September 24, 2002, Category: Family

Back to 1980

I just saw “Stand by me Again.” I figured my kids would like it so we watched it as a family. It managed to stir up quite a bit…now if I can just get some of it out.I grew up on the edge of a small town which was planted out in the middle of red sand and sage brush. To pass the time, I used to start clubs, games, and stuff for me and the younger boys of the neighborhood, including my two younger brothers. Several times a year, we’d pack up sleeping bags, tents, pots, pans, and some food and head a mile out of town into the hills and camp for the night. I was a good kid and had a good reputation so the parents of the neighborhood trusted me to take their kids with me (sometimes as young as preschool!). And I was only 11 years old.

We learned how to be more efficient at the whole camping thing. I have a picture of one of our first trips. We have our stuff packed up into a wagon and, get this, tied to the top of an old lawnmower. It didn’t have a blade or motor, but it had four wheels and a handle. We tied a bunch of stuff on top of it and pushed/carried that damn thing about 3/4s of a mile through red sand and sage brush before realizing it was more work that it was worth. That old lawnmower sat at the bottom of a very sandy wash until about five years ago when a housing development moved in and flattened out the best playground in the world.
We camped at the same place every time. Starting from my house, we walked north a block to the top of the neighborhood, then turn right. Two houses later, the road turned to dirt and we were out of town, basically. On the right was sage brush, on the left we’d pass the old abandoned turkey farm (another great play area and meant for another story) and a large alfalfa field. After the half mile walk, we’d hit the end of the road and an unauthorized junkyard (and there are stories here too). At this point, our bike trails started. Sometimes we took our bikes camping but that would take two trips, so most of the time we’d leave them home.

The bike trails were the coolest…in fact, from this point (starting at the junkyard) and going about 300 yards in both directions was about the most fun place in the world. I’m getting sidetracked, I know, and it’s not good writing, but I have to tell you about this place. The dump was in a wash on the left and the trail crossed it on the right. On a bike, we’d ride down a small gully and try to pick up enough speed to climb the steep bank on the other side. It was a fifteen foot climb almost straight up. If you didn’t make it, chances are you’d roll backwards down the hill, which wasn’t fun. At the top, the trail flattened out for small stretch before dropping about 8 feet down into another wash. This was a quick drop down and right back up. Remember to lean back at the bottom or you’ll go right over your handlebars.

From the top of the second wash you were home free; smooth, fast riding with jumps, curves, and the trail packed down good and tight (remember, most of everything out here was sand). The final stretch was a mild descent where you could pick up enough speed to make the mild ascent up other side. All this covered about 200 or so yards. That trail was a blast. I can’t tell you how many times I rode it. Of course, right now we are on foot with our lawnmower, remember? At this point, we were at the mountain (calling it a mountain is a huge stretch) and the little cave.

There were lots of rumors about where the caves came from. There were two of them. The little cave (went about 15 feet deep) and the big cave (maybe 100 feet deep). Dang…and I could tell several stories here. I’m never going to get you out to the campground! I’ll make the last half mile fast. Climb up the mountain (yes, we still have the lawnmower), across the top, over an old barb wire fence, down a sandy hill (where you’d now see the lawnmower), and up one final hill. Now you can see our campsite in the valley below.

The campsite was at the bottom of a large wash. We liked this place because there were rocks to climb on, we couldn’t see or hear any sign of the town or other people, and to the south there were a few trees (rather than just sage brush). Calling them trees is a mighty stretch, believe me. They were really just large bushes that most of the time looked like sticks poking out of the ground about eight feet tall with a handful of leaves. Compared to the sage brush, however, they seemed like trees.. I always thought they were dying. They weren’t much. In fact, they smelled terrible in the summer. It was so hot and dry out there, I can’t imagine how they survived. We also stopped here because the black lava rock started. It came from the north and headed south…like a black river a half mile thick of sharp jagged black volcanic. Most of our adventures stopped short of the black rocks; I’ll force myself not to expound on the few that didn’t.

So, we camped here. We’d set up our tents, make a fire (I taught them how to do it using flint and steel), cook dinner, and play games (dirt clod wars, kick the can, tag, carve sticks…the list is endless) until the sun dropped. Then we’d lie on our backs around the fire and look at the stars…and talk. Man, I’d love to be able to walk back and sit hidden in the shadows and just observe us out there. Listen to our conversation…teasing about girlfriends, complaining about parents and teachers, and planning future adventures and trips.

On one of our trips, we took a boy who was staying with the Akins family on our street. He was from Chicago and several years younger than me. I can still remember his name, Colin Wompler. At any rate, he got really scared out there with us. In fact, I think that night we all got scared. We thought maybe a mountain lion was in the area. At any rate, we all huddled around the fire on a blanket for most of the night; jumping at every cracking branch or rustling brush…all night long. I think I made more promises to God that night than the rest of my life combined. After the campout he went back to Chicago and we never saw him again. I’ve often wondered if he still remembers that night out there camping with us.

Just before the sun came up, the coyotes always started yelping and crying. I don’t hear them anymore when I visit my parents house, but it was amazing. Better than Dobly 5.1 surround sound stereo. Most of the time, I was scared to death. I remember once lying in the tent holding a wooden spoon in one hand and a match in the other imagining that I’d set it a blaze and run out swinging it when the pack attacked us. In those moments, I sword I’d never come out camping again. But, the pack never attacked and chances are, within a month we’d be in the same situation all over again…scared and vowing never to return.

On rare occasions when I could relax enough to just listen, it was beautiful. It came from every direction. High pitched squeals, howls, and crying-like sounds…I imagined them out there playing and running around, wrestling. I mean, it sounded like they were having a lot of fun whatever it was they were doing. But…most of the time I had it in my mind that it was their war cry calling in all the cousins, aunt’s, and uncles to feast on the group of foolish boys in the valley.

Eventually, the howling stopped, the sun appeared, and we’d make breakfast and laugh at how scared we had been all night long. Not much later, we’d pack it all up and head back past the lawnmower towards home.

Man, we had some good times in those hills.

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