I anticipated that it was going to be an extraordinary day! The goosebumps stood up on my skinny arms reacting to the chill that lingered in the southern, morning air. It was as if the cool air was trying desperately to postpone the sticky heat of the August summer in Lexington, Kentucky. The sultry temperatures of my eighteenth summer were unusually hot.
Life on the home front was worse than predictable and so I vowed to make Susie’s summer exceptional. I prayed for her safety as my love for my sister was remarkably deep seeded. She wasn’t my responsibility, although it was difficult for me not to try and shield her from my parents’ abuse. Her courage was fierce and she never showed her sadness or fear. Her beauty was in her vast strength, to use both her intelligence and hope to enrich her life. Although optimistic thoughts and Elton John’s constant music, always coming from Susie’s room, didn’t hurt either.
Saving money from my General Telephone job as “the girl who made copies” I was able to indulge my little sis. It was an immense blessing to me. When she smiled and laughed with abandon, my heart would leap into my throat.
Susie was only ten and was deserving of some happiness. My sister was a warrior, a smart, beautiful, young girl who could make friends with anyone. Her long blonde curls would bounce around her petite, smiling face as she walked with a “giddy up” in her step, at least that’s what Momma called it. Today’s adventure would be packed with lots of laughter and delightful memories we would make.
We wouldn’t be taking the Circle Four Highway, which literally went around the entire city of Lexington. Instead we went the back way with which I had become intimately familiar.
After about twenty minutes of driving down small roads, we headed to my secret hide-a-way. We inched down a tiny back road that wound this way and that. Overhead was a variation of green color which came from the multitude of branches of naturally growing trees. They twisted and intertwined until they had formed a perfect canopy. It was a crown of such beauty that once viewed, any person who ventured here knew God did exist, without a shred of doubt. We drove through this natural tunnel with wide eyed wonder, amazed at how it shut out the sun’s intensity. The only exception was a few shimmers of brilliant light which danced upon the windshield!
This was not my first quest down this road, for I came here often by myself to study. However, seeing it through Susie’s eyes for the first time was irreplaceable. She understood the glory of God and appreciated the contrast of the beauty he created with things that were cruel. Neither of us spoke, we just drove slowly and looked up occasionally at the immense splendor all around us.
Then we got to the single lane, tiny wooden bridge which was about the length of four cars, bumper to bumper. When approaching the bridge, there was a wide hardened patch of dirt on the right of the two lane road, where one could pull over if another car was coming. On this glorious day it was like time stood still as we shared this grandeur with only each other. Sometimes words are inadequate to express the feeling of knowing the hand of God is steering your path or answering a prayer.
I parked the car in that hard dirt patch with a grin on my face. Then I signaled to Susie to jump out of the car and follow me down the path beside the little hill that led to the creek.
Susie was in for a surprise and I couldn’t wait to share it with her. We hunkered down beside the creek bed where there was approximately two feet of water, flowing quickly over smooth rocks and sand. The water was pure and clear, making a gentle rippling sound, while the sun reflected off its surface.
I instructed little Susie to watch carefully as soon she would see something amazing and she did! They had four sets of walking legs, and when they were startled they could flip a little fin and swim quickly backwards. Most of the crawfish were three to four inches long and occasionally we would see one with miniature crawfish all over its back.
Susie had laid eyes on another one and I told her what I knew about the mother crawfish. The mother would carry her babies safely on her back until she would outgrow her skin and shed it again. They were odd looking creatures which made us both think of lobster, something which we had never had the pleasure of eating. Crawfish however, were on many menus that included seafood in Lexington’s array of places to dine. They were not that expensive so I thought Susie and I might try them together sometime.
After another thirty minutes of picking these large green ferns that Momma liked to transplant, we headed back toward the car. It was like we had the place all to ourselves. Not a single car passed us that day by the creek.
We then went slowly across the small but beautifully framed wood bridge and continued down the small two-lane road. There was an interesting mix of cabins tucked almost like a secret, in the woods off the road. They were all unique and looked as unreal as the mesmerizing landscape. Susie and I talked about what kind of interesting families might live in this paradise.
Twenty minutes later, as I turned another corner in which I was so familiar, we grew closer to our destination. With all the windows rolled down in my deep-green rusted out Maverick, the intense heat of the day carried the fishy smell of the Kentucky River in waves. Susie’s head turned slowly towards me as she inquired about the dreadful smell. Before I could answer her, there it was! The river was wide with various currents turning circles you could spot from the car. I loved the river’s beauty. This was the first time I had shared my special hiding places with another person. I wanted to save this place until I felt Susie needed a serious distraction from home life, and this was surely the time.
You could see the river from the road but it was quite a distance down the side of the steep hill. I had a special place I would stop when I traveled there, to read the Bible or to study.
