Hog’s Hollow Trail

The first and only time I went horseback riding, I got saddled (har-har) with a lackadaisical mule prone to biting. The rest of my girl scout troop got so far ahead on their horses the leader kept having to circle back to find me. Once I finally caught up, my mule sunk his teeth into the flank of another girl’s horse, sending it and her through a thicket of brambles. The girl got all scratched up and started to cry. One time this same girl had said to me “I’m glad your mother died” so I was mostly glad it happened to her and not me. Kids and horses can be so cruel.

Although my mule moseyed along the entire trail ride, he broke into an uphill sprint once we rounded the last bend and his water trough was in sight. Little fucker had been holding out and I can tell you I never brushed my Barbie horse’s mane as gently after that day. 

The reason I thought of that horse today is  because of motivation. He couldn’t be bothered to move without the promise of reward. Yesterday my youngest daughter, Audrey, and I had the day to ourselves so I gave her a few choices and naturally she picked going for a walk in the woods with sandwiches. Well, I don’t mean sandwiches walked alongside us, though how cute would that be? We combined our three favorite things: snacks, the potential though unlikelihood of getting lost, and also snacks. Typing snacks out twice reminded me how similar and different that word is from snakes. But more on those in a bit.

Once we parked in the trail lot, I let Audrey pick which way we’d go. She chose a trail we’d never taken before and then another that took us across a road onto a public two-mile trail along the outskirts of a private summer camp. The camp named it Hog’s Hollow Trail after an old farm they found on site with pigsties still intact. The trailhead map advertised points of interest like Bergdoll Estate Ruins and Unc’s Woods and I got so excited I forgot all about the sandwiches.


Not even a quarter mile in, we struck gold. I think we found the Bergdoll Estate ruins, or what was left after time and wisteria took over. Someone had come out recently and cut a lot of vines. We saw portions of stone walls and a series of buildings, some razed and others more intact. In the distance we saw the outwall of a building we couldn’t have walked away from if we’d tried. 

When we got to the big wall and crossed behind, we found it wide open, the roof long gone. This was where we both noticed a distinctly bad smell. It was probably just animal poop, but I think of it now as a warning neither one of us heeded.


The space inside was overgrown with vines and brush. Audrey saw an odd shaped stick poking out in the center and wanted to get closer because she was definitely not switched at birth. I was about 10 feet away taking pictures when I heard her matter-of-factly say “There’s a snake.” This is the same kid who froze minutes earlier over the sight of a passing bee, so I was more surprised than concerned. I couldn’t see a snake from where I was standing so I said “Well just come back the way you came” and she said “That is the way I came” and then her face and voice kind of crumbled.

I ran through the options quickly in my head.  1) panic and flee (but leave behind a sandwich) 2) find a good snake flinging stick 3) tramp down the brush from the other side so she could escape. 

I started with 3) and the heavens rewarded solid decision-making by causing the snake to slither away in the opposite direction so Audrey could walk out the way she came. I didn’t get a picture but googled and decided it was a red corn snake. I pulled it up on my phone and pretend read aloud “Non-poisonous though capable of ingesting children up to age nine”. Audrey fell for it at first but by that time we were safely back on the trail and had a good laugh. We both watched where we were walking for the rest of the hike.

This is her “I just saw a bee” face

It turns out those ruins were the highlight of the trail. There was a cool log we had to maneuver to cross a stream, plus the trail veered off down a steep riverbank, but we didn’t see any more ruins. The map promised more so we either missed them or they’re covered in wisteria. Don’t worry, we’ll go back.

I looked into the Bergdoll Estate and found a fascinating story about a playboy draft dodger-cum-fugitive who escaped capture by luring police with the promise of buried treasure and then slipped out a window and fled to Germany, where he started a family. Who knows why but Grover Cleveland Bergdoll later turned himself in and served eight years in prison before settling on his family farm on what is now wisteria and snake country. He later divorced his wife, moved to Virginia, went mad and spent his remaining years in a mental institution. I am not even making any of this up.

 

 

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To the basement

 

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I noticed a goose on the sharp angled porch roof as we drove past and that’s what made me finally stop. We’d driven past this beautiful wreck of a house literally hundreds of times, but I guess we were always in a hurry or never had the right goose to lure us over.

The goose was gone – if it was ever really there – by the time I turned at the next light, found a place to park and dodged endless mines of goose poop with my daughters in tow across an expansive, pitted field. Ogling abandoned houses is a family affair. My older daughter is pretty used to it by now and takes her own phone out for pictures. My younger one is pretty sure all abandoned houses are haunted, but she always wants to stop.

