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As an avid cyclist, most weekends I can be found riding the Arkansas River Trail unless it's raining. I can handle clouds, cold weather and even a brisk wind, but I don't like getting my road bike wet. Wet roads increase chances for flat tires, damp clothes and dirty drivetrains.

Riding my bike is one of the greatest joys I've experienced while living in Little Rock. I can travel significant distances under my own power, feel cool air blowing across my face, observe a wide variety of plants, flowers, evergreen and deciduous trees, billowing clouds and stunning sunsets, and commune with nature--all within a few miles of my midtown home, even if it's just for periodic brief interludes in this journey that we call life.

When I first started riding more than 17 years ago, the Arkansas River Trail was in its infancy. Then, there was a few-miles-long section of trail starting near the now-parking lot of Big Dam Bridge extending east to Murray Park, Rebsamen Golf Course, and the roundabout at the far end. I didn't like riding on the street--still don't--so I would ride back and forth along that section to rack up some miles.

When Big Dam Bridge was being built, I found myself standing atop the framework while interviewing two of the men overseeing the project for a freelance article I was writing. Looking down through the open spaces in the girders at the muddy, roiling Arkansas River below was intimidating; it was hard to imagine how the finished project would look.

Once it was completed, though, Big Dam Bridge was like one of the eight wonders of the world, spanning 4,226 feet and touted as the longest specially built bicycle and pedestrian bridge in the country. I spent my fair share of time pedaling back and forth across the span traversing both sides of the River Trail.

However, a few years after Two Rivers Bridge was built a few miles to the west of Big Dam Bridge, I started spending the majority of my cycling time on the Little Rock side of the River Trail. I've never been a big fan of riding hills, so the Two Rivers side suits me better. Its primarily flat route is interrupted by only a few slight inclines, plus I don't have to ride back and forth across Big Dam Bridge.

Besides the health benefits of cycling, my favorite aspect of cycling on the River Trail is looking for my spirit animal.

It's like a bonus. Seeing my spirit animal on a ride always makes me happy. I have a friend who runs in her spare time when not training others or giving presentations to clients; she shares the excitement I feel when she sees her daily spirit animal. Except when you're running, unless you're out for a long slog, you don't have nearly the number of opportunities available to see a spirit animal that a cyclist does who is able to cover longer distances.

We have a periodic ongoing contest to find the best daily spirit animal. Recently I was out on a cool Saturday morning riding my bike near the wetlands between Murray Park and Rebsamen Golf Course when I saw a pair of eagles circling overhead.

Bingo, the eagle was my daily spirit animal. My friend ran later that day on a different part of the trail. Alas, all she saw was an armadillo--not exactly on the par of an eagle, but a spirit animal nonetheless.

Over the years I've seen a wide variety of spirit animals on my rides--flocks of Canada geese honking orders to one another while flying in tight formations, lone snow-white egrets practicing their best one-legged yoga poses while standing in marsh grasses scanning for fish, solitary grey herons patrolling the wetlands looking for prey, and herds of deer grazing contentedly in wide-open spaces oblivious to the many two-legged creatures in their midst, fawns frolicking alongside their mothers with their white tails up and flashing, and a majestic buck, resplendent with a huge rack of antlers covered in velvet, emerging powerfully from the river's bottom wetlands on a frigid winter morning, his breath suspended in a cloud of frozen crystals.

Not so majestic but still view-worthy are other creatures that have crossed my path during my many rides: a fat gray rat scurrying out from the underbrush, an unfortunate chipmunk darting out in front of me whose presence I felt with a crunch when I rode over its hapless back, a snow-white possum obliviously emerging from the woods to waddle across the trail, a giant black snake--likely a racer--slithering rapidly in front of me, and a fat greasy water moccasin undulating determinedly across a two-lane section of road on a sweltering late summer evening.

Then there are the special sightings of spirit animals that stick in my mind: an albino skunk ambling through the nooks and crannies of Burns Park, vivid bluebirds darting alongside me on the trail between Big Dam Bridge and Northshore Drive, a resplendent red fox loping through a freshly cut hayfield in the same area, and a solitary wild turkey pecking determinedly near the Two Rivers Park tree line on a cool Thanksgiving day.

As a child and later a young adult living in western Montana before I migrated to Arkansas in 1980, I encountered a whole different variety of spirit animals when was hiking in the nearby mountains, fishing for wild trout in the snow-fed streams, or hunting grouse or pheasants along meandering trails during the fall with my late father.

Vivid spirit animal highlights from that period include a cranky bull moose chasing my late brother and I back to our car along Spring Creek, a mother black bear and her two cubs contentedly gorging themselves on thickets of snowberries on a hillside adjacent to Burnt Fork Creek, a solitary badger determinedly burrowing into a small incline in the same area, a beaver industriously swimming the width of the Blackfoot River below me, and a regal Canadian lynx sitting quietly on its haunches a few feet across from me as I sat meditating one early summer morning by Bass Creek's glistening waterfall, its frigid waters descending rapidly from the snow-capped mountains above.

After I moved to Arkansas, I had the opportunity to hike and camp at many of the Forest Service campgrounds and state parks. One of my favorite places was the area off Arkansas 7 north of Russellville. There I saw two different spirit animals, both poisonous snakes and among the largest slithering reptiles I have ever seen.

One was an estimated six-to-eight-foot timber rattler, lying across a dirt road, that I initially mistook for a small log. The other was an estimated three-foot copperhead sunning itself while coiled on the trail I was hiking near Falling Water Falls on a late fall day.

Camouflaged by the colorful leaves that had fallen around it, I did not become aware of the copperhead's presence until my right foot was poised to step on its body. Fortunately, my senses kicked in at that moment and I was able to stop my foot in mid-air. I backed away from the snake, shaken but none the worse for wear.

When traveling through China a few months ago, I noticed a striking absence of animals and wildlife aside from a couple of rats, several cats, numerous dogs, domestic geese being escorted from fields by farmers with brooms, and two wild songbirds that had been caged by an enterprising apartment dweller in Shanghai.

I asked Gerry, the guide and translator who was traveling with our group during our trek through Zhejiang Province in the central part of the country, about the lack of wild animals that I had seen in China. He was succinct in his answer, telling me simply that there weren't any. In a land of 1.4 billion people, I guess that "civilization" or more likely hunger has trumped the existence of many of those creatures.

After I returned to Little Rock from the China trip, I reminisced on the conversation I had with Gerry and thought to myself how lucky I am to live in a place where I have the regular opportunity to commune closely with nature and find my spirit animals.

Jeff Thatcher is a professional communicator and longtime resident of Little Rock.

Editorial on 02/03/2019

Print Headline: Surrounded by spirit animals

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