The Rural Urbanite
When I was approximately a decade old, we moved from a seedy mobile home park to the wonderfully fresh-smelling country. Of course, the country didn’t smell fresh all the time, a fact we discovered when our new neighbors ordered a truckload of chicken manure.
At the time, I was simply disgusted that someone would order chicken manure, but I soon learned that it made plants grow better. After that I was hesitant to eat food out of the neighbor’s garden.
That reminds me of one time I picked a green pumpkin instead of a zucchini. We were all wondering why the zucchini was so round. Finally our neighbor told us that it was a green pumpkin, but not until we had already made it into zucchini quiche. It was the best zucchini quiche I ever had. But I digress, as usual.
We bought about three acres of land from a friend. The land was complete with a cozy log house, a little garden shed, and two acres of rampant blackberry vines. The blackberries would be a prickly reminder in the years to come that country living isn’t as easy and lazy as city living.
The house was spacious, and at times seemed a little too spacious, like when Mom told us kids to mop the floors. However, as my parents continued practicing their hobby of making more children, the house quickly filled up. By the time I was eighteen, it was practically bursting at the trim.
One thing that Dad didn’t like about living in the country was the dust and potholes. We lived a mile up a very bumpy gravel road. Some of the potholes in the road rivaled Crater Lake in grandeur, and our nice new SUV soon became not so nice and new. The suspension deteriorated, until every time we went over a speed bump in town, everyone would fly out of their seats and crash into the ceiling.
About a week after we moved, we visited a little country church nearby. Imagine our surprise when everyone there was wearing simple everyday clothes. I counted at least twenty pairs of jeans, seven shorts, eleven t-shirts, four leather jackets, and even a tank top. We city people felt conspicuous in our Sunday clothes, and after that our Sunday clothes became obsolete.
We had a lot to learn about country life. Dad learned the difference between bobcats and the neighbor’s large tabby, in a painful sort of way. Mom learned how to grow wilted vegetables that looked like they had already been digested by whitetail deer. My brothers and I learned how to roll up our sleeves and get dirty. My baby sisters learned how to walk on gravel with bare feet, not that they particularly wanted to.
After two years, we were pretty well settled down to country life. The SUV looked like an army combat vehicle that had been in one too many battles, and the inside of the house was a war zone. Dad got a lot more brown, and Mom figured out how to grow non-wilted vegetables that approached a whopping half the size of store vegetables. My brothers and I had become experts at catching living creatures other than our sisters, such as snakes, lizards, frogs, shrews, mice, spiders, and even slugs. My sisters, unfortunately, learned to love the creepy crawlies that we tried to scare them with. The poor girls will never know the true girly fear of creepy creatures, as I once did.
It was sometime around my thirteenth birthday that my life was changed dramatically. I’m not sure if it changed for the better or worse. It’s too hard to tell. But here’s how it happened.
I was out in the woods near our house, picking blackberries for Mom’s pies, when I heard a rustle in the bushes. My heart leapt into my sinuses and almost fell out my nose. Then, a furry head peeked out of the bushes.
“Wahl, if it ain’t a liddle boy pickin’ berries!” the furry head said.
I was too frightened to reply. The furry head emerged from the bushes, followed by the tough, skinny, deerhide-clad body of an old man.
“Don’t be ‘fraid,” he said. “Ah ain’t gonna hurt ya.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Mah name’s Jesse Sawyer,” the bearded old man replied. “How ‘bout yew?”
“I’m Matt,” I said, shaking Jesse’s hand. “I live in that log house.” I pointed at the house, which was just visible through the trees.
“Thet’s nice. Naow, Matt, let me ask ya a kwestion. What would ya do if’n ya got lost out here?”
“I’d holler for help,” I replied without hesitation. “And if that didn’t work, I’d head uphill to the road.”
Jesse scratched his head. “Ah surpose yer right ‘bout thet. This ain’t ‘xactly the country ta git lost in.”
Jesse was referring to the fact that the whole neighborhood, if you could call it that, was situated on the side of a valley. At the bottom of the hill was a river, and a road ran along the top.
“Ya got a lot o’ berries?” Jesse asked.
I looked in my pail. The bottom of it was barely covered with small, sour blackberries.
“Not yet,” I replied. “I usually eat all the good ones and take Mom the sour ones for pie. It takes a long time to fill up the pail with sour ones, especially when most of the berries are ripe.”
“Would ya like a tip?” Jesse asked.
“I guess so.”
“Take the sweet ones to yer Mommy. They make better pie.”
“I’m hoping there’s a less obvious solution,” I said, looking at my purple-stained fingers.
“Have ya ever gone fishin’?” Jesse asked, again changing the subject.
“No,” I replied.
“It’s a wunnerful thang, fishin’,” Jesse said. “It’s the most lazy sport thar is.”
I was immediately interested. The idea of a lazy sport appealed greatly to me.
“Would you take me fishing?” I asked.
“Shure! Ah’m glad fer the company. It gits lonely sometimes, ‘cause Ah’m all alonely out here. Mah house is at the top o’ the hill over thataway. Come over anytime.”
The rest is history. Jesse taught me everything he knew about fishing, camping, and when I was old enough, hunting. He even helped me make a set of smelly homemade buckskins like his, which I wore everywhere.
The lonely old guy changed my life, and the more time I spent with him the more I wanted to be like him. Of course, if I was to become a mountain man, I’d first make sure I had a kid to keep me company. I never liked being lonely.