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.
I don’t see signs about wildlife very often, although this one at Windigo, Isle Royale National Park, warns unsuspecting visitors about the island’s less famous, thieving canine. What do the red foxes of Isle Royale do with the car keys and hiking boots they purloin?
This sign, at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve near Morton Arboretum, exhorts you not to panic if Wild Fido follows you. He’s simply giving you an escort through his domain. If this task makes him snappish, simply throw clumps of dirt at the ground by his feet. I’m having visions of Monty Python and “Confuse-A-Cat.”
Other signs warn you about smaller wildlife, especially the kind that hops aboard. This one, at Michigan’s Grand Mère State Park, tells what to wear to help stave off the dreaded tick. By the time you’re at the park, however, you may not have clothing alternatives handy. The tick shown is terrifyingly big, but the ticks that can share Lyme disease with you may be little larger than a pinhead.
Pro tip: At Shawnee National Forest, which is tick heaven, I thought wearing a hat would keep them off my head at least. Not so. After a delightful morning at Pomona Natural Bridge, I felt movement in my hair and found a couple strutting under my hat on top of my scalp. This is one of those times when baldness would be an advantage.
Located at a town park near Grand Mère, this sign is not so much a warning as a caution. If you aren’t careful and you spread the emerald ash borer, this will happen to your ash trees. I can attest to the lethal behavior of the well-named emerald ash borer—both tall, mature trees in front of The Flamingo, plus the mature tree that shaded my bedroom at 55th and Dorchester, succumbed to these little green scourges.
At Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, we’re told it’s too late to keep out another horror, the dreaded zebra mussel. You can be a hero, however, by cleaning your boat and equipment properly so you don’t transplant them to a body of water where they haven’t taken hold. The use of “infest” is a great touch. It reinforces the nearby “No swimming” sign nicely. Swimming in infested waters just doesn’t appeal to me, even if I could swim.
If you’re about my age, you recall that “only you can prevent forest fires (that aren’t caused by lightning strikes, volcanoes, and other natural hazards). Many parks post the current risk of wildfire danger based on conditions like drought and wind. At Lyman Run State Park in the Pennsylvania Wilds, Smokey Bear can’t seem to make up his mind.
This version of Smokey opted for words instead of visuals, which makes his message less ambiguous (no broken pointer). No doubt that snow on the ground helps to keep risk low.
Taking shape on Stony Island Avenue in the remnant heart of Chicago’s steel industry, Big Marsh Park features a bike park (built on slag too expensive to remove), natural areas, and occasional bald eagle sightings. An enticing hill nearby forms a lovely backdrop for a walk at Big Marsh, which is still in its infancy. When you get closer, however, and read the signs, you learn it’s a steaming, seething landfill that’s being “remediated.” There’s no happily running up and down this slope. How I miss the Industrial Revolution.
It’s not every day you’re warned about lurking unexploded bombs, but for me this was no ordinary day. It was my first visit to Old Fort Niagara in nearly 40 years, which coincided with Memorial Day weekend. Most of the time, the fort is manned by soldiers in 1700s military fashions, but in honor of the holiday other conflicts were represented. I kept my distance from the bomb. Just in case.
This is one of the odder warning signs I’ve seen. I left the chef alone—after all, he works with sharp objects.
Slow down. Chicago is under a budget crunch, but do they send out a lone fireman like this? A lone fireman without a steering wheel? Or arms?
Here’s a warning sign you can ignore. It’s outside Riley’s Railhouse, a train car bed and breakfast in Chesterton, Indiana, that’s a treasure trove of signs.
From the exterior of the car I slept in:
At Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore’s West Beach, it looks like the National Park Service is testing which sign or message is most effective at keeping visitors off the dunes. This one shows bare tootsies with the universal “No” slash, helpfully pointing out the dunes are ours.
A less friendly, sterner, more wordy one admonishes you to “KEEP OFF THE DUNES” and appeals to your desire to “Please help protect and preserve our fragile dune systems!”
At the beach, this slash through a barely visible hiker shuns wordiness (or words) for directness and simplicity without justification or explanation.
It’s sandwiched between even more minimalistic signs with a slash, planted where the dunes start ascending. Don’t. Just don’t.
Years ago when a landfill near my cousin’s house became a Superfund site (just what you want in your backyard), it was surrounded by an electrified fence complete with warning signs. Noticing there were no insulators, I dared to touch it. In this case, however, I’m certain the area behind the fence is dangerous, and this is as far as I got.
Normal weathering or resentment over the weapons message?
