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Back Home Again: Touring Indiana

July 12, 2013

Did you know there are bald eagles nesting within 12 miles of Indianapolis? That you can find a patch of virgin forest, undisturbed throughout U.S. history, in southern Indiana? That prehistoric remains lie practically within sight of downtown Evansville, Indiana?

My friend John Russell and I have a combined 43 years of experience as employees of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which means we spend many of our work days immersed in that kind of Indiana lore.

So when we found ourselves with a three-day weekend free to go riding, what did we do to get away from it all? We plotted a trip through southern Indiana, stopping at parks, forests and campgrounds along the way. This was a chance to see our state’s attractions as tourists, rather than employees, and to string them together with plenty of scenic back roads.

Our ground rules for the weekend getaway were simple: no travel by interstate highway, no meals at fast-food restaurants and no motels. We wanted to ride as many scenic highways as possible, visit some of the friends we’ve made over the years and enjoy rural Indiana at its best.

I had my BMW loaded with all the necessities—clothes to handle whatever Mother Nature might have in store for us and camping gear for comfort at the end of the day—when John arrived at my house just outside Indianapolis. He was wearing his rainsuit, a bad omen, but we weren’t about to give in to the weather.

Our first stop was at a bald eagle nesting site in northern Morgan County, less than 12 miles from the Indianapolis city limits. This nesting site, unusual for its proximity to human activity, sits on the uninhabited side of a small lake, in plain view of a community of summer cottages.

We quickly found the nest and saw two eagles perched majestically in the trees along the shoreline. With the aid of a pair of binoculars borrowed from two gentlemen working on a summer cabin, we zoomed in for a close-up view of this successful effort in re-establishing an endangered species. I could hardly believe that the buildings of downtown Indianapolis were just out of sight to the north.

Eagle watching can build up quite a hunger, so we headed southwest on state Route 67 toward the town of Spencer. Before we got there, a steady rain began to fall. John was still wearing his rainsuit, but I was less prepared. I tucked in behind the windshield to tough it out until our lunch stop.

Once in Spencer, we found a symbol of small town Indiana—a home-town restaurant. Like most such institutions, it appeared to be more important as a gathering place for local residents than it was as an eatery. One large table for 12 was set aside entirely for conversation. It even had a sign designating it the “bullshippers table.”

Over lunch, John and I discussed our afternoon route. He told me he wanted to be sure to see some virgins on the trip. Not wanting to pass judgment on his lifestyle, I delicately asked what he had in mind. He replied that he thought Pioneer Mother’s Woods, just south of Paoli, would be a perfect spot.

He was, of course, talking about virgin stands of timber—forests that escaped the axes of settlers who, at one time or another, clear-cut just about all of the United States east of the Mississippi. Pioneer Mother’s Woods, 88 acres of timber untouched by humans since at least 1816, is the largest tract of virgin timber in Indiana, and it is protected by the U.S. Forest Service.

We made our way south on state Route 37 to Paoli, just on the edge of the Hoosier National Forest, and stopped at this collection of old-growth walnut, white oak, ash and tulip poplar trees. We walked under a towering canopy of green leaves reaching 100 to 150 feet in the air. Many of these trees, I kept reminding myself, were already growing at the time the Declaration of Independence was being signed. They’ve outlasted generations of humans, and are still going strong.

The clouds were threatening again by the time we left the old forest. This time I was smarter, putting on my rainsuit before we continued south on Route 37 toward the town of English.

It was only fitting that we arrived in English in a pouring rain, since this town has been flooded so many times that the government is helping its residents move to higher ground. As a result, English is, for all practical purposes, a modern ghost town. Most of its stores are vacant or falling into disrepair. We managed to find the last operating business on Main Street. A rusty “Pepsi” sign was our only indication that it was a restaurant. We ordered coffee and dried off for a few minutes.

From English, we headed west on state Route 64, which made for a thoroughly enjoyable ride. The traffic was light, the pavement was smooth and the rain even stopped for a while!

Entering Dubois County, we began to notice the German Catholic influence that is so strong in this area. Neat brick homes with manicured lawns dot the countryside, built by German immigrants who came to Indiana by way of Ohio and Pennsylvania. They founded furniture factories in Jasper and Huntingburg, and built impressive churches in Ferdinand and St. Meinrad.

We stopped in Huntingburg for gas and to peel off our rainsuits. It was getting to be late afternoon, and we started looking forward to our overnight stop at the Pike State Forest, located off state Route 364.

Charlie Keller, the forest manager, gave us a pre-dinner guided tour of Pike, a 2,914-acre area offering a variety of recreation opportunities. There are primitive campsites, picnic areas, hiking trails and public hunting areas. Adding to its charm are rustic buildings, most of which were built before 1940 by the Works Progress Administration.

We headed to nearby Winslow for dinner at Charlie’s favorite eatery, a converted drugstore featuring an original soda fountain complete with pictures of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. My cheeseburger was the size of a dinner plate and weighed at least three-quarters of a pound. I ate as much of it as I could, finished my onion rings and iced tea, and was presented a bill for $3.95. I could see why Charlie liked the place.

Heading back to Pike, we faced the job of setting up camp in the dark. The campsite had no security lights, there were no nearby city lights, and on this night there were no car lights, either. So when we shut down the motorcycles, it was dark. I lay awake for about 15 minutes, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the blackness. They must have adjusted quite well, because the next thing I knew it was morning. John told me he stayed awake for a while, watching a little brown bat flutter like a moth over our campsite, and listening to the far-off cry of a barred owl.

