By Kristy Romo
You can’t let your attention waver when you’re driving down that road in spring.
Before the snow melts, there are always patches of ice that you can’t tell are there until your wheels are spinning on them. After the snow melts and the road dries out, huge chunks of it are gouged out with ruts. Trucks are really the only thing that can drive on the road until the road grader does his job, but even he won’t smooth out the road because he’s afraid the ruts are going to destroy his equipment. So anyone with one of those dinky little foreign cars made for city commuting is out of luck unless they’re willing to risk scraping bottom.
There’s a technique to driving a road like that. When you’ve gone down it enough times, being the driver or not, you start to learn where the road gets the worst. So there you are with a car that’s only a year old, keeping a sharp eye on the road you’re trying to drive over. Sometimes the right side is all right, but more often than not, you’re quite firmly stuck smack-dab in the center, and there’s a ridge in the gravel that prevents you from moving back to the correct part of the road. Sometimes, you’re so far over on the left side of the road, you might as well pretend you’re over in England. You can’t help but hope you don’t meet anyone going the opposite direction. They all live out there and have the sense to drive a truck to get into town; they’re driving twenty or more when you don’t dare go over ten.
But a road like that keeps people out. Anyone who doesn’t live there isn’t likely to bother driving the road. So it’s pretty quiet, at least until something happens.
It’s amazing what can burn if the bonfire it’s chucked into is hot enough.
With a fire pit that’s a good six feet across, all sorts of things will fit. It usually starts with scrap wood, like bits of an old building or a tree that got taken down. Once the flames are taller than most of the party attendees, all sorts of things can get thrown on. Discarded furniture seems to be a favorite. A reclining chair was one of my favorites. It was one of those big, solid chairs that looked like it would last forever. But the springs in the seat had long since fallen out, and foam was sticking out the bottom. Two of the men picked it up from the pile of junk to burn and casually tossed it into the inferno. Logs that were reduced to glowing toothpicks were suddenly crushed, and sparks exploded out of the fire pit. As soon as the foam caught fire, flames shot out to about eight feet high and it burned bright for a few minutes. When the flames abated, they would throw on something else.
The fireworks they sell at the stands are all right. The sparkling fountains can get dull after a while, as there’s only so much variety one can get with them. You have to go over to Wisconsin to get anything really daring. And when the neighbors have a paper bag of them, there’s plenty you can do with them.
They started by setting them off a few at a time. We sat by the fire ring while the father of the family went over by the road, plenty far from the house and us, to set them off. But we got bored after about five or six rounds of that. So what to do with the rest of the bag?
Throw it into the fire, of course.
The flames had to eat through the paper bag before they could get at the fuses, but as soon as the first one went off, it was a real show. The fire pit was one of those rings that is raised off the ground, has a metal grate around the sides, and a solid lid. I held my breath when the father opened the little door in the side to stuff the bag in, but he was plenty far away before the explosions started. They were all going off one after another, like a machine gun. Sparks shot out the sides and danced briefly on the patio stones before sputtering out. It couldn’t have lasted for much more than fifteen seconds, but it left me wishing we had another bag.
But you can’t be setting fireworks off all the time. Eventually you have to find something else to do.
When miles of hills are used for growing crops, it’s inevitable that you’ll get dips in the land that are so steep, it’s not worth clearing them. So the otherwise uniform land is shot through with little strips of woods that are left to do as they please.
Of course, these were excellent places to dump all your extra junk back when no one really cared what you did with your garbage.
Anything that wasn’t easily burnable was dumped into the ravine. This made it a treasure trove just begging to be excavated. And who else is going to do it but a bunch of bored, school-aged kids? Whenever my brother and I went out there, we were already wearing old clothes that could get dirty without consequences, and the two of us and a few cousins put on sturdy shoes for protection against poison ivy before setting out on another expedition.
You had to be careful when you first went down the ravine. Unless there was an established path to the bottom, you had to watch your footing. Beneath the long grass, there could be anything from slippery old fence posts to the rusty barbed wire that was strung along them. If you did slip and fall, you did your very best to stop before you hit the bottom. The water that drained in from the fields was filled with fertilizer and encouraged the growth of heaven-knows-what. Even when the season had been particularly dry, there was always mud that spoiled any trip if you got it on you.
Once you made it to the bottom, the exploring could truly begin. There was just so much stuff—you couldn’t help but stop every few yards. There were plenty of the
expected things, like whole rolls of barbed wire that had been forgotten, and discarded farm tools like rakes and an old scythe. The best things were the ones that weren’t quite so expected, especially when you couldn’t figure out what they were. There was the little six-bladed thing that looked like the top of a very small windmill. It was still shiny in some places, and that one got dragged along. A couple of triangle frames with faces of men with exaggerated facial features in the middle were added to our collection.
Plenty of things got left behind, though. There was a huge pile of bricks bearing the name of a town one county over that were probably supposed to be used for city buildings. Discarded machinery parts were a common find. Car wheels that became trapped in undergrowth were the roof of a den of some animal or another that thankfully wasn’t home at the time. There were old car mats and busted dishes, hub caps, and bits of a corn planter.
The deeper you went, the stranger the terrain became. People didn’t bother going that far in to chuck their garbage, but there were plenty of natural curiosities. One tree that fell over made what might have been a fantastic tree fort if it weren’t so deep in. There was even a mud pit that we didn’t find until my brother stepped into it and nearly lost both of his shoes. But a bunch of little kids can only go on for so long before they realize they are quite lost and a long ways from those popsicles they were promised for an afternoon snack.
