And Then I Fell Out the Window

Life, examined and punted around


Find your state park: Solo adventures in Palisades-Kepler

In the grand scheme of things, I haven’t worked at a regular, full-time office job for very long, so the concept of getting paid holidays like President’s Day off is still a novelty. I decided to use my unplanned-for day off for a staycation, and finally explored the nearby Palisades-Kepler State Park.

It was an overcast, drizzly day, and I had the park nearly all to myself.


*hums “Into the Woods”*

It’s funny, I used to explore the outdoors alone all the time. After you fall out of the habit, though, and are constantly amusing yourself with your phone, your books, your friends, your stuff, your local restaurants and bars, your Netflix, your to-do list, your craft projects, you view an unstructured, unplugged chunk of time in the outdoors as a bit daunting.

“But what will I do?” you ask yourself. “I’ll get bored of walking around for an hour, probably.”

Then you drive far enough that your phone signals weakens and dies, you step out of the car, zip up your rain jacket, and you fall back into yourself. You listen to the geese. You admire the bluffs and the leafless trees. You climb a large, fallen tree. You get to a point where you can’t comfortably turn around to go back down, so you sit and pretend to admire the scenery until the dude walking his dog gets out of view, then you can butt-scoot down past the knot until you can stand and balance-beam-walk back down to the sandy shore.


Obligatory, stuck-on-a-tree-limb selfie

Palisades rewards curiosity. The narrow dirt paths wind past green, mossy boulders and meld into stone steps, taking you up a hill to a river overlook, or down along a root-twisted path right above the river’s edge.

The park is a good example of nature and human-made structures working in harmony. The steps leading up the steep hills seem as natural as the bluffs beside them, and pretty stone or wood bridges guide hikers over ravines. I have to wonder if this park was the work of the CCC (The Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the best things to come out of the New Deal during the Great Depression), if these sturdy bridges and scenic limestone shelters have stood since the 1930s.

It rained off and on during my visit. As the rain went from a light patter to a heavy downpour, I sought shelter in the shelter pictured above. And yes, it did smell like piss and was heavily graffitied, marked with deep grooves in the woods and the stone, marked with Sharpie art and scribbled pencil. Please enjoy this photo collection of some of the shelter’s graffiti highlights:

You could tell by the graffiti the nighttime use this spot gets. A lover’s nest, a Wiccan ritual site (it’s hard to see on my photo of the compass etching, but some teen witches had attempted to turn it into a pentacle/magic circle, with the words “Love”, “Peace”, “Goddess”, and “Integrity” written between each of the four directions), a stone sketchbook for erotic fairy art, a Stoner Palace, a corner to piss in, a scenic outlook…the choice is yours!

As the rain died down, I was able to wander once more, contented wind down trails and slowly find my way back to my car, getting lost several times along the way. It turns out getting lost in a state park is a perfect way to spend a holiday afternoon.

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The March of the Bullheads: Part 1

Hundreds of baby bullheads, no more than five inches long, swim fruitlessly down the narrow stream to the lake. There’s a mound of sand in their way, and it would require, my cousin estimates, about six feet of digging and several hours of work to get the path clear.

I’m spending a few days at Okoboji with my family at our perennial summer cottage, and about five houses down from us is a small, cattail-lined creek that spills into the lake. The water’s been low recently, though, which has caused a dilemma. Some bullhead swam up the creek to lay eggs, but by the time they hatched and grew large enough to swim into the lake, the water was too low.

My cousin was the one to notice. A future environmental engineer and a recent graduate of MIT, she sees problems and sets to solutions. While most of us would hope it worked out and go back to the dock with our books and sunscreen, she got a shovel this morning and started digging. She showed me her blisters today on the dock, then went down to the creek to check on the fish.

Next thing I see is her sprinting from the creek to the house, running inside, running out, then running back to the water. The six other cousins all follow her, joined soon after by a pilgrimage of the other friends and relations. Soon we’re crowded around the creek, egging on the clusters of bullheads swimming toward the open water. Since she’s left, though, the strong waves have knocked more sand into the pathway she’s cleared, and so my brothers, my cousins and I start digging with our hands, transplanting fistfuls of wet sand onto the beach and we send my youngest cousin for a shovel.

When the way is clear, the fish are too spooked by the new crowd of people shouting, and swim back under the bridge. We keep digging to keep the way clear, and eventually a few intrepid fish lead a group of others toward the water. They wiggle through the shallows toward the opening, and all of us are holding our breath waiting for them to pass through into the water.

There’s anĀ unforeseenĀ problem, though, one that we can’t control. It’s 3 pm and boat traffic is at its peak for the day, and it’s exceptionally windy besides. As hard as the bullheads swim to face the water head-on, the waves knock them back into the creek.

“Nature is hard,” one of our lifelong beach friends said.

Eventually we had to turn away from the bullheads with the intent to return when the water was calmer. We left sandy-footed and a bit disappointed, the image of hundreds of tiny black bullheads in our heads, swimming back and forth, back and forth.