The Importance of Childhood Rambles

June 1, 2008

Excerpt from Appalachia, Summer/Fall 2008

This isn’t a story about skiing the Tenth Mountain Division huts or the Chic-Chocs, or trekking in New Zealand or Nepal, or about hiking the John Muir Trail, or ridgerunning on the Appalachian Trail, or working with Appalachian Mountain Club volunteers to maintain trails on Mount Greylock. This is a story about how rambling in a Boston suburb led me to do those things.

My parents were not climbers, trekkers, or international travelers. My father was an engineer who spent his free time inside; my mother was a homemaker who liked to walk. We lived in a suburb 20 miles north of Boston. In the 1970s—my formative years—the automobile, Interstate 93, and the tech revolution along the Route 128 corridor west of Boston all were transforming the town. Bulldozers were removing apple orchards and hayfields to build houses for the burgeoning army of engineers and tech types. Houses were popping up in places that would have been deemed marginal for development just a decade earlier.

My own neighborhood was once part of a large farm that was developed into 20 ranches and split-levels just after World War II. Most of the homeowners were the originals, who had bought their houses just after they’d been built. They were all “Greatest Generation” folks, parents of baby boomers, many of whom had already grown up and left by the time we’d arrived. Two doors up on the other side of the street was a Medal of Honor recipient who had commanded a submarine during the war.

The town was Andover, and the houses were modest by Andover standards even back then, let alone today. Most of the fathers were mid-level managers and engineering types, and the mothers raised the kids. Despite the relative newness of my neighborhood, it was full of signs of the past such as big trees, wooded brooks, stone walls, apple trees, and draws filled with wild grapes. Our neighborhood’s developers hadn’t use the scorched earth style of building that was common in town in the 1970s. This was a stroke of good luck for me, as was more than 75 years of good work by a local land protection movement.

I would eventually begin to explore beyond the house, the typical three bedroom ranch with a two-car garage, centered on a triangular-shaped lot that made the most of the road frontage. Behind it was a lawn and then woods. Sycamore and black cherry trees formed the border between the back yard and a small stream. Beyond were big pines, a stone wall, and a hayfield, which eventually succumbed to houses. The small area between the house and stone wall, probably less than an acre, was plenty for a younger kid. My sister and I could build dams in the stream, climb the sycamores, hold skunk cabbage fights, and get mired in the muck adjacent to the stream. We built a trail into this overgrown area, and though adults could easily step over the stream, our grandfather built a kiddie-sized bridge just for me and my sister.

He and my grandmother, my mother’s parents, lived two towns away and farmed almost every bit of their five acres. He grew vegetables, a sizable asparagus patch, grape arbors, peonies, and other flowers. They gave away the vast majority of the vegetables. We got our pumpkins, sweet corn, and Christmas tree from them each year. My grandmother canned shelves and shelves of food. Among my favorites were her bread and butter pickles and pickled watermelon rind. As a kid, I’d roam around their place looking for things to snack on—carrots, raspberries, and grapes among my favorites.

My mother belonged to the AMC and the Andover Village Improvement Society (AVIS), a visionary local land trust founded in 1894 dedicated to acquiring and preserving land in its natural state. My mother got me a membership in AVIS and in AMC when I was just 6 or so, and we began to explore some of the AVIS reservations together.

She took us to Conway, New Hampshire, where she bought cloth backpacks for my sister and me at the old Army-Navy store that used to be next to the Majestic Theatre. We then drove up to Pinkham Notch, and we “hiked” the 200 yards to Crystal Cascade, where either my sister or I had a trip-ending meltdown. I still have that pack, my name written in my mother’s blocky capital letters on the leather patch between the straps.

My mother then bought a canvas tent and set it up in the backyard. We slept in it (fitfully) one night. We didn’t have the good sense to take it down, so the floor rotted out. My father had no interest in doing such things. As an engineer, his interest in nature had only to do with the efficient subjugation of it. His proposal to the problem of mowing the lawn was to pave the yard. Decades later, when I lived in Jackson, New Hampshire, he’d come to visit me once or twice a year in the log cabin I rented. He’d sit on the porch, with a beautiful view of the Doubleheads, and read. I asked him once if he liked the view. He shrugged and said, “Looks the same as anyplace!”

My explorations of the wilds of our property beyond the end of the lawn continued with more dam building, skunk cabbage fights, and the occasional shoe lost in the muck. Inevitably, though, the world began to get smaller and I got curious about what was behind the stone wall and the hayfield. What lay behind was 40 acres of protected land. The first eight acres had been donated to AVIS by Phillips Academy in 1963, the year before I was born. Over the next five years, AVIS added an additional 32 acres to the original gift. This was as good as a wilderness for an 8-year-old boy—40 acres of swamps, cliffs (at least what I thought were cliffs), and woods. There were good blueberries in there, too!

It wasn’t really possible to get lost in there. An old woods road bisected the property, which was then called Rocky Hill Reservation, and there was a faint trail on either side of the road that, no matter which way you hiked, would bring you back to the road. The borders of the reservation were a town road, a state highway, a swamp, and the hayfield. Perfect. Except for one thing— my mother had confined me to the neighborhood after bank robbers had supposedly made a getaway on that woods road, and an unknown man had “flashed” the mother of a neighborhood friend. It would be a few more years before I could roam Rocky Hill Reservation.

In the meantime, it was off to Cub Scouts with me. Cub Scouts was a largely indoor venture involving knots and building cars for the pinewood derby, which I found boring. I was promised more outdoor activities in Boy Scouts, and when I reached the appropriate age, I was not disappointed. A “camporee” each spring and fall, Memorial Day camped at a sand bar at Sebago Lake each year, summer camp for two weeks, and numerous other overnight outdoor endeavors throughout the year. This was the life for me! It was a place I could pick up real skills, like starting a campfire in the downpour that accompanied most of our camping trips, making every article of clothing I had reek of wood smoke, and proper use of fireworks. I even learned to cook!

On one fall camporee in a local state park known for its frequent arrests for deviant behavior, we camped among the burned-out cars and scattered undergarments. One member of our patrol, who was tasked with cooking dinner, tried to cook several pounds of hamburger by boiling it in water. I knew I could do better than that. The other place I was really starting to pick up some skills was at Boy Scout camp. Camp Onway was located on Onway Lake in Raymond, New Hampshire. It had the classic sandy, rocky soil of southern New Hampshire with a forest dominated by the white pines that love the Merrimack Valley so much. I slept in a wall tent on a wooden platform for two glorious weeks each summer from age 10 to age 12. Never once was I homesick. I learned to sail, row, shoot a rifle, start a fire with flint and steel, swim a mile, carry a pack, put on a skit, and identify trees. The Boy Scouts viewed the camp experience as a way to achieve, but I was having much too much fun for that. While my fellow scouts were busy getting four or five merit badges a week, I was content getting only one or two for my entire two weeks. Being free to roam in the sweet-smelling pine woods rather than the bitter, icy air of home felt like heaven to me.

Carl Demrow, a former trails manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club, lives in Vermont with his wife, Laurie, and two stepdaughters.

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