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Omaha Magazine

Kelly Madigan Walks Hi and Lo Trails

Apr 28, 2022 05:05PM ● By Mike Whye
kelly madigan walks along nebraska trail

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Something’s afoot with Kelly Madigan.

When Madigan visits the great outdoors, she prefers to walk rather than ride in a car. “I think our brains evolved at the rate of just walking,” said Madigan, a well-published writer and poet who shares her experiences in journals and magazines and has authored two books of poetry and one nonfiction book.

From when she was a child, Madigan has always found herself restored by nature. “That was taught to me by my family, who were nature lovers,” she said. “Nature is where I rejuvenate, get grounded. What’s going on in the natural world around me fascinates me. I’d rather be outdoors than indoors.”

Walking through the world is what appeals to Madigan the most. “It’s like we’re aligned at that speed to go through a landscape. It  feels so right to experience those things on foot,” said Madigan, who, after traveling across the country in an Air Force family, graduated from Bellevue East High School in 1980. Afterward, she attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, concentrating on creative writing and drug and alcohol counseling.

While working as a writer and counselor for 30 years at Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln, she took to experiencing the world on foot after being inspired by friends who had hiked El Camino de Santiago. Also called the Way of St. James, El Camino is a network of trails in Europe that were begun by religious pilgrims walking to the cathedral in Santiago De Compostela in northwest Spain. Some of the trails are 500 miles long.

Madigan said learning about the Camino put the idea of making long walks into her head, but she hadn’t been walking long distances yet. When she visited her sister, who had been walking on a regular basis, Madigan wasn’t sure she could keep up with her. “She invited me to go on a walk with her,” remembered Madigan. “She had been walking five miles at a time, and that sounded impossible to me. But with her encouragement, I did, and that was a turning point in my head. Prior to that, I didn’t even know I could do that, and then I went on to walk longer walks than that.” 

Around 2010, Madigan began walking through parts of Lincoln, especially Wilderness Park with a friend. They would walk there three times a week at sunrise. “We called those walks our ‘Going to Tree Church,’” she said.

When visiting Florida in 2013, she walked long distances on the beaches there. That same year when in Lincoln,  she and some friends walked across the city from its northern boundary to the southern city limits. She followed that with walking 21 miles around parts of Omaha. Then she walked across Nebraska that year…sort of. “I wanted to say I walked across Nebraska. But I didn’t want to walk 500 miles,” said Madigan about Nebraska’s east-to-west length with a laugh. “So, I began at the South Dakota border north of Gordon and basically walked south across the panhandle with a little variation, entering Colorado at Julesburg.”

Madigan walked 17 days to cover those 180 miles, reaching Julesburg on the Fourth of July. On some days, she’d walk in the cool of the mornings and the evenings to avoid the midday heat. Because she carries snacks and water—but no camping gear—when she walks, friends and locals helped shuttle her so she could sleep in places other than where she would end a day’s hike or eat in a diner or with friends. However, on one night, about 30 miles south of Gordon, she slept near Nebraska novelist Mari Sandoz’ hillside grave, which overlooks the ranch created by Sandoz’ father, Old Jules.

Madigan does not like to walk back and forth on a trail. She prefers to go only in one direction, no return trips for her. “My hikes are almost all where I get dropped off somewhere,” she said. “I want to keep going. I don’t want to walk somewhere and go back.”

During her walks, Madigan observes the world through the senses of a poet. “When you’re driving a car in beautiful areas, you see beautiful things but you miss so much because of the speed you’re traveling,” she said, adding that she also just likes to sit and observe.  “If you sit still in a beautiful place for a long time, you’ll see things you’d never see even if you were walking.”

The themes of her writings and poems revolve around the environment. “I say my purpose in life is ‘I’m here to adore the world,’” she said. “I celebrate the things I see. I’m an enthusiast. I’m like, ‘Hey, look!  There’s this really cool thing. Everybody should come look at it.’”

Basically, anywhere Madigan visits, she wants to walk around to explore it on foot.

Madigan sees herself as a long-distance walker rather than a hiker. In recent years, she has also explored parts of Nebraska by canoe and kayak. So far she has paddled in the Missouri, Platte, Middle Loup, Dismal, Elkhorn, Little Blue, Cedar, Calamus, Niobrara, and Big Blue rivers.

When visiting extended family about 40 years ago in western Iowa, Madigan became acquainted with the Loess Hills, a slim line of hills that front that state’s western edge along the Big Sioux and Missouri rivers. Formed by wind-blown soils called loess about 11,000 to 14,000 years ago, the hills are between three and five miles wide. Only China has similar loess formations as tall and taller than Iowa’s. Fascinated by the hills, Madigan kept learning about them, including how unique they are.

In 2007, she bought an acreage in the hills in Monona County, Iowa, a bit more than 50 miles north of Omaha. A few years ago, she moved permanently into a century-old farmhouse there with her partner, Doug Chafa, and his daughter, Isabel. Across a gravel road from their place, a long line of grassy hills overlooks a pond with a small dock.

