When I was a child Telegraph Road was the boundary that separated the known from the unknown world. Most of what lay to the east of the highway was familiar – markets, schools, tracts of modest homes, and lots of churches – mostly seen from the backseat of the family car.
But to the west of Telegraph stretched a vast oil field, prickly with towering derricks that cast long black lattice shadows across amber-colored soil. The ground had been saturated with a deadly liquid, sprayed everywhere from the backs of tanker trucks to keep living things from sprouting. If the wind blew hard enough to get the grimy earth airborne its acrid scent would haunt you until you bathed.
It was a land of big things standing at a distance from each other. Massive moving parts. Perpetual mechanical labor. Never resting, or changing, or finishing their chores. Seeming to need and offer nothing. It was a place into which a child could not venture on foot because there could be no sensible answer to the inevitable question, “What’s that kid doing going into the oil field?”
So it wasn’t until I got a bicycle that I really saw the details west of Telegraph up close. Even if you’re a pale, quiet kid, if you ride with purpose, adults assume you are going somewhere. That something sanctioned is in play. Something more than a near-automatic response to insatiable curiosity.
Each foray took me deeper and deeper into the wasteland. There I found an endless grid of dirt roads, old pumping stations, rusting chain link fences, and even the occasional incongruous cluster of small, unkempt houses with old cars or pickup trucks abandoned in the front yards.
The bleakness was an irresistible fascination. And going to see it was emancipating. I was where children were not supposed to go. I was exploring on my own terms. As long as I kept moving I had a free pass. It was the harsh counterbalance to the rest of my experience. To the dull, safe, swept-porch uniformity of life to the east of the highway.
But eventually the ugly sameness of the oil field became too familiar. I began to sense that I had seen all there was to see. That there were no more discoveries. The sense of mystery was waning. What happened next was one of those experiences that has caused me to conclude I should be careful what I wish for.
I had set out early on a Saturday and travelled further south through the blighted world than I had ever ventured before. It was hot. I was tired. And I rode on automatic pilot, my eyes fixed upon the gritty earth slipping past under the front wheel of my bicycle. I imagined that there was someplace I was going. As if my wandering had a purpose. A destination.
The transition from barren soil to patches of weeds brought me out of my daydream. Just a little ways ahead was a paved road, and on the other side of the dusty asphalt stood rows of orange trees.
The ground in the orchard was soft and moist. The air was sweet. Leaves rustled. I rode slowly through shadow, then sunlight, then shadow, then sunlight, until I could see what lay ahead clear enough to be pretty sure no adults were around. Then, peddling as fast as I could, I came to a dramatic, back-tire-sliding-first stop in the shadow of an abandoned two story farmhouse.
The once lovely structure had been picked clean. The front door and all the widows were gone. I could see into the entry hall where strips of wallpaper had been pulled down, the wainscoting torn out, and holes knocked in the plaster. I laid my bicycle down and stood at the doorway but heard nothing until a breeze slipped past and nudged a dry leaf away from me across the hard wood floor.
I stepped inside, each footfall accompanied by the crunching of grit under my sneakers. I had never seen dirt inside a house. Not like this. So thick the pattern in the flooring was indistinct. I brushed an arc clear with the toe of my shoe. The wood underneath was two shades of diagonal parquet on both sides of a darker strip about the width of a pencil that ran parallel to the wall. I followed that line, brushing dirt aside, and found that the dark wooden accent scribed a large rectangle in the center of the floor.
“There’s a cellar,” I was certain. “But how do you open the door?”
The walls all around offered no suggestions. No levers to pull or buttons to push. I crouched down and scooted along the outline of the trap door, looking for a way I might pry it open. On one of the long edges, near the end furthest into the house, a short strip of the dark framing seemed less smooth than the rest. I pressed hard on one end and the other end rose up enough for me to get hold of it. I pulled and a metal handle arched up perpendicular to the floor.
Decisions, decisions. If I lowered the handle back down and covered up all trace of my discovery, I could come back later with… What? A flashlight? A bag in which I could carry away… What? My instinct was that whatever was concealed below would be too big to make off with on a bicycle. And besides, I did not know where I was, except that I was miles from home. Someplace I had happened upon by accident and could not be sure I would ever find again.
I grasped the handle with both hands and pulled up hard. To an accompaniment of cracks and groans, the end of the trap door near my feet began to rise. As soon as I could, I took hold of the door itself and lifted it higher until I was holding it open with my arms fully extended over my head.
Below cleanly swept stairs descended into absolute darkness. I was sure there must be some way of keeping the door open – perhaps something like the rod I had seen adults use to hold the hood up while they worked on a car. But the trap door itself blocked most of the light from outside. All I could see clearly were the top three steps and jars of what appeared to be peaches neatly stacked on the horizontal members of the two-by-four framing on both sides of the stairs.
It is easy to imagine some other child finding my bicycle in front of the house and riding it home. Then, perhaps months later, the police interviewing the child and hearing about an abandoned farmhouse in an orange grove.
I stepped back. The trap door fell closed with a whoosh of cool breath that sent dust swirling.