Category Archives: Travel

2017 Christmas Day Hikes: A Return to the Woods of My Youth

When I think back to my younger days, often the memories of exploring the woods behind my house come to mind. So many hours were spent covering every inch of them as my little feet made their way up and down a small dike that kept Kirk’s Lake at bay and our house safe from flooding. Those same feet would run up and down the C-shaped path on top that dike surrounded by the woods that I used to call a forest until one of my grade school teachers told me there were no such things as forests in Kansas. Then there were the adventures of eating gooseberries and climbing over fallen trees from the 1986 inland hurricane. Much time was also spent by the old abandoned stone bridge just a little off my parents’ property. There I would do my best to tiptoe across large rocks to avoid getting my shoes wet all while watching the water flow beneath me. Sometimes, I would make my way to the other side to stare at the tumbled pieces on the Southern side and think about the story my grandfather told my sister and me about an ill-fated race between two guys, a woman they both loved, and the murder of the good guy by the bad when he rammed one of the first cars in Iola into the side of a primitive vehicle causing it to take out a side of the bridge and cost the life of its driver.

That story and many others fed my imagination as I played by myself in the small stream, investigated the old ruins of Kirk’s cabin, and used long sticks to drag huge snapping turtles out of the mud holes from when Kirk’s Lake would go dry during some extremely hot summers. The woods seemed massive, and they were the best place a kid could have to cultivate a love inside him for the outdoors.

As I grew older, my time in the woods grew less; however, they still played a role in my world. In middle school, I carved out the initials of someone I was sure I was going to marry with mine all framed in a heart in the side of a tree. In high school, that same path was still traveled during my high school days for jogs in the woods as short trainings for cross country. Then some of my senior pictures were taken of me leaning against the old bridge.


After I left college, the time with the woods grew to nothing more than smiling upon seeing them when I pulled into my parents’ driveway for my short visits back home.

Then over the last five years, my visits to Iola became even less thanks to a disagreement of sorts with my father. During that time, I had decided to create my own Christmas tradition of going on a hike somewhere for that holiday. That led to exploring the Flint Hills one year, hiking the hills around Wilson Lake another, and looking out into a Christmas morning sunrise on top of Elk Mountain in Oklahoma’s beautiful Wichita Mountains for yet another.

Earlier this year, some peace came back to the household, and that led to my returning to Iola for Christmas. Wanting to keep up the tradition of hiking either on Christmas or the day before or after, I had planned on heading to Hot Springs National Park after Christmas dinner. A frightful weather forecast of ice, snow, and freezing rain led to that being canceled, and to replace it, it seemed like a good idea to explore the woods of my childhood and check out Iola’s recently developed Lehigh Portland Trail.

The first taste of the hikes came Christmas Eve when I rushed to the Lehigh Portland Trail to see the sunset across Elks Lake. I had studied the maps and realized the trailhead was just past the turn my family and I would take each Thursday night during the summer months for the weekly trap shoot that my dad helped run while my mother took care of the paperwork and sold concessions to make the $20 each night that greatly helped her barely make ends meet. Many memories of my youth were also made there with my often playing on a nearby hill, finding fossilized Crinoids in the parking lot, and playing Ghosts in the Graveyard the times there were other kids coming to the shoot with their parents too.

I would also sometimes stare across the quarry at the cliffs on the other side, wondering what it was like over there, and decades later, I finally found out as I watched the setting sun while staring and thinking about where a younger version of me had once stood. What once was so big seemed extremely small from this new perspective. Decades had gone by since whenever that last Thursday night was, and much had changed. Sure, there was a lot of distance between where I stood and the area of my youth, but the hill that seemed so steep to run up looked so small, and the same went with the whole area around the building where my mother would work that once seemed like it stretched out forever. That should have prepared me for Christmas morning when I explored the woods, but it didn’t.


After breakfast and before lunch, I threw on the warmest clothes I had and went for my hike in the woods behind the house. Similar to what had happened the night before, everything that had seemed huge seemed small now. Almost 18 years has passed since I graduated from high school, and since that time, my parents had long left parts of the path go back to nature. The southern end was pretty much lost to tall grasses and new trees that had grown quite a bit over the last decade. I made it over to look at the bridge, which still seemed to have stood the test of time thankfully.


Then it was a return to the trail I had traveled so many times before. Remnants of the path could still be seen at the southern end, but fallen trees and gooseberry bushes had largely taken over. I made my way through though despite the thorns trying to pull me back.


