For the Consideration of Places
“This used to be my playground…”
That damn song rang through my head at every opportunity. Like some poorly written Lifetime movie where the soundtrack would play each time I’d recollect a moment from my past. I see what you’re doing there, Mr. Director, and it isn’t as clever as you think it is.
When we pulled into camp that first day—I wept. Not because of some reconnecting to something so substantial to my formative years. But because I didn’t recognize it.
The woods around camp were nothing compared to the thickness I’d grown up running through, singing the wrong lyrics to old country songs, having dirt parties with cousins, where I caught lizards and coaxed out bats by tossing small pebbles into the air.
This was not my childhood dreamscape.
She had been stripped. Scarred. Battered. Broken. Trees lay across roads, barring pathways to deeper landscapes. Thickets reduced to scorched earth, torn open, leaving no place to hide.
The fire pit I built when I was seven (same age as my daughter now, her first visit) still stood. If you could call it standing. Much like what the rest of its surroundings had been reduced to, it was little more than a pile of rock and ash. From, not one out of control wildfire, but possibly hundreds of small, mostly-controlled campfires.
The dock on the lake is carved with dozens of names from visitors who wished to leave their mark. To be remembered. To leave a reminder for their future selves that they were here. There. I looked for my name in the spot I knew it should have been. The lake and its surrounding areas are still mostly the same as they always were. Since my dad started taking me up there when I was four. About the same age my son is now. His first trip. I didn’t sharpen my new knife and it would not cut into the weathered wood of the dock. But my partial ‘A’ is there. Near where my name, Nick’s name, Brandie’s—where we all left them—but the elements—or my eyes—were not kind. I could not find them. But I remember.
It dawned on me—during that five-hour-drive up—that my first day there would have also been my wedding anniversary. And what I wanted out of this trip, was to find some lost piece of me. Something to claim, to connect to. To remember and be part of. Me. I was looking for me.
Returning to a place where I spent every summer of my childhood and finding her in an unrecognizable state: tattered, broken, exposed, abused, torn asunder—it was not the connection I was looking for. Certainly not the one I expected. I knew it burned. About 13 years or so ago. She burned and when I did have the chance to go back, I didn’t get to see it. The real parts of her. The deeper bits that the tourists do not dare to explore. The parts that go unknown, unseen, and therefore, unappreciated. The damage not noticed.
But I saw her this time. Some places still the same. Shale Flats (if that’s what it’s actually named or just what the family has called it all these years, I don’t know) still the same flat, rocky land covered in twisted juniper trees and ankle-scratching sage brush. Evidence of heavy rains left wrist-deep animal tracks scattered through much of that space. And uncovered a before-hidden treasure trove of obsidian rock that quickly filled my pocket. I watched the sun set beyond a silhouette of fur trees and cried again at the familiarity. "There you are."
Returning—as the person I am now—felt like standing within myself and witnessing something externally which has only ever existed internally.
I’ve returned. A different person. Aged. Changed. Stripped. Abused. Neglected. Scarred. Torn open, with no place to hide.
Walking through the scorched lands, riding on the blocked-off roads, subverting fallen trees, finding myself in an unrecognizable memory. Changed but familiar. Both of us.
Some of those who later joined us brushed-off the destruction the fire left behind. “It happens.”
But they don't know. How could they. She didn't mean anything to them. She was never their salvation. She never taught them anything. Loved them. She never showed them herself.
“What can I say, I’m a real winner.” I said to the old man I’ve known all my life—my dad’s oldest friend—when he teased me about moving back home again.
He doesn't know either. That that place and me, we are the same. She is me. I am her. Despite the flesh in place of stone. My scars match hers. My changes match hers. My blocked roads and difficult to navigate depths match hers.
But there. Among the forest floor and in the sky, a before unnoticed biodiversity. Gofers. Bald Eagles. Deer. Chipmunks. Fish. Ducks—mother and children. Loons. Ravens. Falcons. Hawks. Elk. A constant moving and busyness hidden in the silence. New growth. Green that I have never seen before. Not there. In that dry, hot place. New trees. Young things that they were, pulled out of death and gave new life, new signs of hope that maybe one day, as an old lady, I can go back there again and say, “Oh, there you are.” And old familiarity will have filled-in and patched her scars. Healing but never quite the same. Like people. Like me.
Places are strange in that way, I think. Especially places of meaning. We visit, cherish, idolize, and even worship places, old buildings, piles of dirt and ash and memory. Most of the time we pass through taking photographs all oos and awes, unaware of time’s hand pressing against the stone, the blood that’s seeped into the twisted branches of metal and earth.
We write stories about people and so often forget the places. Beyond the setting. Beyond the passive land of trees and rock. Places have memory. Places have roots, bloodlines, battle scars, stretch marks.
Their symbolism changes depending on the person. Like the cross I built. As a pre-teen out on Shale Flats. My dad, I’m sure, thinks of it as some holy measure, some declaration of my innocence and purity. It’s still there, a pile of stones hardly visible among the flats. I built it as a false omen of warning. A foreboding sign to ward off trespassers. Symbolism is personal.
Places are personal.
So, if there is anything I would hope for someone to get out of this discombobulated rambling, it is to consider places.
As a traveler, to consider the significance of a place. To stop. To put away the camera. To feel the vascular thrumming of every person who has walked that ground, who’s bled on it, tears sunk into it, sweat dripped, bodies fallen, love blossomed.
For writers to think about setting as more than just an empty space to place your characters. But as a character itself. Living, breathing. With a past, with a future. With change and growth.
With influence and power.
There’s that classic comedic line about characters being orphaned to make them interesting. Then we give them a best friend. Chosen family. People. It’s always people. And as much as people need other people. We also need places (some of us only have places). And our relationships with those places form us. Perhaps just as much as parents. Perhaps a little more.
This place, those woods. They formed me. My father took me there and he taught me things.
“Roll your feet from heel to toe. Step where I step.”
I learned how to listen to a place there. He taught me that. And how to tie on a fish hook. How to ride the four-wheeler. How to track an animal. And how to love a place. How important places were. How we needed to take care of them. ‘Pack it in, pack it out.’
But this place was also a place of freedom for me. Away from the constraint that weighed me down at home, where I was hardly allowed to leave the house, where I never left my bedroom, where I spent my every moment yearning for something bigger, where my only escapes were movies and imagination. In this place, I was granted independence. Allowed to navigate the terrain on my own, without supervision, without a looming force peering over my shoulder.
I could feel alive there. Real. Hidden in the depths of rock and dirt and trees. Everywhere to hide.