by Dave Lager

Chapter 23 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003

After a few seconds she heard Frank shuffle his feet, not impatiently, more like just wondering what if anything was going on. There’d been no lightning bolts or thunder crashes to mark her first touch of the venerable tree, just the usual quiet whisper of the breeze in the leaves overhead and the occasional rustle of night creatures stirring.

Still standing with her fingers on the tree’s flank, her head slightly bowed, Ro said, “Give me a minute.” She meant it both for Frank and for the tree.

“No problem,” Frank said, “take your time.”

She smiled to herself, thinking Frank was now surely having second thoughts about getting involved with this crazy tree-lady.

Ro frowned… Something was happening… There was a kind of emerging awareness of things she had never felt before. No, that’s not right; she’d always been intellectually “aware, ” but now it was more like she was actually a part of the rich and sticky, life-giving sap running up and down Neshnala’s flanks… Part of the vast number of rings in its core – she didn’t know how she knew, but knew, indeed, the tree was very, very old… Part of the tree’s measureless network of roots that over the centuries had clawed their way deep into the revitalizing earth… Part of the great shoulders of branches over her head, some thicker than her thigh, with their endless branching into smaller branches that in turn branched yet again and branched yet again to support millions of leaves soaking up the warmth and life-giving sun.

Ro’s frown quickly changed to a smile. She had always loved Neshnala. Its immense dignity had taken her breath away the first time she’d seen it, and it was taking her breath away yet again. It was so utterly, overwhelmingly beautiful, like sex, but certainly not erotic; filling her with understanding, not about anything specific – “Oh, I can speak Latin now” – but just about the Essence of things – and yes, she did think of it as having a capital E, like a sacred cannon – the totality of things.

She had no idea exactly what this Essence might mean or where it might take her, but just that for now it was enough.

With a contented sigh, she dropped her hand and stepped back. Turning to Frank, she said, “Thank you for that.”

“Did you pay your respects?”

“Yes, I did,” she answered, perhaps a little cryptically, hoping he didn’t push for more information because she had no idea how she could explain to him what had happened between her and Neshnala, since she didn’t yet understand it herself.

“Good,” he said, turning back toward the truck. Glancing at his watch, he added, “I’ve heard there’s this Brody’s Bakery in town that’s just opening for the morning and has these fantastic fresh donuts. Wanna get one and some coffee?”

Ro knew the place. It was on Taylor Avenue a little over two miles from her apartment. They had half-a-dozen bakery display cases as well as a dozen small booths for those who wanted to eat their donuts while still warm. When she’d been a third shift dispatcher, at least once a week or so a deputy would show up at the sheriff’s headquarters at the end of his shift with a dozen fresh donuts from Brody’s for the office staff.

“Let me pick-up my stuff at the cottage and you can follow me there,” she said.

“Sounds like a plan.”

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager


“Keep a small can of WD-40 on your desk — away from any open flames — to remind yourself that if you don’t write daily, you will get rusty.”

George Singleton (1958- )

So, I guess Singleton has found the one-thousand-and-SECOND use for this versatile product.

Chapter 22 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003

Frank rolled off the bed and walked over to a dresser, picking up a ring of keys. He sorted through several, then held one up, adding with raised eyebrows, “Well, I happen to know somebody who has a key to the gate… Let’s go…”

“It’s three o’clock in the morning…”

“That means nobody’ll bother us.”

Because the previous afternoon had been a pleasant, though overcast mid-50s, Ro had worn jeans, a dark green, knit Henley-style shirt and a light windbreaker jacket. Her Glock 19 off-duty gun was locked in the gun safe in Frank’s office. Now a chilly, low-30s, Frank loaned her a fleece-lined hooded sweatshirt.

Neshnala was on top of the bluff toward the back of the state park, while the ranger’s cottage was near the front of the park below the bluff. The only way for them to get to it was to leave the park’s front entrance, go around to the west side of the park and re-enter on the Neshnala Road, which wound through wooded hills and valleys to the Neshnala meadow.