The climb out was almost as exciting as the descent. The steep incline was suddenly apparent again, but many of the things that looked like they would be helpful handholds on the way up were nothing more than the slew of junk I thought we were done with. When we made it out, we usually found ourselves far down the road and we had just stumbled through about three other people’s property.
It’s not like they cared, though. No one out there really did.
It seemed to me that all the kids in books and TV shows had a tree house or a secret hideout. So when all of us found a tree that had fallen over years ago, but survived and continued to grow, we started making big plans. Sure, it wouldn’t be way up in the air like tree houses always seemed to be, but we were already provided with a great structure to build something around. It was along the top ridge of a ravine and close to one of my cousins’ houses, so it was perfect as far as we could tell.
We spent the rest of the afternoon outfitting it the best we could. All the junk we dug out of the ravine on our various expeditions was piled up there instead of behind the old barn. A piece of plywood and a few stray scraps of wood were nailed to one particularly tall limb for a wonderful crow’s nest. Dead wood was thrown deeper into the ravine after it was pulled off by hand, or sawed off with a scavenged hacksaw. Discarded pieces of fencing were laid across the bottom to make a bridge over the creek that ran at the bottom.
It was a good thing we chose the spot we did. The land that we started “improving” didn’t actually belong to the family; we just thought it did. However, it was another
one of our uncles who owned it, and he couldn’t have cared less what his nieces and nephews did on his side of the gulley.
The next time my brother and I visited out there, we saw that the adults intervened on our behalf and built a proper fort there for us. It was made out of leftover timber and siding from a shed. There was a window at each end, and two different doors on each side made from kitchen cabinet doors that were from a recent kitchen remodeling. It was probably only eight by five feet, with a five foot ceiling. I couldn’t even stand up straight in it. But it was one of the coolest things I had ever seen. A step ladder scavenged from the ravine was used for climbing up on one side, while the tree itself provided a step up on the other.
A few of our treasures were kept inside, like a little white cabinet and a car mat that had the word “caution” written on it, along with any tools we had collected. Other things, like the propeller and a set of shelves, were piled under the fort. The bridge across the creek was improved with additional boards, and the big boulder that was partially used as a foundation for the fort was cleared off. It proved to be a fantastic stage for experiments later.
The boulder in the ravine was large and not at all flammable, so it ended up being the perfect place to set things on fire. We couldn’t exactly do it in the driveway up by the house—we got yelled at for doing it there. Cars used the driveway. But lighters were easy enough to find, and anything that was remotely affected by flames was subjected to an attempt at burning. Plastic toys that we didn’t care for anymore were a popular target.
The thing that produced the most interesting results was an old bed pillow. Most of us sat in the tree when that one happened.
My cousin picked the pillow out of their dumpster. He was having trouble getting it to catch fire though, so he didn’t bother moving away. When it finally did catch, the cover went quickly. Fire zipped along the seam of the pillow until it reached the ragged hem of his jeans. I literally had to yell that his pants were on fire before he got the message and jumped into the creek. The flames went out easily enough, and all that burned off his jeans was the ragged hem that was dragging on the ground previously anyway. But with his shoes and socks soaked, we called it a day. He threw the smoldering bed pillow into the creek, right by where the water drained in from the fields, and said he wouldn’t be trying to burn something supposedly fire-resistant any time soon.
Of course, I didn’t believe him.
Another thing I was told not to do multiple times as a small child was to play in cornfields. This was fairly sound advice, as I spent plenty of time during the summer only yards away from cornfields. My
mother told me stories to scare me away from them, like boys getting lost in the fields for days before finally starving to death because no one could find them. Since she grew up in the very house I was staying in on those overnight trips, I listened to her. For all I knew, those stories she told me were true. Eventually those warnings were pushed aside, too. My cousins used the field all the time as a shortcut between their houses, and corn that had grown over their heads was no excuse to stop.
It was nearly Labor Day when I went into a cornfield for the first time, so it had long since grown over my head. It was shady amongst the rows of corn, but it was almost warmer in there than outside on the road. The humidity was high that day, and being surrounded by all that green made it feel less and less like a farm field and more like a jungle off in some foreign country. There were only inches between each individual corn stalk and barely enough room for my foot between each row. I had to fight for every step I took, parting two different stalks of corn and squeezing my body through the tiny space. I even had to be careful about the leaves. The edges were sharp enough to slice through skin, and I had a few cuts before we got out. In the end, we probably ended up taking far longer to get to the other house, but we had a lot more fun doing it.
You can’t really see the sky in the suburbs. Sure, there are especially nice days with a clear sky and a good breeze, and the sky is actually brighter than the robin’s eggs that are so frequently compared to it, but there are always houses and stores crowding it out, pushing the sky back up where it belongs and blocking out the horizon. In the country, it’s always blue on a clear day. Never have I come across something that sported the color so well. There was nothing to stop the sky from reaching down and touching the tops of the corn out there on the edges of my vision.
A sight that’s rarer still in the suburbs is a star. I’m lucky if I can see two or three. All you have to do out there is turn off the yard and house lights to suddenly see a multitude of them. They made the ground suddenly seem a poor vantage point, with things like a garage and a chicken-coop-turned-pool-house blocking out so much. We always hoped the adults were so busy with their earthbound matters that they wouldn’t notice us climbing onto the dog house so we could reach the roof of the garage. We could almost see the stars properly up there.
The roof faced east, so it was a wonderful place to watch the sunrise, too. Even those were different, with no neighbors’ houses hiding them with manufactured facades, trying to pin them back. Those country sunrises were always painted with watercolors instead of oils. Lines were too harsh to define anything but the horizon.