Plot Twists from Animal Encounters, Part 5 — Wisconsin

In the continuing examples of thinking of plot twists pulled from personal experiences, here is another story of a character (me) trying to reach a goal (a river) with a twist and conflict thrown in.

I’m an early bird, rising with the sun and watching the world awake, while my husband’s a night owl, thinking best in the evening or night when there are fewer distractions. We’ve learned to work around our personal clocks.

The spring of the first year we were married (1979), we took a week’s trip to state parks around Wisconsin. We camped one night at Merrick State Park along the Mississippi River. That next morning, I heard a bird call I’d never heard before. It sounded like a cat stuck in the tree above us. I got dressed, left my sleeping husband, and grabbed the binoculars and bird book. Only one other person was awake in the campground, and he was several sites away. I sat at our picnic table and located the bird crying so pitifully and uniquely from its nest and then looked it up in the book. It was a cat bird. Well named!

I looked through the binoculars back at the tree to confirm the markings, following the trunk up towards the nest and noticed movement. A snake was climbing the tree. Who knew? I’d always thought they were ground creatures. Then I recalled that snakes ate eggs. No wonder the cat bird cried so. I could have thrown a rock to knock the snake off the tree, but it would then be on the ground, near me. Besides, there was always the next morning for the snake to make another egg-snatching attempt when I wasn’t there to be guardian of the eggs. I decided not to watch that horror unfold and took a walk alone down to the Mississippi River.

A narrow trail went out through waist-high grass and over mushy, swampy ground to the point extending out into the river. It wasn’t a long trail, about one hundred yards. I imagined that fishermen took this trail to get to the river. I watched the beautiful sunrise-lit bluff on the western side, and stretched up occasionally on tip-toes to try to catch a glimpse of the river. I let my feet be my ground eyes, feeling and judging when the soggy ground would become too wet to support me. I was nearing the end goal and my hiking boots were suddenly sinking in deeper, a couple inches, three inches, uncertain ground. I stopped. I didn’t want to sink up to my knees and be unable to get out with no one knowing where I was so early in the morning. I sadly acknowledged that I wouldn’t reach the very edge of the river, that it was flowing under the tentative ground upon which I stood. I remained still in the soft earth for a quiet moment, reflecting on God’s glory of the early morning, of the quiet, of water all around me, being both a part of water and land. Then, for the first time of the soggy morning hike, I looked down. I needed to turn around and get my bearings of the trail direction through this swamp grass.

To my horror, there at my feet and stretched across and all along as far as I could make out through the curved grass trail were brown snakes with thick diameters of two inches…and long. Hundreds of them, and those were only the ones I could see crisscrossing the narrow trail. What about in the grassy sides to my left and right?

I didn’t pause to measure exactly how long the snakes were. I didn’t even pause a heartbeat to tell God what glory there was in his variety of creation. I did a high-step, sploshy run back to the campsite, only occasionally looking down to try to not step on one—a nearly impossible task. I bolted up the dry hill to our campsite and sat cross-legged on the picnic table until Jeff finally woke up.

Finding out that snakes climbed trees had been difficult enough to swallow. Discovering from a park ranger later that day that these are harmless bullsnakes didn’t calm my heart much. Imprinted in my mind for a thousand years to come was the image of hundreds of large slithering brown snakes, blocking my way to non-snake safety.

Summer Reflections — Cumberland Gap National Historic Park (Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia)

I started to post a new Summer Reflections when I discovered I hadn’t posted this last one from our July trip. So here, you go.

The last of our vacation stops was at Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, in parts of Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. I’d heard of the Cumberland Gap my entire life. I knew stories of the first white people crossing it, and seeing the land of “Kentuckee,” Native for “Land of the Many Bison.” The awe and mystic of crossing through the mountains on the journey westward for trading (Natives) and settlements (White).

Heading to the park from the south, we passed under the mountain from Tennessee to the south and into Kentucky by riding through the 25E tunnel. Tunnel construction started in 1979 to alleviate traffic in the small towns on either side of the gap, and also prevent accidents along the treacherous road through the gap. The tunnel did run parallel to the gap. We could have halted in Middlesboro, KY, to hike to actual trail, which long ago was a bison path, then an Indian trail, then a path used by white folks’ wagons, horses and pedestrians. Later it turned into a  curvy and steep road, once nicknamed Massacre Road because of all the accidents. And after the tunnel, turned back into a trail.

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Just past the tunnel, we stopped at the National Park Visitor Center and were able to catch a mother-daughter folk dance team, which was lovely and fun. I bought a pioneer bonnet there which would match my 1860’s outfit I wear for school visits. On the label, it was marked for Gettysburg, PA, and stated it was made in China. So much for purchasing folksy hand-made Americana.

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One thing which surprised me was it seemed most attention in the park was focused on the period of the Civil War. Being border towns during the Civil War, they were both pro-Union, but the location changed hands several times during this period.

I, however, wanted to learn about the days of Indians, and of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett (the latter of whom was never even mentioned at the park, and after I’d been singing “King of the Wild Frontier” for most of my time around there.)

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Here are views from Pinnacle Overlook, above the saddle of Cumberland Gap. We stood there for a long time with four women from a sports team. They came from between the Smoky Mountains and Cumberland Gap, and were familiar with the area, and the briars and the poisonous snakes.

In the first view, there is the small town of Cumberland Gap, TN, with 25E starting into the mountain. The middle picture shows the saddle of the Gap. The third photo shows the town of Middlesboro, KY, and 25E continuing to wind its way west and north.

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I would have liked to have spent more time exploring and thinking about Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, but on the day we visited, it was very hot, very mosquito-y, and it was the last sight on a week-long adventure before bee-lining it home to Michigan.