Thursday, March 19, 2009

My Travels - Indiana


"I've been everywhere, man, I've been everywhere!" - Johnny Cash

Not literally - at least, not yet - but as of this writing, I've been to 42 US states, 2 US territories, 11 countries, 4 continents, 2 oceans, and 7 seas. I'm going to take you to some of the places I've been, in no particular order. Sometimes this will be a place I just was, and sometimes it's a place I haven't been to in a while.

First up: Indiana.

"Indiana wants me" - R. Dean Taylor

I was born in Lake County, Indiana, and did the bulk of my growing up there and in Benton County, which is about 60 miles to the south. I remember at the time, they called Benton County the soybean capital of the world, though why, I couldn't tell you, because all I ever saw were cornfields. I also remember hearing that Gary was the murder capital, though I'm not sure if that was of the country or the world.

Indiana is mostly flat and filled with cornfields, though close to Lake Michigan there are some hills left behind by an ancient glacier and down by the Ohio River there are a few more hills that the river made, and even the Wabash has some places where it's carved into rock.

Lake County, being a suburb of Chicago, has a lot of people in it, but it still also has plenty of farms. Most people have heard of Gary, not least of all because of that song. It's a modest-sized city, but pretty-well run-down thanks to the influx of bad elements. (Sorry, my mystique wasn't powerful enough back then to prevent it.) Merrillville was still a pretty nice town back then, but I hear nowadays it's about what Gary was when I grew up there. (Seeing as I've been away for 5 years now, I can't do anything about that right this minute either.)

Benton County is on the sparse side, with a few little towns here and there, much like most of Indiana. There are rolling hills, a few patches of forests, and some streams meandering about, but it's mostly wide open and criss-crossed with county roads and a couple highways. Not a bad place to grow up, but I don't really miss it that much. I remember a navy recruiter came to the county high school one year, and was talking about how an aircraft carrier carried about 6000 people, and said, "That's probably bigger than most of the towns around here." He was corrected by one of my classmates, who said, "That's bigger than ALL the towns around here!"

I'd say about half of my closest family still lives in Indiana, and now that I get to travel for free, I still get to see them once in a while.

Here are a few things to see in Indiana. Some I've been to and enjoy, some I haven't and probably would.

Deep River County Park: (official link, map, wiki)

I liked coming here when I was little, but only did it a few times. There are a few trails through a small forest, and the creek has a few places where you can go up to it. This seems to me like it would be a good place for a paintball excursion. When I got out of highschool, I rediscovered the park and sorted through all the deja vu moments.

In addition to the nature trails, there are a few displays set up, including the old mill, a baseball park, and a playground and picnicking area.

Indiana Beach: (official link, map, wiki)

You might think by the name that this amusement park is located up on the Lake Michigan shoreline, but you'd be mistaken. No, it's on a lake called Lake Shaffer, and it and nearby Lake Freeman are a camping resort, or at least they were when I was there about 25 or so years ago. I've seen ads for Indiana Beach this year even, so it's still in business. I remember the one time I got to go, it was a good time.

That weekend, we got a cabin on Lake Freeman and swam in the lake, waving at the boaters as they went by, then went to the park the next day and rode the rides. I remember it feeling a lot like a state fair, but bigger and better.

Indiana Dunes: (official link, map, wiki)

Okay, here's your Indiana Lakeshore park. The Dunes has a lot of walking trails, many over sandy hills, so they'll really stretch out your walking time. On days when the water's not too polluted, there's a beach you can swim at, from which you can see the Chicago skyline very easily, and you also get a good view of the steel mills. But people usually come for the camping and the nature trails. Many years ago, one of my aunts was a ranger here, and she got to know the whole park like the back of her hand, and still does.

Indiana pizza

I grew up with some damn-fine pizza places in Indiana. I've searched the whole world and not found better pizza. The secret? I think it's the crumbled sausage. Lemme tell you about a few I remember best.

Pizza King is a chain of restaurants all over Indiana. There appear to be two separately owned chains, and I'm not sure what the deal is with that and trademark law. (Here's one, here's the other. You decide which is the original.)

That first one there is the type I grew up with, and some of them seem to have a train that brings your drinks and even your food to you, though this could vary by restaurant. The one I grew up with had no such train.

I think what makes it so good, other than the secret family recipe and the crumbled sausage is that they bring the pizza all the way to the edge - there's no edge crust like most pizza places. They also cut the pizza into squares, so you get several different sizes of slices, including little corners, and kids just love to try to be the ones to eat them. It's fun to eat it and it tastes great!

Oh, and one more thing about Pizza King: they have the best strombolis. I haven't found better anywhere! Most places I've been to consider a stromboli to be a calzone without the nasty feta cheese, or in some cases they consider them to be like a pizza wrap (Sbarro, which is a national chain, does this), whereas at Pizza King, a stromboli is made on French bread and is basically a big pizza sandwich. Outstanding! And no one else that I've found does it.

Arni's is another pizza place we frequented. I'm not sure exactly where the one was that we went to all the time, but it was in the Lafayette area, and now they've got a whole bunch of them around the state. I recall they had a train that brought your drinks to you, and they also had this big semi-truck in the dining area and its lights flashed in various entertaining patterns. Very cool to an 8-year-old.

One of the things I liked about Noble Roman's was that you could watch them through a window as they tossed the crust into the air. Very entertaining! Nowadays, they've turned into a by-the-slice place, like Hunt Brothers.

In West Lafayette, on Chauncy Hill, used to be Garcia's. It had a very cool interior, and a few years back I had the opportunity to stop by and enjoy it again, but I heard earlier this year that they closed their doors.

There are many other pizza places I've been to, but these were the most frequently visited in my youth. Nowadays, I like Papa John's best (but their prices are usually too high), and go to Little Caesar's and Domino's now and then.

Indianapolis Children's Museum: (official link, map)

I suppose I'd better move on before you all started to think this was a pizza blog, and the Children's Museum is a great way to close this article. I haven't been there for a while, but I remember having gotten to take school field trips down to Indy. It's one of those places where you can learn a lot by doing. I remember they were having a demonstration about how to build ships, and we were challenged to build one out of legos, and then they'd see how much weight it could support before it sank.

Being smarter than the average bear, I immediately realized the optimal solution was to create a barge, so I got all the plates and joined them together and then built some sides to trap a large pocket of air underneath it. Not surprisingly, my design was the best at holding weight.

There's a lot of stuff to see and do, and I'd really like to go back there some time. Since I have a couple of little cousins that live in the area, I'm hoping I can take them there some time when I'm in town soon. I'd like to see how it's changed; it's been probably 25 years since I was there last. I wonder if I'll have the intense déjà vu sensations I had when I rediscovered Deep River?

All right, that's all the time I have to tell you about my home state. Stay tuned for the next installment!


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