Bad dreams die fast. When I told a salesman at the New York City outpost of REI, the camping supplies store, that I was going camping for four days only 40 miles outside of Chicago, we launched into a conversation about safety in the woods.
“You’re not gonna see bears,” he told me, “but you could always take bear spray for protection anyway.” I nodded glumly. Showing me a canister of Counter Assault Bear Deterrent, he added, “The only person you’re likely to hurt is yourself, with the wind.”
“The Windy City,” I said.
I declined his suggestion, uneager to blind myself. Which, it turned out, was wise: The general tenor of our country’s most recently named national park — Indiana Dunes, a long, skinny patch of 15,000 acres with 15 miles of beach along Lake Michigan’s southern shore between Gary, Ind., and Michigan City, Ind. — is lulling and lovely. The only dangerous thing I saw in four days was a hot pink, plaid anorak.
Taking on the 3 Dunes Challenge
And yet, given that Chicago can be seen from the shores of Indiana Dunes — and given that the park is directly adjacent to a power plant and a steel mill, the latter in the economically challenged city of Gary — a question emerges: just how parky is this park? Leaving my boyfriend behind in an effort to strike a Thoreauvian note, I headed to Indiana to find out.
The first efforts to turn Indiana Dunes into a park go back to 1916, when locals wanted to preserve the area from encroaching industry. The area was named a national lakeshore in 1966; this designation gave the area the same protections that national parks enjoy, but not the fame and prestige. The national park designation would take another 53 years — until this past February, when it was part of the same omnibus spending bill that included funding for the wall between the United States and Mexico.
Having weeks earlier reserved a campsite in Indiana Dunes State Park, the 2,182 acres of beach and marsh and hardwood forest in the middle of the national park, I first hied myself to Indiana Dunes’s modern, spacious Visitor Center. I told a 60-something park volunteer about the Counter Assault Bear Deterrent, and we agreed that the only bear I was likely to encounter during my stay was Mike Ditka.
The volunteer encouraged me to take the 3 Dune Challenge, a 1.5-mile hike up Indiana Dunes’ three highest dunes (Mount Tom, 192 feet; Mount Holden, 184 feet; Mount Jackson, 176 feet), adding that completion of the Challenge would yield a “special reward.”
Back at my well-shaded and firepit-equipped campsite, I surveilled the campground’s 146 other sites. The R.V.-to-tent ratio was about ten to one. My thumbnail sociological findings: The people in R.V.s tended to have a baseball cap and a spouse, while the people in tents tended to have a beard and a slightly unsettling stare. I also took note of the 20-mile-per-hour winds that would be present throughout my stay: These made for cool nights and for campfires that were ridiculously easy to get going.
After walking five minutes from my tent, I found the trailhead for the Dunes Challenge. To walk up steep sand dunes in the woods is to experience one of Mother Nature’s best topographical mixed metaphors — and also to make your calves remind you of their daily contribution. Though the views of the woods from the dunes’ tops were not as majestic as those found on nearby Trail 9, part of which soars along Lake Michigan’s shoreline like a surfacing whale and affords views of Chicago, nevertheless I felt cloud-born, regnant.
I hurriedly drove six minutes back to the Visitor Center and explained to a smiley female volunteer, “I was told that if I reported having completed the 3 Dune Challenge there would be a coronation or bit of pageantry.” Her eyes widened: “‘Pageantry!’ The pressure’s on!” Reaching under her desk, she gave me a decal, four postcards and a picture frame. Coronation City.
I spent my days hiking. Because I was visiting in mid-April, I missed out on the five varieties of orchid and 11 varieties of goldenrod that midsummer brings to the wonderfully bio-diverse Dunes park; however, I marveled at the profusion of witch hazel, which looks like a non-showgirl version of forsythia. Also in attendance: ferns, marsh marigold and copious amounts of a kind of skunk cabbage that looks like spinach that has received a lot of encouragement.
When a park ranger I met on the trail encouraged me to be on the lookout for “blowout dunes,” I said to him, “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘blowout’ in this context,” thinking, “Surely he doesn’t mean that squads of attractive, goateed homosexuals have wielded powerful hair dryers to imbue the landscape with luster and volume?” (No, he was referring to crescent-shaped dunes whose ends are anchored by vegetation while their middles are eroded by wind.)
On another trail, I asked a hearty, 70-something birder how many of the 350 species of birds in Indiana Dunes she’d seen; she barked “Lots!” and scampered off as if I’d asked something vaguely personal.
Singing and eating, tilling and planting
Eager to intersect with other park visitors in a non-trail setting, I attended two Indiana Dunes public programs. I went to a diverting singalong in the Visitor Center (theme: silly songs) where 10 local musicians had 45 of us singing about topics like napping and roadkill; when all of the songs’ authors turned out to be men (e.g., W.C. Fields, Flanders and Swann, Loudon Wainwright III), I thought: These hippies oughtta listen to some Nellie Lutcher or The Roches.
One morning I joined eight other volunteers tilling soil and planting spinach and Swiss chard at the park’s Chellberg Farm, established in the late 19th century. I loved talking-while-tilling with two older volunteers, both named Sue, who made me feel better about my slightly remedial farming skills. My greatest contribution that morning was informing one of the Sues that sage leaves are at their most interesting when battered and deep-fried.
