Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is a classic paradox of industrial development and nature preservation. An afterthought, as many of the more eastern parks were, the Dunes were protected as a way to preserve a unique environment before it was entirely consumed by houses, roads, factories, railroads, ports and energy plants.
But these elements are present throughout the park, which was ultimately a patchwork of acquisitions surrounding already existing human developments. It is an urban park with few areas that feel remote. We were lucky to have a friend at the park, Sarah, who I met in Austria during my study abroad in 2005 and who now works there at the Dunes Learning Center. She is a naturalist, educating student daycampers and school groups who come for a week at a time for nature trips (like 6th grade science camp for you Candia Moore Schoolers). Before we met up with Sarah, we went to Mt. Baldy, a large dune which is advancing inland after years of heavy trampling by tourists. It is over 100 feet tall, rising steeply off the beach. Kids were running up and down it. I can remember hurtling myself down in the same way when I was young and we came with my cousins. We swam in Lake Michigan at Porter beach, and loved the water.
Air temperature was over 90 degrees, and the water was (warmer than other beaches, which felt colder than the ocean by Newport, RI) very refreshing. We spent an the evening with Sarah, visiting a typical midwest drive-in, and then camped behind her house in the park, listening to the trains go by non-stop all through the night.
My Aunt Lenora and Uncle Charlie (dad's brother) awaited us in Morris, IL the next day, and we made a short 2 hour trip to reach them from the Dunes. Their children, my cousins Tim and Paul, came by to see us as well. Their family has been in the area since they transplanted from New England over 40 years ago, so this spot has long been a stop on the Sargent family vacations. Together with these and my other cousins on this side (Greg and Greta), we have many happy memories in Morris. After a hearty meal upon our arrival (family and food cannot be beat) we visited for the afternoon and evening, giving Brian a chance to get to know some family he had only barely met to this point, and bringing everyone up to speed on life's happenings.
Afternoon activities included our first ever use of a Wii (spouse rivalry over tennis and baseball, followed by Tim and Brian advancing a few levels in Star Wars Legos), dinner at a local italian sub shop, and a tour of my Aunt and Uncle's church. Finding friends and family where they are at is one of my favorite parts of a trip, and the reconnection always adds extra joy.
Our journey continued to Iowa and Wisconsin after one night in Morris. Three hours of driving, we crossed the Mississippi (Brian's first time by land) river from IL to IA. Followed a scenic route along the rolling farm hills of IA, spotting the river at intervals.
About 3/4 of the distance to border with MI, we made one of the few stops on our trip that my family had not been in the past - Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harpers Ferry, IA. It is a site that protects ancient Indian burial/ceremonial mounds erected 800 to 3000 years ago. These sites are apparently common in along the Mississippi river, but most of them have been destroyed by farming and development practices. We hiked the trails to the various mounds on bluffs overlooking the river.
The mounds come in round, linear, combination and effigy (bear and bird) shapes. There was a lovely midwestern hardwood forest covering the bluffs that contained many familiar friends - sugar maple, basswood, red, black, and white oak, black cherry, white ash, quaking aspen, shagbark hickory and also the more Midwest specific hackberry, Kentucky coffeetree and Chinkapin Oak. I was particularly happy to see my sugies. Not far past here will be my last sighting for a while.
With evening (and thunderstorms) approaching, we crossed the Mississippi river over to Prairie du Chein, Wisconsin and drove along the river to Goose Island, just south of LaCrosse. The island is one of a huge complex in the area, where the river spreads out, carving around many high spots, of which this is the largest. We camped on the island in a nice spot, but with a multitude (hundreds of campsites all lined up, lots of trailers, and some really loud drunk people). The brunt of the T-storms went south. Beautiful sunset over the river. Goodnight with many mosquito bites.
Interstate Route 80 conducted us across the heartland, so I thought I would add a few comments on the highway. Feel free to add yours, if you have spent time on 80...
You know you are on Route 80 when...
Trucks outnumber cars 3 or 4 to 1.
There are no tolls.
All hills have "slow vehicle" lanes.
You see an adult video store with purchased ad space out front that says "Pornography Corrupts"
There are obnoxious numbers of billboards, often repeating the same ad for miles.
All the ash trees visible from the road past OH are dead. :( (Emerald ash borer the probable cause, not certain, though)
America's heartland is a strikingly different place from the east. Aside from the obvious landscape differences - treed and farmed rolling plains vs. treed hills and mountains - the look of things is different, the culture, the way people speak, what they eat. We feel like we got a little bit of the midwestern experience in our various stops.