Oak pollen and filtered sunshine. That’s the smell wafting in through open windows as I loll on the couch slack-jawed, chain-reading library books with one hand and licking Tootsie Roll Pops with the other. It’s the summer between second and third grade; beautiful June day in my house in the middle of the Wisconsin woods, 75 degrees, all alone, parents gone. My mom told me a couple hours ago, as I listened with one half of my brain and read a book with the other, that she, my dad, and my uncle were going out in the woods to plant more pine trees, same as the day before. Therefore, I am surprised to hear the sound of a vehicle coming down our long private driveway, turning off the main driveway into my parents’ circle drive. I extricate myself from a mound of books and run to the window in time to see a rusty truck pull in, two faces inside. Visitors! I am delighted. We are out in the boonies, so usually the only visitors we get are family, friends, repair men, and people who think we’re the county park.
The passenger door opens and a high-heeled leg pokes out. Onto the gravel driveway steps my Aunt Wendy, looking dressy in a black miniskirt, blouse, and permed hair done up in a style that could only be accomplished with lots of hairspray. The driver emerges next. At first I think he is a cowboy because he’s wearing cowboy boots, tight jeans with buckled belt, checkered shirt, and sunglasses, but at second glance I recognize him as the man Aunt Wendy was seeing when I last saw her a year ago at a family wedding. They both stretch, remove their sunglasses, and take in their surroundings, looking a little bewildered, as though they expected to step out into the parking lot of a Western-themed bar and instead found themselves in my driveway in the middle of an oak grove. I run to the door, and by the time I get to the porch to greet them, Aunt Wendy is picking her way across the gravel and testing the edge of our rock sidewalk gingerly with one heel, like Dorothy stepping onto the Yellow Brick Road for the first time. Seeing me, she grins. “Ashley! Long time no see. Are these rocks real?”
I explain that my parents and I picked the rocks ourselves out of a farmer’s field. “No kidding,” she says, skipping the sidewalk and instead walking across the soft lawn to give me a hug. A perfume-and-hairspray cloud, strong enough to still the lungs of every mosquito in a two-foot radius, wraps around me. “You remember your Uncle Jake.” She gestures to the man, who steps forward to shake my hand. I actually don’t remember him being my uncle and have only met him once, so I assume they are newlyweds. They act like newlyweds, holding hands and smiling at each other as they talk. They don’t tell me exactly why they’re visiting, but I get the vague impression they want to borrow money. They ask to see my parents, and I feel bad delivering the news that my parents are out in the woods planting trees and probably won’t be back for hours. I don’t want to send them away because I know Aunt Wendy’s house is a two-hour journey. “You can wait here if you want,” I offer, but then I get a brilliant idea. “Hey! I can take you to where they are! I know the way.”
They look at each other. “How far is it?”
I’m not good at calculating distances, so I tell them it usually takes me 25 minutes. “There’s a trail,” I say.
I am overjoyed when they say yes. Giving tours of the woods is one of my favorite past-times, paramount even to my love of reading. I throw on red rubber rain boots, knowing the woods might be wet from recent rain, and put on two pairs of socks to prevent blisters. Looking at Aunt Wendy’s high heels, I wonder if I ought to offer her a pair of my mom’s work boots. But she looks so nice in her outfit, and the day is so lovely that I decide not to bother, and anyway I know we can all get a ride back on the four-wheeler once we reach the tree-planting party.
We set off down the driveway and enter the mouth of the trail near my uncle’s house. At first it is smooth going—the trail is firm, dry, and clear of debris. Aunt Wendy and Uncle Jake walk behind me, holding hands and exchanging lovey-dovey glances as I point out important landmarks they should pay attention to. “Over here we have the Big Hill,” I say, gesturing like the farmer who gave me and my classmates a guided tour of his dairy farm. “Up there is the Fire Lane. It’s called the Fire Lane because if a fire burns through one half of the woods, it won’t be able to cross the Fire Lane and reach the other half.”
When we get to the crossroads, where we hook up with the Fire Lane, the going gets tougher. The Fire Lane, which will take us to the meadow where my parents are planting trees, is bumpier, grassier, and wetter. Aunt Wendy’s heels hold up well, although her pace lags. “Can’t we go down that trail over there?” she asks. “It looks drier.”
“No, the bear lives down there,” I say. “We’re going this way.”
Her eyes widen at mention of a bear, but Uncle Jake scoops her up in his arms, tickling her cheek. “I’ll protect you.” He dips her, and her miniskirt creeps up dangerously close to the fork of her tree.
“Baby.” She kisses him.
“Honey.” He kisses back.
“Skeeters,” I say, swatting at the bloodsucking creatures trying to bite me. We are moving so slowly, deer flies and mosquitoes are circling our heads, and I am getting impatient.
They are rubbing noses when it happens. A tiny specter with wings and eight legs penetrates the perfume cloud, and a hungry proboscis finds Uncle Jake’s bare neck. He breaks the kiss. “Something bit me!”
“Besides me?” Aunt Wendy’s expression changes from coy to concerned. “You’re bleeding!” She attends his wound with a spit-moistened sleeve.
“Over here!” I call from far up the trail. I continue ahead, and they realize they’d better follow if they don’t want to be left alone in the forest.
They’ve almost caught up to me when my suspicion about the woods being wet is confirmed. Dead ahead is a large puddle covering the entire trail for several steps. Beyond that I can see a double puddle—two puddles in a row, connected by a wide canal. It will be easy for me to walk through the puddles with my boots, and Uncle Jake will be able to walk around the puddles through the underbrush just off the trail, but how will Aunt Wendy fare?
They stop short of the first puddle, unsure how to ford it. I am only five feet away, on the other side of the puddle, but a raging river may have separated us. Finally Uncle Jake sacrifices his cowboy boots, picks up his lady, and carries her through ankle-deep water. When he sets her down on the other side, she rewards him with a kiss. This becomes tradition, as we cross five more puddles in similar fashion. We are all sweaty and full of bug bites by the time the trees thin out and we reach the drier part of the trail. They seem not to mind. They cross the last puddle and christen the moment with a long, tender smooch.
By now I’m feeling left out, so I try to divert attention when they break for air. “My best friend from school lives on that farm,” I say, pointing to the neighbor’s field. “Her dad owns that land. We might see some cows. Do you like cows?” I ask hopefully, thinking Uncle Jake might be interested. But apparently he is not that kind of cowboy because he just shrugs and goes back to kissing Aunt Wendy. I walk ahead, hoping they’ll follow, but they edge off the trail, still making out, and I worry they will wander off, forget all about me, and then I’ll have two missing people in the woods.
I am wondering if I ought to continue to the meadow alone—it’s just ahead—when Aunt Wendy stumbles backwards on some weeds, not enough to fall but just enough to turn her ankle. “We’d better keep going,” she says, and they catch up to me.
I notice Aunt Wendy favoring her ankle a bit. “We’re almost there,” I say. These people are turning out to be more trouble than I expected, and I am looking forward to handing them over to the adults. The trail’s end is in sight—I count it down: last oak tree, last pine tree, line of scraggly bushes—clearing line, out of woods and into sunlight. We’ve reached the meadow, end of our journey. We should see my parents any moment now—
I stop and stare. Fifty perky baby pine trees wave at me in the breeze from upturned earth. Except for a forlorn shovel sticking out of the ground and an abandoned five-gallon bucket, there’s no sign of human life. The meadow is emptier than a robin’s nest in wintertime. I run over to the bucket. My two charges follow blindly, like baby possums following their mama. The bucket is part full of rainwater, pollen and dead flies floating in it. This means it hasn’t been used since yesterday. At once a stunning moment of clarity: I see my mom talking to me that morning, slow-motion. I had one eye on her, one eye on my book. I thought she’d said, “We’re going into the woods to plant more trees,” but now, replaying the moment in my head, I realize she’d really said, “We’re going into town to buy more trees.”
How am I going to break it to Aunt Wendy and Uncle Jake that there is no four-wheeler to chariot them back to civilization?
I turn to them. “Bad news.”
The return trip is much less exciting. We are hot and sweaty enough to attract every insect for miles, and our pace is twice as slow. Uncle Jake has to carry Aunt Wendy over all the puddles, and her feet and ankle are so sore he has to carry her on most of the dry portion, too. When we reach the driveway, truck in sight, Aunt Wendy gains sudden strength and beelines toward the truck as though it’s an oasis. With one last hobble, she collapses in the passenger seat and rips off her heels. Uncle Jake sits next to her in the driver’s seat, window rolled down, and fans his face with a magazine. I invite them inside, but her feet are too sore to make it up the porch steps and he’s too tired to carry her.
Deciding my guests need replenishment, I fetch mini bags of chips and trail mix, serving the food to them through their windows just like the waitresses at the local drive-in. I fill two water bottles with fresh, ice-cold water that I hand-pump directly from the well. To keep the bottles cold, I put them in Koozies with colorful declarations printed on them: “I Love My Koozie” for her and “Let’s Go Fishin’” for him. For dessert I pick cherry tomatoes from the garden, which they feed to each other, popping them in their mouths between smacking each other with kisses.
When my guests finish eating, I decide they need entertainment. I walk over to the truck to check on them. They are sprawled in each other’s arms and look quite comfortable. “I guess you don’t want to come see the chickens, then.”
Since they can’t go to the chickens, I bring the chickens to them. I show them my favorite hen and demonstrate her special ability to perch on my shoulder. They nod politely. Next I show them my four-leaf-clover collection. They express admiration and marvel at the rare six-leaf clover highlighting my collection, but are far more interested in cuddling. Finally I give up trying to entertain them and instead entertain myself, hunting for four-leaf clovers on the lawn. Maybe I will find some more five-leaf clovers, maybe even another six-leafer.
The afternoon sun is midway below the tree line and my parents still aren’t back from town. Aunt Wendy limps over to me for a farewell hug. “It’s been nice, but we’re gonna take off,” she says, instructing me to have my mom call her. This time when I hug her, she smells more like fresh air than perfume. Uncle Jake shakes my hand and they return to the truck.
Watching them walk away, I realize that sometimes it is not people who leave their mark on the woods, but the woods that leaves its mark on people. Uncle Jake looks more rugged, like a real cowboy—muddy boots, hunched shoulders, tousled hair, damp shirt. Aunt Wendy has a twig in her hair that Uncle Jake hasn’t found yet. Both are raking fingers down their arms, scratching bug bites—or perhaps it is a nervous tic from the afternoon’s trauma. They look tired, but somehow more wholesome, as though they’ve conquered something important.
One thing is for certain: I wouldn’t trade for anything my walks in the woods, coming back to cozy home wind rumpled, bushwhacked, and bug bitten.
Satisfied, I go inside, kick off my red rubber rain boots, and flop onto the couch.