Soon I was standing by the remains of Kirk’s cabin. The fireplace that once towered high above me seemed so short now. A smile came across my face as memories of climbing around it came back to me.


From there, I continued to stepped over fallen trees to get to the midpoint on the dike where a path used to take me down to Kirk’s Lake. That too was no longer there, but thankfully a nifty tree whose branches grew towards the ground still was. There I sat for a bit and thought again to a little Ryan who loved hanging out there as his own secret hideout of sorts.


The path became more defined as I went further north. The next step though was to look at the tree where my initials once were. Much like that relationship I was sure would last forever, nothing was there.  The bark had grown back over the decades, and the tree had completely healed from the silly decisions of my youth.


Then there were the remnants of the fallen trees on which I had once played. One in particular had been massive, and many times it served as a tightrope of sorts as I did my best to walk up and down all while trying my best to be sure-footed and well-balanced. The years had also taken a toll on that once seeming giant with weather breaking down its once-strong structure. For a second, I thought about trying to walk across it once more, but what once held me without any problems now would have likely have broken in half if my feet would have returned to it once more.


That fallen tree had always marked the beginning of the woods, but that too had changed. The pond damn that once had been bare was now covered in small but tall trees as the woods began their claim of more land for itself. The area by the pond where many times were spent by my family was now hardly passable as nature had taken over it too.


I knew before I had gone out that morning things would have changed. The overgrowth was expected, but how small everything seemed wasn’t. Even now what once was and what now is doesn’t seem one of the same place, but rather what I had seen that morning was nothing more than a miniature version of the land that once captured much of my attention and time.

The afternoon hike led to a completely different feeling of nostalgia from being home for the holidays. My mother and I bundled up in our warmest clothes to explore parts of the Lehigh Portland Trail. We started along the Creek Side Trail that provided some majestic views on top of the rocky bluffs running along Elm Creek where I came across my new favorite spot in Iola.

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While this land was all new to me, on the other side of the creek bank I had once hiked with a good friend in high school along the land my great grandparents once owned and where my dad remembered having family picnics when he was a kid.


After some awes of the views and a few attempts of some selfies, my mother and I crossed the Backbone Trail to walk along the Mountain Goat Trail that then provided some more fantastic views but this time of Elks Lake. After that was checking out part of the South Loop before working our way back to the car, where we then saw eight deer just a little ways down the road. Through it all, my mother and I continued to be amazed with how one of our favorite places to hike in Kansas now just happens to be in the place we call home.

When I realized I would be heading home for Christmas, I knew some things would be a definite like I would be enjoying a fantastic home-cooked meal and one of my mother’s great pies for dessert; however, it didn’t hit me the power that would come with retracing past steps and exploring new spots. Both of which led to a newfound appreciation and outlook on places I thought I knew so well. Perspective really does play a huge role in our lives, and that was evident from the up-close views that happened when I was younger and now with the ones with some more distance in the mix. What I saw as a kid and what I see now both hold elements of truth to them, and more than likely, both will seem different again after another ten or fifteen years have passed as my perspective continues to change.

Change is always happening. In a way, it seemed, although I knew it shouldn’t, like things would have stood still and remained just as they were, but nature took over what once was the trail in the woods behind my parents’ house and some dedicated citizens created new paths to explore with the fantastic Lehigh Portland Trail. Change has happened with me too. That little kid who played for hours  in his forested playground and found fossils at the Thursday night trap shoots has changed much over the years. Sure, there are elements that are still the same such as the joy that came when I was out in the woods Christmas morning and when I found some fossils near the end of that afternoon’s hike, but overall, he is quite a bit different and will continue to change just like everything in the world around him does. When it comes down to it, all we can do smile as we reflect on the past and do our best as we go forward on our own paths through this thing called life.

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The Magic of Flying

Back in my younger days, my eyes would often catch planes flying overhead. During the day, I would be amazed by the contrails they made, and then at night, their blinking lights among the stars would always catch my attention. Thoughts about where they were going would run across my mind as I would try to imagine what it would be like to be so high in the air. Grandma Diehl would tell me about her flying experiences. Her description of the clouds being like fluffy pillows she just wanted to wrap around her held strong in my thoughts and has stayed with me even to today. It was through hearing her stories, watching planes fly, and seeing scenes in movies and television shows that a dream formed in this small-town Southeast Kansas Boy that one day he too would get to fly in a plane. That dream fortunately has come true not once but many times, and I can easily say that childlike wonderment still exists whenever I see a plane and a smile forms when walking into an airport.

