The journey is long.
The destination? Rock Canyon— a place unbeknownst to anyone who brushes their teeth with any regularity.
On a sultry, summer day, the journey requires a half hour of navigation through woods and field. (Longer if you’re trying to lose a little brother or sister along the way.)
We gather—Jenny, Kelly, Scott, Bob, Dan, and I, in my backyard.
The woods behind my house are dark and uninviting; the sun is obscured by a thick canopy of oak and hickory leaves.
“Do we have everything?” questions Scott, our self proclaimed leader, and at eleven, three years my senior.
“I brought the Kool-Aid!” I eagerly reply, anxious to please.
The rest of the group glances around, with quizzical “what else could we possibly need” looks on their faces. Backpacks are empty (except for mine, as I am the official Kool-Aid carrier), but are ready to hold any newfound treasures gathered along the way.
The journey begins.
We enter the woods, scrambling under half fallen trees, precariously resting against stronger, sturdier trees, and clambering over fuzzy, moss covered rocks. Tree roots hinder our progress, tripping each of us at seemingly scheduled intervals. Occasionally, an utterance of “ouch” or “dang” permeates the silence, as knees and hands come in contact with rock and ground.
The air is stifling.
“Wait up, you guys,” Dan pants, only moments into the journey. He is promptly ignored, although I notice that Jenny catches his eye and smiles sympathetically.
The journey continues.
The pungent smell of decaying leaves assaults my nose, and the buzz of swarming mosquitoes sends a shiver down my spine, despite the heat of the day. I begin to feel itchy. Occasionally, we pause to swat the mischievous insects.
“Go faster!” Scott demands, waving his arms around his head in desperation. “Who was in charge of the mosquito repellant?”
A long silence…followed by the sound of a hand smacking skin.
“Not me,” Dan finally replies. (Making me think it actually was him.)
Soon we arrive at an old, abandoned dump site, hidden deep in the woods. We imagine its origination.
“Maybe a robber stole all of this loot and then dumped it here when he was being chased by police,” Dan suggests.
Personally, I doubted that a robber would steal old dishes or empty cans.
“Maybe it’s the belongings of a pioneer family that lived in the woods,” Jenny fantasizes. “You know, like Laura Ingalls!”
I like Jenny’s idea way better than I like Dan’s, and begin to daydream about the family who lived in the woods, and surmise the reason they may have left. Visions of hostile Indians (politically correct in the mid 70’s) fill my mind, much like an episode of Little House on the Prairie I had recently watched.
The dump site is small, covering an area no larger than a child’s swimming pool. We carefully scour through the leaves and dirt with sticks. Jagged edges of rusty beer cans protrude from the ground. Dirt covered mason jars, and chipped pieces of “china” are plucked from the pile. We carefully stow our treasures in the backpacks we carry.
We trudge on, the added weight in our backpacks taking their toll. Soon we come to a dried up creek bed. Despite the fact that there isn’t any water in sight, we carefully walk across the bridge created from sticks and rocks.
“Remember when we built this?” I ask.
“Yeah! That was so much fun! Jenny enthusiastically replies.
It wasn’t so fun when I fell in the creek and got wet, I think to myself, remembering my mom’s reaction when I returned home for the second time within one afternoon to change out of muddy, wet clothes.The memory makes my cheeks burn.
As we near the edge of the woods, the roar of a nearby tractor interrupts my thoughts. Instantly, we drop to the ground, crouch behind the underbrush and wait for it to pass. We’ve been through this before. We cannot be seen. The farmer has made it clear that he does not want us trespassing on his land. This knowledge makes the journey that much more exciting.
Once the danger has passed, we stumble out of the relative coolness of the woods, and into the hot, blazing, summer sun. Shading our eyes with our hands, we squint into the brightness of the day, inadvertently leaving traces of dirt on our foreheads. We watch as the tractor disappears around a bend in the road.
Gathering our bearings, we start heading down the dusty, dirt road. Within minutes, small streams of sweat trickle down my neck, before being absorbed by the waistband of my shorts.
“I’m hot,” Dan whines.
“We all are,” Bob counters.
“We’re almost there,” Jenny encourages. Jenny is always nice. Even to whiners.
“All right. Let’s take a break,” suggests Kelly, as she brushes a wisp of hair out of her eyes, and tucks it behind her ear. She is truly Scott’s equal—not only in age, but in authority as well.
