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Finding the Beauty of Nature in Unexpected Places

A Wisconsinites' Struggles with the Iowan Landscape

As I begin to build my career as a travel and nature writer, I find myself following more and more adventure Instagrams. They’re all absolutely beautiful, filled with snow-capped mountains, turquoise lakes, and a beautiful head of blonde hair looking out at it all. I love when those photos pop up on my feed. They are not only reminders of nature’s most magnificent creations, but also inspiration for me as I create a list of places I want to travel to. But right now in my life, I don’t have the money or the mobility to take my own pictures at these incredible places, to write my own articles about what I learned during my time there.

I’m a college student in Iowa. For most of the year, I am holed up in my university library, or going to parties with my friends. Not only do I not have the money to hop on a plane to Banff or Bali or wherever the hot destination is, I don’t have the time. I have breaks every so often, but even then there’s a limit as to what I can afford. I don’t have a huge following, so it’s not like I’m raking in sponsors. And the catch 22 of the whole thing is that I need to travel to BANFF or Bali if I want to build a following, make an impression, and join the ranks of successful travel writers and Instagrammers that have the stable fan base that sponsors want to see. No one seems to become big by posting pictures of Iowa landscapes.

But the reality is that that’s what I have to offer. And I’m starting to realize that that might not be such a bad thing for me. While I love the idea of gorgeous mountain destinations, or bikini clad bodies diving into crystal waters, or a sundress rippling in the wind as you traverse the streets of Paris, that’s not all I want. First and foremost, I’m a writer. I’m not here to tell you what you already know. You already know that Banff and Bali are the stuff of dreams. But what you may not know is how the beauty of the world can be found in any place where nature is present, not just the ones that look incredible on an Instagram page.

I grew up in Wisconsin, and while I enjoyed the nature there, I didn’t realize how amazing it was until I left. My family all came from Colorado, so I found myself comparing my hometown in the north of Wisconsin to Boulder and Denver, where my grandparents lived. My paternal grandfather actually owned a house that was nestled high up in the Rocky Mountains, a good hour or so from Boulder. I was used to spending a few weeks every summer at a ranch in the mountains, rock climbing, white-water rafting, hiking, and horseback riding through some of the most incredible views I’d witnessed. In comparison, Wisconsin seemed a little dull.

But as I grew older, I began to appreciate what Wisconsin had to offer. It wasn’t mountainous, no, but it was full of water. I’m a water-girl, always have been, and my connection to water is what prompted me to start exploring Wisconsin. From Door County to Bayfield, I experienced the wonders of Northern Wisconsin and the Great Lakes, which are full of incredible geological formations and water that’s so cold and clear it’s impossible not to take a dip. In my own hometown I started really paying attention to the creeks and streams in a county park close to my house. Soon enough, I was starting to notice other things about Wisconsin, not just the water. I was noticing the beautiful prairies, the incredible variety of trees, the bluejays that nested in the birdhouses we’d nailed to our garden posts, the lovely waterfalls, and the way the glaciers had shaped the state, with dipping valleys in the north and jagged hills in the south. I had finally come to one of the most important realizations in my journey as a writer and traveler: that the world doesn’t need to be outstandingly grandiose to still be beautiful. That a hike doesn’t need to cover 13,000 feet in elevation to still be an adventure. That a story doesn’t need to be extravagant to still be meaningful.

It can often be hard to remember this in Iowa. The state is so agriculturally centered, and many of its parks are fairly far from Iowa City, limiting you to visiting only on the weekends (if you have a car, which I don’t). And unlike my hometown, there aren’t natural spaces at every corner. The largest park in the area is a 25 minute walk from my apartment, which doesn’t seem so bad until you realize you only have a two hours left of daylight once you’ve finished class. It’s been a struggle to find natural beauty in Iowa City. I often feel unbalanced, staring at pictures of mountains and oceans on my phone screen but looking out on streets filled with student apartments and cars squeezing into every available space. I find myself yearning for Wisconsin, where parks, rivers, forests, and plains were just minutes away from almost every location.

Last weekend, I found myself needing to be outdoors in a place that was as far away from the city as I could get. I was antsy and anxious and felt incredibly disconnected from not only nature but myself. I was on my phone too much, staring wistfully at places I couldn’t go, and it was becoming unhealthy. Whatever nature there was in Iowa City, I had to utilize it. It was cold, and quickly growing dark, but my boyfriend and I bundled up and set off on the walk to Hickory Hills Park. When we finally arrived, I immediately began to feel better. There was a lovely little creek running through the park, and we were quickly engulfed by a large forest. We didn’t venture far, and in fact when we set up our hammock we could still see the faint lights of distant houses peeking through the trees, but it was enough. We settled into our hammock and enjoyed the dimming light, the calm quiet, and the cold, night air.

To be completely honest, it was much more therapeutic than I’d expected. I didn’t realize that just a quick hour spent in a humble little park would revitalize me to the extent it did. Even with all the times I’d been hit over the head with the unexpected beauty of Wisconsin telling me “Don’t underestimate nature!” I still didn’t get it. Even in Iowa, a place I’d previously thought had barely any outdoor worth, nature was still proving me wrong. No, Iowa is never going to be like Wisconsin for me, and it certainly isn’t Colorado or California or Banff or Bali. But just because it isn’t any of those places doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be appreciated. I’m not going to pretend that I will never struggle again with the fact that Iowa doesn’t have mountains or oceans, and that most of its best spots are places I can’t reach without a car or a week long break. What I have learned, however, is that I can get by on what Iowa does have. What it has is Hickory Hills park, and while it’s no Yosemite, it’s something. And when it comes to nature, just a little something can go a long way.

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