My first trip into the sky happened when I was in fifth grade. A friend of my uncle’s took me up in his small plane. The flight was maybe only 10 minutes or so, but it was neat as he did a loop out of the Iola airport, so I could see where I lived looked like from up above. There below me was the house I called home, and behind it was the woods I spent so much time in, playing around and eating gooseberries. Then there was the lake that looked so huge standing at its waters but yet so tiny from where I sat in the cockpit’s passenger seat.

It wasn’t until years later that I boarded my first commercial plane which took me across the ocean for a History of England in England class. After that, I am lucky to say there have been many flights and many great memories made. Sure, there has been some delays here and there as well as some bumpy turbulence, but overall, the whole flying experience remains magical in my eyes, and here are just a few of the reasons why.

First, it is just nifty that something the size of a plane can carry everyone in it, weigh as much as it does, and be able to soar through the skies. Yes, I know there is a lot of science and mathematics behind it, but it is still mystical that someone can board such a contraption in one place and be across the country in a few hours. Just like that, destinations that would have days or weeks to get to by car or boat can be done in less than a day with most being only hours. A plane ticket opens up the world to a person, and that is just truly amazing.

Then there is that whole different beauty that can be seen from the airplane window. Sunrises and sunsets have a whole other feel as the first rays spread over the land above and turn those fluffy clouds into something golden. Then there are the sights of the land below with the buildings and roads among rivers, lakes, farm fields, and mountains. The wee little cars travel here and there, taking their passengers to their desired destinations all while being watched from up with the passenger becoming an almost omnipresent deity in a sort of way.

Also fascinating and neat are all of the people on the plane. They all have their own stories. Some are off on a vacation and others are heading some place thanks to work. Some are heading home to people they love, and others are leaving their world behind to start a new one in a new place. There are the brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers heading to see family and perhaps hold a newborn nephew, niece, grandson, or granddaughter for the first time. Then there are those on much more somber journeys prompted by a death or an illness. All of these stories converge for a time as the people carrying them sit among each other traveling from Point A to Point B.

The same can be said for airports too. Walking down a terminal is almost like being in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Sure, a purchased ticket locks a person into a certain destination, but suddenly, all of these other possibilities can very well be seen at the digital sign hanging behind the counters. One plane is heading to New York City, another to Garden City, Kansas, and yet another Melbourne, Australia. Each destination promises different experiences that could change a life trajectory in so many different ways, and for some of these destinations, a person may have never even thought about them until walking to get the gate and catching a city’s name even for a second.

Really when it comes down to it, the flying experience could be a metaphor for life. Everyone is on his or her own journey. Some take the same flight while others will take another. Paths cross. Some crossings may be nothing more than a glance or maybe simply helping someone for a bit like pulling down a carry-on bag from the overhead bin. Then other people will play a larger role like those seatmates with whom one can carry on a great conversation during that flight time and then never see again, but for just that hour or two or more, the two connect as their journeys came together. Then there are the travel companions that stay with a person through it all, who are right by their side no matter what. Life will have its turbulent times as we go through storms, but then there are the sublime sights to be seen if people just open the window shade and look out to the world around them. Things unfortunately do not always end well, but for many of the times, there is a safe landing as long as everything keeps moving forward.


There are so many great memories in my life that have taken place either in airports or on the planes. Some are very simple like people watching while sitting in one of the rocking chairs in the Charlotte airport. Some are more dramatic like sprinting across the Denver airport to try to make it to my connecting flight to Wichita. Some are fantastic like the great people I have had the fortune of meeting thanks to fate placing our seats next to each other like Gayla, Art, Hallie, Jay, and so many others whose names may escape me but their stories have remained in my mind. There is also all of the adventures I have had the fortune to share with my mother as we took our annual trip to some great destination, spending time in anticipation on the plane getting there and smiling as we reflected about our adventure on the flight back.

I know for some people flying becomes nothing more than a routine experience, but for me, I don’t think that will ever happen. Rather, many years from now, I will still be that small town Southeast Kansas boy with thoughts of memories, anticipations, possibilities, and magic as I walk towards my gate before boarding a plane for another adventure.