McLoud Run

Kaitlyn Wintermeyer

McLoud Run does not resemble any nature walks I have taken before. The path is paved and even marked with a dotted yellow line down the center like a miniature highway. There are no logs to climb over or "cow pies" to avoid. There aren't even many trees. However, the abundance of wildflowers cannot be ignored. In an open area near the beginning of the path, I encounter a prairie foxtail; it reaches as high as my knee. My aunt once taught my brother and me how to pick the soft tip of this native grass and place it between our forearms, and by gently moving them back and forth, to make it crawl upwards, as if it were a caterpillar. I look up from the plan to check for onlookers, considering a caterpillar crawl, but I am drawn away from the furry flower.

Nearby is a milkweed, still in the green stage. This brings to mind the days of my youth when I would ride in my dad's pickup, head hanging out the window, watching milkweed silks float by on a gentle breeze. Grandma would always warn me when they would soon be going to seed, and I was terribly impatient waiting for the time to come. Since then I have come to think of it less as a flower than a common weed, and I'm glad that I am taking this walk because I once again feel giddy at the prospect of residue from milkweed explosions filling the air. I wander farther, amazed to look back and see that I have only traveled fifteen feet or so.

Advancing toward the stream, I look across the water to see a purple loosestrife and goldenrod of unknown variety casting their stunning reflections on the clear, seemingly motionless creek. Their colors blend together in such perfect harmony that I wonder if they were planted near each other by man or if such a wonderful picture could be painted by coincidence. I come to the conclusion that this must be work of Mother Nature. No human could have foreseen the simple splendor of this scene.

Suddenly, I am overtaken by a wonderfully familiar fragrance. I sniff the air like a coyote catching the odor of its next meal downwind. It is mint, and I look for it, although the only visual reference I have to rely on is the image of a mint leaf on a chewing gum wrapper. I continue sniffing around from high to low smelling flowers of several plants, their delicate scents never overpowering the cool clean aroma of mint, until I find it. This particular plant has no flower, but it needs no such adornment; it captures my attention with its smell alone.

I find a dainty spring beauty nestled in the grass. It is the kind of flower I drew in grade school art and the kind I still doodle in the margins of my notebooks. Its simplistic beauty is unmatched by any piece of manmade art I have ever seen. The five identical snow white petals cause me to wonder how it can spend all its life in the dirt and still remain clean. I have only been walking a short while and already my ankles are smeared with mud and my shirt is streaked with dirt. When I notice my knees aching from the strain of squatting over the blossom, I decide to move on.

I soon encounter a black-eyed Susan, my dad's favorite flower. I am instantly transported to another ride in the old blue pickup, listening to my father talk while scanning the road ditches.

"Aren't they just the most beautiful things? I don't know anything about flowers, but black-eyed Susans are my favorite."

"Why? They don't look all that special to me."

"Well Grandma Mabel always loved them, and she said they were the most beautiful flower anyone could ever see, and whatever Grandma Mabel said was always right."

Every time I see a black-eyed Susan, I think of him, and I am thankful that he gave me such a treasured memory.

As I raise my eyes once again to the path, I notice a clearing ahead right along the stream. I make a beeline for it and decide to take a break to reflect on the things I have seen on my walk. I find a rock near the water and use it as a seat. Gazing into the water, I try to lose myself, to stop thinking about identifying plants and to just try to take in the beauty all around me. I begin to narrate a passage in my head.

"A cool, clear meandering creek lazily carries thistle fluff downstream, purling over the rocks which don't quite break the surface of the water."

I drop my fingers to the surface, submerging them no deeper than my fingernails. Oh, it is cool and fresh feeling. In fact, it feels so good that I consider taking off my shoes and wading to a rock in the middle of the brook so that I can daydream while the water trickles between my toes.

My memory soon flashes, however, to a sign I saw on the edge of Cedar Lake, not far from here: "WARNING: Do not consume fish caught from this lake. Fish contain high levels of cancer causing materials." When did I become so cautious of contaminated water? A summer thunderstorm once passes through my hometown when I was about six. After the skies cleared, my brother, sister and I decided to play outside. Mom was inside taking a nap, so Dad was in charge. This meant looser reins on the necks of the Wintermeyer kids, and we took full advantage. Elicia, my sister, was nominated to propose the plan; she was the oldest, after all.

"Daddy, since it stopped raining, can we go play in the puddles a little?"

"Uh yeah, I guess, but don't ruin your clothes or anything." His forehead wrinkled; he was undoubtedly trying to decide if playing in puddles would be acceptable to mom.

"Oh, we won't, We'll put on our swimsuits; nothing will get dirty."

