Freedom to Wander

Creative Nonfiction
Mary Lewis

Photo Credit: Karah Levely-Rinaldi (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Karah Levely-Rinaldi (CC-by)

On the Tundra

In the days when we first started hearing about windchill on the radio, a cold spell in southern Minnesota brought the felt temperature down to -92, though the air temperature was only -40. That was a challenge. Pre-kids, pre-landline, pre-solar panels, Phil and I ignored the radio that blistered warnings that it would only take five minutes for flesh to freeze at that temperature, and left our little log house we built in the woods in Fillmore County to travel by skis to visit our neighbors. The fields belonged to us and them, but we could have trekked for miles over private lands, for who would have cared that we left long trails over their snow, even if the drifts had not filled them? If our eyes led us to the far horizon, nothing could stop us from going there.

We were used to living outdoors and had the gear. Layers of sweaters, down vests and jackets, snow pants, and arctic mittens that looked like we’d grown longer arms with no hands. Our eyeballs would have frozen into oval ice cubes without our goggles. Once out of the woods all trails drifted over with fine blowing snow packed so firmly our skis barely made a trace on them. For traction uphill you had to slam down each step, feeling more than hearing a satisfying thwack each time. Ears stored safely away, it was a soundless world. And bright. Too cold to hold moisture, the sky surrounded us in clean blue so clear you wondered if there really was such a color. Our snorkels gave a chance for the air to warm a little, and carried away moisture that would have frozen on our goggles. Years ago in subzero winters in Minneapolis, Phil invented this technique when he rode his bike to grad school classes at the university. Twice his width in a Frostline down jacket I sewed together for him from a kit, goggled and snorkeled, on his thick-tired Schwinn, he startled many a pedestrian, even when he gave them a cheery jingle on his bike bell.

The wind sifted snow in swirls that hid our feet, making us look like stage angels walking on billows of dry ice. Where the tiny crystals settled, tongues of frosted drifts lipped over the downwind edges of themselves like waves about to break.

You had to lean against the wind to remain standing. In every hollow, loose snow that had collected there caught our skis in sudden arrest and we nearly tumbled forward over them. Barbed wire was buried deep in the drifts, and just the nubs of fenceposts stuck up over the snow. In a world without boundaries we diagonaled our way to Judy and Daren’s, ignoring the right-angle logic of roads. We were used to going anywhere we pleased on our land, between house and greenhouse a quarter-mile away, into the fields where we were beginning to plant hazels and chestnuts, adding to our already oddness as city folk transplants with a long driveway and no plumbing. Fillmore County is corn and soybean country.

Disillusioned with our graduate programs in zoology and ecology, the land we bought as a retreat had beckoned. Familiar with backcountry camping, it was no stretch for us to live in a tent for months while we built our little log house. At first we had no clear idea of what to do with the land, but the dream grew to plant nut trees, and show that the land could grow staple crops that didn’t require the plow year after year.

We were doing it, surviving, keeping warm in the face of wind so strong it felt solid. The effort of pushing through it brought sweat to all our pores. Imagine that, I would have said to Phil if he could hear, but speech was as impossible as it would have been under water. I turned my back to the wind and took off one of my expedition mitts leaving only a thin glove on my right hand, and unzipped my jacket. Moisture left me as though sucked by some huge vacuum cleaner, and then I struggled with the tab to zip up again. I threw off the other mitt because it took two hands and now both were freezing in the inadequate gloves. Five minutes for flesh to freeze? It felt like thirty seconds. What were we thinking trying to tackle this? A drift, we could dive into one and hide out of the life-stealing wind. But the nearest ones of any size were a quarter-mile away in the box elders on our western border. I managed to pull my mitts on but the cold had crept up to my elbows. My hands were so numb I couldn’t hold onto my poles and I dragged them along by their loops like useless sticks, leaving my legs to struggle alone for balance in shuffling strides that teetered side to side.

Seeing my difficulty, Phil broke the wind in front of me, and we kept moving. Motion, that would save us. Stupid of me to release that layer of sweat. The fields passed under my numbing feet that were beginning to feel like concrete blocks. We pushed past the spindly box elders. Drifts there, but too hard to dive into. Beyond the next crest we made out the roofline of Judy and Daren’s farmhouse.

