I grew up in what looks to be the last generation guided by the principle of “be home for dinner.” Shoo’d from the house to go play and come back later, we’d leave my parents to do the things parents do. The boring things that allow kids the freedom to play until play time is done. This was the last generation before the 24 hour news cycle saturated our culture with fear of the improbable: kidnappers, perverts, pedophiles.
For me, those days were spent in the woods. I grew up in an apartment complex comprised of clusters of apartments dotting a sea of parking lots, all cement except for a small park in the middle. Just beyond the concrete, though, Indiana’s nature took over. The apartment complex was carved out of an old woods, and the remnants of that woods still lined the edge of where we lived. And that’s where I spent my childhood.
The woods comprised of a single path that lead back to a creek, shallow and spanned by one fallen tree. The path continued on, but it was understood that the younger kids stopped at this point, the creek our playground. We would build little damns against the fallen tree, waiting and watching as the current slowly broke it apart. We spent the summer building up the courage to cross the creek on the tree, straddling the log and scooting out further and further on our butts. I’m not sure if I ever had the courage to stand up on the log and risk falling in the creek. I wouldn’t be surprised if I never did; I was a bit of a weenie.
Eventually as we got older we continued down the path. I remembered not wanting to stray from the path into the surrounding thicket. There were three trees down off the path that crossed at angles and formed a triangle; I was worried that triangle was actually a portal to another time. Granted, I didn’t actually think that it was, but once the thought was in my head I wasn’t quite confident enough that it wasn’t to try my luck. So we would continue on down the path and loop around back to the end of the path where we found the holly land: a garbage dump. Old shopping carts, chains, milk crates, bricks…there was nothing this place didn’t have, piled up thirty feet high and all free for the taking. I can’t imagine this was an official garbage dump; it was probably started by the contractors that built the apartment complex as an easy way to haul away garbage and continued from there.
I probably spent three years of my life there, from about age 9 when we moved to Colony Bay apartments to age 12 when my best friend moved away and I transitioned to watching sports and the magic of the wood faded. I was surely remarkably dirty at all times and had any manner of squirmy things in my hair at any given moment. I don’t remember running naked through the woods shouting “I’m a wood nymph, I’m a wood nymph,” but I wouldn’t put it past me. I was a weird kid.
In my mind, the woods was huge and thick, but I’ve already confirmed for myself that my memory of these sorts of things is a little suspect. My wife and I went for a run when I went to visit my parents and part of that run took us through the old apartments. “We’ll get a mile or two looping around the streets of the complex. It’s a pretty big place,” I said confidently. Turns out we got less than a half mile and that was with some effort, looping and doubling back. So, I’m guessing the path into the woods was probably 100 feet long and the creek actually a drainage ditch, but who cares. When you’re small it doesn’t take much to have an adventure.
So when I took Rocky to the woodland area at the Nature Center, I was excited. To be able to see my kids in the woods despite living in the city was something I didn’t think would be possible without driving out to the suburbs or beyond. But here it was, three miles away and free to anyone. Rocky led me down the walking path to the woodland play area, a clearing filled with all sorts of fun things: swings hanging from trees, a tree fort, a big pile of bricks, logs to climb – what more could you ask for. It wasn’t huge, the clearing maybe the size of a football field – maybe more – before continuing on as a path through the wood. But to the under-5 crowd? Well, I can certainly imagine them coming back with their kids (because of course our kids will have to live in Chicago):
“What the -” Lucy says to her brother as their kids run out ahead of them to climb a low-limbed tree. “This can’t be the right place.”
Rocky scratches his head. “The tree fort is way too low. There couldn’t have only been three steps. I remember being able to look down on everyone.”
“And it ends right there,” Lucy says, gesturing to where the play area tapers off and the rest of the path through the forest continues on. “That’s…man. Crazy”
“For real. Hey,” Rocky says, raising his voice. “Rocky Jr, quit poking your cousin. And put your pants back on!”