With that, we darted upstairs to change clothes and scooted out the back door. Dad was in the garage working on Mom's station wagon, 'Puff', so we were free to entertain ourselves in the murky water of the road ditch. The water was dirty enough that I couldn't see my hand submerged just a couple inches below the surface, creating a sense of danger and excitement in all three of us. However, we didn't get much adventuring done, because Mom soon woke up to fix supper and get ready for work. When she stepped out to talk to Dad and saw us in that scientific wonderland, her eyes became as large as the serving spoons we had been using to dig in the mud. There was a pause before she began to speak. I have still not discovered whether this pause was intentional, a device used to create a dramatic effect and let the tension build, or if she couldn't think of where to begin her rant.

"WHAT are you kids doing in there?" She didn't give us time to respond, although I'm not sure what we would have said anyway. "That water has run off the yard and the street and it has to be full of chemicals and bugs and trash and get out of there right now and where is your father does he know you're in here where are your clothes get inside and into the bathtub right now the neighbors are going to think I've neglected you WHERE IS YOUR FATHER?!"

Honestly, she got that all out in one breath. The three of us stood up and clambered out of the ditch, trying the whole time to keep our spoons behind our backs. As we sloshed across the yard single file, we kept our eyes to the ground, wanting to tell her that of course the water was stagnant and contaminated. How could she not understand that the particular balance of this culvert soup was without a doubt conducive to an undiscovered species of a microscopic life form? Had she not interrupted our observation, we would have shared the profits of our discovery and even let her hang the Nobel Prize on the refrigerator, but she could forget that now, because the creature would never be uncovered, or worse, would be discovered by Koley and Kale down the street. Too scared and frustrated to let her in on our secret, we tromped into the bathroom and turned on the faucet. We replaced our spoons before she got finished with Dad, certain that some divine being must have been looking out for us and aligned the red spots before her eyes with our scientific scoopulas, so she never saw them at all.

I long for the feeling I had while playing in the ditch before mama bear emerged from the den. I want to get into the water again so that I can just relax, hearing only the sound of the rivulet sliding by. I would be free to let the water flow through my hair, to massage my feet with pebbles lining the creek bed. I can feel the water trickling over me. Emerging cleaner than I have ever felt before, I would let the sun dry me as I sit on a rock. From here I could watch as the trout dart through the water so fast that I sometimes would not be sure if I have seen anything at all. What bliss that would be!

Jolting me back to the ugly truth, a passing car with a flat tire rudely interrupts my dreamland. I know precisely what Thoreau meant when he said, "Nowadays almost all man's improvements, so called, as the building of houses, and the cutting down of the forest and all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap." There was a time when the sound of traffic on a hike was a blessing to me, rather than a nuisance.

On a woodland adventure with my cousins and brother, we once wandered off the cattle trail and were left with no familiar landmarks. Certain that we had ventured into an undiscovered part of the wilderness never to return, we all became a little panicked, although we kept up a façade of cool self-assuredness. We plodded along, arguing over whether or not we had seen this tree or that bush already; the situation looked grim. Mutiny was on the horizon. Abruptly my brother, self appointed leader of the rescue effort, stopped and cocked his head to the side.

"Hear that?"

"Hear what?" my cousin John inquired.

"Oh no! Our captain's cone mad for starvation and emotional stress!" I told myself.

"Oh yeah!" Kara chimed in, "Sounds like a car!"

We marched onward toward the origin of the sound and soon found ourselves on the shoulder of a dirt road about a mile from home. Releasing private sighs of relief, we made our way back to the house, poking fun at each other an bantering over who had been the 'scaredest.' Though no one brought it up, I'm sure we all noticed that no one ventured off the road on the return trip, even though there was a shortcut through the trees. I laugh at my former self; I was so dramatic when I was younger, always looking for an adventure.

As I turn to head toward the trail, a bright orange object commands my attention, a plant with many tangerine-colored blossoms. The pale yellow center is enticing and I have never seen something exactly like it before. The flower, I soon find out is called a touch-me-not. I wonder why it has been given such a name. The bloom is impossible to resist, and I dismiss the warning of its moniker willing to accept whatever the repercussions might be. I may never know what those supposed consequences are, because the tangerine beauty does not shrivel and die upon my stroke, nor does it burst into flames ad I half-heartedly expect it to. This mystery will have to wait until another time, because I must return to my walk.

