PilotKnob

The winding, hilly path from the main, north entrance of the park to the back entrance to the south and east covers almost three miles and as such, is the perfect course to train for 10k runs or, if one is a little less ambitious, overall fitness goals like improved stamina and a slimmer waistline.

While I’d actually once run entrance to entrance (and back again) with a girlfriend, I normally preferred to simply walk this somewhat challenging route instead. Either way, it provided me with an effective workout and besides, I always loved the peaceful, quiet setting surrounded by thick woods, native flora, birds, squirrels and other wildlife that called this place home. I recall once seeing a doe resting in the shadows along a hiking path and being surprised by a garter snake underfoot at the bottom of a steep trail as well as wild turkeys that quietly emerged from the deep woods totally unaware of my presence as I hiked. My son and I enjoyed stumbling across puffball mushrooms and the occasional morel and we also took great delight in small discoveries such as the three small stone bridges built along one of the trails. And every trip to Pilot Knob State Park required we make the steep climb to the tower with its stellar view of the surrounding countryside.

CountrysideView

Some thirty years later I’m struck by the realization that if only I had continued with those daily treks, where my hour long hikes led me up and down a variety of paths and horse trails throughout the park, I might be in pretty fantastic physical shape right now. Our recent trip to Colorado (where my husband and I experienced true elevation!) reminded me of those tranquil moments that my son and I both enjoyed with so much satisfaction. When my legs were weary and my spirit even more so, I would utter the mantra I’ve used my entire adult life: one foot in front of the other, keep moving forward. And so too, I must look toward possibilities of what I can and might and WILL do rather than nurturing regrets and grievances over what I have failed to accomplish or to dwell on mistakes that I’ve made.

Nature is like that. Beautiful, serene and thought provoking. A wondrous cocoon, a place that offers both comfort and protection as well as a harsh landscape that demands respect and must be navigated with care, Mother Earth tugs at something deep within us as nothing else can or does. Sadly, there are too many who have allowed material, superficial ‘realities’ – wants, needs and desires driven by marketing ploys and a 24×7 culture – to negate and minimize and essentially diminish (if not destroy) any recognition of what our planet has to offer.

But for those of us who see and appreciate the beauty all around us, we are forever changed by the possibilities and opportunities to live a pretty heady life of wonder, adventure, peace and joy!

IMG_0558

Watching the marching band perform pre-game today (another cringe-worthy loss – don’t ask), I snapped this photo of their – what DO they call these things: hats? helmets? head gear? – anyway, the Things They Wear On Their Heads – lined up like so many soldiers standing at attention on a brick wall near Alumni Hall. I like the orderly display of these elegantly adorned uniform pieces, each one outfitted in grand fashion with shiny medallion, gold braid and fluffy white plume.

The cadence of drums and clanging of cymbals, the cheers of the crowd and the pep squad routines all help to fire up the faithful before every game. The crowd claps and cheers their enthusiastic approval under a sunny sky that helps to offset the chilly, breezy November air. Our college mascot, on display throughout the huge tailgate lot on flags, banners, party RV’s, stocking caps and jackets, with our school colors of cardinal and gold, provides a colorful backdrop to bag toss games, grilling, canopies and liquid spirits. The carnival atmosphere, steeped in tradition, brings friends and family together for every home game ensuring fond memories for years to come – even when the win-loss record (such as is the case this particular season) is horribly out of balance.

Go Cyclones!

When I was in tenth grade, during the early 70’s – the Jesus Freak era – I belonged to an ecumenical church group. Comprised of young Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists and Catholics, we met in each other’s homes and churches, studied both the Old and New Testaments, sang hymns, attended retreats and ‘witnessed’ at prayer meetings and church services, both locally and throughout the state.

This loose-knit circle of friends, bound by a youthful exuberance and our various religious indoctrinations, became known as Corn Flakes. One of the group’s charter members, Cindy, an easy going strawberry blond with a big smile and infectious laugh, commented on the letters CF printed at the top of a variety pack single serving box of Corn Flakes, cheerfully observing that CF also stood for Christian Faith. The name stuck.

All these years later, I still have the paperback Bible (with the words ‘The Way’ colorfully emblazoned on the cover) that I carried with me to prayer meetings and read from each night. Many of the greetings and salutations, scribbled on the blank front and back pages by my fellow Flakes and new friends that I’d met during spiritual forays to other churches, are barely discernible now. Flipping through the pages, I see via the chapter chart that I used then to track my progress of each book in the Bible, that I had successfully completed reading Genesis, Exodus, Ruth, Job, Ecclesiastics, Song of Solomon, Jonah, Malachi, most of Ezekiel, parts of Psalms, Matthew, Luke, John, Romans, 1st Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 1st and 2nd Peter, 1st, 2nd and 3rd John, Jude and the first four chapters of Revelations.

