Tuesday, September 07, 2010

If You Promise to Empty your Sandals

Contemplating the world from America's industrial heartland, Penny, last heard from in Morocco, has much to think about amidst the dunes of Gary, Indiana.

I opened the sliding screen and walked out onto the deck – the breeze from the north was fresh, the Chicago skyline across the lake lit softly from the east.  I had surprised the doe nuzzling the beach grass below.  She hurried her two fauns along, as the monarchs searched for the milkweed.  Over the ridge, down by the shore, a pair of heron landed.   The sharp sound of a humming bird quarrel below interrupted the rhythm of the waves, then was superseded by the whistling of a freight train.  Nestled improbably between the old multiplex of U.S. Steel and the new multiplex of Arcelor Mittal, I was watching the sunrise in Gary, Indiana. 

No crowds here.   Coming down from the interstate, County Line Road is deserted – a hot dog stand (“Depot Dog” serving award-winning Vienna dogs from a pretty red caboose), some signs for the National Lakeshore Park, more deer and the occasional circling bird of prey aside.  There are some signs of human habitation at Wells Street beach – it has a pretty good refreshment stand – but the modest, well-tended houses of this beach community, Miller, are oriented to Lake Michigan and the dunes rather than the streets.

You needn’t come by country roads to avoid crowds in Gary.  In fact, if you choose to come to my lakeshore paradise through the erstwhile metropolis, the scenery is positively post-apocalyptic.  Much of the city has been razed.  There are some fortress-inspired government buildings and an unenticing concrete convention center, and of course the steel mills and oil refineries remain, smokestacks steaming and occasionally ablaze with methane.  Coming in on the Tri-state or Route 20, you would have to agree that Gary is a suitable backdrop for Transformers 3, which had in fact just finished shooting when we arrived.

Back in Miller, Lake Michigan and the dunes surrounding it, the ponds, the swamps and the trails through the woods, the uncountable species of butterflies, toads, frogs, grasshoppers, wildflowers, grasses…those are what have continued as the crowds receded.  Crowds don’t come here much, to take a little bit of dune back to Chicago in a sandal, trample the fragile beach grasses and leave plastic and aluminum in the wetlands.  How fortunate that most don’t find the juxtaposition of beauty and industry as poignant and thought-provoking as I do.  I’m thankful that the crowds stomp elsewhere, as nature makes a comeback in my home town. 

The Indiana Dunes Lakeshore Park (www.nps.gov/indu/index.htm), existing in the interstices between residences, train tracks and industrial conglomerates, is the consolation prize given environmentalists after they lost the battle to stop the construction of the Port of Indiana to the west of Gary.  One might have thought that the “brownfield” site to the east, gradually being vacated as industry moved to more pliable labour markets, would have been more suitable than the close-to- pristine lakeshore duneland that was bulldozed to become the Port in the 1970s.  The bulldozers came, but the utter unfashionability of nearby Gary and Miller has allowed some of the displaced flora and fauna to find a new home, cheek by jowl with the remaining homo sapien population. 

We rented a lovingly –restored 1930s house right on the shores of Lake Michigan through VRBO (www.vrbo.com).  The house sits back from the beach among mature cottonwoods.  My favorite feature was the cleverly placed fire pit, well-situated for roasting marshmallows while watching the sun set in a pollution-enhanced technicolor.  The water was perfect in late August – maybe 78 degrees, and changed character every day.  One day for floating on a mattress.  The next for riding waves.  And every day was for strolling down to the dunes at West Beach or down through the pine woodland to Long Lake about a mile or so south, to see who was migrating through – mallards and coots of course, the occasional Canada geese.   Of course, the migration doesn’t get seriously interesting until the autumn. 

I hadn’t been back in many years, and was told that I should be wary of Gary, and of Miller too, but we were very comfortable.   We certainly didn’t feel unsafe. (The neighbors left a good deal of equipment outside and lightly tethered, although they live in Chicago – there couldn’t be too big a crime problem in Miller.)   The peoples’ palaces of the 1930s, the Aquatorium and the Pavilion, have been restored, and indeed the planters surrounding the Pavilion are now brimming – as they certainly weren’t in the 1960s when I grew up here.  There is a reasonably good restaurant on Lake Street, the Miller Bakery CafĂ© (although the service could use some improvement), a very nice souvenir shop selling 1920’s posters about the trip to the dunes from Chicago (still less than an hour), and a Walgreens.  For groceries you now need to go a bit further afield –  Hobart or Portage have supermarkets, and there is a great farm market and bakery on Ridge Road, a mile or so east of Ripley Street. 

So do I recommend Miller?  If you promise to empty your sandals before leaving, I do.  If we travel, we need to confront the brutal reality of the mills and refineries that make transportation and much else that we take for granted possible.  And we need to also think about what it will take to keep the Karner blue butterflies, the red-shouldered hawk, and the tree toad healthy and happy as well.  We need to think about how to make sure that the people working in the factories and refineries can flourish alongside the world’s most impressive collection of wildflowers, and afford a holiday or two themselves – and about what happens to their lives if the factories and those jobs go.  Can’t think of a better place to contemplate all of the complexity of the modern world, and of the role of the great industrial powers, past, present and future, than there.

Photo Credit: Penny Pilzer


  1. This reminds me a bit of visit Athens while there was fighting in the North along the Greek border. We had the city to ourselves.

  2. Very nice reading...I'm a Gary girl too, and grew up going to Miller Beach, where one wonderful summer our mom provided first aid at the beach and we got the use of a cabin in the woods there. I always hope that someday Gary will make its comeback, but the odds are probably against it. I participated in the novel writing last year too, and am gearing up for this year.