Editor’s note: John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School.
I was sweating.
In cold weather sweating is discouraged, but my predicament wasn’t going to get better with contemplation. Anxiety was approaching panic, my son had already passed that threshold. Darkness was descending and there were no lights, or sounds of civilization.
Will I have to confess we were lost, again?
Iowa has patches of wild lands. But no one mistakes our nature for wilderness. In fact, there are no wilderness areas in the land between two rivers.
If a place allows escape from modernity, then it’s wild enough. As a boy, the vacant lot next to my home hosted many adventures into the wilds of Africa and Alaska as long as my mind was willing.
My trip to White Pine Hollow State Preserve proved a place can be small on a map but also big enough to get lost, figuratively and literally. I like to fish and explore new places. When trout’s the gilled goal, the former compliments the latter so agreeably that the catching is superfluous (truth be told it’s my tradition).
The trout stream lied north and west of the modest parking area. The absence of a trail was exciting: real exploring. The boy kept a good pace and cheerful mood. Ambling through open woods was refreshing. The high canopy of oak suppressed the undergrowth. Instead of fighting brambles and honeysuckle, we coursed a carpet of leaves. An eagle in flight caught my eye and helped me to notice the change: a phalanx of White Pines and gray sky.
The forest ended abruptly, we heard water below on this oddly still afternoon. We picked our way down the limestone face to the canyon floor, the rift too narrow to be called a valley. Experience said the trout stream was down there.
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We found a stream too meager for trout so we followed the water north to where I believed it met a larger flow. More eagles soared overhead, the better to encourage daydreaming. Junk from an abandoned farmstead reminded we still were in Iowa. I found the large stream. My son found a skeletonized deer. The deer held greater interest.
Another errant cast empowered my son to claim a chill and his desire for the car — and snacks. I agreed, just a simple climb to the forest and then we’d be there with plenty of daylight to spare.
The call of an eagle should have been my clue. And then we entered a grove of White Pines I didn’t recall. Three eagles flew from the high reaches in noisy disapproval of our interruption. I tried to engage my son about the merits of White Pine and roosting habits of eagles but he was focused on the end, not the journey.
A curious slot canyon confronted us. Confused but adamant, I proclaimed the way out was across the gap. Down we slid, hand-over-hand we climbed and then I knew I was wrong. Not lost, mind you, because there still was daylight, or at least I convinced myself. Besides, we were in Iowa. How could I actually get lost?
The reverse was too steep so we followed the frozen water until we emerged into the canyon we first visited. Relief.
Our beeline to the original descending spot was interrupted by another carcass, this one fresh and unmolested. A mature eagle unnaturally hugged the forest floor. My son asked to touch it. I said no, that would be disrespectful. He asked to have a feather. I said no, that was illegal.
We paused, kneeling. An unspoken pause filled the void, like a hasty wake, and then we pressed on.
By the time we reached the oak forest, we were definitely in twilight. Recently cheerful, my son now traded in nervous questions. I tried to fill him with positive thoughts, heavy clouds and no trail made that a fantasy.
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Darkness makes distances stretch. His trembling voice suggested tears. We walked — no trotted — faster. He held my right hand. Brambles grabbed our legs, branches raked our faces, forward was our only choice.
Darkness was almost as absolute as my certainty we were near. Though equally certain was the realization we’d have to sit tight and try to call for help. And as my body was negotiating a decision under duress, I made out the gravel path to the parking.
I told my son, equally breathless. He didn’t believe me. It wasn’t until we were just about to the car that he noticed its odd outline; he slipped my grip and raced to it, hugging the car like a sailor rejoining his family.
There are places to get lost in Iowa, most on purpose. Rambling in Iowa can be as exhilarating as in northern Minnesota. The excitement can take the form of finding new nooks, gathering space between you and civilization to wonder, or an existential crisis of geography. If you seek, what will you find?
Looking up, looking ahead and keeping my pencil sharp.