Skipping Stones and Rippling Memories
Some of my best memories of childhood live here, it is a peaceful place with a forest of stately mature oak trees and reach to the sky pines. I spent steamy summer days playing on the dam. My brother and I would climb to the top, lay down and log roll all the way to the bottom, giggling all the way, only to jump up and race back to the top, over and over again.
There is a creek that winds its way through to the lake destination. The creek is alive with shimmering minnows that dart and scramble under rocks to elude capture. Crawdads, big and fat from feasting on the minnows also live under the rocks lying in wait to pinch little prying fingers. Paper cups in hand, my brother and I would relocate as many crawdads as we could find to their new temporary cup home. When we tired of catching minnows and crawdads, we would find the perfect smooth worn rock to skip across the creek. Then the contests would begin to see how far and how many skips we could coax out of one perfect stone. The creek led up to the spillway of the dam, if there had been a lot of rain it made for the most spectacular waterfall we had ever seen. The sound of the turbulent water spilling over reverberated in our ears and was loud enough to muffle our childhood voices.
In the meadow between the creek and the dam, wildflowers of every sort bloomed in great quantities and making a daisy crown was an easy task (even though I don’t think you were supposed to pick the flowers). My brother and I would gather them to make glorious crowns to wear on our heads. This was also a perfect spot to lie back and stare dreamily up at the brilliant blue sky with luminous feathery clouds floating by leisurely in a sort of lasseiz-faire parade. Rabbits, turtles, frogs, and all manner of wildlife shared our playground and with its twelve hundred acres there was plenty of room for everyone.
During every visit, my mother, would spread a large worn quilt under a shady tree; kick off her shoes to quickly occupy the space reading a book. In my minds eye I still see her there, reading peacefully, legs crossed Indian style, and her long hair turning blazingly golden as the sunlight dappling through the trees illuminated it. Her tranquility was frequently broken by calls from us to look at some new treasure we had discovered in the creek, usually a big piece of green or purple glass that my brother and I called volcanic rock. Some of the treasures were transported home to serve as doorstops for our room or take their place of honor in our rock collections.
When we tired of playing in the creek, our mother would almost always have to leave her spot to retrieve us from the Mayan temple across the road. The temple, according to the large sign in front of it, is an antiquated sandstone blast furnace built in 1833, but at the time it was the Mayan temple that my brother and I would attempt scaling given even the slightest opportunity. I was happy to offer him up as sacrifice to the Gods on more than one occasion. Our mother would glance from her book to notice we were missing from the creek or field and make her way across the road to retrieve us giving strong reprimands, a swat on our behinds, and then threaten to take us home. She steered us firmly to her quilt and required that we sit and think about our behavior. I am famous in family circles for my quote on one such occasion, you can make me sit, but you can’t make me think.
Lunch time inevitably came, Mom would pull our sandwiches or cold chicken from the well worn woven basket and we would feast. As a special treat we would have a Nehi to wash it down with, always grape or orange. Grape was my favorite. Soda bottles were glass then and I swear the soda tasted colder and better than it does now. Why is it food always tastes better outside? This thinking may not be true for everyone but I think everything has a sharper, clearer taste outside.
After our picnic lunch mom would put her shoes back on. At that time she always wore Minnetonka moccasins, the short kind with the fringe around the ankle. They were well loved and reportedly just like going barefoot. She would then find a large stick suitable for walking and take the lead on our afternoon expedition on one of the hiking trails. Imagining we were the historic Indians of the area my brother and I always gained the lead scrambling up hills and climbing rocks. I, being older would be a good distance ahead of my brother and “ambush” him from my hiding spot behind one of the large rocks. One of us always ended up with a scraped knee or elbow which our mother treated with her trusty first aid kit in her pack. The trees were old, anciently old and on either side of the trail the tops had grown to meet each other like they were playing a game of London Bridge. The sounds of the forest were all around, water running, tree branches popping, and ground squirrels scurrying, more often than naught you could see a rabbit or a squirrel that was brave enough to show itself with all the raucous we were making. I have wonderful memories of the aromatic smelling blanket of leaves and pine needles under my feet on the trail and the softness of the green moss covering the rock that we would sit on to rest. We talked about everything on those walks, the history of the area, what the names of the trees were and each name of wildflowers discovered. This was where I learned the all important life lesson, leaves of three let it be. My mother was a wealth of information when it came to history and nature and either knew the answer to our never-ending questions or would tell us that we could look it up when we got home. Some of the structures along the trails were cave-like or actual caves; this is where my brother and I would practice our best yodeling to hear our echoes.
We spent a good deal of our summers here, swimming in the lake, attending family reunions or doing the activities I have recalled. As an adult I learned our frequent trips were to avoid our father killing us because he worked midnights and this was our mother’s way of keeping us from disturbing his sleep while we were on summer vacation from school.
I visit Lake Vesuvius often to this day. It has changed over the years with improvements to make it more visitors friendly. The stately pines leading the way to the park still remain and my body sighs and relaxes almost immediately when I reach that winding part of the entrance. I enjoy walking the now paved trail to the rock overhang and can spend hours there with a book or lost in deep thought. I primitive camped there several times when my boys were small and we had the same great adventures of my childhood. Sadly, I have come to know that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for this beautiful place, graffiti on the rocks and picnic shelters is a growing problem and careless hikers often leave behind their trash.
This lake has served as my therapist for many years. It is my go-to place for solitude and deep thinking. It is a beautiful example of nature in a world otherwise bothered by non-stop noise and ugliness. When I see young families there it evokes all the precious memories I have of the many summer days I spent skipping rocks, rolling in the grass, and getting bitten by chiggers. In my young adulthood days I hiked probably over half… if not all of the park and only got lost once, well not lost, temporarily directionally impaired, but it was scary being unsure of which way to take to get back to the road when dusk starts settling in at the end of the day. Cell phones don’t work well there, too many thick trees, which I think is a good thing. I remember a time when everyone didn’t know where you were every minute of the day and a phone wasn’t ringing constantly; it was a good time.
I believe Lake Vesuvius is where my mothers spirit lives, her young spirit, the one from the time in her life when she was still vibrant with dreams of the future. The time before the world picked her up and slammed her down to reality, the time before the cancer won.
If there is a God,and I do believe there is, I believe he lives here as one of his summer homes. Surely he is very proud of the handy work he accomplished at Lake Vesuvius. It’s probably were he goes to get away from all the demands of his job, the never ending prayers, the comforting during times of disaster, all traded in for quiet streams and wind whispering leaves. He is probably neighbors with my mom. I bet they skip rocks or take walks around the shore of the lake. At the end of the day I’d say they eat cold chicken or cold cut sandwiches in picnic style on mom’s old quilt under that big oak tree a perfect spot watch the purples, oranges, and streaks of scarlet appear in the vast sky just before twilight.