Your mother always said, DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS! I’m going to disagree with her (please send all of your hate mail to the comments section below). You should talk to strangers and I’ll tell you why. This past weekend, our house was struck with the plague. It may not have been Bubonic but it struck down every member of the family, spread to four different states, and reached Pandemic levels within only a few hours. (and on a holiday weekend too…) Once Clarence and I had survived the storm, we decided it best to go for a 400 mile drive including a hike at the Ballard Nature Center and eventually getting lost on the Illinois side of Mississippi River Bottom for about 2 hours (but that’s for another story…).
Never heard of the Ballard Nature Center? I’m not surprised. Likely if you’re driving through Altamont, IL you’re whizzing by at 75 miles an hour on I-70, but by doing so you are guilty of missing one of the best ways to stretch young energetic toddler legs. The Ballard Nature center is a privately owned and operated Forest Preserve that sports several miles of easy hiking trails that go through the woods, preserved prairie lands, and even wetlands and can only be found if you get off the interstate and take old US route 40. We “hiked” (this is a generous term) for less than a mile and I counted at least a dozen different sorts of wild life including Great Blue herons, bass, deer, hawks, and butterflies (all of which are favorites for an almost 3 year old). But these weren’t the only wild creatures we met on our hike, we met a couple of strangers!
Meet Barb and Jayton. Barb loves to take her grandson Jayton to Ballard every Monday because of the awesome nature center (which I’ll talk about later). Jayton was so excited to make new friends that he yelled back at us “Hey! Do you want to come down this trail with us?” Not ones to turn down such a friendly invitation, we decided to join them.
Jayton told me that when he grows up he wants to be a farmer just like his dad and grandpa who haul corn and beans into St. Louis a couple of times a year. Barb grew up in St. Peter, IL which has about 386 residents as of 2010. And wouldn’t you know she is a Missouri Synod Lutheran from St. Peter Lutheran Church who was excited to learn that I worked for LCMS Disaster Response.
After our hike, Jayton invited us to feed cheerios to the fish in the kids fishing pond (a free fishing pond by the way). Clarence loved watching the fish jump up and eat the Cheerios. We were told that our visit wasn’t complete until we went into the nature center, so in we went.
Inside you’ll find all sorts of games and activities for kids to learn more about animals and their natural habitats. Turtle shells to pick up, animal pelts to feel, binoculars for looking at the various songbirds out the windows, and plenty for little heads to wrap their minds around. This was definitely one of the best pit stops I’ve ever made. And the best part was yet to come! Clarence slept for a solid 2 hours as we drove home. (This is the part where I decided to take a detour to allow him to sleep and ended up spending the next two hours trying to get unlost. It was beautiful and we’ll definitely have to go back… if I can remember where it was.)
I hope Barb and Jayton get a chance to read this post – thanks for sharing your love of nature and local treasures!
-Aaron and Clarence