It always happens this way. You're zooming along the interstate in a cornfield-induced haze, a visual playlist of silos, gas stations and Subway signs flashing by on repeat, when suddenly, "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Wait, wait! What is that?" I bolted upright from the backseat and (probably dangerously) thumped my window loudly to catch my brother's attention. Within spitting distance of I-74 southeast of Indy, a giant organic ice sculpture rose above rooftops. Some not-suitable-for-company words flew out of his mouth, and in true road-trip fashion, he knew what had to be done. "Let's get off and find it."
As soon as we got off at Exit 99, scrappy hand-lettered signs pointed us to the Ice Tree. As we drove, we hypothesized: Is it a weeping willow? A giant pine tree? Some sort of explosive plumbing disaster? It didn't take long to pull up beside a nondescript ranch-style home with a well-marked circular driveway that went right past the looming creation.
And it is, in fact, a creation, meticulously crafted each year by the Veal family (with help, of course, from Old Man Winter). A repurposed newspaper box holds stacks of printed pamphlets that tell the Ice Tree's story:
In the winter of 1961, our family was spraying a fine mist of water on the hill south of the house to make an ice slide onto the pond. During the night, a strong east wind blew the spray onto some honeysuckle bushes. The result was so beautiful that we sprayed water directly onto the bushes and the Ice Tree was born.
Like any great tradition, this one has grown more grand each year. Today's second-generation Ice Tree builders use lumber and binder twine to build a frame, then attach tree limbs and brush from nearby fencerows. Then they thread hoses through the structure, so water reaches the entire tree. As the winter freeze settles in, they add more brush and water in layers, and move the hoses around to new spots. The hoses run continuously all winter, and the family sprays the tree with food-coloring-tinted dye. (Hence the chemical-blue appearance of the ice.)
In a typical winter, the tree grows to 35 or 40 feet, and the brochure boasts that one year, it towered at 70 feet. But this year, the Polar Vortex has yielded an incredible tree that, according to a scrawled sign by the off-ramp, has reached 70 to 80 feet.
After gazing at the tree a few minutes and debating whether to take a selfie, we realized a line of cars had formed behind us. So we buckled up and pulled out, accelerating back onto the highway, where the silos and gas stations began to flash by again.
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