Trail three is utterly abandoned.
My hiking buddies—Owen, Curtis, and Joey—scurry up and down slick hills, jump over small ravines and land precariously, their hands reaching for a hold in the cliffside. I take the trail more carefully, an instruction manual running in my mind. Foot here, sidestep there, grab that root for extra balance. I am a determined, but slow, hiker. Turkey Run poses quite the challenge for my right leg, weakened in a surgery long ago; I command my ankle to turn outward, but the nerves don’t fully connect with my brain, and I’m left staring down at an unmoving foot. Owen sees my dilemma and runs over to help me down the damp hillside that I’ve been struggling with. Water rushes past our ankles as we reach the trail floor.
I wonder again if we should really be here, if I can keep up with this small group of men who are bodily whole and sure of their footing (I can’t, but they are kind enough to be patient while I drag myself over downed trees and up slippery boulders). The most violent thunderstorm to hit central Indiana all summer has just dissipated, and we decide to tackle trail three—the waterfall trail—as soon as the park rangers reopen it. We are the only hikers to test the flood.
Heavy mist settles into the gorge, trapped between the cliff walls that tower over us. We cannot see more than one hundred yards up the trail, and still we press on. Our talk has died down, dissolved into heavy breathing and footfalls. The trail narrows, the creek that was once meandering now purposeful, cutting the rock beneath it into two sections. We soon find that we must place each foot on a different ledge and lumber from side to side, testing each step for grip, laboring slowly in the July humidity. Eventually the trail opens again and the sound of rushing water fills our ears. Verdant green surrounds us as we take diverging paths, each exploring whatever calls to us most. For Joey, it is the rocky outcrop studded with tree roots; for Curtis, two enormous boulders atop their own mossy hill; for Owen, a log running across the creek; for me, a shadowy nook at the bottom of a cliff where water seeps from the walls and orange colonies of bacterial slime thrive. We rest in the waning sunlight for a moment. Then we forge on.
The rush of the waterfall beckons like a siren as the trail presents new dangers to us: roots that reach out for ankles, sharp rocks exposed by the fresh deluge. And then, quite suddenly, we’ve stumbled straight into it. The waterfall is so loud that we would have to shout to hear each other, but we don’t. There is no need for words now. There is only the embrace of cool water and the ageless veil of mist and the knowledge of an ancient, overwhelming beauty unfolding itself before us.
I am crying.
We all are, or nearly so. Even Joey, bastion of facts and logic, is stunned into silence.
It is easy to imagine ourselves in paradise, or in another world altogether. The sun is setting, sending slats of light through the mist and into our grateful eyes. It seems that no ray makes it to the ground, filtered by deciduous treetops and fog. Warm silence embraces us: there are no crickets, no chirping birds, no animals scurrying in the undergrowth. Only the silky, silvery sound of the creek and our own footsteps echoing across channels and valleys and back to us. My attention flutters, but always fixates on life: down to the fish that now swim across our feet as we wade through floodwaters; to the beetles and mushrooms that colonize the corpses of trees, fashioning death into new life; to the living leaves that take imperceptible breaths, feeding our own lungs; to the water that swirls and eddies around my legs, cold and animated.
Curtis sits, suddenly immobile. We have been up to the waterfall and now, as we make our way back down, our bodies ache. The physical toil has taken a toll on all of us—we are a scratched, bruised, and bloodied bunch. More than that, though, it is the emotional impact of Turkey Run that hurts, tightens the chest, makes the heart race. I feel that the beauty of this place is crushing me, and I instinctively understand that this is why Curtis has fallen behind.
I double back to join him. We both crane our necks to look up at the concave world that surrounds us. Opposing clifftops nearly touch each other as they sweep upward and inward. Connecting them, high above us, is a tree that has contorted itself into an arch. Moss grows bright on its bark.
“Do you think this is what it was like?”
I don’t have to explain to him what I mean. Do you think this was what it was like for some long- ago human who sat down near the water and listened to the climbing ivy grow on the green outcrops? Do you think this is what it was like before we came and seized and destroyed what didn’t belong to us?
Do we have any right to be here, consuming this?
We watch Joey and Owen, far away and small and dissolving in the mist, beckon to us. Slowly, groaning with effort, we get to our feet and jog to meet them.
I reach out for Owen’s hand as he dashes a tear away.
“I know,” I say. “Me too.”
I pick a tiny white flower growing in the shade and tuck it into his wild hair.
“I can see why people believe in spirits now.”
Owen nods and smiles. “I know. Me too.”
Joey composes himself and launches into a description of all the nature spirits he can name, and we hang on every word as the mist thickens and the day darkens.
Imagine: there is an enormous buzz filling the swamp forest, a persistent, almost mechanical flapping of four wings growing louder and louder still in the tropical heat. Imagine trying to locate the sound, scanning the tops of the giant fern trees that are fed by a sudden abundance of oxygen in the atmosphere. There!—there is movement in a pocket of great horsetail, lime green with buds like soft pinecones. Out spirals the biggest dragonfly that has ever lived on the earth. It is the size of a seagull, and it is looking for a smaller bug—perhaps one that is merely fist- sized—to feast on.
This is the Carboniferous Period, and it began the formation of what is now Turkey Run. Three- hundred million years ago, an ancient river simply known as the Michigan laid down the debris that would, over many centuries, harden into the Mansfield sandstone that characterizes the cliffs. With the sand came coal, long black stripes of it twining its way through the sediment trap. Many millennia later, this coal would be mined by the first white settlers.
The giant bugs are all extinct, but everywhere there is green. Moss clings to every possible surface: to the downed trees that litter the ravine floor, to the sandstone walls ensconced in shadow, to the enormous pieces of coarse rock that have fallen off the cliffsides and tower over the trail in imposing formations. The most famous of these is Wedge Rock, appropriately named for its sharp, triangular outcrop.
Though the jungle growth of the Carboniferous Period is long absent, still there is an abundance of trees—trees fat and tall with decades of peaceful, uninterrupted growth. They are thickest at the clifftops, but they don’t stop there; the trees of Turkey Run have colonized the rocky walls of the gorges, the layer of pebbles along the creek’s path, even the dead remains of their relatives strewn across the trail. There is, impossibly, precariously, a tree growing on top of Wedge Rock, its roots spidering out to find purchase in the stone. The land is dotted with wide- flung maples, their leaves bigger than the squirrels that run among their branches; dogwoods hung thick with their green July berries; tulip trees—liriodendra— standing tall and proud, the telltale six- pointed greenery packed tight at the top and feathering out towards the base of the trunk. The biggest liriodendron in the park, reported in 1930, is fourteen feet in diameter. No wonder, then, that this unique cousin of the magnolia is Indiana’s state tree.
It is the Pleistocene Epoch—the ice age—that ground the earth down into sharp canyons, but trail three in Turkey Run seems caught in the carbon and oxygen boom of its more distant past. Through the mist that rises after a warm, merciless thunderstorm, when the trail is devoid of all but a few humans, it is easy to imagine oneself in a primeval world—one where giant dragonflies roamed the sky.
The engine idled as we pulled back into camp. Already, I ached to return to the dark gorges we had left behind, but all the daylight was spent, and my body craved food and water more than I thought possible. Trembling with hunger, I popped open the trunk, where we had stored the cooler. We were so weak from the hike that it took all four of us to lug it to the picnic table.
The sky darkened by the second as we crowded around the cooler, plunging our hands into the ice to find the meals we had packed. I yanked out a glass jar filled with sweet potato and cabbage and began to feast, glorying in the tart crunch and scooping cupfuls of ice water out of the cooler, not caring for once whose dirty hands had been in it, simply driven by an animal urge. The evening turned to twilight. Twilight turned to darkness, warm and absolute.
We started a feeble fire and took turns breathing into it, enormous exhalations that inundated the flames with oxygen and eventually brought it roaring to life. The sounds of the campsite surrounded us: children shrieking in far- away game of tag, crickets singing, birds gently calling to each other as they settled into their nests. A rustle in the undergrowth.
A rustle in the undergrowth that was creeping nearer, growing larger as we laughed. We quieted, drew bated breaths and struggled to pick out the noises of someone approaching. For a moment, there was nothing.
Then the sound of a footstep, a branch snapping.
“Hello?” I called into the darkness. We all shot to our feet, hearts beating fast. Stories of murdered campers flashed across my mind.
Silverware clattered off the picnic table and onto the concrete below. The cooler’s lid creaked as someone opened it.
We fled to the car, panicking, fully prepared to abandon our camping gear. Headlights flooded the site as the key turned in the ignition.
There, rummaging through our food and books and keys, was a family of raccoons. The mother had discovered how to pry the lid off the cooler and she dug around in it, stopping every few moments to shake the blood back into her frozen paws. Her four babies flipped through paperbacks, shaking them to see if something edible would fall out.
It was the first time I had seen raccoons up close, and I marveled at their intelligence and precocity as they rumbled around our camp. And their hands! —dark and agile, fingers working faster than my own ever had.
The mother pulled one of my containers out of the ice and began to wrench her way into it.
“I don’t think you’ll like tofu, momma.” I laughed as I stepped out of the car and the raccoons scattered. We set to work cleaning up after them, stowing the food safely in the trunk.
But they would not be discouraged; they visited us again and again, nocturnal companions of Turkey Run.
My dreams that night are not of river crossings or signs that read “Dangerous Cliffs, Stay Back.” They are not of a canopy of bright, rustling leaves closing in overhead, sheltering us from stray raindrops and spreading an eerie hush over the trail. They are not of the ivy that wends its way up the rugged cliffs, or of the networks of exposed roots strewn in even the most improbable places. They are not of feet bounding from rock to rock in the valley, or stumbling across the narrow creekbed; nor are they of the eternal, ethereal mist nestling itself into the gorge; nor are they of raccoons.
They are of the waterfall. Even when flooded, it is not an impressive sight. It stands about twelve feet tall and does not cascade so much as gush, in a hurried and undignified way, to the pool of brown water beneath it. It is into this pool, aptly named the Punch Bowl for its gradual concavity, that we dash. We wash the sweat off our bodies underneath the pounding water and lower ourselves deep into the murk that makes our skin disappear instantly in its opacity.
I decline to dunk my head as the others do. Instead, I slog my way out of the Punch Bowl and onto one of the ledges that surrounds it and creates a kind of cove, a magnificent hideaway. Even if the waterfall is more like an overeager faucet stream than the grand cataract I imagined it to be, it is supremely beautiful. I lift my head to the ever- present canopy of bright, rustling leaves that close in on us, amplifying the rush of water that fills our ears. I run my fingers along the damp walls of earth where creeping things grow—moss and beetles and colonies of prokaryotes. I inhale deeply, letting the humid, earthy air permeate my lungs.
All in all, our experience in Turkey Run is nothing special. What I mean by that is this: we are just four white kids stumbling up and down the trail. We aren’t part of, don’t even yet know, Turkey Run’s fraught history: its forced removals of the Miami people who lived here long before a white man set eyes on Indiana, its floods that destroyed homes and mills, its naturalists’ fight for preservation as a state park that was far from an assured victory. We are unimportant—meaningless, even—in the face of a history of struggle in this land of cliff and shadow.
But I look at my friends’ faces and think about how deeply I feel for each of them, how beautiful each of these people are in an even more beautiful place. It’s a crystallizing moment, a reaffirmation of a life in nature, a life in the quiet shadows of the enormous world that surrounds us.
I look at my friends’ faces and I think that, in this moment, we hold a joy that is granted only here.