I tossed my book bag to the floor of the school bus and collapsed on the black vinyl bench seat. “We just walked a whole mile,” I announced to my seatmate, who eyed the other farm kids shuffling down the aisle and nodded in polite sympathy.
Grinning in spite of myself, I brushed a smear of dirt off my elbow and pulled a piece of hay from my shoe. I exhaled a long breath, leaned back against the seat, and watched the farm retreat as the bus sped away.
We didn’t really mind the walk.
That mile-long dusty dirt road where no school bus would dare to traverse wound its way among oaks, beeches, and sycamores to the humble pastures and faded white barns of Auerbach 4-H Farm. “Auer Farm,” to Connecticut locals. Our Farm, to us kids.
On the outskirts of suburban Bloomfield, just minutes from urban Hartford, Auer Farm’s 120 rural acres sustained an apple orchard, corn and hay fields, a pumpkin patch, an herb garden, goats, sheep, and a small head of cattle. The food, milk, and wool stocked a farm store by the main road. What had once been a larger-scale working farm (but wasn’t yet the bustling nonprofit farm education center it would become) was, in the 1980s, the quiet home of one farm manager, his family, and a handful of non-farming tenants.
At the end of the road in a verdant meadow perched eight identical white cottages formerly inhabited by farm workers. The last one at the top of the hill by the sugar maple and the creaky splintered wooden see-saw was my house. Mine, my little sister Becca’s and my divorced mother Judi’s. For six years, sandwiched between stints in more traditional suburban digs with paved driveways and manicured lawns, for the six years between kindergarten and sixth grade, for six fatherless years between father and stepfather, I was a farm kid.
On school days Becca and I were first in the procession of children amassing like water droplets flowing to a creek. Mom shooed us out the white metal porch door, the little sister with long straight champagne blonde hair and porcelain skin and the big sister with flyaway strawberry blonde waves and freckles, both with matching KangaROOS zipper pocket sneakers and Jansport backpacks.
Past the tire swing that made black marks on our bare thighs, trying not to trip over any of our five semi-feral cats, we trotted down to the screened-in porch of the next cottage to pick up Lisa, a quiet, fawn-eyed girl Becca’s age. Beyond the edge of the cornfield after the maintenance sheds stood the airy two-story farmhouse where three rowdy boys lived Eric, Jonah, and Seth. We six were the only school-aged kids on the farm at the time, the only kids at the end of our long, wild road.
When in school, of course we separated into socially appropriate groupings, following unwritten rules like never associate with the opposite sex and ignore your siblings. In school, I was self-conscious and shy and spent a lot of time watching the popular kids to figure out how I should act.
On the farm, I didn’t worry about any of that. We six were a pack of boisterous children with two compatible cliques: the Big Kids and the little kids. Eric, a year older, Jonah, my age, and I were the Big Kids. Becca, Lisa, and Seth were the babies, the ones to teach and protect from danger and occasionally to make squeal by throwing earthworms down their shirts.
Together we scampered back down the driveway of the farmhouse, around the minty, chamomiley, rosemary-filled herb garden island and onto the dusty lane that snaked into the green distance toward our bus stop.
The best journeys never follow straight lines. Our winding road offered unlimited opportunities for adventure for those who knew where to look. As kids, we knew.
Electrified wire fences hummed alongside much of the road, enclosing the black and white milk cows in their brambled pastures. Electric fences are endlessly tantalizing to free-range children, and each day brought new challenges.
I dare you to touch it.
Touch it with a stick.
Touch it with your sneaker.
I bet you can’t climb under it.
See how close you can get before you get zapped.
If none of the dares produced the desired effect, naturally we started pushing each other. Giggling, shrieking, grunting, snarling, panting, we scuffled. The little kids soon removed themselves from the action and watched from the sidelines as Eric, Jonah, and I fumbled closer to the hum.
“Yeeeow!” I howled, as my body contacted the jarring, teeth-chattering, hair-frazzling, buzzing wires. Grade school shock therapy. Stunned and whimpering, I rubbed a zinging shoulder.
The spell was broken. The boys, my pack brothers, turned sympathetic, picking up my bag and patting me on the back. Becca took my hand in hers. Zen cows looked up from pink salt licks, chewed their cuds in response.
Back on the road, we broke into running again. We were always running then, in part to keep from missing the bus with all our mandatory play stops along the way, but mostly from some innate drive I would never be able to explain. We weren’t running from or to anything, we were just running. Inhabiting our animal bodies, learning how to be at home in a landscape. Legs pumping on the rocky dirt, kicking up dust or mud or snow, we galloped as stallions.
Even better than running was riding bikes, which we did almost every day after school, not a safety helmet among us, in games of cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians. There were good guys and bad guys, and everyone knew that bad guys needed to be put in jail. Jail of course was the hay barn with giant-sized sliding wooden doors.
Running and riding bikes on rocky dirt roads meant that I almost always had skinned knees and elbows, which were as much a part of who I was as my eternally sunburned and peeling nose, multiplying freckles, and tangled hair. My favorite outfit was a green wrap-around skirt with red strawberries and yellow raspberries, which I’d wear with dirty sneakers, painted dirt-encrusted nails and a pink yarn ribbon around my ponytail.
