When I could break untamable horses and catch fish with a spear…

When I was younger, a little girl all wrapped up in the magic of this place, my favorite book of all time was “My Side of the Mountain.” I’m sure you’ve read it. It’s 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, funny how those details escape me no matter how many times I went over the pages and marked my favorite parts. The parts where there were 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 deep in the rubble of the basement. It was one I could not give up to charity or to my younger sister. She just wouldn’t understand. She was a normal girl after all. A normal girl who read about horses and babysitting and a guy named Harry Potter.

Oh, I read about horses too. Horses that needed to be rescued from an island and a kid who became friends with a wolf, and another kid who overcame obstacles and won the Iditarod with a pack of misfit dogs and a whistle. I read about little girls growing up on the prairie during the homesteading days, riding in covered wagons, getting lost in blinding snow storms and making dolls out of corn cobs. I made one of those dolls myself.

I wanted to be these kids.

I wanted to be the free-spirited girl who broke the free-spirited horse. I wanted to live in a time where there was no “Garfield and Friends” on television, where we ate what we planted and went to school in a one room school-house. I wanted to be the girl who beat up the bully and wore pants when dresses were the rule.

I wanted to break the rules. I wanted to tame a wolf puppy, train a wild falcon to hunt, catch fish with a spear I sharpened out of a tree branch and exist in a far away time where those things were necessary for survival.

Screw microwave popcorn and Super Mario brothers, I wanted adventure!

And I wanted to live in the wilderness like the kid I came to love in “My Side of the Mountain.”

I am sure I wasn’t unlike most kids at 9 or 10 or 11 years old. We all wanted to prove our capabilities, stand out from the crowd, be the best at something. At that age most of us were lost in some sort of fantasy, whether it was flying to the moon, getting a puppy or discovering that elves really do live under mushrooms like in that book we just read. We all had a little more confidence than we had experience at the real world

So I’d like to think that it wasn’t that unusual that I, a 10-year-old girl who already lived about as far out in the middle of nowhere as anyone could live, had convinced myself that I could survive out in the wilderness alone. Without a house. Or a toilet. Or my momma’s cheeseburger chowder.

Yes, there was a time that was my plan. And let it be known that as a kid, I was pretty serious about these kinds of things. In the evenings I would step off of the bus from a day at country school, grab a snack, and head out up the creek behind our house. For months I would work on building what I called “secret forts” all along the creek that winds through our ranch. In the oaks and brush that grew along the bank I would identify just the right tree, one that was bent over just so, growing parallel to the ground, a perfect frame for which to create a sort of tent like structure out of fallen logs. And then I would begin the tedious process of locating and moving fallen branches, branches that took every ounce of muscle and try in my spindly little body to budge out of their place under overgrown vegetation and fallen leaves. But when it was dislodged from its space, I would drag it back to my tree and hoist it up to rest next to the last one I had managed to maneuver.

It would take a few days, but eventually I would have my secret fort enclosed with every moveable log and branch within a 100 foot radius. And when it was complete I would look around to make sure my little sister hadn’t followed me here like she did last time, identifying my plan and ruining the secrecy of the secret forts.

And then I would lay down inside of  it. And under the flawed “shelter” of fifty logs leaning on a tree, providing nothing but a faulty wind break for the day dreaming girl laying on her back in the grass and leaves and twigs underneath, I would think about my next move. I would need a door. Yes. That would be necessary. I could make the door the way I imagined Huck Finn made his raft. I would need some rope. Some rope and a knife. I wonder if dad would let me carry a knife? I need some sort of blanket. Maybe there’s something in the barn. Oh, and a fire. Of course!

I would be scouring the creek bottom for granite rocks to arrange in a proper fire circle when the sun sink down below the banks and I would decide I wasn’t quite ready to spend the night. Besides, I forgot to bring a snack and the wild raspberries weren’t quite ripe yet. Taking one last look at my creation and deciding to reevaluate the next afternoon, I would turn my back to it and follow the cow trail back toward the house where my little sister was likely lurking in the shadows, having found out my secret again, begging me to let her help next time. Begging me to let her in the fort as the sun gave off its last light and we argued and grappled until we could smell dad’s steaks on the grill or mom’s soup on the stove.

