"Normal" Is A Dryer Setting

Parenting A Child On The Autism Spectrum


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The Big Push

I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air
So there
We’re on each other’s team
~ Lorde, Team

Screws in shoes

Screws in shoes

Spring is coming very slowly to Minnesota, in drips and drags, which means that soon I can begin running outdoors again. In anticipation of still snowy paths and icy patches, I modified an old pair of shoes to prevent me from slipping. To make your own, predrill holes in the soles and then insert small screws until they are about ¼” from being completely screwed into the shoe. I have found that this modification works better than boots or Yaktrax for gripping slippery places of the trail.

Last fall I promised my boyfriend that I would stop running half marathons. When I returned to his house in ice cube form after my late October one, he took me in with one glance and said, “You don’t look good.”  I told him, “I tore the bottoms of my feet on the big hill after Mile 11,” to which he grimaced and replied, “I don’t think you should run any more long races.” Upstairs in the shower, sitting with my head between my knees while the hot water warmed me up, I told myself that he was right. Why do I do things like this? Why race? Why compete? What am I trying to prove?

The point is not to compete or prove anything. I run because I love the combined mental and physical challenge. I knew the hill was coming after Mile 11, and, having run it in previous races, I knew what I was in for. The elevation increases by 100 feet within half a mile, and most of us choose to run it. I pushed myself because I knew after the hill I had less than two miles to the finish. At that point it was simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other until the end. So close, and so tired, but nothing compares to crossing the finish line and knowing that I had accomplished my goal despite the voices in my head and the physical ache. Now spring is coming, fall is far behind me, and I am once again ready and eager to begin training.

“I’ve never had anyone do this that quickly.”

Our clinical study site.

Our clinical study site.

That statement was not made in response to my running. I’m a middle-of-the-pack kind of girl, each and every race. My son Tim recently participated in a clinical study on memory. This study is part of an ongoing research program by a psychologist at the University of Minnesota who studies the relationship between attention and autism. For an hour of Tim’s time once or twice a year, he earns $10 each session and enjoys being the center of attention. He does computer simulations, looks through diagrams, adds and subtracts, and recalls images and patterns. Everything is timed which helps provide statistical information. In his most recent clinical study, I overheard the doctor make the above comment when Tim was doing a number puzzle.

The clinical studies are usually done at our home or at the University. We tend to flip flop depending on our schedules. The first time our doctor came to our home for a study was approximately three years ago when Tim was in seventh grade. At the end of the study, she took a few minutes to talk to me with her recommendations. Her advice was that Tim should be taking college courses, not withering away in a middle school classroom. She stressed that intellectually he was ready for college and keeping him where he was would not be beneficial to him. I agreed but didn’t know how to start the conversation with the staff at the public school he attended.

This is an example of one of the patterns Tim had to copy using blocks.

An example of a pattern Tim copied during his clinical study using blocks. You can purchase this and other puzzles at Marbles located at the Mall of America.

Now Tim is in tenth grade and will begin taking college courses next fall in Animal Science as part of his regular school day. At our most recent IEP meeting, his teacher, staff, father, and I discussed him starting college early. We were all in agreement, and this would not be happening if we were not all on the same team. Tim’s teacher commented that she is reaching the point where she has nothing left to teach him, and it is time for him to begin transitioning to college. Tim will be taking one college course each semester, and by the time he graduates from high school he will already have four college courses in Animal Science on his transcript.

I wasn’t sure any of this would ever happen. When Tim started middle school three years ago, I participated in some workshops for parents of special needs children that his school generously set up. One moderator made this remark to our group that has since tumbled around in my head:

“Your child is not entitled to the best education possible. Rather, he or she is entitled to an education that is appropriate for his or her needs.”

As difficult as this is to hear, it is true. Reading it in writing makes me cringe. Not every person is meant to go to college, just as not every person is meant to get married, have children, travel the world, be an athlete, raise chickens, you get the point. I started to hold the thought in my heart that Tim may not go to college. Mentally I was Mile 7-8 of 13 miles, where you’ve come a long way, but you’re starting to feel tired, your feet are starting to ache, and you are well aware you still have a long way to go toward your goal.