During our weekly prayer meetings, we sat in a circle and sang favorite hymns like Amazing Grace, shared individual stories of faith and offered encouragement to those who struggled to keep on truckin’. Corn Flakes was occasionally invited to sing at church services and we travelled to other communities for weekend retreats to meet with other like-minded young people. Most of this activity was fairly mainstream (relative to my Catholic upbringing) although an outdoor gathering (vivid in my mind even today) of a young woman ‘speaking in tongues’ was a bit unsettling while a weekend retreat at a Baptist church where congregants were encouraged to come forward for a good old fashioned baptismal dunking was both odd and alluring (and yes – I complied with their invitation).

While my beliefs have evolved over time, bearing little or no resemblance to those heady days of Jesus-inspired religious fervor, I have fond memories of my Corn Flake years. Thanks to social media I have continued to maintain ties with many of the wonderful people I spent so much time with during my teenage years. Many of them still carry with them a strong faith and spirituality – two of them, one male and one female, are ministers – while some, like me, have changed their views or at the very least don’t use Facebook as a launching pad to broadcast their beliefs one way or another.

Music is a strong influence at any age but especially so when you are in your teens. I spent hours listening to the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar and, to a lesser degree, Godspell. While I now consider myself an agnostic / secular humanist, I am still moved by this music. I believe this has somewhat to do with the emotional attachment of my early efforts to define who I was and what I believed in but mostly because the music is just so incredible. The melodies, vocals, instrumentals, lyrics and the mood of pieces such as Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say) can still punch a hole in my gut and bring tears to my eyes. It’s the most powerful song on that album.

After listening for some time to the lyrics of Jesus Christ Superstar and trying to wrap my head around the mindset of the people who followed Jesus at that time and those who sought his crucifixion, I visited a Lutheran college bookstore in an effort to locate reading material to explain what the culture and social norms were at that time, how people thought back then and why. I remember wanting something non-religious, a secular approach (a phrase, however, that was not part of my vocabulary at that time) – not an explanation of events as depicted in the Bible but something rather that had no self-serving agenda. Basically, just the facts ma’am. I also recall thinking something about this whole Jesus Died on the Cross for Our Sins story just didn’t make sense to me. My then 10th grade mind also found the concept of imposing someone’s religious beliefs on others vis-à-vis the law as just not right. A lot to process when you’re only 15 years old.

So the roots of my eventual religious evolution coincided with my formative years while I was actively involved with an ecumenical church group. I actually find this incredibly amazing given that this examination of doctrine, of what I’d been taught in church – the belief system that was shared not only by my Corn Flake friends but my family, my peers, my community – was something that I questioned as a teen-ager without any of the influences we see today in the era of Instant Everything: news, information, social media, cable news, TV, movies and print journalism. On my own, of my own volition, I began to formulate ideas – ideas for which I felt guilty and not a little uneasy. Ideas that I tried to shout down in my mind with the mantras I’d been raised to know and regard as Truth.

The day would come though, in my late 40’s / early 50’s, when I would finally embrace that which I had tried to obscure from my very own consciousness for so long. What finally nudged me to accept that my views, my current beliefs, these ideas that had been running in the background of my mind for all these years – that all of this was valid and had merit – was after I read The DaVinci Code. While I understood the ‘fictionality’ of this runaway bestseller (not a terribly well written book, mind you), it got me thinking and wondering and it awakened in me all those doubts and questions from so many years ago.

I began to read books and watch documentaries about Christianity and Judaism and the history of these (and other) religions. My bookshelves are filled with books that I’ve read by religious scholars and both current and former ministers – some who were admittedly a bit militant whereas others were, like me, genuinely questioning all that they had been raised to believe was Right and True and Real.

What I found was not so much answers to my questions – in fact, I found very few for I believe there are many questions for which no one really knows the answers or the Truth (although they are quite adamant in believing and professing that they do) – but instead I discovered along the way others (many others, more and more all the time) who share my religious world view and more importantly, because of this, I felt liberated. I no longer felt that even though what I believed (or rather what I did not believe) was based on very honest and genuine ideas and views, I didn’t have to (nor did / do I!) feel guilty or uneasy for thinking that way. This alone was a tremendous relief.

I don’t expect my ‘religiously inclined’ family and friends to understand let alone accept where I’ve arrived at today in my Adventures in Free Thinking. And I won’t be surprised to discover that I may lose some Facebook friends or followers on my blog for making these views known. I would, however, ask those who know me and wish to comment, that you do so respectfully just as I will endeavor to return the favor in a respectful and forthright manner.

