“It is beyond our capacity to comprehend that the American hardwood forest waited seventy million years for people to come and live in it, though the effort of comprehension is itself worthwhile.”
– Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

“Oh, you want Four Corners, then. To Secret Canyon.” Faye points to a two-cornered T-junction on my map. “I’ll take you on over there.”

Faye is originally from North Dakota. When she was young, her family moved to Stockton, California. Then to Tuscon, Arizona.

Now, her hair white as a deer tail, she lives in southern Illinois, on the edge of Shawnee National Forest.

Most of Illinois is field or pavement. Shawnee is the 0.1% that is still wild. Spared a glacial flattening in the Quaternary, it’s one of the few places in Illinois where sandstone bluffs overlook meandering creeks lined with sycamore. Oak- and hickory-covered slopes lead up to flat-topped ridges of pine and cedar. Trails are referred to by number, if they’re referred to at all. Paths disappear under last year’s fallen leaves. Coyotes howl in the evening.

This week, I’m backpacking in the Lusk Creek Wilderness, one of seven such areas in the national forest.

“It’s a bit muddy,” Faye says. “Oh, but you know that.”

My pack bites into my shoulders and rubs against my hips. My boots sink into the mud. Faye prances up the stream bed, her walking stick kissing the ground now and then.

I try to explain that I’m actually headed to Natural Bridge. But Faye keeps on referring to my destination as Secret Canyon. I begin to wonder if I’m mistaken.

We turn from the stream bed and onto a side trail. “What’s your compass say?” Faye asks.

“South,” I respond, realizing where I went wrong earlier. I’d completely missed the turn-off. That’s how I ended up at the edge of private property, and how I ran into Faye.

“See the daffodils?” Faye points to the forest. “You can tell where the old homesteads were.”

The Lusk Creek Wilderness wasn’t always wild. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, manifest destiny brought settlers to the Shawnee Hills. The forests were cleared and the land was cultivated.

But southern Illinois isn’t as suitable for farming as the rest of the state. By the 1930s, erosion had swept away the land’s fertility, leaving barren, worn-out plots of land.

That land today is Shawnee National Forest. Starting in 1939, the U.S. Forest Service has helped nature regain its foothold in Illinois.

Photo: A pine forest typical of the flat-topped hills in the Lusk Creek Wilderness.

Photo: A pine forest typical of the flat-topped hills in the Lusk Creek Wilderness.

We reach Four Corners. There isn’t a T-junction. There aren’t even four corners. Instead, trails lead away from the intersection in five separate directions. At least two trails are not marked.

Faye confirms our location on the map, despite these discrepancies. Then she points to a small gray square of private land a mile or two to the southeast. “That’s where I’m going,” she says. “To visit a friend.” Then she points to another square three miles north. “And that’s where I live. Stop by next time you’re here, okay?

“But for now, you take that there path and stay right.” She nods toward one of the trails. “To Secret Canyon.”

Faye skips down another trail, disappearing into the forest.

Her directions prove true. I come to a signpost: left for Natural Bridge, right for Secret Canyon. Turns out I wasn’t mistaken about my original destination. I was headed to Natural Bridge. But something about Faye’s smile, crooked teeth and all, turns me right instead of left.

Secret Canyon is a wonderful slice of geology. Like many of Shawnee’s rocky bluffs, the canyon is carved from 320 million-year-old, Pennsylvanian-aged sandstone. Large, angled crossbeds decorate the bluffs, evidence of ancient rivers. They look like brush strokes.

In the Pennsylvanian Period, southern Illinois was beachfront property. Most of the state was covered by an inland sea. Rivers flowed from highlands to the east and dumped their sediment at the water’s edge. Buried and transformed into rock long ago, the traces of these ancient landscapes are now revealed by the erosive powers of modern streams.

A dog runs up to me, ready to play. Turns out Secret Canyon isn’t so secret after all. A large group camps in the shelter of the bluffs. A little girl dances on top of a boulder. A young man preaches about bobcats and firearms. At almost ten in number, the group raises the number of people I’ve seen this week by an order of magnitude. I pass on through.

My compass has a new bearing now: southwest, along a small drainage to the flat top of a nearby ridge. A nice place to leave no trace for the night.

I make my own T-junction, stepping off the trail and into the woods.

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