Now we’re at Mile 11 with Tim regarding his childhood. The final part is one last push toward college, and then he enters the next phase of his life as an adult. The hill I had been fearing for years is no longer insurmountable. We just have to dig deep and run up it. Tim has come so far, and both his teacher and I have seen enormous mental and emotional maturity in him this past year. Even though Tim is nearly good to go, this is no time to rest. We have SATs and ACTs to prepare for, colleges to visit, applications to write, and choices to make. And what an exciting and delightful time it will be.

Here are some websites that may be helpful in researching colleges for students who fall on the autism spectrum:

  • AHEADD – Achieving In Higher Education (http://www.aheadd.org/): Provides coaching, mentoring, and self-advocacy for students with special needs.)
  • USCAP – US College Autism Project (http://www.usautism.org/uscap/): Provides support for students on the autism spectrum to help ensure they have both a successful college experience and a successful transition to the working world after graduation.
  • ISER – Internet Special Education Resources (www.iser.com): List of college programs to help students with the transition to college, independent living, college planning, and much more.
  • College Lists (http://collegelists.pbworks.com/): Nationwide list of colleges that have support programs for students with a former diagnosis of Asperger’s. Augsburg College (http://www.augsburg.edu/) is one of them if you live in the Twin Cities.
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Grand Marais

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order. ~ John Burroughs

Winters in Minnesota can be cold, but this one takes the cake. Having lived here for 16 years, I can safely inform new transplants or anyone who is considering moving to the Northern Midwest that the deep freeze which has enveloped us for the past month is atypical. Warmer weather awaits…eventually. Even the native Minnesotans are starting to complain, and when that happens you know it’s cold.

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Thank goodness for heated car seats!

My friends and family wonder how I can live up here. How I handle the winters, the cold, the wind, the blizzards, the ice, and sometimes the isolation. My response is that winter holds great beauty. So does the North in general. This isn’t me making the best of a poor situation. Rather, it is me having grown to appreciate where I live. When the temperatures begin to drop as early as August, I begin to anticipate the loveliness that comes with crisp, cooler weather.

To fully experience Minnesota at its best, I recommend heading up, yes, further up than the Twin Cities, to the North Shore. Grand Marais and the surrounding area is one of my favorite travel destinations in the entire world. A place entirely unto itself, the town proper consists of 1500 residents, many of whom are artists. The surrounding area is full of natural treats for the senses, including waterfalls, forests, hills, rivers, and cliffs that offer breathtaking views of Lake Superior.

So where is Grand Marais anyway? It’s pretty far Up North, but not quite as far as the North Pole.

The town of Grand Marais sits on the shores of Lake Superior. Here are some views from a schooner coming into the harbor and of the harbor after a summer rainstorm.

I could write for hours, pages upon pages, about Grand Marais. My words would never do justice to this lovely little layaway, however, so instead I will write about my favorite spots, post some pictures and links, and let you explore the rest. Grand Marais is open to visitors year-round, with the nearby ski village of Lutsen being busier in the winter and Grand Marais being busier in the summer. Grand Marais is about a two hour drive north of Duluth, and Duluth is about a two hour drive north of the Twin Cities. That makes Grand Marais about a four hour trip by car from my home in Stillwater.

To learn more about Lutsen Mountains, please check out this link: http://www.lutsen.com. The Lutsen / Tofte / Schroeder area (http://www.visitcookcounty.com/communities/lutsen-tofte/) are ski resorts by winter and inexpensive lodging getaways by summer. If you travel to the North Shore and are not a camper, Lutsen has several different cabins and condos to choose from.

Here are some links for the town of Grand Marais:

My list of must-see / must-do / must-taste for Grand Marais includes the following:

In-town:

Artist’s Point: Playtime for big and little people alike. This is an area on naturally occurring rock formations where you can build towers, hike on lava, and take beautiful pictures of Lake Superior. Pick up the trail from the Coast Guard parking lot at the end of Broadway.

