“The first rule is that pedestrian life cannot exist in the absence of worthwhile destinations that are easily accessible on foot. This is a condition that modern suburbia fails to satisfy, since it strives to keep all commercial activity well separated from housing. As a result, the only pedestrians to be found in a residential subdivision belong to that limited segment of the population which walks for exercise. Otherwise, there is no reason to walk, and the streets are empty.” – Suburban Nation
“Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them.” –Bill Vaughn
Throughout my adulthood I’ve had two recurring dreams.
The first occurs about a half-mile south of my home, near woods I’d never visited, where I happen upon a grizzly bear grazing in an open field. In the dream, I stand still, paralyzed and awestruck and exhilarated. After the dream, lying in bed—in that half-dreaming, half-awake state—I’ve often wondered if it really happened. Even now, the memory of it feels so real, I only know it isn’t because of its implausibility.
The second occurs a few miles to the north, off of Walmore Road, in Wheatfield’s farm district. In the dream, I’ll sneak into a cobwebbed attic of an old farm house where some foreigners are hiding—like Jewish survivors in the walls of the ghetto—except their situation isn’t so dire, as they’re merely anxious for having trespassed on someone else’s property.
On the second morning of my journey—after a night full of dreams that, upon opening my eyes, are instantly forgotten—I awoke in John’s yard to the sound of sleet gently pelting the roof of my tent. In his kitchen, I ate two slices of white toast that I’d slathered in honey, before heading north on Shawnee Road to Wheatfield’s agricultural district, where my second dream takes place, and where I hoped to explore what woods I could find.
The sleet was more rainy than snowy, so after walking a few miles north—wary of getting soaked in cold weather—I turned into a new suburban development called “The Briars,” where I’d have more privacy to put on my rain gear, away from the hundreds of cars speeding down Shawnee.
Many of the houses had yet to be built, as the street wound around fields of mud where houses would soon be. I was self-conscious carrying a large backpack through a subdivision, aware that any onlookers would be a little unsettled with the presence of a tramp in a neighborhood that never sees homeless people or tramps or probably people of color. (In 2007, Wheatfield residents formed a Residents Action Committee to resist a proposed "low income," 68-unit housing development that resistors claimed—in fliers distributed—that the new neighborhood would bring in people "of all colors.")
The houses were brand new, all probably constructed within the last ten years. They looked fresh and trim and sturdy, placed squarely on simple, smoothly-shaven monocultured lawns, though the neighborhood, as a whole, was spookily—eerily—quiet.
I wondered: Are there people even living in these homes? Where was everyone? While I acknowledged that it was cold and wet and that I was hiking on a Friday afternoon—when parents were at their jobs and their kids, at school—I was still struck that I hadn’t seen one person grabbing their mail, putting up Christmas lights, or walking around the the cul-de-sac for a little exercise. After several hours walking through various suburbs, I didn’t see one person outside of their homes or cars.
But is it that strange? I’m hardly any different when I stay at my parents’ home. I’ve literally gone several days in a row without leaving the house. Here, I gradually metamorphose into highschool-Ken: wallowing in self-pity, eating five meals a day, indulging in an endless combination of napping, videogames, and sleeping in until two in the afternoon.
There are no fences to repair, no bean fields to hoe, no water to fetch from the stream. Apart from washing a few dishes and carrying the groceries inside, there’s really nothing to do. So, unless I can conjure the necessary self-discipline to write or go for a run, I do nothing. Life is so easy: when I’m hungry, I grab food from the well-stocked pantry or fridge. My water comes from magical sinks and my heat comes from magical vents. Because I am not needed for anything, I spend my time fulfilling desires: watching TV in the family room, reading books in my old room, and playing videogames on the computer.
Of course things would be slightly different if I had bills to pay and a job to go to. But would it? I’ve worked and gone to school full-time in the past while living at home, and I’m not sure—even then—if I felt needed.
In suburbia, we work our forty hours a week and then spend the rest of our time on automatic pilot. We drive to work, work, and then come home to a nearly fully-automated comfort box that—except for a little energy burned when mowing the lawn or building a deck—only costs money, and little sweat, energy, or ingenuity to maintain.
I can’t help but think that we need need. We need to be forced to go outside. We need to be forced to depend on one another. We need to be forced to sacrifice, forced to grow a garden, forced to fix a roof, forced to interact with neighbors. Rather, we strive to gain the comforts and conveniences to be enjoyed privately without realizing that such gains often come with the cost of social isolation, of purposelessness, of spiritual deflation.
While nature all around us continues to do it's thing: unleashing terrifying storms, spinning circular cycles, inflicting bone-chilling colds, and renewing with springy revivifications, in a neighborhood like mine, we are almost completely oblivious to it all, for we have little meaningful connection to nature, and no true practical purpose to actually go outside.
I wonder, might it do us good to have more toil, more hardship, more pain, more suffering? To actually be at the mercy of the weather? Might we be better off with a little wildness in our lives?
Shawnee Road has scores of brand new subdivisions like mine and "The Briars," each more absurdly named than the previous. Here’s a list of most of the subdivisions in Wheatfield. (See if you note any similarities.)
Lakes of Wheatfield
Eagle Lake Patio Homes
No trespassing signs everywhere.
Lots for sale everywhere.
