In the Land of Boys (Part 2 – One Year Later)
Almost one year ago to the day, I visited PD just a hop, skip, and a jump along the slopes of Roan from the house I live in now. I traveled there with another teacher to visit she and her loveable, playful, joyful boys. Their story is recounted here.
This , perhaps, is a continuation of that story. Or perhaps it is the beginning of another, one where we are neighbors with a deepening friendship. One where I become more and more connected with the land here, PD and her boys leading the way…
I hear them before I can actually see them, their high-pitched boy yelps and the romping of Doce (the twelve-toed dog) pouring through the woods. I am sitting on the porch, forty pages into a fifty page assignment, the morning’s work of studying transcripts and outlining a biography finally accomplished.
“Hey guys! I’m up here!” I holler down and finally spot them.
“Hey Katey!” Sammy shouts, waving a his walking stick high above his head as he marches up the trail from the lower portion of the property on up to the deck. Today, Sammy has fashioned bands out of matching plaid fabric and tied them in tight swaths around his wrist and ankle. He’s wearing his soccer uniform even though today there is no practice and no game.
Zac beats his brother to the porch and proudly holds a jewelweed plant out in front of me. “You know what this one does, right?” He is proud and smiling, waiting for my answer.
“Yup, that’s for stinging nettle. Helps calm the pain,” I say.
“Yeah, and do you know how big they can get?” he asks, then, before I can answer: “Almost four feet! Almost as tall as me! With bright orange flowers!” He crushes the plant into a pulp and holds his palms out to show me.
“See, we’re making jars and jars of the juice,” Sammy says as the boys follow me into the house. “You can mix it with water then freeze it into ice cubes and rub it on your skin when you get stung. We’re going to sell them. Jewel cubes, we’ll call them, yeah.” He elbows his brother, who is rubbing the potion on his knee which got whacked with some nettle on the way up the hill.
I pour the boys glasses of fresh spring water and Sammy spreads a hand drawn map across the kitchen counter. “So we’re here,” he says, pointing to his illustration. “And this is your gate, and here is the turnaround spot, and this is the house down below with the barking dogs.”
I nod my head. His map is not only accurate, but practically to scale. “We’re going to hike you down this much of the driveway, then bushwhack across Cook Creek here,” he points to the map again, “then down to the old gravel road and over to our house.”
I show the boys my maps on the wall from the Forest Service and after I orient them, they can find their house and the creek quite easily. They are mesmerized by the maps, though, and want to know more. What are those brown lines for? Why are the roads numbered and not named? What are the black dots? I tell them about topo lines in 40 foot increments. I show them the scale at the bottom of the map and invite them to measure how far apart our houses are. I teach them that the black dots are residences, the grey area is the park boundary, and the numbered roads are the state names for our streets and gravel roads. They set about determining the elevation of their house and my house, and the precise distance between the two while I run downstairs to change into bushwhacking clothes.
On the way down the driveway the boys are eager to tell me more about their plans for the Jewel Cubes business. They are proud protectors of the mountain and make a point to tell me everything they know about each spot along the road. The point out where the last tree feel across the drive, where the old trail was through the woods and across Cook Creek, where the new trail is and why, and how to avoid the barking dogs by crawling upstream, then dropping down and onto a makeshift trail.
We hike, and push across stones and barrel through patches of poison ivy (the boys wearing tall socks, I in long pants), puddle hop, amble across fallen logs, and finally find our way to the other side of the creek bed. It’s not far, really, but it takes time without a trail. Once we hit the makeshift trail the boys have lots to say. They’ve left their bikes in the woods and run ahead to catch them.
“We’ll ride slow, Katey!” Zac shouts over his shoulders. They brake and screech and ride up and down the trail in sections while I catch up with them.
“See up there? That’s a great climbing rock, and that’s about halfway between your house and my house,” Zac says.
“So we could call each other and meet there, right? What do you call that rock?”
“Let’s call it Eagle Rock, because it’s almost as high as the birds,” Zac says.
“No, something from The Lion King, see, because it looks like that one spot where he stands at the edge and all the animals stampeded down below him.” Sammy hops off his bike and pauses in the trail to gaze at the boulders.
“How about Roaring Rock,” I say, “like the lion’s roar.”
