When I was in second grade, my parents divorced and Mom and I moved to Northwestern North Carolina; a small town named West Jefferson where my grandparents had a summer cabin far away from the sweltering South Florida sun.
This began one of the most important chapters in my life and certainly the most idyllic. Living in a sparsely populated area, I was suddenly allowed to wander. Free from the shabby specter of men in trench coats lurking with candy, (Ma’s main fear) I was given full license to be gone for hours at a time, sometimes even the whole day. For the first time in my short life, I understood the meaning of freedom. I likely could never have articulated it at that time, even now I hesitate to describe the actual physical feeling of it. A swelling of the heart, a pool of mounting desire in the solar plexus. It’s great, I highly recommend it.
For those next 8 years, I knew every secret shadow of the forest for miles around my home. I knew where the trails met and where the frigid bubbles of tiny springs bloomed under the moss covered stones. I knew where the wild apples and raspberries grew and where all the abandoned home sites still lived with their mouldering structures and volunteer gardens still growing strong. I knew all the back holler waterfalls and could sit for hours watching the fish swim up the draughts.
One of my favorite pastimes was finding shortcuts. I have a pretty good head for topology but the feeling you get when you come out on a familiar place from a not so familiar direction is at once liberating and self-affirming. The first time this happened to me probably heavily influenced my later ramblings but I remember it happening like this:
I was in the summer of my 7th year. We had just moved and I was gearing up to start a new school again. I was wandering though the woods along the New River, with Grandpa’s hammer banging a steady beat behind me. The late afternoon light dappled yellow pools of sunshine through the poplar and maples leaves dancing swirling patterns on the soft carpet of leaves below. I was whipping a switch through the air, listening for the the satisfying whoosh as I vanquished imaginary enemies. The rhythm of the hammer was fading in the quiet of the forest as I flew through the underbrush, racing the briars and leaping the fallen branches.
When I came to a small stream I stopped to drink and heard the splash of a large animal running up the stream from beyond then next bend. I moved behind a tree to watch it approach. I’m not sure that I had ever seen a live St. Bernard before that day and I’m quite sure I thought I was being greeted by a bear. I knew he saw me, he was heading right towards my tree but I was paralyzed. I could barely breathe. He came out of the water, shook and came to sit at my feet. In this position he still stood a full 6 inches taller than me so I slowly looked up into his dark eyes. One look was all it took.
From that day on, Charlie was my best friend. He walked me down the stream that day and out onto the loveliest meadow I had ever seen. In my memories, it was like a Lord of the Rings moment, the lush variegated greens, the lazily drifting daffodil seeds and leaves falling gently from the trees, a charming pond and a fully integrated cottage that blended right into the landscape. At this point I was expecting anything and when a little old lady named Sarah came out to greet me I gained a new friend. She told me to come often and I did.
Sarah and Charlie and our adventures together could make a small anthology of stories but the interesting part of this one is my grandfather’s reaction when I returned to tell him about the magical place I had stumbled upon. In my non-guided free run through the forest that day, I covered the distance to Sarah’s farm in easily a half hour what would take more than 45 minutes via the roads. Having to come out of our little pocket connected to the highway, traverse miles to the next avenue into the valley and back again through the country dirt roads with your vehicle takes way longer than going over the woods. I remember being so surprised by this. I longed to see what else I could find, I learned to appreciate the term, as the crow flies. I would be that crow. Again, the feeling of freedom.
As an adult, I still have the tendency to want to choose my own path. I don’t see this as an inability to follow the rules, I see it as a tenancy to trust my own judgment and the things I can accomplish with my own two hands. I trust what I can authenticate. I inherently understand that the places in between the roads of life sometime lead to unexpected fears and joys that at the very least make life more interesting. I know that in sticking to established patterns there is a great potential to miss out on the biggest gifts. I also know that that feeling of freedom is what each of us tries to mimic on the daily. Seek it!
I’m curious about your personal story of freedom, please share your thoughts in the comments.