As I walked the old tote road, a drifting petrichor lingered mixing with the scent of sweet fern crushed between my fingers. Caught in a flash rainstorm, totally unprepared. Hat and overshirt soaked. Khaki pants, soaked. Oiled leather boots holding up but feeling dampish. Steam rising as the hot sunshine returned. A mosquito horde escorting me on the journey. A long, quiet walk with binoculars and fields guides tucked inside my green canvas shoulder bag, and whatever else the voices in my head would carry along.
Long before I discovered the roads of old meandering through the forest, I wandered sidewalks and alleys. Accessible paths which evenly dissected my neighborhood, exposing open yards and short cuts, and other options for marauding interlopers. Places our youthful tribe would conquer, squeaky gates and fences be damned. Territory we roamed undeterred while learning about and testing the limits of friendship, loyalty, strength, and courage. A place where we would lay in the heat and boredom of summer, in the grass and Dutch clover, searching for a charm, watching the clouds pass by. Where pastimes included yard games, climbing the branches of a chestnut tree, raiding rhubarb patches, or catching bees, snatching them from flowers with jelly jars. Pinching hollyhock blossoms behind unsuspecting pollinators, trapping them inside. Clipping the flower from the stem, and holding it to one another’s ears, listening to the angry buzz within. Dropping them, flower and all, into an empty gallon pickle jar for observation, holes punched in the lid. Dribbling water from a green garden hose to make emergency mud cakes for slapping on the wounded; comrades stung in the heat of battle or negotiation.
I wonder, do children do such things anymore?
Some weekends I enjoyed an escape from the city. A trip to the country. New territory far from the safety of the clan. As a solo voyager, I applied my tribal learned skills while taking long walks exploring new terrain, sights, and sounds. Today, some might call it silent walking. Zen Buddhist monks call it walking meditation. For me it was a pensive, unbridled exploration of my environment and inner self, and a way to find sanctuary from an often-chaotic home life.
Passing small houses along a narrow road, at its terminus a set of long steep stairs, I was delivered to the edge of the earth. The shore of a Great Lake. A freshwater sea with a limitless horizon, and simple path options before me - north or south. A place where cliff swallows, the smell of water and beached alewives, filled the air. The steady sound of waves slapping the rocky, debris strewn shore keeping time as I walk, the irregular cadence of an earth-born clock. Stopping along the way to skip flat stones. Searching for lake glass and lost treasure. Inspecting driftwood and partially dissolved lifeless creatures stuck in the sand. A well-timed leap between waves to reach the remnants of an old, long forgotten CCC era pier. Only hunger or impending darkness would bring these walks to their necessary end. And the lesson learned? The narrower the focus, the wider the journey, and however far your journey, the return home is always longer.
On autumn days, I would choose a different footpath. Walking contemplations would include a partner, an old 16-gauge shotgun. Railroad tracks became my trace. The right-of-way providing opportunities for flushing a pheasant or rabbit, combined with random search and discovery - finding lost lumps of coal, or discarded green glass insulators from Western Union poles. And if I was stealthy enough, I might investigate the hobo camp below the trestle bridge, spying on occupants, and looking for evidence of the curious yet oft glamourized lifestyle of ultimate freedom. An unapproved surveillance said my commanding officer and grandmother. Don’t do it again, she said.
On the go-back trip, in the distance, there was a sound of warning, and time to prepare. Hunkering down I waited nearby as the earth shook and pulsated, iron wheels and axels thundering and squealing. Drawn close to its power, I felt fear and excitement as I watched the rails bend under the weight of box cars. And after the single string stampede through the valley passed, I looked for my penny; old Abe flattened into a distorted barely recognizable form. My token of the day.
Sometimes I sit behind a computer and look for the old trails with the help of a satellites in outer space. Aerial recon for signs of the past. Distances not looking as far as imagined. The alleys still exist. The stately elms are gone, and so is the chestnut tree. Hollyhocks and rhubarb patches are no more. Backyards are guarded by trash carts and a bar-b-que grill, or maybe a lonely dog in a pen, or an old car that has seen better days.
The country landscape is dramatically different and forever changed too. Fields, once prairie, once corn and beans, once mayflowers, and pheasants, now colonized by subdivisions, and warehouses, and pavement. Lakeshore disappearing and lost. Bluff top homes gone or perilously close to the edge. The stairs are gone. There are shadows underwater where a crooked, uneven pier once beckoned and dared me. And I revisit these roads and trails in my memories, and I remember learning the art of silent walking. Alone with only my thoughts, and imagination, and dreams.
Drew Nelson sings, “Now that I’m an old man, Oh I know why old men cry. And I swear it’s not sadness. No, it’s a black-haired girl once upon a time.”
And I look for her when I walk through the forest or wade a trout stream, or when I sit in a tree stand, or pole a boat before the sun in a north Missouri wetland. A dark-haired allegory, composed in the silence and comfort of my own thoughts.
And I wonder, do children do such things anymore?