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Bathed in the glow of a brilliant sunset, with our minds calm and serene after a brisk hike through the park, serenaded along the way by the low-pitch croaks of what sounded like a thousand bullfrogs, this was a perfect way to end the day.

Nature is like that. She soothes and delights, amazes and inspires. And precisely why we should embrace more of her every chance we get.

Inspired by recent conversations with family as well as posts that I’ve read here in The Land of Blog, I’ve compiled my own Bucket List of adventures, goals and achievements to strive for before the days, weeks, months and years really start to slip away from me…

The point of creating a Bucket List, to my way of thinking, isn’t (or shouldn’t be) another means of self-flagellation for things not done or opportunities frittered away but rather as a vehicle for self-exploration, for contemplating your inner wants and needs, passions and desires and in the process of enumerating goals and perhaps unattainable ideals, learning something about what really means the most to you.

I’ve created my Bucket List – the beginnings of one anyway – fresh off the heels of a life-changing trip to Estes Park where my husband and I reveled in the joy and beauty of hiking in the Rocky Mountains.  This analysis of what I’d like to do and achieve prior to kicking the proverbial bucket, in part, reinforced (as did our hiking adventures this fall) the great satisfaction I found in participating in outdoor activities in my 20s and 30s – camping, hiking, spelunking, rappelling, exploring – gloriously fun times spent both with friends and with my son as well as solitary forays into the woods to hike or photograph or just spend time alone to think.

And so, what I’ve inscribed onto my Bucket List thus far is as follows:

  1. Master our new Canon 70D SLR
  2. Get myself published on Freshly Pressed
  3. Hike the Grand Canyon
  4. Relearn to crochet
  5. Bag me a 14er in Colorado
  6. Visit and explore New England
  7. Visit and explore Alaska
  8. Visit and explore Scotland, England and Ireland
  9. Experience Niagara Falls
  10. Drive up along Michigan’s North Shore Drive
  11. Travel to Instanbul
  12. Learn to kayak

Working towards one’s goals can serve, also, as a motivator like none other.  I know exercise and eating well is something I need to and should do for good health.  It’s a gnawing concern and one I strive to manage.  But yearning to hike to the top of a 14,000 foot mountain – and I ain’t getting any younger! – is going to require more than just sheer will and determination.  I need to prepare my body for this particular goal.  Visualizing myself standing at the top one of those magnificent peaks is more than adequate motivation to get myself in shape to accomplish my objective.

Travel and photography, well, I already know I love these pursuits so including them on my list with the goal of learning more and expanding what I already know, what I’ve already seen and done, is exciting and enticing.  I learned to crochet in my early 20s and have never returned to it.  I believe it’s time now to do so.  And what WordPress blogger doesn’t dream of being featured on Freshly Pressed?

This list may not stand, it may (and should!) change over time and hopefully, by the end of 2015, I’ll have #5 crossed off, and perhaps replaced with the goal of bagging yet another.  We’re already researching options and making plans.  For me, planning an adventure is half the fun!

So.  What’s on YOUR bucket list?

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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.

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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!

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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My husband and I (no, NOT pictured here!) just returned from a week in Colorado. We stayed in Estes Park and had ourselves a wonderful time. Hiking the trails in Rocky Mountain National Park was more lovely, more beautiful, more amazing than I could have ever imagined. We only scratched the surface of what the park has to offer and so, like General MacArthur, we shall most certainly return – perhaps time and time again.

An interesting observation that Bill and I both made during our visit was the surprising number of elderly hikers on the trails. We encountered this lively couple on two separate outings as we made our way ever upward, navigating steep inclines, large rocks and loose gravel en route to incredible vistas, towering cliffs, rushing streams, golden aspens and roaring waterfalls. The woman shown here is 65, a cancer survivor and her partner is 80. We chatted about this ‘elderly phenomenon’ with some younger hikers at one point on the trail. They had hooked up the day before with a couple who were both 85, one of whom had had a knee replacement. The octogenarians took them through a shortcut in the trail that they knew about and the youngsters told us they had a hard time keeping up.

How cool is that?

Some of these seniors told us they had been hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park for 30-35 years which is probably key to their ability to traverse this challenging terrain with such ease. But I don’t think that tells the whole story. To a person, everyone we spoke to exhibited an enthusiasm and a joy of living that, I believe, helps to propel them forward just as surely as the hiking boots on their feet or the hiking poles held in each hand.

Inspiring? You bet. The time is NOW to get out there and enjoy life: To commune with nature, to eat healthy and be active, to keep putting one foot in front of the other whether as ‘flat-landers’ (as the couple above described themselves) or as experienced hikers in any one of our nation’s amazing national and state parks. John Muir once said “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…”

After a week spent in awe of Rocky Mountain National Park, I could not agree more.

IMG_0037 I don’t know about other areas of the U.S. (or other countries for that matter) but here in the Midwest bike trails have been developed to run along pathways formerly used by old railway lines. This weekend my husband and I walked one of these bike trails, the High Trestle Trail where we began our brief excursion at the trailhead in the small Iowa town of Woodward.

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The path we travelled was pleasantly wide enough for bikes to pass by easily and was lined on either side with lush green vegetation, wild flowers and ivy climbing over anything in its path. It somewhat reminded us of the kudzu we’d seen once during a visit to North Carolina. Bunnies ran across the trail and into the brush while butterflies and birds swooped in and out of all that beautiful greenery. It was beautiful and peaceful and invigorating all at the same time!

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As the name implies this bike trail makes its way to an old trestle bridge. Unfortunately this particular visit did not allow us time enough to explore and photograph it further on what was turning out to be a very splendid summer day; we did, however, hike this trail on my 55th birthday two years ago in February.

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It was relatively warm for a winter day, sunny and just a little breezy. Bill and I hiked out to the bridge late that afternoon (coming from the opposite direction than we did this past weekend) and since it was our first visit there we didn’t know what to expect. My husband likes to tease me about being ‘high maintenance’ (I’m not. Really. Well, okay. Maybe a little…) but this is my kind of day and my kind of adventure! The fresh air, the open vistas, walking through nature. I love doing this sort of thing. After about a half an hour trek we finally made our way to the bridge itself.

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The view was incredible — all that wide open space — and we were up so high. This was, remember, a former railway line and we were on top of a trestle bridge that, according to their website, is 130 feet high. With such a grand viewing platform it was only a little surprising when we caught sight of several deer running out into the clearing from the woods nearby. It was the highlight of an already wonderful day!

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Readers familiar with the area will be quick to point out that my photos fail to include what is best known, perhaps, about the High Trestle Trail and that is the view after dark. Unfortunately, we have yet to visit the trail for a nocturnal hike (definitely on my Local Bucket List!) and there are no words I can employ to adequately describe the bridge at night. Please check out the website and their photo gallery for a grand array of photos — including those taken in the evening — to get an even better idea of what this wonderful Iowa treasure has to offer!

Some Iowa natives grumble about the weather here (our winters can be brutal and the summers dreadfully hot and humid). Others complain of nothing to do and being stuck in ‘fly over country’. Some young people are often anxious to leave the area for ‘greener pastures’ only to return to the comfort and tranquility of life here in the Midwest after a few years. Count me, however, as one proud Iowan. We may not have grand canyons or great lakes but I think the beauty and peacefulness of places here in Iowa such as the High Trestle Trail have a charm all their own and I am glad to call this place home.