North, South, East, Or West, It’S All America

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I often used to wonder why the Rim Country felt so familiar to me. Then I finally figured it out. It’s so simple that I wonder why it never occurred to me before: It’s because the Rim Country reminds me so much of the places where I grew up.

All right, Johnny. I know what you’re thinking.

“Huh? Here’s someone who grew up in New York City, and in a small Connecticut town back on the East Coast. And he says the Rim Country reminds him of those places? How can that be?”

Easy. Kids don’t see places the same way adults do. I don’t know if they see the big picture and we miss it, or if it’s the other way around, but what we see and what the kids see are two very different things.

What would you see if you went to Staten Island or New London? Buildings. Roads. Cars. Buses. People. Stores. Right?

Sure you would. Kids would too. But ...

There’s always a but, isn’t there, Johnny?

But those things were no more my world when I was a kid than the Beeline Highway, Main Street, carloads of weekenders, and the shopping malls are Payson to the kids who live here.

You know what we saw when I was a kid? Hills. Trees. Lakes. Streams. Woods. Places to hike. Places to sit, relax, and be with friends. Places to be part of nature, to see deer, rabbits, squirrels, birds. Places with wild berries. Places to do things!

Take just one place, for example. The Connecticut College campus. New London was about the same size as Payson, with roughly the same population — 18,000 people. Like Payson, it was a place of highland and lowland. Connecticut College, with maybe 6,000 students, sat atop a tall hill just at the very edge of town.

Part of the campus had been set aside to remain natural, and included an arboretum. Officially, an arboretum is a collection of trees, but the one at Connecticut College was a lot more. A small stream had been damned up, forming a shallow lake. Tall, narrow evergreens had been planted in square, open patterns with small door-like openings. They formed beautiful outdoor classrooms with well-tended grass and concrete benches, where I often saw classes being taught out of doors. There were walks everywhere, and paths leading into natural areas. Small stone markers and metal plaques named the plants and trees in the formal portion of the arboretum, but everything else was just as nature had created it.

And, man, could you pig out on wild grapes and berries! There was always somebody saying, “Hey! Let’s go up to the arboretum and eat some stuff!” All the kids loved the place, and the college had the good sense to let us love it, knowing some of us might be back some day as students. When we passed the occasional caretaker he always smiled and said hello. We really felt at home up there.

The entrance to the arboretum led down from a road above, a long, sloping, 15-foot wide set of grassy steps edged with stones. At its foot lay the lake. Wide paths wound around the lake through pine forest on one side and mixed trees on the other. On any warm, sunny day kids strolled the paths, sat on stone benches scattered around, or stretched out in the cool, tree-walled “classrooms.” It was an idyllic setting, a place to while away a day, be with nature, and see some mighty pretty coeds.

In winter the lake froze and became one of most popular spots in town. We played ice hockey up there or just skated around and enjoyed ourselves. Sometimes at night there would be a tended fire along one edge of the lake, a place to get warmed up when the air had a hard snap to it. Fire and ice. A perfect mix!

We also went sledding up in the arboretum. There was a nice slope, not high but high enough to make the climb up and the slide back down a lot of fun. On any winter weekend you might see as many as 20 or 30 kids on the slope, but it was too low for skiing, which made it perfect for us because adults didn’t use it. I had a pair of snow skates, though, and I often went up there to the arboretum and zoomed down that slope on them. What fun!

Because the arboretum had been set in the middle of a natural area, the paths leading into the woods around it went to all sorts of great places. One of them was a high, rocky overlook above a quiet flowing brook. We used to hike the long, winding deer trail leading to the overlook, and then sit up there, enjoying the view and eating huge, sweet wild grapes for hours at a time.

There were always deer tracks down below by the brook, though I never once saw a deer until I learned how to go about it. Unlike the western deer here, the white tails around New London were very shy. And why not? They were the survivors of deer which had been almost hunted out in the 300 years since the town was founded.

Between the lake and the overlook was a trail you could take which led to the stream down below. The way to see the deer down there was to climb into a tree and wait for them to come to drink. Dusk or dawn were the best times. Deer never look up, and if you stayed quiet up in a tree, and chose a day when the wind was blowing in the right direction — from the water to you, something I soon learned — you would always be rewarded by the sight of graceful animals that had been there long before humans arrived.

Climbing down the face of the overlook to the stream below was possible. It took some care, but it wasn’t a dangerous climb, either up or down. About a quarter of the way down the cliff was a natural “throne” where you could sit and pretend to be the master of the world below — the crystal clear brook, scampering squirrels, shy little rabbits, stand of white birches lighted up by brilliant shafts of sunlight, and even an occasional deer.

One thing I never got used to on the lake trails were the doggone deer flies. I’d be walking along a trail near the lake and bingo! Something would zap me in the forehead, I’d reach a hand up and draw back fingers wet with fresh, red blood. And when I used the lake as a mirror there would be a v-shaped cut on my forehead.

How some %$#@! deer fly managed to zoom down a trail, zap me in the forehead, get a blood meal, and keep on going was — and is — beyond me, but those little green-headed devils were capable of it, as they proved to me many times. I got smart after a while, though. I noticed that they flew right down the middle of the deer trails, so all I had to do to give them a miss was to stay along the edge of the trail. Once I learned that they were no problem.

Yes, the good old college arboretum. Other than the fact that we didn’t have elk and javelina back there, the Rim Country is a lot like that. High land, low land, trees, small streams ...

And kids, I’ll bet, God bless them!

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