Arts & Culture

A Writer Returns to the Woods of His Youth

The people who help shape us might not always be with us long, but a wild spirit can live on forever

Photo: MIchael Marsicano

My Uncle Trip’s truck smelled like dirt and chain-saw oil and pine straw mingled with cigarette smoke. I smell it when I think of him. The truck was a two-tone Jeep, a rust-dusted white cab over a faded copper body. I sat in his lap as we cruised the rolling back roads of the Georgia Piedmont, my hands on the wheel at ten and two, his at six as he worked gears and pedals. There were seat belts, but I understood them to be something we might only consider far beyond potholed asphalt or root-choked red dirt. No matter, his arm around my waist felt safer than any nylon and buckle Detroit could offer us. There was an AM radio, but reception was poor in Whistleville, so we sang duets of “Luckenbach, Texas” backed by the music of Old Milwaukee empties, crushed cans rattling like tambourine accompaniment to the steel guitar growl of bottles rolling in the truck bed.

We rarely traveled with purpose. Maybe a trip to Big Star for my grandmother or a run to the Happy Hooker for Louisiana Pinks or Red Wigglers. Probably a stop at the package store either way. Mostly we went to the woods.

There may have been concrete motivations for those trips—the recovery of an ax or a shovel set aside and momentarily forgotten. But generally, Trip went for the simple pleasure of time spent under leaf and limb and the desire to impart that subtle joy to me. He neither directed nor demanded, but spoke to me as if I had agency, as if it were plausible that at age six, I might have already made plans. “You want to go down to the pond?” or “You got time to help me find a pickax?” or “I’m going hunting arrowheads—come on if you want.” And with a loyalty born of absolute worship, I followed him. The truck took us only so far, so Trip and I took to foot.

We never moved fast in the woods. He taught me how to cross barbed wire by spreading two strands to carefully step high over one while bending low beneath another. Through verdant confusions of kudzu that would otherwise have swallowed me, I sat high upon shoulders my mother says I share. It’s a persistence of genetics that pleases me. Once we were afield, anything was worth a stop and a lesson—an animal’s footprint, last spring’s bird nest, the creek where water coursing over granite sounds so much like a cacophony of voices that we called it the Talking Place.

I don’t hold many memories of Trip under a roof, fewer still without something in his hand: a rod, a gun, posthole diggers. We fished a family pond deep in the woods, spinning line from Zebco 202s in pursuit of the bass and bream silently wending through green water shining with rippled images of Georgia pine and blue sky. There, he taught me what made a rock right for skipping. How to nail a catfish to a board and strip the skin from its flesh with pliers. How to shoot a .22 loaded with rat shot at a water moccasin challenging us over a stringer of fish.

I don’t know how many days my uncle Trip had been missing when my mother told me he was gone. I know I was eight years old and it was a Sunday. I know we were on the way home from church and I had just taken off my socks and Sunday shoes. Those are meaningless details indelibly wedded to my memory of a moment that has never really ended. Trip and two other men—all of ages that would make them boys to me now—entered a fishing tournament in Georgia’s coastal waters, long a place of healing and restoration for my family. A coming storm moved the organizers to cancel the contest, but the call came too late for boys who left early to fish Gray’s Reef as soon as the rules allowed. It was 1981. There were no texts or emails or instant messages, only phone lines and radio announcements, and neither could recall three boys already too far gone upon tortured water. They were here, vibrant and alive, and then they were simply no more.

The family went south, in the fullest meaning of that expression. Day after day, searchers left, small planes droning over the coast, boats cutting through waves in ceaseless grid patterns. I waited upon a dock for hours each day, hoping to entice crabs into a net basket baited with chicken legs, trying to successfully find something. I looked up every evening as the searchers came home, certain they would return Trip to me, him smiling his crooked smile as he walked toward me, arms outstretched in the last light of the day. We all held on to hope past the point of reason, my eight-year-old mind conjuring miracles of desert islands and gold-hearted pirates. But he never came home, and the only thing that remains the same in the wake of it all is my hatred of wearing Sunday shoes.

There is no such thing as “without a trace” when it’s someone you love. The person’s very absence becomes a presence unto itself, a palpable weight that sometimes threatens to press you flat under its inexorable gravity. Under that pressure, inevitable changes arise in the body of a family. Wounds get covered over and ignored, left to fester and rot. Scars form, are picked at, and re-form, less elastic, less resilient, less reversible every time. Rooms in the mind get walled off, never to be entered again. Or they become cells from which one never fully leaves.

