I remember growing up in a small community in Western Pennsylvania where the suburbs were just blooming surrounded by trees and fields.
The sixties were a time of growth for this area and the mills and mines that filled the valleys were running at full tilt to provide the raw materials that make up a nation. Our street was an extension from an older community that had stretched its boundaries and every house was made up of sturdy sticks, bricks and mortar.
Every day it seemed like another new house was popping up from the ground like crocus flowers in the spring. The sound of hammers and saws filled the air all summer long as new faces joined our little neighborhood. The number of kids swelled too as the baby boom really hit its peak. There were very few houses that did not have kids and we all found our own ways to share the natural adventures of the area.
The woods behind the Hughes house were the starting point for so many of those adventures. Undeveloped and built on sloping hills, these woods hosted forts, caves, and most importantly trails that we spent hours and hours developing. From my earliest memories of this time, extending the paths was a mission as well as a joy.
There is an art to building a trail that must have been intuitive for us. You didn’t want to venture too far too fast or the return trip would be too difficult. A line of us would form on the old existing trailhead and we would start beating a path through the brush. Any number of obstacles would be in your path including the easier green shoots of native tall plants and the much harder thickets of jagger bushes. Following the terrain of the hill was important so that you avoided running your trail into a blind hollow that would be difficult to return on.
Barriers or opportunities?
Fallen trees offered themselves up as bridges over the many streams that poured down from the hills since the Indians walked there. These same trees formed the small temporary forts that would protect us from any enemies who might come to attack our party. Hearty sticks made excellent walking aides or could be used to spar against each other in mock combat. Later, they would be used as rifles to beat back attacking Germans or Japanese that had been magically transported from the dark days of World War 2.
Making it back home for dinner was important. Especially making it back home when you heard the old bell in our backyard that Dad had mounted on a steel pole. The bell was from one of the fire trucks that he took in trade for the shiny new Mack’s that he sold. You knew that when the bell rang, you only had so much time to get home before you would be in trouble.
The path had to be well marked as well as clear of obstacles. Each kid would have to independently be able to find their way up and down the main trail as well as the outgrowth trails that led to the clay mines or to the valley where the old dump trucks sat rusting. There were short cut trails too that worked great going down the hill but presented real challenges going up. One wrong move coming back up and you would have a new rip in your pants that would require explaining. Worse yet, a fresh wound on our legs from falling could result in a restriction on the next day’s adventure.
Marking the trails was important but following the marks was critical. We tried a lot of different techniques that we learned in scouts. Marking trees was okay for a season but the marks seemed to vanish when the season was done. Next year’s progress was always slowed by the hunt for the marks. Plus, this required a knife or axe and it took us a while to have enough sharp instruments to be of any use.
We followed this routine all the way up until we discovered the difference between boys and girls. Suddenly, the adventures of the deepest woods no longer held the same attraction as the careful interplay between these new found differences and likes. The woods simply grew back one year and we all followed different paths. The patterns were still there in our minds as we tested new paths and went new places. Sadly, in most cases, we went by ourselves or found new companions.
I never lost the lessons though.
- Mark the trail going both ways… sometime you will want to return
- Make sure of your footing as you go
- Be aware of the obstacles that might keep you from succeeding
- Path’s can’t always go in a straight line in life but you can get your destination if you think it through
- Plan accordingly so you can get back home in time when the bell rings
- Listen to each other and share your learning as you go
- Short cuts can have unintended consequences
The most important lesson was that not having the adventure is the greatest loss of all.
I suppose we could have sat in our game rooms and played with the electronic gizmos that are popular now. In retrospect, we might have avoided a few cases of poison ivy and a few broken arms. But we would have never learned to look for poisonous plants or understand the consequences of taking unnecessary risks (that did not involve an artificial electronic penalty of some kind that erases as fast as hitting an on/off switch)
How about you? How well have you marked your trails?
This is the season where many people of the Christian faith will be reflecting that very question. I am home again after nearly forty years of blazing my own trail. I have contemplated going over to the house on Duncan Station where the old trial head began and asking for permission to go through the woods again. It would be interesting to see if I actually have learned very much in the years since I left or if I would end up lost in the woods.