In this third installment, I’ll be talking about how it was to have almost complete freedom at the cabin in my youth. I was without a doubt a young and budding explorer of those woods, with my parents not always knowing where I had gotten off to. My wife hears these stories and wonders how I didn’t kill myself, but even with all the cuts, scrapes, and bruises, in my memories I was the happiest kid on Earth.
These memories encompass my grade school years, probably 6-12 years of age, though I can’t speak with any accuracy about those earliest of years. I’ve given you a general image of the location in the previous blog post, so I’m going to refer to places from here on out in more general terms. But where I need to add details, I will.
The free-range child.
As I mentioned, the freedom I had was second to none, there in that forest. But it started with baby steps. My brother and I would go on a lot of hikes with my father and grandfather, exploring nearby trails, watching for wildlife such as deer, squirrels, and rabbits, and discovering small springs where the water would softly burble from the ground. At least they were all discoveries for me. And my father always acted like they were the most secret and magical places, so I always felt that way too. I would sneak off from the cabin and walk to the closest of those spots, sit on a nearby rock, and just wonder at all the possibilities. What fairies and goblins lived here? I was sure if I could stay still long enough, they would appear. My patience knew no bounds, which was unusual for a child my age.
I began to go further and further on my own. My parents eventually bought a set of walkie-talkies, so that I could leave one at the cabin and check in as I explored. I learned where every trail within a mile radius of our cabin went, where every stream or pond was that might contain frogs, salamanders, or snakes, and where every large rock or tree was that I could climb.
One of my favorite stories that my parents would tell was about the time they had several different guests visit, all with children of their own. As the local, I was put to entertaining the kids, all of them about my age. Well, what better way to entertain, then taking them on a hike to all the magical spots I considered my own. I guess we had been gone for some time and it was getting dark by the time we got back to the cabin. Let’s just say the children’s parents were freaking out about their lost kids. Meanwhile, my own mom and dad were nonchalant, saying, “Don’t worry, their fine. Mike knows his way.” I don’t remember them visiting much after that, if ever.
The boundaries expand.
We had a rowboat and a wooden motorboat with a small engine, both of which I learned to operate, become very proficient at them. These allowed me to explore all the corners of the lake, drifting through the lily pads, and stopping by the huge mound of dirt and sticks on the opposite shore that was home to a family of beavers. I always enjoyed taking the motorboat over to the lodge, where the local post office was, picking up the mail for the family, and bringing it back to the cabin.
When I got a little older, my family purchased a set of motorcycles for trail riding. I would go everywhere, clinging to the back of my father, arms wrapped tightly around him as our range of exploration increased even more. I begged him to let me ride one of the smaller ones myself. He said, “If you can pick it up off the ground, you can ride it.” Well, it took a couple more years, but by the time I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I was learning to ride like a pro!
It was an absolute joy to ride those bikes through the woods. There was so much more to see than I had imagined. We had three bikes, and I would ride with my father and grandfather up to the mountain tops surrounding the lake. There always seemed to be some new trail or logging road to explore. One time, a bear came crashing down the mountain side from our left, ran across the road, and bounded down the hill to our right, continuing on out of sight. I was thrilled, and a little bit scared, at the sight of it.
Eventually, I was allowed to go on rides by myself. I’ll admit, I probably rode faster than I should have, and I can’t count the number of times I laid that bike down on its side, both the cycle and myself sliding and bouncing down the dirt road after hitting a pothole at high speed. I’d get home with scrapes and bruises that I would hide from my parents. I would head to the shop to get a monkey wrench that I could use to bend the foot peg of the bike back into place. But those were minor injuries compared to everything else.
Our semi-annual hospital visits.
All kids think they’re invincible, and I was no exception. Given the way I rode that motorcycle, it’s amazing I never seriously hurt myself on it. But I certainly hurt myself everywhere else. “Accident prone”, they called me. Well, I think you can only be accident prone if you put yourself into situations where an accident could happen. And I rarely played safely.
Climbing was one of my favorite things to do. Still is, as a matter of fact. I love heights, and a gigantic collection of boulders, or a huge pine tree makes a perfect jungle gym. I would climb high into the trees, finding bird nests and just looking out across the land. Being careful was never a priority for me, and so I fell out of a lot of trees too.
Seven sets of stitches in my head. That’s how many I now have. The hospital in the nearby town got to know my family, and I don’t remember for sure, but I think they may have talked to my parents about child endangerment once or twice. The third time I split my chin open, there was too much scar tissue, so the doctor just heavily bandaged it. I have a very clear memory of that doctor’s office and getting tetanus boosters. I never broke any bones, not as a child. Since then I have broken several throughout my body, but back then I never had a cast to restrict my exploration activities. To this day, I am thankful for that freedom that my parents gave me.
The sweetest dog in the world.
Her name was Katy, and she was a pitbull. Her markings were almost exactly the same as the dog from The Little Rascals show. I know the reaction some have to that breed of dog, and I know there have been some vicious attacks, but I believe a lot of that comes from a lack of training and the type of owner. I’m here to tell you that Katy was never aggressive, not to friends, family, children, strangers, or other animals. The woods around the cabin are filled with squirrels, many of which love to come and take a peanut out of your hand. Katy would lay on our patio, with squirrels scampering across her back, and not react in the least. I once had a bunch of baby rabbits and the mother wanted nothing to do with them. Katy treated those little bunnies like they were her own puppies.