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This is an unusual property because it’s right in the middle of a suburban shopping center laid out to look like an old fashioned main street if Old Navy and Barnes and Noble had been around back then. Maybe that’s why this haunted-looking mansion didn’t give me the creeps. Maybe I put on a brave face for my kids or maybe I’m finally immune. I’ve been admiring decrepit houses since I was a kid myself.

Did that first house have a name? Did we call it anything? Not that I can remember.

At the end of my childhood street, there was a metal gate that our Hulk-green Chevy Vega once smacked against the night my dad forgot to set the parking brake. The Vega rolled down the gentle slope of our street while we slept and when my dad woke up the next morning and saw that it wasn’t parked out front, he scratched his head and wondered who would possibly steal such an ugly car. Maybe the Vega too felt an irresistible pull to the abandoned house beyond the gate, down the gravel drive along a narrow peninsula on the Chesapeake Bay. I don’t know who owned the land – 300 acres of prime, waterfront real estate – but in the mid 80s no one seemed to and so it became our secret neighborhood playground.

There were three old structures left on the land in varying states of decomposition: a small, one-story house with weathered clapboard siding but all windows intact; a large shed or small barn with a partially collapsed roof and a massive rusted tractor parked outside; and a collapsed pavilion down the hill by the water’s edge. I feel saddest about the pavilion because we never got to see it whole. My friend Beth and I used to climb up the slanted roof on Sunday afternoons and eat sandwiches her mother packed for us. Fact: sandwiches eaten in the wild always taste better. In the later days of our pavilion roof picnics, Beth and I ate while plotting how we could convince one of our parents to drive us to the movies so we could spend a beautiful spring afternoon away from sunshine and fresh air. By then the shed and house had burned to the ground, revealing a mossy set of stairs like broken teeth leading to a black belly of a room.

Those stairs had their own magnetic pull like the gate to a Vega. Beth and I used to dare each other to go down a certain amount of stairs. We’d start small, like I dare you to go down 2 steps. This was mostly a piece of cake because although some of the stairs were caked with slippery moss and wet leaves, there was still plenty of time to scramble back up if a ghost or worse suddenly appeared at the bottom. By the time we got to daring 7 or 9 steps, the amount of time it took to screw up enough nerve to go down that far took away precious time at the movies.

I only made it all the way down once and then only lingered for a few seconds in front of the cold, black doorway. I could sort of make out a table or shelf against one wall but could not tell how far the room went back or what else was inside. What if I’d brought along a flashlight and had the nerve to shine it? Would I have found the secret lair of devil worshipers whispered about at the back of the bus or only pockets of soot-soaked dampness? This is surprisingly not one of life’s regrets anymore. That may be because I once walked the main level of the house with my parents while it was still whole. We got to see what it was like before it became a ghost.

What stands out most about that time inside the house was the surprise of my parents doing something illegal. They were not the type to trespass, though there were no ‘keep out’ signs and we walked right through an open door. We found ourselves in a kitchen with dusty melamine dishes and cups scattered across a table, a chair knocked on its side. We took a quick tour through the other rooms, but the sight of those dishes spooked us. I think there was a cradle in one room, but realize this sounds made up. We had no idea about the basement until some neighborhood kids burned the house to the ground for fun within the year. That was an exciting but devastating day for all of us. We gained a mysterious basement but lost a slice of childhood.

After my parents and I visited that night, we wondered about the people who lived there and what happened to them. We decided something or someone had taken them by surprise while they were eating dinner. Never mind that the timing was all wrong for melamine dishware, but I suggested Indians and we went from there. We decided a man and woman had been eating dinner with their two young children. The father had a dark beard and wire rimmed glasses. The woman wore a flowered cotton dress and her pale hair in a bun. Their children were both fair and small, a boy and girl. They heard the too-close war cry of Indians and the father bolted up quickly, his chair clattering to the floor. The mother and father grabbed their little darlings and with no time to plan and nowhere else to go really, they both looked at each other and the father whispered the only hiding place he could think: to the basement.

The Doctor’s House

When a good sale came along in November, I remembered how cold it felt during lunch time walks last winter and bought a down parka with fur trimmed hood. I vowed to keep walking at lunch, not every day, but enough that I wouldn’t feel bad about it.

Then I had the parka going on two months and many days were as bitter cold as the parka was cozy warm, but still I hadn’t taken it for a lunch time walk. It wasn’t a conscious decision but more a reluctance to challenge myself because life felt hard enough already. I stand by that break, but maybe I forgot a little how good walking makes me feel. When I was ready, the reminders were there.

