OPINION: Favorite places exist, find one

Shelby Niehaus, Columnist

In rural Fayette county, there is a natural spring. It supplies cool, crystal-clear water to anyone who wants a drink. Maintained by one dedicated man and beloved by people across the county, the Kaskaskia Gardens are a hidden gem and one of my favorite places on Earth.

As an opinion writer, I am not qualified to report the facts about the Gardens. I can only write about my experiences in hopes that they inspire my readers to find their own favorite places.

When I was a young teen, I loved to explore the country near my family’s shared property. My father and I followed backwoods trails to forgotten oil wells, traipsed through the forest in search of wildflowers and explored abandoned toolsheds.

Every new discovery was a thrill. Even if all we found were rusted-out cans and trash, part of the thrill was the adventure of finding anything at all. The mundane finds were exciting because human hands had combed through what looked like untouched, unkept ground.

And extraordinary finds were memorable. One day we finally decided to explore a dizzying hill that we had long neglected to drive down. For several minutes we saw nothing exciting, but by chance we turned down a side street and wound up on the gravel drive leading to a gathering place.

It was a sparsely furnished place: a few picnic tables, a history book protected by a metal case, some scattered handwritten signs and a wood, concrete and PVC trough filled with the clearest water I had ever seen. We stopped to take a drink and found it delicious. After poking around in the nearby woods and admiring a convenient ramp into the Kaskaskia river, we filled up every bottle we could find with spring water and returned home for the day.

Now, the Kaskaskia Gardens are a frequent destination. Every time my father and I visit, we bring back drinking water. Often we meet Fayette residents at the springs who fill up gallons upon gallons of the water for their home use; their well water or hard water pales in comparison to the free and abundant spring water. On sunny days, the lazy Kaskaskia makes for a great, low-impact kayaking trip. And the ambiance of a natural resource preserved by the people who love and need it is always a comfort.

Recently, after a kayaking trip, my father and I climbed out of the muddy river to meet an elderly man dressed in summer linens and a shady sunhat. While we stowed our boats and washed the silt from our shoes, this man introduced himself as Paul Sarver, the son of the man who originally tapped the spring and current de facto Gardens caretaker. Now entering his twilight years, Mr. Sarver still takes pride in his project, and eagerly told us the history of the Gardens, waxing philosophic about a group of children splashing in the water trough and even kneeling in loose mud to show us a thriving amphipod population.

I wished, while we drove away, that I would feel that strongly about anything by the time I was Mr. Sarver’s age. On that day, the spring became a holy place to me, the site of a family’s legacy and the center of a nearly-forgotten history.

Everyone’s sacred sites are different, and everyone has reasons for their favorite places. I firmly believe that chance encounters give us the best stories, so I encourage my readers to wander for their sacred spots. May they be as rewarding and storied as the Gardens.

Shelby Niehaus is a senior English language arts major. She can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].