When I was a kid, I was fortunate to have spent lots of time in the outdoors. Sometimes by force, thanks to my grandma and her need to watch “Days of Our Lives” uninterrupted, and other times by luck. My father was an avid hunter, so often when he was drawn to hunt deer in the valley, we were left at the house of a dear family friend in Lochiel.
The modest house was less than a half mile from the border and home to the mother of a close family friend. Nana Crucita (Cruz De la Ossa) didn’t speak much English and her house smelled like mesquite smoke from the woodburning stove in the kitchen that she kept constantly stoked for cooking. In the winter the giant potbellied stove in the center of the house glowed red at night and it lit up the hallway just enough to put an eerie glow on the Virgin Mary statue on a nearby table.
At night we were tucked into ancient metal framed beds with springy mattresses and slept hard until the smell of tortillas and chorizo woke us up in the early morning hours. At dawn all the dads would leave for a day of hunting and Nana Crucita would feed us, try to bathe us, and send us on our way.
Upon reaching the outdoors the first goal was to outrun the peacocks. If we were quiet, we could sneak past the males roosting on the roof of the work shed, but usually the dog would bark, alerting them to our presence and out would come the females from their nests looking to draw blood.
Once the business of running for our lives was over, we would set out on an adventure which usually involved bikes and fire. We would cross the road and look for abandoned wells and throw rocks or whatever we could find down the hole listening for a splash. On one occasion we went back to the house for a rope that we tied around one of the kids and lowered them down into the well until they reached water.
It was in Lochiel that I learned that when you get into a tire at the top of a very steep hill you won’t sit upright the entire time but instead, for most of your ride, you’ll be upside down banging your head and trying not to throw up.
It was also in Lochiel that I nearly killed my sister with a rock to the temple. Somewhere away from all adults, and very far from the house, I threw a rock at my sister as she was running away from me. Until that day I never hit anything I aimed at but, of course, I hit her in the head, about an inch from her temple and down she went. After all the “Ooooh you’re in trouble” from the other kids I walked over to find my sister screaming bloody murder and bleeding a lot. Every time she screamed her head wound would pump out more.
The other kids and I picked her up and carried her back to Nana Crucita’s. When we arrived, she and I were covered in blood and the rest of the kids scattered. Nana Crucita took my sister to the bathroom and cleaned her up while my sister told her all about my perfect headshot. I stood in the hallway outside the bathroom waiting, and when Nana Crucita emerged she said the only thing in English she ever said to me, “I’m going to tell your Daddy.” I never threw a rock again.
We went on to have many more adventures in Lochiel. We wrecked motorcycles, built rafts that sunk in old cow ponds, ate pomegranates the size of softballs and tied old spring mattresses to giant oak trees and tried to kill someone else’s younger sibling. We were wild and unsupervised and so damn lucky.
Recently I’ve found myself spending a lot of time in Lochiel. As we work at the schoolhouse my sister and I reminisce about our time there and can’t help but think of our dad and his Cherry Chap stick-scented kisses.
Its never lost on me, the beauty of arriving on the valley and the drive down the dirt road to what I believe is sacred ground. It’s probably why I stayed here and why I’ll probably die here. Most importantly it’s why I will always keep one eye on the peacocks at the zoo.