Meandering Along the River’s Edge
~by Virginia Rhys Anson, OFS
July 6, 2015: Nature, My Second Home
The glow of the gas lantern, its globes as bright as daylight, enveloped the tent. Wall-to-wall sleeping bags carpeted the floor as a family of ten children donned pajamas for its repose under a canopy of pines. Camping—the vacation of my youth, the origin of my love of nature.
The Rocky Mountain morning brought a chill. Okay, it was downright cold. Eleven bodies remained cocooned in sleeping bags while Dad started the breakfast campfire. Soon crackles of flames kissing wood greeted our ears. Noses peaked from the top of sleeping bags, followed by heads. Inch-by-inch entire bodies emerged. Twas time to brave the cold and dress. But wait, what of child ten, barely a few months old and nowhere to be seen?
“Bob.” Mom’s attempt to stifle panic betrayed her. “Did you take Sean out with you?”
“No, Dear.” Dad read mom’s voice and joined her in the tent to search for baby, everyone cautioned to look before stepping.
A few minutes passed and Sean was found asleep, snuggled inside Mom and Dad’s sleeping bag, having wiggled his way to its foot. Mom enfolded him in her arms as laughter of relief emitted from the tent.
“Oops, the bacon.” Dad rushed back to the fire as bacon’s aroma, joined shortly by the smells of scrambling egg and toasting, homemade bread, tempted growling stomachs. It was not long and all remnants of breakfast, except for dirty dishes, disappeared.
The camping of my youth in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains east of Santa Fe, New Mexico was never a crowded affair, for no neighbors could be seen, only the magnificence of the forest. Days in the forest were created for unwrapping Mother Nature’s many secrets and surprises. The morning dew, glistening in a sunbeam, revealed an intricate spider web, minus the spider—deceptively absent. The dew drops disguised an elaborate, lacy design sparkling with the tiny, spherical prisms. A glance at the branch anchoring the apex of the web, and I spied Lady Spider, skillfully camouflaged.
Exploring nature solo refreshed my soul with God’s beauty. Maybe this was because I, the eldest of this brood of ten, relished time alone that I have essentially never known. Or, perhaps, it was that Nature became my second home and would gradually become the home of primacy for my spirit. In truth, it was the latter that fashioned my love of Nature’s solitude. I had never fathomed the concept of alone time as my eldest brother is eleven months my minor. It never occurred to me that I might want an escape from a mass of siblings. When I eventually grew to find my way as an adult, silence and lack of commotion were disconcerting.
But I digress.
The mountain air warms quickly. The chill was soon replaced with the sun’s toasty rays as they filtered through pine-needled branches. A ray found my back and erased the lingering chill. The aroma of the campfire still mingled with the pine’s perfume. A chipmunk scampered past my foot, my eyes following him as he maneuvered through a twig covered path, shortly disappearing into his subterranean home near a tree’s root.
Exploring on, I caught a glimpse of a deer grazing in the distance. I froze so as not to spook her. She gingerly strolled among the trees, periodically rooting for a snack. Every so often, she raised her head, surveying the safety of her position and returned to her snack. Mesmerized, I was lost in her movement, entranced by her graceful wildness. Years later, deer would become my writer’s muse. But a twig’s snap or a scent and she was off, my trance broken.
As I headed toward the river that flowed behind our tent, a caterpillar—a wooly worm—diverted my attention as he inched his way up a tree trunk. I love wooly worms. Interrupting his journey, I let him crawl on my finger. He tickled a bit as my hand and eventually my arm, became his surrogate tree trunk. His wooly coat rippled as he crawled along. Not wishing to disturb him for too long, I placed him, once again, onto the trunk so he could continue his journey.
The river’s song drew me on as her waters played tag with the rocks that lined her bed. Her music, synchronizing with the occasional breeze that flitted through tree branches, entertained my ears all morning. Nearing her banks, I noticed intriguing impressions in the soggy earth. Closer inspection proved that a bear had visited us during the night. His paw prints, much larger than I had envisioned bear paws to be, disappeared into the water. The fact that there were bear prints so close to our tent should have been alarming. But the excitement of such a find thwarted any invading apprehension.
Investigation over, I sat by the bank and removed my shoes and socks. Wading in a river is a child’s delight. Of course, the first few steps are teeth chattering. Who would dream that anything on a warm summer day could be so frigid? However, a few minutes of wading and the chill was imperceptible. The stones beneath my feet, though slippery, didn’t encourage me to lose my balance due to their varied sizes. The current of the rapids that flowed over small boulders—well, that was another issue. Being a skinny kid made it difficult to defend against their attack. So I stuck to the calm pool ahead of the rapids. Occasionally a trout swam within view, and I watched as it maneuvered toward the bank.
An air horn blast interrupted my serenity. An addition to our Greenbrier van, the air horn was Dad’s innovation for summoning his charges who had scattered hither and yon for their morning adventures. Carrying my shoes, I trekked barefoot to join my siblings.
“Anyone wanna’ go fishing?” Dad’s query was readily met with an off key chorus of ‘Yah, I do.’”
The array of fishing poles that Dad had so neatly lined on the picnic table quickly disappeared as those old enough to fish formed a line awaiting their worms. Some were brave and skewered their worms themselves—count me in. The more squeamish lot let Dad bate their hooks.
Soon would-be fisher boys and girls claimed their spots along the river’s bank for catches that they didn’t realize would become dinner. Rarely have that many children been so quiet for so long. The only place that would evoke even more silence would be Sunday Mass. An occasional squeal revealed the catch of another trout for the evening meal.
Dinner caught, the older children helped gut and clean the fish for dinner—well, at least those who didn’t think it was gross. As for me, I became almost a master at it–at least as much as a child can be a master fish gutter.
Mom always refused to clean fish. It was not because she was squeamish. Mom was about the least squeamish person you could meet. It was, as she said, “Because if I don’t learn how to clean fish, that is one job I’ll never have to do.” I suppose, as the mother of ten, she was entitled to refuse a job every so often.
That evening’s meal was most impressionable as we feasted on rainbow trout that we ourselves had caught. Trout baked over a campfire takes on the sweetish flavor of river trout enhanced with a hint of smoke flavor. Top that with campfire cooked American fries and baked beans with a homemade ice cream chaser, and…Well, let’s just say no king ever had such a spread.
As evening encroached, a cricket choir filled the night, the river supplying the orchestral element and a distance owl providing the occasional solo. The air gave a hint of an impending rain as I sat staring into the fire, captivated by its hues of gold and bronze dancing into the night. Its warmth wrapped me in a cozy embrace.
Virginia Anson grew up in the shadows of Sandia Crest in New Mexico. Family camping trips may have sparked her passion for nature. She holds an A.S. in Electronics Technology, a B.A. in Writing, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and a certificate in Wildlife/Forestry Conservation. Her book, Mother Earth’s Caretakers, targets middle school youngsters and is published as an e-book for Kindle. Virginia is a Vietnam Era veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and her volunteer endeavors see her as a lector, Eucharistic minister, and sacristan in her parish and as a habitat steward for the National Wildlife Federation. She especially cherishes her life in the Secular Franciscan Order, following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.
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