As a child I felt no strong desire to go to Disneyland. We had something much better just a short walk away. Usually we ran. It started with a slide, but no playground equipment stood near. A wilder ride awaited us at the top of the forested ravine. The dirt path through the trees to the creek lay steep-sloped and was best negotiated sitting down. Focused on the imminent descent, I no longer heard the forest birds calling. I stopped noticing the change from bright light to the cool darkness of the woods. My brain noted the place where the big oak loomed against the path, forcing a sharp curve around it.
I bent my legs and held my knees against my chest, thus releasing the brakes of my legs formerly stretched out with their dug-into-the-dirt heels. The ride was fast. Though scary, it was the most fun to go first and be able to watch from the bottom as the other kids took their turns hurtling down the path. Once we’d all reached the bottom, we checked the creek for animal activity first thing. Minnows and water striders (Wikipedia lists 13 common names!) were the main event unless we took time to look under rocks for crayfish.
For us the Gully was a place apart from civilization and its distractions. Our senses came alive there and our bodies reveled in the movement like Wordsworth above Tintern Abbey describing those “aching joys” and “glad animal movements” of his boyhood. In the Gully we heard no people talking in their yards, no lawn mowers, not even distant traffic. Creek music accompanied us from beginning to end. We followed the waterway like a ridge top trail, only our mountain ridge lodged upside down with the “top” deep down in the earth. Instead of high, wide views, we saw an intimate corridor created by the water before us. We felt beckoned by whatever waited around the bend.
The stream through “our” northeastern Ohio hardwood forest was so chockfull of stones that we could “rock hop” along every twist and turn of the deep ravine to its end nearly a mile away at the Chagrin River. Near the end we listened for the waterfall through the woods. This anticipated sound made us run/rock hop faster. “I Hear It!” could have been the name of the falls, because whoever could first discern the water’s roar through the trees always shouted so. We still had to be careful during this acceleration because there was a contest each time we went to the Gully. Whether tacit or spoken, the agreement was whoever misstepped on a rock and slipped a tennis-shoed foot into the stream first lost—and was teased for getting the first “soaker.” I can remember leaping from rock to rock and feeling as graceful as a deer. As Wordsworth wrote, “…like a roe I bounded…by the sides of the deep rivers, and the … streams...” The feeling was so strong and true that often when I see a deer I think of the Gully, even though I never saw one there. In autumn rock hopping’s pace slowed. A Charlotte North Carolina poet, Maureen Ryan Griffin, writes about the Cherokee name “when the leaves are in the water.” During that time when leaves blanket both rocks and water the avoidance of a soaker becomes a nearly impossible feat.
Another impossibility was calling the place anything but “the Gully” when we were kids. Though the creek and big ravine ended spectacularly at the river with its slightly upstream waterfall and lake spread between the woods above it, we didn’t say we were going to the river, the falls, or the lake. It was the trip through the ravine itself that really mattered to us. Like younger children at story time with a favorite book, we looked forward to every familiar part to come. We named these places too: the Grapevine, Picnic Rock, the Skunk Cabbage Patch, the Log, Diamond Camp—each family of siblings had their own camp or fort.
We walked in the Gully in all seasons, and enjoyed watching what was familiar change, yet stay the same. Robins left in the fall, but chickadees, blue jays, and cardinals stayed with us in winter. Once after a big thunderstorm we saw the effects of flooding. The “gully washer” seemed to have deposited more debris than it carried away. Brown leaves wedged together in snags of broken branches, big and small, throughout the Gully. We couldn’t believe what we saw in the Shales. The smooth shale bed had disappeared! Another look revealed it had moved several yards downstream. I swear it was true. I didn’t know such things could happen. I thought only glaciers and volcanoes could move rock beds.
The Grapevine gave me another lesson about change. It hung from a tall tree halfway up the steep hill. Already cut at the bottom for swinging, the vine swayed slightly at this end—a seductive dance initiated by the wind in the tree tops. We took turns swinging. With a double-handed grasp, three or four running steps, and courage, we went soaring out over the creek, turned in the air, and glided back all too soon for a safe landing.
