You could spend the 4th of July eating, drinking, and making merry with fireworks. Or you could take a nearly 40-minute walk on Indiana Dunes National Park West Beach Trail, Loop 2, on loose, sloping sand in 90º plus heat and full sun to look for prickly pear cactus.
I’ve long wanted to stay at Dunes Walk Inn, so I made a reservation for May 4. This is before the season starts, along with a two-night minimum. I had the Furness suite, which was like having a tidy apartment with a deck and a residential view — a home. Furnleigh Lane, wide enough for one car, adds to a certain country feel, even if nearby Rte. 20 does not. At the end of Furnleigh Lane lies a cemetery across the street from the Schoolhouse Shop. Lovely area for a little Dunes adventure.
With an early enough start, my travel companion J and I made it in time for the first Chesterton European Market of the year. I have no idea how much cash I spent — if only I could lose weight as fast as my wallet does.
After the market (during which I snuck into O’Gara and Wilson), we stopped at Red Cup Café, then set out for Rise ‘n’ Roll in Valparaiso. They had beet pickled eggs, a Schirf family favorite! Yes, please. I don’t know if beet picked eggs are an Amish/Mennonite thing, a German thing, or a Pennsylvania thing (or a combination — clearly they’re not just Pennsylvanian). Those made without the beets aren’t nearly as good.
After I had spent what felt like a couple of paychecks on food and more food, we went to Lucrezia Café for dinner. It’s usually too crowded to consider, but maybe we beat the dinner crush. Afterward, we visited the state park beach briefly — it was colder than I’d hoped.
May 5, 2019
Breakfast was at Third Coast Café, followed by a quick stop at the Little Calumet River boat launch down the road. The flooding that had made the trail impassable for months had receded. The trees had been thinned out, too, to an extent that looks like devastation but is likely better for the wetland.
What to do? We went to the Schoolhouse Shop, where I found out the back patio was open. It was warm enough to sit outside, so after I had collected a shopping basket full (and then some), we got coffee and sat outside for close to two hours. Their feeders were attracting a lot of birds, including several species of woodpecker. The owner said they’d seen pileateds flying around, too. A ruby-throated hummingbird or two showed up, but never long enough for a good look. As we were thinking about leaving, a red-breasted grosbeak showed up (it knew my camera was in the car). What a perfect off-the-beaten-track spot.
For lunch we headed to Hunter’s Brewing, which has traded in the long community tables for more conventional seating. It felt strange. I like Hunter’s because you can try different beers in small sizes.
I wasn’t feeling up to a hike, so I suggested the state park nature center — another hotbed of bird feeder action.
When I got out of the car, I was surprised and delighted to spot a female pileated woodpecker digging into a tree next to one of the trails. She’d started to attract a crowd from inside the center, and the hikers who noticed her stopped to gawk or gave her a wide berth so as not to scare her off. She continued to work the tree as the visitors took photos and video until someone came along with a dog. She finally flew off into the woods, although even then not far. I could almost hear her laughing like Woody Woodpecker.
In the back room overlooking the feeders, we watched cardinals, goldfinches, red-winged blackbirds, woodpeckers, etc., even a hummingbird (or two?).
Later a determined raccoon ambled up and climbed past the baffle, coming to rest on it (no doubt bending it). It gorged on seeds until one of the nature center staff shooed it away. It didn’t go far, however, and returned within minutes each time. She took a photo to prove the baffle hadn’t done its job.
One man, who was not quite the bird expert he pretended to be, mentioned he wanted to see a rose-breasted grosbeak. He left after a long visit — about three to five minutes before a rose-breasted grosbeak appeared. Typical.
I didn’t get any good shots, but seeing the pileated woodpecker so closely and clearly made my day.
The nature center closed, so we went to the Longshore Tower off the west parking lot overlooking the state park beach. We discovered the tower is accessible, with disabled parking near a sloping paved path compared to the stairs from the west lot. A grandmother had wheeled her grandson up there. After I arrived, they politely demurred to each other about when they should leave. “Do you want to go?” “Do you want to go?” “Do you want to go?” Eventually someone decided to go, and they went.