She was protective of us kids, but of the oddest things. We were a family of water-skiers, but that dog hated the boat engine. Perhaps it was the growling sound coming from underwater, but she would stand on the dock and bark furiously. Then when the boat took off, pulling the skier behind it, Katy would launch herself from the dock into the lake and go swimming after the boat, as far as she could.
Fireworks would also set her off, as they do most animals. But where many pets will hide, Katy would run and grab the firework in her mouth. We would set off whistlers and those spinning flowers on the dock during the 4th of July, but after the first incident, we learned quickly that the dog needed to be tied up or put in the cabin during these events.
I think her favorite thing was to run alongside us as we went on motorcycle rides. Ears flapping, she would keep pace for as long as she could for miles, eventually dropping behind. We would be taking a break by a small stream on some random road or trail far up in the mountains, hear a noise, look over and see Katy coming up the road to join us, throwing herself into the stream, laying on her belly in the cool water and lapping up as much of it as she could. I think she felt and appreciated the same freedom I experienced there and I felt a little closer to her because of that. I miss that dog.
All creatures great and small.
Aside from the dog, the squirrels, the deer, and the bear, there were a lot of other animals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects in the woods that I loved to find. Elk and moose were rare to see, but they were around. There were also cougars, but those stayed to the higher elevations and again, were rarely seen.
There was an abundance of hummingbirds, and I always loved to watch them zip around. Sometimes I would stand next to the feeder that we had, with my hand resting just below the spouts, fingers spread wide. It would take a while, but eventually at least one bird would come to sit on my hand and feed. There were also beautiful blue and black Stellar jays (Briar in The Passage at Moose Beach), and the Gray Jay, which we called Camp Robbers. The Gray Jay has little fear of humans and they always travel in threes. They are a gorgeous shade of light gray, with dark gray wings, and stand out among the green pine branches of the forest.
Insects were interesting to me as well. The black ants were much larger than the small black ants in California, and they always seemed to be doing their busy work in a solitary way, unlike their smaller cousins that are always in groups. There were Jerusalem crickets, with round, fat, black bodies, and some type of flying beetle with an iridescent shell. The beetles were fascinating because if you grabbed them by their very long antennae, they would make a squeaking sound. It probably wasn’t a nice or comfortable thing to do, so I didn’t do it often. The most terrifying insect is the giant water bug. You will learn a little more about them in my next book!
My favorite creatures were the reptiles and amphibians. I would often catch Garter snakes, but you had to be careful because though their bite wasn’t painful, they would, um, poo on you when you picked them up. And I gotta say. That was a godawful stench that didn’t go away from one washing! I loved to catch tadpoles and watch them grow into frogs, seeing their hind legs slowly appear and their tails gradually shrinking. But the best were salamanders. I would search under every fallen log near every pond that I could find, looking for them. I think they are cute beyond words.
Evenings filled with love.
When I wasn’t exploring, swimming, or feeding squirrels, I was listening to classic Disney records or playing games. There was this old record player and we had all these Disney albums, most of which I can’t remember now. They were essentially audiobooks of Disney stories and I would listen to them over and over. We also had stacks of old 78s, and I developed a huge appreciation of music from the 40s and on.
There was a great collection of board games, such as Elsie and Sorry, which we keep in a wooden cabinet. I would play these with my older brother and eventually my younger sister. And of course we had several decks of cards and I learned to play all the children’s games such as War and Go Fish, along with the more adult games like Hearts, Bridge, and Gin Rummy. Playing Cribbage with my grandmother was a common activity. But my favorite board game was Tripoley. It was a combination of board game and card game, with some mild betting, and the entire family would sit around the dining table and play together. We would play where you’d get five chips for a penny, and I would use my winnings to buy an apple or Fire Stix flavored Jolly Rancher candy from the lodge. Those memories are the best!
It was there at the cabin that I really developed my love of reading. Without the distraction of a television, and no homework, it was easy to get lost in a book for days on end. We had a lot of fairy tales, nature books like those of Jack London, and some sci-fi. I read everything I could get my hands on. Even if the book was for an older audience, I didn’t care. If I didn’t understand, that was fine. I’d ask my parents, or just figure out things through context. I believe the love of reading is one of the best gifts my parents ever gave me.
The child grows.
Those summers seemed to last forever, as did my childhood. But at the same time, both ended far too quickly. Pretty soon, it was time to pack up and head home to California, preparing for the upcoming school year. I remember my parents crying, each time we had to say goodbye to the cabin. My final act before leaving was to go down to the dock one last time and look at the lake, saying my private goodbyes and promising to be back the following year.
The next year came, and the year after that, and suddenly I was a teenager with different priorities and different desires. But I’ll save those stories for the next post.
Thank you so much for reading. I am happy to share my thoughts and even happier to answer any questions you might have about these times of my youth, so please feel free to ask below. There was much, much more to my visits, but most of that goes into my books. If you have read my first, I hope you can begin to see how Alicia was born.