The Skull with the Vacant Stare— The Woods… The MisAdventure Series

Woods in Diamond Springs, CA

While I don’t have any pictures from the Woods growing up, this and the other photos here are of more recent vintage from Diamond Springs.


Even more than the Pond, the Woods introduced me to the beauty and magic of nature. It, too, earned a capital letter.

To get there, I walked out the back door, down the alley and through a pasture Jimmy Pagonni rented for his cattle. Tackling the pasture involved crawling through a rusty barbed wire fence, avoiding fresh cow pies, climbing a hill and jumping an irrigation ditch. The journey was fraught with danger.

Black oak and woods

This black oak stood over the ditch I had to jump, and it still stands today.

Hungry barbed wire consumed several of my shirts and occasionally went for my back. Torn clothing and bleeding scratches were a minor irritation in comparison to stepping in fresh cow poop though. A thousand-pound, grass-eating machine produces acres of the stuff. Deep piles sneak up your foot and slosh over into your shoes. Toes hate this. Even more treacherous are the little piles that hide out in the grass. A well-placed patty can send you sliding faster than black ice. The real danger here is ending up with your butt in the pile. I did that, once. “Oh, shit,” I had exclaimed. Happily, no one was around to witness my misfortune, or hear my language— except Tickle the dog. And he was sworn to secrecy.

For all of its hazards, the total hike to the Woods took about 10 minutes. Digger pines with drunken windmill limbs guarded the borders while gnarly manzanita and spiked chaparral dared the casual visitor to venture off the trail. Poison oak proved more subtle but effective in discouraging exploration. I could count on raucous California jays to announce my presence, especially if I was stalking a band of notorious outlaws. Ground squirrels were also quick to whistle their displeasure. Less talkative jackrabbits merely ambled off upon spotting me, put on a little speed for a hyper Cocker, and became bounding blurs in the presence of a hungry greyhound. Flickers, California quail and acorn woodpeckers held discussions in distinctive voices I soon learned to recognize.

Woods in Diamond Springs

A trailer park now occupies the woods where I once played. It’s pleasant but no substitute. Even then, power lines cut through the woods. The tree reaching for the sky is a digger pine. Its large pine cones were filled with nuts that the squirrels harvested.

From the beginning, I felt at home in the Woods, like I belonged. I quickly learned that its hidden recesses contained a multitude of secrets. I was eager to learn what they had to teach me, but the process seemed glacial. It required patience and I hardly knew how to spell the word. I did know how to sit quietly, however. This was a skill I had picked up from the hours I spent with my nose buried in books. The woodland creatures prefer their people noisy. A Curt stomping down the trail, snapping dead twigs, and talking to himself about nefarious evil-doers was easy to avoid while a Curt being quiet might surprise them.

One gray squirrel was particularly loud in his objections. He lived in the top branches of a digger pine beside the trail and maintained an observation post on an overhanging limb. When he heard me coming, he would adopt his ‘you can’t see me gray squirrel playing statue pose.’ But I knew where to look. I would find a comfortable seat and stare at him. It drove him crazy. Soon he would start to thump the limb madly with his foot and chirr loudly. He had pine nuts to gather, a stick home to remodel, and a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed lady to woo. I was blocking progress. Eventually, if I didn’t move, his irritation would bring him scrambling down the trunk for a much more personal scolding.

After about 15 minutes of continuous haranguing, he’d decide I was a harmless, if obnoxious aberration and go about his business. That’s when I begin to learn valuable secrets, like where he hid his nuts. It was also a sign for the rest of the wildlife to come out of hiding. A western fence lizard might work its way to the top of the dead log next to me and start doing push-ups. Why, I couldn’t imagine. Or perhaps a thrush would begin to scratch up the leaves under the manzanita in search of creepy tidbits. The first time I heard one, it sounded like a very large animal interested in little boy flesh.