Waterfall Glen, a DuPage County Forest Preserve, forms a ring around Argonne National Laboratory, “born out of the University of Chicago’s work on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s.” Naturally, the immediate area around the lab is secured. While I was baffled by this sign about “lock installation” and “any unauthorized lock,” it was the 10 or so locks on the chain that got my attention. Why do people need to add locks to that chain? Why do they need authorization? From whom do they get authorization? Why are unauthorized locks removed? What does it all mean?
Remember when lead was thought to be safe? I don’t, either. This sign is on an old pump at the remnants of an old general store in the western part of Shawnee National Forest.
Warning: If you leave expensive stuff lying around, even at an exclusive university, it will walk off. You can bank on it.
RATS? There are RATS in Hyde Park?
One of my favorite photos from a July 2013 visit to the northern Midwest — the Rock of Ages light near Isle Royale National Park, taken from the boat that ferries visitors to the island.
Day 8: On which I don’t see a moose but do see mergansers and find out that “moose is a myth”
August 8, 2014
We arrived bright and early for the boat trip to Isle Royale National Park and to our delight were called very early in the boarding process — we could get our choice of seats. The weather was warmer and sunnier than last year, so we didn’t notice the cold in the stern area. Being by now seasoned veterans of one previous trip, we knew where to look for the “witch tree,” the wreck of the America, and the Rock of Ages light (best photographed on the return trip, when the pilot navigates around the light slowly). The trip seemed shorter, maybe because we knew how long it would take and we weren’t shivering the whole way.
At Windigo, once again we spent time at the store and visitor center, but this time the flocks of butterflies around the shrubs near the dock were gone. I had been hoping to get some better photos of them this year. We met a guy who’d walked from the other end of the island, but it sounded like he hadn’t run into a moose on his week-long journey.
We headed for the campground, where we wandered around and checked out the primitive campsites (three-sided shelters with an opening of netting — very cozy). On the way, we passed some odd structures on slight hillside. According to the sign, they’re part of the park’s minimally invasive sewage system. I thought about the guy we’d just met and wondered if he was going to try out the short, expensive showers at Windigo’s nearby bathroom (several dollars for a few minutes).
J. found where a previous camper had left his mark, “Moose is a myth.” We didn’t see much wildlife, maybe because it was a few weeks later in the summer. I found only the remains of what may have been a rabbit, strangely unconsumed. On the way back, we passed mergansers sunning themselves on a rock.
At the dock, again we were called early in the boarding, so this time J. didn’t have to stand on the starboard side getting drenched with cold spray. We were in a good spot to get photos of the Rock of Ages light, which was perfectly illuminated in the afternoon sun.
After returning we had some time, so we went to the Grand Portage National Monument visitor center. The general area was mobbed as there was some kind of reenactment going on. The Monument overlooks Grand Portage Bay and Grand Portage Island, formerly known as Isle au Mouton and Pete’s Island. It’s a beautiful view in the late afternoon sun.
Our next stop was at Grand Marais and Shoreline Inn. Every herring gull along the North Shore seems to lurk among the buildings in Grand Marais, maybe because that’s where the tourists, and the tidbits that come with them, are. Perched along most of roof lines in sight, they cried and cried and cried during the evening, most likely settling down later so they could start up again in the morning.
Back near the Gunflint Trail, J. told me a co-worker had recommended the Gunflint Tavern, which was very busy. Halfway through dinner, though, I felt sick and woozy (unrelated to dinner), so left J. and walked back to Shoreline Inn, still guarded by gulls on the roof. The evening air helped, and the night view of the shore and the lake was lovely, a peaceful end to a full and filling day.
July 19, 2013: Day 8
After a couple of small lake adventures, we were back to the shores of Lake Superior, this time on a boat that goes to Windigo at Isle Royale National Park. Although Windigo is reached by boat from Grand Portage, Minnesota, Isle Royale is part of Michigan. The island, Lake Superior’s largest, is known for long-term study of its isolated eastern timber wolf-moose populations and their predator-prey relationship. J. had seen a moose on his previous visit, but we weren’t going to have that kind of luck this day.
The boat was more crowded than I expected, with both day trippers like ourselves and overnight campers. Even in the sun, the air was much cooler than on our previous boat adventures, and I was glad I’d brought an extra layer along. J. was stuck with a single layer and short sleeves in the strong, chilly breeze.
This is more of a ferry than a cruise, with the primary business of shuttling visitors back and forth between mainland and island park. The main intermediate stop on the outbound trip was to look at the wreck of the SS America, parts of which are visible in the shallow waters near Isle Royale. There’s nothing like the feeling you get when you’re looking at a sunken passenger ship from the deck of a passenger ship that you hope won’t end up next door. On the positive side, everyone aboard the America on June 7, 1928, made it to lifeboats.
At Windigo, we were greeted by National Park Service Interns, who helped give us the rundown on the rules. Once recent college graduate from lower Michigan told us how it’s a long adventure just to get home.
