The author in front of the Rock Men of Rockford, IL.

Roadtrip Day 4: Indiana Dunes, Pullman, Rockford, and Madison

Monday, September 18, 2023
Indiana Dunes National Park, Ohio
Pullman National Monument, Illinois
Rockford, Illinois
Madison, Wisconsin

It had been a clear night, so I didn’t bother with the rainfly and was able to watch the stars through lightly shifting trees as I fell asleep. In fact I slept quite well…Until I was awoken at 4am by truck noise, since I-94 was only a mile away from the campground. It had been quiet the night before—a Sunday night—but I’d forgotten that hardworking truck drivers would be out by the wee hours on a weekday transporting everything we consume on the Eisenhower Highway System. I eventually passed out again once it got light at 6 and got another hour or so of rest in.

As soon as I was fully awake and had begun my meditation for the day, it began to rain, forecasts be damned. I couldn’t help but laugh. It certainly woke me up fully to quickly rush out to get the rainfly over the tent, not to mention being good practice.

The rain didn’t last long, and so I got packed up, leaving my tent and rainfly unfolded on my back seat so they would gradually dry, and set out for the day—I knew this would be a long day with lots of stops.

First was to actually see up close the 1933 World’s Fair “Century of Progress” Homes. It was interesting to read the details of the ideas and goals of the home, and the conceptions of the future they each represented. I wish we had more World’s Fairs with similarly audacious visions of the future today. We’ve settled into too much of a late-stage-capitalistic, rent-seeking, fatalistic acceptance of the way things are. There are better visions. (One of the reasons I love sci-fi in particular as a genre).

Indiana Dunes National Park has quite a few trails, as does the even older State Park of the same name, but without much time I wanted to hit shorter trails that offered some variety of views. First up for me was the Dune Ridge Trail, which the literature mentioned offered up a wide range of scenes and nature in a very short trail, as the photos above show.

Next stop was the park Visitor Center, to collect that (now-)ever-important Passport book cancellation proving I was there. Then off to another trail system further West.

The drive along the park was fascinating in itself since Indiana Dunes is quite spread out and in fact widely separated by other State parks, small private communities and towns, ports, and heavy industry. The photo above of a massive steam plume next to a methane burnoff stack is from the massive US Steel plant and port system in-between sections of the park. It makes one wonder about what it means to conserve and preserve, and how much separation between man and nature is actually necessary to give ourselves a future.

The final section of the park I explored was the West Beach Trails, where I jogged (and slogged through the sandy sections) the three trail loop. It is clear this is the off season already, as the parking lots were fairly empty. All the better to enjoy the nature! It was also a good time for park maintenance, which was occurring in force, with quite a few people working on cleanup, trail maintenance, new staircases, and more.

The trails ultimately took me to the beach, and although the park ranger at the entrance told everyone coming in “don’t go swimming as there are dangerous currents today”, I stuck with the letter of the suggestion and merely “went in”, but didn’t swim. I mean, how could I not? I’m here, right? It was quite warm (at least after several miles of trail jogging). I don’t think I’ve been in any of the Great Lakes since I was a kid with my parents (and which I don’t remember at all). They’re bodies of water that act like oceans but taste and smell like lakes. Fascinating. I just tried not to think of what else might be in the water due to the heavy industry on either side of the park.

Because it was off season, the beach showers were already closed, but we must roll with the punches, so I sat in my car with wet pants and drove onward to my next destination for the day: Pullman National Historical Park. Before buying the National Parks Passport book, I had never even heard of this site before. It has been an important historical site since the 1970’s, but was made a National Monument during the Obama administration, for its importance to various labor movements in our nation’s history.

It’s basically a memorial to a planned manufacturing community that skirted the line between amenity and control. Currently, aside from a few ruins and the visitor center, it’s just a normal neighborhood, so as you walk around you’re exhorted to be mindful that people live in these homes. It is interesting to see what an entirely planned neighborhood with unified architecture could be. There’s doubtless a middle ground.

Due to the newness of the National Monument status, not to mention the intervening years of limbo from Covid, a lot of the park is still under renovation. One of the buildings—the fanciest residence that was closest to the factory and made for the executives—has been turned into a museum and café just 2 months ago. So I gratefully snagged a latte there while looking around and getting an impromptu tour from the historically-minded barista. I quickly walked through the neighborhood but felt conspicuous, since indeed it is quite lived-in. So I returned to my car and moved on to….

Photo of the Rock Men of Rockford.
They really are quite cool. Definitely worth the side-track!

Rock Men! One of the few bits of planning I did for this trip was collating lists of random roadside attractions and weird things around the country. Atlas Obscura is a good source for this, as is Roadside America. Both of those sites mentioned this set of statues in Rockford, IL, so I made sure to plan a route that could get me there. They’re bigger than one would expect (see the cover photo for this post as well). They also just look quite cool, and have beautiful surroundings.

In fact, while driving in to the location of the Rock Men, I was taken by the surrounding riverfront area and ended up walking around quite a bit beyond the Rock Men. Firstly, the Rock River riverfront is gorgeous, with an amazing paved trail system that made me wish I’d packed my rollerblades. Also, there was a botanical garden—the Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens—right up the road from the Rock Men that is quite new and quite progressive in terms of sustainability, and absolutely chock full of beautiful plantlife, landscaping, and sculpture.

Once more into the car I go—already beginning to think I should slow my pace, as trying to drive this much, actually see places and get to know them, and write about them (not to mention downtime, sleep, etc), was already exhausting.

Photo of the scenery on I-90 North of Rockford.
This was the first point in the trip where cops evaporated, roads got straighter and emptier, and corn & soybeans became ubiquitous—in Northern Illinois.

North of Rockford was the first time the landscape and vibe of the trip actually changed significantly. It seemed like suddenly the East Coast and Chicago influence disappeared, strip malls got a little more varied, cornfields began, and everything felt more open. This feeling both sped up the passage of time as I drove, but also slowed down my thoughts compared to the NYC pace I’m used to living in the Northeast.

Eventually I made it to Madison, WI, where my first impressions were that it was a healthy, active, young city. This was confirmed as I walked up State Street to find dinner, and saw that it was a vibrant college town that overlapped with a seat of government at the State Capitol square. It’s a comfortable city, quite walkable and with residential blocks quite close to the shops & restaurants.

Photo of my dinner of brats and beer at the Old Fashioned bar in Madison.
‘Brats & beer!

Dinner was at a place recommended by my hotel if I wanted authentic Wisconsin experience—The Old Fashioned. I was craving something else, but I had to try some ‘brats and potatoes with beer. The mustard tied it all together and was essential to the sandwich, but yes it was all delicious.

Afterwards I happened upon a whiskey bar (I swear they find me, I don’t find them!) that had a phenomenal selection, so I closed out my day with a new scotch (The Balvenie’s “The Week of Peat”, which I recommend to fellow smoke lovers!). Then it was a relatively early night, for more of the same was ahead!

Day 4 Distance: ~247 mi (398 km)
Total Trip Distance: ~1,049 mi (1,688 km)
(Approximate since I forgot to record exactly today)

Next Up: Frank Lloyd Wright’s home “Taliesin”, Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, Toppling Goliath Brewery in Iowa, then Rochester, Minnesota!