Red-tail hawks routinely hang motionless, yet dipping and turning on the updrafts along the Loess Hills cliffs. From their high perspectives, they might better understand this region, how the hills are an out-of-character ribbon of steep and rugged topography within a calm, softly undulating landscape on either side. The landform snakes up the western edge of Iowa like a dragon spine for nearly 200 miles, yet at most is only 15 miles wide, a unique deposit of wind-blown silt from the end of the ice age. Only in China is there a loess formation of this magnitude.
But even without the bird's-eye perspective, I come to understand it another way: via hiking shoes and stamina. From the west, the Loess Hills rise off the Missouri River floodplain as a sheer, intimidating cliff that announces itself bluntly—there is little throat-clearing with foothills. Inside the hills run a loose network of trails. Scenic overlooks, Lewis & Clark sites, and parks dot the region, such as Hitchcock Nature Center near Council Bluffs and Preparation Canyon State Park. They often have short walks that offer a dizzying view at the lip of a free-falling cliff. A scenic drive courses through it all (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/byways/byways/2187/maps). Much of the hills, however, remains minimally developed and ripe for contemplative, yet potentially rigorous, exploration by foot.
Today I follow trails that gouge down into valleys so deep and twist and turn upon themselves so frequently that my sense of direction is as hopelessly lost as my cell-phone service. I vary between deep-wooded valley bottoms and smaller crests of hills, up and down numerous times for more than 45 minutes before I reach the brink of the final hill: a climb that is steep and partially washed-out, forcing me to grip tree roots and toeholds in the earth to make my way up. The payoff comes at the end when I finally, out of breath and powdered in dirt, reach the crest of the western bluff and an explosion of view. Far below me rolls the floodplain, as far as I can see. Tiny glints in the distance represent traffic on I-29. But all I hear is the roar of breeze in my ears, a seemingly constant sound, exposed as I am at the edge of earth and sky. The trail clutches the very top of this hill, which is sometimes only a few yards across from sheer drops on either side. I wonder if there’s even room to pass should I meet another hiker. Even the pulsing breeze unnerves me, as though I might tip off the tightrope of summit trail.
It’s like walking on a thin slice of reality, especially with the hawks drifting around me, motionless, yet dipping and turning—sometimes above me, sometimes lower down in the gulf of space between me and the far-down floodplain. I believe I might understand the perspective of flying after all.