Occasionally there were special treats: a band of teenage gray squirrels playing tag and demonstrating their incredible acrobatics; a doe leading its shy, speckled fawn out to drink in the small stream that graced the Wood’s meadow; a coyote sneaking up on a ground squirrel hole with an intensity I could almost feel.

I also began to play at stalking animals. Sometime during the time period between childhood and becoming a teenager, I read James Fennimore Cooper and began to think I was a reincarnation of Natty Bumppo. Looking back, I can’t say I was particularly skilled, but no one could have told me so at the time. At least I learned to avoid dry twigs, walk slowly, and stop frequently. Occasionally, I even managed to sneak up on some unsuspecting animal.

If the birds and the animals weren’t present, they left signs for me. There was always the helter-skelter pack rat nest to explore. Tickle made it a specialty, quickly sending twigs flying in all directions. There were also numerous tracks to figure out. Was it a dog or coyote that had stopped for a drink out of the stream the night before? My greyhound knew instantly, but I had to piece it together. A sinuous trail left by a slithery serpent was guaranteed to catch my attention. This was rattlesnake country. Who’d been eating whom or what was another question? The dismantled pine cone was easy to figure out but who considered the bark on a young white fir a delicacy? And what about the quail feathers scattered haphazardly beside the trail?

Scat, I learned, was the tracker’s word for poop. It offered a multitude of clues for what animals had been ambling down the trail and what they had been eating. There were deer droppings and rabbit droppings and mouse droppings descending in size. Coyotes and foxes left their distinctive dog-like scat but the presence of fur and berries suggested that something other than dog food had been on the menu. Some scat was particularly fascinating, at least to me. Burped up owl pellets provided a treasure chest of bones— little feet, little legs and little skulls that grinned back with the vacant stare of slow mice.

While Tarzan hung out in the Graveyard and pirates infested the Pond, mountain men, cowboys, Indians, Robin Hood and various bad guys roamed the Woods. Each bush hid a potential enemy that I would indubitably vanquish. I had the fastest two fingers in the West and I could split a pine nut with an arrow at 50 yards.  I never lost. How could I— it was my fantasy. But daydreams were only a part of the picture.

I fell in love with wandering in the Woods and playing on the Pond. There was an encyclopedia of knowledge available and a multitude of lessons about life. Learning wasn’t a conscious effort, though; it was more like absorption. The world shifted for me when I entered the Woods and time slowed down. A spider with an egg sack was worth ten minutes, a gopher pushing dirt out of its hole an hour, and a deer with a fawn a lifetime.

Next Friday I will offer a slight diversion from MisAdventures tales for a week and include a chapter from my book, The Bush Devil Ate Sam.





35 thoughts on “The Skull with the Vacant Stare— The Woods… The MisAdventure Series

  1. In general, you depict a wonderful childhood. It is marvelous that you were able to sit and wait for that squirrel Curt. I wonder if there is a child out there today who could – or who would take his eyes from his phone.

    • It certainly helped not to have cell phones and other electronic gadgets, Ray. Not that I am a Luddite, but even now a week out in the woods without all of the gadgets seems like a cleansing process. I breathe a sigh of relief when I put on a pack and disappear into the wilderness.
      As I told Phil, above, we took two of our grandkids backpacking last summer and they enjoyed the experience. Both of them love their electronics. One of them, I think, is sold for life on the wilderness.
      Our children can learn to love the woods, given the chance. Thanks. –Curt

  2. “The world shifted for me when I entered the Woods and time slowed down. ” This is said so well. It always seemed that either you were born a woods person or not. Never the two really understood the other. Maybe worse now with all the screens and internet.
    But the wonders are still there and there are those who will find them (and protect them)
    Nice post

    • Interesting, Phil, that the other kids recognized that I was a bit different and teased me by calling me “Nature Boy.” It was never mean, however. We all grew up ‘closer to the woods’, both in terms of where we lived and our mindset.
      I was pleased last summer when Peggy and I took two of our grandsons backpacking and they really liked the experience. One of them has requested a two week trip this summer. –Curt

    • Thanks so much, G. It was an interesting combination of living where we did and having parents allow a great deal of freedom in a time before the type of fear we seem to have today.

