This past week on our trip east through Missouri, we planned to stay as close as we could to the great Missouri River. One goal was to find a campsite that was proximate to the Katy Trail and hope for weather that supported our intention to bike part of the Trail in the three days we were there.
Friends had told us about the Katy Trail, the longest developed rail trail in the country. Those of you following this blog know of our admiration and support of rail trails, which we have enjoyed in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Florida. The Katy is built on the corridor of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad and it’s 240 miles long. We were staying at a state park in the state capitol, Jefferson City, and got on the trail in North Jefferson on the only day in which the rains stopped and the sun actually came out.
The North Jefferson trail head is five miles from an historical marker noting the place where Lewis & Clark and the Corps of Discovery set up camp on June 4, 1804. We rode down the trail to the marker, through prairie remnants and open pastures, along farmland, past country homes, under one limestone bluff, over bridges that crossed two creeks before eventually reaching the shores of the Missouri River and the historical marker. Along the way, we encountered cardinals, and brilliant blue indigo buntings, jewel-like orioles, a family of raccoons, and a wild turkey.
Since the Corps camped here, the course of the river has changed significantly, with some help from us humans who keep trying to manage the changing nature of the living river. The bluff where the Corps camped is no longer visible from the shoreline where we stood, but the river, wide and fast and muddy after the heavy rains of the early spring, was daunting. We learned that in 1804, one of the masts from their cargo boat was snapped off as the current pushed it too close to shore and into the dense overhanging branches of a cottonwood. It was really impressive to think of the tedious and exhausting work of pushing, rowing, and poling upstream against the current in a river that was most likely littered with the debris of spring rains and storms making the course all the more formidable in 1804.
The other two days in Jefferson City were rainy and drizzly and really productive. We got the truck inspected (30,000 miles, folks!). Peter bought the portable compressor that he wanted in order to keep our bike tires (and trailer and truck tires) up to peak pressure. I found a great place for a haircut and we did laundry. And for Mother’s Day, I enjoyed a glass of KJ along with an amazing thin-crust and veggie-loaded pizza at the best place in town. It was a great day.
We left Missouri and headed over the great Mississippi River on May 11, officially re-entering “the east” after four months. This time, the rain and the eastern hardwood forests confirmed we (literally) weren’t in Kansas anymore. We arrived at the campground at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore just as the rains let up. We got in a short ride that afternoon and the next day, a long and scenic ride along a few miles of the more than fifteen miles of Lake Michigan shoreline.
The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is an unusual park, noble in its commitment to preserve the unusual geology and ecology of the area. Carl Sandburg wrote, “The dunes are to the Midwest what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona. They constitute a signature of time and eternity.”
The dunes along the south shore of Lake Michigan and the related glacial landforms were initially created 11,000 years ago by the mile-thick Wisconsin glacier, the last to cover this region. Melting and moving and scraping and pulverizing bedrock into boulders and piles of rubble into sand; rising and sinking the receding glacier left behind moraines and Lake Michigan and four other Great Lakes. With the influence of winds, the sands were shaped into dunes, the older ones built when the lake levels were twenty-five feet higher than today. The newest dunes, closest to the current shoreline, continue to move and morph in shape as marshes form, grasses take hold, cottonwoods and oaks take root and stabilize the dunes and anchor the sand.
The first attempts to study and preserve the dunes began in 1899 when botany professor Henry Cowles from the University of Chicago began to document the plant ecology of the dunes, a distinction that has earned him notoriety as “the father of ecology”. He identified that here in the Dunes, one could witness the concept of plant succession (plants going from sand to forest) in one location. He began studying the rich biodiversity of the area and formed the Prairie Club of Chicago in 1908 to advocate for protection and wrestling with the region’s booming steel mills and power plants. Pressure from industry continued to be the counterpoint to the various efforts to preserve the lakeshore. Advocates of preserving the dunes stood back in dismay when the largest dune (over 200 feet in height) was hauled off in boxcars since it was in the way of industrial expansion.
The state of Indiana was successful in establishing a state park long the shoreline in 1925 preserving some of the most impressive dunes some of which now tower over 150 feet in height. In 1963, President Kennedy proposed creating both a national lakeshore and a port for industry and in 1966, Congress created the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which has now been expanded to 15,000 acres.
We discovered an unusual part of this park called the 1933 Century of Progress Homes. There are five houses sited here, houses built as part of A Century of Progress International Exposition, a world’s fair held in Chicago, from 1933 to 1934 to celebrate the city’s centennial. The theme of the fair was technological innovation.
The houses, in keeping with the fair’s “Century of Progress” theme, featured innovative building materials, modern home appliances, and new construction techniques. Four of the houses were brought to the dunes by barge in 1935 by real estate developer Robert Bartlett. The fifth one, Cypress Log Cabin, was dismantled at the fair and moved by truck. Bartlett hoped that the high profile houses would entice buyers to his new resort community of Beverly Shores. Today the houses are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The houses have been leased to the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. Through this organization, private individuals or families have leased the homes and are rehabilitating them.
On our way back to our campsite that evening, the scent of lilacs from the gardens of homes that now line the shore road filled the air with their heady fragrance. One or two apple trees had popped into bloom with the warm sunshine. Dogwood blooms offered canopies of lacy white. The air was full of signs of spring in the east.
I found a beautiful quote from environmental advocate Philip Budrick who once wrote about the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and its unique biodiversity, “This collage of hues is like that of humanity and is a reflection of all of us”.
And with a grateful heart to all those who followed their hearts’ call to preserve these amazing and beautiful places from just our past two weeks – from the Flint Hills, to the Missouri River, to the Indiana Dunes – thank you. What these visionaries have done is a reflection of the best part of all of us in this beautiful country that we get to call home.
Peter and Liz continue their pilgrimage to here, biking along the Katy Trail and the Missouri River seen here, as they cross the U.S. in their Airstream.