Those who have read this column over the years KNOW what a special place I have in my heart for cardinals. The red bird has made its appearance into this column from time to time, especially since I lost my dear “spirit cardinal” friend, Meredith Sprunger, many years ago.

This winter has been one of the most exciting times walking in my beloved Limberlost and taking pictures with more cardinal photo ops than I’ve ever had in my life.

Cardinals had always been a special serendipity to my life long buddy, from the fact that we both attended a school with the mascot of “Geneva Cardinals,” to his choice of a college masters at Ball State (Cardinals) University to our state’s bird.

Top that off with the fact that I come from the hometown of famed author, Gene Stratton Porter, who wrote, “The Song of the Cardinal,” and it becomes apparent why cardinals have slipped their way into some of life’s most serendipitous moments.

No moment was more special, however, than returning home the day after my dear friend’s funeral and hearing the “cheap, cheap,” of a cardinal before I got out of the car, a cardinal sitting right on top of the overhang of our front door waiting to greet me.

Recently, I met and immediately adopted into my heart a new “cardinal friend.”

It all started a few days ago when I decided to escape for an afternoon to a refuge our family has always enjoyed, Pokagon State Park, just outside of Angola, Indiana.

Often, years ago, Joyce, the kids and I, would pack a picnic, head for Pokagon, and walk beneath the magnificent tree-shrouded trails, enjoy the hiking around the kettle legs, and gaze from the heights of Hell’s Point. It was the birthplace of our children’s interest in jogging and exercising, a practice they continue to this day.

It was a balmy fall afternoon one day as I drove along the tree-lined road leading back to the trailhead. There was some concern whether or not I could still do the trails; after all, life has moved along many years since those days and I admittedly have a bit of a different “physique” than I had back then.

But just as I left home, Joyce placed an excellent idea in my mind.

“Consider a walking stick.”

“Who me?” I thought at first. “I don’t need one of those walking sticks.”

However, as I drove into the northern Indiana hill country and I saw once again the steepness of the hillsides and moraines, a little voice within said, “Cheap, cheap, listen to her.”

My first thought was to find a dead stick that had fallen off a tree and shape it into the “old man’s” walking stick. However, that all changed when I walked into Potawatomi Inn to secure a trail map. In fact, I couldn’t believe what I saw.

Standing right in front of me in the gift shop was a walking stick, and it wasn’t just ANY walking stick; it was a CARDINAL walking stick. In a split second, I knew. The beautiful gaze of the cardinal at the top of the stick said it all. It appeared to look right into my eyes and say, “Here I am.”

Within minutes, my new friend already had a name — “Cardinal.” And, yes we did it. Cardinal and I took the rolling trail six, a spread through a wooded area in which the hills had seemed to increase majorly in depth over the last 35 years! Such exhilaration filled my heart that tears actually filled my eyes as I stepped off a trail caught between memories and my Cardinal.

For nearly two hours, Cardinal and I stepped up and down the walkways, stopping occasionally for pictures, a reflection, and a spiritual connectedness beyond human words. But that’s okay, it was a “heart thing,” not a talking thing.

This past week, I took Cardinal to the medical supply store and bought him new shoes (a rubber tip to protect the end). He rides with me everywhere I go, and is ready at a moment’s notice when I say, “Cardinal, are you ready to go for a walk?”

Like the comforting cardinal following my buddy’s funeral, or the one painted in the middle of the old gym floor, or those who seem to appear at the most serendipitous moments, Cardinal is a thing of the heart, singing his magical song into the spiritual soul of his new-found friend.