After checking out the view, we walked up a trail to the top of the dune. True to form, J. made it to the top, while I fell short by several feet — at the point where the steepness tested my ability to take one step forward without sliding two or three back.
Finally, we left, but it was early enough I decided to check out the road I’d seen that goes out into Wolf Lake. Once I’d figured out how to look for it in Google Maps, it wasn’t hard to find — if you’re willing to cross railroad tracks, hit many bumpy spots, and splash through water on low spots in the road.
We found we’d been on part of this road before one autumn, but as pedestrians. At a certain point it had been closed, probably for hunting. I recognized the spot at which I’d stopped walking and waited for J., who’d gone ahead for a short distance. Little had we known the road continued most of the way over the lake. Time of year matters.
After driving through the woods we came out near a low spot where the lake sloshed onto the road, parked for a bit, and took in the late afternoon scenery. Canada geese meandered up and down and across the road, goslings in tow. I don’t worry about them becoming an endangered species soon.
We drove to the end of the road, past a number of anglers. The road is part of the Illinois-Indiana state line. I read that game officials like to patrol it to make sure anglers have a license for the waters into which they’re dipping their lines. If true, that’s hilarious. The fish, of course, are indifferent to such niceties of residency.
Near the end, we found a nature sanctuary on a slight elevation and walked down part of the trail. Later motorcyclists, who’d been revving their engines near the top, rode down it and into the wetlands. I wonder if that’s a “thing.”
By now the sun was setting, and most of the anglers and other visitors were leaving or packing up. The regular entrance/exit was closed so we navigated to an alternative exit on a side street. It would be easy to get lost around there.
And so ended another little adventure on the tranquil note of a lake sunset accompanied by the roar of motorcycle engines.
I suppose most people go to national parks to get away from it all. To leave the world they know behind. This kind of escape is available at our newest national park. But there is something else. Something I think my friend was alluding to. You don’t get away from it all at the Indiana Dunes National Park the way you might at Yosemite or Yellowstone. In fact, you come up against it. This national park, you realize, is actually a last line of resistance, a green and blue membrane holding back the accumulated pressure human will has piled on the earth and insisted was progress.
Lightt was a short-lived video app I still miss. I didn’t have time to master it but I liked some of its effects. This video and a few others demonstrate motion parallax, which I had to look up after I noticed it.
According to Lost Indiana, it was once a Holiday Inn strategically placed to lure travelers on Dunes Highway. To me it’s a metaphor for most of the works of man — a short productive existence followed by a long deterioration haunted by aging, fading memories. It’s like an example of Life After People, only the people haven’t died, just given up.
And now that I’ve seen the Doctor Who episode “Blink,” when I see the Interstate Inn, which is not unlike the fictional “Wester Drumlins,” I’ll think of this bit of dialogue:
Note the date — 2 March 2019, the first Maple Sugar Time held at the newly designated Indiana Dunes National Park. No doubt it will be years before the signs are replaced.
As I’ve probably said before, Maple Sugar Time brings back one of the few bits of childhood I remember, if vaguely. My class — second grade? — made a field trip to a maple sugar farm (sugar bush) in March, I assume. I wish I knew where, but I’d guess it was owned by the family of a classmate. The world is enormous to a seven-year-old, so I remember it as far away and magical.
The day was dreary and foggy. Dense clouds of fog everywhere at ground level. Or maybe I’m confusing the outdoor world with the sugar shack, where the steam rose in clouds from the boiling sap. I’ll never know for certain. In a world before smartphone cameras we weren’t able to preserve even marvelous moments except in our faulty, failing brains.