I think the Grapevine was our main destination when we were kids. I went there once after a long time away at college. When I saw the vine still hanging there, the old thrill seeker from childhood came out. I peered up to ascertain the strength of the vine’s anchorage. Seeing nothing amiss in the tangle of trees above, I tested the grapevine with a pull, then grabbed hold and lifted my feet off the ground. It held my weight! I climbed the few steps up the hill and joyfully, bravely, set sail. Reality struck with a thud on my bottom and lots of vegetation on my head. I hope the neighborhood kids were able to find a new one. That was the end of the Grapevine—and my childhood for certain!
The Gully held many discoveries for curious kids. A very pungent one happened the day we found the Skunk Cabbage Patch in a moist depression near the creek. We held our noses, squealed, and otherwise delighted in being disgusted by the bad smell. We used to dare each other to run through it. Did you know that skunk cabbage can push up through the snow and is one of the first flowers of spring? A more agreeable smell came from the soil in the forest. I still remember the first time I got on hands and knees there to push the leaf bed aside and scoop up to my face a double handful of rich, fragrant black soil. It smelled so healthy, like it would be good for you.
Nothing excited us more than finding animals. I remember being in a Tom Thumb stage when all things miniature charmed me. I longed to be small enough to have a seat on the collar of our cat, to see where he went and what his adventures were. In the Gully, little green tree frogs and tiny brown toads satisfied my obsession. A tree frog felt cool on the skin of my palm. I was careful not to squeeze it or let it jump away from too great a height. In adulthood I read a wonderful memoir by Elizabeth Arthur about her summers in a camp in Vermont run by her beloved aunt and uncle. They taught the children so well to respect and love the animals that the kids policed themselves. Woe on to any child who spoke of hurting even the tiniest woodland creature. The title is Looking For the Klondike Stone.
The first water snake I ever saw was in the river at the end of the gully. I didn’t know that snakes could swim and wouldn’t have been more surprised if it had sprouted wings and flown away. We watched it intently and read in its distinctive pattern a warning to stay back—which we did whether we were right or not. I wasn’t irrationally afraid of snakes. As a five year old I had been completely charmed when I turned over a log and found a bunch (or a slither in terms of venery) of wiggling baby garter snakes there.
On rare and special occasions, adults accompanied us to the Gully. When Granny came, we got on each side of her to protect her from falling down the entrance path. We pointed out the slickest rocks to be avoided. Granny, who was raised on a farm and loved the outdoors, made the slower pace interesting by telling us the names of plants such as chicory, wild rose, and stinging nettle. The latter we had called “seven-minute itch” for obvious reasons. I wonder if we got the name from overhearing our parents discuss the Broadway play, or the Marilyn Monroe movie, The Seven-Year Itch? We showed off our physical prowess for our grandmother at the Log, a place where a fallen tree spanned the creek from hillside to hillside, so Granny could praise our high wire act.
Every winter Dad hiked with us to a place near the Grapevine where a big rock sat in the stream. We gathered sticks and Dad taught us to find dry tinder in nooks protected from the snow under the overhanging creek bank. On the rock’s flat top he built a fire and and cooked scrambled eggs and toast. After that, Picnic Rock was christened with a name. Dad made the annual hike fun, but also explained that we could survive being out in the cold if we knew what to do. He told us that wearing layers would help us keep a good comfort level even if we got hot from wading through the snow. Soakers were not okay on subfreezing hikes. They could lead to frostbite. Dad said we needed waterproof boots for winter. He had already taught us how to make a fire to dry socks just in case.
Winter sledding in the Gully required no sleds. A bunch of us would climb the slick slopes to a good starting place. We sat down in a “train” with each child wrapping his legs around the waist of the child in front. The last person shouted “Go!” and we were off. I wonder now how we escaped all the fallen branches on those rides.
In early adulthood my walks there were solitary and centered on the lake beyond the Gully as much as the Gully itself. Once I stretched out in the sun on a dry mudbank that bordered the lake. While lying there idly I dug with my hands just to feel the warm earth. That’s when I discovered the round white turtle eggs buried there. I felt like I had trespassed, but marveled at them before covering them back up.
When we were children an abandoned house stood on the lake shore near the falls. I imagined living there, but it burned down too soon. I never tried to purchase the land and rebuild the house. By the time it might have been possible, I had lived in southern Ohio and found it more rural and wilder than our suburban neighborhood in the north. Residency in Vermont and western North Carolina added to the feeling. But I’ll always be grateful for the Gully of my childhood—and I’ll always be in favor of preserving more wild places for children and all creatures.