Nature Writing at Raven Chronicles Online
An essay by Joe Mills
The Land and Legacy
of Super Chicken
"Nature worship is often an important stage in the natural religion of early boyhood.”
– George Walter Fiske, Boy Life and Self-Government
My brother and I are walking through the woods when we come upon several odd marks in the middle of the path. Each is a long line with two shorter segments splitting out of one end:>---
"What are these?" I ask. Scott is five years older, and growing up I'll often make the mistake of turning to him for information and advice.
He crouches, examines the trail, and says, "These are the tracks of Super Chicken. Do you know about Super Chicken?”
I shake my head.
“He's eight feet tall with fangs and a barbed beak. He roams the woods, and he eats..." Scott pauses, looks over both shoulders, and whispers, "kids under ten. Because that’s when they’re the tenderest and juiciest."
As a nine year old, I’m naturally concerned. I also instinctively know what Super Chicken looks like. A mutated Big Bird. Crazed glazed eyes. Mangy feathers. Blood specked foam frothing from his beak. He is a Sesame Streeter gone feral.
"Listen," my brother says, grabbing my shirt. I hear a whirring sound. Later I will learn it’s made by cicadas. "That's his cry. He's coming. Hide. Hide!" Scott shoves me against a log, covers me with leaves, and sits on my back.
Even after I turned ten, I lived in fear of Super Chicken. After all, how would he know my age? And maybe he would forgo a certain amount of tenderness for availability. For him, a ten or eleven year old might be the equivalent of stale cookies. They weren’t as good as fresh, but if they were right there. . . Consequently when the whirring started in the evenings, I would sprint home. For years in my nightmares, I would see Super Chicken approaching through the trees, and I would crawl into the dirt and try to cover myself.>---
Technically the woods behind our Indiana lake cottage was a state park, but those of us who lived along the boundary road considered it ours. We walked through it like other people walked around their block. The fence encircling the park didn’t affect our sense of ownership. We didn’t regard it as something to keep us out, but as a barrier to keep others in. It served as a kind of a giant containment area corralling people who didn’t live in the area.
Along the road, holes had been cut into the fence every couple hundred yards, and in a few places, the wires had simply been smashed down. Unofficial but well-worn paths connected these access points to the main trails. One summer, state maintenance crews worked for weeks putting up new fencing. Two days after they had finished, someone went along with boltcutters and re-opened all the old spots. A craftsperson, he also took the time to wrap the ends of the cut strands around two-by-fours and create gates.>---
Each walk in the woods had its ritual observances. If you went behind the animal pens, you took a couple swings on the vine that hung over the dirt slope. If you were on the trail to the baseball diamond, you ducked and sprinted past the “crazy man’s house” where a guy with a shotgun would come out and shoot if he caught sight of you. (I never saw anyone there which made the story all the more plausible.) If you heard horses coming along the bridle trail, you hid, watched the group ride by, and laughed at how they had no idea you were close enough to hit one of them with a rock.
My favorite walk was to “Hell’s Point” at the park’s far end mainly because the name thrilled me and let me say, “I’m going to Hell . . . sss Point.” The trail map claimed it was the highest spot around, but the difference in elevation was almost imperceptible, and you only knew you had been there when you realized the trail had begun to curve back. The multiple ironies of this -- the fact that you ascended to see Hell, that the “point” provided no view, that if there had been a view it would have been of Indiana farms, and that you could barely tell when you had been close to Hell -- all these were lost on me at the time.
Even though completing the entire trail took just a few hours, we always took supplies. We would make tuna fish sandwiches, wrap them in bread bags, and tie them to the belt loops of our cut-off jeans. They would bang against our legs until, by the time we stopped to eat, they would be battered lumps. We also would take water, pocket knives, a compass (although I didn’t know how to read one and we could get lost only if we suffered concussions), and most importantly, quarters for the campground and lodge vending machines.
The trail passed a large septic pool. Each time I realized we were getting close to it, I would slow down to scan the undergrowth beside the path. I was looking for a good rock, and I had to start early before we got to ground that would be picked over. At least that's what I thought. A nine year-old believes everyone has similar desires and so behaves as he does. Sometimes I would find several appealing rocks – ones with the heft of baseballs or grapefruits – and I would cradle them in an arm or wedge them into my pockets until it was difficult to walk.