It took nearly fifteen minutes to reach the long, narrow parking lot adjacent to the tree. At one end of the lot were a couple of thick wooden posts with a chain between and a sign that said, “Service Road No Access.”

Frank unlocked the chain and they drove the roughly fifty feet to the ten-foot wide gate in the chain link fence that surrounded the tree, the truck’s headlights throwing a wide swath of light across its dark base, its shadowy crown looming overhead, blotting out a huge chunk of the sky.

They climbed out of the truck and walked up to the gate. As Frank unlocked it, Ro asked, “Have you ever touched Neshnala?”

“Lots of times, whenever we mow the grass or pickup leaves or fallen branches,” Frank said, matter-of-factly.

He swung the gate partly open and held it for Ro to enter first. She was used to seeing the entirety of Neshnala’s immense presence in daylight, tall and proud. Now, just seeing its huge trunk and the underside of its great cap of branches and leaves, the tree had an eerie, brooding look.

As she started slowly walking toward the tree, still some fifty feet away, she had to work her way between, or step over the great gnarled knuckles of its roots that thrust up from the ground.

She felt… Afraid? No, not fear. Neshnala was awesome, ineffable, but not fear-inspiring. Maybe a little apprehensive? Yea, that was more like it… A little nervous about what she might find; or not find… That idea was disquieting; while she didn’t have any idea what to expect, she knew she was expecting something.

“I’ve wanted to touch you for so long, what if I’m disappointed? Frank didn’t seem to think touching you was such a big deal,” she thought, silently addressing the tree. She recalled her second-grade school mates whose attitude had seemed to be pretty much like Frank’s: “Yea, it’s a big ole tree; but it’s just another tree. What if they’re right?”

In the wan light from the truck’s headlights, the tree’s wrinkled bark was a ghostly gray.

When Ro finally reached the tree – Frank a couple of yards behind – she did what she always did with her favorite old trees, reached out, put her finger tips lightly on its bark, bowed her head slightly and whispered under her breath, “Respect.”

Ro felt what she always felt when she was near any old tree; a pleasant, but mild sense of peace and, at the same time vigor.

As she always did, after a few seconds she went to take her hand away and move on with the rest of her life… Except she found this time she didn’t want to lift her hand away. It wasn’t as if the tree was somehow holding her, it was more like she had this need inside to stay there, waiting…

For what, she didn’t know… Only that she knew there was some reason to wait…

To be continued…
(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 21 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003

Rolling her eyes in exasperation, not at Frank’s question, but at her difficulty in expressing her thoughts, Ro stammered, “They’re… They’re… I don’t quite know the right word… Comforting? I feel good when I’m in the trees… Really good, like… Like I’m among friends…Energized somehow… But it’s not like I get the so-called runner’s high from the trees, that’s different… It’s more like this feeling of peacefulness…”

“And do you always touch them?”

“Yea, whenever I can, the really old ones, anyway.” She saw herself running along the narrow dirt trails. If an old tree was close to the path she would run her fingers lightly along its rough bark and mutter, “Respect,” as she passed. If it was off the trail – ten, twenty or more feet – she would just point at it and nod her head, again in reverence.

And she always stopped at Neshnala.

Frank cocked his head to one side, asking, but not actually saying, “And…?”

This conversation was turning out to be a lot more “personal” than she had originally thought.
With a sigh, as if she was afraid she was admitting to something that was going to be embarrassing, Ro said, “I’m showing my respect.”

“Oh,” Frank said with a nod, as if that was the most natural of answers, then rather unexpectedly asked, “How many times have you visited Neshnala?”

“Hundreds,” Ro said with a shrug. “The first time I think I was in second grade on a field trip. Bill Cummins” – the recently retired Five Falls park ranger that Frank had replaced – “told us it was believed to be at least 250 years old and that the Sauk Indians that lived in the area called it Neshnala, the Tree of Knowledge. As I said, my dad and I used to hike up to see it all the time and now, whenever I run out here, I always go through the Neshnala meadow.”