Once on Isle Royale, the first things I saw were a tiny northern red-bellied snake, one of the island’s three reptile species, and hundreds of butterflies swarming the bushes near the dock — both very easy to photograph. Given the limited amount of time we had, I spent too much time with the butterflies, at the visitor center, and in the convenience store.
Next, we took the nearby Nature Trail, which is close to the visitor center and passes through a few habitats before turning into a wide dirt road next to the water. We thought we saw a moose in the water across the way, but it was a combination of wishful thinking and a snag.
At the dock, we talked with an intern about the wolves. There are only an inbred handful left, a few adults and a few pups. They’re rarely seen, even by the rangers and interns. The island is home to other wildlife, including thieving foxes, which are featured on “Wanted” posters.
Recently I read that (inbreeding aside) one reason for the Isle Royale wolf population crash was parvovirus. Someone, ignorant of the rules or simply flouting them, brought their dog onto the island. I’m sure they thought, “Stupid rules. What harm can my Fluffy do?” As it turned out, Fluffy introduced a deadly disease to a vulnerable population. Bad dog (well, bad humans)! I’d like to think the culprit was caught, prosecuted, and punished, and also learned a lesson — but there are always those who believe rules (and laws) are for other people.
We talked to the intern so long that, before we knew it, the boat was full and about to set off. For much of the return trip, J. had to stand along the rail with a few others, with cold spray soaking all of them. The boat made only one stop that I can remember, at the magnificent Rock of Ages Light — another of my favorite trip photos.
Back on the mainland, we stopped at the Grand Portage National Monument, then continued to Grand Portage State Park, where an easy walk takes you to where the Pigeon River drops over High Falls, with Canada across the way. As with Cross River, the Pigeon seemed engorged compared to videos I’ve seen of it. We were covered with mist even before we reached the viewing platform, and I wondered how water resistant my new Nikon D7100 would prove to be.
With the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore cruise the next morning, we had a long drive to Bayfield ahead of us. We tried to get to Beaver Bay before Lemon Wolf Café closed for the night, but just missed it and ate at a nearby bar, then drove off into another long evening. We arrived at the Silvernail Guest House in the early morning hours, having left Minnesota behind reluctantly.
July 14, 2013: From Pictured Rocks to Lake of the Clouds to Bayfield
Before heading to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, we took a few moments to admire the view from Sunset Motel on the Bay. Forget Southern California and Los Angeles — this is where a TV series should be taped — in spring, summer, or fall, of course.
Finally we tore ourselves away for the morning cruise on another lovely day. With the sun over the shore, the lighting wasn’t as dramatic or as good for photography, which allowed me to relax and focus more on what we’d seen and what we’d missed the night before.
Back in Munising, we went to Falling Rock Café and Bookstore, a comfortable place with the key ingredients — good coffee, edibles, and WiFi, plus the added bonus of used books for sale! I could have stayed there all day or even all week, but Munising’s waterfalls were calling. What a great thing it must be to live in a town with so many picturesque waterfalls. There’s also Johnny Dogs, where hot dogs are named for cities — not unlike the Chicago hot dog, which is probably what I had. Hyde Park could use a Johnny Dogs, complete with outdoor seating.
I’m not sure which of Munising’s waterfalls we saw, except for Alger Falls at the intersection of M-28 with M-94. Others include Wagner Falls and Munising Falls.
By now it was getting late in the day, and Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park was not getting any closer, so we had to say goodbye to Munising reluctantly after finding out the lighthouse wasn’t open.
The road to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park runs in part along Lake Superior, where the muted light held mystery, and on the clean beach you can feel like the only person on earth.
By the time we got to the park, dusk was starting to descend, and the mosquitoes were out for my blood. J. said it was all he could to put the park admission money in the envelope, surrounded as he was by a cloud of vampirelets.
Despite the persistent nips and dimming light, we made it to Lake of the Clouds, where the forest was a rich green and the river and lake a deep blue under a pastel sky subtly tinged with pink. I wish we could have spent more time there, but Bayfield awaited.
July 12, 2013: Day 1
J. and I set out very late for the northern adventure, leaving a little before 11 p.m. The first port of call was Port Washington, north of Milwaukee, where the only place that seemed to be open was Holiday Inn Harborview — nothing like the Hamburg Thruway Holiday Inn circa 1970.
July 13, 2013: Day 2
After a stop at Smith Brothers, breakfast at Tellos Grill and Café, and a thwarted attempt to get into the lighthouse, we were on the road again. We had to be in Munising, Michigan (Upper Peninsula), before the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore sunset cruise left harbor at 7 p.m. It’s a more daunting drive than it appears to be on a map, especially with only one sleep-deprived driver.
