Sunday, August 8, 2010

Walking To The Indiana Dunes

People usually consider walking

on water or thin air a miracle,

but I think the real miracle

is not to walk either on water or in thin air,

but to walk on earth.

Thich Nhat Hanh

This week I made a pilgrimage of sorts. One that began at my own door step in Rogers Park, then 19 miles along the Chicago Lakefront, through the industrial cities along the shore of Lake Michigan, Hammond, Whiting, East Chicago, Gary and finally to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, some 50 plus miles in total. I did this in two days.

I tried to stay along the lake as much as possible, but when you leave the southern neighborhood of Jackson Park in Chicago, the lake disappears from view. Once in East Chicago by the Majestic Star Casino, I illegally slipped through a fence and touched the water. But I had to wait some 24 miles until I got to West Beach in the National Lakeshore until I could finally feel the cool water on my tired hot body.

Why do such a thing?

I wanted to walk this route to ask the question: why isn’t there a walking route linking Chicago’s magnificent lake front park to the patchwork of wetlands, prairies, woodlands and towering sand dunes that make up one of the few urban National Parks, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore?

There are plans for a green way called the Marquette Plan to do such a thing, but the momentum, money and will to do it seems more wishful than real. I stayed in a Casino my first night, the Majestic Star, which along with the other casinos in the area are supposedly aimed at redeveloping the region by making an entertainment and recreation zone. Slot machines stretch the idea of entertainment, not to mention recreation or redevelopment. And of course, in a casino the brownfields and industrial wastelands that surround them are conveniently out of sight.

But I also took this walk to prove something I’ve been wondering about for the last few years as I’ve walked in all kinds of more traditional so-called ‘natural’ landscapes—deserts, mountains, forests, sea shores. Would my body and mind respond in similar ways, feeling revitalized and awakened from nature and exercise, if I walked through my own neighborhood and the city lakefront and then into one of the most industrialized and polluted landscapes of America? And further, would walking to the dunes make me appreciate the fragile beauty and ecological miracle of this landscape more than by driving there and taking a little walk through the park?

The body and the legs do more than just hold us up and carry us about back and forth to work. Like the antennae of insects, they read the landscapes and negotiate through them learning where to go and where to find nourishment and safety. The body isn't a machine we turn off on and on. Walking all those steps made me consider my connection to this landscape where I've lived for three decades. And despite the harshness of the highways and disfigurement of the landscape, I sensed it's grandeur, its timeless presence, enduring no matter what we puny humans think we can do with it. From the ground, I felt so many emotions, from rage to awe, from joy to sadness, from humiliation to wonder. We think we know where we live like we think we know our own body, but take a little walk or rather a long walk in the land where you live. And I guarantee you'll discover something about the very ground you drive and walk over and it will be your body, your feet, that will teach you.

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