When my older brother, Chris and I were 10 and 12 we used to wander around the woods and undeveloped tracts of land surrounding our Cincinnati subdivision.
We (and our neighborhood pals) called it the Smoky Mountains (as opposed to the Great Smoky Mountains). In reality, our playground was multiple mounds of earth pushed up by bulldozers and left for several years to become fertile ground for cottonweed, goldenrod, thistle and all manner of wild vegetation.
But it was our playground and we would spend hours every day wandering up and down the hills, playing hide and seek or war or adventure. My mom never worried about us being there. It was better than roaming in the creek, which ran along the northern side of our development.
Of course we did that, too. And we were busted when we went into the creek in our synthetic leather tennies (available at K-mart). The odor emanating from the shoebox was a dead giveaway. Our neighbors across the street were at least five years older than us (though they seemed a lot older than that) and they used to swing from grapevines into the creek. As fun as that appeared, I never did it because I was terrified of getting in trouble.
One day those boys brought home a four-foot snake and put it in their trash can for all to see. That was enough to turn me off of the creek for good.
My mom always describes that era of our lives as very innocent. Today as parents we have to worry about whether or not our children will be safe outside of our watchful eye. But at the same time, we want them to be explorers, to be curious, to discover things for themselves, to open a cottonweed pod and see the milky substance inside.
A couple-hundred feet down the road from my house is a new park. I don’t know if it’s open to the public yet, but Riley and I have been exploring. There’s a long road that goes back a half-mile and opens to nothing more than a lake (actually a retention basin that keeps our neighborhood storm sewers from flooding our basements during heavy rains) and a parking lot. Other than that, it’s empty fields and woods.
This is what green space should be.
Last night was gorgeous and so we walked there with a tennis ball, which we eventually lost. Once we were beyond the gate at the entrance to the road (which if unpaved would resemble a country lane lined with purple, pink and white crabapple trees) I removed the leash and let Riley run.
She’s a Labrador retriever, a bird dog, and she had all kinds of fun sniffing around, chasing after geese and birds. People always tell me how labs are smart dogs (I’ve always been a little skeptical). She quickly found the path through the tall grass that surrounds the lake. We managed together to find the path that circled its entirety.
Though she’s still a puppy, I’m amazed at how well and attentive she is to me. She may gallop ahead a bit, but then she’ll stop, turn around and wait for me to catch up. So maybe she does have more sense than is usually apparent at home…
As we made our way around the lake, I noticed in the woods some makeshift forts. Just the kind we used to make in our Smoky Mountains. I’m going back later to take pictures to send to my brother, Chris. I’m sure he remembers those forts and mud pies. Only he put his exploring skills to good use and eventually became an Eagle Scout and a member of the U.S. Air Force. And today, as the father of two, he also is a Boy Scout leader teaching others about exploring.
My older brother Chris and nephews Todd and Brian have already been out camping and exploring this spring.