The Back 40

Reader Contribution by B.L. Lietzau
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I was a terribly shy young girl. Hiding behind my mother’s legs was the safest place I could be when her friends or strangers made notice of me. I grew up living in my older brother’s shadow. My brother was 18 months older than I was. As I became older, I attached myself to his sense of adventure, his boyish fun and my desire to experience life couldn’t keep me hiding any longer. I was a tomboy in bloom.

Comfort can be a state of mind, meant to bring us back to center. My comfort was to be able to breath, or to take flight when feeling closed-in. As a child, my comfort was knowing I am one with nature. It was the escape I needed from others’ converging lifestyles that spilled into my space. My space needed to be pure, as I proclaimed pure to be; free from others toil where I can hear no human, just nature’s voice supporting me to walk in my creed of exploration.

I lived in what I consider open space almost my entire life. Our family’s house was an open floor plan. The kitchen, dining room and living room were not enclosed rooms with walls but rather connected by changes in carpet styles. My parents always encouraged outside play, mostly, I think, for redistribution of the chaotic noise we made and the avoidance of the mystery dirt tracked into the home. My mother was an obsessive cleaner. Her work was never done. Requiring space, indoors or outdoors, was a commodity my soul seemed to crave.

The open land behind my home fueled my tomboyish sense of adventure. My blue and white Huffy bike with banana seat took me to every space of that land. Grasshoppers would jump out from the left and right of the tall grass along the paths and cling to my capris compelling me to pedal faster to get away from them. My brother received a motocross bike for his 14th birthday. I took advantage of his gift. I loved speeding up and down dirt paths and making new ones, daring to go off-track and define my own way.

The same year, my father bought two snowmobiles. These were my childhood joy. They took me to places I couldn’t reach in the summertime by bicycle. We re-defined the summer trails behind my house into winter trails, making shortcuts through the marshy areas and creating bouncy, head bobbing trails over the snow-covered bunches of reeds and cattails. I see a slide show in my memory. The carousel clicks, then a picture appears, a memory of my explorations. A newly found memory, yet an old picture is displayed on the side of my brain. I loved that land, the country next to my house. My body could breathe there.

Wikipedia describes Claustrophobia as “the fear of having no escape, and being closed in.” My need for space is almost a curse. Why is stagnancy my enemy? I need to keep moving and experiencing. I can’t be stagnate, or I feel trapped, without air, gasping for freedom of breath.

My Old Neighborhood

Our town, Hamel, Minnesota, was just a blink of an eye with a small main street surrounded by many cow farms and hobby farms nearby. The neighborhoods to the south of town on Holy Name Drive were split into two developments, the west side was a development of homes built around muddy little Holy Name Lake on Lakeview Drive–ten ramblers, all in a row along the north shore on lake size lots. My neighborhood was a quarter-mile north from the lake homes–nine houses flanked by Holy Name Road, four on the west side and five on the east side. In between neighborhoods lay 40 acres of virtually undisturbed land. The neighborhood adults knew it as Carish’s land. Mr. Carish owned the Wayzata Theater and invested in real estate. The Back 40, as we used to call it, was fairly wide open, and gradually, made a right angle directly behind our backyard, then sprawled northward where it turned into a wooded area just before the edge of Medina Road. Our property line bordered the dirt path that made its way through a grassy field and eventually connected with the dead-end of Lakeview Lane. This was our “super bike highway”, the quickest way to get back and forth between the neighborhoods other than taking the roads. Many kids lived in the area back in the 1960s, 24 that I recall that were within three years of my age at the time, and most of us knew each other to some degree. We all rode the same bus to school. Only one bus came this far out to the outskirts of the Orono school district. The bike path was our mobilized form of communication, far superior to the unreliable Bell phone party-line system, which could be stalled for hours by gossipy busybodies hogging the line.

The Back 40 beckoned to us children to come and play year round. It was all relatively flat. A five-acre parcel of the area produced quality hay, harvested twice a year by a nearby farmer for his own use. The rest was wild field, swamp, and deciduous woods–ours to enjoy freely.

