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.
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.