“Have you ever touched Neshnala?”

Ro reared back, stunned at the question. For as long as she could remember the tree had been surrounded by a six-foot high chain link fence.


“Would you like to?”

Her mouth dropped open. Of all the life experiences she might wish for, that was one Ro never thought she would or could have. In some corner of her mind she had to have known that Frank, as the park ranger, had the key to the Neshnala fence, but it had never occurred to her to ask him to open it for her and let her in.

“Oh my god, yes,” she said with excitement.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

The demon keyboard

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

—George Orwell (1903-1950)

No wonder my keyboard seems to have this strange power over me…

Chapter 20 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003

(This the first in a series of posts excerpted from draft chapters in the next – as yet unpublished − Ro Delahanty novel, “The Berlin Riddle.”)

“Can I ask you a personal question?” Frank said.

“Of course,” Ro answered without hesitation, although she did wonder where this might be going.

They were naked in the narrow, old-fashioned double bed in the master bedroom of Frank’s ranger cottage, still basking in the afterglow of their lovemaking. In the little over two months they’d been a couple it was the first time Ro had stayed with Frank. Sunday night had become “their night,” and up until now Frank had always stayed at Ro’s apartment.

“What’s this thing with you and trees?” he asked, careful to make the question sound casual.

Ro frowned, not because it was a difficult question, but just because it was not the one she had expected. What she’d been afraid of was a more difficult question like, “How do you feel about kids?”

“That’s your personal question?” Ro said, but with a light tone.

“That’s as personal as it gets,” Frank said, adding, “I’m serious. I know you like to run in my woods.” He meant, of course, the miles of wooded hiking and equestrian trails in “his” state park. “And earlier today… Uh, I guess it was yesterday… You went out of your way to lay your hand on the cottonwood next to my patio; it was almost like you were touching the arm of a dear friend. I got curious.”

Frank had grilled steaks for them on the patio off his kitchen the previous afternoon. On the east side of the ranger’s cottage, it looked out across a grassy meadow. A huge old cottonwood flanked the patio on the north.

“Oh,” Ro said, almost like someone who’d been caught doing something they weren’t supposed to. While she knew exactly what Frank was talking about, it did turn out to be a difficult question only because she had never had to articulate her “thing” for trees out loud to anyone before. While Atti, her best friend, knew about Ro’s thing for trees, Atti had never asked her to explain it, had just accepted it as being part of who her friend was.

“Um,” she said, buying for time because she didn’t know where to start.

Frank swung around in the bed and sat facing her, his arms across raised knees; he waited with a patient expression.

Ro, who had been lying on her back, her head on some pillows, pushed herself into a sitting position.

“I guess I’ve had a ‘thing’ – as you call it – for trees,” she said, “for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid my brother and I and neighbor kids liked to play in the woods behind our house. My dad and I would go for hikes on your trails here in the parks. Now, as you said, they are my favorite place for a run.”

“I like to be in the woods, too, Ro. That’s one reason I became a park ranger; I’d much rather be out here than in an office somewhere. But I have the feeling your thing for trees
is more of a ‘thing’ than just a pleasant hike – or run, in your case – through the woods.”

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 19 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003

At the top of the bluff she chose to follow the Neshnala Loop Trail clockwise, first taking the half-mile section closely paralleling Rock Creek. On her right was the dense green forest covering much of the top of the bluff, oaks and maples and ash, with an occasional open meadow festooned with wildflowers, while on her left Rock Creek tumbled over rocky shoals, with picnic benches every hundred feet or so.

Ro liked this part of the trail. It was flat, the turns were gentle and there weren’t many walkers, so she could really stretch out and gobble up the yards at more than a jog, but not quite a flat out run.