For years I dreamed of him. It was always the same: Standing deep in the woods, looking down rows of skinny pine planted by timber crews after clear-cutting pulpwood, I catch a movement in the corner of my eye, turn fully, and see Trip walking toward me. He’s smiling that crooked smile I had so longed to see, gratified to surprise me once again with an arrowhead or an animal bone. In that dream, I am a child, and I run to him to be tossed into the air, but my feet are leaden. I look down to see why I am not moving forward, and when I look up again, he’s sad eyed and fading, translucent, then once again just…gone. It was a new disappointment every time I awoke. I am more disappointed now that I no longer dream of him.

In my final memory of Trip, we sat in an aluminum canoe in the backyard at my grandmother’s farm. At our backs, pasture stretched away to woods. We stroked paddles across the grass as I used his wooden recurve bow to fend off threats as dire as they were imaginary. Eventually he turned in his seat to face me. He said he’d be leaving for the coast that afternoon. While he was gone, I was to look after my mother and grandmother. It was a heady charge for an eight-year-old, and I gravely accepted the mantle he offered with an equal lack of reservation and comprehension. In keeping with my child’s perception of time, I accepted that he would simply be gone to me until he returned as he always had. Every time a surprise. Every time a gift. But this time there would be no surprise. No gift. Now there was no Trip and there never has been again. Just some pictures, some stories, and a pocketknife I keep in a box.

Photo: MIchael Marsicano

The kudzu fields are gone now, sacrificed to starter homes and property taxes. So too the pond where Trip and I fished, paddled that canoe, and swam underneath the weathered planks of our floating dock, whispering plans for our next adventure in the sun-slashed jade beneath. The roads are all paved; the plaintive train whistle that gave the area its name surrendered to the constant thump and hiss of a big-box supercenter now found just through the remaining woods. Watching the early summer breeze tear across emerald pastures, my throat swells at the thought of what was and what can’t ever be again. But I am resolved that even though much of the land is gone, the spirit that animated Trip will not be, because I will pass it to our daughter, his nine-year-old namesake, Annabelle Marie Trapier Parker.

Annabelle, her mother, Katy, and I live on the coast now, six hours due east of the Georgia farm that still holds so much of Trip for me. We get there when we can. Annabelle and I jump hay bale to hay bale in the same pastures where Trip delighted me with bottle rockets and Roman candles he brought back from trips to South Carolina. Our time there always limited, I feel an urgency to impart to her the lessons he passed to me so unhurriedly. With the guilelessness of youth, Trip and I assumed we had a lifetime ahead of us. We didn’t, and as a result I feel deeply the crushingly finite nature of our time here and how exquisite and dear that renders each moment. Though I am made more deliberate than Trip, I take no less joy in revealing to Annabelle the wonders that exist around us. At least for now, some of the land he and I wandered remains unconsumed, and the girl who bears his name needs to understand how to slowly move through those same woods, how to slip through barbed wire, how to skip a rock. With inconsistent success, I battle the virtual tentacles of the internet to get her knee-deep in creeks, exultant at the feel of mud between her toes. Ever more constrained by the ravenous glut of housing developments and car washes and storage warehouses replacing open fields and tangled havens of blackberry and white oak, we revel in the nature still available to us.

During the summer, our family paddles a canoe down a tidal creek to the Intracoastal Waterway. We dodge center-console fishing boats worth three times more than our home, then beach ourselves at the mouth of an inlet yielding the expanse of the Atlantic and know we are rich beyond measure. We track previous visitors by their footprints, and Annabelle asks me why people would leave the garbage we pull from the sand of what she has called Annabelle Island since she first landed there at age five.

Come cooler weather, we find spots in the woods where we camp in my truck bed. Our breath rimes the roof of the camper top, its crystalline shine in the glow of a headlamp delighting a girl who still considers unicorns a reasonable possibility. When the weather warms again, I watch her eyes dance as she reels in black bass and bluegills from the pond in front of our home, naming each of them before returning them to the water. When no one is looking, I put her in my lap and she steers my truck from the mailbox to our house, her hands on the wheel at ten and two, mine at six as I work gas and brake. At these times, I feel that if only I could see just beyond the corner of my eye, Trip might be in the passenger seat singing “Luckenbach, Texas,” and maybe this time he wouldn’t fade away. Through her eyes, I see myself the way I want to be seen, and I hope these will be the times she remembers, the ideal she conveys to another generation.

To spend time in the natural world, taking deliberate note of its simple gifts, is to acknowledge our place in that great and complex system. Charles Trapier “Trip” Russell vanished into the vastness of nature, and in so doing, he became vast. I see him smiling when Annabelle turns her face to the wind or I inhale deeply of freshly turned soil. Feathering a paddle through creek water, I know I will pass from this earth as unremarked as the whorls in my wake, and I am without regret because there will be a girl who loves the natural world as Trip did, and I do, and she will carry a pocketknife that bears the initials “CTR.”   

This article appears in the June/July 2020 issue of  Garden & Gun. Start your subscription here or give a gift subscription here.