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Solitude, Sunburns and Memories
Solitude, Sunburns and Memories
Have you ever had a feeling – a gut feeling – that you have to go out and do something? You have to go out and try something, or take a walk or anything and you just need that time. Well, that’s what happened to me, July 2010.
One day I got tired of sitting around the house doing nothing but summer schoolwork and lazing around and decided to go outside. I had often done this in the years we’d lived here, at our old house but this was somehow different – it was a sudden need to go out and experience my home. I grabbed what I always took on an expedition: a backpack with two bottles of water, a sketch pad, a note pad, several pens and pencils, my camera and my CD player. I pulled on some shorts, tied on a bandana, knotted the ties of my hiking boots and headed out after saying goodbye to mom and dad. I stepped out onto the worn wood porch and clunked down the three broad steps and onto the front drive. July in Colorado was dusty, as were all the months of summer, and this was no exception.
“You could fry an egg on the hood of your car,” was how mom described a summer in Colorado, and it was pretty accurate. I had entirely forgotten sun lotion that day, which didn’t usually happen as I was very prone to burning, but that day was different.
I went around the side of the house and passed the front and back gardens. Well, I say ‘gardens’ but I mean fenced grass as the Colorado soil had won over me and my mom and we had given up trying to grow anything after grandma, with her green thumb, had gone back to Russia in 2004. I headed up to the barn and passed our old, well-used round pen and chicken coop. The hens clucked and squawked as I passed but I ignored them. Past the barn I went, with its gleaming white sides and roof, then over the hill and down a game path that went right through the middle of the weeds, cacti and yucca plants.
I headed through the tall grasses and down the tall hill into the Ditch. Mom called it the ‘License-Plate-Eating Ditch’ because she had driven her old red F-150 into it once and had lost her license plate. Sadly, the truck was long gone, but its legacy remained, and so did the Ditch. As usual, I went for a peek at the sides of the dirt walls. Weather and wind had eaten away at it and formed small pockets, which I knew were empty but that I still enjoyed calling ‘the bat caves.’ There were a lot of these little spots on the property, all of which I had discovered in my years of exploring, and each one had a unique set of ‘caves’ or pigeon-holes that were fun to check out. But, that day was a day that was full of promises of adventure, so I said good-bye to the License-Plate-Eating Ditch and continued on my way.
As I headed down the center of the field, I came across small bunches of flowers that flourished during this time of the year. There were flowers with curly yellow petals, spiky white daisies, little blue bells and hot pink spikes of miniscule flowers. There was also wild heather and gorse, not to mention cacti: little barrel cacti, prickly pear, all kinds. It was always fun to see what was new and blooming on the prairie land, and it was no exception that day. They rolled away over the land beneath my feet as I trekked up yet another hill. It was a lot like a stormy sea, or what I imagined a stormy sea to be. Tall crests and deep trenches gave the land a shape, as curvaceous as an artist's model. I enjoyed the crunch of dirt and grass under my hiking boots, the soft scratch of grasses against my bare thighs. They were still pale and the fronds showed up brown against the almost white flesh - I didn't get out that much and the sun had not yet stung my skin red.
At one point, the ground sloped away gently to either side, leaving a small bridge of earth in the middle. As I walked across, I stretched out my arms, closed my eyes and pretended I was on the bridge of Khazad Dum in the Lord of the Rings, vast chasms of blackness winging out either side of me. As though it was pretending with me, a bit of my 'bridge' crumbled away and my eyes flew open. I let out a shrill squeal as I staggered, then remembered - my 'endless pit' was only two feet of gently sloping hillside. I laughed and kept going, pausing only to take the first of many photos.
A little farther along, I met two companions - our horses Summer and Secret. It was midsummer so their coats were short and coarse, gleaming copper and dark bronze in the sunlight. Summer was mine, a pretty chestnut Arabian and Tennessee Walker cross, with a slightly dishpan face and big soft eyes. But I knew better than to let her nip - she had once been a petting zoo horse and had learned to shove for treats, something we were still trying to break after a couple years. She was also hard-headed and disagreeable at times as well.
“You two out-stubborn each other!” was what one of my riding instructors had told me when, after weeks and weeks, Summer and I finally agreed that riding didn’t necessarily involve her prancing annoyingly or me yanking on the reins.
