The last hike of summer

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The question floated up again from two angelic little voices in the backseat, “Papa, where are we going?” Sweet Caroline and her older sister, Little One, had been asking where we were going and what we were doing since I got them up.

It was Saturday just before 8 a.m., and we were already in the car almost at our destination of Line Creek Nature Reserve. We were gonna spend the crisp morning hiking the many trails down to the creek, looking for bugs, poking snake holes, and playing a game or two of pinecone racing along the rapids of the creek.

Turning down the dirt road leading to the reserve parking lot, they finally realized our destination. After parking, the girls hopped out and excitedly ran over to the head trail. Calling them back over to the car, I told them we still had to get something important – a gift especially for them. Crowding around me as I opened the hatchback and reached in to retrieve their gift, they asked, “What is it, Papa?”

Looking at what lay in the car, I smiled. Today was going to be a special day, one the girls would remember for the rest of their lives — just like that day a long, long time ago on that old familiar street not so far away called Flamingo.

It was going to be the last hike of summer, so my three brothers and I got up early, dressed, ate breakfast and were out the front door just before 8 a.m. We met in Neighbor Thomas’s backyard and were soon joined by Thomas, Bubba Hanks, Preston Weston, III, and Goofy Steve. They too wanted to get in one last hike in the woods before school started back on Monday. Each one of us had a day’s worth of snacks along with a canteen of water. The only thing we were missing were walking sticks.

Now walking sticks weren’t just for walking; every kid on Flamingo Street knew that. And the type of walking stick you pick out says a lot about who you are. Along our walk, Bubba Hanks picked out the largest stick, Goofy Steve picked up the crookest and skinniest, and Neighbor Thomas broke a limb off a fallen sweet gum tree. My three brothers picked up regular sticks along our hike, but not me.

I waited for the perfect stick, and after we had hiked for an hour, I found it. I cut mine from a black oak tree on the edge of the Dark Forest. Black oak is one of the strongest woods you can find in the forest and almost impossible to break. Just in case we ran into down the Street Bully Brad and company, I wanted to be ready to fight them off with my super strong walking stick.

For the rest of the day, we enjoyed all the wonders hiking in the woods always brought: spotting deer, lizards, and spiders, climbing trees and riding them back down to the ground as they bent over under our weight, dirt clod battles, and wading through Cripple Creek.

Thomas was the first to lose his walking stick. He was double-dog dared to hit a low-hanging paper wasp nest. While running away from a bazillion wasps, he dropped his stick. Twin Brother Mark lost his when he poked it into a dark hole in the bank of Cripple Creek. Something grabbed it, and the stick disappeared and was never seen again.

Bubba Hanks lost his stick when he was crossing Cripple Creek. After getting stuck in the gray muck of the creek bottom, Bubba used his walking stick to finally free himself. He got to the other side, but his giant stick was stuck forever in the middle of a gray pool of muck. Older Brother Richard and Big Brother James broke theirs fighting one another in an epic stick battle lasting a full ten minutes!

Me? I saved mine, and luckily, I did because at the end of the day, we were ambushed by Bully Brad and his gang of three. Wielding my black oak walking stick, I sent Bully Brad and his gang running for home! Okay, we outnumbered them seven to four, but I bet they were fearful of my mighty walking stick. Each hike we took from then on out, I used that black oak walking stick to fend off spider webs…and bullies. Some of the best memories during those seven years spent growing up on Flamingo were born out of hiking in the woods.

The girls asked again, “Papa, what is it? What do you have for us?” I gripped the two well-worn walking sticks in the back of the car. The jewel-studded sticks were gifts from their great-grandparents. As I handed one to each, I thought back on those many hikes in the woods of Flamingo with my brothers and all the neighborhood kids.

I smiled and replied, “Memories, girls. Lots and lots of childhood memories. Let’s take a hike and I’ll tell you about a last hike of the summer a long, long time ago.”

Thanks, John and Kay, for your wonderful gift. Your walking sticks will be well used to fight off spiders and bullies, poke snake holes, and make many childhood memories for years to come.

[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001.]