Days 57-58/ Apr 24th-25th – Marengo, IN to Shoals, IN: Into the woods

It was the first day for the new assistant waitress at T-Berry’s Café in French Lick, and there was lively speculation among the patrons about whether or not she would turn up for work.

“You give someone a job round here,” said the owner, a bluff, no-nonsense, careworn woman straight from Central Casting, “you never know if they’re actually gonna show up till they do.”

When the waitress, a gangly, sleepy-eyed teenager, stepped through the door at eight, she was understandably baffled to be greeted by an ironic round of applause from the customers at the counter.  One of them, a heavily bearded, dungaree-clad farmer, slapped a few bills on the counter-top, walked to the door, looked out at the sky, and, as he left, threw out a comment to the room.

“Mm.  Looks like we’re about to get another good ‘un.”

He was absolutely right, proving that you should always trust a farmer’s weather forecast.  It had poured down all day yesterday on our walk into French Lick, and it proceeded to do the same again all day today.

T-Berry's Cafe in French Lick, Indiana

Country-style cookin' at T-Berry's Cafe

We were walking through Hoosier National Forest, a 300-square-mile L-shape of woodland surrounding French Lick.  The town had been a Victorian tourist mecca, and was trying hard to recapture its former glories.  It began life as a French trading post near a salt lick, but its heyday had come during the 19th-century spa boom, when visitors came from across the country to bathe in its sulphur springs.  Later on, when the mania for warm, eggy water subsided, the town reinvented itself as a casino resort.  Al Capone holidayed in French Lick, and Franklin Roosevelt announced his candidacy for president here.  The town today was a sleepy little place, built around a golf course, bisected by a scenic railway and dominated by two buildings from its golden age: a massive rococo wedding cake of a hotel and a vast cream block housing the recently re-opened French Lick Resort Casino.  But they both looked silent and empty, and out on the golf course there was only a lone young man cheerfully hacking his way round in the drizzle.

We set out into the woods yesterday in Orange County, noting morosely the wide gulf between the famous, glittering, sun-drenched Californian one and the damp, spindly forest that we were trudging through.  Like the Daniel Boone National Forest that we walked through in Kentucky, Hoosier National Forest isn’t a pristine wilderness – there are roads, fields, farms and villages scattered across it, and it’s a major turkey hunting centre for those who enjoy pitting their wits against those most deadly of beasts.  Still, it doesn’t seem to be a popular place to live: for the first hour of our walk we saw nothing but abandoned bungalows and trailers, their sheds and outbuildings rapidly being reclaimed by the forest floor.

Turkey checking station in Marengo, Indiana

"Is this a turkey?" "Yes." "Thanks."

On the road ahead, under a line of listing wooden telegraph poles, we spotted a pick-up truck parked on the verge, and a small group of shadowy figures fossicking about in the forest beside it.  This was unusual – there were almost no cars in the woods – and we feared for a moment that we had stumbled on a murderous gang burying its latest dismembered victim.  One of them, a man in a hunting-jacket, beckoned us over.

“Look at this!” he said, and held out a thick orange object perhaps ten inches long.  “It’s a morel mushroom.”

At precisely this time of year, in this forest, and after heavy rain, the morels – as delicious as they are expensive – emerge briefly from under the ground, triggering an invasion of local mushroom-hunters: we saw several more trucks and groups as the day went on.

Easier to spot than the morels were turtles; since the rains started we’ve begun to seen them on the verges and, in many cases, engaged in extremely slow but nonetheless suicidal journeys across the road.  We saved three today, including one forlorn creature that we rescued from the tender mercies of two hawks that had been attempting to prise open its shell with their claws.

Saving turtle near French Lick, Indiana

The Turtle Rescue Squad with another grateful client

Just before we reached Shoals, we passed a trio of bison in a pasture near the edge of the forest.  Their hair was soaked by the rain and hung down over their heads, giving them a bedraggled look, and they seemed as bemused to find themselves in the middle of the woods in Indiana as we were to see them there.

All in all, the forest was a slightly eerie place, compounded by the difficulty of navigating through it.  The roads had been numbered in a system apparently designed by a misanthropic lunatic: County Road 25 would, without signpost or warning, become County Road 40, then turn imperceptibly a few yards later to become County Road 40 South, then join West County Road 25 South, and so on, with the result that we got lost for only the second time in the last 800 miles, and added an hour of walking to an already long day.  We stopped to rest out of the rain in the porch of an abandoned house that still bore its address on its gate – 10766 West County Road 50 North – and felt deep sympathy for the postmen of Orange County.

Woodpile near Marengo, Indiana

Hand-flowers and firewood in the Hoosier National Forest

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