And for all my Corn Flake buddies out there, keep on truckin’!

 

IMG_4591

Cock your hat – angles are attitudes. ~ Frank Sinatra

How a hat makes you feel is what a hat is all about. ~ Philip Treacy

A crown is merely a hat that lets the rain in. ~ Frederick the Great

A hat should be taken off when you greet a lady and left off for the rest of your life.  Nothing looks more stupid than a hat.  ~ P.J. O’Rourke

I can wear a hat or take it off, but either way it’s a conversation piece. ~ Hedda Hopper

One thing they never tell you about child raising is that for the rest of your life, at the drop of a hat, you are expected to know your child’s name and how old he or she is. ~ Erma Bombeck

 

IMG_4808

My 20s and 30s – and a sizeable chunk of my 40s – were spent allocating far too many hours, days, weeks (and more) agonizing over matters of little import, wasting precious time, energy and mojo fixated on imperfections, minutia and Other People’s Business which only served to diminish my own standing with self.

It should be easy, intuitive even, to recognize that the less stressful path to peace of mind is best pursued not from forceful, hand-wringing, futile attempts to guide events toward a self-determined outcome but rather in accepting and responding to life’s outrageously misfortunate slings and arrows with as much dignity and resolve as we are able to muster.

Don’t like how something has turned out, unfolding in directions that are out of alignment with your own wants, needs and desires? Adapt and / or find your own way, your own path, your own happiness, your own destiny. Stop lamenting over what is and wailing (to any who will lend an ear) about how life done did you wrong.

And yet, this is difficult to do. Certainly, it’s challenging enough if one is circumspect and so able to analyze a bump in the road with calm, steely resolve but damn near impossible once you find yourself already tightly coiled (guilty as charged!) within a maelstrom of anxiety and emotions, frustration and annoyance.

A few years ago, I set a goal for myself (continuously renewed!) to try to live more in the moment, to tackle life as it comes with a quieter strength, with grace and good humor while actively seeking to live more delightfully, giving myself up to all that is good and real and lovely much as a child sees and interacts with the world. Listening to children’s laughter, watching their sense of wonder and curiosity, seeing them play with such freedom and abandon, gently reminds us of the innocence and joy we knew (or were entitled to know) when we were young.

Living delightfully – thrilling to the sight of a hawk perched on a fence post or soaring overhead, observing a lone egret, legs akimbo, standing in a marshy field, smiling at the recognition of a cardinal’s call, laughing at a shared private joke with a loved one, savoring a special meal surrounded by family and friends, enjoying the crackle and roar of a blazing fire, resting peacefully in quiet solitude after a hectic day – these experiences and others that provide immense satisfaction and peace are the lifeblood of our existence. If we don’t appreciate, cherish and relish these nuggets of happiness, we do ourselves a great disservice. I don’t know that anything is sadder than to observe someone who is merely plodding through life without enthusiasm, without gaiety, knowing no festivity or frolic, one whose life is anything but filled with comfort or warmth or cheer.

For me, I choose to live delightfully. Because otherwise, really, what is the point?

I fear, Dear Reader, that my outdated views on this particular topic are an undeniable indication that I have entered that final, sad realm of a woman’s life known as Upper Middle Age and that I am now firmly, irrevocably and forever more considered No Longer With It.

It always surprises me to see women wearing dresses and skirts, their painted toenails jammed into sporty little high heels, and they aren’t wearing panty hose but instead are naked from the hemline on down. Seriously? For one thing, I don’t think it’s a flattering look whatsoever. The sleek, finished look of hose on leg is much more attractive. Why do women think its preferable to go au naturel? It has to be kind of chilly too I would think. Whether it’s the AC cranked uber high in the summer time or the chill of autumn or even – I can’t bear to think of it – the frigid air of winter, I still see women with bare legs sticking out beneath their upper layers. What is up with that? Do they have space heaters ‘up above’ blowing hot air to warm their thighs, knees, calfs (calves?), ankles and tootsies? I also wonder: Don’t their feet get blistered with nothing to cushion their skin against the constant chafing of those leather pumps they’re wearing? And last but not least, I have to believe those Manolo Blahniks get mighty sweaty and stinky with nothing to buffer and absorb the perspiration oozing off their feet all day long.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I really am No Longer With It but damn, I’m warm, I’m comfortable, my legs shimmer with a smooth trace of color – a la Barely There and Pearl, two of my faves — and my shoes don’t smell bad.

