I had walked this portion of the rail trail over twenty times, I estimate. And only today did it give me a tangible prize. Maybe that is why we return again and again to the places we have come to love: the promise of something more, something that lay hidden, that will finally give itself to us. The views, the fall of the light, the smell of spring; all these wait for the patient watcher.
On the way back, after going down, then up (and up, then down) the river cut that was once spanned by a bridge whose ghost piers allow me to imagine it--train rumbling slowly through the woods, by the edges of farms--did I finally see what was there all along. A glint of glass. I could see immediately that it was broken. But beside it, emerging again from the leaf mold of decades, there was another bottle (patent medicine, probably) that was intact. These make nice bud vases for the bathroom sink. Or little things to fill the shelves.
I scrambled up the bank of the lost railroad, and I see it's a goldmine: a huge spill of a farm dump, probably from the fifties. Old rusty oil cans, broken tea cups, shards of milk glass, endless buckets with the bottoms eaten through. Oh, the things you can find in a farm dump. When you find something intact in one, it's like a gift from the universe; but it's really a gift from the past, from someone long dead who is reaching down through the years: "Here. I knew you would like this. See? It's usable. Go on."
I once found a bucket (this one unrusted) stamped "NY Water Supply," from a dump tumbling down the ravine of a little creek feeding the Ashokan Reservoir. I once found an enameled pie plate half buried in the stony dirt of an old farm I once owned, and it's made many pies for me since. I can't even remember all the other things I've brought home, stuffed with mud, to either give away again or place among my most beloved possessions. Uh, after a wash in the sink.
I don't quite know what drew me to scrape away a layer of leaves over something dully gleaming among the glass and rust. But there it was. The barrel of a toy gun. I pulled it out. Broken, without its grip. But wait. There's something next to it. The white-plastic grip (or something that was once white). A cowboy-hatted man in relief on it; Kit Carson. I carefully fitted the grip back over the handle, and there it was, except for one piece that contained the grommet that held it on the other side.
In the car later, waiting for the school bus, I absently picked it up off the floor. A stream of tiny ants moved from the inside of the grip, where they had found a tidy home, and up my wrist. And then I saw it: the other bit of plastic that had broken off, neatly stowed inside.
When it dries, I will try to make it whole again. If I do, I can look upon it anytime I wish, and wonder why it was that, today of all days, I found a prize from some boy's past, waiting in the woods.