The International Writers Magazine: USA

Back home in Indiana
Ari Kaufman

About a quarter after four on Veteran's Day, I pulled off Interstate 70 ten miles before hitting the Illinois border. Five minutes later, as I pulled in to my girlfriend's apartment complex, I drove by a family preparing to play tennis. As I watched them rake up the dead leaves that fall foliage season had dropped for the final time, I realized that today's mild temperatures would be ephemeral at best. Cold rain and even a bit of snow were forecast to begin tomorrow, and thus, the 70 degree weather would be gone with the sunset in about an hour. I ran in, kissed Maria hello, threw on my Indiana Pacers shorts and, with winter literally on the horizon, ran down the block to play outdoor basketball for the final time until perhaps April.

As I shot baskets in the warm breezes, I gazed out past the adjacent tennis courts through the flattened cornfields and deep into the skies over the Wabash River, Illinois, Iowa and further into the central plains. Even a meteorological novice could tell a storm was brewing. Wrapping up my enjoyable, 40 minute "work out," it was incumbent upon me to begin a travel essay detailing two separate, "diverse" summer trips I recently took in the Hoosier State.
On a hot, humid Saturday in early September, a trip down the western spine of Indiana was our plan for the day and evening. We rolled south along US Highway 41 toward the Ohio River and Evansville (the same road I'd pounded with my dad in July hundreds of miles north on the cusp of Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula city of Marquette), headed for a night baseball game at historic Bosse Field. But one stop was imperative to make.
I had briefly taken a detour of the Wabash rivertown of Vincennes in early August on my way back to Indianapolis from Saint Louis. My intention was to get fast food, but upon hitting the town, I had explored a very classy, antiquated church and the George Rogers Clark Historic Park along the river bordering Illinois. Time had been of the essence that August day (which was hotter than even this 93 degree September scorcher), so aside from a quick gawk and glance, then a wrong turn that landed me 20 seconds later across a bridge in a different state, I hadn't done this "hidden gem" proper justice. Thus, this detour made Maria give me one of those "Ari, must we hit every historic spot in every state on every trip?" looks. I smiled, taking pride in the moment. Who wants to be boring, after all?
All things considered, Vincennes is a nothing town. The houses are run down, it's flat, it has only a small junior college, no interstate nearby, and the closest cities (Evansville and Terre Haute) are more than an hour away. But it has a National Historic Park, which 95% of the cities and towns in the USA do not.
The George Rogers Clark National Historic Park, one of the most unknown national parks in our country, commemorates "one of the greatest feats of the American Revolution." In the mid-18th century, the "Indiana Territory," extended as far west as (what was to eventually be) America had been settled. The British held most of this area and everything around it known as "Trans Appalachian Frontier," especially after the French and Indian War. In order to secure the area, the British sent Indian war parties against those settlers who ignored the proclamation line around the Ohio River, including those in Kentucky.
George Rogers Clark organized the Kentucky militia to defend against these raids.
During the summer of 1778 Clark directed his army down the Ohio River then overland some 120 miles to capture the British posts along the Mississippi River, near St. Louis. Although under British rule after the French and Indian War, these posts were populated by French settlers who "had no great affection for the British," thus Clark quickly gained their support.
Eventually three outposts of the British, including Fort Sackville in Vincennes, fell. But, outnumbered, Clark's subordinate, Captain Leonard Helm, could not sustain the fort against the British-Indian army, and it was recaptured by the British four months later. In perhaps a microcosm of the next three centuries into today, the French settlers of Vincennes quickly returned to their British allegiance.
However, when the British Lieutenant Governor, Henry Hamilton, sent his troops home for the winter ("a common practice") in order to prepare for a spring effort to drive all Americans out of the frontier for good, the battle lines were drawn again, but this time in secret.
After a clever plan which Clark used St. Louis merchant, Francis Vigo, as a spy to glean pertinent information from Hamilton and the British after he was purposely captured and then released, Clark and his force of approximately 170 Americans and Frenchmen made "an epic 18-day trek from Kaskaskia through the freezing floodwaters of the Illinois country." With "icy water up to their shoulders," Clark's leadership brought them through this midwinter journey. These were clearly the days when men were men.
The surprise attack in late February caught the British off guard. Experienced woodsmen on Clark's side maintained a rate of fire that convinced the British that the army was a larger number than it was in reality, and barricades were thrown up and entrenchments dug to provide additional cover. Hamilton became resigned to surrendering. The two leaders met at the nearby St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church to discuss a compromise. (Maria and I later went inside to look around and enjoy the air conditioning that was non-existent 227 years ago, nor needed, of course, at least not in February.)
Hamilton attempted to obtain "liberal conditions" while Clark insisted upon unconditional surrender. They failed to agree upon acceptable terms and each commander returned to their respective posts. Finally, after Clark's men captured and wounded several Indians who had come to support the British in full view to "heighten the psychological pressure while also illustrating to Indian observers that the redcoats no longer could protect those tribes who made war on the Americans," Hamilton surrendered unconditionally. At 10 a.m., Thurs., Feb. 25, 1779, an American flag was raised above the fort and 13 cannon shots were discharged in celebration.
According to the National Parks Website:
 "The young Virginian {Clark} had prevented the British from achieving their goal of driving the Americans from the Trans- Appalachian frontier. As a result of Clark's brilliant military activities, the British ceded to the United States a vast area of land west of the Appalachian Mountains. That territory now includes the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and the eastern portion of Minnesota."
Maria and I spent about an hour total in the church, outside at the cemetery to honor some of the battle's casualties as well as strolling along the river, in and around the huge DC-esque memorial to Clark that stands out high above the town and river.
The exact location of the fort is not known. It is believed, however, that it is located on the grounds of George Rogers Clark National Historical Park. Archaeological evidence suggests that "the fort's front wall was roughly between the Clark Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial Bridge in Vincennes, Indiana."
The Lincoln Memorial Bridge is the aforementioned bridge I had wrongly taken over the Wabash River and into Illinois one month prior. And since Lincoln was not born until exactly 30 years (almost to the day) after these battles, one might wonder why it bears his name. Well, as anyone can tell you, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky are "Lincoln County,? and Illinois unabashedly proclaims itself (on every license plate) "Land of Lincoln," even though Abe was born in Kentucky and raised in the Hoosier State. However, there is no debate - at least if you cross his bridge and look at the clever stone monument that is carved into an image of Lincoln and others - that Abe "came of age" in Illinois.
For the Lincoln Memorial Bridge is a deck arch bridge carrying Business U.S. Route 50 over the Wabash River between Vincennes and Lawrence County, Illinois. It is said to mark the point where Abraham Lincoln crossed the Wabash River on his way into Illinois for the first time at the tender age of 21. That would be 1830 if you have been doing your math the whole time. 