Eventually the trail swung east and dipped and climbed across a huge mowed, park-like meadow dominated by Neshnala. The woods surrounding the meadow had lots of old trees, many so big one person couldn’t put their arms around them, with tall limbs reaching to fifty or sixty feet high…beautiful and impressive in their own right.

But Neshnala was a giant among them. With a circumference of more than twenty feet, three adult men with linked arms couldn’t reach around its great trunk. The gnarled roots at its base were more than forty feet across. Its canopy was nearly two hundred feet wide and reached more than a hundred feet into the sky. And because there were always the thoughtless morons who believed it was cool to carve their initials, or something worse, in Neshnala’s side, the tree was surrounded by a six-foot high chain link fence, so no one could in fact touch it.

As always, she slowed to a walk and circled the tree, taking her time out away from the fence so its presence was less of a distraction. Each time she visited Neshnala she seemed to see something different…. Sometimes it was how the other trees kept their distance, as if out of deference to their wizened neighbor…. Sometimes it was the vibrant green of its canopy, seeming more alive, more energetic than the trees around it…. Sometimes it was the gnarled branches that looked like the knuckles of an old man…. Today she seemed to sense the tree’s roots and how profoundly they delved into the life-giving earth below….

And, as always, she stopped on Neshnala’s west side, because it was where one of the tree’s long branches dipped closest to the ground, perhaps only six or seven feet above her head, so it was where she could feel the most connected to the tree and where a sense of peace and, at the same time, vigor, seemed to spread through her. To her there was no doubt it was coming from the tree, like it was the tree’s gift to anyone who was ready to accept it.

After a few moments Ro closed her eyes and briefly dipped her head to the tree, something she had started years ago. She didn’t know exactly why, except it just felt like the right thing to do. Under her breath she muttered, “Respect,” then took a step back. Her only regret was she couldn’t touch the tree.

Pulling the Gatorade bottle from its holder she took a long drink, then kicked her knees up several times and started her run again, this time turning south to head back toward the bluff. When she reached the edge of the bluff the trail hit a T, with a sign that said the Neshnala Loop continued to the right, to return to the top of the falls, while the Bluff Trail went left.

Ro went left, the trail now just a wide, beaten-down dirt path. By following the Neshnala Loop her run would have been just over two miles, a short one for her. The Bluff Trail continued east along the edge of the bluff, crossed over into the county’s adjacent forest preserve, and eventually dropped down the face of the bluff to the Lower Trail, which ran roughly east to west at the base of the palisades. Adding the Bluff and Lower Trails, altogether her run would be closer to five miles, a more respectable distance for her.

She got back to her car at not quite nine-thirty, used the bathroom, finished her bottle of Gatorade, and headed for home and her usual Monday errands. As she left the state park she felt a mild disappointment she hadn’t seen the green Dodge.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 18 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003 (part two)

The main entrance road continued for another half-mile through thick forests, past another road leading to a second campground on her right. Then, as it neared the towering limestone palisades, it swung left and continued for another three-quarters of a mile to end in a large parking lot next to a small man-made lake at the base of the falls.

At not quite eight in the morning, there were only a couple of other cars in the lot.

Ro climbed out of the car, taking her keys but locking the fanny pack inside. She went around to the front of the car, near a picnic bench, and began what she thought of as her own version of a Tai Chi routine, which was, in fact, a series of muscle stretches to get ready for a run. With its slow repetitions and holds of various exercises, it took her a little under three minutes to complete.

Now ready to run, she returned to the car, retrieved the fanny pack with its bottle of Gatorade and clicked it on.

What was known as the Neshnala Loop Trail was a six-foot wide crushed gravel path beginning at the north side of the parking lot, but almost immediately turned into a series of switchbacks as it climbed up the face of the palisades next to the tumbling falls. At the top of the falls the trail became a loop of a little over two-miles following Rock Creek to the north, then swinging to the east through a large meadow where Neshnala stood. Then it curled back south and then west along the edge of the bluff, offering several spectacular overlooks of the Mississippi River and the Illinois shore beyond.

