Screw "Escape the Room." Play "Escape the City!"
Unit #34 / 413 - Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
From the time I was old enough to comprehend the idea, until my late-teens, I used to fantasize about one thing:
Living in a big city.
It didn't have to be on a specific coast, or any country for that matter, this Nebraska kid just wanted to be surrounded by a concrete jungle.
Unlike most teenage boys, it wasn't Pamela Anderson on my wall (or Jonathan Taylor Thomas if any gay 13-year-old had the gall back then). I was so obsessed with living in urbanity that my exhilarating poster was a busy street sandwiched between skyscrapers as far as the eye could see.
I liked that I didn't know what city it was. Just that I wanted to be there, in that fantasy city on my wall. That everything would be amazing once I got there.
By Henri Silberman
Fast forward a decade, and I had finally earned my teenage wet dream: I was living in downtown Montreal, surrounded by real skyscrapers and bustling streets.
It took me about a week before all those years of romanticism washed away.
"Living in downtown sucks unless you're rich!" I inwardly chanted as the ambulance blared every 30 minutes at a hospital outside my window. "It's smelly, crowded, and I'm on the 4th floor with no elevator!"
The real apex of my lost infatuation was on an August day, after returning from a grad school break, when I bought enough groceries all at once to earn a special student discount. With my arms nearly sagging to the ground from the weight, I stopped every fifty yards to rest my bags on the sidewalk.
"Living in downtown sucks unless you're rich or have a car!" I amended, before remembering I had to go back and get the bags I'd left with the cashier because I couldn't carry them all at once.
Now, don't get me wrong. City life had its plethora of benefits.
Nearby parks. Easy commute. And the ever possible chance I might literally walk into a friend on the way to...anywhere.
But as I've heard many a city dweller express, there is just something special about escaping downtown when it's your permanent address.
My de-virginizing experience came on a day's excursion to the Quebec countryside, where upon viewing this vista I breathed a sigh of relief.
Space. Nothing. Quiet.
It was blissful.
So it was fitting that on the day I visited Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as part of this national parks adventure, I did so only after having fully plunged into urbanity.
After three days staying in Chicago, worrying where I'd park Vanny McVanface, I jumped in the deep end by setting up a work meeting in the heart of downtown on my way to the Dunes: meaning I'd have to park 10-foot-tall Vanny amidst those above skyscrapers.
Frantic Google Map searches and $25 dollars later, I eeked my way in and out of a parking lot and made it through the urban jungle without scratching Vanny on any overpasses.
Pulling into the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center's parking lot, it was a welcome relief of wide open space. I climbed out the front seat without inching my door open, and marveled at the strong scent of cilantro filling the air.
The next day, after a pitch black night in the Dunewood Campground, I climbed on a bike provided by Pedal Power and rode down broad, tree-lined roads that opened up to a scene I was used to seeing in Florida:
Bright sandy beaches. Waves cascading into the deep blue water. And a cool breeze relieving any back sweat I'd earned from driving in an overheated Vanny.
It was my Quebec forest, except for every resident of Chicago.
The best part, had I not had Vanny McVanface, it's even reachable by public bus!
So often on this trip I've lamented that national parks will not truly reach the new audiences they want because they are inaccessible to those without means or cars, but for $8.25, Chicago's SSL 19 will take you from Grant Park (the site of Obama's 2008 Presidential acceptance--right in downtown) to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 90 minutes (only 30 more than if you drove yourself).
This means that anyone feeling left out, even a poor grad student, has the chance to leave urbanity and commune with nature. That despite living surrounded by 10 million people, they can escape to see the sunset over crashing waves and an endless lake.
...even as Chicago's skyline pops up to remind them they aren't far from the city they may have once dreamed about.
5 Indiana Dunes Highlights (You Can Do)!
Check out this video of me kiteboarding...
OK, you caught me. It's not me. But I did get the chance to learn from Tyler at Stoke Riders who also provide kayak and paddleboard rentals.
2. Sunset, Duh.
Easily my favorite moment at the park.
Every picture seemed special in its own way, and the large number of couples snuggling along the water are proof it's a worthy experience.
3. Hike the Beach
Especially on a hot day, walking along the beach or the nearby dunes is a lot cooler than inward hikes among the trees. A great escape from the hot city too.
Only downside are the two giant outputters of smoke tinging the view, though allegedly the one that looks like a nuclear plant isn't emitting anything bad.
*Pro tip: Much of this National Lakeshore is shared with a state park. To get around paying the state park entrance fee, park in the National Park Service lots near Porter Beach then walk east to their 3 Dune Challenge.
4. Bike the 70 Miles of Trails
OK, I can't lie: this park has a lot of mosquitoes! Apart from the sandy beach, it's basically built on a bog, so you're gonna deal with 'em. However, on a bike, you're going fast enough to keep them away.
Rent a bike from Pedal Power stationed in the parking lot of the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center near where the public bus lets out (or where there's plenty of free parking).
5. Swim the (Slightly) Warmer Waters
Not as cold as its neighbor Lake Superior (according to my kiteboarding instructor Tyler), the waters were actually in the 70s the day of my lesson.
Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations. What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
Michigan to Ohio to New York to Vermont to New Hampshire to Maine
-River Raisin National Battlefield Park
-Perry's Victory & International Peace Memorial
-James A. Garfield National Historic Site
-Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site
-Women's Rights National Historical Park
-Fort Stanwix National Monument
-Martin Van Buren National Historic Site
-Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park
-Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site
-Appalachian National Scenic Trail
-Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument *New NPS site added 1 week ago*
-Saint Croix Island International Historic Site
-Acadia National Park
The journey thus far: