When I was around nine years old my mother, sister, and I went out to North Dakota so my sister could participate in a wider opportunity for Girl Scouts, which to my recollection was kind of the Scouting version of what these days you might call Little Renfaire on the Prairie.
I remember when we dropped my sister off at the expedition base. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of girls milling around, all getting their gear unloaded and stacked up beside rows of Conestoga wagons. I was captivated by one of the leaders, a woman with a strikingly deep voice and large muscles who kept shouting out commands as she helped heave large sacks of food from the open back of a tractor trailer. It seemed like it took forever to get everything organized, but eventually we left my sister with the Scouting group ready to head out across the prairie like a proper pioneers party.
While my sister crossed the grass ocean, my mother and I headed over to Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. It’s one of my memories from that park that bring the entire journey back into my mind today.
We stayed at the park for upwards of a week. Some days we went hiking and found rattlesnakes sunning themselves on boulders. Some days we went into town to tour museums and attend stage plays based on the legendary history of Teddy Roosevelt. One evening the park rangers put on a campfire and told tales of the buffalo and wolves and other wildlife of the park. On one particularly memorable day, we were chased into the car by hailstones the size of golf balls as a tornado ripped across the grasslands just north of our campsite.
And then there were the times when we would spend a lazy afternoon down by the river that wound its way through the park. We would pick a clear spot on the bank, one with plenty of space between the brush and the river so we wouldn’t accidentally startle any rattle snakes. Mom would set her canvas tote down in the sand and I would head down to the waters edge while she laid out sunning and reading. I remember that she would lie as still as she could, just looking up at the broad blue expanse of the sky, more than you’d ever see back in New Jersey.
One time she laid out there so long and so still that the perpetually circling vultures started to land on the bank and flap their the big brown wings and quirk their ugly heads around to carefully watch her, thinking that maybe they just come across a prize. She let them waddle their way closer and closer until she could see their beady eyes peering out from amid the brown and red wrinkles of their mottled faces. Then she sat up all of a sudden, flapping her arms chase the buzzards away before they got it in their heads to actually taste her. They scurried and flapped away, squawking up a storm and mighty disappointed that they hadn’t actually come across an easy lunch.
While mom laid on the bank, luring death closer to her so that she could sit up and scare it off with a shout and a laugh, I played in the mud at the waters edge. I’d grasp handfuls of rich red mud from just below the surface of the water and play at tossing them back and forth in my fingers until all the stones and shells and bits of organic matter fell away and only thick, smooth mud remained. I played at rolling it around in my palms, circling it again and again until it formed a smooth red ball. I would work the clay again and again, making balls just about the size of my fist, each of them washed clean of grit and plant matter, then mash the balls together and work them until they formed a larger ball. Once the clay had dried enough to hold its shape, I would begin rubbing my little fingers across the surface again and again, working the clay to make a perfect sphere with a nice smooth surface. It would be another it would be another twenty years before I saw YouTube videos about Dorodango, a form of art from Japan in which sculptors create highly polished spheres from rough clay.
It’s been a long while since I thought about that week or two that we spent at Teddy Roosevelt National Park, but it popped in my mind again today as I sat here watching Walker play out in the mud flats at Douglas Lake in Tennessee. The sky and water are perfect blue, broken only by ripples and clouds. Across the lake, the Smoky Mountains march off to the east in rank after rank of cliffs and valleys, peaks climbing away into the distance. The deciduous trees are just about done with their colors for the fall, leaving wide swatches of mountains a soft green, broken in places where the few remaining oak and poplar trees show off their autumn glories in isolated bursts of red and orange. Between the water and the mountains, a ribbon ribbon of gold and red lakeside can be seen can be seen. It’s November, and the Tennessee Valley Authority is lowering the water level in preparation for preventing floods brought on by winter and early spring rains.
The water level is down a good twelve feet or more, exposing a wide swath of the lake bed and creating a wide flat of deep, rusty red Tennessee mud. The mud is broken only by the smooth round stones of quartz rock and upcroppings of shale. The red mud and scattered stones form an eerie Marsscape here in the homeland of many of the early American rocketeers. You can walk over to one of those miniature mesas and with your bare fingertips flake off huge chunks, some of which still bear the imprints of fossilized animal foot prints or shells that were trapped in the sediment as it was laid down eons ago.
Within minutes of arriving Walker was begging to go down and play in the water. We held him off for about an hour as I taught a class online and his mother got things situated in the camper, but it wasn’t long before his pleas became so insistent that Alli forced Ellie to take him down and keep an eye on him as he made his first forays into the water. He returned covered in red mud and begging to be allowed to go back again and swim as soon as possible. We sprayed him down, exiled all shoes to the carpet outside, and promised that he could swim tomorrow… if he really wanted to.
Walker woke up around three in the morning insisting that he was too cold and we needed to turn the heater on. It was chilly, but not quite cold enough to justify running the electric heater. When I refused to turn it on, instead suggesting that he should put on a shirt and grab another blanket, Walker compromised by snuggling between me and the dog until, a hour later, I sent him packing because he was now complaining that it was too hot and thrashing around.
Given the cold night, we expected that Walker would give up on his swimming plans, but by 10:30 he was again agitating to get in the water. I was pretty sure that it was a terrible idea, what with it having been so cold the night before, but he made an expedition down to the waterfront and returned with the news that it was actually quite warm, so we agreed to bring him down to a swimming hole between the shore and a small island that emerged as the waterline fell.
I’m writing this sitting in a red folding chair on the mudflat. My feet and legs are covered in mud from racing Walker across the deep, nearly quicksand mud at the edge of the water. Walker is… significantly more muddy. Just a moment ago, a helicopter from one of the local air tour companies swept low over the lake and Walker hit the deck, crawling up a river of mud with his body half submerged in red clay. We spent a good half hour searching for geodes along the fringes of the island, which grows larger by the hour as the lake continues to drain.
It’s been a good morning.