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Bloomington, Indiana: A Delightful University Town

Bikes on a Bloomington Street at dusk. Photo Brian E. Clark.

By Brian E. Clark

In the 1979 bicycling and coming-of-age movie “Breaking Away,” the star’s father walks with his son around Indiana University in Bloomington and muses about some of the handsome limestone structures he helped build.

While some things have changed in Bloomington since that film was made more than 40 years ago, the leafy IU campus remains an exceedingly attractive place to visit, thanks in no small part to its architecture.

That was especially true in late fall, when the gingko, sugar maple, ash and other deciduous trees were dressed in their autumn finest and exploding with color. IU, which boasts more than 12,000 trees, has for good reason been tagged by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the 20 most beautiful campuses in the country.

This college town of 80,000 has a friendly, welcoming vibe, so it’s easy to see why young people from around the country and globe come here to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees. The combined IU student population is more than 40,000.

My girlfriend and I made the 400-mile drive down Bloomington in late October from Madison, home to the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus and no slouch itself when it comes to good looks.

Once we’d left the outskirts of Indianapolis, the geography soon changed from flat farm country to the rolling hills of the Norman Upland, which were, of course, covered with multi-hued trees sporting leaves that were turning red, orange, yellow and purple.


Flaming tree on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington. Photo Brian E. Clark,.


After we checked into our digs at the Springhill Suites on the appropriately named College Avenue, we strolled over to the nearly 1,200-acre campus and walked through the Sample Gates, which mark the entrance to the Old Crescent, the site of IU’s historic campus buildings built between 1884 and 1908. The arched gates are (of course) made of limestone and are a gift from IU alumnus and former university administrator Edson Sample to honor his parents.


The Sample Gates. Photo Brian E. Clark.


It was late afternoon during that period photographers call the “golden hour.” A soft, low-angle light that had a bit of a yellow tint shone on the buildings, public artwork and the almost iridescent trees that we strolled through in the heart of the campus.


Ernie Pyle statue. Photo Brian E. Clark.

Near the gates we found a statue of the famed World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle, an Indiana farm boy who attended IU in the 1920s. He wrote for and then edited the campus newspaper, but left school a semester short of his journalism degree when he was offered a full-time job at a newspaper.

During the war, Pyle wrote stories about “dogface” infantry soldiers – not colonels or generals – which earned him the affection of the country and a Pulitzer Prize.  Before he was killed at age 44 in the Battle of Okinawa – five months before the war ended – his columns were syndicated in 400 daily newspapers and 300 weeklies nationwide.

President Harry Truman said this of Pyle: “No one in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told. He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen.”

As we strolled through 10-acre of Dunn’s Woods in the middle of the Old Crescent, I thanked university planners for leaving half of the original 20-acre forest untouched. Though bordered by the Kirkwood Observatory on its western edge and the university’s law school, Lindley Hall, Maxwell Hall, Owen Hall and Swain Hall, it felt as if we were far away from the hustle and bustle of a major university.

That evening, we had dinner at the Uptown Cafe, (the-uptown.com), a community favorite that has a New Orleans flair and is less than a 10-minute walk from the Sample Gates. I had a tasty pan-seared salmon with a Thai-style sweet and spicy sauce, while my guest had a grilled New York strip steak.

Apple pie at the Runcible Spoon in Bloomington. Photo Brian E. Clark.


Late next morning, before more explorations of the campus and town, we walked to the quirky Runcible Spoon, (runciblespoonrestaurant.com) which was less than three blocks from Sample Gates and felt like it could have been a Bohemian professor’s home.

The place was packed and diners were having everything from pancakes to omelets to biscuits and gravy.  But because I’d had a bowl of granola and fruit earlier at the Springhill Suites, I opted for apple pie a la mode, which I split with my partner, and coffee.

Can you have apple pie for breakfast, you ask?  Why not, I respond.  The first time I tried this was near the start of a 99-mile bike ride in the middle of the annual RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Ride Across Iowa) event, a mass bicycle tour that starts at the Missouri River in western Iowa and concludes 400-some miles later at the Mississippi.

That pie fueled me until lunch. And was no different than a pastry.

But I digress…

When we’d finished our apple treat and coffee, we made our way to the Lilly Library,  (libraries.indiana.edu/lilly-library) which began with the collection of Josiah K. Lilly, owner of Lilly Pharmaceuticals in Indianapolis. He donated more than 20,000 books and 17,000 manuscripts, together with more than fifty oil paintings and 300 prints to the university in the 1950s.

Today, the library is the internationally respected home to millions of literary and cultural artifacts, including 460,000 books, 8.5 million manuscripts, 120,000 items of sheet music and other items, including a Gutenberg Bible and the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works.

Next on our tour came a stop at the university’s Eskenazi Museum of Art, (artmuseum.indiana.edu) home to more than 45,00 objects and seven galleries that display works by Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Claude Monet, Renaissance masterpieces and ancient artifacts.

In the early afternoon, we walked to the Taste of India (tasteofindiabtown.com)  restaurant on a section of Fourth Street known as International Row.  We dined on naan bread, lentil soup and tandoori chicken.  But my favorite was a delicious mango milkshake.

That afternoon, we drove out to Bloomington’s Griffey Lake Nature Preserve, a 1,200 acre park with eight hiking trails.  We strolled through the forest and passed only a few others as the afternoon drifted away and the low sunlight angled sideways through the trees, giving the air a crimson hue.

In the evening, we ate at The Upland (uplandbeer.com) a brewery and restaurant/pub on 11th Street where I had a blackberry and beet salad with turkey and my guest ate a classic burger made from local beef. And for dessert, we shared some apple cinnamon bread pudding.


A table made from a bicycle at the Inkwell Bakery & Cafe. Photo Brian E. Clark.


The last morning, before we headed north to Madison, we stopped in at the Inkwell Bakery & Cafe (inkwellbtown.com) on College, where we sat next to a table with members of the field hockey team from Northwestern University.  Living up to the school’s lofty academic reputation, they were all deep into their books and computers.

I sated my hunger at the Inkwell with an earthy muffin and coffee, while my girlfriend had one of her favorites, avocado toast with a side of scrambled eggs.

But we weren’t quite done with Bloomington yet.  On our way out of town, we drove to a lovely shrine at the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center, which has been visited by Buddhist teachers and the Dalai Lama himself.  The peaceful rural center is dedicated to fostering and preserving and sharing  Tibetan and Mongolian cultures with Bloomington and North America.

For more information on other things to see and do in Bloomington and at Indiana University (which has had some pretty good basketball teams) see visitbloomington.com.


Brian E. Clark

Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis.  A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.

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