We drove west from Kentucky for a day trip to Shawnee National Forest. We’d been building plans to camp in the forest, but watched as the forecast turned colder and rainier. The drive down twisting state roads and up and over the hulking Shawneetown Bridge spit us out deep inside the forest. On either side of the car, canyon walls made of second growth pine were replaced with giant elbows and knees of rippling gray rock, pushing up higher and higher from the damp ground. We’d heard Garden of the Gods was the most popular place in the forest, but upon approaching the parking lot, there was only a smattering of cars. We started clockwise on the Observation Trail, the light rhythm of spring rain darkening the way. A bright opening in the trees beckoned us to come closer to the cliff’s edge, where we caught our first glimpse of the hoodoos.
The beauty of Garden of the Gods is undeniable, even during a gloomy early spring afternoon. For many years, I remember thinking that beyond Chicago, Illinois was nothing but flat farmland. Then I visited Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Park, and I thought I’d seen the geologic limits of our state. To put it simply, I was wrong. My home, the place I’d lived for fifteen years, had surprised me again.
Walking among this timeworn wonder, it’s easy to imagine the Shawnee people who once lived here being acutely aware of the spirit of this area. The sandstone bluffs vibrate with history. The vast wilderness area just beyond the cliffs echo with memory. Even the forest’s smallest inhabitants — pebbles, mosses, and the twisting roots of elder junipers and cedars — radiate with life and awareness.
As we walked along the trail, leaning close to the jagged, jutting walls, we learned to read the stories written in stone. A rainbow of mosses and lichens clung to the light gray sandstone surfaces that escaped glacial wipeout 300 million years ago. Some stones wore sharp iron-based ridges known as liesegang bands, lending them the look of the grandest of canyons, only on an infinitesimal scale. Even the flagstone pathways, snaking around and through the mountains of rock, reverberated with their own history, whispering the names of the men who built these trailways in the forest’s nascent days.
The longer we spent on the trail, the easier spotting faces in the stones became. Sleepy eyes, pointed noses, long lips shut tight. Were these the gods for whom the rock formations had been named? Or were the gods the invisible forces that once roamed this prehistoric playground? The name of the lookout suddenly took on multiple meanings. On the Observation Trail, our eyes aren’t the only pairs searching, peering. We, too, are being watched. Silently. Closely. Faithfully.
Despite the interpretive plaques placed along the trail, at the end of the hike we left wanting more. We felt enchanted by all we’d experienced — the pastel palette, the twisting ancient evergreens, the distant hills receding into the soft haze. Over packed lunches, we imagined ourselves returning and camping in Shawnee, as we’d originally planned, and quietly looked ahead toward that misty future. While we careened out of the forest, back toward Kentucky, a giant bird of prey swooped across a break in the trees.
The gods had spoken. We’d be back.