Hitchcock Magic

19 09 2011

Exploring the chalk cliffs in Hitchcock Woods

Monkey trees…the Crow’s Nest…the sawdust pile…digging kaolin out of the side of an embankment to use as sidewalk chalk…sucking up all my courage to walk across the cement dam…playing Pooh Sticks on Barton’s Pond Bridge…This was my life, my backyard growing up on the edge of Hitchcock Woods.  The woods was a magic place, a place of imagining, of learning, of growing.  Many children today don’t have these rich experiences.  Parents, believing in the danger that lies outside each and every house, don’t allow their children to explore the woods, don’t show them this magical place.   The woods are still there, still waiting…

Below is an essay my daughter, a senior in high school, wrote about Hitchcock Woods.  I’m proud to say that this essay was chosen as this year’s winner of the Celestine Eustis Prize, given by the Hitchcock Foundation for the most compelling essay about experiencing Hitchcock Woods.  I’m even more proud that she has experienced for herself that old Hitchcock Magic.

Life in the Woods

By Annalise

On Behalf of My Cross Country Team

Tree branches blind me.  Roots trip me up.  The sand muffles my footsteps.  I’m sweating.  I’m dirty.  I’m exhausted.  I’m so utterly lost, but I know where I am.  I’m in Hitchcock Woods.  Isn’t that enough?  And even though it’s getting dark, and this trail is foreign to me, I don’t need to panic- the woods is my second home.

Ever since I can remember the woods have been a part of my life.  Although it might sound absurd, Hitchcock Woods has raised me.  Since my grandparent’s house is on Clark Road, many visits would end in a woods adventure.  We were explorers.  Hitchcock Woods was uncharted territory.  We’d splash through the “raging rivers.”  We’d discover new lands.  It was our personal playground.  You could do anything in the woods.  You could be whoever you wanted to be.  Hitchcock Woods is for the dreamers, and I was a dreamer.

Years later I took up horseback riding lessons at Fulmer Stables.  I wasn’t great at riding horses.  I didn’t do any shows or camps.  My form was nowhere close to perfect. I was completely and utterly mediocre.  But I loved to ride.  I loved the way the horse felt underneath me, its strong body gliding over the sand, kicking it up as I held on for dear life.  The days I loved the most were the “woods days.”  Riding in the woods was a treat.  We would walk, trot, canter, and gallop.  We flew down hills and over jumps. The woods sheltered us.  It was quiet, save for the sound of hooves pounding the earth.

After I decided to stop horseback riding lessons, I took up a new sport.  I started running for my school’s Cross Country team.  It turned out to be  a great decision since every day we would practice in the woods.  After spending so much time running in the woods, I now know almost everything about it.  I know where that twisty trail ends, what parts of Sand River I should avoid stepping in after it rains, and in which field I can stop running and not be caught by my coaches.  But I still can’t find the mythical Gravel Pit!

This is where we would go on hour long runs.  We would do hill repeats on Cole’s Hill.  Even our home meet course wove through the woods.  Suddenly practices became a whole lot more tolerable.  How could you hate running in pure serenity?

I have a problem of getting distracted in the woods while I’m running.  I want to stop and soak up everything.  I used to think the woods was quiet until I actually stopped and listened.  The woods is alive with sounds.  The trees sing with chirps and twitters, and the ground moves with hungry squirrels foraging for food.  One day I just stopped running and sat down on a decaying log.  Sometimes I get so busy in life that I forget to just listen.  I’m so caught up in school, in my sports, and in my social life that doing absolutely nothing for ten minutes is unthinkable.  So for that day I just sat and reflected on life.  Surrounded by nature, I found peace.  It was a beautiful moment for me.

Hitchcock Woods has become part of who I am.  Wherever I go in life, I know I’ll take with me my own personal slice of the woods.  I’ll remember the deep sand, the wind in the trees, and the sweat on my brow.  The woods might be for the citizens of Aiken.  It might be for adventurous tourists.  It might be for my school’s Cross Country team.  But the woods will always be my home.


1 09 2011

I didn’t see her tonight, walking alone down the street with that odd shuffling gait. Every evening for months now, we would see her out our front window as we sat down at the dinner table. And not just at dinner time, either. I’d see her all over the neighborhood in the morning as well as in the blast furnace afternoons. Her hat and hiking boots gave her an athletic look that contrasted with her jerky, somewhat off balance steps. And she always seemed to be talking to herself. We called her the Walking Lady.

I met her last night. I had been walking with my new friend Sarah, and we were a mile or two away from home when we saw her walking toward us. Sarah’s face lit up. “That’s my old friend, Elise!” Sarah introduced us and her story unfolded.

Elise and Sarah had been best friends for years, sharing their lives as their children grew up. They would go on long hikes and adventures together. Those days were long gone. Elise was suffering, from what, nobody knew. Although she could still speak in coherent sentences, it took great effort to get the words out. She “babbled” constantly and uncontrollably, monosyllables that sounded almost like repetitive baby talk. Her arms shook with a palsy-like movement, and indeed all her muscles seemed to be tensing and relaxing constantly, causing the strange gait. Sleep offered no relief, as her muscle movement wouldn’t even stop long enough for her to rest. Only a heavy dose of sleeping pills allowed her to get a little sleep. Even worse, she couldn’t concentrate enough to understand television shows, to read, or even to pray. And she wanted to pray, to beg God to take away this affliction, or at least help the doctors to understand what was going on.

Driving was out of the question. So was cooking, as well as most household chores. Her husband retired early from his job to stay home with her. She felt trapped in her own home, a hermit of her own choosing. Walking the neighborhood was her only escape. “I don’t walk for fun or exercise,” she said. “I walk to survive. It’s the only thing left that I can do.” Yet she even felt bad walking. “Weird,” she said. She knew what people thought of her. That weird lady.

She had been to countless doctors. They scanned her brain, her heart, her whole body. They did blood tests. They tried psychiatric drugs and therapy. Nothing helped. In just over a year, she had gone from an active lifestyle to this, a prisoner in her own body, fully aware of her disability and how she appeared, with no hope of any end to her suffering.

We walked a little way with Elise, until it became obvious that she could go no farther. Sarah called Elise’s husband to come get her, a necessary action but one that caused Elise even more pain. “Paul never gets a break from me,” she sobbed. Even in the midst of her misery, she worried about others.

I dislike the cliché, “thoughts and prayers,” but today she was constantly, heavily, in my thoughts and prayers. I didn’t see her tonight, walking alone down the street with that odd shuffling gait. I didn’t see her tonight, but she is no longer “That Walking Lady.” She is Elise.