“Yeah! So we could say, ‘I’ll meet you at Roaring Rock at 3pm’ and then you would be right there!” Zac is pleased with the name and pleased with our imaginary plan.
Naming things is fun and so we keep doing it: Bubba Tree (for the big oak with the bulbous bulge at the base of the trunk) and Poison Field (for the field of poison ivy) and The Three Stooges (for the three goofy dogs that bark from their yard above us on the road) and the Jewel Cube Company for their future business in potions and cures. “And we also have another business,” Zac says. “We do lawn work.” The brothers detail their skills and talents to me, explaining the ins and outs of the lawn mower an weed whacker they are allowed to use and offer services with.
“I’ve got a gravel truck coming on Monday. How about I hire you guys on Tuesday afternoon, say afterschool, to help me spread gravel and use loppers up and down the drive to clear it for cars?” I offer.
“Lopers. Yeah, we could do that, right Sammy?” Zac asks.
“Sure we can!”
When we arrive at their house, about 3/4 of a mile later, they are both eager to show me their artwork and instruments and remind me again of their pets and the trampoline and their uncle’s CD and their aunt’s talents and more and more and more. My attention is spread between the beauty of the house, the beauty of their energy, and the sheer strength of heart and will and spirit that their mother, PD, exudes.
Years ago, PD camped on the lower portion of the property I’m on now and built the original structure of the house I live in now. She and her partner felled the locust trees and hauled them across the side of the mountain with horses, erected the structure, set up running water, and got things going. She is a woman, so it seems, who can do anything she puts her mind to. Her body has cooperated with her mind’s vision for years, as she’s built that home and now the home she is in, set up her own forge, and made a life for herself as a blacksmith, jeweler, and sculptor. PD’s arms are rigid and carved as the steel she shapes, though nothing about her figure is overbearing. Her voice is gentle but knowing, not at all timid, yet even opinions are delivered with an even tone that suggests forethought and honesty. Her smile is wide and abundant, little wrinkle-echoes lining her lips. I’ve admired her since I first met her, really, though now that we’re neighbors and I’m not teaching her kids in the classroom, we really get to relate even more as friends.
Dinner is simple and filling, a colorful salad with tofu, rice, some chicken. I hiked a watermelon in my pack to their house and offer it for dessert. There is wine and water and we sit on the back deck and watch the boys bounce and laugh on the trampoline. It amazes me to see their fearlessness and joy, and I think to myself how many years it has been since I played that way, since I laughed so much everyday, since I had a best friend I loved and saw and played with everyday…since I played, just to play, just to be, just to live.
I’m not sad, really, just grateful for their presence and the reminder it offers. When all is said and done, PD and the boys walk me home in the fading light. Halfway back it gets harder to see and Zac asks his mom, “Can we turn back so Sammy and I can get home and do homework?”
I smile and say a silent prayer, Oh, if I ever have boys, let them be like Zac and Sammy. The boys hug me goodbye and promise to come back Tuesday for ‘the job.” PD walks me across the creek through the rough bushwhacking spots and to the bend in the driveway. We pause for a moment before the road splits and I’ll turn to my new home and she’ll head back to hers. We listen to the creek, notice the light fading even faster, and breathe a little.
“I can remember hiking up here with one baby on my back,” PD says, “And another one almost full and ready in my belly, and bags of groceries on each arm.”
I shake my head. I cannot imagine really, carrying another’s life on my back and in my arms, then building a life together with such grace as she has done. “You just have to stay steady,” she’d said to me earlier in the night as we discussed old relationships, the parenting, and her life primarily as a single parent. It’s good for me to listen, to understand these things as much as I can before living them or knowing them myself as the case may or may not be one day. I have nothing that even comes close to the experiences she’s had, so when she talks I can really take it all in, wondering, learning, and imagining rather than comparing it to anything I might have known.
We’ve talked before about how her kids need mentors; about how she loves to include plenty of adults in her boys’ lives to diversify their perspectives and give them role models. It’s not difficult to see how that parallels what PD provides for me, but she is humble and so I don’t say as much as we hug goodnight on the road. She takes one path home and I take another, but they’re connected by more than soil and rock, by more than even the history of this place and all the friends who have walked to and from these two houses before. They’re connected with possibility, with elegant unknowns, with some kind of forest magic that, if Zac and Sammy were still with us in the woods, they would surely know the name for.