Most visitors found the climb up the switchbacks strenuous, with some even quitting, breathless, less than halfway up. For Ro, it was like the appetizer before a superb meal. She loved the feel of her calves and Achilles tendons stretching and working as she climbed upward, pumping her arms, throwing one foot ahead, rolling forward smoothly, only to bring the other foot forward, to roll forward yet again….

She was aware of her surroundings; there were still some shallow puddles in the gravel from a thunderstorm that had passed through just after midnight and the westerly wind was brisk, playing along the face of the palisades. But the low-70s sun was warm on her face and neck as she climbed back and forth up the bluff face.

At the same time, though, as she always did when she ran, she was slowly withdrawing into herself, focusing on her body. Not specific parts, like certain aching muscles, or lungs gasping for air, or sweat trickling down her side, or sharp rocks poking her through her shoes; but rather on her whole body, on the totality of her experience.

She knew the feeling well. It was what she always sought, was perhaps addicted to, and nearly always achieved when she went for a run, her runner’s Zen. It was easy to use words like “trance-like” or “rapturous” or “runner’s high” to try to explain the feeling, but they were like trying to describe the Grand Canyon to someone who had never seen it, inadequate at best.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 17 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003 (part one)

(This is the beginning of several posts excerpted from a chapter in “Ro’s Handle,” the first Ro Delahanty novel. I’ve included it here because it brings the Neshnala Saga into our contemporary timeline: In a sense, this is where the tree’s story has been headed all along. In this post Ro is in her apartment getting ready for a run in Five Falls State Park, which will, as it always does, include a visit to Neshnala. She has just become a Fort Armstrong County Deputy Sheriff, and recently met Frank Reyner, the park ranger, although at this particular point they are not yet boyfriend-girlfriend.)

Going back to the bedroom, Ro made her bed, then pulled off her T-shirt and cut-off sweats and tossed them on the bed. Opening a dresser drawer, she got a pair of white cotton briefs and slipped them on, then pulled a dark blue sports bra over her head and down over her breasts. Standing in front of the mirror, she fitted her thumbs up under the bra just below each armpit and pulled the side of each breast back, in effect flattening herself under the bra for a more comfortable fit.

“Don’t want any bouncy boobs, do we?” she told Peter Panda, a three-foot teddy bear watching from his usual perch atop her dresser.

Over the panties she stepped into a pair of loose fitting dark blue running shorts and over the bra pulled on a dark blue T-shirt. For her feet were white cotton footies and Merrell Ascend Glove trail running shoes. Heftier than regular running shoes, they were built for the uneven and often obstacle-strewn woodland trails she favored. The finishing touch was her “official” running hat, a battered Chicago Cubs cap, not because she was a Cubs fan, she wasn’t any team’s fan, but because it was a valued gift from Tuck, her brother. A big St. Louis Cardinals fan, he had gotten the hat as a joke in a Christmas white elephant gift exchange in high school and had given it to his sister.

Taking a dark leather fanny pack from its hook in the closet, she added her wallet and ID, keys, cell phone, and a granola bar to the front section, and her Glock 19 – her off-duty sidearm − and an extra magazine, retrieved from the gun safe in her study, to their elastic holding straps in the back section. A half-liter water bottle filled with orange flavored Gatorade would go in an elastic holder next to the pouch.

The drive from her apartment to Five Falls State Park and the adjoining Fort Armstrong County Great River Forest Preserve took only a few minutes. Between them they covered over two thousand acres in the southwest corner of the county; but the biggest attractions were in the state park.

A limestone outcropping had created a series of spectacular palisades facing the Mississippi River. Rock Creek had over the centuries cut a gap through the rocks, creating a series of waterfalls, some dropping nearly twenty feet, before emptying into the Mississippi. It was how the park had gotten its name.

