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Mountains, Streams, and Plywood Wings

Updated on February 24, 2012

How the Outdoors Influenced My Writing

Behind our new subdivision home in northwest St. Louis County, farmland stretched for miles where my two older brothers and I ran through cornfields and apple orchards, waded flooded creeks, and rode bareback. Once, on our way home, responding to our Dad’s powerful whistle, we cut through a hog pen and my foot got stuck, a hog charged, and my oldest brother pulled me to safety, leaving my shoe in the mud. Another time, while digging a cave fort near the orchard, my second oldest brother hit me in the lip with a shovel. We fell from trees, rolled down our steep backyard hill, sometimes in boxes and barrels, and we strapped plywood to our arms trying to fly. (I vividly remember those dreams – I was flying!) Seems I was always getting injured and incurring the frustrated harangue of my mother, who likely had enough of boys, dragging them around Europe while my Dad was busy being a cold war spy.

As we grew older, in the sixties, the farmland succumbed to more subdivision, and we rode bikes on the highway, enjoyed suburban delinquency, and matured into open rebellion before settling into safer young adult activities like running the bulls in Pamplona and canoeing from the source of the Mississippi River. Naturally, the Mississippi lured us, and I eventually became a deckhand, lashing barges together with steel cables, face to the cold wind, towboat crashing through ice floes. My brothers moved west and rambled about the high plateau of Wyoming while I dug artifacts in Mexico, living out of a dirt floor shack for a month, and then pursued mountaineering, climbing Rainier, Gannet Peak – highest point in Wyoming, and on to Alaska and South America.

When I was a young man in St. Louis, I had trouble finding anyone willing to hike deep into the woods, cross rushing streams, and climb high peaks in faraway lands. My "first date" with my now wife was an eight-day trek across the continental divide. Meaningful relationships were difficult to find, but the search helped me understand and appreciate my characters in Where the River Splits. The novel includes my adventures in Mexico, Canada, California, and the destruction of my childhood subdivision home because of the misguided St. Louis Lambert Airport expansion. That of course is what fiction is all about – mingling life adventures to create a fun read with some enlightening and informative underpinnings.

There was much more of course – oceans, big rivers, streams, and glaciers. But you get the idea, don’t you? Adventure informs our writing. It turns out that clichés are for the most part truth. Write what you know. Some write about their love for humming birds, their communication with white mice, or their Manhattan kitchen. All is adventure. Mine just happens to be mostly in the outdoors.

So naturally as I face the possibility of dying too soon, I seek literal and figurative mountaintops, and I envision my last hours on earth, on the verge of our grandest adventure. And I can see a time when I might implore loved ones to unplug me, wheel me into the woods or onto a bluff overlook, and let my last sight be the sunset, or the snowstorm, whatever Nature or God wants it to be. (When I talk to myself, is that God? But then who cares about heavily-traveled philosophical pathways?)

And it’s no wonder that Where the River Splits is mainly outdoor adventure – canoeing, climbing, exploration, love and redemption, and no wonder that my Pushcart nominated "The Wells Creek Route" describes a mountain climbing trip as a way to overcome the loss of my firstborn. And even my elementary classroom novel, according to one reader offers an "admiring glimpse of nature." On my bulletin board in front of me, a photo of Missouri Ozark hills has the following message taped across it – "Meet my psychiatrist."

For almost 50 years, I’ve written stories, poems, essays and articles, and have published a fair amount but as my artifact-digging compadre once said, "The best is yet to come." His optimism and love of life was contagious and uplifting. One day about five years ago, he was writing a letter and slumped over dead at sixty. So now I wonder – is my best writing behind me or yet to come? I’m fifty-eight. No one knows for sure. I only know that I haven’t shared enough with those, whether few or many, who would truly enjoy my stories, those willing to hurl themselves down a steep hill while flapping their plywood wings.



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    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Thanks Jo. Fifty-eight is young, isn't it. Judging from your picture, you must be twenty-eight? :)

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Hi jandee, thanks. Sometimes it takes lots of work to have a "relaxed style" but nice when we get there. :)

    • jo miller profile image

      Jo Miller 6 years ago from Tennessee

      Wonderful writing.

      Fifty-eight is very young.

    • jandee profile image

      jandee 6 years ago from Liverpool.U.K

      Hello Jeff,

      you have a lovely relaxed style ,keep at it,


    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Thanks Terry. You are an inspiration... and your writing is absolutely worth reading. Have a happy flight.

    • profile image

      Terry, of Terry's Thoughts and Threads 6 years ago

      I'm 62, and have to believe that my best writing is yet ahead. I've only just begun. Multiple Sclerosis may take what it will, but it will take slowly, and I will run in my mind, and fly there as well.

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Hi Tams R. Wow, what a great "playground." Climbed all over at Elephant Rocks, Johnson Shut-Ins, and Silver Mines. Great country. Thanks for stopping by with your comments. Jeff.

    • Tams R profile image

      Tams R 6 years ago from Missouri

      Born and raised til a teen in Missouri, I ran the woods in Iron County day in and day out. The Elephant Rocks was my playground. I miss being young enough to truly enjoy those days of feeling invincible. You've been very adventurous. Love the story.

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Hi Will, :) Yeah, that sounds like a great idea, jumping out of the hayloft.

      We bought a suburban house that backs up to the woods so our kids would at least have some freedom to roam and do dumb (but important) things like that.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      We found an old drogue parachute, so we decided to jump out of the hay mow window to see if it would work. Luckily, one of my idiot cousins had the good sense to pile some loose hay on the ground, in case it didn't work.

      It didn't.

      Fun Hub.


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