Sunday, June 5, 2011

I can see clearly now?

This has to be the foggiest spring I have seen. When I look out the window at work sometimes I see nothing but a white mist. It reminds me of the “Remember Me” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Trapped in a warp bubble created by her precocious son, Wesley, Dr. Crusher discovers that her universe is shrinking when on the view screen all she can see is an enveloping blue mist. When I look out and see nothing but that white fog, I feel vaguely disturbed, claustrophobic, and trapped, as though that mist defines the confines of my world. I think I understand “thick as pea soup” now. Of course, it’s even worse when I’m on a plane that’s flying through it. Pilots use instruments, but really how can anyone fly a jet without being able to see all around? I couldn’t manage it emotionally.

That said, May 8 has to have been the most perfect day to date this spring—partly sunny, warmer, not windy—the picture-perfect spring day that, at least in Chicago, rarely happens. A great day for a hike at Starved Rock State Park.

Saturday had not been promising. It was damp, drizzly, and dreary. We’d arrived late in the afternoon and, after a few false stops while driving around, had taken the steps down to the river trail where there’s an old bench overlooking the water and a derelict boat upside down against the shore. The sun made a weak appearance shortly before sunset, but it wasn’t enough to lighten the setting or the mood. We walked until we’d worked out which way we should go to reach Tonti Canyon. It was beyond reach this late in the day, but at least now we were sure to find it. After all this time, I’ve finally (I think) figured out where everything is and how to reach it.

In the parking lot, J. spotted two masked rascals raiding a trash bin in the dusk. As we passed them, they looked at us dolefully, then casually ambled off in different directions. It’s rare that I see a raccoon that isn’t doubling as a roadside pancake.

The next morning looked better, with sunnier skies and more comfortable temperatures. As the morning wore on, puffy clouds broke up the bright blue skies. That’s what spring should be. Chicago just doesn’t have enough days like that.

To get to Tonti Canyon, we followed the same river trail as we did last July 4th on the way to Ottawa and Kaskaskia canyons, this time from a different parking lot, and missing amorous snakes along the way. This is as easy as a path can be except for the tiny but solid stumps sticking straight up that trip up even the wary, like us.

At the point the trail turns inward away from shore, we heard an indescribable noise that sounded like the hum of a mother ship idling. As we crossed a bridge, I realized it was coming from the frog mating frenzy below. Dozens of frogs seemed to be seeking opportunities, although most didn’t appear to be successful with their choices. I wondered about gender disparity. A good-sized dead fish floated along the surface, looking like a sizable snack for any scavengers lucky enough to snare it, for example, a pair of trash-raiding raccoons.

We came to a spot that seemed like a canyon, but with no waterfall. I was so tired that I was ready to quit, but after sitting on a log for a while to recharge I realized that a couple who had passed us with a dog had not returned, making me think (not entirely logically) that they had gone to and hung around the canyon. Then someone coming from that direction told us we needed to go just a little further. I hauled myself up, and we found it one quarter to one third of a mile from the the curve we’d stopped at; the running water we soon heard was a clue.

By this time, it was midday or past—not the best time to photograph water against a bright sky. Tonti sported two waterfalls, facing each other but somewhat offset. The prettier one to the right was on the sunny side, while the other was shadowed. We spent at least 45 to 60 minutes admiring them and taking photographs.

While we were snapping away, two couples appeared who wanted their photos taken. They were from the Netherlands, in Chicago for a medical conference. They’d heard about Starved Rock State Park on the Internet and had decided to spend their free time before the conference there. We saw them on the way back near the bridge, and in the water along the trail some turtles trying to sunbathe.

Along the river J. saw a “big earthworm” that he said was worth walking back a bit to take a peek at. I did, and he was half right—it was worth a look, even if it wasn’t an earthworm. Instead, it was a millipede, the first one I’ve seen in nature, looking a little worse for the wear. It wasn’t dead, as I thought; when I touched it with a twig, it reflexively curled around it. J. tried to take a photo, but it was too squirmy suspended in air, and I didn’t want it to plummet to the ground. I deposited it in a shaded, damp-looking area covered with leaf litter next to the path, away from the warm sun and any tramping feet—ideal habitat for a millipede.

We stopped at Mix’s Trading Post, which had become a hub of activity. I’d never seen so many motorcycles parked there before or so many people inside. I wanted to get a pair of moccasins. I soon found that my feet are too wide for any of the women’s styles, so sat on a chair in the aisle and experimented with the men’s varieties. I settled on the driving moccasins—also comfortable for walking, the blurb noted. J. pointed out the guard cat on a nearby seat, which the proprietor said is meant for the customers to use when trying on shoes. Catrina doesn’t care. She didn’t let being petted disturb her nap much, either. I’m skeptical about her efficacy as a guard animal.

We would have stopped briefly at Foothills Organics, but they appeared to be closed, perhaps for Mother’s Day.

And so, after a dinner stop at R Place in Morris, we came back to a world in which there are no waterfalls, only photographs and memories.

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