Mom's horse, Secret, was a curve-necked, roman-nosed Percheron and Tennessee Walker cross. She sidled up and stopped just short of Summer's haunches. Her coat shone black and a little red from the sun and she swished her long tail idly, unwilling to come much closer. Unlike Summer, Secret was the follower and shy of people. This suited her to mom perfectly, as mom isn’t exactly social either and both of them are cautious and gentle when it comes to riding, making them a great match.
After giving my good-byes and watching them wander away I headed down another game trail. The grasses got taller and soon I was high-stepping like a stork and pushing aside the plants with my hands. It was also slightly sharper and I had to make sure my hands didn’t get cut, as with paper. I emerged from the grass at one point to find a small dip in the ground about the size of a girl. It was full of curly grass, which at one end had turned a brilliant golden yellow. I imagined it was a sleeping girl, her hands folded over her breast, her eyes closed and bright strands of hair framing a pale face. I took a picture, almost reverently, and tucked my camera away safely. I wanted to remember her, the Sleeping Maiden.
Soon I found another ditch, similar to the license plate devouring one. I stopped and stared at it. Several years ago, our dachshund Imp had gone missing. After a couple days, we drove out and found he had been killed by coyotes. I remembered sitting in mom’s truck when they came back. Mom was in tears.
“Don’t come out,” she’d said, choking as she took the box we’d brought, having expected the worst.
“What happened?” I asked, nervous. “Is he OK?”
The look on her face had said it all.
“There’s only half a dog left,” she’d barely gotten out, before hurrying away, leaving me sitting in the truck, numb to the very ends of my toes and fingers. That was one of the most horrible moments in my life – a moment when I realized that death came in many forms, which I had known but never really encountered. I never saw his remains. I’m glad of that to this day.
I stared into that ditch and wondered if it was here that it had happened. It was close, but... Who knew? I certainly wasn’t going to ask. Shaking off the numbness that had crept into me again, I stepped into the space where the grass was a lot shorter, then looked down. Crowds of small purple flowers clustered around my feet and, looking around, I could see that the far wall of the ditch had been carved in, like the corridors of a coliseum, and that grass roots had grown through the top layer of soil and hung like pillars in front, making it look even more like an arena. Hurriedly, smiling a little to myself, I left the ‘spectators’ to whatever they had been watching.
As I continued along, I would occasionally come across scatterings of some strange plants. I never found out what they were, even to this day. They were very tall, some even taller than me by a good few inches, with rich brown stems that had pieces peeling away. Towards the tip, there were clusters of dried buds full of seeds that the birds love pecking at when they settle onto the tops. I looked closer, as I always did when I came across them. Sometimes I would see a rich yellow bumblebee desperately look for pollen or nectar, then drift away dejectedly. Occasionally an ant or two would be inspecting the seed pods, then crawl away, as unsuccessful as the bees. Only the birds were happy, but in the back fields the birds didn't fly very often. I looked up but there were no hawks either - they ruled the skies here.
On I went until I got to the farthest most corner of the property, where the fences of our land and our two neighbors met in a knot of confused wire, some barbed and some not. The barbed wire came from the left-hand ranch. It ran cattle twice a year, at the beginning and end of summer, and as I looked out over their vast acreage I could see their windmill turning lazily in the distance. I remembered one time I'd heard the squeal of the rusted metal from way off and thought it had been fairy voices twittering in my ear. But, sadly, it was just an ancient windmill, ever circulating the chilled upper air of the Colorado plains.
The smooth wire turned off to my right and away to our right-hand neighbors. Their house was big and blue, and they had some run down sheds in the back. The only thing I knew about them was that they had a yappy dog I heard sometimes and three beautiful horses - a no-spot appaloosa, and two greys, all of them mares. I had once tried to untangle one of the grey mares’ manes because it had been braided. The braids had been left and subsequently turned into knots of hair. Sadly, I never succeeded, but someone else did fortunately so that her mane was free of knots once more.
I walked off along the fence line, following the smooth wire. I reached out in an almost involuntary way and ran my fingers along the gently twisting metal. It curved away under my fingers, cool even in this weather, and occasionally I encountered a dent that jarred in a familiar way against my fingertips. The top wire was way too loose and as usual I hitched it up onto one of the posts, which was leaning into our property wildly, and kept going. I waited, but the neighbor's horses didn't visit – shame.
I went down, following a path that went along the fence into a valley that seemed dark. In it, the posts were even more skewed and there were some large pieces of dirty plastic on the neighbor's side that I couldn't reach, let alone drag. Mud seeped out from under it and I avoided it and hurriedly climbed the hill.
