I’ve walked through cracks in cliffs before, but never a crack in the ground; not with dark and hidden pockets just out of view, against a background of damp, dripping cold. I started to pass through but stopped, just after entering, and couldn’t continue. There is this little primeval monkey in the back of my mind that beats its tiny hands against my skull, screaming out in terror when faced with the unknown. Though I can usually calm the monkey without much trouble–throwing millennia of evolution at it until its cries are smothered by reason–sometimes the monkey wins.
Yesterday I decided it was time to face down the screaming monkey and walk through The Slot at Pickle Creek. The weather was going to be warm, but I left early and got there about 9, before anyone else had arrived.
I grabbed my camera and my walking stick and headed out. The way was much easier than the last time I tried the trail, when it was cold and wet and hard to walk on the slippery rocks. And when I reached The Slot, rather than be filled with mud and water running through it, it was crowned by trees with new green leaves, as sun filtered through to sprinkle the dark of the crack with light. I hesitated only a moment before entering.
The way through was very clear and easy to traverse, and all the dark nooks and crannies weren’t so deep I couldn’t see the back. I started taking pictures, feeling pretty good about quieting the primate inside, as well as silly for being nervous of a tiny crack in the ground, which is really nothing more than a natural split along an old fault. Between one step in the next, though, the sides of the The Slot deepened and darkened, and the temperature dropped at least 20 degrees, if not more. I could also hear footsteps and both the monkey and I stood perfectly still, not even breathing. Well, I wasn’t breathing–the monkey was hyperventilating.
The couple had cameras like I did, but smaller, as they snapped shot after shot of the walls of The Slot. We exchanged pleasantries and I urged them to go ahead, because I’m slow on rocks with my bad knee and ankle. I emphasized my bad knee, and alluded to a fall during another hike. They smiled, politely, completely disinterested, thanked me and moved on.
The way opened up on the left, though the cliff on the right steepened until a hill carved into rough rock and I was moving slowly — it was difficult to traverse. Not as difficult as Mina Sauk, but I had to use my stick more than once. But it was beautiful, looking into the carved rock around me, and back at The Slot–now reduced to an odd bit of rock and fern. Sadly, there goes all monsters.
The path after climbing the hill was very smooth, and the way easy though starting to get warm. It climbed until we reached the Cauliflower Rocks, though why this impressive formation of boulders is called this, beats me. Luckily, rather than have to rock climb down, Missouri has provided a nice set of stairs so even the rock challenged such as myself could traverse them. It led to the Double Arch, a beautiful formation that framed the forest and the path, forming a cat’s eye with the tree on the other side.
The original couple was there, climbing all over and taking photos. The man stood under the arch, as the woman took his photo and I had this sudden desire to yell out, “Earthquake!” though I fought the impulse down.
The path leaving the Double Arch was relatively even, with some rough spots where I had to use the stick. The next rock formation was the Keyhole and here I was stumped because I saw two trails leading off, and no idea, which path to take. One led to a narrow gap in the rocks with fairly steep steps; the other to a gentle path down to a field spotted about with delicate pink flowers–the rare wild azalea. I wish I could say I was a wild woman and took the tiny gap, but I opted for the flowers. I am so weak.
Well, the path was the wrong one, but still good and I enjoyed the flowers and a nice, easy trail. Luckily, it did connect up with the right path before too long. From there it was down to Pickle Creek, which since there had been no rain for some time, was pretty shallow, with only a faint, tiny waterfall–not much more than a big drip. By this time I was getting tired because though the way was relatively even, it had been challenging in places, and I thought the trail was only one mile. Later I was to learn that the Pickle Creek trail is one mile end to end –where it then connected with another trail to loop back to the parking lot.
It was getting warmer and I was getting tired, when I ended up on Dome Rock. I realized this was the back end of the rocks that had stopped me once before and I remembered that time that I couldn’t find an easy path, and I wasn’t sure I could slide down rocks, or return back the way I had come because what was easy to climb up, isn’t easy to climb down. The guide book had said this trail was moderate; I should have remembered from my experience with both both politics and religion, ‘moderate’ in Missouri doesn’t necessarily translate cleanly into the King’s English.
I walked towards the edge of the rocks to look over the valley and spotted an arrow pointing out the path, and a sign that read, “Rock Climbing Prohibited”. Oh. Darn. There was a nice cool breeze, and the view was good and I perked up and thought, hey, stop being a wimp, Shelley.
Walking to the other side of the domed rock, I could see the trail leading off, and the way down, though requiring a recourse to my stick more than once, traversable. I wondered how I had lost the trail last time I was out. I was about half way down, when I heard small feet running behind me and two dogs came running up, about level with my head on the rock above me, barking.
