As a young child with too many loud siblings, I became adept early on - and especially after my tenth Christmas, when I was gifted with a Sting-Ray bike - at finding my own quiet places away from the cacophony of family. Later, when I switched up the bike for a car, I became even better at intuiting which unmarked dirt road off the highway might lead to a path less traveled.
These are the places I think of when I spend time with my grandson. Ben is 9 and all boy, from his sun-freckled face to his love of dogs, dirt, skateboards, and scatological jokes - whether he gets them or not.
A few days ago I picked him up at his mom's to spend the day with him. When I pulled onto the freeway, he looked at me.
"This is going to take long, isn't it?"
Ben was too familiar with the freeway - and the traffic. We slowed as we entered a construction zone. To pass the time, I told Ben about the rattlesnakes I used to see not far from there when I was a kid.
"Can we go somewhere like that?" he asked.
"Sure," I told him and turned off at a familiar road.
In some ways, a lot has changed in this once rural town that is now a city with a Starbucks and a multiscreen movie theater. But special places still exist that are, as yet, unaffected by eager developers.
I turned onto a dirt road and headed my pickup for an opening in the fence that led to an equestrian trail we used to ride along years ago. It was still there, unchanged, even after decades. A moment later I parked and we headed toward the path.
Ben never questioned me as we shuffled along the dusty horse trail. We stopped once to examine a snake print in the sand, then continued on. The only sound was the soughing of the afternoon breeze through some cottonwoods.
Around the next bend, we saw water.
"What is it?" I asked him.
"It looks like a river," he answered.
How strange it felt. The busy city and congested freeway were so close, yet so far removed on this warm sunlit day beside quietly rippling water.
"Can I get in it?" Ben asked.
"Of course," I told him. We rolled up his jeans after he took off his shoes and socks. He stepped into the water and looked back at me, the classic glance of a child about to embark upon a journey that may take him very far away.
"It's not deep," he said to reassure me, and off he went.
He walked slowly through the shallow water to the other side. Then he walked back, found some sticks, waded out into the middle again, and stuck them in the riverbed as some kind of place marker.
An enormous, arched structure with the ornate grace of decades past loomed across the river.
"Do you think that's a car bridge or a train bridge?" I asked him.
"Train bridge," he said without hesitation. "I can hear the train coming. Can you hear it?"
I could hear nothing more than birds flitting in and out of the trees and the occasional buzz of a bee or the whir of a hummingbird's wings.
Ben sloshed around in the water for a long time, then came back near the shore to do some sculpting in the wet sand. Next, he covered his feet in mud and clomped around with big, dark, oozing monster feet.
While I remained comfortable on the bank, a solitary rapt audience to his experiments and discoveries, he kept up a steady narrative of what was taking place, complete with sound effects for castles crumbling and dams breaking.
This audible representation of what transpired in his imagination was interrupted only by his occasional, "Watch this!" - as if for one second I might dare to divert my attention.
Plunging his hands deep into the soft silt and sand with the courageous insouciance we often lose as we grow up, he discovered to his delight that a treasure trove of rocks was buried just beneath the sand. He hauled up a fistful, then brought them to me to do an inventory.
He held up each one as water and mud trickled down his arm.
"Look at this one. Look at this one. Look at this one." He repeated the phrase every time he held one up for my scrutiny. Each one was, indeed, unique.
When he presented a small, flat stone, I took it from him and showed him how to hold it, then skipped it across the surface of the water.
In three attempts Ben mastered the grip and form, and skipped a light stone halfway across the river. His face beamed with accomplishment and the sense of power that comes to a child when he perfectly emulates an adult skill.
I did not capitalize on that opportunity to mention surface tension or speed of trajectory. At some point during a lesson in sixth grade or eighth grade or high school science, something will click in his mind and he'll make the connection ... and simultaneously, I hope, he will remember with fond affection a day he spent with his grandmother along a riverbank.
After an hour of entirely undirected play, we decided it was time to head back. As I stood up, we both heard the train.
We stopped counting and turned to go after the 50th boxcar rolled by.