Near our house in Barron was a dam that created a small body of water, just a widening of the Yellow River really, which was traversed in two places by a road and a railroad track. We lived along the road, not far away, and I have vivid memories related to this body of water. The first is that there was a peninsula we could walk to by way of a fairly large field directly behind our house.

Just beyond that field were the railroad tracks, and if you followed the tracks west a short ways, you’d come to a peninsula in the Yellow River where, from time to time, my brothers and I would find evidence of fishing and cooking left behind by…wait for it…hobos. We had a kid-sized fascination with these hobos, as we called them, who apparently hopped off the trains and camped out on the peninsula.

My mother wasn’t much for Halloween, so we were on our own to come up with costumes. More than once I followed my brothers’ lead and dressed myself up as a hobo. This costume involved a bandana folded around a wadded up shirt to make a pouch hanging from the end of a stick carried over the shoulder, and some black Magic Marker on the face to create a week-old beard. I guess we confused hobos with Tom Sawyer. Later, when my son Jackson was 10 or so, he took a shine to the word “hobo.” I joked that it was a good day if he could work “hobo” into a sentence. (Maybe it’s genetic?)

As kids will do, we also put pennies on the track for the trains to flatten. One time, Pete had the great idea to put a large rock on the track in an attempt to knock the little railroad putt-putt off. It didn’t work, but it irritated the hell out of the putt-putt driver. He came after us on a run, the boys fast outpacing me and me panicked I would be snagged up from behind by the irate railroad worker. It’s said about bears that you don’t have to run faster than the bear, you just have to outrun your friend. As the kid-sister, I was the friend in that scenario. But in the end, we got away clean.

Speaking of making a run for it, the dam was one thing that genuinely scared me. There was a period of time when I walked home from school with my brothers instead of riding the bus—I was probably in kindergarten—and our route took us down the road that went over the top of the dam. There was a narrow walkway beside the road, caged in with boards and chain link fencing, and with a steel grate underfoot that was just above the raging waters of the dam. It was terrifying. So I would look both ways for cars and then go running down the middle of the road as fast as I could, bypassing that tunnel of death.

On the other passage going over the widened Yellow River was the train trestle. I don’t recall whose brilliant idea it was to go with our babysitter and walk across that trestle, but I was even more scared doing that than walking above the dam. Not only did it seem fairly high above the water, I knew there were actually trains that used those tracks. I heard them all the time. In my defense, I only did that once.

No idea what they were hauling in those miles of train cars that passed behind our house, but on the road in front of our house there were lots and lots of trucks, with many of them carrying, of all things, turkeys. Barron is in fact home of one of the country’s biggest and best turkey-handling operations, now processing more than a million pounds of live flesh and feathers a day. But even back then, Jerome Foods was big industry in a small town.

So on my birthday, somewhere in the five-to-seven-year-old range, when my dad put together a scavenger hunt for me and my friends, it wasn’t really such an odd thing to include a white feather on the list of items to find. They were a dime a dozen in the ditch by the road.

The other standby games for birthday parties included guessing the number of Trix cereal pieces in a jar, and kneeling on a chair and then attempting to drop a clothespin from chest high into a Ball jar. It’s harder than it sounds.

Walker: A Spiritual Memoir by Jill Loree

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