I am not comfortable meeting dogs without owners out in the forest. I yelled out, “Dogs! Are they friendly”, all the while holding out my stick. A voice yelled out, “They’re friendly, don’t worry!” and though the dogs didn’t come up to be petted, they didn’t come closer, and I realized they were more scared of me than me of them.
They belonged to a nice, if irresponsible couple who were showing their favorite walk to two relatives visiting from Scotland. These were older women, older than me, by far, and I watched with envy as they bounded past. I am not old, I think to myself — I am wounded. It’s my knee’s fault, I am not old.
We chatted for a bit, and after they left I started my slow descent and the way was not easy. At one point I had to inch down, walking sideways, sliding one foot to rest next to the other, on a ledge of dirt because I couldn’t climb up on the rock in the middle of the path. If I fell, I would only slide 8 or 9 feet, no real danger involved. It made me angry though, because I’m tired of having to hobble along with joints stiff and painful as people hopped and skipped past. A trip that would take one hour takes three, and leaves me so covered in sweat that even six bottles of water still leave me thirsty.
I made it, I didn’t fall, but I had a headache and was feeling overheated and lightheaded. And still feeling angry–why can’t the parks maintain their trails better? Why leave large rocks in the middle of the path so that people like me have to inch fearfully past?
At the bottom of the hill was a bench that faced one of the limestone canyon walls and I gratefully sunk into it, exhausted. I sat there for a while, trying to cool down, and regain my interest in my surroundings.
After a time, I began to notice the coloration of the different layers in the limestone cliff across from me. At one time the land all around had been smooth and featureless, but the pressures of a growing world had stressed the rock at faults, and cliffs formed, and valleys dropped, leaving behind one of the most unusual environments in Missouri; framed by boulders, filled with rare ferns and flowers, creeks and springs and falls formed at sharp edges–truly a lost land amidst all the constant Missouri forest.
Fault lines. Funny that a word used to describe a geological wonder is also used to assign blame, to weep and wail at fate and fact. My difficult on hills was the fault of my knee; my knee was the fault of improper walking due to in injury to my ankle and foot; my injury was due to a fall on the hill.
But why stop there? My fall on the hill was the fault of my distraction. My distraction was the fault of one worry or another. My worries were the fault of a soft job market in St. Louis. My living in St. Lous was the fault of the dot-com industry going belly up in California, while the cost of living remained the same. This state of affairs was the fault of rampant greed, shallowly based on industries with little real worth. And on and on it goes, a spiral of blame and fault finding until eventually the whole world is at fault, in one way or another.
“What did you do Saturday, Shelley?”
“Well, I sat at the bottom of a cliff surrounded by hay-smelling ferns and rare wild azaleas in the middle of a slice of the Ozarks older than sin, and sweated gallons of water while my knee throbed and old Scottish ladies pranced by like bloody young lassies, shaking my fist at the sky and cursed the world.”
“So, how about you?”
There was a crash in the bushes in the hill behind me, something much too large to be a squirrel and moving fast. I looked over in time to see a small red fox dash out about ten feet away and run, fast as it could across the path and down the hill towards the cliff. Following it, by a fairly long distance, was the darker of the two dogs I had met earlier, and behind it the other. They crashed off through the bushes until I couldn’t hear them any more.
I sat and looked after them for a time and then grabbed my stick and started up the trail. Eventually the younger dog came up behind me and trotted past, following the path up the hill.
I waited for the other one, the older one. Eventually he showed up on the trail behind me, limping a bit, and obviously tired. I called him by his name, but he wouldn’t approach me, but neither would he pass me. Figuring he was frightened of my walking stick, I started walking again and he followed.
I stopped now and again to rest my knee and look about, and as I did, the dog behind me also stopped. I walked, and he followed, and thus we made it up the hill, me first, the dog several paces back, both stopping at the same time, both footsore and panting from the heat, until we met up with his master. At that point, the dog bounded past me to a happy reunion, and the owner waved one more time at me, and yelled thanks and took off, while I made the rest of the way to the car.
When I got home, my roommate asked how my walk went.
“I saw a red fox. Not ten feet away from me, running away from a couple of dogs chasing it.”
“You saw a fox? I didn’t know there were fox in Missouri?”
“Yeah, a red fox. It was pretty cool really, but he was gone before I could get a photo.”
He shook his head, and said, “Too bad about the dogs chasing it. Stupid dogs.”
“The dogs were just doing what dogs do. It wasn’t the dogs’ fault.”
“It never is. ”