I passed another familiar spot - the Cockle Burr Pit as I called it. It was aptly named so, being a sinkhole that was filled to the brim with cockle burr plants. The nasty pods clattered ominously in a wind and I steered clear of their hooked thorns. While not dangerous, they were nasty and it was almost impossible to pull one of those burrs out of your jeans, or worse your hair, without those tiny hooked spines digging into your skin and causing more pain. Every time I passed the Pit I remembered two bad incidents. The first was when our two long-haired Border Collies, Moss and Tess, had come up to the house covered from head to toe in the things. They were barely able to walk because their leg, tail, and even ear fur was stuck together. They were just walking bushes of matted hair and burrs and it had taken us all day trying to pry the things out. Their tails had been the worst, so badly encrusted that we couldn't tell tail from backside from back legs. In the end we'd shaved them nearly bald because the nasty little plants had dug right down and latched onto their skin. Mom managed to pluck out most of them from the dogs' head and given them mohawks. I think they might have been more dignified bald.
The second burr incident had been with the horses, particularly my horse Summer. They'd come back not quite as bad as the dogs, but still pretty bad. We couldn't exactly shave the horses, so we’d spent weeks picking them out of tails, manes and coats. I say weeks because for some reason the fool horses had gone back again and again and gotten more stuck all over, thus repeating the whole process again.
I hurried past the Pit and passed into 'yucca territory.' Towards the back, these viciously spiked plants weren't as abundant, but there was a barrier of them down the middle of our back field. Past that barrier they multiplied towards the front. I avoided them, wrinkling my nose at the bugs swarming over the ugly seed pods left over after blooming. Some of the stems were bare and stuck up like old, weathered bones, bleached and polished by the sun until they were a yellowish color, their flaking skins peeled off. A wind whistled through the long leaves, which looked innocent enough until you touched the sharp, needle-like tips. At the base of the larger plants, however, there were sometimes burrows. I paused by one and crouched to see a large hole diving under the plant. It looked like a hare den or something - it was big enough for one of the Jack rabbits we saw wandering around occasionally.
As if on cue, I heard a clatter of yucca leaves and looked up to see a Jack rabbit's lanky legs vanishing over the hill. They were enormous, almost the size of our border collies, with tall ears that gently swayed in the wind and long faces with keen eyes. I smiled. They were fun to watch in the morning out one of our kitchen windows.
I continued on my way with longer strides along the path, through a barren path with only scrappy grass to accompany me. I felt good – the wind was fresh, the air was warm and I felt alive. I looked around again and caught sight of my destination: The River Valley. I smiled and hurried on, but kept eyeing my surroundings. No matter where you went in Colorado, especially on my property, you'd find something different.
A wind kicked up and pushed against my back like a firm hand. I turned and walked backward a couple steps, before stopping and tilting my face up. High above me the sky curved away in a massive dome, like a glass bowl turned upside down. No clouds, just the sun blazing down. It bit playfully at my cheeks and the tip of my nose, it kissed over my closed eyelids with hot lips and warmed my hair right to the roots. With a sigh of satisfaction after this drink of sunlight, I turned and kept going.
The land suddenly vanished and I stopped at the edge of two paths, each of them descending. To my left was one like a staircase, with bumps of earth that would push up my feet gently and keep them on track and safe, despite having some stickers that I wasn't overly fond of and being narrow. Before me, however, was a dusty chute with a wide bowl and no stops. Safety, or exhilaration? As usual I picked my favorite and hopped into the earth slide.
My feet caught and the dirt scratched and grumbled as I slithered down, arms outstretched, the wind singing in my ears. As I passed from loose to packed dirt I sprang like a deer and jumped from one side of the shute to the other, bouncing off the walls. I loved this part, it almost felt like I was flying. I always imagined I was something different: a deer, bounding along; an explorer hunting for treasure; a thief racing away from the site of another victorious plunder. The illusion stayed with me until I ran out onto the flatter ground, and then I was back as my 15-year-old self. I turned, arms outstretched in celebration at my achievement, then walked along another bridge of earth flanked by two much deeper gullies than my ‘Khazad Dum’ and passed onto a flat shelf of land where the grass was shorter and more delicate, like whiskers.
It rippled like water as I walked along and the wind chased after me. I turned away from the hill that went up to the road - I didn't want to be with people today. I wanted to enjoy myself alone. Pausing, I looked down and saw a thistle, as though I had known it was there all along. It was just one, long, slender stem with two sharp-edged leaves at top and a brilliantly purple flower just blossoming from its spiny cocoon. The small, spiky petals poked out in a supernova of purple, bobbing gently in the breeze. I pulled out my camera again and crouched, taking several snapshots. It almost seemed to be posing for me, bending and stretching and turning its good side to me until I walked on.
