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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Labor Day weekend we set our sights on a beach.

In Indianapolis we stopped at a BBQ festival for lunch. We arrived before 1 p.m. so saved a $5 per person entrance fee. On stage a band played, and the sound system was excellent: at every booth and lemonade stand in the small park, we could hear them well.

Feeling we’d scoped out the area enough to know where we wanted to spend our food tickets, we queued up and bought 21 for $30. All 21 tickets, that’s $30 plus the $8 for parking, bought us a half slab of ribs, a chicken breast sandwich, an order of potato salad, one of cole slaw and a small lemonade. Outrageous! But we enjoyed the lovely day, sitting in a patch of shade and listening to the band. Later that evening Kenny Wayne Shepherd was scheduled to perform. As much as we would have loved to ear-witness the guitar prodigy, we didn’t stay; our main aim was the beach.

Cruising up I-65, we saw a billboard advertising Fair Oaks Farms Dairy, 80 miles ahead at exit 220. I told Mark to wake me when we got there.

The place was right off the highway. Two barns sat adjacent to the parking lot. We walked behind them to a kids’ play area with a long, rectangular pillow of air on which they jumped, a wall with hand- and footholds they used to climb to the top to ring a bell, a track around which they rode mini John Deere tractors and small rails on which they rode a choo-choo train.

Beyond that beckoned a third barn. Mark and I walked in the door and down a short hall to an open doorway with a sign reading “Quiet please. Birthing in progress.”

Inside, sure enough, behind curving glass, under glaring lights, a cow, with birthing end pointed towards us, was pushing out a calf.We barely had time to register what we were seeing when she was pulled to her feet and out the back. Her bag was so big it was about to bust. A cow at milking time carries between two and four gallons. This mom was holding three times as much it seemed.

Another cow with a fresh calf lay in an adjacent enclosure. The calf wore the same white triangle on her forehead as her mother and the same white circle on her chin. We watched a couple minutes as she tried to stand: straightening her back legs and struggling to raise herself onto her front ones.

Before leaving Mark and I, of course, ordered ice cream. Vanilla and chocolate were out. It’s a good thing Mark and I both wanted butter pecan. After a pint, we drove north to the beach.

At Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, we walked onto Porter Beach. The clear waters of Lake Michigan and the crowd at the late hour surprised us. To avoid all the people, we decided to hike to Cowell’s Beach in the morning.

The park literature said we’d likely share Cowell’s with boaters who moored off the shore, but assured us we’d be of but a few who hike the two miles to arrive by foot.Along the mostly flat trail we hauled a double folding chair, our soft-sided cooler filled with water and a cloth Kroger bag with crackers, energy bars, a magazine and two books.

Arriving at 10 a.m. we shared the sands with two parties whose boats were anchored in close. Three hours, six bottles of water and some food later, we climbed the dune to the trailhead and turned to take a picture: parties from more than 50 boats now enjoyed the shore.

Parking was premium at all the beaches that afternoon, so we woke early on Monday and climbed Mount Baldy for a final view-from-on-high of the lake. On top of the highest dune in the park, we looked down on empty Baldy Beach and felt lucky to have the area to ourselves.Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore: the best natural beaches close to home.