On Sunday, I decided to take my nature-loving girlfriend, Ptiza, to one of the local natural wonders. To put it mildly, I’ve never been a huge fan of the so-called Great Outdoors. There’s a reason we lost our fur millions of years ago. Give me a computer, air-conditioning, a pack of cigarettes, a large quantity of beer, and a bed to pass out in and I’m content, but I figured if Ptiza, who’s happy both in the bustling Big Apple and out in the middle of a bug-infested forest, is going to be stuck in this one horse town, I could at least show her some of the things in this area she might enjoy.
A few weeks ago we went hiking through the Land Between the Lakes- a huge nature preserve nestled between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley- where I promptly got eaten alive by blood-sucking chiggers. It’s a fun little hike but there isn’t really much to see except a bunch of trees, a man-made lake, and a few squirrels.
This time I opted to take her to the Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois. Garden of the Gods offers what many profess to be a breath-taking view of forest and rock formations. The sandstone rock formations with names like Camel Rock, Anvil Rock, and Devil’s Smokestack are the modern reminders of an ancient sea which once covered most of Illinois, western Indiana, and western Kentucky. According to one website, “For millions of years ancient rivers carried sand and mud to this sea where it settled on the shoreline. Over time, the weight of the sediments turned them into layers of rock, thousands of feet thick. At Garden of the Gods, the sediment layers were more than 20,000 feet thick, or about 4 miles deep. Eventually uplift occurred that fractured the bedrock, exposing it to nature’s erosive forces. Since that time, windblown sand, rain and freezing and thawing actions have worn down the layers of sediment, creating the marvelous rock formations”
After spending a couple of hours driving around Southern Illinois trying to rattle my drug-stunted memory enough to remember how to get to the Garden of the Gods, which I’d only been to a couple of times years ago, I ended up stopping in a ghetto convenience store in the tiny Southern town of Golconda to ask for directions. The corpulent, two-toothed cashier gave me half-assed directions and after putting some more gas in the car so we wouldn’t run out of fuel in the middle of Bum Fuck Egypt, we were off again.
Thirty minutes later propelled by blind luck, I found the road to the Garden of the Gods, and we pulled into a heavily populated parking lot. You don’t expect to have trouble finding a parking place in the middle of Shawnee National Forest but, believe me, it happens. Apparently, a lot of other really bored people had the same idea I had.
The first thing I noticed when we got out of the car and headed towards the quarter mile circular trail that showcases the splendor of this natural wonder was the smell of human fecal matter.
“What’s that smell?” I asked my darling girlfriend.
“I dunno,” she said.
“Smells like shit.” I said.
Ah, nature. You gotta love it, right?
Anyway, after stopping off at the culprit causing the awful smell, a building resembling a public restroom only without the benefit of running water, so it was actually a giant outhouse with a big hole in the ground full of all the other tourists piss and shit and their little insect friends which swarmed around the toilets, we gaggingly made our way down the cobblestone trail to the wonder of nature that awaited us. Thankfully, the smell vanished as we made our way a little farther down the trail.
To our left we saw the first rock formation. A rather small one in comparison to the ones we would see, with no view at all. So we trudged up the side of it for a minute and stood there. I told Ptiza that she hadn’t seen anything yet and we made our way back down this small rock formation. Ptiza was wearing hiking boots, so she scampered down the small rock like a little mountain goat and was already heading off down the trail. I, on the other hand being the nature hater that I am, was ill-equipped for this venture and was wearing a pair of Vans. Where she was sure-footed, my Vans slipped out from under me as I made my way down the rock. The next thing I knew my foot twisted as it slipped and I was falling with nothing to grab onto. Luckily, there was a small tree at the base of the rock which broke my fall as my upper arm slammed into it with all the force that a two-hundred pound body in free fall could muster. It wasn’t a nice cushioned stop to say the least and somehow my wrists had gotten bloodied on the way down as well.
Ptiza rushed over to comfort her fallen man and besides a bruised pride and upper arm and several minor scrapes, I found I was still in working order. So I soldiered on so she might see some of the grandeur of Southern Illinois.
Needless to say, from that point on I was a little apprehensive about traipsing around on the giant rocks. Especially since, after the first one that I’d fallen off of, the drop was a lot steeper, by literally hundreds of feet on some of the bigger rock formations overlooking the view. While Ptiza scampered about on the rocks like the mountain goat she was apparently descended from, I made sure each step was carefully calculated to not include me falling to my doom.
But the view was gorgeous, as much as nature can be gorgeous to me, hampered only by the fact that there were too many loud and obnoxious people there ruining the serenity of its natural majesty. We saw the giant rock that looked like a cock, aka Devil’s Smokestack. We saw the other giant rock that supposedly looked like a camel. And we saw a bunch of other rocks that looked like, well, big fucking rocks. These rocks all overlooked a huge valley of trees covered in leaves that were just starting to turn into a brilliance of varied colors in accordance with fall. If you really loved nature, this would be the place to see, except of course for all the people being people and mucking it up.
After about twenty of minutes of crawling about on the giant rocks and enjoying the view with the sun blazing in the west, we made our way back up the cobblestone trail and past the foul-smelling public restroom to the car and made our way back to the creature comforts of the Fortress of Solipsism where booze and air-conditioning and the internet awaited our return.
On the way home, we saw a bevy of deer, including to Ptiza’s delight a little baby deer. And, lest I forget, some little baby goats. We also saw some of finest and most alarming examples of redneck living, not to mention a whole lot of Bush-Cheney signs littering the yards of the ignorant and uninformed. Pope County, Illinois, where I nearly lost my life at party once, is full of fine upstanding rednecks that will kill you just for being different.
Once home, I crawled onto the couch with the blessed a/c blasting and turned on the droning sounds of television and popped a doctor-prescribed Lortab to deal with the aches and pains from my massive fall while Ptiza checked her e-mail and the latest posts on the Lebowski Fest forum.
The absolute best thing about nature is the fact that we don’t have to live in it.