Mysterious, hidden places are the lifeblood of children’s literature. I think of the classic realism of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s garden in A Secret Garden, the fantastical realm of Neil Gaiman’s graveyard in The Graveyard Book, or maybe something in between like the hidden country in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. These places, however, are not only for children. Adults, too, have their secret spots, whether real, earthbound escapes or hidden corners of their memories or imagination.
I have a few such places in both categories. The ones in my mind, like Tallameirissa, where live generations of characters with elaborate histories and mythologies, I can always reach unless I am too troubled, but some of my real escapes, like the sun-scorched ruins of Samos, or a snow-covered overlook on the Gunflint Trail, require too much travel to be of help with any regularity. For a more daily escape, I have only to look to the quieter dirt trails along the Monocacy River. There, I have touch points that I like to revisit, usually places where I’ve seen something mundane but amazing, like a lonely trout lily, or a flattened clearing of grass where deer have slept, or the dead tree with the hole 15 feet above the ground where I once spotted a rat snake sleeping after shedding its old skin. I’ve visited the old, holy tree more than 100 times since seeing the snake, always hoping to find it again, but I never have. I’m not really sure why I feel so compelled to look so often. I suppose it must be hope itself. It has its own kind of magic.
My boys spotted a rat snake in a different tree a few days ago. Its black coils shining in the sun, it was twined around a thick branch of a tree that had fallen into the river. When the boys, far too curious to resist its magnificence, began poking it with a very long stick, it resentfully uncoiled itself and slipped into a hollow of the tree. It was so long that the tip of its tail remained tauntingly visible, but it had more patience than the boys, who decided to move on and create trouble elsewhere, in their own hidden and mysterious places, some of which, I hope, I know nothing about.