Friday, October 23, 2009

The now and the then

In his answer to the 2005 Edge question, “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” Kai Krause articulates exactly how I think about the past, present, and future. I’m feeling less than philosophical about the “now,” however, because today started less than ideally. A lot less.

I had decided to celebrate the end of a difficult week by leaving early and stopping at Argo Tea for a breakfast wrap. At a little past 7 o’clock, I walked out into a driving wind that was scuttering sheets of water northward down the street. I thought about waiting a few minutes indoors, but I did want to leave early, and I couldn’t count on the wind or the rain letting up soon. I found myself blown toward 55th Street (the closer bus stop) because the wind was swirling mostly from the south. By the time I had walked to 55th and Hyde Park Boulevard, of course both wind and rain had dissipated into a drizzle with a bit of a breeze.

But during that eight-minute walk down two and one-half blocks, a gust had broken a rib in my favorite everyday umbrella. Grrr.

Although it’s a little further away, I prefer the 56th Street stop because it’s in the park with a view of trees and the Museum of Science and Industry, the stop itself is crowded, and as it’s an earlier stop on the route the buses are less crowded, too. But I would have had to have fought a powerful head wind three-quarters of a block and then a slanting one in the open the rest of the way. So I was blown down the path of least resistance toward 55th.

Where I not only discovered that the wind had broken my umbrella, but within moments a crazed man, or a fabulous facsimile of one, thrust his face into mine, muttering odd things about sainthood and finally throwing in a pitch for money. I wasn’t his only target; he besieged the male half of a young Asian couple, the only other people around. A few minutes later he came back for a second go at me, this time with a straight leap into the saintly rant and no interruption for a pitch. There’s no feeling that compares to being trapped under a bus shelter in the rain with a wide-eyed, self-proclaimed (I think) saint.

My pencil lead broke as I was writing this. Yes, the “now” was going to be a day of small annoyances.

This “now” seems to be one of those times when my highest aspiration is to be a turtle, with head pulled firmly into shell (there’d be no fooling me into peeking out). So this is a good time to forget the “now” and remember the “then,” in this case, last Saturday the 17th.

For years I’ve wanted to visit Starved Rock State Park, after I read about it in either the Chicago Tribune (back when that paper had content of interest) or a local magazine. I thought I’d mentioned it to J., but apparently I hadn’t because he’s been bringing up a trip there as a new idea for the past few weeks. He’d never been there, either, and his late mother had piqued his curiosity with her fond recollections of it. So we set Saturday the 17th as the date to go. And we did.

I met him again at the Homewood Metra station, after which we made a detour to Caribou Coffee. He had his cup and enormous vacuum bottle filled, meanwhile contributing to Amy’s fund. I opted for a bathroom visit and a pumpkin cooler. Next came the tricky part—finding the entrance onto the expressway. The Google Maps text explanation seems a little off to me, and the entrance itself is tucked away almost as though it were meant to be missed. The brightness of the afternoon sun also glared off the iPhone screen, making it almost impossible to see. But, after I had him turn the car (the little blue dot on the map) around, J. spotted the ramp, and away we went.

I feel like this has been a dreary autumn, but even as we angled southwest down the highway, the clouds continued to break up into interesting patterns, with the sun breaking through enough to give me headache as I peered at the iPhone screen. The more sun, the warmer the air—it was turning into the perfect fall day for a walk in the woods and a little bit of an adventure.

Part of the way is along the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, designated such on August 24, 1984. This strikes me as a fabulous idea, allowing the many towns along the way their historic and industrial due. J. noticed a sign for a radio station dedicated to tourist information, so he tuned in. As I watched our blue dot skimming along on the map, I felt a teeny bit like an explorer when I told him, “We’re going to cross a river shortly.” This proved to be the Fox, known to me mainly for its propensity to flood (making its banks the ideal spot for a Mies van der Rohe monstrosity).

