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The Road to Hell

August 14, 2016

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I’m just going to come out and say it: we went through Hell on Friday. But I’ll get to that a little later. Let me start, instead, with paradise.

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore encompasses what are supposedly the most beautiful beaches in the Midwest, which is kind of like saying that Fargo is the most exciting city in North Dakota. But the sky was overcast and the forecast called for rain, so instead of the beaches we chose nearby Indiana Dunes State Park, which has several scenic hiking trails, most of which lead either to Lake Michigan or to views of Lake Michigan.

We chose the hardest trail. It’s only 1.5 miles long, but most of it is uphill. It’s called the 3 Dune Challenge because the trail takes you up and over the three tallest dunes in the area. The shortest of the three is 176 feet high and the tallest is 192 feet, which may not sound like it’s very difficult to climb until you factor in that, to climb each dune, you have to walk up roughly a 40-degree incline, and you’re walking on sand the whole time. Not compact sand that stays beneath you – the kind of deep, soft sand that shifts the moment you step on it, so when you’re walking up the sandy hillside you take a step up and slide half a step backward. I should probably also mention that the sky was completely gray, the humidity was near 100%, and it was thundering louder and louder as we walked.

Despite the difficulty and the weather, we were all smiles by the time we reached the top of the first dune.

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The second peak gave us what would have been a gorgeous view of Lake Michigan if the weather had been a little nicer. You can sort of make out the horizon in the background of this photo:

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By the time we crested dune #3, we were completely wiped, our thighs were burning, and we were drenched in sweat. But we made it!

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Moments after we started our descent, the rain started. By the time we got back to the car, we didn’t know what was rainwater and what was sweat. But we knew that, after a quick stop at the Visitor Center to collect the congratulatory stickers that they give to the people who complete the 3 Dune Challenge, we knew we’d have more than three straight hours in the air-conditioned car to rest up and dry off.

There’s not a lot to do along the four-hour stretch of I-94 between the dunes and Detroit. Originally we had planned to stop in Kalamazoo to visit their airplane museum, but we were suffering from airplane museum fatigue and decided to skip it. Hunting for something else–anything else–to do along the way, we considered going to see a historic and strangely designed mansion called the Honolulu House in a town called Marshall, but then Sam found an article online called “Michigan Bucket List.” One of the items on the list was to visit a tiny town called Hell, Michigan. So many people over the years have told me to go to Hell that I figured it was time to take their advice. So we jumped onto I-94 East, and we were Hellbound.

Hell is about 40 miles north of Ann Arbor. Its main street has just a couple of stores, so we didn’t plan to stay long–just long enough to say we’d been to Hell and back.

Some people go to Hell in a handbasket. We went there in a Toyota.

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I had a college professor who once told me that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but it turns out it’s actually asphalt.

When we got there the rain and cloud cover had dropped the temperature to only 72 degrees so, for mid-August, it was a cold day in Hell.

I made sure to drive especially carefully, because I knew that if I got a speeding ticket I’d have Hell to pay.

Sam and I made far too many corny jokes. We said the local baseball team should be called Hell’s Angels. We talked about starting a business selling fences, and calling it The Gates of Hell. We’d be door-to-door salesmen so we could go around ringing Hell’s bells. We’d start an anger management counseling center called Hell Hath No Fury.” We’d get jobs answering the phones at the 411 call center by announcing, “Hell if I know!”

We stopped at the Hell post office so that I could send Abby a postcard. “Welcome to Hell,” said the guy behind the counter. Not only did he officially stamp the postcard with the name of the town, he even set the edge of it on fire for a few moments so there’d be no mistaking that the postcard came from Hell.

The post office is inside an ice cream and souvenir shop. You think you’re tough? We went to Hell and ordered ice cream.

It had been raining, but as I finished my ice cream, the rain stopped. “Let’s go,” I said to Sam, but he was only halfway through his cone and asked if we could stay a few minutes longer until he finished. I relented. A minute later, the skies opened up and the rain started pouring down in one of those furious summer rainstorms where the streets begin to flood almost immediately and standing outside for three seconds is like having a bucket of water dumped on you. Those storms always lighten up within 10 or 15 minutes, so when Sam finished his ice cream we waited inside for a few more minutes, but the rain showed no signs of stopping. Pressed for time, we made a run for the car, which was just a few steps away from the door. By the time we got in and closed the car doors, we were thoroughly drenched down to our socks.

We had lost an hour earlier in the day when we crossed into Michigan, and our arrival in Detroit was going to cut it much closer to the Sabbath I wanted. I would have torn out of there like a bat out of Hell, but the sky was totally black, a thick fog covered everything, and the rain was coming down so hard that I could barely see. I didn’t have the luxury of waiting out the storm, so I crawled through the streets at a snail’s pace, but even so I was terrified. Unfamiliar territory + winding country roads + slick roads and flooding + zero visibility = danger and fear.

We inched our way to the interstate, but the rain seemed to following us, and showed no signs of stopping. It was literally the rainstorm from Hell. Every time it seemed to be calming down for a few seconds, it would come back even harder. The speed limit on the highway was 70 but nobody was going more than 40 or so, and even at that speed I was pretty scared. It continued that way for an hour.

Eventually we reached the edge of the storm. The rain slowed, the sky brightened, the fog lifted, and we picked up speed.

As we got closer to Detroit, it was clear that another storm was brewing. I was hoping that we’d beat it to our hotel and be able to unpack the car and get inside before getting soaked again, but it didn’t work out that way. By the time we were safely in our room, we were dripping yet again, all our stuff was wet, and we had less than half an hour to get our food heated up, take showers, and get everything set up for the Sabbath. It was completely frantic, but Sam was super helpful, and we just barely got it done. Finally we could relax in comfort and safety.

It was one Hell of a day.

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