Knowing that I’d be car camping (my car was parked 20 feet from my tent), I’d decided to try to cook or prepare most of my meals myself; to inject this decision with rigor, I’d bought two kinds of chili mixes at REI.
The first, by Good To-Go, had me adding two and a half cups of boiling water to the pouch, which held the beans and other ingredients. The second, by Omeals, required no outside heat source. You place cold water into the Omeals pouch along with a cottony, two-inch-by-two-inch heating element that looks remarkably like a feminine hygiene product. I did so; soon my Omeals pouch started burbling like a tiny, possibly ill, motorboat. Steam poured out of its vent. The pouch rocked back and forth on my campsite’s picnic table. Upon removing the chili from its pouch, I found that the heating element was still groaning and hissing. Fearful that the pouch might explode, I dumped out the water and ran the pouch and the heating element 50 yards to the campground’s dumpster. But then, worried that I might set the dumpster afire, I removed the pouch and heating element from the dumpster, threw them on the ground, and stomped my boot heel into them like a Glock-wielding Smokey Bear. What’s the Visitor Center reward for that, I wondered.
My two favorite Indiana Dunes locations — other than the spectacular Trail 9, where wind has eroded the sand at several trees’ bases and exposed the roots, causing the trees to look like they’re tiptoeing away from the trail — were at either end of the park. At the western end, in Gary, I went to a wonderful juice bar and gift shop called Vibrations. Owned and operated by a warm, earth mother type named Rebecca Raspberry, who worked for 14 years at House of Ghandi, her father’s health food store in Chicago, Vibrations feels like equal parts lunch counter and social center. Ms. Raspberry knew almost all her customers by name. I fell into conversation with an energetic coot named Rand, who bought me a wheatgrass shot and then, producing a flint, offered to sharpen any knives I might be carrying.
Mount Baldy, indomitable and gorgeous
At the park’s eastern end, right on the lake near Michigan City, I visited a 126-foot-tall dune called Mount Baldy. When you park your car at Baldy’s base, you are confronted with the sight of mature oak trees whose upper two-thirds are sticking out of the dune, as if being swallowed. A “living” dune, Baldy can move as much as 20 feet a year via wind erosion.
Carefully heeding the prescribed walking route — in 2013, a child was trapped on Baldy for four hours — I climbed over the dune and then trudged for three minutes down its gorgeous, windswept front to the wholly unpeopled beach on Lake Michigan. As if the stark beauty of it all weren’t enough to make me think I’d reached the end of the world, I could just make out in the fog, way off to the right, the eerie Nipsco (North Indiana Public Service Company) power plant, which, as one volunteer would later tell me, “only looks nuclear.” (Heretofore, my only sightings of the power plant and steel mill had been while driving.) I felt like I’d been transported to the final scene of “Planet of Apes.”
What surprised me here, though, was that the presence of Nipsco’s eerie, vase-shaped cooling tower didn’t break Baldy’s magisterial spell, but, rather, reinforced it, or threw it into high relief. Baldy seemed all the more indomitable and gorgeous in the presence of man’s squat and belchy ugliness.
And, in the end, isn’t that the whole point of camping? To make you appreciate those of life’s tiny givens and comforts that you’d otherwise overlook? I found myself dragging my hand along Baldy’s crumbly and striated front as if I were calming a beautiful horse. Then I lay down on the sand and imagined the wind gradually shifting me 20 feet in any direction.
That night over my campfire I finally ate the avocado that I’d bought two days earlier but had been avoiding because it seemed awkward to wrangle; but now, grabbing one of the pretzel rolls that I’d bought at the local grocery store, and holding the avocado over the roll, I realized, What is an avocado but a sandwich spread in a jaunty and no-mess squeeze pack? And what about that fancy chocolate bar that I’d picked up at Vibrations — mightn’t it, too, want to be tucked inside a pretzel roll and then lightly toasted to demonstrate the exhilarating principles of oozemosis? Darling, it’s pronounced panh not payne. I walked my gooey confection six minutes down the nearby beach trail and devoured it on the shore of the moonlit lake. Heaven.
On my last day I hiked in Cowles Bog. This is the bio-diverse part of the park that, at the end of the 19th century, was the field lab for the ecology pioneer and University of Chicago botanist Henry Chandler Cowles. But it is also the part of the park that is closest (half a mile) to United States Steel’s grim, Godzilla–caliber manufacturing plant, which for many years was the largest steel mill in the country.
At first, this cultural dissonance rattled me. But then I remembered my Mount Baldy experience and vowed, Glass half full! Glass half full!
When, at the end of my hike, I found another hiker’s stray leather glove on the side of the trail, I tried to help out by walking the glove to the trailhead, sticking a sharp five-foot-tall stick into the ground, and suspending the glove from the stick. My first try had me inserting the stick’s airborne end into the glove’s middle finger. But this didn’t feel right, so I repositioned the stick into the index finger. Here. This way, please.
Henry Alford’s most recent book is “And Then We Danced.”