The forecast for the new day called for cloudy skies and temperatures in the 50s—not ideal riding weather, but we didn’t have a lot of miles on the schedule. We packed up early and headed south on state Route 61.

A light drizzle began as we hit Boonville and continued to fall until we approached Angel Mounds State Historic Site, along the Ohio River just outside Evansville. Covering 103 acres, this site features the largest surviving mounds created by the Middle Mississippian Indians in Indiana.

We were greeted by Becky Harris, chief curator, who gave us a tour. Angel Mounds, she noted, was home to about 1,000 Middle Mississippian Indians from about 1300 to 1500 A.D. During those years, a stockade guarded the site on three sides, with the Ohio River on the fourth. The Mississippians built their stockades by standing logs on end in trenches and covering the gaps with clay. Homes and public buildings were constructed in much the same way—a labor-intensive activity that archeologists estimate had to be repeated every 10 years.

The earthen mounds on the site aren’t burial grounds, but heaps of dirt built by hand to elevate the inhabitants closer to the sun god. The higher the mound, archeologists say, the more important the inhabitant. On a more practical level, the mounds also helped protect the community’s buildings from the river’s annual floods.

The largest mound on the site is 650 feet long, 300 feet wide and 44 feet high. That’s 8.5 million cubic feet of earth, all moved by hand. In the center of the community was a plaza, much like the town square in our culture. Public meetings, religious ceremonies and sporting events all took place at the plaza.

Those who occupied this site were skilled craftsman, judging by the pottery and tools they left behind. Unfortunately, settlers never met them. After living at this site for some 200 years, they suddenly vanished just about the time Columbus arrived in America.

Leaving this interesting piece of the past, we got back on the bikes and headed east on state Route 66 toward Rockport. From there, we planned to head north on U.S. Route 231 to a campground at Lincoln State Park, near Gentryville.

After a couple of days of restaurant food, we decided to cook dinner over the campfire, and John announced that he would be in charge of the menu. John is famous for a tongue-in-cheek lecture he gives entitled, “Preparing Road Kill While Traveling by Motorcycle,” so I was a little concerned that he was about to test one of his recipes. I could picture the two of us pulling into the campground with a couple of nice, plump possums roasting on the exhaust pipes of our machines.

Fortunately, we saw little in the way of mealtime possibilities along the highway. We did see one possum, but it was flat enough to pass for a Frisbee, rather than dinner.

While I pitched camp and built a fire, John’s job was to go into town and get some real dinner ingredients. But when he returned, I found myself sort of wishing we had discovered a suitable highway-helper meal along the way. John’s idea of a gourmet campground feast, it turned out, was a pack of hot dogs, two bags of Doritos and two giant Snickers bars.

Oh well. We both ate our fill, then settled in for a relaxing evening watching the flickering of the campfire. Before television, radio and other distractions of the 20th century, people solved the problems of the world in quiet conversations around an open fire. We solved a few of our own that evening.

The quiet of the park invited sleep quickly, and the sound of birds welcoming the dawn had us stirring early. We broke camp and made a breakfast stop at a cafe just up the road. From there, we picked up the twisty two-lane of state Route 62 headed generally east toward our final stop: Wyandotte Woods State Recreation Area.

Our state map designated Route 62 as a scenic route, and it lived up to that reputation as it passed through the natural scenery of the Hoosier National Forest. First, though, it took us to St. Meinrad for a stop at the town’s beautiful old church, known as the Archabbey. The rain and clouds had rolled off to the east, leaving behind clear blue skies, and the spires of the Archabbey pierced that cloudless sky like two enormous swords.

The abbey sits prominently on a hill overlooking fertile farmland along the Anderson River. We stopped and took a tour of the building, then continued east on 62.

Reaching the Wyandotte Woods State Recreation Area, we passed through the gate and headed straight for the Happy Hollow Nature Center and a meeting with naturalist Jeff Cummings. Jeff wasted no time showing us around his pride and joy: Behr Village and the Forest Practices Interpretive Trail.

Behr, also known as Lynch Homestead, is the product of Merle Behr, a Wyandotte employee who became interested in the style of log buildings constructed by early settlers in this area. His research pinpointed construction techniques and tools used by the builders, and Behr became convinced that these same tools and techniques could be used to build year-round, weathertight housing. So he took it upon himself to build a log cabin.

The final product features hand-hewn logs, squared on all four sides, with dovetailed joints and a mud-based chinking to seal the structure. Heated with an open fireplace and air conditioned with an open window, this one-room cabin represents the height of rural Indiana housing in centuries past.

Subsistence agriculture was the lifestyle of choice and necessity in this area, and the Lynch Homestead remains true to that lifestyle. Workers have developed gardens like those from the period, and plans are in the works for additional structures and staff members to help bring this bygone era to life.

After our tour of the farmstead, Jeff took us on a hike of the forest practices nature trail, which demonstrates several timber harvesting techniques.

Saying goodbye to Jeff, we headed back to the parking lot and climbed aboard the bikes once more. Our tour was over, and it was time to head north, back toward home and work responsibilities.

Thanks to a long weekend and a couple of motorcycles, we had been able to see our specialty—Indiana’s natural and historic sites—as others do. It was a refreshing change of perspective. We’ve already started planning another trip for next year, stringing together Clifty Fall State Park, the Lanier Mansion, Versailles State Park, Falls of the Ohio State Park, Deam Lake, Clark State Forest and Brookville Lake.

I can’t wait.

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