I’ve been thinking about Higgins Lake a lot lately. I think it’s because Ithaca reminds me of it. Also, Facebook’s On This Day thing brought up a status the other day from like 10 years ago where I was like “misses Higgins Lake.” I was so intense back then.
Marc and I sometimes walk to Cayuga Lake and I’ll be standing there with the breeze tangling itself in my hair and the waves gulping up rocks and spitting up sticks and I feel like I’m a freshman in high school, terrified of getting lost in the woods.
The first year we went I didn’t get it. We were traveling two hours to the wilderness (I say wilderness, but it was a state park. You know how much I love being over dramatic though.) and we’d stay at a conference center for a few days and we were told when we got there that we should get lost in the woods and write about something. Anything.
It sounded like an awful idea.
My Language Arts class was made up of kids from every grade and I was scared of all of them. They were way better at writing than me and were also way cooler. Everything I said sounded stupid.
So the first year I went, we got to the MacMullan Conference Center and were given a notebook, a folder filled with prompts and journaling ideas and a map of the area. We were told not to stay in our rooms and to walk away from the cabins. We were told to be one with nature.
I remember thinking I had to be in some kind of nightmare.
I struggled most of my freshman year with trying to be concrete with my language and my descriptions in my writing. I’d think I’d written some deep shit and then get my poem back with notes like, “But what did that look like or sound like or smell like?” Hell if I knew. I’d spent the last 5 years writing Nsync fanfiction. Those readers didn’t care how things smelled or sounded, they just loved dramatic stories about girls falling in love with Justin Timberlake. They loved phrases like ‘silent tears’ and ‘cotton candy clouds’. That was as descriptive as I got at the time.
Now I was supposed to climb a tree and write about it. I hated it all.
Some of the people I socialized with went off hiking on one of the trails. I decided to stay behind. I didn’t really have “friends” in that class my freshman year. I had people I spoke with occasionally to guarantee partners during group work. We didn’t like hang out after school or anything.
I remember it was raining and I had no sense of direction. I’ve seen horror movies before and I wasn’t going anywhere more than 10 feet from cabin. I sat on the porch under the awning with my blank notebook and listened to the rain. The air smelled like Christmas trees and the rain sounded like pop rocks on your tongue. It was 11:00 AM and felt like 9:00 PM, but I didn’t write any of that down. I was too busy worrying about sharing a bathroom with other people.
I was uncomfortable and I wanted to leave.
Did I mention that we couldn’t really get away with not writing anything? Because in the evening we’d all come together as a group and share with everyone something we’d written. I’d previously been able to hide my lack of writing talent. Not anymore. Torture is a real thing in high school.
I don’t remember how long I sat there panicking, but eventually I was able to scribble enough down for the evening’s gathering.
That evening we all sat together in a circle in a conference room. The other kids shared stories of falling in mud pits and not bringing enough socks. I’m pretty sure I was the last to share (I never volunteered first or at all for anything). I read my poem meekly with no confidence, and stumbled through it like a drunk.
You’ll be happy to know I didn’t die. Once I was finished, my teacher smiled and said it was a good start, a big improvement from what I’d previously been doing. Take that MrSTiMbErLaKeLuVeR4EVER who was going to have the most popular fanfiction website NOW?
I started to get it then. Sort of. I still had a lot of work to do, but the trip to the deep dark wilderness was a success and like I said, I didn’t die.
I was in that class for the remainder of high school and we went on that trip every year. Sophomore year changed everything because there was this sweet bubbly girl named Aimee, with frizzy curly blonde hair who wore tiny white tennis shoes who came up to me one day, saw the empty desk next to me where I’d purposely placed my combined Lord of the Rings trilogy book (that thing was a HUGE) so that no one would sit next to me because I was anti-social and she asked if she could sit there.
A wonderful friendship was born.
Because you know what makes going to the deadly wilderness great? Having a friend. It’s a bonus when they have great navigational skills.
I ventured beyond the cabin with Aimee, climbed the roots of fallen trees, found a swing set and an abandoned camp (it wasn’t really abandoned but it was fun to think it was) and sat on the wooden ledge next to the lake with our shoes covered in dirt and we’d write and laugh and talk about drama that only matters in high school. One morning a bunch of us got up super early and stood on the dock blowing bubbles. The air was so cold that they fell straight down to the wood, leaving dark circles around our feet.
My senior year the trip fell right around Spring Break and I was having writer’s block. I was focused on college and graduating and life. I’d run out of things to say about the trees, the ants, the leaves.
Instead, Aimee and I went to the swings in the woods and we swung for hours, sometimes talking, sometimes in silence. Aimee was a year younger than me and wouldn’t graduate until next year. It was weird to me to think that I wouldn’t see her every day, or wouldn’t go on adventures with her at Higgins Lake at the same time every year.
I wrote one good poem that trip, about how we were doing all these things for the last time. I shared it at the final sharing class, and our teacher who had retired 2 years prior showed up and smiled as I read. I had a voice now and I was so excited for her to hear. It was her who taught me how to write what I saw and smelled and heard.
I thought I would be fine without going to Higgins Lake after I graduated, but it was harder than I thought. There’s something about running away to some remote place to write now that’s so appealing.
When we first moved to Ithaca and came to the lake, I stood near the edge with my toes in the water, wishing I had something to write with. Marc and I go to the lake a lot now, but he has a hard time staying in one place for a long period of time. So we usually just walk along the edge until he gets antsy and we move on. One day though when we went, and the sun was out for the first time in days, we stayed in the same spot for an hour. He skipped rocks and I just stood next to the water in my rain boots, breathing in the smell of fish and tangy sand, listening to the rocks smacking quickly, one, two, three times before sinking to the bottom as Marc threw them.
Which leads me to being here today, curled up on a bench facing the lake, bugs playing tag by my face and just landing and dying bloody deaths on my notebook pages. No Higgins Lake notebook came back bug-gut free if you were doing the trip right.
There are some men on the dock fishing, laughing in between casting, followed by a splash. The ripples on the water are small today. The clouds are blue and swelling with rain, the air is heavy and wet.
I ventured away from the house today on my own, brought my notebook and my pen. I’m surrounded by dandelions and chunks of slate and cigarette butts. But if I close my eyes I’m at Higgins Lake, sitting on the cement outside that cabin for the first time, my knees tucked up to my chin, watching the rain drops hit the leaves, trying to figure out who I am and what I’m doing here.