Posted by: trevormeers | July 30, 2012

Home Turf

Alli taking the trails for a test run when she’s supposed to be posing for family photos in our adopted backyard.

Not long ago, an adventure writer named Tim Cahill came out with a book called “Lost In My Own Backyard: A Walk in Yellowstone National Park.” It chronicled his favorite adventures and memories from our nation’s first national park, which happens to be his family’s go-to playground.

Naturally, the book made me cranky. This generally happens whenever someone produces a book I wish I’d written. But the additional annoyance here was that while most people serve out a 30-year mortgage with an unchanging view of swingsets and other assorted items to mow around, Cahill has grizzlies frolicking in the warm mist of geysers.

But then I got over it and started doing what good books are supposed to make you do: Think about how it relates to you. And before long, I started counting myself rather lucky that our family has its own uber-yard that costs us nothing (not even taxes since it lies just across the county line). Roughly nine miles southwest of our driveway is Thomas Mitchell Park, which—once I sat down to add it up—has rather unexpectedly become a significant site in our personal history.

The first big moment I remember at the park was taking Allison geocaching at about age 5. This was during my brief flirtation with the hobby, when I considered it a way to give some purpose to hikes with kids who have the same attention span and appreciation for nature as a reality TV star. With that in mind, geocaching worked equally well on hikes with both 5-year-olds and church teenagers. The game is to go online and find the GPS coordinates of a little treasure box some nerd has stashed in the woods. (Geocachers seem to have a disproportionate tendency to compare themselves to gnomes.) Then you fire up your handheld GPS unit and follow it to the goodies.

At Thomas Mitchell, our little yellow Garmin eTrex led us to ammo boxes under logs and film canisters tucked into stumps. The promise of hidden treasure had lured us away from the house and even the playground. I suddenly had a child who couldn’t wait to disappear into the woods, and for that reason alone, I fell for Thomas Mitchell, or “the park” as we now simply call it.

Tadpoles fresh from the reborn pond. (Disclaimer: We strictly practice catch-and-release when it comes to tadpoles.)

Next, the park led me into my own new ventures. Its short trail system provided my first entrée into trail running. In a roughly three-mile loop, I can take in the dam at the pond, a steep upgrade through the trees, a Boy Scout campground, a mile-long path covered in shade and shredded bark, a wooden footbridge, a narrow trail along the eroded creek bank and an asphalt drive that cuts past an old tree that some chainsaw artist cut into a giant mushroom. (If I came upon this enormous fungus while trail running in the later stages of one of those 100-mile sufferfests, I’d have a completely different reaction to it.)

My favorite site on the loop is a single weathered headstone standing inside a small iron fence right where the trail dives downhill to the creek and Scout camp. It’s apparently the final resting place of someone named Devotie, who gave their name to the Devotie Trail I run. If you’re the kind of person who gives a lot of thought to where your body will wind up once you’re done with it, I’d consider this spot a pretty good choice. It enjoys a good mix of sun and shade each day and hides from winter winds in the surrounding trees. People who visit you can relax on a nearby bench, and if it’s possible to listen closely once you’re dead, you’d hear kids splashing around down in the creek.

Don’t act like YOUR family has never gotten its portrait taken with a giant mushroom.

That water is one of the park’s greatest draws for our crew. A concrete drive crosses the creek at water level, making it a perfect spot for kids to splash in summer and break ice in winter. We took our family portraits on the downstream wooden footbridge on a fall day that looked splendid on camera, even if it was 30 degrees and Teri’s toes were turning white inside her cute shoes.

The big park news this year was the return of the pond. A couple of years ago, the county drained it to rake out the muck, kill invasive fish, locate Russian subs or deal with some other lurking menace. Over the winter, we walked the dry pond’s bed, peeking into the rock piles and concrete tubes destined to be fish apartments by summer. Come May, the pond was full again and—to our delight—brimming with tadpoles. (Frog chasing being one of our favorite springtime pastimes.) We headed to the water’s edge and discovered that the brand-new pond was as clear as Lake Superior. Soon the water would be murky as a hoofprint on a rainy day, but today the tadpoles had nowhere to hide. Alli and a friend gathered them up by the bucketful, calling me over for a look whenever they netted one that had already sprouted hind legs.

During the tadpole hunt, I was relaxing on the new Thomas Mitchell Beachfront, composed of a small gravel runway installed for launching non-motorized boats. It provided a rare chance in Iowa to soak your toes without wading through several yards of bug-choked weeds. Soon, more beachgoers arrived. A couple showed up and set their toddler to wading in the pond, wearing the ever-fashionable swimsuit consisting of nothing but a droopy diaper.

In a few minutes, a park cop sauntered up, packing both pistol and Taser in case the wading toddler wanted trouble.

“Folks, this isn’t a swimming beach,” he said. “I’m gonna to have to ask you come on out of the water.”

So it turns out that the law is a little stern at our home park. But I’m sticking with Thomas Mitchell. Because when it comes to soggy diapers wandering around in a body of water that still has that new-pond smell, I’m OK with a heavy-handed officer keeping it out of my backyard.

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