There were woods around the house on Randel Road. The old building’s quivering structure was in the middle of nowhere, and we were renting it and the ten acres around it. Our front yard alone was bigger than most suburban properties, not to mention the backyard or the field to the left. Or the woods to the right and behind that, which called out to my brother and me in the breezes that rustled through its leaves, and the ancient skeleton we called home.
To my parents, the property was something to be maintained: it took a long time for them to mow a lawn that big. We didn’t have the riding mowers like some of my friends’ fathers had. It took even longer to shovel the circular driveway: It was so large it could have fit around the house. And it was so long, in fact, that my dad and mom wearily decided to just shovel up the middle after one especially epic snowstorm, despite the fact that this would leave a muddy path up the middle of our yard in the spring. Meanwhile, my brother and I burrowed tunnels through the drifts, creating forts. And I won’t even go into the sheer volume of leaves that dropped in the autumn from the circle of maples lining the inside of the driveway. After we helped my dad rake them into piles that polka-dotted the lawn, my brother and I would bury one another in the piles, scattering the rust and gold leaves everywhere.
No matter what part of the year it was, my parents put a lot of time and energy into maintaining that house and yard. For my brother and me, the yard, while it confined us, was our playhouse. But, big as it was, there was more we wanted to see.
My parents were always very protective of us, successfully ensuring that our curiosity would never be sated. They were especially wary of the idea of my younger brother and me traipsing around in the woods; afraid, as most parents would be, that we would get hurt or run into some unsavory stranger. Our adventurousness was at its peak at five and seven years; our parents were a little bit beyond that stage.
The yard surrounding the house was fun with plenty of room to run, a rope swing in the backyard and plenty of trees to climb. There was also an ancient barn attached to the side of the house to explore: stories and skulls of exotic animals — cows and cats and deer — fueled our fascination. But when we discovered that the stairway into the old loft had long since burned in a house fire, we grew bored of the barn. What could we explore next? The woods were still off limits.
The woods were in the back of my mind whenever I slopped my bicycle through the rain-filled potholes in our unpaved driveway or heaved myself into the peeling birch tree at their edge. Perhaps because we had never lived near woods before – we had spent most of my life to this point that I remembered in a trailer park in Virginia — and perhaps also just because they were off limits, I was pulled to them. There was also the excitement of an adventure. I’d read books about children getting lost in the woods, and even one about a boy who lived on his own in the woods for weeks in a hollowed-out tree trunk, finding roots and berries to keep him alive. The woods seemed like they must be a very romantic and magical place, to me. They were the unknown; my forbidden fruit.
It happened one rare day when my mom was paying more attention to my brother and two other younger siblings than she was to me. She was a stay-at-home mom, and usually paid more attention to me than I would have liked. So I snatched this opportunity to slip away from her protective eyes. I made my escape into the autumn-colored leaves.
I was surprised at how far apart the trees actually were once I was among them — from the outside they looked so dense and concealing. Disappointed that there was no possibility of my getting lost or even hiding, I decided to keep moving. I crunched for a few hundred yards, looking around and soaking in this first contact of discovery only to realize that there was not much to see. There were trees that didn’t look much different from the trees in the yard, moss on the trees and rocks, and leaves on the ground. Any other plants that were usually in the woods must have been killed by the frost, and there were no animals, except the occasional skittering squirrel and the invisible birds — not even deer or rabbits were in sight.
I returned to my mother calling my name from the porch. She sounded worried, so I scampered towards the house. I was sure that if I’d only had time to probe deeper in the woods I’d find the mystery I was looking for, so I was determined to explore further at the next opportunity.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before we moved out of the house that sucked my parents’ energy into its maintenance and my brother and me into its mystery to a less demanding home.