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Baptism at Paddy Creek

I dream about the spring pool sometimes. The water is so clear the pool looks to be only a few feet deep. But in the middle, the bottom lies eight feet under the surface. Coming across it, some might think this is just a deep arm of Little Paddy Creek. But the azure water down deep at the cleft of the wall indicates where the water comes out of the ground.

The pool stretches about forty feet long and twenty feet wide. It sits in a bend in the creek behind some thick willows and raspberry. A forested hill runs down into one side of the creek, where a limestone wall drops into the water. The oaks and elms lean over the spring pool and keeps part of it in the shade all day. A narrow bottomland finesses its way up from the creek to the hills on the other side.

When I found the spring, I was hiking the Paddy Creek Wilderness by myself. Things at home were hard, sometimes impossible. I worked all the time and still barely had enough money for child support, rent, and utilities. Every other weekend, I spent my time with Sydney. I felt sure that what I was doing was wrong, that somehow I was going to screw this little girl’s life up. I walked around in fear all the time. Was my life always going to be like this?

When I wasn’t working on a weekend, I didn’t have a social life to take up my time. I retreated often to somewhere in the Missouri woods.

On this particular weekend, I arrived Friday night at the wilderness trailhead around nine. It was high summer. Night had just fallen when I pulled on my backpack and headed across the open meadows. I held the flashlight in one hand but would only use it if I needed. I like hiking in the dark. When my eyes adjust, I can see farther into the woods than with the light. When it’s on, I can only see where the light shines. I can feel the trail beneath my feet, the exposed rock and dirt have a different surface than the ground either side of the trail. If I get off the path, the undergrowth will tell me.

I hiked toward a spot I knew well from the many times I’d been there before. The trail hedged down off the plateau and down deeper toward some ravines that lead out to the creek. It weaved around the bases of hills and up over steep rises. I could feel the trail start up again. My heart beat faster as my pace remained the same. I began coming across short-leaf pines, meaning that the ground was getting thinner. Soon, I was walking on plates of bare limestone and knew I was where I wanted to be.

I rolled out my ground cover and sleeping bag. Mists of stars flew beyond the reach of the pines. Whippoorwills called from the trees around me. Others answered from the distance. I was tired but felt good. I was in my element.

When I woke in the morning, I looked straight up into the boughs of those short-leaf pines. I breathed in the familiar smells of pine duff and resin. I got out of my bag and made a fire for coffee. I walked over to the edge of the bluff. The tops of the hardwoods spread out away from the cliff and up the two arms of the creek drainage. A nuthatch twittered. It walked up under the underside of a pine branch, sticking its beak in breaks in the bark.

I watched it a long time and then sat down on the edge of the bluff. The sun come up over the hills and illuminated the tree tops. Each time I hiked here I was a different person. I was just 21 when I first sat on the bluff. A friend had introduced me to both the wilderness area and backpacking. Later, I had just arrived home from Germany and found myself uncomfortable in the world I’d returned to. Another time, I’d gotten sober and was a father just finding his way.

Something new was happening. I was just beginning to write in a serious way and thinking that I might take off on another long journey, this time across the Great Plains. I meant to find my way again. This place provided me a way to do just that.

After the sun was well up, I packed my backpack and took off down the trail. I didn’t mean to hike the whole 20-mile trail, just half of it. The day had grown hot by the time I made it to the old military road, a jungle path, that went across Little Paddy Creek. There, I’d be able to get some water and set it aside to let the purification tablets do their job. I thought I’d take my shoes off for a while and breathe the air a little.

I got to the creek, filled my bottles, and took my boots off. With my feet in the water, I began to think about being on that bluff. I had not heard the creek and thought it was dry. But here it ran well. The water was cold, too, like it shouldn’t have been. I slipped my boots on, untied, and walked upstream a little.

Behind the willows and thorn bushes that grew next to the trail, I found the spring pool. The day was hot and so was I. I took my boots back off and rolled up my pants. The broken chert gravel hurt and cut my feet. I walked slowly and carefully, taking the pain as it came. Stepping into the pool, I found it deeper than it seemed. Careful not to hurt my feet too badly, I took my clothes off and hung them on the willows to dry the sweat off them. Wading in, I was soon in over my head. The water was shockingly bracing and felt good against the heat and humidity of the day.

I dove under. The worries and cares I brought with me on that hike disappeared. All of them. The anxiety I felt almost constantly for months on end eased. Thoughts of work, bills, rent flittered through my head. But nothing bothered me. I swam to where I could stand and look up the valley. I dipped my face in and rubbed off with my hands. Of course, I would take off on a long walk across the Plains. I would go all the way to Montana. I would take a canoe back down the river to Kansas City. I would have something to write about. I would make my life anew.

I floated on my back, my ears beneath the water. Above me, the branches of the trees and the clear blue sky. I felt light. Thoughts that fear had muddied became clear. Leaving my daughter for five months suddenly made sense. I had to do this thing or I’d live my life in regret. I couldn’t do that to my kid. I was coming back and would be her father. Nothing could stop that, not even me.

With the anger, fear, and worry removed from me, I giddily explored the pool. Crawdads skittered here and there on the bottom. Madtoms schooled near the source of the spring. I saw the creek was dry upstream of the pool. The water I’d filled my bottles with came from the spring.

When I emerged from the pool, I had a new life. I didn’t know if the feeling would last, and I didn’t care. I felt good in that moment and took the feeling with me for the rest of the day.

I have been back to that spring pool many times in the twenty-five years since I found it. Except in winter, I take my clothes off and wade in. I check to see that the life in the pool still thrives. Nothing seems to change. I come out of the water and look downstream, remembering who I was and how far I’ve come.

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