In rural western Indiana, amid the cornfields and red barns, a gravel road branches off Highway 41. This road winds past yet more farms for another mile before beginning a steep descent into a forested hollow. At the bottom of the hill the road passes by the gravel parking area for the Nature Conservancy’s Fall Creek Gorge before dead-ending into another gravel road called Hogback Hill Road. Hogback Hill parallels Big Pine Creek for a short distance, and where the two nestle into each other is a place I’ve loved for the last five years.
When Travis and I first met, he insisted that he had access to one of the best private campsites in the country. I was skeptical. This was Indiana, and there are few magic places in Indiana. I had just returned here from living in Idaho and Montana, and the comparison was stark. But we’d had only two dates, and I wasn’t going to be snotty, so I listened. Travis’s parents had bought a piece of property along Big Pine Creek with their friend, Doug, in the late 1980’s when Travis was about eighteen. Travis spent several summers working on the place, planting a grove of walnut trees, a stand of evergreens lining the gravel drive, and building a deck overlooking the creek. When his parents moved to Utah in the early 1990’s, they sold their share to Doug, who encouraged Travis to keep using the property. We knew it simply as “Doug’s Place.” Doug eventually added a beautiful treehouse-like home to the property across Hogback Hill Road, and used it from time to time as a second home. But Travis spent most of his time camping in the meadow next to the creek.
The second night we ever spent together was in a tent at Doug’s Place, and I could see, instantly, that he was right: this was a magic place. Over the next five years I developed my own connection to it. Some of us must have receptors in our brains for making deep connections with places, and my brain seems to be dotted with them. My connection with Doug’s Place was primarily creative; I couldn’t step foot into the meadow, or onto Hogback Hill Road, without words wafting into my head or seeing images to photograph. Travis’s, of course, was history, and personal investment: the days he spent moving gravel or planting trees with his dad; the years spent camping, the hours spent exploring Pine Creek.
Magic in place can’t be objectively defined, but I think for me it calls to mind Louise Chawla’s theory of ecstatic memory, in which she is careful to note the involvement of place in the emotionally overwhelming moments of childhood that install a lifelong thread between a child and the natural world:
“The environment itself offered freedom in the
sense of potentiality – an openness to exploration and
discovery in a place that beckoned enthralling.”
In other words, then, magic places for me are places that awaken the “radioactive jewel” of ecstatic childhood memory.
“Let’s go to Doug’s Place this weekend,” I said last Tuesday. That’s never an unpopular idea, so he e-mailed Doug to let him know we’d be there. Doug e-mailed back with news: this would be the last weekend he would own the property. He was closing the sale of it the following week. We were stunned. We knew it was possible; Doug had been considering selling it for awhile. We’d just chosen not to think about it. It wasn’t on the market long, he said. The buyer spent a very short time on the property before making an offer. Of course he did. He must have the receptors in his brain too.
We waffled a bit about whether to go. Did we need to say goodbye? Did we want to? We went. I’m glad we did. I found my camera was mostly interested in Travis’s goodbye, the one steeped in history and family and labors of love. Departures can be beautiful when they reflect the attachment that underlies them. Life moves.