When I was a kid, before I was saddled with the conviction that every wild place near home had been paved over and subjugated, I used to explore. When I was twelve, my eldest brother went into the Army. He returned home after basic training with gifts. For me he had an Army backpack and a canteen.
That pack might as well have been sewn with golden thread for how valuable it was to me. I’m sure my brother thought I would find some use for it, but I don’t think he had any idea what a little wanderer I was, and how fortunate a gift he’d given. That was my first backpack, and it meant that my travels could be greatly expanded — at least, in the geographic terms my twelve-year-old mind perceived. Without provisions, at most I could wander for twenty minutes or so along the creek that led away from our apartment complex into unnamed — and as far as I was concerned, uncharted — lands. But with my pack, stuffed with a PBJ, something to drink, a journal, and an extra pair of shoes, I wandered for hours. This was the standard stuff of a Midwestern childhood — butterflies, crawdads, minnows, the occasional raccoon, and lots of creek water. Neither of my parents knew what I was up to, and thank goodness, because one or both might have been tempted to put a stop to my little expeditions. Without them, my childhood would have been inexpressibly dimmer, and perhaps my adulthood as well.
Of course, times have changed, as they say. Thirty years later, the places I explored with that backpack are now mostly subdivisions. There are far fewer paths for kids to take into places that are not quite large enough to be called wilderness, but are not at all civilized. Now I live on a 1.5 acre plot just outside Interstate 465 around Indianapolis. It feels a lot less urbanized — or even suburbanized — around here, but I still assumed there were no spaces available for exploration. And then we started to hear from our neighbors about a path that branches off the street in the neighborhood next to our house. One neighbor mentioned that he goes birdwatching in a field behind the subdivision. Another neighbor told us there were two lakes, complete with beavers, toward the back of the lengthy open area.
How did I miss this? I wasted no time, and announced my intention this morning to explore this place. Travis is at the tail end of five days of a vicious stomach flu, and its indicative of either his affection for me or his own exploratory nature that he agreed to go with me. As for the path, we had passed it hundreds of times, and had always assumed it was a driveway.
It wasn’t a driveway. It led to this:
We weren’t on this road two minutes before a coyote ran across it. Thomas was good. He came back when called, and the coyote was smart enough to make itself scarce. We saw it again on the way back; it started to run across the road from the woods, saw us and then slipped back into the forest. Eventually we came to two thickly wooded, natural lakes. There were frogs and turtles, and a beaver swam busily in the water, tree branch in tow. Birds flew about industriously, small twigs in their beaks for nesting material. Our mouths dropped open.
“It looks like a completely healthy ecosystem,” I said in awe.
We walked all around the largest lake, and on our way back we ran into an older man, shirtless and tanned, with a fishing pole. He gave us the rundown. The place is owned by several people. They don’t mind people strolling through, but they’re pretty picky about actual, extended use. They’d given him permission to fish. I’m pretty sure they won’t care about my photography and my walks, which is all I’m interested in anyway.
The morning was a delight, an unexpected bridge back to the time that formed my attraction to the natural world. Suddenly I was remembering what it was like to be twelve, and finding an improbable landscape, a non-designated, unmarked wild space, that was not supposed to be there.