Almost all of the subdivisions I saw were named to evoke some image of pristine natural beauty. And while I understand that it would be poor marketing to accurately name the neighborhood you’re trying to sell as “big, bland, ugly box lot,” I find something absurd about naming your community after something that was destroyed so it could be erected. It’s like naming a football team after Native Americans who'd been run out of the region a century before. It’s like promoting some super fat, sugary, chocolaty, diabetes-coated cereal as “part of a balanced breakfast” to make us feel better about eating it. We name our suburbs after some fake manmade pond or a few artfully planted trees to kid ourselves about what this place really is and what suburbia really does.
Easily the most ridiculous of the subdivisions was “Wildwing Preserve,” the name of which caused me to scoff aloud. The houses were huge, bland-colored monstrosities commonly referred to as "McMansions," some with column-like structures probably made out of plastic descending from the roof to the porch. The houses curled around a pond that was most likely dug out so people could brag to other people that their homes have “waterfront” views.
Why do we need homes so big?! I thought this was the big, bad Great Recession? Where's all this so-called middleclass suffering? Does it really make our lives that much better, that much happier when we have decked-out basements, never-used living rooms, and six television sets? Why are people flooding into and fighting over the latest shade of pastel purple bedspreads at my local “Bed, Bath, and Beyond!?” Why are we calling this fucking Hiroshima a “bird preserve” when the housecats more than likely devour hatchlings and the dogs shoe off whatever blackbirds have descended to rest their wings?! Get me out of here! Burn the whole fucking place down! We've gang-raped, bombed Dresden-style, and shit on the land, only to name it “Happy, Beautiful estates,” hoping that no one will notice what we've done.
More unsettling was that all the vacant, yet-to-be-developed land along the road was for sale (11 acres here, 13.3 acres there), or had signs denoting where a new development will one day be. And the fields that were still okay being fields had “No Trespassing” signs spaced every three feet apart.
So between the suburbs, the lack of wildland, and the property owners’ disinclination to allow other people on their land, where’s a young boy or girl to go for adventure? From my home, I can literally see suburbs in all directions. When I was a boy, at least there were pockets of woods here and there to stoke my imagination. A distant forest is a generator of wild dreams. But now, all a child sees here are endless rows of cookie-cutter homes, bland corporate parks, vast retirement complexes, separated by a gridwork of loud, fast, angry roads—the most unenchanting, uninviting, uninteresting landscape ever made by man, glacier or god.
I took a left on Lockport Road, walked up Ward—another busy street like Shawnee—and stopped to have lunch at a diner called Hoover’s for lunch: a basket of crinkle cut French fries artfully drizzled in a checkerboard of cheese and mayonnaise with bacon sprinkled on top.
The sun, thankfully, came out, so I took off my rain suit and set out to find a suitable forest for exploration. All along the road, behind vast fields, I could see plenty of forest in the distance, but I was thwarted from advancing forth because I knew I’d either have to sneak past homes or cross large fields with the “No Trespassing” signs.
I walked past several homes and fields and then finally decided to head for the woods—a quarter-mile walk through someone's backyard.
I walked under electrical lines held in place by giant metallic robot-looking structures, over clumpy, swampy, fallow cornfields, and finally into the woods.
It was only 5 p.m. but it was getting dark so I needed to find a spot to camp. I walked the perimeter of the forest—a decent square-mile-sized stand of hardwoods that was bordered by wide, empty, roadless farm fields on all sides, so I thought I had a good chance of going undetected for the night.
After setting up my tent, I wanted to build a fire, but had trouble finding dry wood since it’d rained/snowed all morning. There was a giant tree that must have toppled years ago, so I grabbed what dry wood I could find under it before starting a small fire, no more than a foot in diameter with some twigs and notebook paper.
I stepped out of the woods and onto the field to watch what was left of the sunset.
There was herd of dark blue clouds in a peach sky floating to the south, a relaxed and self-assured migration that followed a trail of a trillion years. The sun, behind one of these dark clouds, lit up its center, the beating, beaming heart of a blue whale.
Birds were atwitter, falling and beating wings, falling and beating wings, a northward undulation of skyward crests and earthward troughs. A plane rumbled across the sky, a train tooted, a scurry of ATVs growled belligerently, the electric lines, just a little ways away, discharged their steady metallic buzz, and I could hear cars all around me, but far enough away that I couldn’t hear honks, or tires, or engines, but a steady, uninvasive dial tone of activity.
This was something close to a happy compromise: almost a sweet spot between civilization and nature. It was a bit too small, the trees a bit too young, the forest a bit too littered with farmers’ industrial trash, and camping here, probably a bit too abnormal for the townsfolk, which made me feel paranoid about the possibility of getting caught and upsetting somebody. Still, though, for good and evil, looking at everything going on, I couldn’t help but think: What an incredible world.
At midnight, lying in my tent, I was startled awake by the hideous chatter of cackles and squeals from a pack of coyotes. It sounded like there were 30 or 40 of them (even if was just six) maybe a hundred feet from my tent. I'm not sure if I was dreaming, but I suppose it's plausible I wasn't.
Electrical lines everywhere.
This is the forest I escaped to.
My forest for the night.
Fallen tree. I harvested the only dry wood in the forest underneath it for firewood.
My small fire.