“Okay,” I eagerly agree.
“Hey! Guys! Over here,” Dan shouts.
He has located a shady spot in the tall grass along the side of the road. Ceremoniously, he plops himself down, pulls a blade of wheat from the ground, and promptly places the pale, tender end in his mouth, and pretends to smoke. We quickly join him.
Kneeling down I clasp my hands behind my back, shrug my shoulders and my backpack slides to the ground. I am feeling quite important as the big kids surround me. As I try to get the Kool-Aid out of my backpack, a string gets caught in the zipper. Sweat runs into my eyes as I struggle to unzip it. Giving the zipper a huge tug, it finally budges. I pull the thermos out of my pack.
“Hurry up,” Scott says impatiently, grabbing the thermos out of my hands. Everyone laughs as he struggles to remove the top. At least everyone but me.
“Relax,” Kelly says as she authoritatively snatches the thermos away from him.
Placing the thermos between her knees, she grips the handle of the outer cup, and is surprised when it gives without much effort. This time I join in the laughter.
“I loosened it,” Scott mopes, and plants his hands on his hips.
As Kelly unscrews the inner cap, the sugary sweet smell of grape Kool-Aid rushes out. We pass the thermos from person to person— oldest first, youngest last. I am the youngest—only by a few short months, but the youngest nonetheless.
After guzzling our sugary drink, and wiping our mouths with the back of our hands, we survey the cornfield that lies between us and the rocky, tree covered fence line fondly named Rock Canyon.
I place the empty thermos back in my pack. Everyone is eager to continue. Even Dan.
Scampering through rows of sweet corn, leaves and tassels reach out and tickle our dust covered legs and arms. I could easily get lost, as the corn is taller than I am, so I stick close to Bob who is directly ahead of me. Jenny and Dan bring up the rear. I can hear them talking about Dan’s German Shepherd, Mitzi, who chased a car down the road.
The hum of traffic, from a not so distant highway, provides background noise. As we reach the edge of the field, the sweet flowery smell of clover entices us. We scramble to find the purplest flowers, pluck the tendrils, and suck the warm sweet nectar from the tiny tubes. Revitalized, we continue.
We are almost there.
Finally, we reach the entrance to our secret fortress. Green ivy winds its way around rock and tree. Off come the shoes and socks, and our hot, sweaty feet are welcomed by the cool, damp earth floor.
We enter and appraise our surroundings. Everything looks just as it did when we left the previous afternoon.
We hop (me), skip (Jenny), and jump (Dan) down the flat, sparkly gray rocks that serve as a majestic staircase leading down to the main living quarters. The older kids follow behind. Walking.
The trunk of a decaying elm tree is our couch, and several flat, gray stones provide additional seating. Piles of rock and trunks of trees provide an exterior barrier, and a canopy of sumac leaves serves as our roof.
To the right of the living area is the kitchen. Kelly, Jenny and I wander in. Water from a previous rain fills a deep impression in a gigantic, gray rock. This is our sink. Tiny insects scurry across the water leaving a small wake. Spider webs glisten with dew and we shiver as the wispy strings entangle us. Several neat piles of wilted dandelions and sweet clover cover our rock table.
“Let’s get the plates and glasses!” Jenny says excitedly.
China and glassware, still covered with remnants of dirt, are removed from our packs and carefully placed on the table next to the “silverware”, meticulously crafted out of branches.
“We need to go hunting,” Dan says.
Bob, typically quiet, finally speaks. “I’ll get the bow and arrows!” Bob loves to hunt. Even when the prey is just pretend.
He locates the curved branch with a piece of string tied between the two ends, and Scott grabs the “arrows” (pointy sticks made from rubbing one of the ends against a rock).
The boys leave the confines of our fort to hunt for “food”. We putter around the kitchen while they are gone, making a leafy salad, and a dirt cake. When they return, we cook the “meat” over our fireless fire pit. Soon we are all sitting around the table for our meal, which we finish within minutes. Afterwards, we clean up the dishes and head to the living room.
As we get comfortable in our chairs, we gaze through the tree branches searching for uninvited younger siblings. Nothing. Occasionally, a warm breeze blows through, rustling the leaves overhead.
In the distance we see an old white washed barn. Beside it, a tall stone silo. It is weather beaten and crumbling to the ground. We discuss the possibility of making a fort out of it, but decide against it.
We could never leave Rock Canyon. It is our home.