On top of the bluff toward the back of the park was Neshnala. It was accessible by a road off County Line Road, which bordered the state park on the west, and was a popular field trip for school children, families and Sunday drivers. Ro as a student, and Ro with her family, and Ro as an adult runner had probably visited Neshnala several hundred times over the years.

The main entrances to the state park and the forest preserve were below the bluff, off State Route 20, popularly known as the Makuakeeta Road, because that was the next town it reached. Neither park had a day use fee, so Ro simply waved to the attendant as she rolled by the registration and information booth several hundred feet from the state park’s entrance.

As she passed a crossroad leading to one of the campgrounds on the left and to the ranger’s station some hundred yards to the right, she glanced in that direction, thinking she might see the park ranger’s green Dodge pickup. It wasn’t there, or at least not where she could see it.

She felt a twinge of anticipation. “Maybe he’s out and around in the park and I’ll bump into him,” she thought. But then second-guessed herself: “Hey, what do you care? You came here for a run, like you’ve done lots of times.”

Except, try as she might to dismiss the idea, she knew she did care, at least a little.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 16 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1990 (part two)

Like “Kentucky” Coates before her when he’d crossed the creek and saw Neshnala for the first time, Ro was stopped dead in her tracks by the tree’s awesome size. And, again, like Coates, her breath left her in an audible sigh and her mouth dropped open in amazement.

One of her classmates even had to gently, but firmly push her aside.

“Hey, get out of the way, Ro,” the girl had said, more concerned about chasing down a boy who’d made some snarky remark about the size of her butt than the reason they’d come to the park in the first place.

Perhaps like the Sauk Holy Man some two centuries ago, or Coates a century ago, although she didn’t know it, Ro was – unlike her classmates − “ready” to be moved by tree’s overpowering presence. Even as a small child she had already begun to display her special feeling for the woods – what she would later come to think of as her “tree thing” − that would be such a vital force in her life; she loved playing with her brother and cousin in the narrow grove of trees that separated her house from the golf course behind them, and had a particular affinity for a stately old shagbark hickory in the grove.

Ro glanced around, half expecting to see some ‒ most? ‒ of her classmates similarly awestruck. Instead, what she saw was a bunch of kids suddenly freed from their usual classroom behavior restraints, running around, shouting, laughing, tussling; clearly, they weren’t that impressed by an “old tree.”

But she was…

As Miss Landin tried to corral her rambunctious seven and eight-year-olds and start them walking toward the tree to meet Mr. Cummins, the park ranger, Ro couldn’t contain her excitement and headed for the tree ahead of the others, striding along a gravel path ‒ it was part of what the park called the Neshnala Loop Trail and would, eight years from now, when she could drive on her own, become one or her favorite places to go for a long run.

So, she was the first to reach the fence… Fence?

At first, she was confused by the six-foot high chain-link barrier that surrounded the tree, some forty feet out from its base. Although she hadn’t specifically thought about it, she’d assumed she and her classmates would be able to get up close to and even touch the great tree, just like she loved touching the old shagbark hickory.

Later, when Mr. Cummins explained the fence was there to protect the tree from vandals who would harm it, like carving their initials in its bark, she understood, but was still disappointed.

It was Mr. Cummins who explained to the now gathered class that the tree’s name, Neshnala, meant “Tree of Knowledge” and that the Native Americans who had lived in the area several hundred years ago believed the tree was sacred. Of course, this produced snide giggles and contemptuous snorts, which added even more to her disenchantment with her classmates − didn’t they get it?

For Ro Delahanty, Neshnala was not merely an old tree! It was, all at once, Stately and Wise and Humbling and Beautiful; although as an eight-year-old those words weren’t yet in her conscious vocabulary, she nonetheless knew the feeling…

Not really thinking about what she was doing or why – only instinctively knowing it was something important for her to do – she bowed her head to Neshnala to show her respect. It was a gesture she would re-enact hundreds of time over the years toward the many old trees she would encounter on her hikes with her father and, later, on her own runs, like…

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

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