When I was 14-years old, I found a pickup truck in the woods. It was an old truck, like the kind seen swerving over buttock-shaped hills in a Grant Wood painting. Whatever color it had once been, it was now rust red. The windshield and windows were cracked, busted, or simply gone. Whether or not it still had tires was hard to say since it was half-buried in the earth. Leaves and vines and dirt were piled in the cab and bed. Bullet holes riddled the door.
I’d spent most of my childhood looking for that truck, or something like it. The subdivision where I grew up was as middle class Americana as you could get, an endless series of streets lined with model homes, clean lawns, and adorned with names that wouldn’t be out of place on the front door of an antique shop. Between each cul-de-sac was a patch of woods cut through with little creeks.
It was a great place to grow up. We kids spent the the long after school afternoons and longer summer days running about the place along bike paths and through drainage tunnels, a practice out parents promised would inevitably lead to death by drowning. We did not listen. We climbed trees, we crawled into caves, we caught craw fish in the creeks, and we mapped out the little world we had at our feet. It seemed big enough for us, then, and filled with enough mystery. We saw a deer once, after all.
Woodcroft, as the place is called, was built on a tract of land where absolutely nothing ever happened. The great, sweeping history of the South had passed it by with nary a Civil War battlefield, Indian burial mound, or haunted plantation house left over. Like most of suburbia, it was a place without a history. So, we the children had no choice but to invent one.
The quiet little dells between tract housing became not the last vestiges of wilderness in suburban sprawl, but dark forests filled with ravening black wolves, dinosaurs, and buried treasure. We secretly hoped, like Dorothy, Wendy, Alice, Max in Where the Wild Things Are, or Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth, to stumble across the gates to a magical other world that was waiting to crown us kings.
We knew, of course, that it wasn’t true, but we told ourselves it was and that was enough. For a while, at least. We explored, we delved, and we hoped that in each new cave we found there’d be a gold-laden pirate ship straight out of Goonies or a portal straight to Narnia.
By the time I reached middle school, the Woodcroft woods had begun to lose their magic. We were becoming adults, or young adults, at least, and it was no longer really possible to buy our own tall tales of hidden dinosaurs, crates of gold, and doors to lost worlds. The real world was a lot damn bigger than we’d known and its great mysteries were clearly not contained in the half acre of trees between Winterberry Ridge Rd. and Old Fox Trail. The woods were empty. Besides, there were girls now.
The day we found the bullet-riddled truck was one of the last times I ever went into those woods. My friend Brian and his friend, whose name I don’t remember, went walking through the woods behind Brian’s house. Brian lived not far from us, but his little tract of woods was different than mine. A few years earlier and this would have seemed like walking into a foreign country, but now it was just so many trees. We weren’t exploring, just killing time. Being a 14-year old boy who is afraid of girls means you spend a lot of time trying to do anything to distract your mind from the one thing you actually want to be doing but have no idea how to actually go about doing.
We walked straight back into the woods, boredom compelling us to see how far we could go. We stumbled across the truck after an hour or so of walking. It was like a gut-punch. Here, after all these years, was the very thing we’d been looking for. A piece of the past. A bit of history. An honest-to-God enigma. We poked around the truck for a while, looking for come clue to its origin. We didn’t find anything. It started to get dark, so we headed back to Brian’s place, theorizing the whole way about how that truck ended up rusted-out and half-buried in a suburban forest. We didn’t come up with anything convincing.
I think of that rusted truck now as the symbol of the end of my childhood. Not the actual end, of course, since the transition from childhood to adulthood is long and complicated and has many milestones, most of them involving sexual humiliation. But I never went much into the woods after that. The truck had changed them for me. I knew they weren’t filled with thrilling adventures, and now I knew they weren’t empty either. But I didn’t want to find what was there anymore. The truck was unsettling.
The woods have their mysteries, after all, but they are largely inexplicable; mysteries we can’t wrap our heads around, questions without answers. As we get older, we find the same pattern in all those grown-up things we thought would be so simple as children: friendships, marriages, careers, living. Life in the adult world holds the solutions to its mysteries as close to the vest as the forest does.
We never did discover dinosaurs, pirate gold, or the entrance to Narnia in the woods, just a rusted-out pickup and with it a world we’d already been living in for 14 years, a world that was waiting for us to find it.