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 site.

I thought I wanted to be alone out there, left to my own survival skills, but it turned out that having company was a nice addition, no matter how stubborn and annoyingly curious that company might be. 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 berries, tried to catch frogs and minnows in the pond and spent our evenings planning our next move: spending the night.

But we never did it. We never spent the night. 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 toilet is doing the thing where it leaks, burnt casserole from the night before sits waiting for a clean-up on my countertop, the television’s blank and broken.

There’s no morning news today.

No one but me and the wind out here. The wind that seems to be calling me this morning to get out of the house. Come out of behind those curtains, from under the shelter of the shingles. Come have an adventure girl. Come dream about hollowed out trees, living on wild berries, building a fire for warmth and living a life like no one lives anymore.

I step outside and follow the trail to the creek bed, trying to remember where I set that first fort. Trying to remember what pulled me out here all of those years ago. Trying to remember the fantasy, the magic as the cold bites at my cheeks and the snow crunches under my feet.

I turn around and I miss my sister.

I turn around and I’m alone. Alone with a woman who used to be a girl I knew, a girl who thought she could tame wolves, fight off the bad guy, break untamable horses and live alone in the wild.

I follow the creek and look for her. I know she’s here somewhere. I hope she hasn’t given up.

I could really use her right now.

16 thoughts on “When I could break untamable horses and catch fish with a spear…

  1. I doubt very much she has given up on u. Life can sure get busy w/ things and some days..more than one..we need to reflect on how we became the ppl we are as adults. Most likely we go back to a certain age..like the country song, “Remember When.” Live, Laugh, Love and Thanks..very beautiful written as usual.

  2. What a wonderful post! Very similar to my childhood, only I had three big brothers who taught me how to make such “tent forts” ~the forts the cows had no problem stomping down. And our hand-hued log cabin were left half done before we out-grew the family adventure of building our own cabins that mom and dad would never know about. Perhaps we would have finished at least one, if we hadn’t each had to have our own. Best Regards, and here’s hoping your sis pays you a visit. 🙂

  3. My Side of the Mountain, one of my all time favorites. It marked me for life, I haven’t gotten there yet, but working on it. 🙂 Meet you there one day. . . . .

  4. I used to do that, too, build forts. But I had BAD brothers who would tear up my secret spots. You at least had your wilderness experience and have that to draw upon. Did you ever read Caddie Woodlawn? It was my favorite. That girl will always live in you.K

  5. Growing up in the country…on a ranch…you are comfortable with isolation and you have learned how to do and take care of life in the country…horses, cows, dogs, cats and you…and you just live….that is a gift we have been given:) I thought everyone was like me in my country girl thinking but we are uniquely from a different world and I love being a country cowgirl:) Thank you for sharing this as it brought back lots of memories growing up for me too. I too was used to being alone on my horse…always outside exploring. I did not like TV….still am not crazy about it…but I love to read and I still love the quiet:)

  6. Jess you are AWESOME!!! Childhood 101. We had many named big ponderosa pine trees and forts but they surrounded the capitol of ND. I still go look at those trees forty or so years later and they look so big but I know the crook I layed in 30 feet off the ground then…Not a care…I remember my first horse that was very broke but at sixty six inches tall and a mere 100 lb.s and he sixteen hands …well he didnt seem so broke. What it just took is charachter, courage and little IMAGINATION.
    You have that in spades and I love you for it. I love looking in your rear view mirror. What I see is entertaining, sad, growth producing and just so memorable.
    I will share your looks into the rear and front veiw mirror anyday.
    I cant wait to see what you see when you are forty or fifty or sixty years older.
    You are so sweet and so refreshing…..Thank you for today….

  7. Country kids/city kids…we all seem to want to build a fort! 🙂 Keep those great memories alive Jess in your writings and your songs. They are too precious to be buried under a pile of fallen leaves near a hidden creek. Rich

  8. Did you ever read “Brendan Chase”, English author probably circa 1940s. Same theme. Living rough for 9 months. Still have my copy.

  9. Jesse……….thank you for sharing your art and your life………Guess we are fortunate to have these thumbs, otherwise, in many areas we are so less gifted than our four legged friends.gg

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