North House Folk School: This school was originally built as a workspace on the Grand Marais Harbor. Today, you can take courses at the school on everything from ship building to blacksmithing to woodworking. My favorite list of courses are the Traditional Crafts, which include seed saving, soap making, and wireworking for jewelry. You can also sign up for schooner tours of Lake Superior when the weather permits. The tours fill up fast, and the times and dates vary year by year, so be sure to reserve your schooner ahead of time. The captains are knowledgable, love living on the water, and the tour never fails to impress.

Arrowhead Center For The Arts: This center promotes the arts and artists of Grand Marais and the Arrowhead Region. It is open year-round, with a variety of events. Current events include music concerts and theater.

Dining: For a complete list of eatery options in Grand Marais, click on http://grandmarais.com/dining/restaurants.php. Places we like to go include:

Stop at Sydney's on a hot summer's day for frozen custard and coffee.

Stop at Sydney’s on a hot summer’s day for frozen custard and coffee.

Harbor House Grille: This restaurant is across the street from The Angry Trout (next on the list) on Highway 61. When the weather is warm, you can sit at a table on the front porch and watch the world pass by. Our favorite dishes include the Walleye Sammie and the wood-fired Blond Chicken pizza (ordered and devoured by my boyfriend, who is not a pizza person!).

Angry Trout Cafe: You need to eat at The Trout at least once. And then promptly purchase the Angry Trout Cafe Notebook, which the restaurant’s owner autographs. This restaurant offers outdoor seating on Lake Superior and serves organically and sustainably-raised foods. Favorite dishes include the Sweet Potato appetizer, the Maple Grilled Chicken Salad, and the Smoked Trout Fettucini. You can also order the Fish Of The Day either fried or grilled.

Sydney’s Frozen Custard: After an afternoon of running around Artist’s Point, a cup of frozen custard and coffee from Sydney’s hits the spot. In addition to custard and coffee, Sydney’s also offers wood-fired pizzas, salads, gyros, and hot dogs. This place is so popular that customers are usually lined up in rows deep at the service window.

Outside-of-town:

Palisade Head: Palisade Head is open seasonally and about four miles north of Silver Bay on Highway 61. You can either park at the bottom and hike up or follow the gravel road to the top of the cliffs. Hiking up is steep and takes a while, which may be tiring for small children, pets, and senior citizens. Once you reach the top, the views of Lake Superior are breathtaking. Fun activities besides lake-gazing include kayaking through the arches and climbing the cliffs.

Cascade River State Park: Cascade River State Park is about ten miles south of Grand Marais. There is a parking lot off to the southbound side of Highway 61, and the park is free. The Superior Hiking Trail runs through the park, and the park itself contains 18 miles of trails. Cascade Park is open year-round, and you can camp, hike, cross-country ski, fish, and snowshoe as the weather permits. The best part of the park, however, are the waterfalls.

This is the short list for Grand Marais. There is so much more than what I wrote and tried to show by photographs, but hopefully you are enticed enough to consider visiting what we Minnesotans* call Up North. Summer makes for easier driving than in the winter, but if you make the trip during winter, you will be amazed by the natural beauty surrounding you.

*I was told, by a born and bred Minnesotan, that once I have the accent I’m considered one of them. I do have one, so you betcha!


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Positive Traits of Asperger’s Syndrome

You are my sunshine. ~ Jimmie Davis

Welcome to Wordful Wednesday this week. Here is a general list of positive characteristics that people diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome may share.

Wordle #5

My favorites that I see in Tim include:

  • Genuine
  • Innocent
  • Intelligent
  • Sensitive
  • Loyal

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.


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The Sun Chaser

Until forever comes you’ll find us chasing the sun. ~ The Wanted

“Mom, why are you here,” Tim asked when he walked through our front door this afternoon. Then, with teenagey cynicism, he said, “Did you come home early just to run?”

