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WOW Day One: Indiana Dunes National Park and Chicago

After spending the last morning cuddling with the Westies and saying goodbye to Brandon and Lydia, Henry woke up and announced he had no underwear. Or shorts. Everything he had was packed already in the bowels of the truck. Fortunately for him, both were buried in Elvis’ drawers, just enough shorts and underwear for two similarly sized boys, like manna from heaven. Hallelujah! 

There were several unsuccessful attempts to leave our hometown, including a detour I forgot about and a low front driver’s side tire (quickly remedied; it’s a very slow leak, and we have an air compressor in the car for just such an occasion), but we did manage to pull out of the driveway at the anticipated 8 a.m.

Our drive across western Ohio and eastern Indiana was tattooed with irrigation systems and solar panels, more trucks than personal vehicles, cell towers and electric lines, construction zones, fields and forests and roads lined with chicory, the landscape an intractable blend of wilderness and industry. It was cruise control and brakes when drivers didn’t obey the zipper rule at lane mergers. Elvis assembled a playlist of old childhood favorites from road trips past, including They Might Be Giants and BNL kids songs, and when it was time to surrender the Bluetooth back to me, I listened to my library of music while the boys silently stared at their gaming laptops in the backseat.

We drove through Michigan City to Mount Baldy on the east end of Indiana Dunes National Park. Elvis probably didn’t sleep the night before our trip and had passed out in the back of the truck, waking up irritated that we all still existed. Food helped. Henry counters his storm clouds with cheery optimism, which only infuriates Elvis more. 

Mount Baldy is a “wandering sand dune” on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Its 126 feet are currently unscalable, as are most of the dunes, in an effort to restore the natural habitat and preserve the dunes. However, the beach access is still open. All 126 feet of altitude change had us huffing and puffing like a bunch of out-of-shape amateurs, so I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen the rest of the trip.

There’s nothing like the last few steps as you scale the crest of a hill to see what might be on the other side, and Mount Baldy doesn’t disappoint. As the sand gave way underneath our feet, the long horizon of Lake Michigan appeared. WOW, I said. Of course.

Later, Henry claimed this point of the day as when he experienced God’s presence the most. 

It was similar for Elvis, except from the vantage point of the west end of the park, which we drove to next. Driving from the east side of the park to the west takes about a half hour nonstop. That same collision of industry and wilderness is here, too, with smokestacks and steel mills and railroad tracks braided between preserved dunes, pockets of woods, and hundreds of species of wildflowers and grasses. We stood on the west end beach and watched the waves roll in as if we were on the ocean, the same shush and crash captivating us all. Or most of us. In the far distance, Chicago gleamed.

Ever the nature lover, Elvis was not thrilled to be getting sand between his toes, and since the day had just begun and the lake was closed for swimmers because of the rough surf, I asked Elvis, “If you could pick just one thing to do around Chicago, what would it be?”

His eyes lit up and he smiled that big beautiful Elvis smile I love. “Go to the Al Capone Museum!”

“Uhh, I don’t think we have time for a museum,” I replied, laughing and scrolling through Google Maps for “Al Capone” stuff. “But we could go to Al Capone’s grave!” It wasn’t too far out of the way. “What else?”

“The Bean!” Elvis said. I had no idea what he was talking about, but there it was in my phone, The Bean (Cloud Gate), tucked in the heart of downtown Chicago. I quickly tracked a multiple spot map for the rest of the day to time out a visit with a dear friend in a northwestern suburb of Chicago and still be able to get to camp before dark. We could do it. So we did it, but not before Elvis bought his little brother Starbursts at the close of our trip out of the dunes. They do love each other.

And that’s how our trip to a national park turned into even greater collisions between nature and industry, commerce and creation, a collision that is constant and wondrous, restorative and destructive, a relationship with earth we have to navigate every single day. I suspect we will have more and more moments like these throughout our trip, moments of spontaneity and disappointment, traffic jams and delays, surprise and delight. Moments that will cause each of us to see God’s presence in different places, maybe even in the unexpected.

So often I look beyond the manmade to find God’s presence in wild things, but as God’s image bearers, we have been given the power to participate in creation. The human brain is, so far, the most complex thing we have discovered in the universe. It is capable of creating masterpieces.

“Where did you most experience God today?” I asked Elvis.

“Seeing Chicago on the horizon across Lake Michigan.”

As the three of us stared up into the center of the Bean, we saw ourselves small, smaller than we are, and also far smaller than we imagine ourselves to be.

WOW, we said.

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