“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.” ― T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
As I cross the Mississippi River into Illinois, heading north on I-57, I begin to think back on the trip. I’ve driven close to 50,000 solo miles. Hiked well over 1,500 miles, taken over 20,000 photographs and written more than 100,000 words. I am neither a sociologist, geologist, or botanist. I’m not a survivalist or naturalist. I’m not a preacher. I’ve slept in four Walmart parking lots and several Hyatt, Marriott and Hilton parking lots as well. I can teach you how to get a free breakfast in virtually any town. I can provide directions to dozens of libraries across the country. I’ve spent hundreds of nights in my van, in Oliver’s old comfy bed. I’ve slept under the stars enough to understand the beauty and grace of a moonlit or starless sky. I know the howl of a coyote and the smell of fresh earth. The gurgle of a wild turkey and the hissing notes of a barn owl. I know the throaty grunt of a rutting moose. I understand the small rustling in the underbrush. I’ve seen the chilly early morning breath of buffalo, the delicate pattern of an osprey’s wing. I’ve stepped over snakes and toward bull elk. I watched a grizzly sprint across a meadow in front of a serenely blue glacial lake. An eagle feeding her young. A pronghorn at rest in tall swaying grass. I’ve walked into deserts, forged rivers and sat beneath painted canyon walls. Many times I’ve peered over an edge into the abyss. I have stood on snowy mountaintops. I have recorded the voice of oceans, rivers, lakes and far too many creeks and streams to remember. Atlantic, Pacific, Missouri, Ohio, Superior, Michigan, Rio Grand, Snake, Colorado, Columbia, Gulf of Mexico, Bay of Fundy, Yellowstone, Crater Lake, Gulf of St. Lawrence. I climbed burnt sandstone and hiked into the heart of silent grasslands. I watched the sun rise above blistering sand and sink into a rainforest. I’ve watched in awe as lightning streaked through a black velvet night, as rain slanted across granite. I’ve dreamed of my beautiful son Oliver – tried to hold him for another moment as he fades into daylight. I have bolted upright, the hands of a nightmare around my throat. I have fallen and risen. I have fallen and remained on the ground. I am aware of being on an extraordinary journey. I understand there is not a special bone in my body. Not one. I am a simple man seeking a measure of peace, against a glorious backdrop. I am a man who misses his son. This is what I know. Of what I am certain.
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passin’ trains that have no names
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles – City of New Orleans – Arlo Guthrie
North of Kankakee, just west of Calumet City, I-57 intersects with I-94 and begins its slow loop into Indiana, beneath the southern shores of Lake Michigan. After more than 100 years of trying, on Friday, February 15, 2019, Indiana was awarded its first National Park, Indiana Dunes. “We’re absolutely elated. We have this incredible natural resource that not that many people know about. This can get us some recognition for that natural resource,” said Bruce Rowe, public information officer for Indiana Dunes. “The name change doesn’t necessarily come with extra funding or protection for the area, but it will help raise the Dunes’ profile.” To this I will only add that last year, in combination with Indiana Dunes State Park, which borders Lake Michigan and is surrounded on three sides by what was formerly Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the park had over 3.6 million visitors, ranking just below Yellowstone National Park. This is a marvelous ecologically diverse park, beautiful in numerous respects, and assuredly worth protecting. But it is hardly a park in search of visitors.
“This action provides our shoreline with the recognition it deserves, and I hope further builds momentum to improve open and public access to all of our region’s environmental wonders,” U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, a Democrat representing Indiana’s 1st District, said in a statement.
What Mr. Rowe and Rep. Visclosky left out of their statements, is the change of designation was part of a several hundred page appropriations bill that also included funding for the controversial border wall pushed by the president and Indiana’s own, Vice President Pence. It should be noted that two highways and Amtrak’s South Shore Line run through the park. To the northeast, an active powerplant sits less than a mile from Mount Baldy, the largest dune in the park. To the southwest, inside the park, the Port of Indiana, which handles more ocean-going cargo than any other U.S. port on the Great Lakes, is sandwiched between ArcelorMittal and U.S. Steel’s Midwest Plant. Industrial rail lines and towering power-lines also run directly through heart of the park. An advertisement for Indiana Dunes touts the fact that “you’ll see nature coexisting with the steel plants and other industry of Indiana Dunes Country.” This is the only National Park that boasts of its proximity to and coexistence with industry.
