Two miles of country road lay between my home and village school. There was only one house and long stretches with nothing but woods and pasture to be seen. A daunting trip for the short legs of a little kid, but also full of delights along the way. With my neighbour children, from even farther up the road, I learned every foot of our route. In winter, we knew where the biggest snowdrifts were and how to get the best shelter from the wind as we trudged along, pulling the sled we taking to the school hill. When the snow melted into rivulets, we could build networks of dams, channels and rivers of our own making in miniature fantasy landscapes.
In spring, there was that joyous day when we could leave our heavy galoshes at home and trip to school in shoes, feeling so incredibly light footed. It was from the road we heard the first trilling call of the red winged blackbirds telling us they had returned to the marsh. We vied fiercely with each other to spot the first bloodroot, adder tongue, trillium or violet blooms pushing up among last year’s brown leaves in the woods beyond the fences, signalling true springtime. We picked wild honeysuckle and sucked the sweetness from the blossom ends. How keen-eyed we were at finding where the birds nested along the way. Each day we’d scramble through the brush to see if the blue robin’s eggs had hatched. We watched the fuzzy babies with fascination until, one day, the empty nest told us they had flown. When a killdeer flapped about in front of us, faking a broken wing to lure us away, we unerringly found the almost invisible speckled eggs in the roadside gravel nest. Easily, we caught newly hatched killdeer chicks and put them into a field, safe from traffic.
Bouquets of daisies and purple phlox protruded from our fists. We knew where the wild strawberry patches were. We could find the gooseberries, black currents and wild raspberry bushes and came home, all scratched up, our mouths stained and red. There were tongue puckering wild grapes from great tangles of vines in the ditches. Then there came the siren call of roadside apple trees laden with green apples. We went to school with our pockets stuffed to distribute to our friends. What a thrill to eat them surreptitiously in class, sometimes to the point of a green apple stomach ache. Later on, we munched on the ripe apples all the way home, careful to eat around the wormy parts. No apples have ever tasted so good again. No fence kept us out. It did not occur to us to stay on the road if we didn’t want to. Woods and fields were our domain so long as we arrived in time to escape scoldings for too much dawdling. We would see rabbits and groundhogs, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, foxes and raccoons. We were adept at skirting roadkill, holding our breaths against the smell.
Just before the village was a rushing creek where we could race sticks and watch them fly down over the waterfall. Then came the village store offering blackballs, toffee, licorice or slices of bologna if we had some coins. Chewing on our prizes, we would take a final push on the swings or swoop down the slide in the little park before finally arriving at the school door.
Do these pleasures exist today? For children, always. Even a city sidewalk can yield a gripping array of dogs, squirrels, gnarled trees, fallen leaves, pet shop windows, anthills and a hundred other attractions young eyes can spot. A walk to school is an education in itself. An education sadly denied to children now carefully shepherded onto school buses or endlessly driven about by their paranoid moms and dads.