The Dump

Ever since I can remember, a trash dump had been in use on the property where the bike path forks toward Lakeview Drive. We used to play in the dump. My vision of children playing in dumps are in poor, impoverished city areas–but no, back then, we had our own in the country too. In the middle, at the very bottom of the dump was the skeleton of a blue, rusty Volkswagen Beetle. A mess of tangled metal bed frames surrounded it and the castoffs of old farm equipment. As you look up the sides of this junk heap, there were scads of old metal cans, plastic jugs, broken furniture, broken glass, and God knows what odorless toxins were spilled and seeping into the ground.

It was our play land nonetheless. The triumph in the dump was to make it down the side of this hole in the ground unscathed and sit in the Beetle, victorious. Every time we played in the dump it brought new surprises–newly delivered junk added to the difficulty of reaching the Beetle, without our bodies being cut or scraped. Reaching the Bug was a conquest, fueling my ego, stretching me go a little further–a little further–a little further yet, finally attaining my lofty goal. I don’t recall ever needing a tetanus shot because of the hazards in that hole.

One section of the super-bikeway path goes 100 hundred yards, southward, to the dead-end of Lakeview Drive, and the second leg of the path connecting to the dump, continues on to another fork farther west about 75 yards. This is what I called the butterfly field, undisturbed wildflower grassland, home to a multitude of Monarchs and Mourning Cloaks. From there, the path splits again into two trails that lead to two small wooded areas toward the back-end of the property.

The Tree Limb

At the end of the butterfly field was a large elm tree. It stood there dutifully, a traffic cop, letting you know there were only two ways to go, west or north. A long, low branch grew from the side of the tree not more than five feet from the ground. It was our resting spot. Many times, my brother and I would have a mom-packed lunch of peanut butter sandwiches and chips while sitting on this branch. We imagined we were on a safari, safe from any wild critters that might turn up beneath us and were able to see anyone coming for a ways.

One summer day, my brother and I we were sitting in the tree enjoying our peanut butter sandwiches when he accidentally dropped his sandwich and immediately started to cry. I had never seen my brother so upset. He seemed so vulnerable–my older brother, my protector. I had to make him feel better. I couldn’t watch him lose control. I gave him half my sandwich and told him not to worry. He immediately perked up and gratefully took my charity. That was the first time I can recall how good it felt to help someone and not ask for anything in return. I did, however, have an ulterior motive. If I gave him half my sandwich, our day wouldn’t be spoiled and we could stay and play longer.

North Side-Grassland

My mom used to take us on picnics to the north side of the woods. We would march along the beaten paths and find an open spot in the sun. Mom spread a blanket on the grass near the edge of the woods and unloaded a paper bag filled with fruit and sandwiches and of course, our favorite drink, grape Kool-Aid, poured from a thermos. This was one of the few adventures she took us on as children. Otherwise, she preferred to stay near the house. It’s something I found disconcerting since only seven years prior to my birth, she had taken on the adventure of traveling across the Atlantic. She went alone on a ship, to meet up with my father, her fiancé while he was stationed in Germany. I often wondered why she didn’t care to explore as we did. Would that happen to me when I grew up and had children? Would my need for adventure radically disappear?   I believe I have always had my Aunt Margie’s sense of adventure and I took it to fruition. She had traveled the world by the time she retired. I could head out to the back forty by myself anytime, find an adventure of my own, and not come back home for hours. That was my world, for now.

West Side-The Gulley

On the wooded path toward the gulley is the voodoo tree. I came across it one day while I was walking in the woods. There it stood, a large hollowed-out tree almost three feet in width and 50 feet tall. I could stick my head into the hollowed-out tree. It smelled like mushrooms, in a damp brown paper bag. Just below the tree was a rectangular hole dug into the ground about 8×12 feet and four feet deep. Four small timbers were set across the top of the hole and spaced two feet apart. At the base of the tree was the shape of a “head” dug into the ground, which attached to the rest of the hole, making it look like a sacrificial voodoo pit. We would imagine people being sacrificed to the gods while a fire burned in the hollowed out tree. What was a pit like that used for? Was it a trap of some sort? We didn’t understand it. It was just creepy.  I made a mental note to be aware of my surroundings when passing by this sinister looking site.