Judy just looked at us through the open door for a few seconds, something you never did in the winter, especially on a day of such historic cold. Had to be the double surprise of our alien looks, and trying to make sense out of anyone traveling on such a day. Besides, we didn’t warn them with a phone call, not having the equipment.

I tried not to rub my frozen limbs as we sat around the big kitchen table. They needed to thaw out gradually anyway. Behind a cup of hot coffee I gritted my teeth against the pain of returning sensation. Elated by survival, we told them about the drifts and the wind. Judy said she always hated the cold, and Daren, just in from chores in the cattle barn, cradled his own coffee mug behind red fingers, looking at us as though we were refugees from the Jurassic.

We talked about the cold, closing schools, how bad the roads were. Their kids Kristen and Julie, about 10 and 8, lounged on a sofa in front of the living room TV. We were not close friends. Most people in the area had extended family and church connections, and they leaned on each other for help, loans of equipment, babysitting, meals. Though we had offered to lend a hand now and then, they didn’t need us, so of course we couldn’t ask for help from them. In addition to the adventure, we made this trip to try to develop a connection, but conversation faltered after awhile. They were beef farmers; we were hard to classify, not normal farmers certainly. They and others expected we’d give up in a few years and go back to the cities.

On the way home the wind at our backs sailed us forward as though we had motors on our feet. We made it back in less than half the time of the outward journey. Familiar now with the cold, and friends with the wind, we played with them. At the pump where our old-fashioned windmill churned like mad in the icy wind I watched water turn to crystals, like a time-lapse video but in real time, sending sparkles of sunlight at me. Delicate snowflake-like branches spread in a film on the surface of a pail of water.

Ribbon of Highway

When Phil and I broke up many years later I moved to Decorah, a nearby town in Iowa, and wandered in the woodland parks there. My pleasure in them didn’t depend on ownership. When we bought the land in the first place, the whole idea that we suddenly were the owners of the land, the trees, the grasses, the creatures above and below the ground, was ridiculous to me. How could exchanging money and signing papers do that? These things didn’t need me to be their owner. If such a concept existed at all, they owned themselves. So when I sold my half of the farm to Phil, and was just as suddenly not the owner, it did not feel different to me, and certainly not to the chipmunks or mushrooms in the woods. I was yet to find out that ownership had to do with where you could go.

I reached into the bag of Cheetos against my better judgment, but nothing felt like a road trip more than orange fingers on the steering wheel, so it had to be done. My partner Maxxx sipped his mocha and munched on an oatmeal raisin cookie, three for a dollar from Kwik Star. Heading north out of Iowa we passed cornfields bristling with spiky young plants, well over knee high and thriving from recent rains, while cows pastured on closely-cropped hillsides and woodlands accented smaller areas of rougher ground, too steep to till or pasture.

“Feels like we could go anywhere out there, doesn’t it?” I said.

“So you want to go gambol with the cowsies on the hillside?”

“Well, I might want to go around them and see what’s in the woods.”

On car trips to Tracy, Minnesota to see Grandma when I was a kid, I’d fix my eyes on every patch of trees and wonder what magic land lived in the enticing shade, and even now any scrap of woodland still had the same power over me, the way it would whether or not I had spent nearly twenty years living in the woods.

“Of course it’s all an illusion.” Maxxx adjusted the tilt of his sunglasses.

“And there’s no way to tell what is real and what isn’t.”

Maxxx is a philosopher and I knew this was a big subject with him.

“I just meant where you can go out there, it’s all private land.”

He was right, we drove on a ribbon of public land and gazed out at countryside that we could not step on without trespassing. On the farm I roamed freely, and hadn’t realized the loss. Now I felt a sense of contraction as though someone had bound me up in shrink-wrap and vacuumed out all the air. Because Iowa has such good land for growing things, it was all grabbed up, with little left in public hands.

But we could still allow some freedom to wander. Years ago on a bicycle trip in the seventies in England I saw a model that worked well. The old medieval trails still existed as they traversed private land, but the law gave everyone the right to travel them. We’d open a gate, cycle past herds of sheep or wait for them as they crossed the path, and go through another gate on the other end. As long as we closed them, no problem to landowner or traveler.