A hurricane fence surrounded the sewage pond, and signs warned, “Entry Prohibited.” We had no desire to enter; instead we followed the chain links away from the trail until we had an unobstructed view of the enclosed rectangular. The thick green scum made the pond look like an enormous felt billiard table. Scott would throw first, pitching a rock high into the air in his best Little League form, and we would wait for it to come down. The waiting was the best part as we tried to calculate where it would land.
The rock would punch a black circle into the pane of green.
Then I would throw. This wait involved anxiety on my part. A poor athlete, sometimes I missed the pond, and we would hear my carefully chosen rock crashing through the trees. Or, what was worse, we wouldn’t hear anything. Scott would find this hilarious, and even though I would want to throw again, he would insist that I had used my turn. On the good days, however, my rock would plummet into the target.
Another circle would blossom. We would chuck more until we had punctured the scum surface with as many holes as our road’s deer crossing signs, but the first ones were the most satisfying. And, for some reason, maybe because of an instinctive aesthetic sense, we never threw tree limbs, dirt clods, or anything but rocks.
A voracious reader of Westerns and biographies of mountain men like Jim Bridger and Hugh Glass, I sometimes would go into the woods, leave the trail, and stumble through trees, bushes, and thistles until I found a place where I couldn’t see any marks of civilization (although you could never get away from the sound of cars). Then, I would plant my feet and say, “I’m the only man who has ever stood right here. Right on this exact spot. Ever.”
In the 1970s, the park had three huge animal pens; one had a couple buffalo, one had elk, and one supposedly had a moose, but it never seemed to be there. A dirt road circled each enclosure, so people could look at the wildlife without getting out of their cars. A Hoosier safari. There were no signs, no placards, no information about the animals or explanations about why or how they came to be there. Next to a few picnic tables, a mobile home served as a “nature center.” It housed a few stuffed birds and had a table displaying some snake skins, nuts, and feathers. Most of the time it was closed.
When we walked past the pens, we would try to feed the buffalo and elk. We would pull up grasses, shove the blades through the fence, and shake them, yelling, "Here you go. Hey, come here. Hey, stupid, I've got something for you to eat. Come here." If one of the mounds of meat did amble over and chew our offering, we felt good. We had been chosen. We had accomplished something. If we were ignored, we would toss the grass aside in disgust. Sometimes we threw dirt clods to get the animals’ attention or express our annoyance, and once Dave shot one with his wrist-rocket, a type of powerful sling shot. The stone hit the buffalo in the side, and, at that exact moment, it shat. We cheered as if Dave had won a prize. Although we hit it several more times, nothing else happened. It simply stood there.
Most of us along the boundary road felt we had a right to employment in our woods. My brother worked there for a couple years, and at 19, when I needed a summer job during college, I went to the park office to claim my entitlement. The woman explained that to be considered for work, I needed to get the signatures of the four board members of the county's Republican Party. She handed me a card and a list of names.
I wasn’t a registered voter; in fact I had given little thought to politics. If I had to pass some kind of political test, like naming the current senator, I might as well go fill out the McDonald’s application. However, when I looked at the list, I recognized the name at the top; the chairman was the father of my first serious girlfriend, and, luckily, she had dumped me rather than vice versa. I drove to his business, re-introduced myself, and got him to sign the card. When the other board members saw his name, they signed without asking questions or even looking at me. I returned to the park office within hours. Impressed, the secretary said, “I don’t think anyone has ever done that so fast.” I didn't know anything about politics, but I knew they couldn’t ignore such qualifications, and the next day, the park’s assistant superintendent called to hire me.
My first day of work an old guy with years of seniority insisted on showing me around. Although I explained that I knew the area well so I didn’t need a tour, he ignored me. We circled the park for a couple hours, listening to a country radio station and stopping to talk to other employees. He never introduced me, and he said only two things: “You smoke?” and “The superintendent’s an asshole.” As we drove past the parking lot of the toboggan run for the third time, a woodchuck ran out of the underbrush. He had to gas the truck and crank the wheel hard to make sure he hit it.
I was assigned “patrol” which meant I drove around and around for eight hours. My training consisted of being given a walkie talkie and told to “keep an eye out.” No one explained what to look for, but in three months I saw some interesting things including a man screaming at a family of raccoons trapped in his new car and a couple having sex on a picnic table at 6:30 in the morning.
