I grew up in a tiny village on a barrier island off the coast of North Carolina. When I was a kid, I roamed all over that island. You would think, since I was hemmed in on all sides by water, that I would run out of places to explore. I never did. Part of living on a barrier island is the inevitable change in the contours of the land. Hurricanes came and changed the shoreline, the tide rose and covered part of the salt marsh, or the tide receded and revealed tiny land bridges that led to parts of the salt marsh that we hadn’t yet explored. We also had access to boats, even before we were teenagers, so we could access little islands that dotted the middle of the canals and creeks.
Living in Suburbia isn’t my idea of a good time, and I complain about it frequently. Whatever neural pathways I burned as a kid mucking about in the marsh have stayed with me into adulthood. I am driven by a need to see what’s over there, or what’s around the next bend. Neighborhoods and pre-fab playgrounds don’t do it for me. Luckily I’m close to several lakes, as well as a short drive from the north Georgia mountains. Those two things have been a godsend for me.
Unfortunately, I can’t take off to the mountains every day. Some days I have to make the best of living around way more people and traffic than I would prefer. I have learned how to have adventures and go exploring in the ‘burbs. It isn’t nearly as pristine as the backcountry (soooo much litter), but there are still places to explore if you’re creative.
My kids climb at a gym and while they climb, I go for a walk. I’ve been walking the same neighborhood now for a year, and it’s getting old. I decided to explore and see if I could find a route with something new to look at.
I headed out down a road I had never walked and ended up coming across a road closure sign, which was odd. It was just past a nice neighborhood. I went around it and found a little stretch of road parallel to the train tracks. There was a bunch of old industrial equipment lying around, like once upon a time there had been some kind of business back there, maybe something related to the trains. (There are a ton of railroad tracks around here. Atlanta is still something of a hub for trains, and has been since before the Civil War.) I followed my newfound road til it closed, then bushwhacked a little and came out on the railroad tracks.
You may be thinking that’s not the safest idea, but there was plenty of room on either side to get out of the way if a train came. One never did. It wasn’t the most scenic of routes, but it felt a little wilder than a neighborhood. At least I had trees on either side, and I came across something that apparently died on the tracks.
On a different day, I discovered a cool little creek area that it appears no one else frequents. I was messing around on Google Earth a while back, looking at the lake near my house. I pass over a little creek every day on my way to work and assumed it led to the lake, but I didn’t know where it met the lake or how far it went. I got on Google Earth to try and find out. Turns out it winds through a good portion of my little town. (Someday I’d like to try and kayak it, just to see if it’s possible.) Shortly after looking for it on Google Earth, I noticed that someone had cleared a portion of land near the creek, and it looked like there was a little trail back there.
I hopped on my bike to check it out. Sure enough, there’s a little trail maintained by the water company to access sewer lines. It got rutted pretty quickly, but I went far enough to discover a little bend in the creek with a nice area to sit and hang out. My kids love stuff like that. They like to splash around and have a picnic. I didn’t see any footprints or litter, so I’m guessing nobody else knows about that little spot.
It’s fascinating to me that just off the beaten track, next to a busy road in a city known for its nightmare traffic, is a beautiful spot by the creek. Wild, or at least non-urban places, are hidden all over Suburbia. It’s amazing what you’ll find if you just look.
Here are my tips:
- Pay attention. As you’re driving around, look for wild places- woods, creeks, parcels of land, etc… Some of them will no doubt be private property, but some of them will be maintained by utility companies or the Corps of Engineers. Some of them will be available for exploring. I’ve learned that we often overlook what’s right in front of us. When I’m driving around, I usually think about where I’m going or what my kids are doing in the back seat. I’ve become more mindful of the land when I’m driving. Tucked amidst the houses and shops are little patches of nature.
- Google Earth is your friend. If you’re like me, you drive over a bridge spanning some dinky little creek and you wonder where that creek goes. Could I kayak it? Where would I end up? Google Earth can help you answer those questions. The picture below is a screen shot from Google Earth of the woods between neighborhoods in my area. That’s a very large wooded area! I wonder what’s back there!
3. Stay off of private property. In the South, where I live, people love the No Trespassing sign and they don’t react kindly to strangers wandering around their land. If you trespass in my neck of the woods, you’re likely to hear the click of a shotgun. Don’t get shot!
4. There is something to be said for knowing a space intimately. I think that, in the age of social media, we are blasted with images of spectacular beauty almost too often. Your Instagram feed is probably very, very beautiful, with photos of magnificent and remote landscapes. You may at first have a hard time getting excited about a little muddy creek if you stare at shots of the Grand Canyon all day. But there is a certain beauty in discovering what’s close to you, what doesn’t require a plane ride and a tourist visa. Like I mentioned earlier, the kids where I grew up knew all sorts of secret hideouts, short cuts, and cool spots that adults never ventured. We were out there looking around. Who knows what kind of hidden gems are in your suburban area? The only way to find out is to go looking for them.