The massive sand drifts on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan form a terrain that is rare and spooky.
Its novelty entertains us in the summer, when the sun is warm and hiking in brings the childlike sensation of being in an enormous sandbox, monumental enough to fascinate even the blasè.
In the off-season, the dunes, though still magical-seeming, are more alien and forbidding. Scramble to the top of a steep-sided lookout and ponder the fragility and impermanence of all that you see. The mountains that crumble and shift with each step. The material that is a by-word for shiftlessness and time’s too-swift passage. Sand’s inhospitable properties, which repel all but the hardiest grasses and trees. Way below, you may spy a solitary hiker, the size of an ant, beginning a climb.
Even in winter, the dunes have an undeniable beauty, their undulating surfaces covered with tufted grasses that the wind has sculpted into a tawny stipple. Sand formations of a similar scale can be found in other parts of the world, but the rarity of this landscape comes from its proximity to a great lake and the symbiotic presence of deciduous and evergreen trees. Only a few plants can be satisfied with the meager nutrients and harsh conditions on offer here.
Yet the survivors’ reward is to be buried alive by the very ground around them one day.
All around, you can see this process of living burial occurring, as dunes shift imperceptibly, enveloping the trees. What once was thriving begins to die, as the sand that once nurtured moves to destroy.