The other employees grumbled at my assignment. Normally a new hire would be put on the “matron crew” which cleaned bathrooms eight hours a day or the mowing crew which cut grass and did jobs like digging a backyard pool for the superintendent’s house. Apparently, my political connections got me out of both of these, but I did end up working what was termed the swing shift, covering other people’s off days. So, I might have a work week schedule consisting of a first shift (8 am to 4), two second shifts (4 to midnight), and two graveyards (midnight to 8 am). No one else wanted those hours, but they complained anyway. When I drove past one of the crews, someone usually would give me the finger or point to their crotch and purse their lips. I never said anything, but in a staff meeting, the assistant superintendent said there had been complaints about rude gestures from employees. After the laughter died down, he insisted that if he caught one of us acting inappropriately, “I’ll can your ass so fucking quick you won’t have time to kiss it goodbye.”
When I patrolled in the day, I would spend eight hours looping around the roads, sometimes giving directions and answering questions from people, sometimes stopping kids from pitching rocks at wasps’ nests, mostly trying to stay away from management who would give me tasks like fetching snacks from the lodge’s restaurant.
On the second shift, I would drink pop at the campground store and flirt with the girls who assigned campsites or drink pop at the lodge and try to flirt with the woman at the main desk. Often these discussions would be interrupted by a walkie-talkie call from the superintendent and a demand that I meet him at a particular location. He liked to spend his off hours, especially Friday and Saturday nights, doing surveillance work on under-age drinkers. He loved to emerge from the bushes into a group of startled teen-agers, squawk that they were busted, and call in the “ranger on duty.” I would arrive in the big official truck, wearing an official uniform and carrying a large impressive Maglite, and he would order me to confiscate the alcohol and take down names and phone numbers. I didn’t mind playing an accessory to his action figure fantasy because although I was supposed to dump the beer and booze, I never did. Instead, I’d stash it at the beach pavilion, and then tell the campground registration staff to meet me there at the shift’s end. We would sit around bitching about what assholes our bosses were and drink until we did something stupid like try to set a picnic table on fire or have chicken fights in the darkness.
The shifts from midnight to morning were the hardest because the time was difficult to fill. I would either park in an empty campsite and nest in the truck or sit for hours at the gatehouse with Jim, the only other person on duty. Sometimes we would climb onto the roof and sit there pitching pine cones and betting how many times in a row we could hit the entrance gate. Occasionally, a car would arrive. The driver would stop, peer into the lit empty building, then drive on. No one ever looked up to see two dark forms perched on the shingles as if ready to swoop down.
Jim wasn’t jealous that I had patrol duty because he thought he had a better assignment. Most nights, a couple hours into his shift after he was sure everyone was gone, he would unpack a cooler, lawn chair, and TV from the trunk of his car and set them up in the gatehouse. “I usually have a good three or four hours before those damn fishermen start arriving,” he once told me.
One morning, a young boy supposedly ran up to Jim as he was putting his gear away and asked, “Ranger Rick, Ranger Rick, where’s Smokey the Bear?”
Before answering, Jim took a long pull on his cigarette. “Smokey’s dead, son. Died in a forest fire. So be careful.”
The boy took a look at the Marlboro’s glowing ember, burst into tears, and ran away.
Jim loved that story.
I left Indiana years ago, but my brother and I still get together when we can to walk in woods somewhere. We have hiked in the hills north of San Francisco, where not only did we see redwood trees, but our trail ended on a nude beach. “Look,” Scott said pointing in amazement. “She’s naked. And so is he. And so is she!” He couldn’t believe people were just lying in the sand like animals. We have spent several days in Yosemite where we slept under a plastic sheet held up by a dog leash and band-aids because we had forgotten the tent. We did, however, remember to bring the chess board. We have stumbled through the Great Smoky Mountains, around the forests of West Virginia, and along the Florida coast, but perhaps a day spent in the Desolation Wilderness in the Sierra Nevadas best encapsulates our appreciation of nature. We spent the morning climbing an unmarked peak. At the top, we could see hundreds of miles and dozens of lakes and mountain ranges, but we didn’t stay at the top for long. It was too much for us. Later, we found a more comfortable spot under a couple of trees beside a small stream. As we unwrapped slices of leftover pizza that had been smashed into balls by the day’s walking, we watched the water flow over a series of half foot falls. “This is great,” Scott said, and I agreed. We stayed there a long time, pitching rocks into a tiny backwater pool and sketching tracks into the dirt.