I used to run away to a tree stand. It was the place that I could feel at home and stable when life was anything but.
I grew up in the country of New Jersey. Not the Jersey Shore, not Montclair, not smokey skies or busy streets. Long, windy country roads ran through the woods near the Appalachian mountains, glorious green fields filled with daisies and tiger lilies, pine trees and maples filling the air with their scent; it was home. My house was on the hill looking at Sunrise Mountain, and my uncle’s was in the valley right behind.
There were actually three tree stands. I assume that either my Uncle John or my Poppy built them all for their hunting, but by the time I got to them, they hadn’t been used for that in quite some time. Two sat at the edge of the woods, and one was deep in the woods down by the creek. I spent a pretty equal amount of time in all three, depending on my mood. One of the ones lining the woods faced the Appalachians, which I loved — I would sit up there for hours and just stare at the mountains pressed up against a blue country sky, sitting against hay fields. That one was relatively easy to climb up into. It had a couple 2x4s nailed into the tree to act as a ladder, and then I just had to swing my legs up over a branch or two, and I was in.
The other that lined the woods was much higher up, and I loved the height. It’s only in the last five years or so that I am afraid of heights, ironically enough, right around when the long, wooden ladder leaning against the tree was sawed in half. Before that, I found heights exhilarating. There wasn’t a ton of sitting room up there, just enough for my butt, and I’d either swing my legs over the side or put them up against a branch to stretch out. I’d smoke the Virginia Slims that I stole from my mom (sorry ma), and read poetry up there, looking over the hayfields and the farm, into the valley, and across the street would watch as Father Lavolsi fumbled around the parish grounds doing odd jobs here and there, always dressed in his best cassock.
The third was deep in the woods, near the creek. That was my go-to place when I really needed to run away and get lost. Definitely the most dangerous of the three to get to, I’d climb up, never looking down at all of the rocks that would surely split my head open if I had one missed step or if the wood eventually rotted. I didn’t worry about that then, but the older version of myself would smack my younger, and tell her she was being unnecessarily rebellious and to stop being such an asshole. She wouldn’t have listened, but it would have been worth a try.
I grew up in these woods, along the edges and deep within. I swam in the creek, observed the beauty of nature, and cried. It was the safest place I’ve ever known. It was my home. Thousands of miles and several years separate me from it now, and that makes me ache. I know that I will never live there again, I will never be able to run out the front door and down the steps, across the yard, down the road, and into the fields that have always held my peace. It’s so strange to feel such a debt to a place; I could never give back what it gave to me. All I can do is close my eyes, feel the crunching of branches and leaves under my feet, listen to the water hurry through the creek, and gaze at mountains I will not see again for a long time, and thank the universe that I had such a peaceful place to find myself when the rest of my world was loud and broken.
Towards the end of my time living there, someone else bought that section of land, and posted “No Trespassing” signs. Not to let anyone tell me what to do, I of course trespassed. Somehow or another, they figured it out, and one of the last times that I went there, the ladder leaning against the tallest tree stand was sawed in half. I sat with it and cried. It was the end of an era, the end of safe introspection. The world was waiting, and I could no longer run away and get lost in the woods.