Last Saturday, at the Dunes Learning Center Summer Camp Open House, I was able to do something I haven’t done since my Chicago Girl Scout days. Not only was I able to share a roasted marshmallow, a campfire and a good ghost story, but I was the one telling the story.
The year was 1915 and the Dunes was a wild, beautiful place.
Close your eyes to imagine nothing but trees and brush and sand and sun and water. The only sounds are of the waves and the breeze in the trees, the rustle of critters in the brush and birds calling to each other overhead. Fishermen frequent the shores in dusk or dawn hours and a few visitors come to sit on the sand dunes and enjoy the view but for the most part, it is a solitary wilderness. I can imagine the occasional train whistle breaking the silence, just like it still does today, pulling into Dunes Park and I imagine that was how Alice Mable Gray arrived.
Alice was a graduate of the University of Chicago and at the age of 34, she decided to put a drab day-to-day job and the city life behind her. She was familiar with the Dunes area, having once camped here with her family, and the promise of a wild, carefree life beckoned to her. It is said she arrived with a jelly jar, a spoon, a knife, a blanket and two guns and made herself a home in an abandoned fisherman’s shack which she called “Driftwood” because she furnished it with the driftwood that washed up along the shoreline.
Alice spent her days in the woods and along the shoreline, walking to the Miller Library to check out books about astronomy and travel and ecology, gathering nuts and berries, hunting and swimming naked in Lake Michigan by the light of the moon.
It was these secret nocturnal swims that caught the interest of local fishermen who would someti mes catch a glimpse of her in the surf and it sparked local intrigue about this mysterious woman of the wilderness.
Eventually the locals and the newspapermen who came to seek her out to write her story, named her Diana after the Roman goddess of the hunt, the moon and nature.
The story takes a tragic turn, however, when Diana takes up with a vagrant man who may have filled a void of loneliness but was violent, as well.
Legend says that she died in her little cabin of kidney failure and her body was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Gary.
But the story may not have ended there.
Some say that on clear, moonlit nights along the shore of Lake Michigan you may still catch of glimpse of Diana, swimming the waves with strong, sure strokes or walking alone along the shoreline. You may see her shadow among the trees or along the top of a dune, content to remain always a par t of the wilderness that she loved.