First I read a post by Michelle about how changing your scenery changes your perspective. She also mentioned wishing her eyes could take pictures, a thought I’ve had many times. When I go for walks, I often take pictures. The park where I walk is 700 acres with a dozen abandoned structures in varying states of decomposition. A creek cuts through woods and active farmland and there’s even a trout hatchery and bird blind by a secluded pond. It’s hard not to take pictures, and some even turn out.

The other thing that pushed me to get out and finally test the new parka was my husband saying he was planning to walk at lunch on the coldest day of the week like it was no big deal. He made me realize I could do it too.

I am happy to report the parka held up really well. I love any chance to wear the hood because it’s snug and I can slip it on like a wig and pretend to have another hair color for awhile. I like not dyeing my hair anymore and don’t ever want to go back, but sometimes grey feels dreary and pulling a crazy hood on fixes that somehow.

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A big fluffy hood can also be disorienting. It muffles sound and blocks peripheral vision. I like to feel on my toes in a park with miles of winding trail where some days you can walk a half hour without seeing anyone. I took the hood off while stopping to take pictures in front of the Doctor’s House.

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Out of all the abandoned structures that dot the park, The Doctor’s House feels the creepiest. The first time I set out to find it, I had a map and was so excited and walked right up by the bilco doors to get a closeup of the crumbling stucco. I swore I heard tinny music that was probably not my phone playing music from the muffled recess of my pocket, though the thought is comforting now. I got my pictures and got the hell out and didn’t go back for awhile.

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The other day there were lots of walkers out, so I went by again and stopped to take a few pictures, including the one above. Though it was a split second before my mind processed crumbling porch post, I saw her. A girl. I quickly looked back at the house and chuckled to myself and got the hell out of there to visit another creepy, but more lonely, house.

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I wanted to write a story about the Doctor’s House since I saw its name on a wooden sign at a crossroads in the park. It seems like the kind of story that would write itself, but so far my ideas aren’t very good.  I know it has its own story and while I haven’t been able to figure out what that is, that’s what keeps me coming back.

Today I went to a different part of the park and caught a squirrel trying to drag a corn husk up a tree. I tried to take a picture but it didn’t turn out and my attention flustered him so much he dropped the corn. Other squirrels chittered and skittered in nearby trees and I felt bad and moved on.

Now that I’ve seen every landmark on the map of the seven hundred acre wood, I can go back and spend more time in between. The camera will always be in my pocket but I won’t always use it. I still remember perfectly well what that squirrel looked like dragging his bright yellow husk up the tree, which would have been like you or I trying to lug an overstuffed armchair up a flight of stairs.

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taken in spring, see the yellow wildflowers in the background?

A trio of treats before two

It wasn’t even 11am when we witnessed a grandfatherly type make a pass at a female clown. He asked what her name was and when she told him Sweet Heart he said “That’s a pretty name. Can you share some of that sweetness with me?”

“Right now I’m working,” she said, more resigned than annoyed, like it happens all the time, men hitting on her when she’s in mustard yellow ringlets, full clown makeup and shoes the size of Texas. Her words forced our attention to the agile flicks and twists of her hands as she pumped and threaded balloons into a skeleton before our eyes. We were well down the street of the festival before we noticed the skeleton only had one eye so we’ll never know why. Maybe he’s winking, I suggested.

The haircut place had its own fun.  I was buried in a garish children’s book about mummies and only put it back (sheepishly) once I realized my kid had been called minutes ago and I had no excuse to still be reading. Mummies are fascinating but eavesdropping is safer because you can pretend to be thinking about grown up things.

A guy in his 30s was in the chair closest to me with a young pink-haired stylist on one side and another woman, his girlfriend or wife, giving orders from behind. “Take a little more off the top, but not too flat” she instructed, while the man sat looking dim but content. I wondered if he was mute or foreign, but after the woman wandered off to talk to another stylist, he yelled across the room “Hon, how do I want my sideburns?”

I studied his haircut as surreptitiously as possible once the cape came off and he stood and fairly beamed. The cut suited him, if only because I’d  never seen anyone look as happy as I feel when I get a good haircut. He swaggered over to his lady and took a bite of the apple she’d been eating and they traded it back and forth for awhile. Once I saw a small child share an apple with a dog but that was kind of cute.

On the way home, we parked by a trail we hadn’t been to in ages and weren’t the only ones to neglect. Already narrow paths were eroding into the creek. I had to warn the kids not to fall in but they were busy jabbing each other with sticks. Several large trees had fallen across the trail at various points. I banged my shin hard climbing across one, not because the walk was cursed but because I was in jeans with a belly full of cheese curd from the festival.