“Well, kind of,” I replied. “I only worked a half day today, so I’ve been home for two hours. I have 44 hours of vacation time to use up before the end of the year, which means that you may be seeing me at home a lot this month.”

“Hmph,” Tim grunted and disappeared downstairs into his bedroom.

It's 4:06 pm in Minnesota!

It’s 4:06 pm in Minnesota. Click on this beautiful picture to enlarge it!

I went out for a run, taking advantage of what may be the last warm day of the year. Twilight comes early right now, so unless I run in the afternoon, I don’t run at all. While I was out, the sun began to peek through the clouds, and I found myself staring at the patches of blue sky. We have had several cloudy days in a row, and I was amazed at how the sun transformed everything around me. When I was finished, the sun was setting and I snapped what is the most gorgeous photo yet of the lake by my house.

Despite my nature as a heat-seeking creature of warmth, the approach of Winter Solstice is one of my favorite times of year because the sun is never directly overhead. Minnesota has about seven hours of daylight right now, and we’ll have something closer to six on Solstice itself. Even when the sun is out, it colors everything in muted shades of blue and gray which I find absolutely lovely. From now until January I try to soak up every bit of sunshine I can wring out of every day because there isn’t a whole lot to go around.

I do not suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. I have friends who do, who find themselves becoming more and more downcast as the days shorten. Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder include:

  • Anxiety
  • Oversleeping
  • Loss of interest in regular activities
  • Appetite changes/weight gain or loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of energy
  • Social withdrawal

If I thought I suffered from this, I would do the following:

  • Exercise
  • Get outdoors on a regular basis
  • Meditate
  • Spend time with friends
  • Sleep – does a month or two of sleeping longer than usual hurt?
  • Oodles of hot cocoa and herbal tea. My favorite tea stores include TeaSource and Teavana.

Actually most of my life revolves around this second list, so maybe I am instinctively doing what I need to do. Tim, on the other hand, resembles almost all of the characteristics on the first list almost all of the time. These may also be symptoms of depression, but Tim isn’t depressed. He has Asperger’s Syndrome, and he views his world as a pretty cool place. I do too. As a watchful parent, however, I find myself questioning whether there is a fine line that Tim crosses each fall unawares.

After some searching, I found discussion threads regarding Seasonal Affective Disorder on websites such as WrongPlanet.net. There are also research publications such as one from PLOS Genetics which investigates how disruption of circadian rhythms may contribute to neurodevelopmental diseases and disorders. I don’t see a lot specifically linking Seasonal Affective Disorder to autism or autism spectrum disorders, however, which means that this may not be an issue. What I do see are dozens of websites and publications on how to help adults cope. Tim may be too young to be affected by the seasons yet, or he may be naturally acclimated to sunsets at 4 o’clock in the afternoon since he has always lived this far north.

As for me, I’ll be chasing the sun.


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The Competent Souls

I’m so used to being scolded and herded and managed and handled that I’m no longer sure how to react when someone treats me like a real person. ~ Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen

Check out 3M’s newly landscaped plaza, complete with picnic tables for eating lunch outdoors! This used to be a parking lot.

Last week I attended the AuSM’s Autism and Employment Forum, which was hosted by 3M at their world headquarters in Maplewood, Minnesota. AuSM, which is an abbreviation for the Autism Society of Minnesota, holds year-round forums, workshops, camps, and classes for people with autism, autism spectrum disorders, and their loved ones such as parents and caregivers. You can click here to find a brief summary of the Autism and Employment Forum on AuSM’s website. You can also continue reading and hear the low-down from me firsthand.

The first of two keynote speakers was Dr. Stephen Shore, who is an Assistant Professor at Adelphi University and also an adult with an autism diagnosis. Dr. Shore’s website is www.AutismAsperger.net, which provides information on autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. The courses Dr. Shore teaches at Adelphi University include an Introduction to Special Education and an Introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorders. His academic interests include the diagnosis and treatment of autism and different treatment approaches of children with autism.

