The first house my parents owned backed up to a canal that fed from the Jordan River and (we were told) ran all the way to the Great Salt Lake. A six foot chain link fence blocked the subdivision from the slow moving water and though it was climbable, the easier route was walking to the end of the block, out into the wheat field and up to a trail that ran along the south end of the canal.
In the summer, the water often rose to inches below the bank and in my childhood memory, it flowed menacingly by, daring the foolish to jump in.
Of course we did, my friends and I, every chance we got. I was never a very good swimmer and sometimes fear would keep me on the bank, watching as other kids swam about in the murky brown water. It had to be disgusting, mostly used to irrigate fields, and knowing the nastiness that flows in the Jordan River, its offshoot can’t have been a healthy place in which to swim. But we were 11 years old and those things never mattered.
Today, when I was out on a morning walk, I stumbled across another canal and the scent of the stale water, the sound of it, the native plants that clung to its banks, even the pebble and dirt road that ran along it took me back to those years I lived next to similar water, played in it, made foolish mistakes, shared blissful summer days with friends.
It may be the same water, though it seems too narrow to be the same canal. This one could be jumped across by someone with the determination to try. I would have certainly slipped.
I have talked in the past about smells triggering memory, even more than places. When the smell of the water washed over me, I could see so many days from the years we lived next to that canal.
Once as four of five of us swam about in the water, my dog (who I was convinced was too dumb to know how to swim), who had somehow followed us on our adventure, jumped in at a full run. I screamed, certain he was going to sink and drown in front of me. He swam about with a pleased smile on his face.
In the winter, when the water was drained, and the bottom littered with garbage and decaying fish, I would take a few toy guns with me and wander to the bridge about a quarter mile from my house. I would imagine myself defending the river from hoards of hostile forces. My small platoon outnumbered and outgunned, yet we stood firm, even as our casualties mounted. We never lost the bridge.
The canal road was the fastest and safest way to get to the 7-11. It was the closest store and the only place within five miles where we could buy baseball cards. At least two miles from our neighborhood, we would walk or ride our bikes several times a week, coming home with several packs of cards with rock hard bubble gum inside, a big gulp, and a candy bar.
Sometimes it startles me to think of the places I went and how far from home I would wander at such a young age.
Things are different now; kids aren’t just out the way they used to be. Maybe it is better or maybe my generation is just over protective. More likely, we know the trouble we got into, the things we did that sometimes haunt us, and don’t want our own children to make those same choices.
Regardless, I am grateful for those memories and even more grateful for the walk I took this morning and the right turn down a dirt road that let me encounter the smell of the water.