As with Gateway Arch, the re-designation of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, has nothing to do with properly elevating an area based on protecting a fragile environment, since those protections were already in place. Nor does it have to do with receiving increased funds to maintain or upgrade the park, because no additional funds are forthcoming. This is political showmanship for the sole purpose of driving additional revenue to the surrounding area, which it will surely do and for which their infrastructure is woefully unprepared. Unfortunately, the designation of Indiana Dunes as a National Park, when it clearly could have remained a thriving National Lakeshore, with all the afforded protection it richly deserves, degrades the overall designation and further adds to a disturbing trend.
Lake Michigan was originally formed over 11,000 years ago during the Ice Age, when the last of the glaciers receded, gouging troughs in the earth. As levels of melting ice fluctuated, shorelines formed and shifted. Over time, beaches, sand dunes and interdunal wetlands developed. Indiana Dunes National Park lies at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, a slice of land scarred and made unique by this process. Today, as with thousands of years gone by, the lake continues to reshape beaches and shorelines, bending sand to the whims of her gentle winds and winter rage.
Inside the park, four major dune complexes can be explored, beginning with the current shoreline. Younger dunes along the shoreline, where all stages of plant life are still actively evolving, grassy ridges and woody shrubs are found bleeding into prairies. Moving inland, the dunes become progressively older, including the Tolleston, Calumet and Glenwood dunes, marked by oak forests. Further inland, two hundred foot dunes wear a mask of grass and pine, hiding a geological diary of movement. Black oak savannas cover sand that once lay next to the restless waters of Lake Michigan. At its edge, this is a land losing an unending battle with water.
According to park literature, Cowles Bog Trail is the National Park’s “most rugged hike…a five mile journey through wetlands and over both wooded and moving dunes to an isolated beach. Steep sand dunes near Lake Michigan make this a very strenuous journey.” Designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1965, because of the scope of plant diversity, Dr. Henry Cowles conducted much of his early 1900’s work in plant ecology and succession near this trail. Within a few yards of crossing Mineral Springs Road and entering the trail, the landscape’s diversity burst into full display.
To my right, above a small rise in the hard packed trail, great oak trees line the hillside and push deep into the woods. A male Scarlet Tanager, blazingly red and exotic, sits on a thin branch below the green leafy canopy, singing a hurried high-pitched warble. In the distance, unseen, the insistent tapping of a Red Headed Woodpecker. Brief flashes of Yellow Warblers, wisps of color against textured gray trunks. I’m hiking in a birder’s paradise. Voices flow through the air, conversations held and repeated. There is a sing-song nature within the trees. A fluttering of song.
To my left, a muddy fen teeming with life. Delicate ferns sprout from downed trees, their articulated green almost shiny against dark mud. Wilted yellow puccoon seem to mourn their circumstance. Wild grasses, Dr. Seussian, spring from mounds of earth, next to refined geraniums. Spider webs, visible as the sun filters between the trees, hover weightlessly above rotted wood lying in black water. For a moment, the trunk of a tree is mirrored in the white specked water. I want to freeze this moment, when what is transposed appears as real as what is above. I take several photographs before the light shifts and the moment is lost.
There are two points along the trail where it forks. In each case, the beach is to the right and in each case the trail begins to climb, its texture changing with the bat of an eye. Hard packed dirt is replaced by thick, loose sand. Large tree roots, rounded and worn smooth over time, criss-cross the trail. In places, trees block the trail. Circling pathways create small half-circles in the underbrush surrounding the trail. I hike to the summit of a living, breathing dune, before descending to the base and begin another steeper climb. It is slightly disorienting to realize that underneath a vast forest, a sweeping savannah of black oak, lies sand that used to be underwater. I’ve hiked the greatest sand dunes in the country, but all were open, bare of foliage. Here, they have been reclaimed, tamed by forces of time, moving further and further from their source.
When I reach the summit of the final foredune, Lake Michigan lays rippled white and blue in the distance. As I carefully make my way down the face of a very steep dune, I grab tree branches and carefully seek out heavy roots to slow my descent. Near the bottom, with a golden sun low in the sky, I walk into a sea of marram grass swaying to a westerly wind. The path is narrow, almost swallowed by the whistling grass before reaching the deserted beach. Several large pieces of driftwood, silvered and smooth with age, lay on the beach. Resting on the horizon, like a slender mirage rising from the deep, the pale jagged skyline of Chicago glimmers in the sun. As I kick off my boots and walk into the water, I’m thinking of my two sons in the gleaming city 35 miles across the water.