Down River

I dip-twist my paddle into a strong J-stroke from my stern position to turn the bow back towards the side my paddle is on. My son Brandon at the bow sees it too, the inverted “V” we’ve come to read on the surface as the path of deepest water to follow through the next riffle, and switches his paddle to the other side to help correct our course. Perry, three years younger at ten, lounges in the middle for now, arms trailing over the sides. He’s the one who spots most of the eagles, soaring high above the limestone bluffs, green with a fringe of white pine.

The Upper Iowa is the most scenic canoeing river in Iowa, supplied liberally by cold-water springs that emerge to carry water from its underground travels through some of the oldest rock on earth. This is the only part of Iowa that has big outcrops of bedrock, having been missed by the flattening power of the last continental glaciers, and the debris of rock and soil that they left in their path over most of the region. Called the driftless region, for lack of this overburden, or perhaps just as poetically, the Paleozoic Plateau, it is a land of sedimentary rock, mostly dolomite and limestone, in which subterranean caves and crevices carry water in darkness as freely as do the sunlit streams.

We are on the most photographed part of the journey, a stretch of high cliffs that rise vertically from the left bank as much as 280 feet. We ride the rapids with a fore and aft pitch that skims us over the standing waves until they empty out into calmer water. Each one of these riffles is a thrill because you have to shoot the V just right to get the ride. Hit the bottom and it can turn your canoe sideways, and then the push of the current can tip you over.

Perry wants to touch the rocky walls and we paddle right next to the cliff where late-afternoon sun tinges the limestone with gold. We look straight up but we can’t see the top. Junipers spring out here and there in cracks where they hang on by their toes.

We don’t think about who owns this rocky wall, but the whole watershed is a complex of mostly private land. Back in the seventies there was a big push to classify the river as a Federal Scenic River, with all the land bordering it public. It did get that designation, but a group of private landowners succeeded in opposing the effort to the extent that the federal government bought up little land, and most of it along the river remains in private hands. A sad conclusion, but not unexpected in our country of private property. How can any person own a cliff, have the right to keep others away, or bash away at it with hammers and dynamite?

The odd rule is that the water itself is public, but the land is owned, even the ground under the water. Interestingly, this is the same rule that applies in England where, though roaming rights are liberal and lakeshores are public, access to streams is very restricted. There, you are trespassing if you set foot on the banks, or presumably, the ridiculous situation of walking along the streambed if your canoe tips over. Here in Iowa, though the rule is the same, the practice on the Upper Iowa is that if you pull your canoe up on shore for a picnic, no one will object, but if you climb up the bank and walk on the land next to the stream bank you’re out of line and truly trespassing.

It’s a big day on the river, and as we reach the high cliffs that circle Bluffton, we find flotillas of canoes and rafts hooked together by paddles and feet, allowing the free flow of beer and chips as the boats drift over the placid last few hundred of yards of their journey. The cliffs here are capped by relict firs left over from the ice age, and able to hold on in this area where temperatures cooler than those of surrounding areas prevail. You wouldn’t be able see these firs again until you traveled hundreds of miles to the north.

Just before the bridge there’s a big put-out point and we land and look around for our car, but briefly because so many others are waiting to get out, and we’re in the way. I don’t see the car and think it must be at the next landing. A big lesson in assumptions, in this case, that there was another one nearby.

So on we go. No one is on the river here, and we feel the chill of the shadows in the growing dusk. The boys are anxious but try not to show it. I think about food and water. We’ve been on the river for eight hours, and should be out by now. I realize that crowded landing was ours, and we just didn’t look hard enough for our car. I worry that we don’t have enough food or water, and Brandon, a diabetic, needs regular meals and snacks. We have enough surely.

I never really thought about the fact that you can’t just haul out anywhere on a river. We’ll have to wait for the next bridge, and I don’t know where that is. The only one I know about is many miles away even by road. Day is rapidly turning into dusk. How will it be to canoe in the dark?

In the river you are sunken below the level of the general terrain. More true since people began controlling rivers, including this one, by dams that slow down the river in some places and speed it up in others, where the water then cuts a channel with steep earthen sides. You have the feeling of wilderness except for the occasional bridge. Now we want that bridge like nothing else.