Probably more so than the Corridor, Starved Rock is a well-loved attraction, drawing millions of visitors a year—not all, I suspect, from Illinois. If J. and I recall correctly, Starved Rock was on ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich’s short list of state facilities to close or curtail, which amazes me. Here you have millions of people who want to visit, and I noticed that the towns along the way tout their proximity to it. A different radio station is dedicated to its tourists. It’s reasonable to assume that these local economies benefit from Starved Rock’s visitors passing through, dining, shopping, perhaps even spending the night as Starved Rock Lodge is often fully booked. The park drew J. and me to an area we otherwise would have had no reason to visit. What would cutbacks at the park have meant to how many people? What good could come of cutting its funding and services? Cut off nose, spite face—perhaps I’m missing some of the details, but that’s how it seems to me.

Starved Rock State Park is still fully functional, but the first sight in the visitors center made me sad—the enormous cross section of the trunk of an elm dating from before the Civil War that had succumbed to Dutch elm disease in the early 2000s. To the lower right, you can see a black-and-white photo of the living tree in its prime, when, the exhibit notes, it sported one of the largest crowns in the country. Oh, to have such a tree under which to while away free time in the summer and upon which to look and ponder in the winter.

We took a quick walk through the gift shop and exhibit that were to close in a few minutes at 4 o’clock and picked up a map and advice on where to go. We had about an hour and three-quarters before dark, so the woman we spoke to steered us toward French Canyon, which she thought we could manage in the time left, or possibly Starved Rock itself. She alluded to slippery footing at French Canyon, but I couldn’t quite tell what to expect.

It turned out to be a gorgeous spot, a place like I might expect to find in parts of New York.

At first it looked like I wasn’t going to make it into the canyon at all. It wasn’t that it was hard, and those in good condition and with sure feet could bound about fairly easily. I’m not in any condition, but what holds me back is a combination of physical weakness and emotional fear. With a little difficulty, I made my way down the steps, some steep, leading into a lower canyon, like a vestibule, where a heavyset woman sat with a stroller (occupied or not, I couldn’t tell). The footing was angled and slippery and seemed treacherous to me, and when I tried to go around her, I ended up grabbing the stroller to steady myself—not a very smart move!

French Canyon itself was up a little waterfall and around a wall of rock, so I couldn’t see it. The woman with the stroller told us that it was lovely, and everyone returning seemed impressed. As I stood there, I thought about how I’d wanted to come here for years, how I’d finally gotten the chance, and how upset I would be later if my weaknesses and fears, both real, kept me from experiencing the joy of the moment or seeing something that should be within my reach. I also saw with painful, stark clarity that if such tiny feats are difficult for me now, they will cross the line to impossible when I’m older—perhaps in five years, maybe ten. My time is shorter than I care to know.

For once in my life I decided to go for the gusto. It’s easy for me to laugh at myself because it really wasn’t that hard. But I have pain and moments of weakness in my back and legs, and no confidence in my body or its abilities, and so I was afraid and had to overcome that fear. The memory of falling on my front teeth last year doesn’t help.

But, using both hands and my rear as a stabilizing platform, and getting all of them dirty, I wound around the woman and stroller, used the worn human footprints as steps up the mini-waterfall, and emerged into one of the loveliest sites I can imagine, at least in Illinois—a tiny, steep, narrow canyon darkened by the remaining leaves on the overhanging trees and tinkling with the 45-foot fall of water at its end.

I could see immediately why Starved Rock is popular. And popular it was on this autumn day, as a group of adults and adolescents descended on us as we were about to venture forth, as a young couple stood at the base of the waterfall, as another young couple set up a tripod and camera—as people came, expressed their wonder, and left. Except perhaps on the coldest, bleakest midwinter day, I doubt one could find solitude at French Canyon—or anywhere else at Starved Rock.

J. noticed that getting down the worn footprints was trickier than he expected. For me, descending is usually much more difficult than ascending, and the downward slant of the notches added to their slippery precariousness. By now, I had impressed myself with my teeny feat of daring, so I moved a little more confidently—but not without engaging hands and rear when necessary.

