Travel Blog 3: Southern Illinois

National Forests are special places, perhaps even the heart of the United States. In Southern Illinois, Shawnee National Forest made it easy to not rush out of my home state. My first stop was at the Turkey Bayou Campground, where a variety of travelers enjoyed the free sleep beside the pond near the Big Muddy River. Returning to the sleeping-quarters-for-adventurists, I was flabbergasted to meet rock climbers from Nebraska, musicians cruising from New York to California, a natural-food eating guitar player finding more connections with his faith, a girl on mission to discover her purpose, and of course, the reptile guys. The snake enthusiasts work events around Chicago where they educate their crowds about the crawlers many of us fear. Since covid canceled their shows, they’ve created a YouTube channel (Nature in your Face) to show people the wild world of reptiles. I walked the famous Snake Road on a very probable snake-migrating day to learn more about the creatures they admire so much. I saw 21 Cottonmouths, 4 Rough Greens, 4 Rattlesnakes, and the rare victory of witnessing a Black Racer eat a baby cottonmouth. Watching their excitement filled me with an amazing connection to the unique environment, full of people that are writing books about these very fascinating reptile-creatures.

Speaking of a community of original individuals, Jackson Falls exists as a rock-climbing haven. Driving the 2 mile gravel road ended at an unexpected party of cars piling in all over the area. It was the closest thing I’d seen to a festival in months. Climbers are tremendously passionate about their hobby. There is a teamwork unlike any other, but also an opportunity for people to seek their personal escape from others. Climbers work together to reach their goal of summiting the rock wall. Jackson Falls was flooded with horseback riders drinking beer to enjoy their Saturday afternoon, dozens of tourists disappointed to see a dried up waterfall, and several folks like me seeking a night of camping in nature. The difference came on Sunday when they all flocked home for a fresh workweek while I ventured over to Garden of the God’s to walk rock cliffs, reminding myself how fragile life is and how adventurous young kids are willing to be.

My greatest takeaway from the Shawnee National Forest is that people are all living their own style of life. Folks in Makanda are labeled ‘hippies that flocked to town in the 70’s and never left.’ I entered the tiny community to see a man charge uphill to the church, saying “It’s almost time to ring the bell; it’s nearly 4:20pm.” With the average age over 70, these men and women welcomed me into their conversation circles, full of happy faces appreciating life.

Motivation comes in all forms, but the bicyclist riding from Seattle to the Florida Keys to raise awareness for addiction provided me with an enthusiastic satisfaction for making an impact on peers. The genuine man gleamed with positivity, sharing about his love of following his purpose even with 3 kids at home waiting for him to accomplish his mission.

While watching sunset over the Ohio River, I reflected on the variety of people I met in the Shawnee. I like to think that I live uniquely, but there are so many wonderful people performing amazing activities that I wouldn’t even dream of. Find your own passions and interests...good things will come from them!


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