, we’d go to the silos. My friends Vidya and Mantra would swing into my driveway blasting Alec Benjamin, I’d throw empty boba cups out of my seat, and we’d drive until we hit trespassing territory. Leaving the gravel stretch well-worn by car tires, we’d walk up the narrow metal staircase clinging to the silo until we reached the roof. On the roof, we watched the sky. The silos weren’t on Google Maps; they weren’t a Chip and Joanna Gaines attraction. But the students of Normal Community High School could get there by heart.

Bright headlights cut through the darkness of the humid August night. Bare feet with chipped white nail polish, callused by a long summer, slid into falling-apart Birkenstocks and tip-toed up the winding staircase to the silo roof for the first time. Nervous about trespassing, the three of us kept our voices to a hush. Blue light lit up my face as I texted our groupchat, telling Elizabeth to come next time. Hannah spread out old blankets as we slowly inched away from the ladder, backs glued to the cool metal roof. We let our shoes fall all the way to the grass below.

After a fairly uneventful summer, stargazing on the silos emulated the quintessential teenage experience we craved. Unable to figure out the speaker Amanda had brought, I played soft indie music from my phone out of a stargazing playlist. Hannah and I compared work schedules, sharing excitement for our first jobs at the new restaurant by the airport. Amanda told me she was in my lunch hour the coming semester — good, we needed each other to split the cafeteria fries. Overhead, meteors went by. Eventually, our murmurings about first boyfriends or recent summer vacations came to a delicate silence, and we watched the stars. For the first time, I gathered at the silos and lived out my rendition of the coming of age movies I grew up on.

A year older, I returned from camping in the muggy Missouri swamp to a borderless July evening. As soon as I had cell reception, Vidya lit up my phone, relieved that the texts were blue again. That night was like many others — no plans, just a Midwestern sunset on the horizon and a vague time when she would pick me up. Rolling down the windows to feel the breeze and bickering over her choice to play a TikTok diss track, we drove by the elementary school to check out which of our friends were playing volleyball. The crowd that night wasn’t persuasive, so we kept driving until we reached the road next to our high school. Deliciously nosy, we pulled into the parking lot. Who was there? And what were they doing? Nothing of importance. Vidya didn’t feel like getting ice cream, so we had one last option left.

Accelerating way past the arbitrary speed limit, we were there in minutes, scaling the metal staircase beneath a painting of blue, orange, and pink. Cicadas drowned out the pop music blaring, but our Instagram followers heard only the carefully-chosen clip played over the third takes of us ever-so-casually looking at the camera. Balanced on the metal roof, warmed by the summer sun, she complained about my work schedule impeding our plans to watch the Kissing Booth, and I theorized about why one friend might have texted me. And that’s what the silos were. There, we sat, we talked, we took pictures, and we gathered until the sun set on our youth.

It was January, and the sky was a cloud. On the 15-minute drive to the silos, I dwelled with Mantra and Vidya in comfortable silence, the early morning muffled by the foggy horizon. When we pulled into the space between the two silos, our sneakers made imprints in the fresh winter snow. As we carefully climbed up the ice-coated stairs to the silo roof, we gazed into the void of white. For weeks, we had planned to get up early and watch the sunrise before Mantra and Vidya left for college. COVID had taken away their first semester, but they were finally leaving home. And leaving me, too.

In the coming days, Vidya and I would sketch options for how to arrange the painstakingly-curated collage on her dorm room wall, and the countdown on her private Snapchat story would come to a finale. Mantra would bake pistachio baklava when his flight was delayed, and we’d continue to send life updates to the groupchat. I’d watch the sunrise again — at the lake instead, with the friend group that made my senior year one of the best times of my life. That morning at the silos, though, January was opaque. Fog smothered the sunrise, and all I could see was white. But behind the winter haze, I knew the sun was rising.

My family and I were moving to Dallas in two weeks, and so I drove to the silos one last time. This time, I was the one leaving, and I had to make my peace with saying goodbye. The last grad party invites had been sent out. Towers of moving boxes suffocated my childhood home. Leaving my grandma, my friends, and my childhood home cleaved my heart in two, but, at the same time, I felt that Dallas was a deliverance from God.

Sitting in one place is comfortable. That is, until you feel yourself going numb. Standing up brings thorny electricity, pins and needles. Leaving the silos brought pins and needles, but I needed to walk to a blank page. One last time, I looked to the orange-tinted fields under the setting sun, knowing that Dallas would have parking lots, late-night diners, and roofs where you could see the stars. But to me, those were no silos. Such places must be tinged with sweet nostalgia and the bitterness that comes with leaving them.

The silos of Normal, Illinois contain my high school experience. Who we are is shaped by nights with no plans. Convening in a place of idyllic possibility, no matter how humble that place is, enables us to form relationships, experience teenage rebellion, and share what’s buried in our hearts. In those places, we construct our sense of self and devise plans that follow us for the rest of our lives. The silos were where the starry-eyed adolescents of Normal Community High School came to dream. They were our gathering place.

Teenage gathering places are unassuming. They’re the church parking lot across the street from your high school or the top floor of the parking garage downtown, the one with the pretty view of the skyline. For some of you new Texan friends, maybe they’re a Whataburger after a football game. But these gathering places foster our dreams in a manner that transcends the humble location — they’re anything but Normal. They contain the beginnings of our youth, where we cultivate our coming of age and dream of what our lives will become. Under the star-pricked sky of the silos, Vidya kissed a boy for the first time, verging on curfew’s loom. We bid our youth goodbye at our gathering places. For Elizabeth to take pictures for my college decision post, where else would I go than the silos? For my 18th birthday, what more could I want than listening to my favorite album at the silos?

Gathering places are the sunrise and sunset of our adolescence. And in the meantime, we have no plans. So we stargaze. ■

By: Ellie Stephan

Layout: Ava Darvish

Photographer: Abby Burgy

Stylists: Emily Wager & Cat Hermansen

Hmua: Lily Cartagena, Claire Philpot, Alex Evans

Models: Jordan Teliha, Angel Quinn, Alex Santistevan

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.
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