A few minutes from the boys’ house, a shady cobbled brook meandered through the cow pastures and under the road where it was spanned by a simple culvert and concrete bridge. The bridge and the water were even more enticing than the electric fence, and welcomed such diversions as rock-skipping and spitting contests. The one contest in which I could not compete was the peeing contest, not having the necessary boy parts.
We Big Kids lined up on the wide concrete railing facing the water-two skinny tanned kids with pants at their knees, and a freckled skirt-adorned kid with hand-blinders squinting attentively straight ahead. Becca, Lisa, and Seth had to wait for us on the road.
“Put your hands next to your eyes and only look straight ahead. No peeking!” said alpha male Eric, though he didn’t need to. Who wanted to see their gross penises anyway?
My job was to be the judge of Eric and Jonah, and I was always fair and honest. Usually one of them got the prize for distance, the other for length of time peeing. I never minded my position, nor did I feel I was lacking, since I could run just as fast as either of them, and who really cared about peeing standing up, anyway?
In winter when the brook froze it was too cold for peeing contests, though throwing rocks to break the ice was fun. But what we really liked were dares to test our own weight on the ice; better yet, to walk on the ice through the dark culvert under the road from one side to the other. Those dares were especially risky on the way to the bus stop, when one or more of us might find ourselves scuttling back home soaked and shivering to dry clothes and an angry parent who would then have to drive us to the bus stop or worse, if we missed the bus, to school. After that happened, we’d stay off the brook for at least a few days and content ourselves with crunch-stomping the paper-thin white puddle ice in the road and bellowing at the cows to try to get them to do something interesting, which they never did.
Cows were the most boring animal on the farm, except when we got to watch them being born, which was wonderfully disgusting, full of rude noises and mysterious gushing liquids and blood like the horror movies I wasn’t supposed to watch but sometimes got to watch at Dad’s anyway (Don’t tell your mother). We knew from science class that people are born pretty much the same way, so we all agreed that people are pretty gross too.
Sheep were entertaining because in the course of one spring day, they’d go from big fuzzy Stay Puft marshmallows on legs to shivering naked Muppets that seemed embarrassed to be out in public, and since we were never involved in the shearing process, it was always a surprise to notice the transition. “The sheep forgot to get dressed today” never got old.
Auer Farm didn’t have chickens anymore, but their absence created unique opportunities for us: a mildewed, leaning, vine-draped, two-story, bigger-than-my-house chicken coop. Adults wagged their fingers at us and warned: “Do not go in there; it is dangerous and not a place to play.”
We went there all the time.
As soon as you pushed through the creaky door, the odor hit you- the musty moldy chickenshit smell like a mixture of wet newspapers, wood shavings and steamy compost. The place looked like a tornado had hit or, worse, like the chickens had mysteriously disappeared along with the people who should have come back to clean up after them. (We knew about mysterious disappearances from one of our older neighbors who watched “The Twilight Zone.”) Gray windows were cracked, shattered, or missing, and face-catching spider webs, fluttering moths, and diving bats competed with scurrying mice to elicit squeals which I never allowed to escape my lips, no way.
The first time we crept in together, tense and arms touching, not quite holding hands. Around every corner was a creepy, spine-tingling discovery. Squeaking stairs with gaping holes in them we just had to climb, conveyer belts with chutes through the walls to looming rooms we just had to explore, and a second-floor doorway that opened into thin air that we just had to open to look down and wonder. We barely breathed or dared to speak inside, but leaving, we loped across the field practically cartwheeling with the ecstasy of our bravery and the elation of our secret.
Fortunately the chicken coop was on the hill at the end of the road, not on the way to the bus stop, or we would never have gotten to school.
The rest of the road after the brook crossing was just cows and electric fences all the way to the farm store. There at the edge of the orchard, the paved entry road made a loop around a handful of apple trees. That was usually where we waited for the bus.
In the trees.
Well-pruned apple trees are the perfect size for short arms and legs, and we each had our own tree. Mine was a gnarled little thing that curved around me and held me like a mother, a mother bearing ripe red fruit. I knew the twists and turns of that tree like my own skin, and I climbed her almost every day.
But sometimes next to the farm store there was a stack of hay bales on which to play King of the Mountain. The rule was to get up on top and yell, “I’m king of the mountain!” until someone felt like running up and trying to push you off.
Most times you’d be king for barely a few seconds before you found yourself usurped and among the civilians again, but that didn’t really matter. King or alpha male, boy or girl, big or little kid or kid without a father, we were all farm kids. The farm would hold us, teach us, and parent us no matter who we were.
No matter how complicated the human world was or would become, nature was a place we belonged. Miles and years from Auer Farm, that knowledge is what sticks with me as viscerally as the zing of the electric fence.
Standing tall on hay bales, dust-covered and faces flushed from running, we ruled our world.
When the yellow of the school bus appeared around the bend, we hopped down, brushed ourselves off, and lined up for school. We put ourselves away. But come 3:30 pm, we’d be back on our dusty dirt road, at home on Our Farm.
Heather Durham is a nature writer with a forthcoming MFA in creative nonfiction from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. Her essays have appeared in Portland Review, Cirque Literary Journal, Bacopa Literary Review, and others. She makes her home in the land of ravens and salmon, amidst the towering cedars and moody mists of the Pacific Northwest. She is still likely to come home dirty, with skinned knees. Learn more at heatherdurhamauthor.com.