Have I ever told you all about “Up North”? No? Then let me tell you a story about one of the deepest places in my heart.
When I was just past my twelfth birthday, my family moved to a new house across town. The house itself was bigger, the yard was bigger, and as it turned out I had a bigger piece of open space to explore, too. Whereas at our old house I had about a half an acre field of grass and scrubby little cedar trees with rabbits and garter snakes, our new yard backed right up against an old farm. Most of it was cordoned off with barbed wire and “NO TRESPASSING” signs, but one little patch, maybe about an acre or so, was open and sign-less, so I felt okay exploring it.
It was a wonderful little spot, the perfect mix of micro-systems. To enter, I walked down a path, maybe twenty feet long, that wound through young-growth trees and shrubs, with a big semi-permanent puddle in the thick of it. The trail led out onto a ledge overlooking a tiny wetland created by the storm sewer drainage pipe from the street my house was on. The only way to go further was to slide down this ledge and carefully pick my way through the wetland (complete with cattails, which delighted me to no end) and then back up onto a dry, chert-surfaced plateau with a giant black walnut tree growing there. A little further on was the creek that the wetland drained into, a little meandering thing with minnows and crawdads and the occasional water snake or turtle. And past that was another piece of woods choked with heavy vines and a sharp cliff overlooking the creek.
Not even two years after we moved there, this beautiful little place was completely bulldozed to make way for a new subdivision, complete with overpriced houses and winding suburb-style streets. I’ve talked about this destruction before, and how much it hurt me, so I won’t elaborate here. What I want to talk about is what happened next.
For the most part my will to explore was completely shattered by this experience. But just one more time that wild spark flared, for the fence that had kept me out was gone, too. The fields where the cows had grazed were still there, sliced through by one red dirt culvert where a road would be soon built. But for the moment, the wide fields I had looked longingly at over the barbed wire were open to me, and so I took the opportunity to start heading north through them.
Where before I’d had only one acre, now I had dozens. I wandered over more little tributaries to the creek, lined with tiny scrubby trees and mosses, and I walked through high grass spotted with dry cow pats. It was still cool enough that I didn’t need to worry about ticks or poison ivy, and was able to be more free with my attention.
As I continued further north, I came to a small manmade pond. Now, I’ve always been deeply attracted to waterways; I think perhaps it’s because I grew up landlocked and had only very rare opportunities to visit larger bodies of water. But in that moment I felt as though I had found a magical place in this scummy little pond ringed with old hoofprints and dry dirt. Were there any fish in there? What would live there in the summer (besides mosquitoes)? What drank from here? Could I put a tiny boat out on it and float around? The possibilities for this discovery were endless.
But I never had the chance. The weather was beginning to turn, and I had to head back home. Shortly thereafter, the depression that had started when the bulldozer did its damage ramped up, and I lost even the interest I had in this new place. Why bother connecting to something that was surely going to be destroyed? I couldn’t do anything about it; I was just one young girl whose opinions and feelings didn’t matter in the face of development and profit and the business of real estate. Like the rabbits and snakes and crawdads that would be displaced or killed as the houses went up and the creek was dredged (“to avoid flooding”, they said), I was insignificant. I stopped going outside beyond our yard, and the depression took me over for years, my last real coping mechanism amid bullying and anxiety now gone.
Beneath the layers of depression, though, that feeling of exultation in my one day of adventure never quite went away. Just that one time I’d had what I’d always wanted when feeling constrained by half-acre and one-acre plots of scrub woods–I’d had a large area to roam, big enough to get tired in while walking from one end to the other. I’d finally gotten to go “up north”, past the boundary of my little world, and no one could take that experience away from me. Though I was never able to go back, that place and my visit to it ended up being something I chased for years without even realizing what I was after.
Over two decades later, and “up north” still haunts me. Whenever I am feeling constrained and trapped in my life, I have dreams where once again I get to go “up north”. I walk through my little acre of land–miraculously restored to its former beauty and variety–and I cross the downed barbed wire fence and head northward. Where my journey then takes me varies. Sometimes I go back to that little pond, but more often the terrain changes beyond what was ever there in reality. Most often I find myself in mountains, cutting through valleys and scaling peaks. Sometimes the impossible happens and I am even able to fly. A few dozen acres turns into hundreds of miles of wilderness, and I can spend all night dreaming about what’s “up north”.
I don’t know if I’ll ever have that experience again in real life. It’s harder to find places where one can be completely alone in the wilderness, especially for someone as busy as I am and therefore unable to disappear into a place for days or weeks at a time. More poignantly, I am an adult, and there are things a child can get away with that an adult can’t. No one thinks to question a child walking across an open lot to look at some cows. But an adult walking on that land is trespassing–who knows what they may be up to. As a child I could wander through my old neighborhood’s yards at will and no one thought a second time about it; it was just what kids did. If I walked through those same yards today I’d likely have the police called on me. Children have access to places where adults are barred, and I miss that freedom and the assumption of innocence.
Occasionally I get to have just the tiniest taste of “up north” in my waking life, and I hang onto those moments like gold. On my most recent excursion to Catherine Creek on the Washington side of the Columbia River, I took the less-traveled trail up under the power lines and then up the ridge on the east side of Catherine Creek itself. There was no one else up there, the trail was tiny and quiet, the views were amazing, and the day was absolutely perfect weather-wise. Although I know quite well that this was far from uncharted territory, the experience of being on this unmarked trail I’d never been on before, with no one around, and with no agenda in mind raised that old feeling of adventure again. (I was even going north, to boot!) It’s been a couple of weeks since that time and I still feel the glow. I intend to go back soon, too, once this latest spate of rain passes us by–it’s a bad place to get caught in a thunderstorm (as I almost did my first time out to Catherine Creek a few years ago).
Perhaps someday when things relax a little more here and I have the time and money to get out for a longer time I’ll go find a wild place I can explore. Not so wild that I’m in danger of getting lost, but remote enough that it can just be me and the wilderness, my feet on wide, open ground ready to explore.
And maybe then I’ll get to go “up north” again.