Woods, Creeks and Streets: The Best Training Grounds
The woods, creeks and streets surrounding the places where I grew up were the best training grounds to learn the basics of sizing up a challenge or an opportunity. My brother led us, that is when he was still young enough to enjoy roaming the outdoors creating new adventures, with a mashup of friends as our allies, co-conspirators, and depending on the game, occasional enemies.
Saturday’s were the best. Ripe with promise. Anything could happen. We’d plan earlier in the week to either have someone over or spend the night out. When Saturday dawned, we shoveled down bowls of sugar-coated something-in-a-box, threw on clothes, grabbed our freedom riders (or dirt bikes), and off we went.
We would ride for an hour or so, picking up cohorts as we worked our routes, and would find ourselves at one of the many temporary but top secret forts we built in the woods near one of our neighborhoods. Our friends homesteaded miles and miles apart from one another so on any given Saturday we could churn through 10-20 miles or more before dusk.
We grew up in a special time when we could be free to roam the city on bikes or skateboards all day until we heard our families call us in for dinner. Like many gangs of kids in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the membership was an ever revolving door of a cast of characters from varied backgrounds and beliefs. We knew no color. We didn’t care. I still don’t.
Black Snow and Rotten Eggs
One Saturday, we found a water pipe bridging two banks of a wide part of Sugar Creek. We threw our bikes down and surveyed the scene. The pipe ran level with the ground for a foot or so before it left land with a sheer drop 30 feet to the fast-moving current below. It reunited with solid soil 50 yards due north on the far bank.
I stared over the edge of the creek. I found a rock and dropped it over the side. While only taking a few seconds to splash, it looked like forever to hit bottom. I hoped I wouldn’t find out how forever felt.
I scouted the passage. The black rusted water pipe was just wide enough to fit between the ball of your foot and the northern tip of your heel. The wind was gusty but mild. Balance was possible, but as with a natural athlete like my brother, odds made it more possible for some than for others. It was never a particular strength of mine.
I can’t remember exactly how the conversation went, too many pages in life have turned since that chapter, but I’m sure it included a “Let’s cross”, “You first” and “I dare you” exchange between my brother, me, and our buddy that day. Either way, the challenge eyeballed us so it must be done.
My brother struck out first. He balanced with outstretched arms as he shuffled one foot and then the other, carefully and methodically. Jimmy, a rail-thin kid wearing a black AC/DC shirt and sporting a gut-busting funny, irreverent mouth, took off next. A year older, he was the same age as my brother who, hands funneled over his mouth, coached him over. Jimmy made it.
Stepping on the pipe, I scooted out a few feet when two things happened simultaneously: I looked down and a gust of wind hit me. I stumbled to my knees, then flat on my belly and I grabbed the pipe. I heard voices but the sound of the rushing water staring back at me drowned them. My breath grew shallow and pouring sweat threatened to loosen my white-knuckled grip on the rusty pipe. Like a horse with blinders, my vision narrowed to focus only on what was straight ahead, or down depending on your perspective.
“Come on. You can do it!”
I gripped the pipe tighter, the rusted iron scraping my cheek, until the smell of rotten eggs hit me. A powerful witches’ brew water and rust make together. I felt breakfast returning for a second helping. I coughed a few times, spittle hanging down from my mouth, but fortunately, forced it back.
“Come on! We’re gonna leave you here if you don’t get up and cross.”
The last voice was as familiar as my own. It was my brother. He always threatened to leave me when I took too long to do something he knew I could do. He rarely left.
I could inch back on my stomach to solid ground or I could move forward. I weighed the options, but in reality, there was only one. I set my chin on the pipe and focused on the other side, slid my hands forward, the black paint falling like tarred snow, and pulled myself forward. I inchwormed across for what seemed like an eternity and my young muscles screamed in revolt.
My brother’s voice called clear and close.
“You’re almost here. Come on.”
It wasn’t pretty but I made it. After a few minutes, I stopped shaking. My legs firmed up and the world turned solid again. I planted my hands in the weeds bordering the creek’s edge and pushed myself up. My brother flashed a wry smile at me before disappearing into the woods with Jimmy not far behind.
Although I’ve never told him, my brother was my hero growing up. We were close in age and competitive. Owing much to me being equally tall, yet stocky and more reserved, people always assumed I was the older, more mature brother. Train hopping, streaking, fighting, french kissing a girl for the first time, this three-act play ran non-stop over the course of our time together.
My brother knew better than I did what I was capable of accomplishing once I conquered the fear…the fear of failing as well as succeeding. Even in the small, harmless fun we created in our youth, he taught me you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, calculated not careless risks are worth taking, and sometimes you have to brace for impact with your seats in their full and upright position.
Life is not delivered to us folded neatly and smelling fresh. Sometimes it reeks of rotten eggs as we hang 30 feet over a rushing creek. Either way, you have to push forward through the fear, uncertainty and doubt. The walk might not be always elegant or even as you envisioned, and at times, you may need to inchworm your way but as long as you summon the strength to not look back and move forward, that’s the secret sauce.
Whether marriage, having children, or career decisions, the hard returns on investment for big the leaps in our lives are not calculated in the same terms but the value is much larger, more substantial, and more enduring than never risking a leap.
That’s enough for tonight. Tomorrow’s another light. From one sojourner to another, all the best.