Abundant free time and empty pockets are not great partners in a grand vacation. Or are they? Curiosity bloomed like flowers as I watched birds flying from the woods behind my house to the feeders hanging from the roof over the deck.
I sprang into action. A major shift in perspective was needed. Unwittingly, I equated vacations with locations far from home and considerable expense. With my laptop in hand, I searched for things to do in my own backyard – Southern Illinois. Despite having grown up here, I found many unfamiliar places.
Illinois, aka the Prairie State, would be described by most who have driven its roads as a flat plain filled with vibrant green corn fields. A trip off the beaten path to explore the less familiar reaped a treasure trove of hills, caves, forests, and sandstone and limestone cliffs and rock formations.
Vacations should be quests that take us to places that are beautiful, unfamiliar, and strange. I narrowed my choices down to those that fit that description and met the other all-important requirement – they must be free. I decided to spend a weekend hiking and exploring the hills and trails in the Shawnee National Forest – the same hills and trails explored by Lewis and Clarke!
I set out on the first morning for Larue Pine Hills. I began my hike up Inspiration Trail, a trail that stretches 1¾ mile from Pine Hills Road to the bluffs of Inspiration Point. The early morning air was crisp. A partially cloudy blue sky canopied a tree-lined trail. Dried leaves crunching underfoot, and chirping birds created a rhythm as I walked.
I carried my backpack (compass, map, water, extra shirt, first aid kit…) and Canon DSLR, and I walked at a slow but steady pace. About 30 minutes into my walk I stopped to rest and take pictures. I sat on a small round boulder near the trail, listening and watching. The smells of the forest and nearby Mississippi River were intoxicating. I heard a rhythmic knocking sound. The leaves of the trees were so thick that it was difficult to locate the origin of the sound, so I put the zoom lens on my camera and used it as binoculars. The scarlet redhead and black and white body were unmistakable. It was a red-headed woodpecker. I focused and snapped several photos.
I continued up the trail as it wound through the lush green forest and climbed toward the limestone bluffs of Inspiration Point. Animals were talking to each other – birds singing and squirrels chirping. Suddenly, a brown rabbit scampered across the trail with a red fox following closely behind. Taken by surprise, I stood there cursing under my breath that I had missed getting that picture.
I reached the basin of the bluff and climbed up to Inspiration Point. I was in awe of the beauty that lay before me as I gazed down the cliff at the sprawling lush green trees and undulating hills of the Shawnee Forest and meandering Mississippi River. I sat down on the bluff and let the peace close over me. Again, I used my zoom lens as binoculars. I saw heron and egrets along the shores of the river.
I sat there for an hour, entranced. Just as I stood up to say goodbye a bald eagle soared over the forest. I raised my camera as the majestic bird turned and flew toward the bluff. I snapped the photo at the moment that the eagle turned and tilted its wings as if to say goodbye.
My curiosity bloomed like flowers, and my search reaped a treasure trove of things I can do when I have abundant free time and empty pockets. You, too, should look in your own backyard.