I was given a piece of maple sugar candy to try. LOVE. Much better than plain white baking sugar or sugar cubes — some ineffable, ephemeral quality beyond mere sweetness. My mother must have given me some money because I bought a tiny bag of the precious maple leaf-shaped goodness. Even now, when my “allowance” is more substantial and all my own, I look upon maple sugar candy as a rare luxury.
Perhaps the other high point was the draft horses snorting steam into the fog. We may have gone on a wagon ride. If such a thing makes me happy today, imagine how it thrilled me 50 years ago?
Back to present-day Indiana. J and I indulged in our traditional start to Maple Sugar Time — the Chesterton Lions Club pancake-and-sausage breakfast served in a vinyl-sided tent that keeps out some of the cold and breezes. It’s like the year’s first picnic.
Our timing was perfect. We finished our 2 p.m. “breakfast” and found Ranger Bill with a group at the Maple Sugar Trail, ready to go. The hike covers how to identify sugar maples, and I learned the box elder is a maple.
We walked through the various eras of maple sugar making, from hot rocks to metal pots to Chellberg Farm’s sugar shack to more modern methods. As many times as I’ve been to this event, I’d never gone inside the sugar shack. While an impressive amount of steam arose inside (welcome shelter after the cold!), it came from boiling water. Current daytime temperatures are too cold for maple sugar sap to run. Maybe next week — current forecast is for temperatures in the low 40s. But the forecast changes every day.
The walk ended up at the Chellberg farmhouse. Since the building that formerly housed the store has been covered to an employee/volunteer center, the maple goods were for sale in the entry room. Yes, I did buy maple syrup, maple cream, and of course the luxury of my childhood, leaf-shaped maple sugar candy. In another room, we picked up a Dare maple cream cookie. They’re not just for the kids.
Outside we found Belgian draft geldings Dusty (2,450 pounds) and Mitch (2,350 pounds). Dusty left horse slobber all over my hand and bag. When a girl and her brother stood by him for a photo, he started to groom her hair. A little disgusted, she shoved her brother into her former spot. “That won’t help,” the volunteer said. “He’ll just reach right around him.” On cue, Dusty did just that. He wasn’t licking only people. Between visitors, he gave Mitch’s neck some good grooming strokes.
We said goodby to Dusty and Mitch and chickens and headed to Indiana Dunes State Park so I could get a yearly pass and because the beach is gorgeous (and less crowded) on a cold March afternoon. We walked around, but not on the shelf ice. It seems someone finds out the hard way every year that the sign isn’t there for decoration.
We tried the Speakeasy at Spring House Inn, but at this time they don’t serve meals so off we went to Chesterton’s Villa Nova to warm up on Italian cuisine (and add back any calories we may have burned off).
Once or twice a year I travel by Amtrak from Chicago’s Union Station — not cross country, just to Altoona, Pennsylvania, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Capitol Limited, Pennsylvanian, and Wolverine routes pass through cities, small towns, farmlands, and rusted sections of the Rust Belt. I ride the Wolverine during the day. The journey east on the Capitol Limited is all after dark, but on the return west we are in Indiana when morning dawns.
Steel and power
Amtrak passes through northwest Indiana, where in the late 1800s and early 1900s much of one of the nation’s most diverse ecosystems, the Indiana Dunes, was bulldozed over or carted off (see Hoosier Slide). Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability shows the making of places such as Gary, Indiana, and the long-term costs of short-term gains.
I’m not sure Amtrak goes through Gary, but it stops at Hammond-Whiting, where the view from the train overlooks like an industrial post-apocalypse. That’s the nature of trains — industry and train tracks go together like chips and salsa.
If you were to travel through only northwest Indiana by Amtrak, you’d think the world is made up of industry, utility poles, and casinos. By car, you’d also see billboards for fireworks and adult stores, and countless personal injury and illness attorneys.
On the train, I sleep sporadically. One early morning I woke up to find the train stopped near this structure and garish lighting in Cleveland, Ohio. What could be more representative of industrial eastern America?