Further along this path is the area the neighborhood kids called the gulley–a long ditch within the woods, probably 60 yards in length. It had a musty, wet stench to it as it was enclosed with towering trees overhead. Not much direct light ever touched the floor of the gulley. In the springtime, there was always a trickle of water running through the creek in the center below. The steepest slope into the gulley, we called the Cliff, was maybe 15 feet high was a favorite daredevil hill for the neighborhood boys. Motocross bikes would tear up and down the hill testing their rider’s bravery and skill. The determined smoke exhaust and the whine of engine seemed to push the riders up and up until they rested in a puttering breath, claiming victory. What an ego boost it must have been, to reach up and over the top of the vertical plunge–an accomplishment–a notch in their valiant boy-to-man belts. I, on the other hand, stuck to the less gradient slopes with my bicycle. This Cliff wasn’t the area of the Back 40 to test my courage. This steep slope was a place I felt vulnerable. I would never achieve that feeling of fearlessness here, not at this time. I practiced my maneuverability skills along the skinny paths, being careful not to catch my handlebars on any seedlings that dared to grow too close to the trail. The gulley was a natural obstacle course. I learned how to work with nature, yielding to its demands while enjoying its beauty.

Keg Parties

During my teenage years, many keg parties took place just past the dump. Cars could maneuver easily to this flat section of the property. My bedroom window faced the west. I could hear every party with or without my window being open. The parties were only a couple hundred yards from my house. I could walk to these parties if I desired. My brother was a punch-card party aficionado. He would be at almost every party by the dump, as if he had a lifetime pass.

The partiers were a little older than I was, maybe by one or two years, in my brother’s age bracket and more into pot smoking. That was too progressive for me at sixteen. Lying in bed, I could hear the fun and the music happening, wishing I could muster up the courage and just go by myself. Once there, it was a good probability I would be accepted. Yet, I picture myself slowly walking up to the keg and the partygoers in the dark. Would anyone talk to me? And if they did so, how long would they keep me company? Would I be left alone? I knew my brother’s neighborhood friends pretty well, yet, facing any possible instance of rejection or being forced to partake in the herbal ritual made me shrink under my covers–a wallflower, never to bloom on that social prairie. I guess I would be the social pariah, who never really tried to fit in to the Back 40 party lifestyle. This was an adventure on the Back 40 I wasn’t ready to experience. It wasn’t my time. Sometimes big spaces were frightening. I couldn’t risk it even though it sounded like so much fun.


I never gave back to the Back 40. I took from it. It nurtured me with a maternal gesture, ready to sooth me or support me on my outdoor endeavors within its boundaries. In time, it became too small to hold my sense of self. My journey was continuing. She guided me to find my true north, develop my boldness, and encouraged me to continue on to a larger world. Her gentleness, support and nurturing gave me the courage to grow beyond my physical and emotional confinements of a child. Those days would not last forever, but what I learned and the confidence it instilled would hold deep in my being, and spring to the surface whenever a new physical challenge or adventure would tug at me and say, “Come on, let’s do it”.  

The land was eventually lost to us children. Our generation had grown and moved away. The Back 40 was partitioned into smaller, urban horse farms that were no longer communally shared by a larger neighborhood. The dump was filled with dirt, half the trees in the woods were cut down to make way for large homes, and the wild grasslands turned into blankets of Kentucky bluegrass.

The only piece left to share with the public is where the paved road somewhat followed the old, main bike path as far as the old voodoo tree. If only these new inhabitants new of my glory days previously played out on their newly acquired estates, one layer below. Do they appreciate this land as I once did? Are they enjoying the splendor, the beauty, and the spirituality of their newly acquired paradise?

Profit is prophecy. Mr. Carish, received money for his long-term investment and the rest of us received the best assortment of childhood memories we could hope for. Places of meaning are re-shaped with time, as also sentimentality for those places. I am so grateful for my time there. The closeness I felt to nature was so compelling. My journey through life still holds a strong bond with wildness. There are no size comparisons as to what we behold as awesome. Perhaps is is just a mutual intuitiveness between woman and nature–that we both respect each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We will continue to challenge each other.

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