In Iowa you rarely get the chance to discover hidden places seldom visited by others, but along the Cedar River, if you can navigate your way through the thick forest and along the serpentine creek bottom of Palisades-Dows Preserve, you will find this secluded beach surrounded by tall dolomite cliffs. It's the kind of place you won't see footprints on the beach, where fish still swim in the clear waters of the stream, and where columbines and ferns cling to clefts in the rock face.
Just a little down the road is the best campground in Nebraska. You've got to have high ground clearance to get there, though - you've got to cross the creek up ahead. It keeps the place nearly empty during the summer, aside from the horse trailers parked at the trailhead. A spring-fed stream hems the campground in between the high chalk bluffs of the Pine Ridge, and provides a cool, watercress-laced bath tub for road weary travelers. Just watch out for the mutant locusts...
We hiked for hours without finding so much as a ponderosa sapling for shade. The fire of '89 burned thousands of acres of Pine Ridge forests, and more than ten years later, little of it had grown back.
Part of the joy of travel is stumbling into the unexpected. "Hmmm...I wonder what is up that rutted-out gravel road?"
The other part of the joy of traveling is meeting new friends along the way - Seth and Bill, if you're out there, here's to watching the Milky Way under the canopy of pine trees in the cocoon of 100 degree spring water! (We didn't mind helping scrub algae off the bottom of the pool, as much as we did leaving the company of good friends in a mountain paradise)
Park rules ban climbing of the very climb-able sandstone cliffs at Wildcat Den. Many of the hand holds along the walls have been deepened through decades, if not centuries of climbing. I figure protective mothers are better at stopping kids from getting hurt here than are signs posted at the base of every cliff. Rules, sign posts and fences have done more to ruin our experiences with nature than have lawsuits filed by idiots who knew full well the risk they assume when climbing a 100 foot cliff without ropes, harnesses and helments. I suppose I should have had better shoes for climbing that Birkenstocks, but then again, barefoot is the best way.
Park rules now ban the carving of 'graffiti' into the soft sandstone at Wildcat Den State Park. While I appreciate the attempt to maintain the park for future visitors, there exists a rich cultural and historical tradition at Wildcat Den that you can only truly grasp when reading the scrawls in the rock. While the lovingly restored 19th Century Grist Mill and one-room schoolhouse gives you a taste of so-called 'authentic' history - the engravings along the cliffs here add a depth to the historical experience of the park that is all-to-often forgotten. Lovers scribing their companionship into stone for posterity to remember, children living out rebellion (in a way less harmful than drugs and driving too fast) through carved epitaphs, and vistiors leaving a piece of themselves just as they take a piece of this place with them in memory, they too embed history and culture into rock just as Native Americans have for centuries. What seperates our 'destruction' of rock outcroppings from 'indigenous rock art' of centuries past? The DNR has actually used a sandblaster to remove graffiti, leaving the cliffs with a strange, manufactured smoothness that resembles nature as much as the foundation of a building does. Our landscape is a human one - the sooner we come to terms with our own inevitable and inescapable presence on this planet, the sooner we can accept that the 'presevation' of it is a misguided attempt to ammeliorate our guilt for having come to dominate this planet. The solution is not write ourselves out of the history of landscape, but to find a way to appreciate the complexity, richness and depth of human experience in it.
Maquoketa Caves is one of the coolest state parks anywhere in this great country. Nowadays, there are fewer and fewer places where you get an unguided, hands-on experience with the bowels of the earth. Most peoples' experience of caves is a guided tour, hand rails built into carved paths, and the inevitable moment when the tour guide turns off the light and shows "what pure darkness is like." Nature today is a regulated experience, only available for a priveleged few who have either the money or the educational credentials. In the interior of this vast nation, there exists huge swaths of forgetten fly-over country where the freedom to go buck-wild and get muddy still exists, for those adventuresome and creative enough to find it.
This is one of the most well-preserved historic river towns on the Mississippi. We felt like we'd entered another century walking down the narrows lanes and paths of the village. Elsah sits just below the bluff-top Principia College - a Christian Science school with gorgeous Tudor-style campus buildings.
That's a Dodge Durango under there. We've been in blizzards from North Dakota to Nebraska. We've seen sixty mile per hour winds pack snow sideways against tree trunks six inches thick. We've pushed our way through snow drifts several feet tall. But I've never experienced the kind of dread I felt during this Rocky Mountain snow storm. On the Plains, the snow blows around like wind-driven shards of glass, piling up across roads, leaving flats stripped of snow and so enshrouding the horizon that you lose your sense of direction. None of this happened in the Rockies...it just kept snowing, and snowing, and snowing. Visibility wasn't the worst I'd ever seen, and the wind wasn't an issue...but watching the snow just pile up, wondering when and if it will ever stop, being sequestered in a small hotel room while the restaurants and grocers in town run out of food, waiting for TV signals to bring us news of road conditions (oh yeah, the War in Iraq started this week in 2003 - to add another dimension of surreality we had to watch "Shock and Awe" as well) was a type of dreadfullness that I never want to experience again - give me a plains blizzard anytime!
My wife is about 5'4", or 64". Total snow fall at Winter Park during the blizzard was 96"! I tried to repay the generosity of our hotel owner (a fellow Iowan!) by helping to scoop snow off the walk and parking lot. I shoveled my fair share of snow, but getting the last hotel room in Winter Park during the height of the blizzard was invaluable - the Iowa connection pays off once again (our friends had to pack 10 deep in a one-bedroom apartment in Fraser).