On Wednesday after lunch, Zach and I decided that we did not just want to sit around all day. He had Wednesday and Thursday off, and our original plans to hike on the Katy Trail were thwarted by flooding and the threat of thunderstorms. We poked around on the Internet, and finally decided to throw our camping gear into the car and head out for Giant City State Park in southern Illinois. It has a 12-mile loop trail called the Red Cedar Trail that we were eager to check out.
The drive took us about three hours with traffic, during which we listened to Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits. I never remember how much I love the plain cornfields and tiny run-down towns of Illinois until I see them again: they are more familiar to me than most of Missouri because of our frequent trips through them when I was a kid. This drive was particularly beautiful because threatening dark blue clouds gathered in the sky, but a strong evening light fell on the wheat fields, turning them a vivid yellow-white.
It rained a bit on our car, but by the time we reached the park, it let up, leaving behind a cool breeze and a lovely rain-washed night. We checked in with the campground host, a woman in her 50s with a voice reduced to ash by cigarettes. As we petted her fluffy longhaired terrier, she told us about the area.
We told her we were planning on hiking the Red Cedar Trail. She looked at us sharply over her glasses and said, “I do not recommend that trail. The maintenance guys haven’t gotten out to clear it, so it’s overgrown and hard to follow. And there are lots of ticks.”
Zach and I looked at each other, and we silently agreed we’d be trying the trail anyway. The longest trail besides that was a two-mile stroll.
For eight bucks, we got a nice little campsite with a fire ring and a picnic table underneath some fir trees. As we were setting up our tent, our neighbors from the next site over asked if wanted some brats. My mommy taught me to never turn down free food, so we gladly accepted.
Soon we were seated at their picnic table underneath a tarp in case of rain, with fragrant citronella candles burning. The guy’s name was Dave and the girl’s name was Carol. They were both special-ed teachers from the Chicago area. We chatted with them over bratwursts and sautéed peppers about their plans to take a cross-country trip and our plans to hike the PCT. As we talked, the forest around us grew dark and the flicker of the candles grew brighter and brighter. After a great conversation, we bid them goodnight and retreated to the tent.
It was sticky and warm in the tent because of the humidity, and I slept on top rather than under our sleeping bag. I slept decently that night, drifting in and out of sleep to hear rain pattering on our tent— and later to hear Zach waking up with a pinched nerve that gave him severe pain in his arm. After that I listened to him slip into a shallow sleep.
I listened to his breathing for a while, then turned my attention to the outside noises. In the distance, two owls hooted back and forth to each other. I tried to think of how to explain the rhythm of their hoots. I came up with “hip hip hooray” and “stop, drop and roll” before I remembered that the barred owl is said to call, “Who cooks for you?” That was it.
I listened to a whip-poor-will joining the nighttime chorus. The whip-poor-will calls at Buford Mountain were soft and a bit haunting; this one sounded like he was cussing out the owls.
After a while, I heard the strangest owl call: it was loud and droning. I listened to it, trying to figure out what kind of owl this might be. After a full minute, I abruptly realized it wasn’t an owl— it was a mourning dove. Morning had come.
A 12-mile adventure was waiting for us.
And so were the ticks.
Coming soon… part two of the exciting saga!