Inspired by Grace ‘N’ Tater’s Dad, I want to tell you about the outdoors where I grew up. And keeping in mind the sort of guiding principle of the website this will be published on, I’m thinking about the parts of my outdoor upbringing that I’d want my daughter to know about someday.
I live in Massachusetts now, but I haven’t always. I grew up in western Pennsylvania. If you know anything about root words or know what “sylvan” means, you can guess that I spent a whole lot of time in the woods.
A vast majority of my time was spent in two spots: Grandpa’s Orchard and Hickory Creek (pronounced “Crick” where I come from).
To reach the creek you walked down a short path next to our garage, into the neighbor’s yard, crossed that to reach the house my mom grew up in (no longer owned by the family), and then crossed that yard to reach a grassy field. Once you crossed the grass, you found a trail into the woods. One of my oldest memories is thinking how great that trail would be for a minibike. It was on this trail that the seed of my eventual love of mountain bikes was founded.
At Hickory Creek I skipped rocks, flipped larger rocks over to look underneath them, and tried to find a way to get across the stream while remaining dry. I remember precious few instances of standing on that opposite shore. Sorry to go uber-philosophical on you, but it seems feasible that on all the adventures and explorations I still go on today, it may very well be that far shore of Hickory Creek I’m looking for.
And then there was the Orchard. It really consisted of four main locations and one honorable mention. The honorable mention was my uncle’s home-made kayak in my grandparents’ basement. It was never finished, and I don’t know how close it ever got. I don’t know why he wanted a kayak, or why he didn’t finish. Or why if he wasn’t going to finish, the boat just sat there. But I can still picture it today- white canvas stretched on a wooden frame, above the dirt floor of the old farmhouse they lived in until I was in high school.
The four spots were these: The corn crib, the chicken coop, the woodpile & sandbox, and the garage. These were the landmarks of my childhood imagination and if I’m honest, perhaps my current life.
The corn crib fell down while I was still
young, but I remember it as an old wooden dried out building with many rooms. My grandpa had once been a farmer, but had sold the barn before my time, and the Amish had bought the barn and taken it away, rebuilding it in another place. What remained of the corn crib was its roof, which amounted to a rusting steel incline with a shifting foundation. Alongside this incline were five or six long drainage pipes. Of course I didn’t know that then. To me they were giant metal pieces of pasta or balance beams.
The chicken coop housed my uncle’s motorcycle and Janis Joplin posters. I know there were others as well, but it is Joplin I remember. The door was always locked, but we sometimes found the window unlocked and crawled inside and sat on the motorcycle. As I’ve written in other places, I think I’m still trying to recreate this space in every living space I own, with my bike hooks and posters. You might think this sounds like an “indoor” memory, but I don’t think of it that way. I picture that room as a part of the woods.
Near a large tree—surely a maple or oak—my Grandpa parked his Camper (a Swiss Colony) and piled up wood for the next camping trip. Or in my case, for building jumps for my bike, or anything else my young mind saw fit to do with lengths of weathered lumber. Come to think of it, the wood may well have come from the collapsed corn crib. Either way, they had poured a load of sand on the other side of the tree, and hung some rope from a high branch so that I had a swing (it was a secondary one- the other was in front of the house and had a seat and everything).
And finally there was Grandpa’s garage. Again, you may suggest this to be an indoor memory, but in fact there was no garage door, and no glass in the windows. Add in a lawn tractor parked inside, and it is indeed outdoors. In the back of that garage were two rooms, filled wall-to-wall with… stuff. No other word could describe them. One had a dresser which had drawers filled nearly to bursting with… stuff. Nuts, bolts, old toilets, games my aunts and uncles and Mom had once played with a generation before… It was all in there and there was no one to see if I touched it. There was a barrel near the front door (which, as I’ve said, was never there) that served as a table for all of Grandpa’s sprays: paint, carburetor cleaner, and a mysterious substance called “Gunk.”
But the best memory of all related to the garage (other than throwing a football on its roof and waiting for it to roll down so I could catch it, or the fact that Grandma’s clothesline sprouted from the side of said garage) was when he would leave his toolbox unlocked (are you noticing the same theme here as me?) It was then that my gold Stingray got flipped over and I got to use wrenches on it. Did I know how to use them? No, but I learned. Or rounded off the nuts. I can’t remember exactly, but what I can remember is my Great Grandfather swearing his head off at me while I worked. It confused me- maybe even frightened me- but precious tool time couldn’t be wasted. I have no idea what I ever accomplished with those wrenches, but I sure remember the thrill of using them.
And so it went. That is how I discovered the outdoors. With a “Crick,” some rocks, a can of Gunk, a room full of junk, a fallen-down corn storage building, some drainpipe, and a motorcycle.
How could I have turned out any other way? A tree grows from its roots, after all. Let us each remember that as we guide our children into the outdoors.