The Bailly Homestead trail leads you into a forest of maple, beech, basswood and oak, before opening onto a large field of true green. Like walking through a tunnel of stands before seeing the grass of a baseball field for the first time, it surprises. The perfect shade of green. At its edge, a two-story log cabin which served as a summer kitchen prior to being used as a chapel, brushes against the woods, a windowless storehouse close by. Grass plays around my ankles as I walk toward the three-story house, built by Honore Gratien Joseph Bailly de Messein, almost 200 years ago. Once the confluence of several important trails used by fur traders, Bailly provided a meeting places for Native Americans and Euro-Americans. His post was also one of only two places for travelers and missionaries to stop between Chicago and Detroit. Built in the vernacular architectural style of its time, the Bailly Homestead was authorized as a National Historic Landmark in 1962. As I walked toward the front porch to have a rest out of the sun, tucked into an architectural flourish on the south side of the house, a giant paper wasp nest hung heart shaped and hollow.
Reversing course and hiking back through the woods, the Chellberg farmhouse comes into view. at the end of a long corridor of trees. Built in 1855, with reddish colored bricks from nearby Porter, three generations of Swedish immigrants worked the surrounding farmland and called this home until 1972, when the land was sold to the National Park Service. A two-storied, graying barn with a hay loft, looks across a neatly plowed field. Multi-colored goats hide in the shade of a small shed, while pigs sluggishly wallow in smokey gray mud. Cows rest in the field or huddle beneath a stand of trees, away from the afternoon sun. As I photograph the buildings and animals, I try to imagine life without electricity or running water. Life on the frontier demanded courage and grit. Faith in the good earth and one’s self. As the sky begins to darken in the west and heavy clouds gather above the distant treeline, I head to the van wondering if I would have had the faith required to challenge the fringes of nature.
Mount Baldy sits at the far northeastern edge of the park, 126 feet above Lake Michigan. When northwest winds exceed 7 miles-per-hour, beach sand begins to shift and move inland at about 4 feet per year. Making matters worse, a breakwall built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect Michigan City Harbor, essentially eliminates sand from being deposited at the base of Mount Baldy, while erosion continues to remove sand. To counter this impact, there have been several ‘replenishments’ of sand. Over 85 cubic yards have been trucked or piped, in an effort to reverse the effects of a man-made problem. As with all attempts to corral or guide nature’s path, this will ultimately fail. Nature will have what is hers.
In the past, a small parking lot directly behind Mount Baldy, acted as a staging area for climbing the steep dune. You simply parked and started climbing the back of the dune. Today, made fragile by erosion and movement, the dune is closed to all climbing. To see the dune from lakeside, you have to hike the Summit Trail. Short with a steep climb up loose sand, the trail cuts a tree lined ellipse, slightly southeast of Mount Baldy. When I break from beneath the trees, the shimmering lake comes into view, over 100 feet below. Turning right, the trail cuts a narrow horizontal path across deep shifting sand, slowly descending toward the water. When I reach the bottom, I walk into the cold water and look back at Mount Baldy. A flimsy temporary fence leans into the sand, protecting the battered dune from unwanted climbers. Lined with patches of green and a few solitary trees in their infancy, the dune stands helpless, a creature in retreat. To my right, a power plant releases an unending white cloud of steam. It curls into the wind and disappears into the blue heavens, as a Red Tailed hawk slips in front of the moon.
It’s a stormy night. Tucked into the thick trees of Dunewood Campground, thin branches draw lines of muffled sound along the side of the van. There is no light in the sky. As rain pings against the metal roof, a steady chorus without rhythm, my mind wanders to a conversation with Oliver, who was only 12, after he lost his Grandma Lou and Grandpa Gene, within the small space of barely four months. “Do you believe in heaven, Dad?”
“I believe in a collective conscious, Obs. I believe we become part of a larger universe.”
“Is it a physical place?” Almost imperceptibly, he tilts his head.
“I don’t think so. I think it’s a separate dimension. One we can’t know until we reach that place.”
“Are Grandma and Grandpa in this place? Are they together?”
“Yes, they’re together, Obs. Grandpa is making bad jokes and Grandma is saying ‘Oh Gene’ and laughing.”
“I’m glad they’re together. Even though they’re not here anymore, I’m happy for them. So we’ll get to see them again, right Dad?”
“Yes. And it will be a beautiful thing.” I pull him close.
“Thanks, Dad.” He smiles his warm smile. As he turns and walks away, I knew that my son had lost a small piece of innocence. The death of his grandparents had caused something to break free, leaving him to wander in its wake.
When you lose someone, everything associated with that person changes. Is never again the same. Joy delicately fades from a particular song or movie. From shapes and colors. A smell, carried on a skittish wind, causes you to turn. Someone’s gait or tilt of head, brings a rushing memory. A sound, a rustle of leaves, a drop of water. The movement of slender fingers boyishly smoothing my hair. Clothes, falling on a frame in perfect ease. A head involuntarily bowing to rich, warm laughter. The touch of a hand. Photographs of a life lived. A book left open makes you weep.