I believe a leaf of glass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.Walt Whitman
The beautiful forested trail you see above is actually in a county park in eastern Illinois called Forest Glen. I first visited the park several years ago when my husband and I were looking for a place to hold our wedding ceremony. I had always imagined I would get married high in the Bighorn Mountains near my home, but he had elderly family members who wanted to attend, and a mountain trail in Wyoming was definitely not going to work.
So it was a few months later I was dancing in an old barn with my granddaughter Chloe, only about three-years-old at the time, while Celtic musicians played in a corner by the fireplace and candlelight flickered. That day remains as one of my most precious memories, surrounded by music, family new and old, and the western edge of the beach-maple and oak-hickory forest that extends from the eastern states to Illinois. Outside the barn were red bud and dogwood trees in bloom. This lover of mountain forests was now in love with the eastern woodlands. We returned there several times on visits to my husband’s home and walked the trails in the spring, when they were dotted with unusual wildflowers I had never seen before.
I might have at one time eschewed this county park, a flat preserve through which the Vermillion River flows. It was not far from paved roads, hardly wilderness. Real trees grew in the west on real mountains. . .great tall ones like the ones that surrounded our campsites in the Olympics when I was young: western red cedar, Douglas fir, and western hemlock, heavily forested valleys through which rivers tumbled amid rapids from glaciers and snow melt, big leaf maple whose branches held long green ropes of club moss. I actually felt sad for people who did not have a real forest nearby.
I managed to get over this western elitism. Beautiful parks like Forest Glen helped that process, but I also believe that my countless mornings in camp with a cup of tea and a field guide gave me an appreciation for the minutia that hikers in a hurry typically miss. A leaf of grass is no less wonderful when it is growing in a county park under hardwood trees than in an alpine meadow with jagged peaks nearby. A withered old hickory tree is still the journey-work of the stars, as is the ancient bristlecone pine in the high Sierras.
Sadly many hikers have not figured this out and have become what I think of as “high country snobs.” A forested river valley is merely a route to the pass where the real views can be found. A river is not a river unless there are rapids and waterfalls.
When my daughter and I hiked the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail several years ago we started at Bridge of the Gods, where the trail crosses through the Columbia River Gorge, a mighty chasm in the earth where the river cuts through the Cascade Mountains, and the thru hiker is returned to sea level after weeks of high country in the High Sierras and Oregon Cascades. In stopping to chat along the trail with these hikers, most expressed disappointment about this boring stretch of trail. The forest blocks the views. The magnificent high country of the Goat Rocks area lies ahead. Get there as soon as possible seems to be the mind set.
I know this attitude well because I shared it for many years, but especially as I age I become more grateful for the county parks and the woodland trails so close to the cities. Perhaps it is even more important to preserve natural areas such as these, readily accessible to the city dweller.
I have chosen to live near an isolated town in the Okanogan Highlands, where I am surrounded by ponderosa pine trees with a view of the Kettle River Mountains to the east. I love my home. I also loved my former home on the Olympic Peninsula. I can promise you that when I visit there next, I will take time to walk the trails of Fort Townsend, the site of an old Army post. If it is spring there will be trillium in bloom on the forest floor, maybe Pacific rhododendron, or even calypso orchids growing close to the leaf mold. Noise from the traffic will be heard from the highway leading to Port Townsend. The flowers do not seem to mind.