Tracing My Way Through Loess

Once again last weekend I was struck by how similar the central United States is moving north to south. Here, at the Iowa-Nebraska border, the Missouri River passes through the largest deposit of loess (a glacial soil) on this side of the globe. The only comparable loess deposit is in China. But this is not to say that there isn’t loess elsewhere: Port Gibson, Mississippi, for instance (where I spent a semester teaching history). As the Mississippi River nears the Gulf of Mexico it also passes by a large loess deposit on the Mississippi side of the river.

Chamberlain-Hunt (where I taught) owned a tract of loess hills just to the south of the campus. They called it “The Wilderness.” It is where the cadets did their military field training (and for those who couldn’t play well with others, served their in-school suspensions). There was a two-track road that ran the perimeter of the Wilderness and the school also maintained mowed trails through the hills.

My first hike of the day last Saturday was at Mile Hill Lake Park, in Glenwood Township Iowa, along the Wabash Trace (which is part of the Loess Hills Scenic Byway, and named for the eponymous – and defunct – railroad company, not the river). Maybe it was simply the word “Trace,” which is indelibly associated, in my mind, with Port Gibson, but the Mile Hill Lake trail, a mown track through the Loess Hills, put me right back in the Wilderness of Chamberlain-Hunt.

Mowed trail above Mile Hill Lake

The flora is subtly different. The southern trees and underbrush are more lush and vines predominate farther south. But in spite of the specific differences, these Iowa trails mostly looked and smelled the same as the Wilderness. Even though Mississippi has slightly different varieties of oaks, the oak leaves crunched the same on the trail. And of course, that sticky loess soil (which was wet from recent rains) stuck tightly on the tennis shoes in the same manner. Coincidently, I was wearing the same black athletic shoes which were issued to me by Chamberlain-Hunt as part of my uniform. So scraping the loess-mud from my shoes, before I got back into the car, was exactly like scraping the loess-mud from my shoes before I went back into the house in Port Gibson.

Of course we’re too far north to have kudzu in Iowa or Nebraska, but we do have vines and creepers. Just as Mile Hill Lake reminded me of The Wilderness, so this hillside in the Indian Caves State Park reminded me of kudzu covered hillsides in Mississippi.

The Natchez Trace passes directly through Port Gibson on its way from Natchez to Nashville. I have always thought of the word “trace” as a specifically southern term. One of the greatest driving roads I have ever been on is the narrow and curvy CR 462 (locally known as the Raymond Road), which runs (with a name change or two) from Grand Gulf to Raymond, MS (which is basically, Port Gibson to Jackson). According local historical buff, Michael Herrin (Presbyterian pastor), that road follows the original Natchez Trace almost exactly.

I spent quite a bit of my free time poking around the Trace, finding places where you could get on to portions of the original trail, such as this spot where the original trail cuts deeply through a loess mound.

The original Natchez Trace

But as we prepared for our trip to Nebraska City, I discovered the “Steamboat Trace,” a 22 mile bike and walking path that runs south along the river from near Nebraska City to Brownville. I had seriously considered taking my bike down to ride the Steamboat Trace on Saturday, but a forecast of 45 mph winds and a high in the 50s disabused me of the notion. Instead I decided to drive the southern half of the Loess Hills Scenic Route, and en route discovered the Wabash Trace just south of Council Bluffs.

Of course there’s a big difference between the historic Natchez Trace and the recreational traces along the Missouri River. These recreational trails, built on the beds of abandoned railroad tracks, are wonderful places to get away from the rush of the city, but they don’t go anywhere. These two Missouri river traces are all about the journey. The Natchez Trace was all about the destination – getting back to the Appalachians after a successful delivery (by boat) of farm goods, furs, or whatever else those Kaintucks had to sell to the traders near the Gulf Coast.

But that’s conceptually (and geographically) a long way from where I was. I was wandering around Iowa and musing about how similar these hills were to Mississippi hills …

… and northwest Arkansas Ozarks.

My mom and dad used to own a place out in the woods, overlooking a tree-filled wash on the edge of Bella Vista, Arkansas. Again, the similarity between the Loess Hills of Iowa/Nebraska, the bluffs and hills of western Mississippi, and the western edge of the Ozarks was uncanny. Of the three the Ozarks were probably the most unique because of the abundance of hickory trees, which give the woods a different character than the oak forests of Mississippi and Iowa. In spite of the differences, we have been on back roads in all three places and simultaneously commented about how similar the scene is to something we’ve driven through in the other two places.

This is not to say they’re the same. Far from it. But sometimes it’s good to ponder our similarities rather than our differences.

House on a hill

Quiz time: Is this a photo of Iowa, Arkansas, or Mississippi?

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