Up and Away

Revisiting the first rung of a long climb

By Bill Fields

Someone asked me not long ago the number of states I had visited, and my answer got me thinking.

For work or pleasure, I have at least set foot in 48 of the 50. Alaska and North Dakota are the places I haven’t gone, my travels having been much broader than I could have imagined growing up as the youngest child of parents who had stayed put in their home county.

But well before I ventured out of state — before I ever consulted one of those road maps that seemed impossible to fold up neatly once you had opened it — I went up to get away.

It was a dogwood located within a boy’s best forward pass from our house, yet climbing up to sit on its lowest branch was my first adventure.

I was back at that tree recently, during a season of change that had me thinking. The limb still looks like an arm bending toward the sky, its distinctively textured bark peeling from age. My old perch is at eye level now, still only 6 feet or so from the ground, a height that allowed me to touch it without strain.

Decades ago, when I was close to 6 instead of 60, it took real effort to reach. But it sure was worth it. 

That crook was sanctuary and observatory, but mostly it was mine. It was a place to think, laugh or pout, a vantage point from which I could look down upon our cats, the occasional passing car, neighbors raking leaves. It gave me a different perspective on our horseshoe pit, basketball goal and swimming pool, which sat upon the yard like a large yellow can that had been sawed in half.

My getaway place was neither secret nor far away, although it felt as if it was both of those things, particularly the latter the one time I chickened out on my descent and summoned help to get down. Hattie, who cared for me while my parents were at work, could only laugh as she came to my rescue but kindly coaxed me back to Earth.

That day notwithstanding, I came to feel quite comfortable in that dogwood, my tree house without walls. Traveling to that space, even though a very short journey, made me feel like I was part of a larger world that, with effort, might be within reach.

I never explored the heights of another tree. About the time I had gotten old enough to consider climbing higher, a friend and neighbor much more adventuresome than I was took an awful tumble from a large sycamore and broke her leg. It was a severe injury that had her in a cast and on crutches for a long time. But given how far she fell, the outcome might well have been much worse. Even so, her mishap was a cautionary tale.

When I studied my old climbing tree recently, I considered who I had been when I sat in that spot — how much I didn’t know and how many places I hadn’t been, that the borders of my world then were school, church, the grocery store and my grandmother’s house on Sunday afternoons.

In those hot summer days when I retreated to my space in that tree, my world wasn’t much bigger than the globe on my desk. I hadn’t yet ridden on a train or flown in a jet.

I stood by that dogwood this August and touched the limb that used to be my summit and wondered how many times I have been tens of thousands of feet in the air on the way to somewhere and, as we all have, taken it for granted. I thought of the paper airplanes I tossed from that branch all those years ago, their journeys as uncertain as my own.   PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.

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