Aristotle’s words have never seemed truer to me than when I think about the concept of friendship. It is “some kind of whole beyond its parts.” Or, to use the modern phrase, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Friendship is a lot of insignificant moments that you look back on and realize were not insignificant in the slightest.
Oh, the nineties. It was a simpler time. You knew if you chose to ford the river, it wouldn’t go well; you’d lose lots of supplies and possibly a friend. Inevitably one of your wagon party got dysentery and someone always randomly broke an arm or a leg. There was no explanation for any of this; you just accepted it as fact, checked the distance to the next landmark, and plugged on, hoping thieves wouldn’t target your oxen. You vaguely wondered if dysentery was worse than cholera or typhoid and if these were still things you and your friends could contract. But mostly you just clicked your way through, hoping the phrase, “Everyone in your party has died” never popped up on the screen.
We loved The Oregon Trail game almost as much as we loved our Nano Babies and Tamagotchies—which were frequently dying on us because we couldn’t feed or play with them during class. At least when your digital baby or pet died, it didn’t bear the name of one of your closest friends. On the other hand, friends dying off in your wagon seemed more happenstance and less your responsibility. Did I say it was a simpler time?
I grew up on a dead end road. We were the last house on the left and past our property line, grass taller than us spread for another acre or so back to a pond and beyond it to the thruway. My dad mowed pathways through the overgrown field, and Penny and I would walk the slight incline of the paths back to the edge, where the land dropped off suddenly to a narrow ditch that ran alongside the highway. We weren’t interested in the highway; it was what lay underneath it.
When you reached the end of the mowed paths, you took a hard right and continued down a steep trail created by years of four wheelers, dirt bikes and snowmobiles traveling over the area until it had been worn down to a permanent passing. As you tramped down the passage, you entered a wooded area. To us, it was a bit like entering Narnia, Terabithia, or some other entirely different realm. You lost sight of the world beyond the woods. The paths became sloping trails that you were walking up one minute and down the next. They curved around trees and rock piles, while leaves crunched beneath your feet and the sound of running water beckoned you on.
The trails wound down to a creek that ran from the other side of the thruway. The creek on our side flowed mildly in the summer, with depths reaching three feet or so after a good rain. There was a sitting rock (standing as high as our waists, with a smooth, rounded indent that looked as if it had been intentionally sliced out as a spot for someone’s rump) and a small waterfall pouring out of the tunnel.
The tunnel was a few heads taller than us, about six feet wide, and ran the width of the four lanes above. It allowed you to cross the thruway underneath—if you were willing to hoist yourself up the moss-slickened concrete base over which the waterfall poured its two or three feet down, then walk through the dark, echoing tunnel, splashing in the few inches of water that ran along the bottom. It definitely had a creep factor. And you never knew if there was a watersnake making its way by or a large spider directly above your head.
We were brave enough to cross together.
It was here that our own live-action rendering of The Oregon Trail usually began. We’d pretend that we were the only two left from our own separate wagons, fortuitously happening upon each other at the precise moment we both thought all hope was lost. Thankful for a travel companion, we’d share supplies, fill our canteens, and make the rest of the trip together on foot, as both our wagons had broken axles.
Our journey always ended at the abandoned tree fort we’d discover once we made it to town. “Town” was the end of my street, and the tree fort was the one my brother and I had created before his two and a half year lead made him more interested in hanging with friends than with his little sister. Penny and I pretended that was all we could afford at the time. We’d live off the land and make the tree fort as strong and comfortable as we could. We’d gather cloves and dandelion leaves and make salad. I’d get chives from my mother’s garden and we’d use them as straws for our waters.
Our game always ended with this feast and us rejoicing in our cleverness.
“Congratulations! You have made it to Oregon!” Not everyone in our party had died. Cheers to that. And cheers to the past, when everything was simpler. For not everyone in our party made it to their thirties, and those of us who did, don’t care to be a party any more.