Run your fingers over a relief map of the United States, and southeastern Illinois will feel nearly as flat and smooth as Florida. But here at the edge of the Ohio River Valley lies a pocket of sandstone bluffs and canyons: The Garden of the Gods, once layers of sediment under inland seas, today part of the Shawnee National Forest.
It was a warm Sunday in the fall when I followed a short trail to a slot in the rock. I climbed through and a dramatic panorama of rock towers opened before me. The scene was a more modest version of the stark canyons and mountains of the Southwest -- the colors were not as brilliant, the formations not as large or as jagged, the foliage more lush -- but it was surely not a sight I expected in the Midwest.
I followed the trail -- I would be exaggerating if I said ''hiked'' -- for its quarter-mile length, sometimes stepping out on the wide, flat tops of the rock towers to admire the view.
Four kids scrambled and wrestled over boulders that backed into the hillside, as their nervous mother kept them on the opposite side of the trail from the rim. A 60-something woman in flip-flops took tentative steps on the uneven trail and admitted she wasn't as surefooted as she used to be. A teenage girl sat cross-legged on a shelf of jutting rock, an open notebook in her lap, and stared across the canyon, lost in a daydream.
I felt as if I should thank all these people for sharing this gem of a spot with me, but instead, I took a few more photos, then turned back toward the car.
This is one in a series of postcards by Marjie Lambert, assistant Travel editor, who has been to all 50 states. Read her other postcards at www.MiamiHerald.com/travel.