When I was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, our house had the good fortune of being located right next to a small-ish plot of undeveloped land, sandwiched between our cul-de-sac and a park in the next town. A swinging gate in the chain-link fence was all that separated our backyard from it. It was filled with short creeks, standing and fallen trees, mud, rocks, logs, small woodland creatures, bugs, and the occasional rope to swing on.
In other words, it was a young boy's paradise. My brother and I knew it simply as the Woods, although perhaps it didn't deserve the capital letter because it was such an everyday presence in our life. Sometimes we'd find other kids out there to play with, sometimes not. Sometimes we wouldn't even go out there together. It seemed to change constantly, always opening up new places to climb or swing or jump. It didn't matter; the place was always chock full of imagination, of things to look at and places to explore.
On rainy days, we had cartoons and Legos in the basement. When that got boring, we had our own version of indoor soccer to play. On hot summer days, we had all-year passes to the swimming pool four blocks away. But the Woods were always there, and any time of year we could always go back that way to burn off some adrenaline. It was my one favorite place to go throughout my childhood, as long as I could remember.
Until about age twelve, that is, when the finally began to develop the area. I remember one or two summers when we had as much fun exploring the construction sites as we did exploring the Woods, but there wasn't quite as much there. The dumpsters were interesting to explore, but we knew that the nailed boards had to be avoided, and that put a limit on things. When the homes were completed, we were glad to discover that the young families moving into them had plenty of babysitting jobs available to our teenaged family members, myself included.
But I missed the Woods, inside me, in the part that would always be an adrenaline-surged boy. It was doubtless a big part of the reason I stayed in Boy Scouts until I turned eighteen, to retain the chance to go hiking in the great outdoors and exploring something man hadn't had a chance to clean up and make totally safe yet.
Three months ago, now twenty-five years old and almost married, I took a new job. The very Monday I began work happened to be an all-company meeting held in the lodge house at a nearby state park, Starved Rock. I attended, although I didn't say much since I didn't yet have any feedback to offer on how the company's policies were working for me. But I was inwardly overjoyed to find out we'd have time to explore the park on our own, which is exactly what I did. I hadn't made any friends in the company yet, but I doubt that would have mattered; I would have preferred to explore on my own anyhow.
I took the longest possible walk that I could, down by the Illinois River (disgusted by the sight of the power dams) and then up through the woods (as far from roads and cabins as I could get). On a second swing by the river, I noticed a short non-path leading to a high rock. I walked through the low brush towards it -- graffiti artists had been there already. I walked a little more -- there were areas to climb on. Knowing full well I wasn't supposed to be doing it, I started to climb just to see how high I could go. The sandstone rocks were stepped more conveniently than you'd expect, although being tall makes it easier to climb three-foot rocks than it would be for most people. I kept going just to see how far I could get.
Finally, I reached a short fence, and I realized I was at an overlook I had passed an hour earlier on the trail. I looked around at the view from where I was (beyond the protective fence), and it was beautiful. I realized after a minute or two that this overlook seemed familiar for a reason: many years before, I'd tried climbing down it while on a Boy Scout outing, and had been reprimanded severely by adults and Scouts alike for being so suicidal. I laughed out loud for a good, long while.
Then I climbed all the way back down, just to prove to them that I could.
Which just goes to show that you can take a kid out of the woods, but you can never take the woods out of a kid.