Sunday, October 09, 2011

Confession, and The River

One Spring, before temperatures had warmed enough to be snake-worthy, I set off on a quest: to find the Juniata River.

I would have been 10 years old, I think. Surely I wasn't so bold as to try such a stunt at 9, and I know I'd accomplished the feat by the time I was  12. That puts me at 10 or 11.

There was a creek that ran through my parents' property, paralleling the Cedar Spring Road. There were many access points to the creek, but I began my journey at the bottom of Mr. Neff's land, where the creek was narrow enough to jump over if one was lucky, or athletic. (Sometimes I was, sometimes I wasn't.)

Following the little stream along the bank was fine while I traipsed along the edges of peoples' yards, but then the creek widened out, the underbrush got nasty, and I had to wade in the shallow edges, often holding myself steady by the saplings that grew on the immediate bank.

It got interesting as I drew closer to the downtown bridge over the creek; the banks were steep and had functioned for many decades as a kind of landfill. Stepping carefully on bits of cement blocks and bricks, avoiding pipes that stunk of sewage seeping into the creek, (seriously, this was 45 years ago in a rural area -- they were still getting rid of shit by dumping it into the waterways), I edged my way along, now hearing the traffic on the road above and ahead of me.

The creek widened again, over large pebbles, as it went under the bridge, and I was able to wade along the edge, barely able to acknowledge the stonework over my head. I was too far to turn back, but terrified that I would be discovered.

What I was doing had been expressly forbidden by my parents. There was a limited area that I was allowed to roam, and most of the distance I had traversed was not included. And I was never, ever, ever to go to the river on my own. Not only was I just a skinny little girl, but I also could not swim. It was a crazy stunt, sure to get me a beating, sure to get my access to the creek revoked for years.

And yet I felt I had to do it. There was a biological imperative that I could not resist; I was drawn not by disobedience but by the need to see the undiscovered land and the culmination of my speculation. The creek had to end up in the river, but where? What did it look like, and where did it go? My creek, and The River. The intersection would help define my place in the world.

Continued steep banks followed the creek after the bridge, but there was a tiny ledge along the creek, with winter-browned grass overhanging the water. And then trees, and then, the river, murky and dark under the cloudy skies. The creek spread out even more, flattening as it entered the river.

The River. The "blue" Juniata River. I had reached my goal. After nodding in satisfaction, I began to retrace my steps, doubly cautious not to fall into the creek or wade too deep for my rubber boots. More time had passed than I could account for if I had wet sneakers, and I knew I had barely enough time to get back before Mom came looking for me. I went straight home after reaching my starting point, and never told my parents that I succeeded in my crazy stunt until I was in my 40s.

And I never offered to guide friends down the creek to repeat the feat. Through the adventure, I understood that it was dangerous, with unacceptable risks, that my parents had been right to forbid it. Digusted by the sewage being dumped into the creek didn't thrill me, either; as a teen not so many years later, I was delighted to hear that the local government had mandated connection to the city sewer line for all residences.

I would have planted a flag if I had one, and if it wasn't so important to keep the event secret.


Anonymous said...

Probably very sensible to keep quiet about that one until it was too late to do anything about it.

Alexandra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexandra said...

What did I like so much about this one? Was it the insight into My Mother? More than that. Was it a "Wind in the Willows" meets "It" sense of mucking about on the river with undercurrents of childhood doom? That's part of it. I wanted to say there was a fascination with an alien realm of thought - I am far too much of a homebody to do something like you described here. It Could Be Dangerous! But then I remembered doing the same thing with freeways (to Modesto and to San Francisco) in my teens. Hmm. Not so alien an impulse after all. (Different planet, same world.) So it had to have been the Kenneth Grahame/Stephen King combo.

I always enjoy seeing into your head, but this one particularly so.

[I removed and reposted this comment so I could fix my typos.]