The grass grew up and down in tussocks here and there, and then grew taller as the ground sloped away into the river valley. I headed down and walked along it, glancing around. The grass gave way to rosehip bushes. Once, it had been stretches of long grass, flattened out by either deer nesting there every night or coyotes sleeping there. Now it was gone. Spiky branches caught against my legs and I hiked them up, tip-toeing through them until I reached the edge of one of my favorite spots on the property - the Swamp.
Well, it wasn't really a swamp, just a very small bog. It was full of cat tails almost taller than me, with heavy brown heads that swayed in the wind. On either side of the bog, small cliffs of earth rose to form a bowl. The mud gleamed between the cattails and frogs let out throaty gurgles from deep in the center of the plants. I looked, but as usual I didn't see them. I'd never seen a frog, not up close and personal, or even at a distance, and today was no different. In the middle of the fronds some of the cattails had fallen in to form a mat of brown plant bodies. It looked a little sad.
I clambered up the side of the bowl and walked around the rim on the side with yuccas, higher over the bog than the other side. Looking down, I remembered vividly the time, in 2006, when a rain had come in so badly that it had filled up the valley out front and rushed under the driveway through the drainage pipe, all the way into this bog. It had come alive, as if the river from hundreds of years previously had come back for one day. The water had formed a mini falls at one end, and then streamed away, off across the property in a ribbon of glittering water. I smiled. The frogs had probably been happy.
“Better get some video for mom,” dad had said, excited to show her when she got home from work as he filmed the waterfall. It was a good thing too, as it dried up long before she came home.
Turning away, I walked on, past a grey, abandoned ant hill that had once been crawling with ants, past the large round bush whose name I still didn't know and which the Redwing Blackbirds loved to nest in, over to the fence by the driveway. There, I stopped and looked back. Before going through to the driveway, I turned back and walked to the scrubby tree not far off. Under its branches was hidden a small hidey hole, which I used to creep into, but was now too small for me. I smiled up into its delicate branches, then passed on to my destination.
I stopped at the edge of our miniature graveyard. Many pets had been buried here: Imp the dachshund, Clementine the cat, Dolly the sheep, Bo the sheep , Grumbles the bunny, Marmalade the hamster... Many pets, and many memories had been buried here. I stared at where the old tire marked one of the graves. I'd forgotten which one, it was so long ago. The rubber was dull and cracked now, the treads almost worn off entirely. I remembered that I almost never cried when a pet died. It wasn't that I didn't care or that I didn't mourn, I just didn't cry. It didn't happen. The tears wouldn't come, even while my mom and dad wept. I don't know why.
I turned away and walked back to the driveway, climbing up the steep incline and scrambling through the twisted wire fence that edged it. I stopped on the gravel and stared past. Yes, this was my number one favorite spot - the small round valley just past the house, with a massive cottonwood growing in the middle. I called it Lynwood - I don't know why. It had been a name I made for it after I watched 'Bridge to Terabithia' at 13.
I descended into the valley, along a path I had walked many times through the rosehips. The berries were still clinging to the branches here, as opposed to in the river valley, but they were withered in the heat. Several years previously mom and I had come out and gathered all the berries we could, then stored them or used them for rosehip tea. We got tired of it after several weeks, so we dried out the rest and stored them for herbal use some other time. The jars were now lined up in one of the kitchen cupboards.
I stepped over a few plants and emerged into Lynwood. Immediately I made a beeline for the Whomping Willow. It was the name my parents and I had given the old, sturdy cottonwood the moment we moved here 7 years previously, and despite knowing it was a misnomer the name never changed. The knotted limbs stretched out, their twigs verdant with leaves of bright green. Strings of seed pods hung down in what my mom called 'earrings.' They swung and swished prettily and some had cotton poking out from the burst skins. I touched some - it was soft and warm from the sun. Soon it would all be drifting around the house, like snow in summer, and go nestle somewhere else and sprout into another new cottonwood tree perhaps. The leaves were a slightly flattened circle shape that came to a small point, with tiny lobes rimming them. They were large, almost the size of the palm of my hand, and I stroked a few, then went to my special cement block.
