CC Travelogue: c. 2002 Ford Thunderbird At Indiana Dunes State Park – Plans Vs. Reality

c. 2002 Ford Thunderbird. Chesterton, Indiana. Tuesday, August 16, 2022.

Good planning does not always ensure good results.  The second full week of August is when I’ve often been back home in Flint, Michigan for the annual Back To The Bricks car festival.  This year has been the first since 2019 that the pandemic has largely unaffected my ability to do what I want.  As I have hinted in some of my essays from earlier this year, I’ve been committed to taking hard-earned time off from work.  It’s part of my total compensation package from my employer, and a very real way of taking care of myself.

I might have gone back to Flint for the big car show, but since I had been back a couple of times since June, I decided to pass on this year’s show, give thanks for where I live, and enjoy my second annual staycation right here in Chicago.  Included as a bonus was my first-ever trip to the Indiana Dunes.  Years ago, my therapist had suggested that I might enjoy taking pictures there, which is fully accessible by train without needing a vehicle, for a temporary change of scenery.  I finally realized those plans exactly two weeks ago.

c. 2002 Ford Thunderbird. Chesterton, Indiana. Tuesday, August 16, 2022.

The idea had come to me on the Monday afternoon of my first day off from work.  At first, the thought of leaving my neighborhood, locale, city, and state caused just a little anxiety.  After all, “staycation” is supposed to be about enjoying places, foods, venues, and attractions in the place where one lives.  However, the more I thought about it, the decision to go to the dunes seemed to make itself.  It appealed to me to be able to take quick and easy public transportation downtown to get to Millennium Station, where I could purchase round-trip tickets for the South Shore Line commuter train that would drop me off about a mile from the dunes, where I could walk straight from the depot.  A mile is nothing.  I’ve spent hours at a time on foot, especially over the past couple of years, canvassing not only my neighborhood, but also the surrounding areas that are immediately adjacent.

Millennium Station. Downtown Chicago, Illinois. Tuesday, August 16, 2022.

At Millennium Station.  Downtown Chicago, Illinois.

Thus, I had made up my mind.  It was incredibly easy to make an online purchase for a pedestrian pass to the dunes for fifteen dollars, which was good for Monday through Friday.  The park’s website showcased many things to do, including both hiking and a very nice beach.  To sun myself on a completely foreign patch of shore on vast Lake Michigan, in another state, suddenly felt like an adventure that I was not only ready for, but relished thinking about.  The next morning, I loaded my backpack with the things I’d normally bring to the beach, also adding a box of Aldi protein bars and a solar-powered USB charger.  I didn’t have time to buy a sandwich beforehand in the interest of actually making my train as I had left the house too late, but my internet research had yielded many food options available for purchase near or at the park.

Aboard the South Shore Line.

Aboard the South Shore Line.

Boarding my train at Millennium Station before departure, and thankfully facing in the direction of travel, I gave a big sigh of relief that I was headed for Indiana, with a smile on my face.  My very first ride on the South Shore Line made me a little homesick for Flint, as the train passed through Chicago’s south side and many other urban areas.  The friendly train attendant let me know that instead of riding the train straight through to the Dunes Park station, everyone would have to deboard at the Gary Metro Center station and ride a bus the rest of the way, since parts of the track were under construction.

City Hall. Gary, Indiana. Tuesday, August 16, 2022.

City Hall. Gary, Indiana.

I have a big soft spot for urban, U.S. Rust Belt cities that have relied heavily, or still rely, on blue collar industry as an economic engine.  Gary reminded me a little of Flint-lite, though I doubt very much that they have a “Back To The Steel Mills” festival to celebrate their industry like Flintstones celebrate the automobile.  I’m not at all disrespecting Gary.  Not only the Jackson family, but also Deniece Williams, another one of my favorite musical artists, hail from this city.  I thought about that as I transferred to the dunes-bound coach bus at Gary Metro station.  I might have listened to some Niecy on my earbuds at the transfer point, had I thought about it.

Dune Park Station. Porter, Indiana. Tuesday, August 16, 2022.

South Shore Line Dune Park Station. Porter, Indiana.

The bus arrived at the Dunes Park station in Porter a half-hour behind the scheduled time on the brochure, and I got off along with almost everyone else.  “I’m here!”, I thought triumphantly, as I smiled and looked around… as everyone seemed to get into waiting vehicles which left the station with haste.  So, okay.  Now to find the way to get to the park.  I mapped directions my phone and started walking along one main rural route that didn’t have sidewalks, toward traffic, of course.  Because that portion of that stretch of tracks was under reconstruction, the walkway that pedestrians would normally take from the train station to the asphalt trail to the park was completely closed off.  Instead of crossing the tracks and walking along the tree-lined bike and walking path, I walked along the Dunes Highway like a hobo for about fifteen minutes until I got to N. State Route 49.

En Route to Indiana Dunes Park, along the paved bike and pedestrian path.

After walking for about ten minutes in the wrong direction, I did an about-face and was finally headed to the park.  As originally planned, I was to have an ample three hours at the park, with the train to arrive at around 2:00 PM and depart just before five.  With the time it would take to walk to and from the station, in addition to the delay in getting to Porter, my time at the park was going to be significantly curtailed, and there was no way I was missing my train back to Chicago.  These few compromises were just the beginning of my afternoon.

c. 2002 Ford Thunderbird. Chesterton, Indiana. Tuesday, August 16, 2022.

It was under these circumstances, once I was headed to the park, that I spotted this beautiful, eleventh-generation (2002 – ’05) Ford Thunderbird roadster in what appeared to factory Inspiration Yellow approaching on the road.  It was just the reset my mind needed, in exactly the right moment.  With one earbud out, I had been listening to the birds, insects, and nature as I walked very briskly along the path toward Lake Michigan, and here came the automotive equivalent of a yellow finch.  When I’m the age of the occupants of this car, I want to be cruising in a convertible on an average, sunny, summer Tuesday without an apparent care in the world.

