Exploring Old Haunts

My visit to Canada is drawing to a close.

I spent the past weekend exploring old haunts with my friend Rob Wilson, partner in crime from many teenage exploits and camping expeditions.

st-lawrence-river

The weekend got off to a great start when we drove out to his old farmhouse on Buckwheat Road, behind Spencerville, and set out into the woods with camera and tripod to find one of our old campsites.

After stepping quietly around a trail of bones — the fresh dismembered remains of some animal — we pushed through weeds and nettles and clouds of mosquitos and plunged into the woods.

We shunned tents back then, because tents were for wimps. We only took a hatchet and a can of beans each. We built fragile lean-to’s out of sticks, and slept on plastic rain ponchos on the ground. After eating the can of beans — I was a fan of Clark’s while Rob swore by Heinz — we were supposed to forage for food using a book about edible plants.

I normally lay awake all night, eaten alive by mosquitos, with hunger pains in my stomach. But we were out there and did that again and again, in the woods around Buckwheat Road and on uninhabited St. Lawrence River islands just west of North Channel.

And now we were back in those same woods, nearly 30 years later.

The fields near the road threw us off, but when we got into the shelter of the woods, it still looked the same. The underbrush had grown a lot, but we could still see the path Rob used to follow each weekend to his job at the egg farm over on the next road.

The sticks from our shelters were gone long ago, as were the stones from our fire pit. I think we scattered them back then so that we could leave that spot with no trace. But we definitely found the little clearing where we’d made our camp. And that was worth a few rounds of celebratory beer in the evening.

We had big plans to borrow a canoe the next day — the very same canoe we used nearly 30 years ago — to search for a couple of our old campsites on those islands. But time was pressing, and so we giggled over breakfast at a greasy spoon instead, and explored the woods behind my grandmother’s house.

Those woods were the scene of too many early adventures to count. It’s where we attempted to rappel off the railway bridge, but none of us knew how to do it, and Rob — who went first — hung screaming by his testicles until he finally fell 15 or 20 feet to the coal bed below. It’s where I nearly got hit by a fast passenger train while pulling my grandmother’s dog off the tracks where it was sitting frozen in fear. And it’s where Rob shot scenes from his very first film.

I’m going back there one day to map those woods and gather notes for a book. I want to write up my childhood adventures and exploits. To write a book that inspires the housebound video game playing kids of today to get out there and have real adventures like we did in our day. But I still have two other books to write first.

We ended our Memory Lane explorations by driving around my hometown to look at the scene of so many urban adventures: Newell’s Woods, my house and the homes of our friends, the warehouse where we threw rocks to set off the alarm, and the park by the river where we hid out when we were in trouble.

The pavement where I carved my name with a stick at the corner of James St and West St — right by my house — is still there:

my-name

And so is the spot where me and Jason Saunders carved the names of our heroes, Rick and AJ Simon from the 80’s detective show:

simon-and-simon

Rob shot a lot of footage over the weekend, and I’ll share the video with you when it’s ready — as long as you promise not to turn us in for some of the pranks and old stories we discussed as we walked.

But for now, it’s time to get back to work on my Mongolia book.

I’ve only got one more week to work here in Ottawa semi-seclusion. And then I’m flying back to Europe for some new adventures.

I won’t be back this way for at least a couple years. So if you’re an old friend and you still haven’t done so, now’s the time to buy me a drink, or bake me a nice rhubarb pie!

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Hello, Ryan:

    Your article on returning to the scene of “childhood crimes and really good times” struck a plangent chord in my trove of memories – however, I had a far more different perspective than you did.

    I was born, raised and have spent the greatest part of my life to date on an island in The Bahamas. My childhood and young adulthood memories are composed of days on the beach (being burned to a crisp by an unrelenting and merciless sun); playing cowboys and Indians in the copses of shrubs, scrubs and poison wood trees, intermingled with pines, that grew around our newly-laid out subdivision; building walls, laying patios, planting crabgrass, cutting through overgrown clumps of vines and other tropical fauna that seemed to spring up out of nothing after being drenched by monsoon rains; putting up shutters with watchful eyes on the looming clouds when hurricanes threatened…… To some, it seems like an adventure, particularly when they live in more urban areas where the concrete and asphalt seem to keep you prisoner.

    But…I wasn’t much of an adventurer, being more comfortable surrounded by books and loving the close familiarity of a working father, a loving and watchful mother, and a family of six other siblings who all seemed to get along, albeit with infinite patience.

    Our forebears came from England, Scotland and Ireland and I have always felt an affinity to those lands, especially after spending an academic year in England where I swear I could hear the hills and valleys calling to me like a long-gone son who had overstayed his forays to distant lands. That feeling became even more poignant after I returned home to The Bahamas – I felt like an alien amongst what was once considered familiar quarters. The people hadn’t changed…but I had. That feeling has stayed with me to this day and nearly 40 years have passed.

    When I do visit the Island on which I was born and where most of my family still live (my parents having since passed on), there is nothing left of “the ole neighbourhood”. Overcrowding, overdevelopment, the cheapening of everything to lure more and more tourists – it’s more repellent than inviting. Sure, there are still long-time friends or acquaintances with whom one can share reminiscences..but there is a tang of sadness in doing so when your eyes take in the present surroundings.

    All of which made reading “Vagabond Dreams” a welcome respite, thank you. I’m looking forward to your next publication – Mongolia can’t be far enough away from here, let me tell you!

    And, this is somewhat off-topic, Ryan, if you will permit the intrusion: you had, in your more youthful years, pursued the practice of ninjutsu enthusiastically and whole-heartedly. The subject has come up fairly frequently in some of your “Bodyshifter” articles with Adam Steer. Without giving away too many secrets and also having to hunt me down and take me out, what eventually drove you away? Was it just the passage of time and passions, disappointment, injuries….? I ask because I was, up to a few years ago, actively involved in karate but I also left that behind for personal reasons. I still practice on my own and try to keep the mechanism well-oiled and functioning as I rapidly approach my twilight years. If you are not inclined to give details, no problem.

    Thank you for the opportunity to delve into the past and ventilate some of the feelings that your articles brig to the fore. Gee, could this be what makes you an excellent writer?

    Happy trails.

    Bradley Knowles

    • Ryan Murdock says:

      That was a great description Bradley, I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for taking me on a journey through your Bahamas island childhood.

      I know that experience of feeling like a stranger sometimes when I go home. And that sad feeling of nostalgia for all those experiences and times and worlds that are gone forever and will never come back. It’s not sadness necessarily, and it’s certainly not depressing. There’s great beauty in it. I guess it’s just the feeling of life passing, and the gift of being alive and of having experienced so many adventures together.

      re: ninjutsu, I think I just got what I needed from it and it was time to move on. I haven’t been involved in martial arts since I left Ottawa and my old training partner nearly 9 years ago. I was also being called to go deeper into my writing and travels, and I just didn’t have time to try to be great at everything. I do get a touch of nostalgia for ninjutsu from time to time, and I get a hankering to dabble. There’s actually a group in Malta, right in the town where I currently live. But I’d never want to get involved in organizations again, or to bother with belts and rankings, and I’d definitely never teach. But it would be nice to keep that edge and keep at least some polish on those skills when I have the time. I loved that stuff back in the day.

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