“You’ve spent a lifetime burning bridges, try building one.” JSM
“Just look at me! Don’t look down and stay close! Walk where I walk, and do everything I do!” Mike yelled his instructions in frequent intervals to keep us focused, and fearless.
The climb up the side of a gum drop mountain wasn’t an easy task. It was a never ending ladder to the sky. Sometimes we’d climb straight up, one rung after another and then pause, turn around, and follow a path now spread out like monkey bars; crawling between, and climbing over and under, then back around again to navigate a series of branches resembling a cargo net. The braided trees grew at a slight incline, curving skyward and wrapped the hillside like a bridge. It was an hour before we reached the top.
At the half way point, Mike stopped and straddled a tree. He scooted along the trunk till his back was flat against the hillside, and pushing through the earth beside him, knotted together, the trees formed natural chairs.
We rested against the hill, legs dangling between the spaces, sitting comfortably on a curvy bench formed by nature and Mike reached behind him into a carved out hole in the hill; which he had intentionally concealed from our view. He withdrew a wooden box, swiped the dirt from the cover, and turned the latch to open it.
Carved on the inside on the box lid were two words, “Treasure Chest.”
Inside were three Dixie cups and a glass bottle filled with pink liquid. Our friend smiled, “Best juice around.” He smelled the sealed rim, sighed and rolled his eyes. “Made by Madeline and Jesse. You met them at dinner last night. I could drink this stuff forever and a day and never get sick of it.” He poured the liquid into the three cups and placed the remainder in a pocket of his backpack and then set the bag between us. He slugged back the juice and urged us to do the same.
It was sweet elixir from Heaven.
I asked for another, and was chugging the drink down again the moment he halted his pouring.
I had never tasted anything like it before and I haven’t since.
He slid the box back into it’s compartment within the earth, then slapped both palms on his knees, “Well then. That was a nice treat. The juice is a real treasure around here. You ready to push on?”
I nodded my reply and followed him skyward.
As a mesa becomes flat at the top, so do the Gum Drop Mountains. The pitched hill became a table at the peak, and the trees naturally grow from horizontal, back to vertical. The table top we came to stand on was blanketed with growth, from tall thick trees to bushes and wildflowers, yet, the center of the flattened area caught my attention the moment we crested the edge.
A tall metallic tower with a spiral staircase punching through the canopy overhead.
I sprinted for the structure and raced up the circular stairs two at a time.
At that age, I hadn’t yet formulated my fear of heights. My abject fear of being in the sky, with the ground far, far away, arrived during a hot air balloon ride one year later.
The balloon was tethered to the Earth and soared at a maximum height of three hundred feet. The cold wind howled around us, I was surrounded by six others in a basket made of wicker material, and I was frozen with fear thinking the floor would break away beneath us; plunging us all to our doom.
Desperate to reduce the weight of the collective I clung to the edge of the basket as though my life depended on it. I’d use my strength to lift my feet off the paper-thin, wicker floor, and keep my body as high as possible without actually climbing out. I may have even shed a tear or two while in the sky. Perhaps through my efforts, I saved everyone’s life that day by reducing the basket’s interior weight. I jest of course. Regardless, my fear of heights came into existence during that terrifying excursion in the sky. I sobbed like a baby once we touched the ground again.
Hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail during my senior year in high school, killed my fear of heights in less than a week.
When I breached the top of the tower and found myself standing above the trees, I screamed and stumbled backwards. Elihu was sitting in a lawn chair with a tall glass of pink juice and a floppy, wide brimmed sun hat covering his head. The old man had sunglasses on and sandals covered his feet.
I grasped the metal handrail and covered my pounding heart. He snickered and waved his hand around, “What do you think of the view, young man?”
The butterflies in my stomach fluttered away and I was able to spin around and see it all.
We were enclosed in a metal box, among an endless sea of green.
When the summer wind blew, the trees responded and rippled beneath us, and all around. They undulated rhythmically and swayed side to side and created waves that traveled in every direction, then disappeared in the distance from view.