We stop and I get out to climb the steep muddy bank to a cornfield. From which I see nothing but more cornfield. No barn, no road. We could haul the canoe up the bank somehow, but then what? Trek over the field with the heavy canoe till we found a road? Could be a mile. We’d be trespassing the way we would if we walked off the narrow strip of a highway onto a field, and hauling a canoe would damage the corn. Still we should be allowed to walk through the field, leaving the canoe behind, without breaking the law.

We go on. Brandon, low on blood sugar, drinks a can of juice. Perry paddles in the bow to give him a break. The boys are used to country, live in it, know that it gets dark at night. There are no outdoor lights on the farm where we live. But even in July it can get chilly when the sun goes down.

We do another scouting landing, and when I climb up into the next cornfield I see a wooded ridge stretching towards the river on a long angle, and since the cornfield fills in the flat land between us and the foot of the ridge, I suspect there’s a road there, at least for farm access. Would be even better if it was a county road. Since the ridge left no space along the river for a road, the road would have to cross the stream or dead end. I hope for the bridge.

We could haul up where we were, but we might not be able to drag the canoe over the steep bank, even if we could haul it across the cornfield. We could paddle on to the wished-for bridge, if it really did exist, but the bank could be even steeper there. Only one way to know if the bridge was there before we got to it was to scramble up the bank and trek between rows of corn that probably grew three inches today.

The leaves scratch my bare arms. Someone struggled over what hybrid seed to buy and waited for the field to dry enough to bring in the heavy machinery to disc and harrow, to inject the anhydrous ammonia, to spray with atrazine, and then to drill in the precious seeds, hoping the June rains would be gentle ones. So who was I to tromp along between these long lines of carefully raised giants? I have no choice, but feel like the trespasser I am, wanting not to be found, but desperately needing to be.

In the middle of a cornfield there are no cues, and space and time are without boundary. All you see are identical plants in all directions, and the gray rows of earth vanishing in the narrowing distance between distant cornstalks in the fading light. I can’t even be sure the rows are straight, I just expect them to be made that way by the farmer who furrowed the land parallel to the river so any downhill trickle of rain would be caught by a ridge of soil. I pick a row and stay with it so I can follow the same one back to the river where my kids wait out of view below the stream bank. I should never have left them there, you don’t split up in the wilderness. Itchy with scratches and sweat that film my skin despite the chilling air, I keep on, thinking I hear a vehicle. My imagination, and there might not be one for hours if at all, on the road, if there was one.

My row runs out into a ditch, and I climb down and up onto a gravel road. Hallelujah, a real road. I mark my furrow by breaking a long, green, box elder stalk and walk down the road towards the river, looking for the bridge. And then I see it, one of those rusty old erector set affairs that arches over the river, with a number on it, 1909. That’s all I need. I race back to the cornfield, but in the dimming light have trouble finding my row. Cool air spills into the ditch, already five degrees colder than air on the road. Soon there’ll be a blanket of fog over the whole valley. I race down my row, knowing it now, that there would be nothing rough to trip over, unconcerned about more scratches.

By the time I tumble down the bank, the boys are huddled close together, munching energy bars, sipping on the dregs of water in their bottles. “A bridge,” I say, with emotion I have been repressing for so long. Now that things would be all right, I don’t have to. Cheered, we tumble back into the canoe and paddle on. When one problem is solved, the others of a lesser nature come to the fore, so now we have to make sure we don’t miss the bridge in the waning light.

For some reason we remain quiet, as though careful watching required it. Soon, very soon. But the trace a river takes is twice as long as any road or corn furrow, and I almost believe we’ve missed it somehow, when something untreelike spans the darkness ahead. We beach the canoe on the left bank, just before the bridge piling. This is no canoe landing. We unload the cooler and other gear, and drag them up the steep bank to the road, but how would we ever hoist the canoe up that far? We could leave it there till later, tomorrow even, and just get ourselves to water and food and rest. We wait on the road, listening for a car, watching for headlights. Maybe there’d be nothing for it but to hike along the road till we found a farmhouse. This was way before the days of cell phones.

