The burning of the deer blinds did not sit well with the Junkins. We discovered that one afternoon when we returned from town.
In our absence, Old man Jesse and his boys had carted empty whiskey bottles down to our riverfront, lining them up like little glass soldiers. They blasted those bottles to oblivion and back. From all the shell casings left behind, it was obvious they needed the target practice.
It was a huge mess. Shards of wicked looking glass winked in the rough grass carpeting the riverfront. Mother worried both kids and critters could be hurt.
We were sent up to the cabin. Mom and dad fetched metal buckets and gloves from the garage, and spent the rest of the afternoon carefully sifting through the grass and weeds for every sliver. Watching them drop chunks of glass into the buckets, I was furious. This was an outrage. They had no right to tear up our property. I wanted dad to march up the hill and make them pay.
But that wasn’t how dad dealt with the world. He was a man whose moral compass never wavered. It would never occur to him to do anything less than the absolutely right thing.
After that the Junkins disappeared back into the woods. Only the sounds of birds could be heard coming down the hill. I itched to creep back up to see if they were really and truly gone, but decided after the glass and lumber incident, it was not a wise decision.
So instead I explored the woods, often walking for miles. I trailed deer, spotted bear scat (easily distinguishable by all the blueberries), and waded in the river. I bonded so intimately with my surroundings that I decided my given name just wouldn’t do. I informed my parents that they could now call me d'Artagnan. I saw myself as a swashbuckling child of the wood (ready for the call of action), and to have the same moniker as one of the three Musketeers seemed only fitting.
Dad had created trails all through our 80 acres. If you walked out the cabin door and headed right you could walk in a huge circle through the woods, reappearing on the other side of the cabin. Naturally we referred to it as circle drive. Even with circle drive, you could easily get lost in the woods with all the deer trails that spiderwebbed throughout the timber.
A week after the Junkins shot up our riverfront, I was wandering down one of those deer trails when I came upon a small spruce tree. It was the most beautiful tree I had ever seen. Symmetrically perfect. It’s lacy branches were a delicate green and so soft to touch. The tree extended gracefully like a queen bestowing gifts upon her subjects. Growing from a slight rise in the land, the spruce was proud and regal. All around sunlight tunneled through treetops. Splashy drops of yellows and golds. Just looking at the tree made me feel happy. I smiled at it, and felt it welcoming me back. It simply became my tree. And I loved it. After that, I made it a habit to check-in regularly on the little spruce.
Sometimes I brought small silver balls to dress it up. Other times, bits of ribbon. I preened over that little spruce like a mother hen. It was my perfect little tree. The connection could not have been more complete.
The following summer I re-established my familiar routines at the cabin. One of the first stops was to check in with my tree to see how much it had grown over the past year. Racing through the woods, I was filled with anticipation and pleasure. I had thought about the tree standing alone in the woods many times. Probably wondering where I was. This year I was ten-years-old, and my bond with the forest and the cabin was stronger than ever.
The first sight of my little tree took my breath away. The small spruce was bent over at an odd angle. I rushed over in disbelief. I wanted to fix whatever was wrong. But the little tree had been sliced by a hatchet. Someone swinging through the forest, carelessly destroying beauty. They hadn’t even finished the job. My eyes blurry with tears, I tried to prop the tree back up to its former glory. But it wobbled and tilted over. The tree would never stand again. I laid the tree back down on the pine needles. My heart was irrevocably broken. The spruce was slowly dying, and there was absolutely nothing I could do.
I couldn’t let it go. I still came by to check on my tree, but this time to comfort it. When its needles had turned brown and its branches splintering off, I knew the life inside had expired. I carefully lifted the dry and brittle tree, and carried it further into the trees where a small circle stood carpeted by lush ferns. I laid the spruce down and gently covered it with leaves. Then I prayed. I promised that tree I would never forget it.
That summer, I never returned to where I left the tree. I never returned at all. But the sight of that tree standing so proudly in a puddle of sunshine is as still sharp and clear in my mind as the day I first saw it.