Weeds flourish, trees struggle, oily water lies in pools, buildings and train cars rust aggressively, and stuff is strewn everywhere. Human beings seldom appear, although parked cars indicate their presence. In black and white, in color, in summer, in winter, the view is bleak.
A bit of nature
I’m fascinated by where cemeteries appear — sometimes unexpectedly in the woods or at state parks like the Smith cemetery at Kankakee River State Park, Illinois or the Porter Rea Cemetery at Potato Creek State Park, Indiana. This one is on Mineral Springs Road in Indiana, where I94 passes over the train tracks. I couldn’t tell at the time, but it belongs to Augsburg Church, a Lutheran church in Porter. It’s about two miles from Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm, which are part of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, past most of the worst of the industrial areas.
When I see puffy clouds, an eggshell sky, and verdant trees on a June day in Michigan, I can’t wait to get to my destination to soak it all in.
Whether you call it Cellular Field, Guaranteed Rate Field, or Comiskey Park, the home of the White Sox is sometimes a surprise highlight for Amtrak passengers. If you look at the satellite view of the ballpark, though, you won’t believe the number of train tracks to its west. On the starboard side of the train, eastbound Amtrak passengers can enjoy the view of Universal Granite and Marble.
Apparently a scrapyard in Michigan City, Indiana, has mastered Monty Python’s art of “putting things on top of other things.”
I couldn’t figure out the purpose of this attractive building with cupola, but was surprised to realize later it’s in Michigan City, Indiana, not far from the Old Lighthouse Museum. The Hoosier Slide mentioned above was across from the lighthouse on Trail Creek where it empties into Lake Michigan, near this building. That would have been something to see from an Amtrak train. Now the Hoosier slide site is covered by a NIPSCO coal-fired plant. Progress. Rest in peace, Hoosier Slide. May we not forgot what we have lost and never known.
This wavy fence in Michigan City, Indiana, baffled me. I’ve seen them elsewhere, I think, but I don’t know the purpose other than aesthetic.
There may be millions of nondescript, decaying buildings across the U.S., but I haven’t spotted many more nondescript than this one.
The appearance of this building belies its message that Dowagiac, Michigan, is the “Grand Old City.”
I noticed this long red building on the edge of a small stand of trees in Parma, Michigan, east of Battle Creek. In the satellite view, a dirt road from another building, likely a house, is the only access to it. I’m intrigued by the tall chimney.
With no immediate neighbors, this house, likely part of a tree farm, looks lonelier than it is.
Farm buildings dot the back roads, and rails, of middle America.
Some houses in Pennsylvania towns like Johnstown are spaced closely together, with nearly touching side walls or an alley almost too narrow to squeeze through.
These houses on a hill are farther apart. I wonder if they would have been high enough to escape the Great Flood of 1889—or any since. The area’s geography makes it prone to flooding even without breaking dams.
Johnstown, too, has nondescript commercial buildings.
Some Amtrak stations, like the modern monstrosity in Ann Arbor, are cold and utilitarian. Next door, Ann Arbor’s former station has been converted into an upscale restaurant, Gandy Dancer.
Old school stations remain in use in Michigan and Indiana.
Often there’s not much to see in the dark, but I spotted the same rotting cars from the EB Capitol Limited. Nearby I found a National New York Central Railroad Museum. If they’re intended to be exhibits, they may use a little work.
Coming and Going
The morning Dan Ryan Expressway from Amtrak.
This is what you, and New Buffalo, Michigan, look like to an Amtrak passenger.
As children, we liked to watch for the caboose at the end of long freight trains. When the news pronounced the demise of the caboose, I was distraught. When I can, I watch the scenery recede from the last car of the Pennsylvanian, unimpeded by a caboose, remembering the miles of track and the cities, towns, stations, farms, taverns, fields, rivers, creeks, houses, plants, and stores behind me — and ahead of me on the return.
Finally, all journeys must have an end. Mine passes over the Calumet River through Chicago’s steel history.