At least I don’t think they do…

Sometimes I feel like the world’s biggest jerk. Everyday annoyances and pet peeves – humph. I’m a fool to let such inconsequential things get me all riled up but still they do. My life, while far from perfect and not without challenges or constraints, is holding up pretty darn well, thank you very much. I am fairly healthy and gainfully (and comfortably) employed. My husband treats me like a queen, makes me laugh and is a wonderful BFF. We are financially stable, my son is thriving in both in his career and in his personal life, we live in a beautiful home and we’re happy – plain and simple.

But – News Flash! – I’m human and as such I’m as prone as the next guy (or gal) to grumbling when things don’t quite go my way or aren’t to my liking. And for that I feel pretty sheepish at times, embarrassed even.

It’s just that, well, it’s the way some folks (okay – LOTS of folks) don’t bother to reciprocate during conversations by asking me questions about MY weekend or showing even a modicum of interest in MY life – while I’m happy to query them about theirs and listen patiently with a smile on my face, nodding with interest, encouraging them to go on. Or when people at work don’t bother to clean up after themselves, leaving sinks and countertops sloppy and gooey with coffee grounds or pizza crusts or chili con carne and not wiping up their messes. I also find annoying (and I’ll admit that, yes this is really pretty doggone trivial) the local tradition we learned of when we moved to the Des Moines metro nine years ago known as Beggar’s Night where kids Trick or Treat a day or two prior to Halloween INSTEAD OF just taking the kids door to door ON Halloween. They’ve been doing it for decades and while it’s cute how the kids usually tell a joke to get their candy I still think it’s silly that they don’t do it ON Halloween. What’s the point then of there even being a day called Halloween?

See what I mean? Some incredibly petty things to get upset about, right?

Oh. And can we go back to Halloween for a minute? It IS that time of year, after all. What is up with kids ringing the doorbell, bags thrust forward, expectantly waiting for the candy to fall and not saying a word? When WE were kids (‘Get off my lawn!’), we always and eagerly shouted ‘Trick or Treat!’ as soon as the door was opened. And it was simply unthinkable that we would ever fail to say ‘Thank You’ after we’d been treated. Kids these days!

Indeed, I know what you’re thinking. ‘Julie, you ARE the biggest jerk in the world’. Because I do KNOW that this stuff means nothing. It’s just not worth it to get all worked up over something so frivolous and irrelevant. But there it is and here I am – warts and all. At least, at least I can take some comfort in knowing I am not alone. Everyone gets up in arms over day to day nuisances once in awhile. Mine may not be the same as yours but our shared humanity tells me that we all have our days. Some of those days just may be uglier and more unattractive than others, that’s all.

So to compensate I try to be more positive.  I clean up the spilled coffee and I laugh at all the kid’s funny Halloween jokes and that’s why I’ll continue to sit there, smiling encouragingly and try to put the focus on the other person in an effort to make them feel appreciated, liked and admired despite their cluelessness in not extending me that same courtesy. Sometimes, though, it really is a challenge.

IMG_4452

In a place like this, it’s impossible not to gaze in wonder at the beauty that surrounds you. The quiet, the stillness, the solitude – it’s always there, in the dark of night, in the early morning, at the end of each day. I get it now, why people speak so lovingly and with such enthusiasm for not just this particular place but anywhere that nature takes us, pulling us in, away from day to day worries, cares and concerns. When I was in my 30’s, a group of friends and I, with my young son, went camping and hiking several times throughout the year, exploring state parks, lakes and trails. Why is it that I let that go for so long? Our recent trip to Colorado has awakened that sense of wonder in me again. I yearn for it and find I’m happiest and most content when I’m outdoors, actively engaging with the natural world all around me.

My husband, knowing how much I enjoyed camping, proposed to me at an overlook at Bellevue State Park. It was the first and last time we used the new tent he purchased for the occasion. And then we got busy with graduating from college, starting our careers, buying a new house, remodeling, friends, family – our lives somehow got in the way of pursuing something that is simple enough to enjoy and yet we always maintained ‘sometime we’ll do that again’ but somehow we just never did.

Fall camping is my favorite time of year and we still have that tent. I don’t know that either of us wants to sleep on the ground anymore so a trip to ye old Bass Pro Shop may just be in order to check out more comfy options. Favorite memories are flooding my brain now: the sounds of the woods at night, hiking and exploration, great conversations (and fantastic meals!) around a roaring fire and being awakened by the songs of the birds in the trees. Lovely recollections and experiences so real and genuine that I’m actually stunned that I’ve failed to recreate them all these years since then.