Next we headed toward Starved Rock, but when J. spotted an almost picturesque bridge, we followed it, thus being detoured toward Lovers Leap. A “leap” implies height, so we found ourselves climbing—or descending, depending on the immediate terrain—what felt and looked like interminable stairs. From comments I’ve read since, these boardwalks and steps are an innovation implemented to stem the increasing erosion of the park, which is primarily sandstone. It’s not hard to picture the damage millions of feet a year over many decades might do to such a landscape. In this area, at least, the rule is not to leave the walk to wander off through the woods. Starved Rock State Park is being loved to death.

J. came upon an overlook of sorts, although I pointed out that it wasn’t labeled Lovers Leap (or anything else) and that the river wasn’t visible, as promised. I heard laughter from below and spotted flashes of colorful clothing between the branches and leaves. “That’s the Lovers Leap overlook,” I said as decisively as I could, based on intuition. This platform offered a treetop view of a variety of conifers. As the trees grow, it will be more of an eye-to-crown perspective.

Now we headed toward the voices, flashes of clothing, and hints of river—if I remember correctly, Lovers Leap was slightly below the conifer spot. This overlook is below a dam and across from a point where the river splits. On what appeared to be a large flat stone island, hundreds of gulls had congregated, and hundreds more wheeled over the water below the dam. At first I thought a large object in the water was an enormous lone bird such as a swan—I had no sense of size or perspective—but a look with my binoculars revealed that what I’d taken for the “swan’s” back was a rock, upon which stood a great blue heron, its head tucked toward its wing if not quite under it. Although we stayed for at least 10 minutes, if not more, the heron never budged. Either it was sleeping, or the river’s fish were onto its sly ways.

Unfortunately for us, it was too early in the year for bald eagles, but soon, soaring above the confusion of gulls, came a flock of giant birds big enough to make the gulls look like sparrows. Even with the binoculars, I never got a good look at them—they were always flying away by the time I could get the glasses trained on them, so I saw them mostly from behind, once or twice a little more from the side. My impression was of short bills and legs, big bodies, and outsized bills. Indeed, my impression was of pelicans. PELICANS? In Illinois? I’d seen pelicans only once before, during dinner near Pompano Beach in Florida, when they landed and stood on the pylons. That was almost up close and personal, while here they flew en masse in the middle distance. I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t shake the impression of pelicans. Later at home I found sources online that mentioned October sightings of flocks of 25-30 American white pelicans at Starved Rock.

I’m still not certain. But maybe I’m not as bad a birder as I thought.

By now the witching hour was approaching, so we started to descend all those steps we’d walked up. At one particularly steep step, I couldn’t bring myself to take it. I froze. J. set his bag down along with my purse, took the binoculars I handed him, and held out his hand, although I was afraid my ankle or knee would give and I’d fall on top of him. Then I heard a sound, which I finally realized was his coffee from his tilted cup spilling onto the ground. While he turned his attention to checking if anything important had gotten wet, somehow I took the step just like that. I surprised myself, then felt silly for freezing in fear again.

Partway down, J. hinted he wouldn’t mind taking a brief detour to Starved Rock, but by then it was just a few minutes before sunset, and I wondered, as I often do, why someone as impractical as I am still manages to have common sense when others don’t. We speculated on the unlikely presence of wolves or coyotes, but I learned later that there are no dangerous animals, including venomous snakes, at Starved Rock. How disappointing. Don’t bobcats wander through Wildcat Canyon? I suppose millions of visitors a year serve as a deterrent to larger predators, although the wanderings of the animals aren’t limited to the trails and stairs.

Having avoided darkness and nonexistent predators, back at the visitors center I used the women’s room while J. sated his incurable need to stimulate the economy singlehandedly in the gift shop. As I left the ladies’, it occurred to me that I’d walked around in the chilly air for two hours without thinking about a bathroom or having an urgent need to get to one. Thank you, Dr. M. and team.

Next on the agenda was something I’d seen on the online calendar—Irish storytelling around a fire at 7 o’clock. I warned J. I probably couldn’t last for more than 15 minutes in the cold—the temperature had dropped precipitously after sunset—but as it turned out I was able to hold out for almost an hour.

