Sunday, June 19, 2011

Memorial Day and leader of the pack

When you’re working, holiday weekends seem like a good time to get away. And they are, if you’re headed somewhere that isn’t a major draw, like a family reunion—depending on the size of your family. If there’s a place you want to go because you have a little extra time, everyone else wants to go, too. Count on it.

On Sunday evening, we walked through Aurora, Sac, and possibly Kickapoo Canyons at Starved Rock State Park. I say “possibly” because I didn’t see a sign or a distinctive canyon, nor did I know what I was looking for. This evening wasn’t crowded. In an hour and a half or so, we encountered far more mosquitoes than people.

With all the spring rains, the waterfalls at Starved Rock are running, but the trails are muddy, messy, and slippery in places. I gave my new hiking shoes a good workout and found they really are waterproof as long as you don’t step in too deeply. Water balls on the surface, just like on a duck’s back. I felt more grip in the tread and more confident, with less fear of slipping or falling. I slid in the mud a few times, but not as often or as badly as with walking shoes. The confidence level helped, as long as it didn’t blossom into overconfidence. I could focus more on the scenery and less on my fear of falling—that is, until we got to the boardwalk.

We recognized the boardwalk from a previous visit and walked toward St. Louis Canyon as far as the orange cliff we’d seen before that bears the wounds of ungraciously carved graffiti. Perhaps these people consider themselves the modern equivalent of cave artists. It was getting dark in the thicker tree stands, so we turned back,

I noticed the boardwalk had felt slick on the way out, but now it seemed doubly so. Maybe I was tired. J. kept telling me to go slowly, which I did—but not slowly enough. One moment I was Homo erectus; the next, I was Homo flatonmyarseus. I fell in the fine tradition of comedic pratfall; my feet shot up as my butt smacked down. It was the classic banana peel. I would pay to see a video. I scooted over to the edge so I could get traction in the dead leaves and stand up, grateful that no one but the great outdoors and its inhabitants had witnessed my fall from grace—my first at Starved Rock. On a boardwalk. Sigh.

For J., Aurora and Sac didn’t hold quite the same interest as some of the other canyons because you’re walking above them, not in them. I don’t know if there’s a bottom trail, but I should look into it. I liked walking on the bridge that spans the waterfall and looking down at it, almost as though I were the source. I love the sound of the small waterfalls in these small canyons. It’s robust enough to be heard before the falls can be seen, but of course isn’t the deafening solid roar of a monster like Niagara Falls.

The sunset on the Illinois River did captivate him, and a pair of bikers listening to music that hasn't been on the charts in 30 years.

When I compare the photos from Memorial Day weekend to those from Mother’s Day weekend three weeks earlier, I’m struck by how lush the woods had become. I have it in my head that the midwestern world is in full bloom by early May and am always surprised when the world remains sparse and bleak yet a while longer, until two to three weeks into May.

On Memorial Day, cars circled the Matthiessen State Park parking lot like vultures that can’t find a place to land—it was that packed. Over at Starved Rock, where the road below the lodge was flooded, cars lined the upper approach almost out to the highway, and the lots at the Starved Rock trail heads were full. Everyone was out for the holiday.

At last we found a spot in the lot by Illinois Canyon, which is a lovely walk with a stream running parallel to the trail and until it curls around. Most likely we didn’t make it to the canyon, which I’m guessing would require crossing the stream. We weren’t quite dressed for it, and a girl assured me the water was “c-c-cold.” We did come across a trickle of water running down the rock face like a mini-waterfall tinkling into a tiny lake.

A little way past where the stream curved, a toddler crouched by the water while his father stood nearby and watched him entertain himself by throwing stones into it and playing. If that wasn’t a child’s idyll, I can’t think of what would be. And so much more than staring at or even interacting with electronics. Just sunshine, clouds, water, trees, plants, and stones on a perfect spring day. Even the mosquitoes seemed to hold back in the sunshine.

This time, we ate in Utica at Canal Port. We found the main street through town not just dominated by motorcycles, but completely taken over by them. At are our next stop, Foothills Organics, they told us that’s the norm for the warm weather months. The bikers who weren’t downtown, at Mix’s Trading Post, or cruising the twisty ups and downs of Route 71 had congregated at the gas station off the I-80 exit.

Move over, Marlon Brando.

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