Memories of happy trails
After the first frost, the trails through the woods once again become accessible. No ticks. No mosquitoes. The poison ivy is bright red and easy to spot.
From my earliest memory, one of the great charms of living on a large tract of land in the country has been the paths and trails.
When we pulled our trailer house onto the farm, it wasn't long before a cow path developed around the front the trailer, right along the woods and up to Grandma's front step.
From single lane walking paths to two-rutted trails for the tractor, which ran through tunnels in the woods, trails, especially those carved out by wear and tear, captured my imagination.
Grandpa, however, despised naturally-formed trails. To his last days, if he was in the car, he ordered the driver to pull up out of the ruts so as not to wear them deeper.
If a cowpath started to form on the lawn, Grandpa issued directives to walk beside the path rather than on it so the grass would grow more evenly.
Roads should be well-groomed and placed deliberately, Grandpa believed.
I suspect his strong road opinions were forged when Grandpa was 12-years-old. Due to the death of his father, Grandpa had to contribute the family's share of labor to build local roads in the 1920s.
Barefoot with his horse and primitive scraper, Grandpa worked with men double his age and learned the craft of building and maintaining roads.
For the rest of his life, Grandpa did not leave roads to chance, even paths out to the back forty.
We had a road grader that we pulled with the old Ford Tractor. Grandpa stood on back and adjusted the blade with a pair of parallel steel wheels.
Just when the driveways around the farm were getting smooth and worn, perfect for riding bike, Grandpa would attach the road grader to the Ford and have me pull him around the farm.
He used the blade to cut the edge of the road, which pulled big clumps of sod to the middle. He dragged the gravel from the side of the road to the middle to help the road shed water.
With loose gravel and sod spread all over the road, riding bike became a trick. You had to avoid the sod clumps and rocks to stay upright.
In about sixth grade, a revolutionary idea hit me. Our farm was filled with woods and swamp. Why not build my own trails?
I took a lopping shears and cleared out the prickly ash. My first trail was modest. It led out to the edge of the ditch. I could climb the ditch with my little motorcycle, and immediately dip into the woods, go back around on the driveway down into the ditch and up, over and over.
Then I extended the trail. Each day, my sister and I used it as a shortcut to get down to the corner to wait for the bus.
On these pure, clear fall afternoons, I couldn't wait to get home after school to get out into the woods to clear more prickly ash and carve out more trails.
Later, I went on to a larger woods, added the skid steer loader to my arsenal of equipment and made a truly impressive trail around the big swamp.
I never knew what Grandpa thought of my trail-making. When I once buried the skid steer deep in the woods near the swamp while making a trail, it took Dad and Grandpa and two tractors to pull me out.
Grandpa sat on his tractor without expression, sort of like a big old dog in the corner at a party who has seen all the stupid human tricks and is no longer impressed or even interested.
I finished the trail through the big woods and wore it into submission with the three wheeler. When the cousins visited, we timed our laps for the entire 1/2 mile and kept track of our speeds.
I was sure Grandpa took a dim view of my well-worn trail.
Then one day he mentioned that his favorite spot on my trail was where twin towering poplars stood at about the trail's mid-point.
Turns out, Grandpa had been using my new trail for his walk for quite some time.
Although Grandpa never said a word about my trail-building efforts, if he used the trail for his walk, I took that to mean he must have approved of the result.