After passing through Green Bay, the next notable stop was Escanaba, Michigan, for old-style fast food at Hudson’s Classic Grill, where we squeezed onto a bench outside to save time.
By now I’d noticed the mix of trees along the way had been changing, and by the time we entered Hiawatha National Forest I’d figured out that this is what a boreal forest looks like — magical, because it’s not the beautiful but familiar deciduous mix of Western New York and northern Illinois. I couldn’t help but think of Hiawatha (the poem) and “From the land of sky-blue waters” (the Hamm’s beer jingle). I haven’t heard the Hamm’s commercial for years, but it’s part of the detritus the human brain collects.
While the drive from Port Washington to Green Bay seemed long, at least after Escanaba we knew we were closing in our target, although at a slower pace through the forest.
Munising, Michigan, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
At last we arrived in Munising and headed straight for Sunset Motel on the Bay. We checked in, dropped off some stuff, drove the short distance to the dock, and found a place to park. By this time, a long line had formed, and a few minutes after we’d joined it at 6:40 it began to move as people boarded one of the two boats. At least we didn’t have to run to catch the boat, so the timing was as perfect as could be — considering the hundreds of miles we’d covered and the limitations that come with having the one overtired driver.
As for the cruise, the photos tell the story, I hope, of perfect weather and nearly ideal lighting from the setting sun glowing on Pictured Rocks. People jumped up and down or stood at the rail, holding up their phones to try to capture the wonder (and probably missing much of it as the boat sped along). When the captain reversed the boat into a tiny bay where we were surrounded by ancient color, I knew the rush had been worth it. What a glorious end to a long day.
While staying at the Ann Arbor Bed and Breakfast, I spotted a relic that I remember fondly and that may be making a comeback in some progressive communities — the clothesline.
At our home, Saturday was wash day. As our only licensed driver, Dad was the designated launderer. Our Saturday mornings began with the emptying of the clothes hamper under the counter in the bathroom into plastic clothes baskets and the collection of bed and bath linens. Sometimes alone, more rarely with me for company when I was very young, he drove to a laundromat in town, where the women cooed over the little girl they assumed was his granddaughter, thanks to his middle age and shock of white hair. As I grew up, I went less often if at all — too cool to hang around with Dad at a boring place like the laundromat, I’m sure.
Behind the shed in our backyard, underneath the cherry trees, we had five or more clotheslines strung across — enough for most of our clothes and sheets. Knowing my dad, I suspect hanging clothes out to dry in fine weather was a matter of economy — conservation of money as much as of energy, although he did consider the environment, too.
When I was little and somewhat willing to help with the chores, I couldn’t reach the lines (conveniently). By the time I was tall enough, I had better things to do than to help my parents with what seemed like a chore, but would today be a pleasure to me.
When I was in 8th or 9th grade, I started to wear blue jeans to school. They weren’t the pre-washed, distressed designer duds of today, but were dyed a dark blue that penetrated every fiber. I spent countless hours at the kitchen sink trying to rinse the stiffness and the blue out of them. They, too, ended up on the clothesline after leaving a messy trail of water through the trailer. I even hung them out in freezing weather, when they froze and I risked cracking them.
Clothes hung out take longer to dry, especially when the clothesline is in the shade. It’s not as convenient as tossing a load in the dryer and hitting a button, and there are other downsides to line drying under trees besides the amount of time it takes. Occasionally a bird or two would ruin our laundering efforts with well-placed defecation. In our case late spring/early summer meant picking tent caterpillars off nearly every item. I loathe everything about tent caterpillars, especially stepping on them.
If left unscathed by birds and bugs, clothes dried outdoors pick up an indefinable scent of sun and fresh air that no fabric softener, dryer sheet, or other chemical treatment can replicate. It truly is like absorbing sunshine into your clothes.
Even as we tear our hair out over energy sources, climate change, and problematic technologies like wind farms, we’re missing out an obvious way to save money and our clothes — clothesline drying. It costs nothing but the price of clothesline and a few moments of standing outdoors. Our mothers may have loved the affordability and convenience of dryers, and homeowners’ associations hate the sight of something so downscale as clotheslines. But sometimes convenience takes away the satisfaction that performing a simple task as simply as possible offers. And you can’t chat with your neighbor if you’re both isolated in your basements, feeding your machines.
Perhaps a few more clotheslines combined with fewer homeowners’ association rules might improve the neighborliness that seems to have been lost in the last half century — the neighborliness that brought my parents and their peers many a lifetime friendship, no matter where the neighbors moved or where they hung their clothes.
I can’t imagine anything more delightful than a tiny, colorfully painted and named coffee shop bordered by woods. Alas, the Lark and Pear in Sawyer, Michigan was closed and for sale, and I couldn’t go inside and enjoy.