The jackknife was ebony wood with brass ends. It was a distinctly grown-up thing: heavy, wicked, utterly illicit, and all mine. I was not quite 9 years old.

I’d found the knife half-buried on the school playground. (Palo Alto, 1980.) Nobody had come looking for it. I made damned sure nobody came looking for it, either. I smuggled my treasure straight home and rat-holed it in my room.

For three years I gloated over my one-item hoard like Smaug himself.  I even kept it hidden — how? no idea —  during our family move from Silicon Valley to Northern Minnesota.


You’ve maybe heard of Minnesota Nice? Yeah, they don’t do that in middle school. Even when you’re this gosh-darned cute.

I wasn’t the first awkward kid in the world to seek refuge in books. But I do take pride in my choice of reading material: My Side of the Mountain, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and The Black Stallion, all of them young survivalist classics.

Those gateway novels were swiftly eclipsed by Farnham’s Freehold, where I skipped (most of) the sex and dogeared the survivalist pages instead. Next, Alas, Babylon, followed by Lucifer’s Hammer.  By age 13, despite an impressive lack of actual outdoors experience, I could confidently tell you how to make acorn flour and was sort of itching for the chance to perform a heroic appendectomy accompanied by the cough of a gas generator and a 40-watt bulb.

Happily for those around me, I never had to do those things.

But between these fictional delights and the Injun-uity cards handed out by my 5th-grade teacher–remember, cultural appropriation wasn’t even a word then, much less a thing–I became an improbable outdoorswoman. At least in my head.

And every outdoorswoman’s gotta have her Knife.  The Knife came out of storage and went everywhere with me. I taught myself mumblety-peg, whittled points on endless marshmallow sticks, and once gave myself a splendid gash that’s now a splendid scar. (“Knife wound,” I’ll cooly assure you at pool parties.)

I wove shelters out of willow withies in our 2-acre backyard. I catfooted over lake ice during a spring thaw.  Sure, I was still cutting gum out of my hair after pretty much every school bus ride. But how many children get to watch a badger waddling about on his daily business? The back acres weren’t paradise, but–with respect to Marvin Hamlisch–they were home.

Fast-forward: 32 years.

Today, I took my girls out to a pond-and-trails area behind the local rec center. Cub #2, who just turned 5, dashed and darted up the trails while discovering one wonder after another: a shiny rock, horses in the pasture, wild mint, dive-bombing dragonflies. Around every corner, there was cause for a new squeal of delight.


But Cub #1, oh, my dear Cub #1, is shaping up to be a lot like her Mama in the ‘tween years.  To get her outdoors at all, I bribed her with the promise that she could bring a book. She wouldn’t walk on the trails. She wouldn’t look at the dragonflies. She briefly spoke to the horses behind their fence, then returned to the picnic table. With her book.

But the book . . . was My Side of the Mountain. Which I’d ordered from Amazon last month and cagily left lying around the house for her to find.

There’s hope.

So, tonight, I ordered this bad boy on Etsy. Just in case.

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