It had always sat by the foot of the tree and I always sat on it. I used to brag that not even the birds pooed on it, which was saying something as lots of birds nested in this tree. But that day there was a splash of white. I remember staring at it and wondering why it had changed. Maybe it was a new bird in town and didn't know that this was my seat. So instead of sitting, I went over to the lowest hanging branch and for a while simply petted the leaves, which softly kissed my hands and rubbed my cheeks.
Turning, I glanced up the hill leading to the house. At its base sat two small saplings, like the sentinels of Lynwood. They'd been growing since we moved here and were finally in adolescent leaf. Turning again, I looked up at the Two Tall Twins, the two cottonwoods that stood off to the side of the Whomping Willow. They were exactly the same height, and at a distance identical, but I knew they were different types of cottonwood by the leaves. I'd never found out which they were though. They were slender and swayed in the breeze, their heads nodding amiably towards me. At their roots, I walked into the small dip where, for several years, there had been a pond. The dogs had swum in it and come back smelling like leaf mold and algae and covered in green muck. Despite that though, I missed it after it had dried up and never filled up again.
I climbed out and wandered up the front of the property, surveying the fields. Pausing, I looked back and remembered again the flood of '06, and how the picnic table which had once sat by the Willow had floated on the surface of the temporary lake like an odd lily pad. Dad and I had tried hitting it with skipping stones from the driveway.
“You have to get just the right angle,” he’d said as he taught me how to skip stones. “Tilt your arm back a little, then gentle flick it out with your wrist so that it…” One, two, three skips it went, then vanished. I only managed one or two, but was immensely proud nonetheless.
Back in the present, I wandered over to where another little knoll was hidden in the tall grasses that now dominated the yard. I descended down into it and everything was blocked out - the Willow, the Twins, the house, everything. It was a steep pit and I stood at the bottom and looked up at the short, shrubby tree, like the one by the graveyard. I knew, for certain, that a coyote had denned here long ago. Several years back I had found coyote scat and flattened grass. It was a good hiding place. Not only was it deep, but the knoll was edged in tall, strapping sapling trees that hid it almost entirely from sight on one side, and if you didn't know it was there or weren't close, you wouldn't notice it on the other side. But, again, it had been long abandoned. The grass had sprung up again and stood to attention by my toes.
I climbed out, claustrophobia starting to get the better of me, and walked around the tree, past another grove of those strange brown plants, the skinny watchers of the property. I walked all the way up to the road this time. One of the neighbors drove past and we waved to each other, then I walked alongside the fence, before curving to the right and following the neighboring ranch's barbed wire down, down into another trench, and up to connect with the path that curved back to the barn. It circled the place where, once, a second barn had stood. Only a few pillars of wood were left. A freak mini tornado or something had come in while we were gone, many years back, and caved in this barn. The other hadn't been left unscathed either: its roof had been lifted up, and then set down on the teetering edge, leading to mom and dad rebuilding the whole thing from skeleton up. That had been in the second year we'd lived here. It had also been the year I’d met some of the neighbor’s kids. They’d come over to watch the building of the barn and I remembered a strange conversation we’d had:
“You can’t eat anything in the world!” I’d argued.
“Yeah you can,” one of the boys had said.
“But…Some things are poisonous.”
“But you can still eat them!”
“What about tree bark?”
“Yep! You could still eat that too! Actually, you could take those shoes,” he’d said, pointing to my purple Crocs. “Stick them in the microwave and eat them. I’ve heard they’re tasty.”
“That’s not true!” I’d laughed.
I smirked as I thought of it. Younger children came up with the strangest conversation topics.
I walked all the way back up onto the porch, my boots thunking against the worn wood and scratching against the door mat, then stopped and looked back over to the Willow. It nodded and swayed while the Twins also nodded and swayed, and for some reason... I waved back, and then went inside.
I now live in Minnesota, and have for more than a year. A year after I went on that walk, we moved, and while I love this new home, I still miss my old home. That walk was what seemed to show that things were different. I saw new things, I remembered old things: the thistle, the coliseum, the Sleeping Maiden. Old places had changed into new places – the abandoned ant hill, the river valley, the coyote den under the tree, the graveyard – and somehow I knew it would never be the same again. I did go on more walks, but none were as poignant and clear as that one, because that one brought back all my memories and experiences in one rush of emotion that was stronger than any other time.
They say “Home is Where the Heart is,” and most of my heart is here, in Minnesota. But there’s one part that is still on that 35-acre ranch, with its yuccas and cacti, wildflowers and Jack rabbits. I hope someday to go back there and see it all again.