When I was a little girl all wrapped up in the magic of this place, my favorite book of all time was “My Side of the Mountain.” It’s a story about a boy who finds himself living away from home in the wilderness of the mountains inside of a giant hollowed out-tree.
I can’t remember the exact story now or why he was alone out there, but I remember diagrams of how to build a fire with no supplies and something about a windmill and making a spear for fishing.
I still have the book buried somewhere. It was one I couldn’t give up to charity or to my younger sister, as if keeping it meant that I wouldn’t forget what I wanted to be at 9 or 10 years old — wild and young and capable of survival out in the wilderness alone. Without a house. Or a toilet. Or my mom’s cheeseburger chowder.
Yes, there was a time that was my plan. In the evenings I would step off the bus, grab a snack and head out to the trees behind our house. For months I would work on building what I called “secret forts” all along the creek that winds through our ranch. I would drag fallen logs to lean against tree branches bent just right, keeping watch for my little sister who always followed far enough behind to not be noticed right away, identifying my plan and ruining the whole point of secret forts.
Once my log “shelter” was constructed, I would lie down on my back on the tall grass, fallen leaves and twigs underneath, and I would think about the next step. I would need a door, some rope and a knife… a fire ring, of course…
I would scour the creek bottom for granite rocks when the sun would start its slow sink below the banks, and then I would decide I wasn’t quite ready to spend the night, my stomach rumbling at the thought of supper on the stove at home, and then I would follow the cow trail back toward the familiar comfort of the house.
This was my daily ritual for months and one of my signature childhood memories. Eventually I gave in and helped my little sister build her own fort. A much smaller fort. Across the creek. Out of sight.
I thought I wanted to be alone out there, left to my own devices, but it turned out that having company was sorta nice. So we built a tin-can telephone that stretched from my fort to hers and brought down old chair cushions from the shed, searched for wild raspberries, tried to catch frogs and minnows in the beaver dam and spent our evenings planning our next move: spending the night.
But we never did it. Summer gave way to fall and the leaves fell and covered the floor of our paradise. We would pull on our beanies, mittens and boots and trudge down the freezing creek to clear out the fire ring we weren’t yet brave enough to use. And then the cold set in and the snow came and the neighbor girls called us to go sledding and our dream of being wilderness women collected snow and waited on a warmer season.
I can’t help but think about those girls on days like these. Days when the cold sets in and the house seems smaller. Days when the demands of the grown-up life I’ve built weigh heavy in responsibility and uncertainty and I feel tethered to them…
I try to remember a time where I felt like there was no one but me and the wind out here… the wind that calls, “Come have an adventure, girl. Come dream about hollowed-out trees…”
I step outside and I try to summon the magic as the cold bites at my cheeks and the snow crunches under my feet. I turn around and I miss the summers of my youth… I turn around and I’m alone with a woman who used to be a girl I knew, a girl who thought she might tame the coyotes one day, and break unbreakable horses, and live wild.
I follow the creek and look for her. I know she’s here somewhere. I hope she hasn’t given up…
Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband and daughters on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. She blogs at https://veederranch.com. Readers can reach her at email@example.com.