My best buddy Ernie and I grew up together in a small college town in the late 1950s.
We became friends in school, shortly after my father took his job with the college and just before my family bought the century-old house secluded at the end of the long gravel road on the outskirts of town. A simple, but cavernous two story frame home on a spacious piece of property with nothing but miles of dense woods stretching out behind us.
These woods were the perfect environment for a couple of imaginative kids who loved the outdoors and liked nothing better than to play exciting games, pretending they were cowboys one day and soldiers the next.
There was a small mill pond teeming with catfish down deep in the woods where we would occasionally hang out and if you hiked far enough, your could even reach the rather substantial river that meandered through the county. There was certainly no shortage of tempting diversions in our woods and we sampled them all, but most days, the focus of our activities centered around our most exciting discovery … the ravine.
You really had to be there, I suppose, to understand our utter fascination with this gaping red clay wound in the otherwise tranquil forest floor. To us the ravine was so enormous it took our breath away when we first saw it and for a pair of adventuresome young boys, it was a place of irresistible, indescribable wonder.
Technically, though less romantically known as a “dry wash”, our ravine was the product of many decades of slow erosion. By the time we discovered it, the cascading runoff of the rain had been at work for so many years that it had become large enough to to substitute for the Grand Canyon in our pre-adolescent minds. In fact, that’s exactly what it was to us … our own personal Grand Canyon, and only a quarter of a mile from my house.
We had first come upon the ravine at it’s widest and deepest section. Far too wide to leap across and much too deep to climb down. So, we decide to search for the source. After laboriously working our way through a maze of scrub brush and vines, we came into an expansive mud flat where the rushing water that had carved the ravine was expelled.
From this vantage point, we were able to enter and begin our exploration, reversing our earlier trek, but this time from the gradually expanding recesses of the ravine. We became aware of the differing colorful strata of the soil and variety of rocks and minerals revealed by the passage of time and the force of water.
There were clumps of shining quartz crystals embedded in the clay and glittering deposits of mica. And there were long streaks of fine black granules that provided a thrill when we discovered that at the approach of our small magnet, they would separate themselves from the earth and stick.
We spent that entire day deep in the bowels of the ravine imagining ourselves as wilderness explorers and conjuring up all sorts of dangers that might lie just around the next turn or at the end of one of the dozens of fingers stretching out from the ravine’s main channel.
When we finally reached the floor of the most expansive part of the ravine … the part that we viewed from the top that morning, we noticed what had been evident earlier looking down from the rim. The ravine had been far too deep to climb down into and now the towering walls were even more intimidating from down below.
We realized it was getting late and the sun was going down rapidly and it occurred to us that there was no way out except to go back the way we came. In the deepening shadows and finally through the gathering darkness, we wound our way back out of the lower end of the ravine and fought our way blindly through the thick barrier of briars and brush, finally feeling our way slowly through the blackness of the woods until we spotted the welcoming sight of the back porch light of our house glowing in the distance.
Ernie and I devoted ourselves that summer to the ravine. We bridged it at its narrowest point and we added ropes and ladders so that we could climb in and out a will. We mined it for all of its mineral treasures and by the end of the summer, we had thoroughly tamed it and made it our own.
We continued to be drawn to the woods and the ravine for the next couple of years, but gradually as we got older, our attentions turned to other things. As we grew up, we out-grew the juvenile games of small boys and our days spent in the woods gave way to the more sophisticated pursuits and the myriad pressures of becoming teenagers.
Ernie and I remained close friends all through high school, but our focus had shifted to things like girls and trying to make the football team. We went on the occasional camping and fishing trips once we got older, but the magic of the summer we discovered the ravine was gone.
I went away to college and Ernie joined the Marines. I got my masters and spent time as a high school teacher before finally settling down to a university career while Ernie served several tours in Viet Nam, eventually rising to the rank of Colonel. The last time I saw Ernie was many, many years ago when he came through town and visited my wife and me one evening. One of the things we talked most about was our days spent in the woods as kids.
After that Ernie kind of disappeared from my life and though I’ve googled him and know where he lives today the thought of actually trying to reconnect with him after some 50 years though intriguing, is something I’ve avoided. I’ve been able to make the necessary excuses for why it probably wouldn’t be such a great idea at this stage. Maybe I’ll change my mind, but probably not.
I visited the ravine once as an adult … before the new subdivision replaced the woods and the earth movers came crashing through the trees to bury my childhood memories.
Like so many things viewed through our mind’s eye from childhood, I was disappointed when I saw the ravine for what it was … not much more than a rather large, but not particularly imposing ditch about 10 feet deep and 20 feet across at its widest point. The enormous gaping chasm of my childhood was not the Grand Canyon after all.
This is probably one reason I’ve avoided tracking down Ernie and trying to relive our childhood.
Cherished memories of our youth almost always fail to measure up when put under the microscope of age and experience. I was disappointed when I looked down at the ravine years later, realizing suddenly how much of the grand impression it had made had simply been the product of my immature mind.
I walked back to my car that afternoon somewhat disenchanted in the way my nostalgic visit had turned out. Only later did I settle on the truth about memories. The ravine had not changed, but sadly, as an adult my perception of it had.
Nevertheless, for that one exciting day during that wonderful summer when it was uncovered by two impressionable kids, the ravine had been one of the great wonders of the entire world.
In my mind and in my memory it will always remain so.