Dr. Shore started his seminar by saying there are two models we need to move away from when viewing how people with autism fit into the world. Model #1 is a Deficit Model which is seen in the public school system. Instead of focusing on what the child is ABLE to do, educators focus on what the child is UNABLE to do. Model #2 is the a Charity Model which is seen in employers, where individuals with special needs are employed but not accommodated.

Dr. Shore proposed that employers need to move toward a Characteristic Model, where the employer takes the interests of the employee into consideration. In this model, the employee will be given tasks based on his or her ability to communicate, socialize, and the pattern of restricted interests common to autistic individuals. You can train your autistic child, or any child for that matter, for future employment at an early age by giving him or her chores to complete around the house. Examples include feeding the cat, making his or her bed, and walking the dog. The child needs to do the chores whether he or she wants to or not, and there is the element of customer service (was the chore done to Mum or Dad’s satisfaction?).

Dr. Shore has posted several videos on YouTube, ranging from public presentations about autism to interviews and short informational clips. Here are some examples:

The second keynote speaker was Randy Lewis, who is the Senior Vice President for Supply Chain and Logistics at Walgreens. Mr. Lewis started off with the quote “Nil Magnum Nisi Bonum”, which is from Yann Martel’s breathtaking novel with a twist at the end the Life of Pi. The quote translates to “No greatness without goodness”, and this set the tone for the rest of his presentation. As an aside, I vehemently prefer the Life of Pi with animals as opposed to without, and will probably drag Daniel along to Ang Lee’s movie version when it premieres in November.

Mr. Lewis has a personal investment in people with disabilities. He and his wife are the proud parents of three children, one of whom is 24 years old and has autism. He proceeded to state two very true facts: True Fact #1: Disabilities play no favorites. True Fact #2: Each parent hopes to live one day longer than their child because we know what is waiting for them once we are gone. These are true facts to me because each one of them is first on my mind when I wake up in the morning and last when I fall asleep at night. They are with me, as a parent of a child with special needs, every second of every day, and I expect they will be with me for the rest of my life.

Approximately ten years ago Mr. Lewis started to think about a new generation of Distribution Centers for Walgreens. He wanted to build a sustainable model. He did not want to carve out new jobs because when economic times turn rough those new jobs are the first ones to go. In 2007, Walgreens opened its 14th distribution center in Anderson, South Carolina to support the company’s expansion throughout the Southeast. This center  was the first facility of its kind to employ a significant number of people with disabilities, with more than 40% of its employees having a special needs diagnosis. In 2009, a second Distribution Center opened in Windsor, Connecticut, with the same vision in mind. In both Distribution Centers, ALL employees are held to the same standard and paid the same salaries.

To see Walgreens’ Distribution Center success stories for yourself, here are some links:

YouTube videos featuring the Walgreens Distribution Centers:

Currently, 1 in 88 children in the United States today has a diagnosis of Autism or an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The rate creeps higher every year, and the average age is currently 8 years old. Within the next ten years, these individuals will become adults and start entering the workforce. The question is: Will we be ready for them? Many of them are more competent than they are given credit for, and people will only perform up the level of what is expected of them. Preparing the way now is sure to pay off in the path ahead of us.


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The Control Freak

When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. ~ Carter G. Woodson

Precisely.

One of the most difficult aspects of parenting a child with special needs is knowing when to step in and when to let go. And is there ever a time when a parent truly let go of his or her child? According to Daniel, who, as we all know, has a Mum who still buys him his underwear, the answer is No. It never ends.

Over the past year I have been repeatedly faced with situations where Getting Out Of The Way, while not the only option, is the wisest and most beneficial for everyone involved. All of these situations that have sprung up would be much easier solved if I stepped in and took over, but for each one, I stepped back and let the whole she-bang play out.

