There are so many places left unhiked. Once I develop an affinity for a place it’s difficult to make myself try something new. If you’ve been reading you already know my outdoor writing spots: the river; the lower Heritage Trail; the stairs to the state hospital; and the ledge overlooking the boulders of the abandoned railroad canyon.
But some places I just like to walk for the sake of movement and exercise, and I’ll even take a hiking buddy if I can find one willing to meet at the buttcrack of dawn. Hatcher Hill is one of those places. Or, at least, it was until my buddy Jack Bird imbued it with a kind of vicarious nostalgia. Now I hike it with images of my friend as a carefree adolescent, imagining, through him, a Madison that now exists only in his memories.
So today when I hiked the hill, I kept thinking about a gang of boys in the 1940s riding their bikes up Hatcher Hill where Sunrise Falls were still earning their name, engorged with water that now only trickles over the edge.
An Osage Orange, “mock orange” ball lays at the side of the trail. When I wrote about hedgeapples earlier this week I didn’t know his childhood stories. Now as I look at the lumpy green fruit laying at my feet, I hear him telling me of their boyhood fights with mock oranges.
I imagine grinning, loping teens full of adolescent bravado, challenging each other to a game of gnarly green dodge ball before reaching the crest of the hill and heading across the undeveloped land to the pond on Cragmont Street for a swim.
Some of these trees would have seen those young boys. Surely they’re old enough. Would they have picked the fruit of the paw paw trees for a snack or also whipped it about in the freedom and frenzy of childhood?
In a wet summer these hillsides would probably burgeon with bloom and fragrance.
Baxter has his own hiking buddy again today and they wander on without me.
I go back to imagining my friend Jack riding up the hill on his bike as a teen, a strong tan strapper, standing upright to pedal the hillside. I remember his story about the chain breaking on his bike and how his friends creatively tied his handlebars to the back of another bike and pulled him up the hill. On the way back down they tied his bike seat to their own handlebars so they could use their breaks to hold him back.
But halfway down, maybe where I am standing now next to this paw paw tree, the rope broke, launching him and his bike, chainless, brakeless, down the winding hillside. “Rickity split,” he says, recounting the adventure in his charming vernacular, “without a chain down Hatcher Hill… hit that honeysuckle by the cemetery and it broke my fall.”
The old and new stones mingle as the fog melts away to the reflection of morning sunshine.
It’s hard to imagine the adjacent placement wasn’t intentional, but I don’t care. Though the death of any person is sad, it’s lovely to imagine the death of those states.