Brandon slings a wet canvas bag over his shoulder, and Perry picks up another one. “It’s OK, Mom, we can start walking.”

Great, they are comforting me. I hug them and tell them how sorry I am for missing the landing. “Is this what they call an adventure, Mom?” I can’t see Perry’s face in the darkness, but I know that look on his face, brows scrunched, tight mouth. He was tired hours ago.

“Hey Perry, look up there, I found the first star,” Brandon said.

Straight above us, visible even in this narrow valley, Vega gleams out of the cerulean sky.

A rumble gathers down the road, and headlights shock our night-adapted eyes. We have no trouble flagging down the pickup, driven by a farmer and his wife from two farms over. With his help we manage to pull the canoe up over the bank, and hoist it into the empty bed. Somehow we all pack into the cab, and it isn’t one of those extended jobs. It is jolly and warm, and full of talk about river travelers who’d gone astray like us. “It’s easy to miss your put-out, because you only see it from the bank when you leave it, and it looks so much different from the river. I’ve done it myself,” says Lyle.

He and Arlene help us put the canoe on our car, the last one there, no longer hidden by other cars, and we buy munchies and get water at Randy’s store in Bluffton before heading home. I sing “Deep River” because that is the only river song I know, but no one joins in. It’s fine. The boys need to sleep.

Into the Countryside

There may not be many like me who feel restricted in where we can go in the countryside, but I think that’s because I’ve experienced the freedom to wander. Most people are like caged birds who never think about going through the open door. They are content with parks, and short hikes from the car for a picture. In Pike’s Peak State Park on the Mississippi near McGregor, most people walk the few hundred yards to the jutting overlook near where Zebulon Pike of Colorado fame intended to put a fort at one time. You can see a long expanse of the Mississippi upstream from there, and the winding silver snake of the Wisconsin River ending its journey far below in a fan of rusty sediment. That is the spot where French explorers Marquette and Joliet canoed into the Mississippi. I imagine they were impressed.

Pike’s Peak lookout is one of the best views on the upper Mississippi, but few go beyond it along the trails that twist down into a side valley with craggy witch hazels and water-sculpted cliffs to cross the stream above the falls, or climb to the ridge where one effigy mound after another hills up under your feet. People long before us revered these high cliffs and formed earth into the shape of bears and eagles along their crests.

Still, people can be coaxed into the countryside. When bike trails began to grow like a filigree of young roots across the land, people came, and they respected the private property they traveled through. We could learn from the Allemannsrett of Scandinavian countries, or the roaming rights in Britain, which open up the countryside to the public, but require a codified level of respect. Surely we can do it as well as they can. By honoring rules that require staying away from houses, crops and livestock, we could give ourselves a greater freedom than that of owning property: the right to wander freely over the earth.

The woods and streams have always drawn me, and I can find them in my park-rich town. But it is not the same as looking out at the horizon and walking there. Just that ribbon of highway please, just the water that carries your canoe, just that road where you can catch a glimpse of the lake through the trees. Everywhere else you’re a trespasser. We are all conditioned to this, and the only reason I became aware of it is that I did live a roaming life in the country, and feel the stifling restriction of not having it now.

How would it be if we could walk anywhere? The wide world that our eyes hunger for could be under our feet as well. We need some bit of nature whether we realize it or not, and if we could get it easily, how would it change us?

pencilCurrently Mary Lewis is in an MFA program at Augsburg College focusing on fiction. Before that she studied for 13 years in at the Iowa University summer writers workshops. Her story “Chimney Fire” appeared in R.KV.R.Y. Quarterly. Another, “Quesasomethings” will appear in early 2015. “A Good Session” was recently published in Persimmon Tree and “My Father’s Trees” came out in Lost Lake Folk Opera Magazine. Her essay “Mourning the Night Sky” was published in the Wapsipinicon Almanac. Trapeze, a regional journal of the arts, published 8 of her stories, 3 personal essays and a poem. Another arts and issues paper, Valley Voice, published 7 of her stories, 2 articles, and a poem. Her story “Almost Mud Time” appears in the book Frank Walsh’s Kitchen and other Stories. Email: marmax[at]

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