I came to look down at the sitting man when Mike joined us at the top. “Where’s the cane, Elihu?”
He smiled and looked off into the green ocean,”Oh, yes, the cane. I only need that thing at night. As the day ends, my body feels it’s age. In the morning and through the day, I feel just as young as you.”
“Mike,” I turned to the family friend, “Who put the juice in the box?”
Elihu answered in his place and chuckled, “My grandson. He climbed down earlier and put the treasure inside for you. It’s a little thing we do for visitors.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s sitting in the car at the parking lot over on the other side.” Elihu kept his stare to the horizon and pointed over his shoulder.
I looked back to Mike, “We could have drove up here?”
“We could have walked the footpath too. There’s a hike through three hills that eventually lead to this spot.” Mike dropped to his haunches, poured another cup of juice and said, “Yes, we could have driven or walked, but that’s not the point. We chose a different way. Wasn’t it fun? Something different for a change? Didn’t feel bored, did ya?”
I nodded, and Elihu interrupted, “These trees and hills were my playground when I was your age. We were playing out here as kids years ago. Climbing Jacob’s Ladder was what we did for fun.”
I glanced around the neon ocean a second time as the wind whipped through, and Mike offered more juice.
I drank the cup dry and asked, “Do we climb down the ladder?”
“Only if you want to.” Mike stood up and gripped the railing, “You see, Jeremy, we come up here when we welcome visitors into our home, to prove a point. Any number of paths lead to the same place. We climbed the hardest route to get here. We do it for the experience. Kids your age have a tough time in our community, at first, but once visiting something like this place,” he gestured broadly around the tower, “it becomes easier.
“If you could have something from home, something you never thought to bring with you, what would it be?”
I shrugged my shoulders, toys? Books? comic books? Colored pencils and paper? Lego blocks? Holy cow… I have no idea. Something to occupy me for two weeks?
Then it came out. “My Hacky Sack.”
“Yeah. You know that small bag of beads you kick around in the air with your feet and knees? Can’t use your hands? I play it with friends in the driveway and after school. The goal is to keep it off the ground. Pass it around the circle or kick it around by yourself. We’re trying fancy tricks and stuff.”
Mike smiled. “I’ve seen those. Seems like a good activity.”
Elihu nodded and drank from his glass.
We stood silent and still, watching and absorbing the scenery before Mike turned to me and asked, “So you’ve decided to spend some time with Mrs. Davis today? She starts with kitchen safety. She seems stern and mean, but she’s really not. What do you think, walk the trail and head back? Get this first day over with?”
We walked the footpath back to the car and had nice conversations about their way of life, and sometimes the path that needs blazing is challenging and difficult, and they live this way because of the reward. It was a subtle parable from the community and I appreciated it.
Back at my room, after lunch, I was asked to change my clothes for my time with Mrs. Davis.
On the floor of my storage box, standing out against the dark brown stain of the inside of my trunk, was a yellow and orange Hacky Sack. My clothes had been pushed to the side and stacked against the wall so the ball was visible and obvious upon opening the chest.
I removed the toy from the trunk and bounced it in my hand. My joy could only be described as pure elation. I couldn’t stop smiling. My body shuddered with excitement. The idea of boredom vanished from my young mind and I had something to now look forward to. I kicked it for ten minutes in my room before meeting up with the others.
I played the game with the community kids, facilitating and teaching some how to engage, spelling out the rules as I knew them, and the commune had become more tolerable. I made friends. We organized times to gather near the playground and kicked a bead filled foot bag for hours, until exhaustion consumed us or called inside for the night.
Every day for two weeks I participated in community activities with the other kids and felt as though I was helping others. Just by playing with a Hacky Sack.
I was saddened when it was time to go back home to Maine.
Opening that chest and seeing the small colorful object sitting there not only surprised me and caught me off guard but it generated pure happiness within. My soul beamed. My face had a permanent grin. I couldn’t be sad or upset about my situation anymore.
Opening the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, in the third month on the Island, twenty five years after my stay at the commune, created that same feeling all over again.
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