Growing up, across Main Street from my house was a large park, three blocks long, where The Shack and a playground and the little league field and some other things lived. On the opposite side of that park was The Crick, and on the other side of that crick was a heavily wooded hill that sloped up sharply and watched over the park at all times.
On warm summer nights, the thousands of cicadas in those hundreds of trees would send a shimmering wave of song across the crick and the park and the street into my open bedroom window and lull me to sleep.
So it may not surprise anybody that I was drawn to those woods as a kid, even though — like the crick — my mother expressly forbade me to play there. Not so much because there was a wolf in them, but I suspect because cricks and woods are the enemies of clean clothes and an open invitation to catch poison ivy.
At age ten, during one of the many times that I absolutely did NOT go playing in those woods (in case my mother is reading this), I wanted to find out what was at the top of the woods. So I patiently climbed what amounted to the length of a football field up a 45-degree incline, grabbing trees along the way to keep from slipping back down.
What I discovered at the top was something I hadn’t quite expected. A narrow, well-worn path that immediately set my imagination on fire. Who had worn the path? And where did it go?
Curious as I was, though, I didn’t choose to follow the path that day. I’m not sure why. Maybe because it seemed as if I’d already pressed my luck. Or maybe because I wasn’t feeling brave enough to do it on my own.
Fortunately, my best friend at the time, Andy, was a much braver soul than I was. Fearless even. So I told him about the path, and one summer day not long after this, we resolved to explore it together.
Less fortunately, my little brother chose that day to follow me around like a shadow. And so, as little brothers will do, he threatened to tattle on me to our mother if I didn’t let him tag along.
Which is how the three of us ended up scaling the steep wooded hill beyond the crick together late one afternoon, with Andy the Brave in the lead, Me the Curious behind him, and my Brother the Annoying bringing up the rear.
Once we reached the path at the top, a decision had to be made about which way to go. Left or right? Really, though, it was a no-brainer. Because going left seemed to veer immediately into a residential area. And where was the adventure in that?
But going right would take us in the direction of Downtown.
Now, I’d been Downtown many times of course. For church or ice cream or to go shopping for school supplies or to buy a new wiffle ball. But at that age, I’d never gone there without parental supervision before and was fairly certain my mother wouldn’t approve.
Which is why I would never have simply stepped out my front door, for instance, and walked down Main Street to get there. But … this was a path in the woods, not a street. Which made it kind of like international waters, right? So did the normal rules really apply?
For better or worse, I decided they didn’t.
The road to Trouble is paved with sketchy rationalizations like this one.
Next thing I knew, we were walking single file along the path, looking down at the park below us. For a couple of ten-year-olds and one seven-year-old, there was an undeniable rush of power in this activity. Everybody and everything looked smaller from the path, and nobody down there could see us.
We passed the baseball field. And then the playground. And then The Shack. And then the tennis/basketball court. And then the football field. And then … the end of the park.
From this point on, we were officially in uncharted territory.
Almost immediately, the hill grew shorter, and the path drew closer to the crick. Now, instead of looking at the park, we were looking at the backsides of people’s houses. At their small, unkempt yards and sliding doors and strewn toys and aboveground swimming pools and dogs tied to trees.
While I couldn’t have described it at the time, I recognize now that this was an altogether different kind of power. An awkward kind. Seeing things that maybe nobody wanted us to see. Things that were hidden if you looked at the front of these homes from the street.
Living in a house that backed up to the woods like that might make you believe in a kind of privacy that clearly didn’t exist. The same kind of privacy that we all probably believe we have now, every time we send an email or do a Google search. But I digress …
A few minutes later, before we really expected it to happen, we reached the end of the line and the path let out onto a street. But which street?
In hindsight, the smart thing to do would have been to double back along the path, climb down the hill, and return to the park. But we were too curious about which street it was. Or at least I was. Because it didn’t look familiar to us. Which is a strange sensation to have when you live in a town as small as we did. So we pressed on.
Making a right, which we knew would take us in the direction of Main Street, we saw homes that looked considerably more run-down than the ones we were used to seeing, either where we lived (which was considered “Uptown”) or the tourist-friendly buildings Downtown.
Another block later, it dawned on us that this was York Street. Which was basically the dividing line between Uptown and Downtown. Closer to the river, York was the street the library was on. But over here, closer to the woods, it was where the less advantaged families in town lived.
And realizing this, suddenly all the power we’d been feeling back on the path drained out of us. Because here, we were just three little kids who were clearly out of their element. After all, this was the street where the worst bully in our school lived. And if he lived here, then what other dangers might literally be lurking around the corner?
Again, the smart thing to do at this point might have been to double back the way we’d come. But instead, for whatever reason, we pressed on, our hearts now racing a bit.
Another block later, we reached the familiar sight of Main Street and breathed a collective sigh of relief.
We knew we were home free now. All we had to do was make another right and we’d be back home in no time. And so with renewed energy and even a skip in our step, we did just that.
As it turns out, we had only gone two blocks past the far end of the park. Which was nothing, really. But for some reason, it had seemed much farther than that. More like a mile.
When we passed the end of the park, though, we saw something that sent a fresh chill down our spines.
Because a block away from us was the street that Andy lived on, and we could see them. Our parents. All four of them were in a group at the corner, pacing around and seeming agitated. And we had a good idea why. It was close to dinnertime, and we hadn’t come home yet. And hadn’t come running when our names were called.
For a split second, I wondered whether we should turn back. Simply make our way along Main and York and the path and down the hill to the park and pretend as if we’d been playing in the crick all the while and lost track of time.
But it was too late. They’d already spotted us.
And so, once more, we pressed on.
Hindsight being 20/20, I should never have let my little brother tag along with us. Or Andy and I should have saved the adventure for another day. Because while my mother wasn’t happy with what I’d done or where I’d gone, it was the fact that I’d involved my seven-year-old brother in the caper that was the major sticking point. “What were you thinking?!”
Long story short, I ended up being grounded for a week. Which sucked. But I’d be lying if I said the grounding wasn’t completely worth it.
Less than a year later, when the school year ended, Andy and his family would move halfway across the country, and I would never see him again. Because although Missouri was only about a thousand miles away, in a time before email and Zoom it may as well have been Mars.
Around that same time, my little brother would start playing little league baseball. Which, as it turned out, was his first step onto a sport-focused path that would, over time, widen the gap between us. It didn’t take long for him to stop following me around and for the three years between us to eventually grew into a divide that felt more like thirty.
Distances are strange like that, whether it’s blocks, miles, or years. What’s close can seem far away, and what’s far away can feel as if it’s in the same room.
Case in point, I was on a call today with a friend and client in the United Kingdom who is easily three times further away from me than Missouri. Yet thanks to the internet, we communicate regularly. And I have other friends in places as far off as Australia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Ultimately, what defines the impact that distance has on us isn’t how we measure it but the story it tells.
After all, it’s possible to drive for hundreds of miles on the highway, during which nothing of interest happens, and not think twice about it.
But it’s also just as possible to walk two blocks past the end of the park across the street and have the adventure of a lifetime in less than an hour. One that will stick with us even decades later.