By Craig Raleigh
As I walked out onto the path, I Imagined being 10 years old again, a kid on a green-rusted bicycle: the kind with a rabbits foot emanating from the handle bar and the king of spades flapping in the spokes connected to a clothespin. Holding a fishing pole in one hand and an old metal tackle box in the other all while trying to steer over a mine field of rock and ruts—never once stopping until my destination were reached. Down I rode, on a canal bank pocked with mud puddles and opposed by overhanging branches, briar and thorn apple—in the early light of the morning—bugs filling my ears and eyes; just for the chance to throw a line in a swampy cattail filled pond.
I remembered a spring day, with a friend by my side and a song in my heart that I would sing to myself all the way there. It was my lucky routine. If I made it all the way to East Lake without stopping, we would surely catch fish. I could still see the canal the way it was—thick over grown banks replete with old trees and brush. Barren logs long since bereft of their bark marinating in the stew, capturing the flotsam of the day: sticks and brown foam, beer cans and soda bottles, creating a backwater that kept out the sun and anything that might grow. Massive, bold locust trees that had the pluck to dare and bury their roots here mere inches from the water but have done extraordinarily well—sumac and twisted willow vying for position all the while angling for sunlight over the open water.
A late spring blizzard had obscured the scenery as cottonwoods laid a quilt of feather white down on the surface. The gravel under our tires made a tell-tale crunch. The morning light came up over the eastern sky. Birds began to fly across the water in both directions—ducks swam next to us in single file. The top of the trees started to glow and come into view. The Sweden Walker road bridge was in sight—an ungodly old metal-fatigued bucket of bolts that had only one lane and a prayer to cross.
The quarried rock that edged the bank was completely exposed now. Granite, red-rock and limestone lined the area around the base of the bridge—punishing boulders that twist the ankles and bite the shins. Sometimes we would stop there and fish—there was never a spot that should be overlooked. The sight of 2 boys climbing like mountain goats so close to the opaque water would have had any parent crawling out of their skin. Once there were bushes there that made access to the water more difficult. Wild plants that grew with abandon, without the trimming hands of humans, flourishing in ground that looked to have no soil. The space between filled in by generous silky webs—the artistry of the arachnids, natures incredible engineers… and 2 lads with fishing poles.
The path underfoot was rugged and harsh. Deep potholes filled with water and mud stood in the way of the traveler—overgrown by bramble and almost impossible to pass. The manmade hill of earth and rock loomed ahead in the distance. Somewhere there was a path, an uphill challenge—a single lane highway of trampled dirt that lead the way to the deck of the overpass. Now after riding all that way, we would have to climb Mount Everest. My friend could make it all the way to road without stopping: every time. I put forth my best effort but seemingly always had to stop just short, get off at the last second and walk the bike to the top.
When I would ride across this bridge in the car with my parents, there was nothing to see but farm fields, woods and the Erie Canal. Sometimes we would get halfway over and stop face to face with another angry 4 wheeled beast—let the standoff begin. My dad was a pro at this. His stare was as that of a matador about to tame the charging bull. There would be silently-mouthed words exchanged between windshields—dad said nothing. Mom would get uncomfortable and tell him to back up—wrong. The winner was usually the one who got someone behind them: now there’s 2 of us buddy. I would lean on the middle of the front seat from the back and observe the language of dispute. It seems there was a mom in the other car telling HER husband to back up—wrong. Finally -always- someone pulled up behind us and my dad would be the victor. The other car would have to back up and move aside. Dad would slowly glide up to the other guy, who was barking like a dog through the driver’s side window—never look at him, then slide by with a pie eating grin and disappear. Though he would pay the price in a tongue lashing from the pretty brunette that I called mother, he would just smile at her. It was always worth it to him… and me.
It was a completely different view from the seat of a bicycle. The open weave of the bridge deck seemed to have its way with me. The honey-comb contour of a roadway that hovered 30 feet above the water looked as though it could swallow me whole. I hated the way it was to ride on—I felt like a chip on a Plinko board. All we had to do was get across and go right back down on the other side but it seemed like a chore; like doing the dishes or cleaning your room: it didn’t take long but you just despised it. It didn’t help that you could see the water way down there.