2002 Ford Thunderbird print ad, as sourced from the internet.

I was one of those car enthusiasts who had done an emotional backflip of joy when it was announced that the ’99 Thunderbird concept car would go into actual production in 2001 as an early 2002 model.  After the seemingly endless run of the tenth-generation cars from between the 1989 and ’97 model years, here was going to be the Thunderbird’s return to its original roots as a V8-powered, two-seat convertible.  Its style was undeniable, especially to someone like me who regularly draws inspiration from brilliant ideas and aesthetics of the past.

c. 2002 Ford Thunderbird. Chesterton, Indiana. Tuesday, August 16, 2022.

Though all models featured a Jaguar-sourced 3.9 liter V8 engine, the first-year cars which were the most plentiful at around 31,400 units sold had 252 horsepower, versus the later model years where output was increased by 11% to 280 hp.  All cars featured a five-speed automatic transmission.  A period test from Motor Trend reported that the first-year cars were capable of doing 0-60 mph in seven seconds flat, while later editions shaved a half-second off that time, according to Car And Driver.  These were respectable numbers, especially for a 3,800-pound car, and the reborn Thunderbird roadsters were never supposed to be barn-burners.  Or were they?  For about $35,500 in 2002 to start (about $58,500 in 2002), or an extra $4,300 ($7,000) for the removable hardtop, many customers both actual and prospective felt that more content and capability should have been included.  Initial sales tumbled by over half to just 14,700 for ’03, with a total of just over 68,000 cars over its four-year run.

Indiana Dunes State Park. Chesterton, Indiana. Tuesday, August 16, 2022.

This production span seemed particularly abbreviated, like my time at the dunes that afternoon, especially considering all the hype surrounding the reborn Thunderbird, which was also Motor Trend’s Car Of The Year for 2002.  It just seemed like so much had gone into it, from its planning to execution, much like my day at the dunes.  Here’s the rest of what happened that Tuesday.  Following a mile-long trek to the entry kiosk at the main parking lot, I met the attendant at the window, pulled out my phone, and proudly showed her my digital pass as if handing in a homework assignment.  “I’m sorry.  That’s not good here.  That pass is for the national park.  This is Indiana Dunes State Park.”  The voice in my head said, “Woman, what is it that you’re saying to me?”  What I actually said was that I didn’t realize there were two separate parks called “Indiana Dunes”.  She was very kind, courteous, and just doing her job well.

The Dunes Pavilion at Indiana Dunes State Park. Chesterton, Indiana. Tuesday, August 16, 2022.

Having cleared up that misunderstanding, and with the knowledge that I now had less than an hour to spend at the park, I noticed a sign in the window that said that there was “NO SWIMMING” (all-caps) due to unsafe conditions, meaning big waves and undertow.  I’m used to walking less than three blocks and ten minutes from my house to a big, festive beach, and I had just spent money and hours getting to the wrong park in a different state to be told that I couldn’t spend time in the water.  No big whoop.  I was really hungry (and sweaty) by that point, so I thought it would be a good time to check out the restaurant at the beautiful Dunes Pavilion.  It’s a truly stunning piece of architecture, and it stands as a proud, monumental, welcoming beacon to all beachgoers.

Indiana Dunes State Park. Chesterton, Indiana. Tuesday, August 16, 2022.

I couldn’t tell at first if it was a new structure or an old one, going with the neoclassic theme of the last Thunderbirds, but it was originally built in 1930.   Following a seven-year renovation, it was reopened last summer.  Also like the Thunderbird nameplate’s interlude of absence between the ’98 and ’01 model years, the Dunes Pavilion had previously been vacant for years.  Marching across the sand toward this building with the thought of a chicken sandwich and a refreshing, non-alcoholic beverage in my mind, I arrived to see things curiously quiet and words stenciled on the door that read that the restaurant is closed on Tuesdays.

A view from the Dunes Pavilion. Indiana Dunes State Park. Chesterton, Indiana. Tuesday, August 16, 2022.

Can you imagine the disappointment of the final Thunderbird’s planners that sales didn’t take off, or even stay constant?  Best-laid plans.  I ate a couple more protein bars for nourishment.  Thankfully, the snack shop was open so I purchased a delicious vanilla-chocolate swirl soft-serve ice cream cone from the sweetheart of a lady behind the counter.  There’s something so familiar about Hoosiers, reminding me much of the Ohioans from whom I’m partially descended on the cornfed, Midwestern half of my equation.

Indiana Dunes State Park. Chesterton, Indiana. Tuesday, August 16, 2022.

I didn’t “go swimming”, but I did get a few shots of the shore from the calf-deep waters of Lake Michigan.  After less than forty-five minutes on the sand by the crashing waves, it was time to hike back to the Dunes Park station to mandatorily catch my transportation back to Chicago.  The next train back would leave two hours later.  In the case of both my Indiana adventure and the eleventh-generation T-Bird, there was a considerable gap between how things were supposed to go and how they actually went.

c. 2002 Ford Thunderbird. Chesterton, Indiana. Tuesday, August 16, 2022.

Then as now, I’m still a fan of these Thunderbirds and would drive one with pride, today.  My time at the Indiana Dunes State Park may have been as similarly brief as these Thunderbirds’ production run, but I am so glad to have had that truly enjoyable experience.  My summer has now been richer for having become acquainted with Lake Michigan from this magical beach, much like the automotive landscape is better for having been graced with these ‘Birds, no matter what the ultimate outcome.

Chesterton, Indiana.
Tuesday, August 16, 2022.