In October, we left downtown Indianapolis and headed straight up Highway 31 north in the direction of South Bend, IN., and Michigan. Unlike many states, as you go north in Indiana, the land flattens out as you make your way toward the Great Lakes region of the Midwest. The southern part of the state presents the hills of the outer Ohio Valley and perhaps what is left over of the Appalachian Mountains.
After a brief stop to see the immortal University of Notre Dame on a perfect low 60s, sunny fall day, with the campus teeming with people in town for Parents Weekend and the Stanford-Notre Dame football game on Columbus Day Weekend, we looped northwest into Michigan then back down along the lake until presenting ourselves just outside Michigan City, Indiana, at the eastern edge of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, a part of Indiana's diminutive two dozen or so mile stretch of lakefront property in the northwestern corner of the state.
The Indiana Dunes are not a catchy name for some golf course resort community, but rather, they really do pertain to dunes; dunes that are, according to Off the Beaten Path: Indiana (which prompted this journey for me and Maria) "some of the largest sand dunes this side of the Sahara." Hard to fathom? Absolutely. Why else do you think I visited?
For about the past 35 years, the dunes have been part of the 13,000 acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which is accurately described as "a miracle of survival in the midst of one of the most heavily industrialized regions in the country." Remember, not only were we 35 or so miles southeast of the heart of Chicago, but just ten to 15 miles east of the wastelands of Gary, Hammond and East Chicago, Indiana.
If you?ve ever driven through and around these towns along the 80/90 toll roads on your way to and from the Chicago area (areas that have spawned many great athletes as well as the Jackson Five), you know the sights and certainly the smells are not exactly pleasant. These areas, essential for America's steel industry to survive, are the antithesis of the Grand Canyon or Vermont's Green Mountains. Incredibly though, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, just a fifteen minute drive away, is also inapposite to anything you'll ever see in "The Region."
We pulled into a nearly empty parking lot and climbed the 135 foot sand dune known as "Mount Baldy." It wasn't strenuous, but it wasn't simple either, taking nearly ten minutes of climbing, sliding and pushing. The sweeping view of Lake Michigan immediately as you hit its zenith was immense and shockingly gorgeous.
It was about 4pm central daylight time, the sun not setting for at least another 90 minutes. A Tiger Woods drive away below us - across more sand but the flat variety - was Lake Michigan, looking, as all Great Lakes do from close up, just like an ocean. To the east was the state of Michigan and, after another 100 yards traipse to the peak of another dune, was a west-looking view through the wind and sun at America's second most imposing city, about 40 miles away.
Chicago sat like an island in the middle of the sea. It was Friday rush hour there right now but to us it looked almost like a battle ship off the coast at sea, with the tallest buildings such as the Sears Tower and John Hancock Building playing the roles of the towers and telescopes of a ship. The sight was surreal, to be blunt. 
We sat and chatted for nearly an hour, then found a shorter, less steep descent of Mount Baldy which others that had arrived and departed in the interim had used. Allegedly, Mount Baldy inches away from the lake each year. It is not stabilized by vegetation and is "kept in constant motion by wind and water, forcing the dune to take giant steps backward," according to Off the Beaten Path's Phyllis Thomas.
This may all be true, false or half true; I'll leave that to the environmentalists. I travel, obviously love the environment more than 90% or more of my countrymen, but since I save my fears and alarmism for imminent threats to our lives like Radical Islamic Jihadists, I am proud to solely consider myself a "Conservationalist" with all that entails.
Before hitting the Gary-led "region" about 20 minutes after we left Mount Baldy and the eastern edge of the lakeshore, we drove alongside the rest of the community and landscape of this natural wonder. There were hills, prairies, woods, farms, cute towns, horseback trails, and according to my free map, even wetlands with swamps and marsh. Pretty remarkable yet peculiar.
After all, we weren't in the Everglades nor Louisiana; we were in the great American Midwest, heading toward the sunset, construction and Friday night fervor of American's third-largest city.

© Ari Kaufman November 2006
Ari Kaufman is the author of "A Year in Americana," available now at He is also the co-author of an upcoming book on educational reform. Read his archived work at: Kaufman resides in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana.

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