We’ve been enjoying glorious weather this fall, which has made the pandemic more bearable. The crisis, in fact, has caused people to spend more time in nature than they normally would. We have an annual tradition of exploring nature in the fall.

On the holiday that used to honor a legendary explorer, we make a pilgrimage to Oregon, Illinois to visit the statue of Black Hawk, which soars above the Rock River. The statue is formally known as “The Eternal Indian.” If that sounds politically incorrect, the sculptor, Lorado Taft said the statue, “Represents the unconquerable spirit of Native Americans.”

The statue has its own unconquerable spirit. It was dedicated in 1908 and has withstood our harsh climate for 112 years. Wind and snow have damaged the statue over the years and it needed to be restored. A group called Friends of the Black Hawk Statue Committee raised $600,000 for the effort and they were counting on a $350,000 grant from the state to complete the project.

Unfortunately, Governor Bruce Rauner failed to pass a state budget, so the money was unavailable. As was the statue. It was shrouded in a black tarp from 2016 to 2018. It was sad to see the statue shielded by a scaffold.

But the state grant finally came through, the scaffold was removed, and the restoration was completed in January 2020. The statue is 48 feet tall and sits on 77-foot bluff above the river. It is the second largest concrete statue in the world, after Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro! No wonder there were throngs of people visiting it the day we went.

They were also drawn by the bright sunshine and the explosion of colors along the river. “The trees are in their autumn beauty and the woodland paths are dry,” W.B. Yeats wrote. We confirmed the paths were dry when we made our next stop on the pilgrimage at White Pines Forest State Park.

This park is unique if you consider that visitors ford a creek to enter it. It has spectacular rock formations and a carpet of pine needles. We climbed the hiking trail and crossed the creek on stepping stones. Both proved to be a challenge.

The views made the hiking worth it, but we were saddened by the fact that the White Pines Lodge and cabins had closed due to COVID. Going there to eat was our reward for the hours we spent hiking the trails. The food was great and there was a quaint gift shop. The lodge used to host plays and weddings. Without these crowds, it could not survive economically. It was still worth the two-hour drive to get there.

But we don’t have to leave Forest Park to enjoy autumn. We have so much beauty around us. Many of us have favorite trees in town, maybe in our own yard, or in a cemetery. We watch as they burst into brilliant colors. The leaves are lovely to look at and provide that pleasant rustling sound after they fall.

Many of our fall traditions were cancelled this year: Casket Races, Oktoberfest, the Chicago Marathon. Even Halloween appears to be in jeopardy. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the season and glory in the great outdoors. Besides, we still have apple cider, pumpkins and enough nutmeg and cinnamon to make it through the holidays.

In the meantime, we can pay homage to the Black Hawk statue. Now that Columbus Day has been replaced by Indigenous Peoples Day, it makes more sense than ever. It will also save you a trip to Rio.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.