THE CALL OF THE WILD
The road that leads to our cabin in the U.P. is Federal Forest Highway 16. It is an integral byway…bi-secting a large section of the Ottawa National Forest. Just under 51 miles long, the roadway runs through Iron, Houghton, and Ontonagon counties.
While calling FFH 16 a highway lends a sense of importance to the road, the truth is much different. As as a kid, FFH 16 was about a busy as a lonely county roadway. Huge lumber trucks might roll down its blacktopped surface, but tourist vehicles were a rare sight.
The highway is just under a mile from our camp. To find our trail through the trees, you would have to know where it is. The towering pines over FFH 16 perfectly hid the entrance. The lane that winds its way back to the cabin is serpentine, losing itself in undulating curves. Right from the start, the track makes a turn hiding it from view.
The highway had the power to draw us out of the woods. My brother and I relished the fact we could march down its middle undisturbed. The roadway also offered a slice of unbroken sky. A spectacular swath of robin’s egg blue. Crows cawed. Deer quietly vanished.
At this point, I still referred to myself as d'Artagnan, but my heart was probably more with Robin Hood. I loved to read, and had thick comic book digests of Robin Hood, the Three Musketeers, and Lois Lane neatly stacked on the dresser.
I was always looking for adventure. Naturally I enlisted my younger brother.
I decided on this day we were no longer children of a Presbyterian minister who happened to have a cabin in the middle of a national forest. We had morphed to orphaned souls who scratched out a livelihood from the woods and streams. I sketched out this fantasy to my brother as we stole through the forest in a way I felt would impress Robin Hood or even my chosen namesake d'Artagnan. He was skeptical, but as always agreeable to my ideas. His largest concern was dinner.
I brought our plastic bows and arrows, and for awhile we amused ourselves pretending to hunt elusive game.
Reaching the highway we stopped and listened as we always did to hear the roar of wind signaling an incoming car or truck. In the stillness of the woods, the highway is a wind tunnel bringing the swoosh of sound down its path mile after mile.
That afternoon all was quiet. I could tell my brother was becoming bored and feared I would lose my aide de camp. “Listen,” I said. “We have to begin our legend. We are the lost children of the woods. We have to let people know we exist.”
“How are we gonna do that?” my brother asked. “Who’s gonna know up here?”
That was a good point.
“I have an idea,” I said. “But you have to be prepared to run and disappear. Can you handle that?”
He solemnly nodded his head.
“But WHAT are we gonna do?” he asked again.
“Here’s the plan,” I whispered. After a few moments, my brother’s head began to energetically nod up and down.
“I get it!”, he said. “This is gonna be fun!”
There was one more very important point to be made.
“Under no circumstances can you tell mom and dad,” I lectured. “They would be mad. Do you promise?”
“Yeah, okay,” he said.
“Well ya gotta swear an oath,” I said. “That’s what Robin Hood would do. The Three Musketeers too.”
“What’s an oath?” asked my brother.
“The kid really needs to read more,” I thought. But I was the paragon of patience at the age of ten-years-old. Then again he was my only ally.
“It’s like the Pledge of Allegiance. Like you say in school. ’Cept this time you’re promising as a ‘Lost Child of the Woods’ not to tell anyone what we do. It’s our code of silence.”
He understood and was ready to sign up. So I made him hold up his hand and solemnly swear that all activities under the “Lost Child of the Wood” code would hereby and always be kept a secret. I quickly dismissed the idea of swapping spit or blood. My brother and a bar of soap were not necessarily on a first name basis.
That business dispensed with all we could do now is wait.
For the next car.
The opportunity to announce our presence to the WORLD.
And then I heard the low whoosh of a car barreling toward us.
I glanced over to my brother and gave the thumbs up.
This is a shot of Federal Forest Highway 16 which runs past our cabin in the U.P.
Daisies and Drying Clothes! A look behind the cabin at the woods.
This is me at the age of 10 although by now I called myself d'Artagnan.
My sister and me with Dad during a time when I was a lot more innocent!
NEXT UP: CHILDREN OF THE WOOD!