2002 Anne Horton Writing Award
I am standing beside my truck. The engine is off and the windows are closed. As I reach into my pocket to press the remote lock button, the familiar click sound assures me that my dirty black truck will be here when I return. Stepping back to escape the engine heat rising up from underneath the truck, I turn to face into the cool fall breeze. It is always at this moment that I begin to feel the comfort of being in this place. The tension and complexities of normal everyday life begin to lose their tenacious grip. I have left my watch behind because I want to live in the moment, at least for a little while. I wait until no cars are in sight before crossing the road. Not seeing any cars bolsters my emotional illusion that there are no roads here. A large crow fervently berates me with loud cawing, making sure my presence will not go unnoticed.
The trip from the parking lot to the cliff is the admission price I must pay to be at the cliff Thick and seemingly endless tangles of sticker bushes guard the way in. At first I try to carefully step through them to avoid as many as possible. Lifting my feet high with each step, I attempt to bring my boots down through the small openings amidst the bushes. It is not easy to keep my balance while walking in this manner and I need to hold my arms up and out to my sides to keep from falling over. I can't help but laugh to myself, as I realize how I must look to anyone who might still be able to sec me from the road. I notice that the crow, which only a moment ago was so loudly protesting my intrusion into its territory, has suddenly become quiet. If a crow can look puzzled, I am quite sure that this particular crow looks puzzled right now! I decide to ignore the crow and concentrate on moving ahead. My forward progress is slow and the high stepping gait is exhausting. I soon give in to simply plowing through the stickers and letting my legs take the punishment. The long whip like branches of these sticker bushes are flexible and strong and the individual barbs point back toward the base of the bush like fishhooks. Sharper than a cat's claws these small sentinels bar passage to any one who is lacking determination. I long ago decided that a person has to want to be here. I press on until I clear the last bush with a triumphant lunge forward.
My favorite time of year to make this journey is in the late fall because I can forego the merciless assault of innumerable mosquitoes and biting flies. I take my time crossing a large sparse area decorated only with tall grass and the occasional jack pine. After crossing the prairie, I slog through a depression filled with thick and heavy mud that seems less like mud and more like wet clay mixed with glue. After clearing the mud hole I stop and try to scrape off as much of the gooey muck as possible using just a stick. I try not to get any on my hands because it's a long way to the river and I am not willing to waste water from my canteen to wash my hands. It's not that I don't want to dirty my hands, it's because I have my binoculars with me today and I don't want to get mud on the lenses. While scraping the mud from my boots I notice that there are ticks working their way up the outside of my jeans. I brush them off and wonder how many ticks are under my jeans. I decide not to worry about ticks until I get back to my truck. With the extra weight scraped off my boots it becomes an invigorating walk into the woods themselves.
I love these woods. They are a like a living cathedral with a ceiling painted not by Michelangelo, but by God himself. The pace of life in these woods does not abide by any manmade clock. I always lose track of time wandering amongst the gray and black shadowing of the rough and sometimes gnarled trunks. Although I have yet to spot one, I can hear the squirrels skittering about. They rummage through the undergrowth like bargain hunters at a flea market. A loud creaking noise draws my attention upwards. Squinting against the sunlight radiating through openings in the leafy canopy, I can make out a large section of a cottonwood tree that has broken away from the rest of its trunk and is now leaning against another tree. When the wind blows it creaks and groans as if it were in pain. If it falls today it will make a sound. I know because I will be here to hear it. The going is a little easier here because the ground is hard and dry and there are multitudes of deer trails to choose from. These trails are obvious to me as they snake through the undergrowth. Their meandering routes are not indicative of a lack of destination. Most of these trails lead to feeding areas, safe places to bed down or suitable places along the riverbank to drink, as well as preferred locations for crossing the highway. I am still a good distance north of the river so I try to pick out a trail that looks like it will take me the way I want to go. The trail I choose also begins the up and down traverse across several ravines that I must pass to reach the last climb. There are of course fallen trees to step over and new sticker bushes trying to claim territory, but I avoid them easily. I am however collecting burrs at an astonishing rate. My fingers are getting sore from picking them off. These hard little cactus wannabes are sharp. I carry a small stick and wave it high in front of me to catch the spider webs before they catch my face. I never seem to see the webs in time to duck under them.
After cutting through a small gully I begin my march up the last steep hill. This hill always seems like the longest to climb. The hill is long and covered with grass that is about a foot and a half long. 1 am always reminded of Walt Disney's hundred acre woods when I go up this hill. Sweaty and with my heart pounding I crest the hill and break into the clearing at the top. The sudden and expansive view is startling. The sky seems so huge and blue compared to the wooded gullies I have just come through. It is a clear day and I must squint to adjust to the sudden brightness. I pause to take some deep breaths and let my heart catch up with the rest of me. The cliff is high enough to allow me to see over the trees in most of the park and the trees across the river. This is a great spot. The clearing is framed on three sides by white pine and cedar trees. I close my eyes and the heady scent of these needled trees calms my soul. I am certain that I am no longer in Illinois, hut instead I have escaped to a distant small wilderness that is mine and mine alone. In all the years that I have been coming here I have never encountered anyone else here or any evidence of any one else having been here. It was here many years ago using the bark of a cedar tree that I succeeded in starting my first bow and drill fire.
The turkey vultures are here today. Lying on my back in the grass I watch them float with seeming effortlessness on the thermal updrafts. They seem to be watching me watch them. With their bright red heads they look like flying circus clowns on an invisible carnival ride. In the middle of the clearing is a flat round sandstone boulder about twelve feet across. It makes a great place to sit. As I look to the south across the Rock River I can view most of the Sinnissippi state forest. Sometimes boaters disrupt my reverie, but today the view seems remote and natural. If I look to the northeast in just the right spot I can see the spire of the Ogle county courthouse in Oregon. Today I prefer not to look. I would rather watch the river ripple through the shallows below me. I will sit here for awhile enjoying the peace and solitude, before I reluctantly give in to the clock once more and head back to my real life.