One of Madigan’s goals is to teach people about the importance of the Loess Hills.  “We have this slender place where we still have hundreds of forms of life that we have all but wiped out to the east and west of here because of our monoculture, basically two crops [corn and soybeans],” Madigan said.

To show others the importance of the hills, Madigan made another of her long treks in summer 2020. This one was from the northern end of the hills in Plymouth County, Iowa, to the Missouri border, 270 miles to the south. Not worrying much about COVID-19 in the outdoors, she preferred to walk on dirt and gravel roads, and public lands, rather than use paved highways. She crossed private land only with permission. Friends shuttled supplies to her as she hiked the region in segments over six weeks that October and November.

Occasionally, a driver offered her a lift, which she politely declined with thanks. At least two people called the law to investigate this solo walker with long, dark, curly hair, but all was fine in the end.

She logged her adventure with text and photos on a Facebook page she created and named for her route: the LoHi Trail, which represents the Loess Hills and the low and high elevations she traversed. Madigan explained she wasn’t trying to establish a real trail by any name but just wanted to explore what’s in the hills for herself and made up the name for her walk. People soon began to ask how to find the LoHi Trail. “It’s not a thing,” Madigan explained. “It’s a route, a passageway. It’s one person exploring to see if [the hills] can be walked.”

Over the years, some people have wished for a continuous trail through the hills, similar to the Appalachian Trail. But Madigan thinks not. “I actually don’t think that the Loess Hills are well suited for an Appalachian Trail-style trail. But they are suited for something akin to El Camino De Santiago where some of it is a trail, some of it is walking on a road, and some of it is walking through a village.”

Part of educating people about the hills, Madigan said, is making them aware that the hills cannot support much use—including foot trails—because of the fragile nature of the loess soil which, when not covered by vegetation, can practically melt away in the rain. That trait has caused some residents of the hills to call the easily eroded soil “sugar clay.”

Coordinating her efforts with other groups, including Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Madigan said, “We don’t want this to be Disney World.”

To help people understand the Loess Hills, Madigan has hosted online writing workshops about them. She also worked with some private and government agencies to promote a four-day trek for about 30 people to walk through parts of the hills last June. Although high temperatures forced changes in the routes and activities, the group passed through shady woods, crossed sunny meadows, walked along ridges topped with waving prairie grasses, and camped under starlight. Some heard whippoorwills for the first time. The group enjoyed spending two nights on Madigan’s property, swimming and kayaking in her pond, standing under an outdoor shower, and savoring ice cream.

During their trip, they met people who Madigan had arranged to talk about the hills. Chafa taught about native prairie plants. Farmers talked about how their families have been in the hills for generations. One person described how prescribed burns rejuvenate the prairie plants and push back invasive trees. “The walk was an immersive experience,” Madigan said. “We brought neighbors to sit at the campfires to talk about their lifestyles in the hills.”

Cynthia Ybarra, who lives in Omaha and is a registered nurse with the Veterans Administration Hospital, said she learned that brome grass is an invasive plant and more. “Every single person who visited us was passionate about the land,” Ybarra said. “One man said he decided to live in them when he finally saw them for what they were.”

Patrick Swanson, a professor in microbiology at Creighton University who has a strong interest in the parcels of prairie in the hills, was a participant of the hike and talked to the group about prairie restoration. At times the Omahan identified some flowers seen by the participants.  “Kelly has a great project…” he said.  “…getting people to understand that, one, the hills are fragile. Two, people can enjoy them. Three, they need to be protected, and four, there’s a potential for economic development here. It’s all for the good of the landscape.”

“My question is, can a person on foot safely walk this distance?,” said Madigan of ways through the hills. “Then that lends itself to the question of, is there safe passage for other creatures? So walking with the idea of, ‘If I was a salamander, if I was a snapping turtle, if I was a hummingbird, if I was a dragonfly, if I was a grasshopper…how could I expand my range and what are the limits of that range?’  What we’ve ended up with are these little pockets of existing and rare species that can’t make it across the road to get to another protected area and become more genetically diverse.”

She continued, “That’s what I want to bring awareness to, can we support human habitation and thriving small economies and also do it with an eye on safe passage for humans and wildlife?”

Madigan hasn’t reached her limit of places to hike. She still would like to walk a lesser-known stretch of El Camino De Santiago that passes along the coast of Portugal on the way to Santiago de Compostela, and she has thoughts about elsewhere. “I’ve known that there are some historical walks across Scotland and Ireland as well. I think Ireland’s like walking the Loess Hills,” she said with a smile.

The 2022 LoHi Trek, a three-day, 25-mile trek through the Loess Hills State Forest, will be held May 28-30. Shuttle and food provided. 

Visit visitloesshills.org/lohi.html for more information.

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.