I started thinking about this during a meeting this past week for a growth initiative one of my coworkers and I are facilitating in our company. The purpose of the initiative is to provide some of our scientists four months to brainstorm new technology platforms to introduce to our product development teams. This sounds wonderful from a high level, where one may imagine blue skies, butterflies, and freshly baked apple pies. In reality, however, leading and participating in an activity like this is not only intellectually but also emotionally challenging. Loosely organized chaos is the main reason behind the mental discomfort, since we spend the first half of the initiative gathering information and the second half processing it.

At this past week’s meeting, our group reached a turning point, no thanks to us facilitators. Our agenda first contained a presentation from one of our product developers on their business model and needs. After the product developer presented and left, our group started speaking, one at a time. First they started discussing the presentation we had just heard. Then the topic morphed into what type of model our group can present to our managers on how we think we should be working with our product developers. As the discussion, which was NOT part of our agenda, continued, my cofacilitator and I literally got out of the way. He directed the discussion as necessary while I frantically took notes on poster paper in an attempt to capture everyone’s thoughts. As a result, when our meeting ended that day we all felt like we had leapt forward in our initiative without really meaning to. Off the agenda can be excellent.

The entrance to Chicago Chinatown.

Before returning to Minnesota last weekend, Tim and I spent some time in Chicago and Wisconsin. We stopped in Chinatown for a day, which is a must-see if you have never been to Chicago, need to stock up on 50 pound bags of rice for a good price, and have a hankering for every type of Asian food imaginable. Chinatown has a large parking lot on the corner of Cernak and Wentworth, and several merchants will validate three hours of your parking for $2.00. One of them is the Triple Crown Restaurant, where Tim and I shared a delicious bowl of Sesame Chicken. The Triple Crown also offers Dim Sum all day, which is always fun if you’re eating with a crowd.

Tim perusing the goods.

In addition to eating good food, Tim and I also did some shopping in Chinatown. I found a bamboo steamer and purchased some new chopsticks. Tim spent a lot of time in one of the shops admiring a statue of a dragon holding a crystal ball. When I offered to buy it for him, he carried it up to the counter where the owners greeted us with accents that I know Tim had a difficult time understanding. They took the statue from Tim and asked him if he wanted one from the back that was brand new in its box. Tim seemed a bit taken aback at the offer and of course accepted.

We waited for a few minutes while the dragon in question was obtained, and when the owner brought out the box she set it in front of Tim and gently took the dragon out. Then she graciously showed it to him and let him inspect it. When Tim handed the dragon back to the owner, she asked him if he wanted that one, and Tim said Yes. Then she carefully repackaged Tim’s dragon, gently handed it to him as I paid, and thanked him very much for his business.

When Tim and I left the store he turned to me and said, “Mom, people are really nice to me here.” My response was, “Well, of course they are. It’s Chicago and we’re in the Midwest.” And then I couldn’t help but add, “But, Tim, don’t you just LOVE IT HERE???” which brought nothing more from him than a shrug.

My favorite favorite FAVORITE museum of all time.

While in Chicago Tim and I also spent a day at the Museum of Science and Industry, which is one of my favorite museums ever, in the whole entire world of museums. I haven’t been there in a while, and a lot of the interactive exhibits have gone digital which = super ginormous fun. If you are a first time visitor, plan on spending the entire day at the museum. There are tons of activities to see and do no matter what your age, educational background, or where you hail from. If you are a member of the Science Museum of Minnesota, you can get into the Museum of Science and Industry for free. There is also a parking lot across the street from the museum where you can park for a flat fee of $5.00 as opposed to parking in the museum’s garage, which charges $20.

Cute overload.

Tim gravitated more toward the science-y part of the museum. His favorite exhibits included Science Storms, Genetics and Baby Chick Hatchery (cute overload!), and Earth Revealed. If you have younger children, the Idea Factory exhibit will occupy them for hours.   There are also exhibits with trains, planes, automobiles, submarines, and all forms of transportation if you enjoy things On-The-Go. One exhibit Tim and I paid extra for was the Coal Mine, where we saw all sorts of drills and learned about the very noisy technology behind coal mining.

Creating theoretical explosives.