We took the high trail by mistake and came out above the mysterious amphitheater and had to go the long way around a meadow of goldenrod and bees. We’ve always wondered about this amphitheater in the middle of the woods. Who dragged the lumber a mile from the trail head or maybe across a raging creek to build it? And why? Has it ever been used aside from mock pulpit lectures by power-hungry children on family hikes?

Sadly it’s in bad shape, and my shin too, though I managed a series of selfies.

 

The top photo is me not understanding how to work the timer. (My oldest daughter’s expression is my favorite part.) The middle picture is me not understanding mirror images and which side to sit on. Third time’s the charm!

 

Homework, for life

Homework for Life | Matthew Dicks | TEDxBerkshires

Someone shared this recently and I decided I would try to do it every day, though first thing in the morning because that works better, and in full paragraphs rather than just a few sentences.

The idea is to choose one thing from your day that you could turn into a 5-minute story. I already journal, so it’s a natural fit, and I’m finding the practice feels more focused and generates less whine.

The speaker compares the practice to meditation and promises it will change our lives and I’m a little excited because it may already be working.

Yesterday I forced myself out for a walk during lunch break, even though it had been over a week and my fitness level is so low I don’t even want to exercise. I forgot that could happen, but it can. Sad.

Speaking of sad, I was walking along a razed cornfield and saw all the trash that blew in and got trapped, ugly like scars. The path followed between trees no longer a bustling canopy but naked and silent. The birds will come back, as will the leaves and corn, but it isn’t the same without them. I wondered why I’d want to keep coming in winter with nothing to look at or listen to.

This will sound nutty, but sometimes I feel myself pulled in a certain direction. It’s not exactly physical, but I don’t know how else to describe it. Yesterday something pulled me down a grassy path I’d never noticed before. That’s when I saw a pond I’d never noticed before. 

On the way to the pond, I passed a cluster of trees and a smaller pond and saw out of the corner of my eye a charming wooden statue that I first mistook for Smokey the Bear or a murderer. Relieved it was not the latter, I stopped to take pictures and never made it to the big pond, but thought to myself no rush. I have all winter.

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Truth is, I didn’t think there were any more suprises in this park. I thought I’d seen just about every nook and cranny, and then I felt that pull again and followed the new path around and found fun new graffiti I never would have seen otherwise.

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This Homework for Life might really work. Knowing that I get to pick one thing from each day to write about – a mini story – might sharpen my ability to see.  It might propel me to take new paths. I’m not sure, but by yesterday afternoon I already knew what I would write about. I already have my story for today too.

One of the things the homework for life guy promises is if you do it consistently, time will slow down. This is the part I want the most and don’t believe will happen. 

Fall flew by and the holiday season is almost over and I still feel like I’m hovering somewhere off screen. It’s not entirely unpleasant and memories tell me we lived a full Fall and will be able to say the same at Christmas. But still, if I could just slow it all down, even just by a noticeable increment, I think I would like to do that.

A coworker shared an interesting theory about why time seems to fly more by the year. She said think back to a summer when you were a little kid and how that one season was such a big chunk of your overall short life. Then jump ahead 40 years, and one summer is just a blip. The older you get, the faster it goes until one season seems a blur.

Maybe this building momentum of the passage of time is inevitable, like getting older in general. We can’t fight gravity, but a minute always lasts the same amount of time. So the blur must be perception and there’s got to be a way to feel more present inside it.

I feel like when I wake up soon, the kids will be grown and we’ll have new cats and will have forgotten the names of the ones we have now. Rip Van Winkle meets Homework for Life. This is what I’m playing with at the moment and it beats stressing out over Christmas, which I am also doing, so maybe it’s more of a break.

If you have tips for slowing down the passage of time that doesn’t involve plastic surgery or meditation (none for me, but thanks anyway!), I’m all ears.

 

Hike: A Guest Post by Kristen Rybandt

This week I got to guest blog over at Michelle’s Lipstick and Laundry! Michelle is a terrific writer and she’s kind and enthusiastic and, above all, the real deal. We bonded over a mutual love of old buildings and stories, and basically I want to be like her when I grow up.

The other night, I sat on my 7 year-old daughter’s bed and read the guest post about taking a hike and getting lost from my smartphone, like our parents used to do with us, and a curious thing happened. Both cats came out of nowhere, one squeezing all but her tail underneath a dresser, and the other settled in the shadows behind the bed to have a listen. Did you know cats like bedtime stories? Kids like them too, as my girl listened to the whole thing and declared “it was kind of long, but I really liked it.” Kid, you lived it.

Thank you, Michelle, for letting me guest blog and for being you.

 

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Click here to read: Hike: A Guest Post by Kristen Rybandt

 

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