VERNON COUNTY - Often while I’m hiking in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, I find myself remembering a place I used to call “The New World.”
Within the Reserve’s 8,000 tranquil acres, I can sprawl on my belly in open-mouthed awe, admiring a purple or fluorescent orange mushroom. As I saunter alongside the winding Kickapoo River, the red-tailed hawks, eagles, and Sandhill cranes keep me company. With my dogs beside me, I meander many soothing miles of trails, up and down, over ridges, through valleys, across hogbacks and marshes. Nature and her critters provide perfect companionship.
Years ago, The New World was a safe haven from the storms of life that swept through my childhood. The worst of them usually arose around dinnertime.
The dinner table is set. It’s after six o’clock. My heart is thumping and my throat is tight.
Please be on your way home, Dad. I beg of you, please be turning into the driveway soon. I love you so much. Come home, Dad.
I know my dad’s office number by heart. I want to call it to find out if he left work, but we have only one phone. It hangs in the wallpapered kitchen where my mom is pacing.
Tonight’s meatloaf is drying out in the oven. The potatoes in a yellow Pyrex bowl on the table are cold. The air is thick with smoke; the glass ashtray on the Formica counter is full of stubbed-out cigarettes. My older sister and brother are out with their high school friends.
I stay out of my mom’s way. Now it’s after 7 p.m. My head feels like it might split in two and I have a dull ache in my stomach.
The gravel groans as a car turns into the driveway. I fly to my brother’s bedroom to look out the window. It’s my dad! But another car is following him. I watch the driver of the second car get out and walk to the passenger door of my dad’s car. The man driving my father’s car also goes around to the passenger door. He opens it and my dad spills out. The two men half-carry, half-drag him to our door and ring the bell.
I’m hiding in the hallway, when my mom opens the door and my dad falls into the entryway.
We lived on the corner of 121st and Godsell Avenue. If I cut across our manicured lawn to Godsell, I could walk straight uphill to a road that ended in a row of skinny trees standing like guards protecting a secret. Between the trees was a dirt path, flanked by two massive rocks. This was my portal into what I called The New World.
As my parents’ marriage unraveled, the never-ending fighting weighed heavily on me. I no longer had the neighborhood kids over to play.
“What’s that noise? Is that your mom yelling? Is your dad drunk?”
My self-appointed job was to watch and listen, to be ready to interfere if needed. If I was there to witness, no one would get hurt and the world would continue to turn.
In The New World, I could set all that responsibility down for a while. The dirt path led to a road that, if I went to the left, took me past broken-down outbuildings leaning over so far they looked ready to topple. Rusty wire wove around old fence posts and was nailed to trees for no apparent purpose. This road dead-ended at a mass of trees I could slip through, leading me to a field, beyond that were more woods and, finally, a lake.
If I went straight instead of turning left, the potholed road went downhill and wound around to another long road where a few houses stood like enormous cabins among mostly modest-sized, comfortable-looking homes. Dogs that seemed too old to be alive wandered around freely. Boats were stored haphazardly in overgrown yards, or next to garages that had windows so filthy I couldn’t see inside. I rarely saw adults moving about, and certainly no children playing. The only noises I’d hear were a chicken clucking, a dog barking, or, near the lake, frogs croaking.
My cookie-cutter neighborhood was defined by squares of property with little room for a young girl’s imagination. The New World seemed infinite, wild, and full of possibilities!
There, I was an explorer. A voyager. A scientist. I was anything other than a child filled with worry and dread.
Immersed in The New World, I watched brightly colored butterflies land on flowers, chased toads, and captured garter snakes to admire. After spending an hour sitting on a log observing ants carrying food back and forth, I stood and noticed a small stick clinging to my pants leg. I tried brushing it off and was surprised to discover it was a walking stick! A friend, a confidant, for the short time it took the stick to discover that I too was alive and moving.
Being at home let me pretend I had some control over my family’s daily dysfunction, but being outside gave me back my sanity. Entering The New World on foot, by bike, or on horseback, I came into the peace of sanctuary.
A few days after the millennium, and many years after those childhood storms, I traded city life for a life in the country. While I’m no longer a child seeking a safe haven, I will always need the peace and comfort that only nature can bring me. I’m fortunate to have found my new sanctuary in the Reserve, just a few miles from my home.