Tim and I spent a long time playing around with the interactive periodic table, which, since one of my degrees is in chemistry, was probably my favorite part of the museum. At first, Tim started putting elements together that I knew wouldn’t work…the valances were off, both elements were inert, and on and on. I started trying to tell Tim what to put together, such as sodium and chloride, which makes table salt, but then I promptly backed off when he started designing explosives. I decided to watch and keep my mouth shut after Tim made Explosive #1, looked at the reaction, and decided to make a more volatile one next.

These are just a few examples of what may be the end of my year of learning when to back off, when to stop trying to be in control, and when to let the people in my life blossom into the paths they are meant to pursue. If I cast a large shadow while standing over the veggies and flowers in my gardens, they will be hidden from the sun and never grow. Stepping in occasionally to provide water, fertilizer, and the occasional pruning is all they really need, and this apparently applies to people as well. Lesson learned for me 🙂 .


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The Indiana Dunes

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.  ~ Isaac Newton

The bottom of Mount Jackson on Trail 8.

On the second day of our vacation, Tim and I traveled from Rockford, Illinois, to my parents’ home in Fort Wayne, Indiana. If you are driving through the Chicagoland area but wish to avoid Chicago, you can take I-39 south to I-88 east to I-355. From I-355 you can hop onto I-80 which puts you in Indiana after about 11 miles. I-88 is currently down to one lane in several places, but when we drove through traffic was flowing smoothly and we hardly lost any time at all.

Tim about halfway up Mount Holden.

Once you are east of Chicago and into Indiana, one must-see destination is the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The dunes, located a 45 minute drive from Chicago, are easy to find and an inexpensive way to spend an afternoon, or an entire day, or an entire night since the park has several campsites. You can get to the dunes from either I-80/I-90 or I-94. From these highway, take the exit for Highway 49 going north. You’ll run right into the dunes in less than five minutes.

Lake Michigan lies at the bottom!

If you’re hungry for lunch, you can take Highway 49 south into Chesterton or Valparaiso, where there are several grocery stores and restaurants to choose from. Before Tim and I visited the dunes, we stopped at Schoop’s Hamburgers in Valparaiso, where we split a Mickey and a side order of fries. Schoop’s also has several unique drink options, including Green River Soda, Vanilla Coke, Cherry Coke (with real cherries and cherry syrup), and Chocolate Coke.

Tim walking along Lake Michigan.

After fueling up at Schoop’s, Tim and I hopped back onto Highway 49 and drove 15 minutes north to the Indiana Dunes’ main entrance. The fee is $10 per car, and this allows you full use of the park for the day, including hiking trails, a beach, and multiple sand hills to climb up and run down. Tim and I chose to climb Trail 8, which starts at the Visitor’s Center and winds its way up Mounts Jackson, Holden, and Tom before ending at Lake Michigan. The top of Mount Holden is, in my opinion, the most beautiful view of the park, since you have green trees stretching as far as the eye can see behind you and an infinite expanse of Lake Michigan in front. After climbing Mount Holden, Tim wanted to see the lake up close, so we took Trail 7 down to the beach below.

We took the stairs down Mount Tom to Trail 4.

Once Tim and I were at the shoreline, we waded in the water, looked at some of the interesting rocks and driftwood, and simply hung out for a while. We hiked back to our car using Trail 4, which is less challenging than Trail 8 and has stairs up and down the sand hills. We decided to stop at the dunes again on our drive back to Minnesota, and this time park directly at the beach instead of hiking in. In addition to sand and water, the beach has picnic areas, changing rooms, shelters, and is close to the campgrounds.

After visiting the Indiana Dunes, Tim and I drove the rest of the way to my parents’ house, where aunts, uncles, cousins, and significant others were waiting. That evening was a time to hug, kiss, catch up, and eat an excellent mixed grill prepared by my sister’s boyfriend. This morning we all went out for breakfast, and tonight my baby brother gets married. Let the action-packed vacation continue!

For more information on the Indiana Dunes, here are some helpful links: