I have been watching reruns of Man vs. Wild lately. So when I saw the crumbling heap of a burned-down tree, my first reaction was to squirrel away some bits of its charcoal in my pockets. In a survival situation, these would be a valuable source of tinder to make a fire. But being twenty paces from my Ford Escort (and five minutes’ drive from the nearest Starbucks), I decided that I was not in a predicament to start hoarding the essentials.
Rather, I was in Reed-Turner Woodland, a small nature preserve in Long Grove, Illinois. It was early morning, and by whim I had turned into the woodland off of Old McHenry Road on my way to work. I parked my car in the empty gravel lot and decided to look around before resuming my commute.
Most of the forest preserves in this part of Illinois are bleak and dull. They usually occupy small plots. One gets the impression that there were no natural forests here before European settlement, or at least none worth saving. The trees leaf sparsely, and the new vegetation on the ground seems to struggle every spring and summer to overcome the decaying matter of the previous fall. If the municipal caretakers did not regularly remove dead trunks and carve channels into the riverbanks, then one can’t help but imagine that the streams would dry up and the forest itself would wither until the entire crumbling mass would finally be swept away in a prairie fire.
But Reed-Turner seemed different somehow. It was my first time there, and I decided that I had half an hour to explore the forest trails before continuing on my way to work. The trail started at the parking lot and sauntered along the edge of the woods. I hiked past the burnt-down tree – most likely culled by the village authorities because it grew too close to the road, I thought. Heading deeper into the small preserve, I heard occasional shuffling noises coming from left and right. This made me uneasy. The last time I hiked more than a day in real wilderness was five years ago. I was out of the habit and my mind feared the worst. Was that branch breaking a sure sign of a prowling coyote? Skunks and raccoons, too, would be unpleasant characters to encounter.
I walked further. It had recently rained, and the earth below my shoes was soggy and fresh. Lively oak and hickory trees grew tall, and their leaves alternated between lime and silver hues as the wind moved through them. The forest itself is only 33 acres, according to the park district. But the terrain reminded me more of the Ozark Mountains, where I had backpacked in 2004, than anything I had seen in Chicagoland. The trail meandered up and down tiny hills, and the vegetation seemed to be thriving. How did they manage to cultivate this believable bit of wilderness around here? Clearly it was meticulously maintained, but there were no visible signs of human management. That is the mark of a proficient artist, I was thinking to myself.
I crossed a small bridge below which ran a vigorous little stream. From here, the trail headed up a slight slope until it crested a hill in the distance and turned away toward an unknown destination. I was taken aback by the scene and stopped, but I couldn’t tell why. The path ahead wound upward and forward, while the oak and hickory trees populated both sides of the trail and stream – everywhere, in fact. To my left emerging out of the green ground foliage was a white sign put up by the park district which read, “Low quality trees and shrubs were removed to increase sunlight for the high quality oak and hickory canopy.”
I looked closer at the foliage growing on the ground. Outside of the trail path, lime-colored shoots grew so thickly that one couldn’t see the earth below them. Upon closer inspection, the shoots looked like maple leaves, a cluster of them growing up and out of squat and thin stems. Thinking of the park district sign, I wondered whether these budding maple trees were destined for the scythe to make room for the higher-quality trees.
The stream hummed and bubbled behind me. I looked up again and realized what it was about the scene that kept tugging at my subconscious. It was the way the trail path climbed upward and turned left invitingly into somewhere beyond the crest of the mound. The sun shined warmly through the branches of hickory from that general direction. Like a quiet day at the beach when you’re lying on the sand and squinting at the sun, hickory branches here did the squinting for the hiker. And most effective of all, I thought, was the way the path rolled up and wound away somewhere into the unknown. It was not a sharp turn. It was not a drop or a steep ascent. The path just climbed gradually and sideways.
The picture ahead made me think of the travel and exploration accounts that I had recently been reading. Wilfred Thesiger among the Bedouin nomads of the Empty Quarter and Arab cultivators of the marshes in Iraq. Photographs of his camel train snaking its way through the barren dune mounds. The way you do and don’t know at the same time what lies beyond the hill, and how the way forward seems to go to infinity but never in a straight line. Mick Conefrey, a filmmaker, wrote that explorers risk death to wander into the unknown because they had developed a rare set of survival skills that was utterly thrilling to utilize. I couldn’t help but think that it also had something to do with the lovely sight of the winding path forward and the mystery of the destination. And the mystery is higher than the destination – nobody lingers too long at the top of Everest.
After thinking briefly about these things, I continued walking up the trail. I reached the top of the low hill and, to my surprise, came upon a lake. Unlike most small lakes in the suburbs, this one did not seem artificially made. It stretched both ways perpendicularly from the path and was maybe the length of five football fields. The forest hugged its banks, which curled around in irregular ways before coming round again. Looking it up later on Google Maps, I learned that its name was Salem Lake. I could see stately suburban houses standing on the opposite bank. Though natural, the lake was clearly private.
I got the urge to walk its entire circumference but knew that I was low on time. I came upon a tree with a white rectangular sign nailed onto its trunk proclaiming, “No Swimming, Wading, or Ice Skating”. Beside the tree was a rough-hewn bench made out of split logs. Continuing further maybe the length of a football field, I stopped at a fence. I hadn’t seen it there before, and it told me that maybe only about a fifth of Salem Lake was available to the general public for circumnavigation. I made my way back to the car the way that I had come and drove to work.