Recently, it occurred to me that I’ve been walking for a very long time and for very many reasons. I live in Los Angeles, and I find walks here with trees and flowers and hills. Vacations are consumed with walking, getting lost, exploring, whether in a city, or a rural area.
When I was a child, I lived on a lake with woods and fields patchworked around our house. Because it was rural, I had one accessible friend, who lived across the road. We didn’t really talk on the phone, and her family had a dairy farm, where the work never stopped. Summers were pleasantly long, both in terms of days and weeks, and sunlight hours. We all walked, explored, and spent much of every day outside.
That led me to walking. I would walk around our small lake, English Lake. At the time, just two families lived there year round, 2/3 of the lake had tiny, charming cottages and the other 1/3 was open land. I’d generally travel around the lake counter-clockwise, leaving our house, sliding down and then climbing up the grassy ditch next to the house. I’d climb a big hill, on a dirt road that twisted through the woods. Sometimes, I would take a detour and wander through those woods on the way to the end. Often, I’d get no further than those woods, or the edge between wooded land and tilled field – sometimes corn, sometimes oats, sometimes alfalfa.
Those woods seemed enormous to me, but always cool and quiet. I knew the names of the flowers, trees and bushes and would check on the progress of their blooming, or withering, depending up on the time of year. The rarest and most special find was always the trillium. This was a treasure, which I didn’t see every year. I knew not to pick it, because it was rare and special. In those days before environmental awareness and the endangered species act, my mother had reverence for those special things in our woods. It was just the right thing to do.
The corner of the woods, at the top of the hill, had a swamp. Somehow, I was convinced that quicksand was lurking behind the next small tree, so I never ventured very near. Perhaps too many books and movies with some hapless person being pulled into quicksand, with overtures of a long demise. I would see cat tails and turn back.
Passing those cottages, I would recite the family names to myself. The Mullins, Kronbergs, Hoyers and, so on. That road ended with a small cottage owned by my Dad’s employers. During the week, no one was around, but on the weekend, there were lots of boys, who I found fascinating. Endless summers, of fishing, swimming, walking, woods, fires, s’mores, corn on the cob, butter dripping down our chins.
I’d cut through their yard, walk through a field and pick up another road for the back side of the lake. I didn’t know the families on this side of the lake, but my imaginary friend, Janie lived here. Although by the time I could walk around the lake, I didn’t have that friendship any more, I knew she was happily living in one of those cottages, enjoying some kind of parallel life. I always thought about her when I traveled this part of the lake.
If I was walking in the middle of the week, I’d walk along the lakeshore, very low on this side. Green grass dropped off into the water. Weeping willows drifted in the breeze and the lake was very quiet. The cottage dwellers were off at work in town, waiting to return on the weekend. If I walked on the weekend, I would walk on another, very quiet dirt road that paralleled the water. Here, I’d see Queen Anne’s Lace, milkweed at some stage of development, and tall grasses in the ubiquitous ditches.
Every season, every day had its own little environment. Windy, cold, humid, hot, still, and everything in between. There are jokes about this part of Wisconsin and experiencing all four seasons in a single day. Depending on the weather, the scents were different. At a very specific temperature and humidity, the crops smelled mildly sweet and musty.
I’d sing my favorite songs to myself and I’d make up stories. These would take the form of who stays in the cottages and what were their lives like, or Janie and her adventures, or when I started reading Nancy Drew, I’d make up mysteries. Murdered people, who, of course, deserved to die, stolen items and ghouls of various sorts. Warm sunny days were filled with stories of Native Americans who lived there first.
At the end of that road, I’d cut across another yard and stop at the public access to the lake. This was a small dirt road that had a boat launch at the end for people who wanted to visit, but didn’t live on the lake.
I liked this place, because there were always lily pads, those magical half water, half land, creatures of water and sunshine. The road was flat, hard dirt, not gravel, so was much easier to walk along. I’d turn the corner, the vertical roads trying to hold in and define the very round lake.
This side of the lake seemed bare to me. Again a dead end dirt road – there was no way to do this, unless one was walking. The roads each dead ended in a field or at the lake, or in someone’s yard. A kid walking alone, with no fences could wander through quite happily.
I loved this side with its crab apple trees, where I would always stop for a quick bite. It didn’t really matter if they were ripe or not, I always had a bite or two. There were fewer cottages and by now, I had generally bored myself with the stories I invented.
The end of this road connected with my road, which was blacktopped the last year we lived there. I wouldn’t walk along the lake here, because I found the way too rocky and too steep. I’d follow the road until I got to the property two “doors” down from our house. Then, I’d cut back through the yards, going down to the lakefront and walking a very narrow, dirt path to our lakeside yard. I can see that path like it was this morning. The dark, rich, dirt was always damp. I don’t recall it ever being dried out. I think the soil must have absorbed the constant moisture from the air.
This side of our house was bordered by another woods. These woods had different flowers that I couldn’t find on the opposite side. I’d pick violets by the fistful to put in water glasses in my room. I loved the Wild Columbine, but I wouldn’t pick them. They just were not the same in a water glass as just being in the woods. There was something about their long, stringy stems that didn’t lend themselves to picking. I’d find wild strawberries that grew here and I’d check on them all summer, until they were ripe and then I’d pick and eat them. They never, ever made it home. That was my circle of the lake.
When we moved away to Phoenix, I was very sad, knowing that I would miss my wandering around the lake. I always thought that if we’d have stayed, I would still be walking around my lake in the woods.
impressed with your childhood memories so clear. Very nice! Don