My childhood was a shuffling series of residential neighborhoods, suburban schools, grocery stores, and shopping centers, navigated in station wagons and moving vans, on farm to market roads and interstate highways. We moved around Dixie as Coca-Cola sent Dad to manage bottling plants throughout the South: Atlanta, Georgia; Tallahassee and Ft. Walton Beach, Florida; Gadsden, Alabama; Beaumont, Texas.
Growing up, I didn’t stay anywhere for more than three or four years. By the time I was in high school, I had moved five times, sometimes in the middle of the school year. I don’t have a particular hometown to return to or a certain familiar lay of the land to ground me and plant me in times of upheaval, but I packed away snippets of memories I call up for comfort, to orient me in a changing world.
Sometimes I think about the woods next to our house in northeast Alabama, in the rolling foothills of the Smokies. We lived there from about 1968 to 1972, near the top of one of those foothills. Having moved from the flatlands of the Florida panhandle, we called it a mountain. The north side had streets and houses and faced our latest hometown with its stores and offices and schools. The other side was undeveloped woodland, sloping down to the winding Coosa River and eventually leveling off into farmland and pastures.
Dad ran the Coke plant in town, usually working six days a week. Mom ran the house and the three kids. When Dad was home, he was busy with yard work and projects around the house. We all pitched in: mowing, edging, vacuuming, mopping. For my sisters and me, Mondays through Fridays were taken up with school. Saturdays were for chores. Sunday mornings were for church. But Sunday afternoons were often free. Mom and Dad might nap, or we might all lounge around the den and watch an old movie on the black and white Magnavox.
On crisp Fall Sunday afternoons, Mom and Dad often took my two younger sisters and me for hikes down the south side of our little mountain. This was not backpacking. No prep or special equipment other than walking sticks and plaid shirts. I don’t think we even took water bottles. These were leisurely nature strolls of a few hours’ duration.
Leaving the back edge of our yard we were immediately swallowed up and sheltered in the untouched forest. We followed deer trails and forded the occasional brook. There was very little sound, pine straw muffling our footsteps and covering the ground with a spongy cushion. Mom and Dad occasionally called out the names of trees we passed: dogwood, magnolia, and, of course, pine. They quietly conferred, speculating in hushed tones about less common varieties. The stop-start rat-a-tat of a woodpecker or the call of a distant coyote, a brush of wind through the canopy of branches, these were the soundtrack of our hikes.
The first half of the hike was downhill. The girls and I occasionally slipped on the slick pine straw and fell if we got in a hurry. The knees and bottoms of our pants were damp and dirty after a few spills. Where it got too steep, we only made it a few steps at a time, breaking our descent with the help of the nearest pine tree, like pinballs hitting barky bumpers in a forest arcade.
We crossed streams, jumping from fallen tree trunks to stepping stones and back, spying salamanders and toads. The strobe effect of shadows and light ricocheting through the trees, into our eyes, and over the forest floor was disorienting. It was easy to overlook a stone or root, causing a stumble, but I don’t recall any serious injuries.
By the time we turned around to head back home, uphill, my youngest sister had assumed her place on Dad’s shoulders. As we climbed back to civilization, the sweet smell of pine sap gave way to the charcoal smoke of some backyard cookout if the breeze was just right.
I developed a keen sense of direction, as well as a sense of peace and protection in the woods, away from the day-to-day worries and tasks that make up modern life. I live in Austin now. To this day, my best way to re-charge is solitude. When I step off the city grid and onto the forest floor of central Texas’ stony, scraggly hills I still feel it.
I took my sons to every hill country greenbelt I could find here when they were boys. If we found a running creek, we skipped stones. If not, they collected rocks, filling every pocket I had. They took turns on my shoulders when they got tired.
Although it’s just me now, I still go sometimes. I take a water bottle and good shoes, but this is not backpacking. This is a leisurely walk. It’s no longer just about feeling protected and hidden in the woods, the trees shielding me from whatever has been bothering me. It’s about catching the feel of those long ago walks, whether with Mom and Dad, when I was a child of parents, or with my boys, when I was a father of children. There was a mooring in those roles. Untethered now, I have the freedom to drift. I ride the wind, but glance at the shoreline every now and then to get my bearings. I can figure out where I am and where I’m heading, who I am and who I’m becoming, if I remind myself where and who I’ve been.
I breathe in the solace of solitude, but I don’t really walk alone. Mom and Dad are just ahead, I’m sure, around the next bend in the trail. They’re wearing matching plaid long sleeve shirts, not hospital gowns. Their hands grip big, sturdy walking sticks, not walkers. Shoulders back, not bent. As I walk along, I whisper to myself: mesquite, cedar, and, of course, pine. I cross a dried-up creek bed where I remember skipping stones with the boys. What if I’m standing on one of the little rocks we skipped? What if this is precisely where it sank, exposed now to the air and sky by a Texas drought?
I pick up one of the little pebbles, turning it over in my hand and in my head. It’s smooth. A decent enough skipping stone. I drop it in my left pants pocket where it nestles with my car keys. I hear a diesel brake far in the distance. A gust of wind pushes my hair around. Time to turn around. I watch my step. This is a rocky trail. I don’t want to twist my ankle. That would be just my luck, without either of the boys here to pick me up and carry their old man back to the car.
Copyright © 2014 Robert R. Carter