Kioaka's eyes are moist, partly from the blustery winter wind and his advancing years but mostly because of the deep sadness he feels as he ponders what must be done. His people, the Mississippians, have lived here for more than 500 years. Before them, Woodland natives occupied this land. High on the bluff, the giant wall of sandstone protecting his village was built years before by all-but-forgotten ancestors. Forlornly Kioaka gazes at the sacred burial ground where for centuries his people have found peace. How can they possibly find the courage to abandon their magnificent homeland?
They must act quickly and begin preparations for a march into the unknown, leaving their village and worn-out cornfields to follow a new destiny. This, their sacred and most beautiful home, is barren of game. Each year, hunting parties, like the one now long overdue, have had to travel farther to find even small game that more aggressive tribes or starving wolves have not claimed. Those left here in the village -- the women, children, and elders -- are always hungry, having eaten nothing but roots and dried corn for weeks. Many have died; most of those who remain are ill and very weak, their spirits broken. Warring tribes scattered throughout the surrounding forest pose a more ominous and immediate threat as competition for shrinking resources grows ever fiercer. Kioaka has begun to doubt whether even the village's formidable stone fort can protect its residents from the aggressors much longer. Where is the hunting party?
Kioaka is the name I've given my imaginary personification of a Mississippian chief who, perchance, led his people from this village to parts unknown almost five centuries ago. Hiking atop Millstone Bluff, deep in the southernmost reaches of the Shawnee National Forest, I gaze at the petroglyphs and carvings still visible on the moss-laden rocks. Nearby, just a whisper of settled ground defines the foundations of log-and-thatch homes and buildings. I try to piece together my own theory as to why, after nearly 1,000 years of residence, these native people disappeared with so little trace. I can only theorize. The actual reasons remain cloaked in mystery.
Flatlands yield to rolling hills, cornfields to forest, bare trees to redbud and dogwood blossoms, prairies to majestic bluffs, doldrums to contentment. My jubilation reigns! I'm almost back! After bouncing along a muddy track for a few miles, then abandoning my Jeep, I heft my pack, staggering sideways as I adjust the belts and straps. Weighing more than 40 pounds, it contains everything I will need for this adventure into solitude. I am backpacking near Kioaka's former homeland and will be spending the better part of the week in Southern Illinois' most beautiful enchanted forest. I've been here five times since last fall -- three times with friends, now and in February soloing. I am drawn back by the gravitational pull of Mississippian legend and the Shawnee's breathtaking natural charm. Following a little-used trail, I trudge turtlelike uphill, thrown slightly off balance by my overweight pack. The trail is muddy and slippery from morning rain, and although the north breeze is chilly, I'm soon sweating from the exertion of the uphill climb. I pause frequently to listen to the silence, so profound yet not absolute.
Golden eagles screech overhead as I gaze skyward, marveling at the sun glowing through their translucent wing feathers. I finally reach the bluff shelter that will be my wilderness home for the next several days. Throughout the Ohio River Valley are hundreds of similar bluff shelters and dozens of stone forts (most on public land) that were once inhabited by Native Americans and today make ideal campsites for the self-propelled wilderness wanderer.
Early spring is bursting out everywhere on this late-March excursion. A flock of geese stages a delta-formation flyover in my honor. In February, 30-foot icicles spilled from crevice and rock, resembling a mystical fairyland as stalagmites and stalactites stretched to kiss each other and took on new shapes each hour. Today, flowering dogwood trees dressed in wedding blossoms complement redbuds in full regalia, both insisting on capturing my breath in their vanity and pride. A plethora of wildflowers carpets the woodland floor, dazzling me with rainbow colors. On every rock and wall, ferns, mosses, and lichens proudly strut their stuff in every imaginable shade of green, from rich lime to bright kelly to brilliant emerald. Knee-high May apples flourish along the fringes of the bluff like so many Day-Glo beach umbrellas.
The afternoon fades, and darkness soon enshrouds my world. The still blackness envelops me as I step away from my crackling fire. A trillion stars mesmerize me, dancing just beyond my grasp. The mystical sensation that stars appear so much closer here always awes me. Logically, clear air and the absence of light pollution contribute immensely to this illusion, but no true romantic would break the spell by thinking logically! Listening for nothing in particular, I am rewarded by mournful songs performed in harmony by dozens of silver-tongued coyotes across the ravine, baying their competitive bids for coyote soulmates. Their strained voices blend with the silence as they eventually give it a rest.
Strolling aimlessly, I'm preoccupied with thoughts of Kioaka and the overwhelming sadness and grief his people must have felt as they abandoned this magnificent forest. What must it have been like for the entire population of a village to set out with only the few treasured possessions they could carry or drag into the vast unknown? How slow their progress must have been. Would even two or three miles a day in these rugged hills have been possible? Knowing that the formidable Ohio River lay just south of their village, did they follow the sun and perhaps stagger abruptly to a standstill, collapsing in disbelief and utter disillusionment when they reached the even wider, more terrifying Mississippi River some 40 miles to the west? Would they of necessity have developed creative ideas for a raft or canoe or, failing that, merely meandered north, following the great river?
During my winter camp, bald eagles soared over the ice-covered lake. In today's March sun, heart-shaped water lilies -- froggy amphitheaters -- pronounce spring, rising like so many phoenixes from the muddy depths of the lake. Advancing spring has brought changes in the wildlife, too. In February, a foraging flock of wild turkeys and I came beak-to-face in mutual surprise early one morning. Now, as I ascend Millstone Bluff, my eyes are drawn to movement over the top ledge. More turkeys? Close. Two turkey vultures, neither shy nor particularly alarmed by my presence, spring lazily up into a nearby dogwood. They try to act uninterested and slightly bored as their eyes follow my labored progress. Over three seasons I've communed with turkey, coyotes, owls, woodpeckers, geese, ducks, eagles, hawks, frogs, buzzards, crows, deer, spiders, snakes, turtles, ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, and, best of all, Kioaka's spirit. It's almost unimaginable that I'm only a little more than three hours south of the capital city.
Serendipitously, on a recent pilgrimage to this area, I saw what resembled a face, naturally sculpted, high on a sandstone bluff. A forehead, eyes, nose, even the square chin are easily discernible. It could represent Kioaka, reflecting on his youth when the valley was fertile and game plentiful, when trout leapt wildly onto the stream banks in pursuit of dragonflies. Transfixed in melancholy, I struggle to shake the eerie feeling that I'm intruding on something sacred and holy. Before I look back up at him, my eyes seek purchase on where his sad, hollow ones appear to focus, out across the valley. Kioaka's spirit, if not his image -- enduring, cloaked forever in sadness -- overwhelms me. Unlike Kioaka and his Mississippians, I'll be coming back often to listen to the silence, to reconnect with his spirit and continue to taste the memory of his people.
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