Boys, Dogs & Forests
What is it about a boy, a dog and a forest? When you put them all together, it makes the world go away.
I must have been at least 10. It couldn’t have been earlier than that, because we were gone together all day – that black and white mutt of a dog and I. We tramped through those woods from morning to night – well, to dinnertime anyway. It never really occurred to us – to me – that I hadn’t told anyone where we were going. That was mostly because when we left I didn’t know either. We just went.
Those woods were oak woods. We started at the family cabin in the hills of western New York. I suppose the best hikes were the ones in the fall, when the leaves are colored, or even a little later. Before the rain and snow starts, but after the leaves have fallen and you can see for miles right through the forest. That was a big help, because most of the time we weren’t even on a trail.
I figured, “Hey, there’ll be a road eventually.” In fact, there were roads all the way around the ridgeline, and when we got to a road like we sometimes did, we’d turn around and go back into the woods, back uphill, and eventually come out near the cabin again. In time for dinner.
By hiking without a trail – or at least without a manmade trail – we found stuff we figured no one had seen in a hundred years! Old broken down rock fences. Broken down stone cellars. Rusty barbed wire running straight through the middle of the woods, and even through the middle of good-sized tree trunks, where there was no pasture or field anywhere in sight. It really had been a hundred years or more since anyone had had a farm in those hills. Somebody told me later that all the farmers moved out West where the plow didn’t bring up such a rich harvest of rocks each spring.
I couldn’t have done it without that dog. Sure, it sounds like I was the bravest thing on two 10 year old legs. But it wasn’t true, even if I’ve never admitted that to anyone before. Having that dog along was my security, although I usually wondered if she would bite or lick the bad guys, or if she had any clue which way to get home. We never really got lost, though. Of course, there were times when I didn’t know where we were, but I told myself we could always go back on the route we’d come. Even if we’d already come 5 miles, and it was only a mile home the right way, that didn’t help at all if the right way was somewhere hidden up ahead.
How come my folks never worried? Were the times different back then? Were we so far back in the woods at that cabin that no one was likely to cross paths with me anyway? Was it the security of having that 40 pound mutt with me? Now that I have kids, I bet it was that they knew that boys need to go into the woods with their dogs.
So what’s a 10 year old got to worry about to have to make the world go away? Maybe nothing. All those walks with that dog sure helped later on, though, when I had a load of worry. I had a new dog, and another one after that. We walked in oaken woods, and in pine woods, and in woods so thick with poison oak that you’d better stay on the real trail or else. But we tried real hard to get tired and to never cross the same path twice. When we ran out of real trails, we’d go to a new woods. Or we’d pull the leash up short and go through that damned poison oak anyway. I mean, any fool can recognize poison oak and stay clear of it, even if it means meandering through a woods like a drunken idiot!
And in those pine woods, and those maple woods, and those poison oak woods we discovered more stuff – each one of those dogs and I – that probably no one had seen in a hundred years. More rocks, more old foundations, more mysterious strings of barbed wire. And we got to places where the world went away, and all that was left was that dog and me.