After crossing we could enjoy a slick, downhill ride on a bit of paved road; a little side street off the main road that harbored a couple of houses but had a dead-end stop. Now we could fly. The street ran by like a fast-forward movie. Our eyes teared up in the wind and ran down our cheeks. The end of the road was close. The last house flew by and stayed behind us. A wood-lined path showed itself between the canal and the last bit of asphalt.
One of those places was owned by a man named Eddie who would trade pelts and fur with us… but that’s another story. On we went, into the darker woods on a path that seemed to fade away. The light would disappear for moments and return as the trees grew further apart. Sometimes the canal could be seen on our left and then it was gone. It always seemed that the Blue-jays were screaming at us, following our every move. The sun would crawl through the tree-tops and blaze in our eyes. Squirrels chattered above us but stayed out of sight. The Honey Locust’s towered over us silently. The path would improve then disparage again without warning.
My friend would blaze a trail for us through the jungle. He charged through the overhanging brush with abandon taking one hand off the handle and swatting away green leaves with a bear-paw backhand and a hard head. Once, when he was playing catch with his brother, the young man threw a fastball off his skull with a chunk of bone-masonry—I’ve called him the “brick-stopper” ever since. He seemed unaffected by the branches and leaves. My reward for being second was a clear path; my penalty was a bow-string face-slap of organic foliage—I thanked god we were almost there.
The path eased into a small clearing. It seemed like time stopped. The canal opened up on the left, quietly, to a green, approachable bank. A scruffy concrete abutment rose out of the water and stood up straight. It was just off the shore but accessible; friendly. There was room on it for 2 people but generally only 1 would use it—an island of solid fishing delight.
There were already a few bikes littered about. We weren’t the only ones who knew about this place. One boy already stood on the abutment-island oblivious to our presence, another stood on the canal bank to his left slowly reeling in some line while bending his neck to sniff at us—he just shook his head and went about his business. We were too busy dismounting and wrangling with our gear to care. The bikes hit the ground with all the consideration that a bowler gives his ball when he releases it down the alley. Our hands were filled with fishing hope and our thoughts with fishing glory. I took a spot on the canal hugged up to some overhanging trees and my friend took a right and disappeared into the cattails of East Lake.
The space that divided the lake and the canal wasn’t much wider than the path we rode in on. There was all the room we needed if we were fishing out of a closet. The 2 waterways were connected by an underground pipeline that was held in place on the canal-side by the concrete atoll. As long as the canal was full there was a lake but in the fall, when the canal would be emptied, the lake would disappear. This was late spring, the water was in and the fishing was on.
I remember the names: Kevin and Scott, Gary and Rick, Tom and Mike, Glen and Terry…Dan and his sister Pam—and me. Not all at once mind you but birds of a feather flock together and migrate elsewhere when the water goes away. Sometimes my dad would drive us there in his shocking-blue rolling-dent of a van—the one we affectionately called “The Old Bomb.” There was 1 driver’s seat, a 3 speed shifter on the column and a hump on the floor—any passengers had to find room on the old bumpy-metal deck in the back. It had a static filled AM radio and 1 speaker under the dash. My sister had put a peace-sign sticker on the windshield and little flowers on the door. The gas pedal had been replaced with a stainless-steel bare-foot and there was a high school tassel hanging from the mirror.
Dad would drive the old bomb down the same crazy trail. We bounced around in the back with all the precision of the balls in a lottery machine. Dad held the wheel tight. The old van rocked like that ten-cent ride in front of the hardware store. The windshield was lost in the branches. Dad tried the wipers. We laughed so hard that we almost forgot how painful it all was. When we got there, we realized that it was raining lightly. The static-filled, one speaker radio was playing: I’ll remember the song “Band on the Run” like this for the rest of my life.
I came out of the dream and stared into the liquid. Soft dots of rain fell quietly on the reflection of the trees. Mallards paddled defiantly by me making the only waves there. Insects hovered low on the water making easy targets for swallows: the crop dusters of nature. The surface of a mirror has nothing on this water—this emotion’s light. My shorthair sits in silence next to me and greets the slow volley of drops that slide gently down her coat and withdraw into the welcoming earth. I straighten my arms and let heaven’s shower softly pelt my skin, waiting patiently for something. Memories, like trees, seem to stand forever. Sometimes they crumble and fall but a new one always takes its place… and rides, like a kid on a bicycle, relentlessly down the path of life.