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better. ~ Albert Einstein

Feeling adventurous and eager to play with our new toy – the Canon 70D we recently fell prey to in a weak mood of self-indulgence – Bill and I hopped in the car and drove to the High Trestle Trail last night around 8:00, our spirits buoyed by the gorgeous fall weather, clear skies and that wonderful stillness that often takes hold once the sun goes down.

Driving Kramer-style with a tank of gas teetering toward empty, we arrived in Madrid to gas up before heading to the trailhead with a few miles to spare before our tank went belly-up. Full throttle now, we continued on our way. There was no moon to guide us and the gravel road leading out of Madrid was lit only by our headlights with occasional flashes of illumination cast off from farm houses along the road. After two false leads (we had to turn around a couple of times and backtrack) we found the parking area for the trail. We’d only been here once before during the day; funny, isn’t it, how things look so much different at night.

As we pulled into the gravel parking lot, another vehicle was just leaving. While we were prepping ourselves with the camera, tripod and bug spray, we no longer had the place to ourselves as a new car pulled in to the darkened lot. Late at night, no streetlights or moon overhead, I’ll admit once we stepped onto the trail that leads to the bridge it felt both exhilarating and a little spooky. The trail to the bridge opened up in front of us, a converging path toward a dimly lit target in the distance. The leafless trees provided dramatic silhouettes against the dark, starry sky. It was breathtaking!

A friend had cautioned us to wear some kind of reflective gear or to carry a flashlight as it is difficult for the many bicyclists and pedestrians who use the trail to see others on the trail ahead. I soon learned the truth of her warning when seemingly out of nowhere we were able to discern two adult figures walking toward us. It wasn’t until they were literally right in front of me that I noticed they were each pushing strollers with two small children in tow. They issued a friendly greeting and I breathed a silent sigh of relief. This was great fun and I loved being out there but when you’re on a lonely stretch surrounded only by trees and sky late at night during the week and no one knows you’re out there – well, let’s just say it was easy for my imagination to get the better of me at times. Still, we pressed on knowing there were folks just ahead of us as well from that second car parked next to ours.

IMG_0078

Each end of the half-mile bridge is marked by two structures which are beautifully lit at night. These towers, artistically appointed, are 42 feet tall. According to the High Trestle Trail website, the dark bands represent geologic coal veins found in the area limestone deposits. As we approached the towers, I was reminded of our first visit here two years ago. The 13-story bridge, located between Madrid and Woodward over the Des Moines River, offers stunning views and is punctuated along the half-mile span with six overlooks. The bridge design includes 41 steel ‘frames’ covering the trail and extending the length of the bridge. At night, in the center of the bridge, these frames are illuminated by thin, cool, blue rods of light resulting in a dramatic burst of geometry.

IMG_0088

For a mid-October weeknight (precariously close to our normal bedtime), the trail was surprisingly busy. Some, like us, were outfitted with camera and tripod to snap a few photos while others, including a couple of groups with small children and babies, were apparently just out for the fresh air, starry skies and unique location. Bill and I experimented with aperture settings, ISO settings, shutter speeds and generally just played around with some of the many features on our new camera. Some photos were fairly successful.

IMG_0076

Others, not so much. (See the ‘ghost’?)

IMG_0075

After an hour and a half of walking the bridge and experimenting with our camera, we headed back to the car. By this time, the others had left and we were alone on the trail. After we’d walked some distance from the bridge towers, we noticed a strong beam of light behind us. Turning around to look, my first thought was someone was driving a car on the trail which is designated for non-motorized travel only. On closer inspection, we realized it was a pair of bicycles with very bright lights. Again, the riders called out a cheery greeting (perhaps regular users of trails, especially at night, recognize all too well the adrenaline rush of those they are about to pass, in a place where thoughts of vulnerability are utmost in one’s mind when an unknown entity approaches amidst all that isolated darkness!) Their gesture was greatly appreciated whether or not their intent was to tamp down fear. In any case, mission accomplished.

We continued on (with both of us reveling in the intensity of their bicycle light beams even as the distance between us increased over time) until at last we reached the intersecting gravel road that led to the parking lot. Another moment of apprehension as a car drove toward us and then turned around. Its passengers, however, had simply made the same mistake we’d made earlier and overshot the entrance to the parking lot. Ten o’clock on a Thursday evening and here were two more daring souls seeking the peace and solitude of hiking this popular trail built on a former railroad bed on a beautiful October evening under a clear sky bursting with stars and wispy streaks of clouds while being serenaded by the sound of chirping crickets and a gentle breeze.

On the way home it occurred to me that while our recent trip to Colorado and the magnificent Rocky Mountains was incredibly inspiring, beautiful and fulfilling, so too was this little outing that I had just enjoyed with my husband, my partner by my side.