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Grossman: Memories of Indiana Dunes

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US Steel at Burns Harbor from Indiana Dunes beachshore

US Steel at Burns Harbor from Indiana Dunes beachshore 

Thanks to U.S. representative Pete Visclosky (D-Gary), Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore has become America’s 61st national park. Visclosky slipped the upgrade into appropriations legislation that Donald Trump signed last week.

This news comes in the wake of a recent decision by the Indiana Supreme Court regarding property rights along the Lake Michigan shore.

The court decided that the public has the right to access this beach up to the ordinary high water mark—despite competing claims by beach-adjacent landowners at Long Beach, which is directly northwest of Indiana Dunes. On Feb. 19 came word that the U.S. Supreme Court would let that decision stand.

All this Indiana Dunes-related news brings back memories for me.

In the summer of 1991, I worked at Indiana Dunes as a ranger's assistant. My job was mostly to direct traffic in the parking lots. It wasn't the most interesting job in the world, I admit, but it was a necessary one because there weren't nearly enough parking spaces in the park to accommodate all the visitors. Somebody had to keep things moving.

The most hazardous job of them all was directing traffic on Route 12, on the turnoff to Mt. Baldy. The small lot would often run out of space, so I would often be in the unenviable position of standing on the highway, waving on pissed off drivers.

Indiana Dunes is far from contiguous; it’s more like a patchwork of properties staggered along the Lake Michigan shore in between Michigan City, the steel mills at Burns Harbor, and Gary's massive industrial complexes.  

I got to know the lake shore (including the state park) pretty intimately. I loved walking the beaches, especially along Mt. Baldy, which was a popular hang glider launch site. I loved the forested trails that led up and down dune tops and exposed sweeping views of Lake Michigan.

The sand dunes are the remains, or deposits, of Ice Age glaciers—Mt. Baldy is the largest of these. There’s also lakeside forest and marshland, such as Cowles Bog. There's grasslands, dune blowouts, and plenty of beach.  

Some days, you could see waterspouts forming over the lake in the aftermath of early afternoon thunderstorms. On crystal clear days, of which there weren’t many, you could see the Chicago skyline to the northwest.

Indiana Dunes is one of the most bio-diverse places in the U.S. It's surrounded by one of the most industrialized areas of the planet, which is something of a paradox.

The assistant rangers weren’t a very diverse group, at least age wise; we were all in our early twenties. Angie, the only African American among us, lived in Gary. Steve was from Toledo, Ohio; the other three were from northwest Indiana, or the “region” as its called by its inhabitants. 

Out of all the assistant rangers, I got along with Angie the best. Once I made her falafel (I was going through a vegetarian phase.) My version was pretty nasty, I realize now in retrospect, but she was diplomatic.

Steve and I split a room in a low-rent Michigan City apartment complex. We quickly grew to dislike one another; his alma mater was Kent State University, where he had been an anti-war protester protester. That is, he had protested the anti-war protesters in the lead-up to the Gulf War. His favorite singer at the time was Garth Brooks, quite a contrast to my favorite band at the time, The Feelies. He drove a motorcycle out of necessity; his auto license had been suspended due to a DUI conviction.

We started splitting the expense on 24-packs of Budweiser, but soon I stopped doing this because he drank at least a six-pack per night, which was about six times my rate.

When he told me he was having trouble sleeping, I suggested it might have something to do with his heavy alcohol consumption. He didn’t take this suggestion well. Our most serious disagreement, however, occurred when I was driving him to work and I pulled the car off the road. A turtle happened to be crossing our path. He got upset with me, because I had the audacity to get the turtle out of harm's way. “Why do you even bother?” he said.

We worked for, and reported to, the law enforcement rangers. One of the dudes was a devoted fan of Chicago Police Star Magazine, the official publication of the Chicago Police Department. Being stuck at the dunes wasn’t exactly his dream job.  

“There was an attempted rape at West Beach last summer,” I recall him saying.  “I even had to unholster my gun.”

Another law enforcement ranger, the one who fingerprinted me for my FBI background check—I had just applied to the Peace Corps—told me he was going off to attend The Wooden Boat School in Brooklin, Maine in the fall.

I wonder now if he's sailing the world somewhere, in his own wooden boat.

There was a young firefighter at Indiana Dunes, about my age. He was a former member of an elite hotshot crew who had survived a massive burn out west by huddling under an emergency blanket.  He was no longer part of that crew because he had developed chronic bronchitis as a result of fighting fires. But the biggest problem for him and the other firefighters at Indiana Dunes—just like law enforcement—seemed to be chronic boredom.

The same ranger who bragged about pulling his gun got all worked up about a patch of cannabis. It was growing adjacent to Indiana Dunes property. He claimed it had been planted there. So one day he had me and some other assistant rangers pull up the weed and burn it in a barrel. Judging from the smell, it was pretty low grade stuff.

I was tangentially involved in some equally dubious adventures. 

One day in the Mt. Baldy parking lot, I received a complaint from a woman, in her thirties, who was with her young daughter hiking on the dune. They  had stumbled across a man sunbathing in the nude. I reported the complaint to my superiors.  They arrived, and we waited. It took a while for him to return to his car. Somehow, it seemed like he had figured out that we were on to him. So we just kept track of the cars as they emptied out of the lot. When he eventually returned, feigning nonchalance, the enforcement officer slapped the cuffs on him.

Baldy also attracted men with binoculars who liked to hang out in bushes and it was pretty obvious they weren’t looking at the birds.

But the most serious issue were the deaths, mostly of children, due to the rip currents in Lake Michigan. These deaths often occurred along beaches not staffed by lifeguards. My recollection was that four kids drowned that year. (Scanning current Northwest Indiana and Chicago-area headlines online, I see that not much has changed.)

On weekends sometimes I took the South Shore Line passenger train to Chicago—where I met up with a woman who had just just graduated from the School of the Art Institute. We saw the Degenerate Art exhibition at the Institute. The exhibition itself was a replica of the exhibit that the Nazis had put on in Munich, in 1937, displaying the works of Jews, of Modernists, of anyone who didn’t adhere to Hitlerian standards. (To this day, that exhibition is among my all time favorites.)  We did some other things together. But, let’s just say, she didn’t want what I wanted.

I used to look out towards Chicago while walking the beach, longing for her. I also dreamed of the novels I would write. Some of my dreams would eventually come to fruition, and some would not.

Indiana Dunes, in retrospect, was something of a staging ground for me.  

Four months later, I was in a Peace Corps training camp in Niger, West Africa. I would soon see much larger dunes, on the edge of the Sahara Desert.

While Indiana Dunes taught me something about nature on a smaller scale, that's not what I think of now when I think about America's newest national park. Instead, I recall the limitless—but quickly fleeting—sense of possibility that I once felt while walking its shores.

Dan Grossman, Arts Editor at NUVO, can be reached by email at dgrossman@nuvo.net, by phone at 317-254-2400 or on Twitter @nuvoartsdan.

Writer Arts, Faith & Equity

Having lived and worked in Indy on and off since 1977, and currently living in Carmel, I've seen the city change a great deal. I love covering the arts in all its forms, and the places where the arts and broader cultural issues intersect.