  3. What a place it was to play in the woods. I used to visit the Elder Forest although the description forest was a gross exaggeration. It was a place for adventure and learning but sadly it was developed for housing so we used to go instead to the Manor House Woods which were said to be haunted sadly it too was developed for new houses. There just aren’t enough places like that for kids these days!

    • Ever so true Andrew. Most of the areas around Diamond where I roamed and played have given way to the bulldozer and developments. I feel for the kids. Fortunately, there are still plenty of woods for me to play in where I live now. –Curt

  4. What a childhood! I, too, grew up in the Woods — of Evergreen, Colorado. The experience has greatly shaped who I am today. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’m sure you feel the same. Nice start to the weekend, Curt!

    • We were ever so lucky, Kelly. My wife Peggy lived in Conifer and taught in Evergreen around 1986/87 in her first marriage. Both of our kids had the opportunity to live in the area for a couple of years and spent their time playing in the woods as well. –Curt

  5. Your descriptions are really beautiful.
    We spent summers in the Woods of “Up North” (northern Minnesota 🙂 They held their own secrets, and we loved running through them and building teepees. I’ll admit, the mosquitos made sitting still for TOO long a challenge some years, but Lake Superior’s winds kept them at bay when necessary 🙂
    Thanks for sharing your stories, Curt! I need to backtrack and catch up on the Pond and others!

    • Thanks Ann. Appreciated! I lived in Alaska for a while and get the bit about mosquitos. 🙂 Even the Sierra’s, where I have spent large amounts of time, can hosts large populations of very hungry mosquitos after snow melt. Many a time, walking fast and generous repellant were the only answers. 🙂 –Curt

  6. Glad you founds scats and burped up half digested owl treasures to be particularly fascinating too. I can see you peering into the heaps of little skulls and feet of its preys. Well said, Curt. A pleasure to read.
    For many years I had an elephant tooth for which I charged a small fee to schoolboys eager to look at.

    • Thanks, Gerard. How could a kid not find the small skeleton’s interesting? And you had an elephant tooth! We brought back piranha heads from the Amazon that Peggy, in her position of principal, took to her elementary school. The kids were fascinated with them. So much so that they eventually disappeared from her office. –Curt

  7. Funny, as I was reading this, I made a note to ask if you were an author and if you weren’t, to tell you to do so! You have a wonderful talent.

  8. A very lovely memory of a free and wild childhood. Call me a curmudgeon, but I think we’ve lost something really special to those little handheld screens.

    • Yes we have, Gunta, especially to the degree that it separates us from connection to the natural world, and, with each other. I like “free and wild” childhood. There was magic… –Curt

  9. Somehow I suspect that even these days when you go wandering through the woods, you still see all those little details with that certain poetic fascination.

  10. Dodging poop, flipping over barbed fences… wow. And we thought fishing at the nearby large drainage in our little red dot was adventurous… Heheh…
    You sure made the pond and the, the graveyard and the woods your world!

    • They were an important part of my gradually expanding world, Suan, and therefore an important part of who I became. I am sure that fishing at your large drainage ditch was adventurous! –Curt

  11. I love these stories Curt. These lines:
    “The world shifted for me when I entered the Woods and time slowed down. A spider with an egg sack was worth ten minutes, a gopher pushing dirt out of its hole an hour, and a deer with a fawn a lifetime.”

  12. This story brings me back to my childhood. I can almost feel and smell those summer days around me. My Grandmother owned a property out in the woods. I spent many spring, summer and Christmas holidays there. I miss that place dearly. However, I’m glad to be a capable adult now where I can drive to similar woods and go exploring and be among the trees and animals.

    • Amazing how some memories can stick with us. I can easily recall the details of the Woods and Pond. Sounds like you spent many happy hours at your grandmothers!
      The woods are right out my backdoor now. 🙂 Our property borders on a million acres od national forest. –Curt

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