The boundary isn’t a line scratched in the dirt. It’s a shadowy space, ever varying in shape and size, as unknowable as the world beyond it. Yet it emanates something familiar, like the sound of a voice you once knew or a half-remembered scent, and draws you into its grasp. This is the place where adventure unfolds and where friendship blossoms.
For everyone it starts somewhere, for me it was the backwoods — a wild and unruly tangle of black raspberry bushes and gnarled trees. It was behind Beth’s house; the kind of place your soul never really leaves. We played tag, hide-n-seek and capture the flag there. We explored the dark crevices and undergrowth, crawling through brambles and over crooked trees. Picked berries for summer jam, tobogganed, shared secrets, earned scars, and smoked pot. It was a back door to other corners of our neighborhood. Two happy labs and two little brothers always at our heels; we explored every inch until it belonged to us, or rather, until we belonged to it.
Strange and foreign homes bordered the woods. We’d peek through the foliage into backyards, into other people’s lives. With daring, we would take it in turns to dart out into the yards and just as swiftly back into the shelter of the trees. We thought ourselves sneaky and brave. There a house with a pond, another with stone walls and one that seemed to grow up out of the ground.
Deep in the heart of the woods was a ramshackle collection of half-finished forts, which told the story of kids who’d come before us. Sometimes it seemed to belong to someone else. Climbing up on the largest platform made me nervous but she was fearless and did it with ease. Here we had tentative encounters with older neighborhood kids; meetings that were neither friendly nor hostile, yet always left behind a feeling of disquiet.
Feeling brave, we’d often venture forth from the woods with a childlike wanderlust.
Spider-webbing through town were rough wooden and iron roads racing off in every direction. Railroad tracks offered a promise to whisk you away from the dullness of small town life. You could walk the tracks for hours looking for undiscovered places, dangerous though it was. We learned to listen for distant whistling or watch for gently hopping rocks. Occasionally luck would befall us and we’d discover flattened pennies softly glittering among the rocks.
The tracks led to the quarries, through fields of wildflowers, where we swam and took breath-stealing leaps off cliffs. They bordered the golf course, where as children we imagined ourselves characters in enchanted woodland, and as teenagers we dared to borrow golf carts in the dark of night and found it safe refuge for illicit deeds. They led to the old train station, boarded up, forgotten, covered in spray paint, that is a curious remnant of a time gone-by.
In the winter we abandoned the tracks for the frozen creek, forbidden and taunting. Frozen rivers still haunt me with guilt that I ignored this stern warning. We couldn’t resist the lure of such a glistening, cold and otherworldly place. It is probably the truest form of danger with which we ever tangled, and with luck escaped unscathed. I vividly remember boots slipping through thin ice, remember half-running home, shivering cold and wet, to throw our socks and pants in the dryer. The park was our safe and familiar playground, but in the winter it was a sharp-toothed unfamiliar creature.
In the summer we waded in those creeks and rivers, cool and refreshing reprieves from the blistering July sun. Catching crayfish and meandering at our own pace, hopping rock to rock for great distances along winding waterways. A silly boy catching a frog and dropping it down my shirt, thick patches of thistle, wet shoes, bikes left laying on the bank, tadpoles or crayfish in buckets and an enormous weeping willow throwing her shade over the gurgling and bubbling miniature rapids.
Follow the creek there you will find bridges. Towering expanses of concrete stamped on top of nature. Exploring the creeks inevitably meant encountering these damp and shadowy arched worlds. We’d climb onto huge jagged rocks jutting out of the water and sit for a rest. Tiny man-made waterfalls and dams often barred our path. Graffiti scorned the underside, reminding us we were in someone else’s stomping ground. Moss clung to the walls and our feet slipped easily on slimy concrete and stone.
Far from the waterways, the cemetery bordered our corner of town. Surrounded by wild fields to the east, the quarry to the north and a farm to the west, it was sprawling and hilly. Reached by bicycle, we would pause to watch the lonely black stallion cantering around his pasture before passing under the iron entranceway. Bright peacocks could be spotted strutting in and out of view at the end of a dirt drive just beyond the paddock, and occasionally we’d approach the barn. I was never sure if we were actually welcome or not. The farm seemed an inviting place but was strange and foreign to our semi-urban taste buds. The cemetery itself was modern and had a well kept air about it. In hindsight we may have offended others, but at the time death and grief weren’t easily understood and the hilly paved streets devoid of traffic were too enticing. Kings and queens of the road, we’d speed along with the wind at our backs and without helmets on our heads or fingers on the handle bars.
We found a small mausoleum cut into the back of a hillside, perched precariously on a crumbling bank. Strung with cobwebs, it was dark and forlorn and smelled earthy. In my mind we had discovered a long-forgotten ruin of another time and I believed us to be the only people who knew it was there. Like a crumbled castle overgrown with weeds, broken and battered, it still had a remembered air of grandeur. At some time this place had meant something, though what we didn’t know. We often played there, winding about the trees, jumping across the shallow ravine and making a fortress of the hill in our imaginations.
These borderlands and a touch of wild imagination were the shaping forces of my youth. Wherever you are, wherever you go, the borderlands of your youth will inextricably link you to your fellow childhood companions. In those peripheral places you will always be a striking out on a harrowing adventure.