After a heavy snow, my father and I trudged through the drifts and up the road to the crest of a hill that sloped down through the woods. The afternoon was achingly cold. I can still feel the stabs of blowing ice on my cheeks.
I recall hurdling down that hill headfirst on the sled, clutching the shoulders of his army coat, which I loved for its smell and its sturdiness, the coat I later wore in college but lost along the way. I can still feel the bumps and the dips of that hill, can hear the slice of the runners, can see the trees flying by, and I recall both of us laughing as we flew into the air then back to the ground then into the air again.
We were alone on that hill, and we were together.
A few years ago, I found myself driving toward Ralston, the street on which I lived during my most formative years. I drove, looking for my Missouri woods. Where they had been was now covered with houses. But I could sense where the trees had lived.
At one end of the ghost woods was a hand-made sign. The little park was called Cap Garvin Park. I got out of the rental car and walked the length of the park. A dog was barking somewhere.
Broken glass and a 7-11 Big Gulp cup and a beer can lay in the grass.
The park was just a short field, located at the extreme end of where the woods had been. A few trees remained in the corner of the field.
As I passed under one tree, I remembered walking in the snow there with my father. He was wearing his army coat, and was holding an air pistol and we were looking for rabbits, and I saw the trail of ungraceful tracks across the snow through the trees.
Over to the left, a trickle of water ran where the creek used to be. And I remembered the bluegills of summer, and one winter falling through the ice of this creek, and standing in water up to my waist pawing at the snow-covered bank as my collie looked down.
This part of the field was now covered with dandelions. A few old trees remained.
Up in the branches were the remnants of a tree house built a long time ago. Just four boards, one of them marked with black soot and rusted nails. There had been a small tree house down in this section of the woods, not as big as the triple decker that my friends and I had built farther up where all the trees were now gone.
I came to the end of the park. It was marked off with barbed wire.
Across the wire was the old farm house, hidden in the trees and brush. There had been an old horse down near the swamp, deep in the woods below, and I would go down and stand on a fence to mount it, and ride it wherever it chose to go.
From the fence on, the woods were dark and thick. Maybe the swamp was still down below where the dam had been broken out, where at dusk I had seen, in one of those blinding flashes, a great heron lift on the air, lift up above the old silo which stared with vacant windows out across the swamp—watched the heron lift and then fade away.
The dog and my father were gone now, as well, but maybe that swamp and those woods and that silo and the army coat still existed. Maybe that part of boyhood still survived. But this was the end of the park. If I had still been a kid, I would have crossed the barbed wire and disappeared into the woods. But now I was an adult.
It was good to know that part of the woods was still safe. I turned and walked back to the car and as I passed the little sign, I thought: Here’s to Cap Garvin, whoever you are.
Richard Louv is a co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of The Children & Nature Network. He is the author of eight books, including “Last Child in the Woods,” “The Nature Principle,” and “Childhood’s Future.”
Photo by Jeff Karpala, Creative Commons