Susie was looking out of her window when we were starting to pass small homes built into the side of the hill on the drivers’ side. I pointed to them so she wouldn’t miss them as we were almost where I would be parking. One of the houses stood out because it literally looked like it was built into the stone which climbed high on the left side of the road. It was also painted with bright colors unlike the other scattered older shacks along this stretch of the river. I was always curious of not only its origin, but if anyone inhabited this interesting structure.
I parked where I always did. There was a small place to pull over where there was little danger of getting hit by a passing car. There was a tiny path leading down to the river which was a necessity. The forest with its vast display of deciduous trees was thick and impossible to navigate without a machete, something I had only seen on our small TV.
The 268-mile river was as much of a part of the Appalachian Mountains as anything was. This particular area was known as the Clays Ferry Region. Right before we were about to begin our descent down the steep path we heard some voices coming from across the street. We both looked over at the same time and couldn’t believe what we saw. Although it was completely quiet and we had not seen a single person or car so far, there were three young guys waving at us with water tubes. They were coming out of the multi-colored structure built into the mountain side. Their friendly smiles and big waving gestures were welcomed.
The Appalachians were considered the Deep South where kindness was met with kindness. Susie and I both waved back and before we knew it we felt like we had known these young guys all our lives. One of the young boys was about the same age as Susie and they walked slowly down the path together. He had asked if he could hold her hand and help her down the tricky path to the river. She smiled as he warned her of every spot where the path was slippery from soft moss.
As we continued making our way down I realized that of all the times I had visited this exact spot, I had never seen anyone at that house before. It also looked as if it had only recently been painted. Later, it occurred to me as well, that it was odd, that they were obviously anticipating our visit!
When we finally made it to the river’s edge, we saw the large white rocks scattered amongst the greenery. The oak trees with their large branches leaned out over the river with the biggest one displaying an inviting and exciting toy. There was a long thick rope tied to an upper limb and a tire was attached for swinging out into the middle of the river.
I didn’t want to ruin the surprise for Susie so I didn’t tell her to bring her swim suit. Instead, we jumped into the murky, smelly river with our cut off shorts and tank tops. We took endless turns jumping from the tube into the middle of the river where the guys laid waiting with their floats in case one of us got caught in the current.
I knew the river was full of water moccasins and they were poisonous. They swam very close to the top of the water and they often had their heads out . . . They ate all kinds of things like birds, turtles and even smaller water moccasins. However, I wasn’t about to spoil Susie’s fun by mentioning this fact, but I did keep a close eye out for them.
When we were all spent with exhaustion from the swimming, climbing and constant laughing, we each found a rock matching our body size on which to lay. Our cold, wet bodies absorbed the heat the white rocks delivered. Each of us was content now to simply close our eyes and rest as the sun began to grow lower in the sky. I opened my eyes once to check on Susie and saw her on her elbows looking out into the shadowy river with utter contentment upon her sweet face.
We thanked these exceptionally polite and gracious young boys for the use of their floats and their company. They told us that they would always be there and that any time we came a knocking they would be ready to swim with us. As we watched them walk toward the colorful house in their cutoffs, it was like they were surrounded by an uncanny glow. I knew Susie saw it also, but we never talked about it.
I was starving and I knew that Susie would be too. So after I inquired about her desire to eat, we were on the road heading in the same direction away from the mysterious colored house. After about ten minutes more on the two lane road, we came to a place where there were about three cars parked on the side of the road. As soon as we left the car you could see a small, suspended walking bridge. It was simply thick rope and boards leading down to the river with two additional ropes to hold onto. You couldn’t see what was at the end, but I knew, and boy was Susie in for a treat!
I cautioned her to take the shaky bridge slowly and when we turned the corner, the questions she was asking were answered. There was a large boat house that had a white sign nailed to an old post that said, “no shirt and no shoes welcomed.” You could smell the fries and fish as we entered the boat’s doors.
Only two other people were visible and they were busy eating and they didn’t bother looking up at us. Good thing too as we looked a mess, but I could have cared less. I knew this place well, and they had the best southern hushpuppies, coleslaw, fried fish and french fries money could buy!
I handed Susie the limited menu and as our mouths watered from the anticipation of eating that which smelled so good, we made our choices. The same guy, Sam, that always took my order, smiled at me with recognition. He made some crack about us smelling a bit like the musty river out of which we had just crawled. However, I knew he could have cared less. I was a great tipper and he never skimped on the food. We were just exchanging friendly banter like we always did.
We ate our three pieces of catfish, our plate full of fries and asked for two refills of our shared hushpuppy basket. Susie didn’t have to tell me how much fun she had experienced as I could see it in her eyes. We talked about everything and nothing. Laughter filled the boat house as we licked our greasy fingers enthusiastically, not wanting to miss a single taste. All the food was washed down far too quickly with perfectly made sweet tea.
The sun was going down and the night singing birds were beginning to serenade the river’s edge. I told Susie it was time to head home. She looked disappointed but only briefly, as she knew I had to work the next day. On the way home she slept without stirring, like a safe child should.
Memories had been made that we would always cherish that day as we jumped, swam and ate upon the banks of the Kentucky River.