I’ve been moving lightly on foot along the worn trail, two text books and two spiral notebooks tucked comfortably but securely under my arm. It’s a gorgeous morning in late April, and the growth of the foliage has been gaining momentum. It’s more lush, greener every day now.
I left home twenty minutes ago. I’ve just hopped the creek -not high enough to be bothersome this week- and continue through a grove of locust trees to the bramble patch. I duck and dodge through it, shortly emerging from the tunnel of stickers at the foot of a steep bank of crushed rock at the railroad bed.
And there sits the train.
The line of rust-colored boxcars remains motionless on the tracks, the behemoth ghostly silent. It’s a little spooky to come upon an otherwise breathtakingly noisy machine when it‘s at rest. Anyway, I’ve learned that trains occasionally stop on this section of track, and when one starts to move again it’s ever so gradually, and accompanied by a magnificent chorus of creaking, squealing, and groaning.
I certainly don’t have time to wait for such a ‘concert’ today so I dive under a boxcar marked like all the rest -with a faded N&W in six-foot-high letters – and out the other side. I brush the coal dust off of my hands as I continue my journey. I follow the path up a steep hill, winding through small scrub pine and honeysuckle, until at the top I come out into the open on a grassy hilltop at the edge of the Virginia Western Community College campus. I can now see my objective: James Madison Junior High School, perched on the hill opposite me.
In five minutes I’m across Colonial Avenue and up the green grassy slope by Fishburn Elementary. Almost there. I negotiate the bustle of yellow school buses coming and going, and I smile at the noises the buses make as their drivers cajole them up and down the steep hill, grinding through the gears of cantankerous transmissions, diesel combustion and exhaust adding layers to the soundscape. I merge into the stream of fellow students funneling into the chaotic – and I do mean chaotic – halls of Madison. There are a few calls of greeting from me and to me as I weave my way to my home room.
The year is 1971. I’ve been walking to school since first grade, when I showed up at our neighborhood school, Crystal Spring Elementary, in the fall of ’64. That mile-and-a-half-each-way jaunt was a necessity – there wasn’t school bus service, but I wouldn’t have ridden the bus anyway. The walk was most pleasant whether in company with siblings or friends or the typical situation – solo.
Yes, from the start it was an especially engaging and interesting part of my day, the challenge of avoiding a run-in with the big bully Dick W. halfway home notwithstanding. Aside from occasional dalliances commuting on my bike, walking remained my normal mode of transportation throughout my years at Crystal Spring.
When I switched schools – on to junior hig h- I could have ridden a bus since there was a regular route, but I didn’t want to; I wanted to walk, if possible, and beyond that to be in control, if in only a small way, of my immediate destiny. The great thing was that there was a no kidding back country route from my house to school that I pioneered from the start of my Madison days, reasonable in distance and appealing in aesthetics.
No, my walking route to Madison was not a straightforward sidewalk stroll as was my way to Crystal Spring. Most of it was on dirt trails and included lots of ups and downs. It took me about thirty minutes each way and It went like this: Down the steep hill of Dillard Road from my house, then across Avenham Avenue and then busy, four-lane Rt. 220 /-Franklin Road.
I’d then duck into the woods behind Bill ‘n Buddy’s beer, candy, and smokes store. Next I’d go up the forested hillside on a path that led through a cleared building lot and into more woods skirting the Williamsburg apartments and a few houses. The trail then took me deeper into the forest, past a fallen down barn, an abandoned pickup truck that had been parked there for a few decades, and rusty machinery being reclaimed by Mother Earth. Then the route tended downhill along a long-abandoned woods road before veering off toward the creek, which was crossed by hopping along a few well-placed rocks. Next was traversed the bramble patch, the railroad tracks, the hillside climb to the community college, and you know the rest.
Then, as now, I loved being outside – a dyed-in-the-wool, restless introverted nature lover I guess. I love the earthy aroma of the woods, the feel of the air in its complex combinations of temperature, humidity, and breeze, and in the springtime the smell of the forest floor – the dirt itself – bursting with life. And I’m crazy about the simple act of just moving along, walking at a good clip, anywhere, but especially through the forest.
My walk to school was always meditative, contemplative. My best thinking then as now was done on foot. I thought about my future, I contemplated my brief past. The walk often took my thinking beyond my immediate, often-unsettling, middle school world. Where would life take me?
One day in the dirt of the path near the creek I found an exquisite prehistoric projectile point. Brushing the soil off it, excitedly turning it over in my hand, I felt a connection with the ancient one who last handled the spearhead, a person whose life was so different from mine yet bound by the commonality of universal joys and concerns and timeless questions. I liked thinking that the two of us walked those woods as companions across the ages.
During my three years of junior high school my walk to school continued to be a peaceful backdrop to an otherwise tumultuous time in my life. Interestingly, if not unfortunately, the route that I walked those decades ago would be almost impossible to traverse today, mainly because busy interstate 581 now runs up the valley between the creek and the railroad tracks, the corridor bearing nonstop roaring cars and trucks. But the wooded hillsides I hiked remain.
Sometimes when I’m driving down that stretch of highway today I glance over to those steep forests and I get a hazy glimpse back in time of a boy steadfastly making his way through a world that can be cruel, finding a bit of serenity however brief in the simple act of walking through the woods to school.