I saunter along the shoulder of the path, out of the way of the bikers, and enjoy myself all the more for doing so. I like walking off the path because I can feel the soft earth give beneath me, and the occasional brush of a weed along my calf muscle is a gentle reminder of why I am here. I spy a dainty daisy-looking flower peeking through the grass. Less than an inch across, the sunny yellow center is surrounded by thousands of tiny petals layered like feathers on a bird's wing. It is a many-flowered aster, and it is a masterpiece. A quick glance around brings a similar plant to my attention. This one looks like it is in a shadow at first, but upon closer inspection, I realize that its petals are a very faint shade of lavender. This seems to be the only difference in the two, but what a world of difference it makes! I cannot decide which one I like more, the sun on a snowy day many-flowered aster or the graceful, feminine smooth aster. They both capture my gaze for quite some time. To my left, I sense movement in the brush. I venture down toward the stream; a fisherman in waders is casting his line in the middle of the glasslike water.

Ahead I spot a splash of yellow in the midst of the deep green of the grass. I stride nearer it to discover it is a golden-bean flower. It resembles a baby's mouth, with its bottom petal drooping downward in a pout, ant its two upper petals forming the perfect twin crests of the top lip. It seems hungry, because its lips are parted just as an infant's as the bottle comes near its mouth. I begin to wonder what advantage this shape provides that has caused it to prevail through evolution. Unable to reach a conclusion, I wander on until I reach a cluster of delicate white flowers atop a rather spindly-looking stem. This is truly an exquisite flower. At first it appears to be a large bloom of pure white. In truth, it is a collection of the smallest blossoms I have ever seen. Each flower is about an eighth of an inch across, with about six petals surrounding its seemingly nonexistent pinpoint sized center. This is queen Anne's lace, and I know I have seen it before, but I have never examined any specimen of this variety so closely. How many thousands of these plants I have passed without giving them a second glance so that I could take in all they really have to offer? The ditches along my route to work were filled with this dusting of white, yet now I have never actually inspected it.

Determined to see more of my surroundings up close and personally, I venture onward to find two thistle plants next to each other. I'm certain that they are bull thistles, because I am a self proclaimed bull thistle expert since I was the only person in my sixth grade class to find one for my wildflower book and receive extra credit for doing so. On the way home from a visit to Grandma and Grandpa's house, my brother, my sister, and I were all crowded into the back seat of the family car. Of course, we started bickering and my mom offered the standard threat. "If you three can't control yourselves back there, you're all going to walk home!" This warning had never rung true before, so we weren't very concerned. We continued pestering each other and before we knew it, the car was stopped on the side of the road.

"Now damn it! You heard her! Get outta the car! You're walking home and you better feed pigs when you get there, too!"

Dad's voice boomed from behind the wheel. Elicia, Will, and I weren't sure what to do. A glance at Dad's eyes in the rearview mirror told us that there was no joking around about this and we all scrambled out of the car. My conniving siblings soon formed an alliance against me and took off running toward home to rid themselves of me. I was certain that if I walked slowly enough all the work would be done by the time I got home. I noticed a large bushy plant with splendid purple flowers on the top towering about the rest of the grass and weeds. I was certain it was a prize as wildflowers go, so I clambered through the ditch to reach it. I was even willing to brave its thorny armor in order to capture a single bloom. When I returned to the house, I was absolutely tickled with myself; I had found a treasure and managed to escape slave labor all in one step.

I return to the thistles at hand. Their flowers are practically identical, but the structure of the plants themselves reveals the fact that they are actually of tow different species. The flodman's thistle plant seems bushy and full of wide, lush, green leaves, whereas the Canada thistle exhibits leaves that are sparser, so the flowers receive all of the attention. Both posses brilliantly full blooms of a delightful pinkish purple hue. The flowers are surrounded by the tiny barbs characteristic of the thistle family, making me thing that these are more fitting of the name touch-me-not than the soft orange flower that I had seen earlier on my journey.

Weariness soon comes over me. I would lover to see what else McLoud Run has to offer, but I don't have time today. I'm filled with joy at the way McLoud Run has made me feel at home in Cedar Rapids and I have a cozy, reminiscing emotion running through my body. I realize that I have not been walking the path, but rather sauntering along it. With no particular destination in mind, I have managed to end up in exactly the right place. I am as much at home here on McLoud Run as in the timber of my childhood home. I 'm so glad I have discovered McLoud Run and rediscovered many of the experiences I had growing up in a rural area. This park seems like a good place to return to so that I can remember my heritage and feel at home. As I return to the beginning of the path, I see something I hadn't noticed before, my favorite wildflower, the purple coneflower. I am so very excited to see its narrow, rich lavender petals extending down from its conic center. I have a new thought about this blossom; its shape is like that of a ballet dancer, the long narrow stem is her legs, the droopy petals are the fabric of her skirt, and the hard brown center her toned upper body. I take the discovery of this flower as a sign that my walk is over, as I have found something very special to me. Maybe someday I will have grandchildren who will lover this flower simply because I do. I would lover to leave a legacy as my great grandma Mabel did. Basking in the warmth of my childhood memories, I leave McLoud run with a smile.

 

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