After circling the Lodge down the road and becoming a little confused, we found the storyteller, Trish Kelly, at the top of a circle of chairs around a smoky fire. As she waited for more people to appear, she told us that she’d lived in the area all her life and had spent a lot of time clambering about Starved Rock—she may have worked there at some point. She mentioned numerous bones she had broken, multiple times in a few cases, from her ankles and elbow to her jaw, as well as cameras, binoculars, and other valuables dropped and lost in the park. Although I doubt she knocked herself out at French Canyon or on the stairs to Lovers Leap, still, I used the story of her injuries to pride myself on my bravery, such as it was.

As the group stabilized at around 15 to 20, with some continued comings and goings, she regaled us with the story of her adoption from Ireland as an infant, with J. interrupting her to find out that he’d been within 20 miles of her birthplace, and how she’d become a storyteller. She mentioned that she knew no others, which makes me want to contact her and connect her to Bill Watkins. As she warmed up—so to speak—she slyly worked in her first encounter with a ghostie at the home of a childhood friend. She showed us a poster-sized photo of Hegeler Carus Mansion, where she works, and told us that no one had thought it to be haunted—until the night her office lights would not stay off, and a female voice bid her, her friend, and a La Salle police officer “good night.” The audience seemed skeptical, but perhaps the fire crackled a wee bit louder in a momentary silence.

Slipping into a discreet Irish accent, she told the tale of the fearful son of a fearless ghost hunter. I can’t remember his given name, which also rhymed, but the father dubbed him “Rigor Mortis the Tortoise” for retreating into his shell at the first sign of a supernatural presence. Rigor Mortis the Tortoise dislikes this nickname, thinking it will hinder any potential relationship with a girl he might meet whose description sounded suspiciously like our storyteller.

It was at the end of this tale that my chattering teeth and shivering body finally got to me, and I whispered to J. that I had to leave.

I was a bit skeptical about the story of her adoption from Ireland, I told J., although it’s quite likely true. “With storytellers, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction, reality from fantasy,” I said. “I don’t mean that she’s lying, you know. She’s telling a story.” There was a bit more silence than usual at this point, I felt, so I added, “Besides, there is one thing I know to have been a blatant lie.” “Oh?” “Yes. When Rigor Mortis the Tortoise was frightened and the hairs on the back of his neck stood . . .” dramatic pause “. . . that was a lie. Tortoises don’t have hair. Aha!”

He seemed relieved and wondered if the young men of the area appreciate her and her talents. “How do you know she’s not married?” I asked. “She wasn’t wearing a ring,” he replied.

Hmmm. He wasn’t held so rapt by the stories that he didn’t notice these important details.

We drove around the Lodge’s extensive, segmented parking lot again, looking for and finding the restaurant part, then walked under a long, lighted archway toward dinner.

The Lodge is suitably rustic in a strangely elegant way, with a fireplace the central feature of the busy lobby/living room, where numerous people were hanging out, socializing over coffee or reading. Later, I found the lounge and patio in the back, the former also full of people, some watching a flat-screen TV that didn’t quite blend in with the wood beams and décor.

We must have arrived at the restaurant not far ahead of the last seating because we were among the last to leave, shortly after 9 o’clock. I ordered chipotle meat loaf—comfort food with a twist—while the more adventurous J. picked, I think, bluegill (not sure), which he’d never had before. I can’t comment specifically, other than to say it looked and smelled like fish. For dessert, he asked for pecan pie, which our server explained, in apologetic tones, was served in a cup. We didn’t know what to expect, but the pie crust was a cup rather than the conventional wedge. Perhaps that meant it was bought vs. homemade, but it didn’t seem to matter to J., who approved.

After a trip through long, narrow hallways to the front desk lobby, where an older couple was playing a board game to the splash of a koi fountain, and a brief (very brief) detour through downtown Utica, we finally headed home. I provided my usual navigational advice up front, but after a few miles I fell asleep—a great help to the equally tired driver, I’m sure.

When finally I could keep my eyes open for more than a few moments we were already deep into city lights, and the world of French Canyon, Lovers Leap, river pelicans, and Rigor Mortis the Tortoise already seemed a millennium and a million miles away.

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