This is an essay I wrote in response to the prompt “Cheap Thrills”–does anyone else remember Uncle Wiggily?
The one drawback to spending summers at our family cabin in Custer National Forest in Montana was the ban on fireworks on the Fourth of July. The few times I did get to celebrate the holiday in town, I loved dancing with sparklers all over the backyard and hearing them sizzle when the hot, spent metal rods hit the water in the tin pail. The fountains were an even greater treat, showering flowers of fire into the night sky. Neighborhood boys found endlessly creative things to do with firecrackers; I hung shyly back and as a result never had to go to the emergency room. Most years, however, even those simple thrills were denied to me when my parents decided to avoid the noise and head up to our peaceful mountain refuge.
My unlikely savior was, in fact, that long-eared gentleman rabbit with a red, white and blue striped rheumatism cane: Uncle Wiggily. My father read me Howard R. Garis’s Uncle Wiggily stories religiously at bedtime for several years, and the story that still resonates with me is “Uncle Wiggily’s Fourth of July.” The animals in Uncle Wiggily’s forest could not have real fireworks either, but they celebrated the holiday with dry sticks, painted red, white, and blue, which they broke with a loud crack. Uncle Wiggily also taught a sick boy to burst green puff balls with a loud pop and inspired ten thousand fireflies to give a light show.
I, too, gathered dry sticks to crack and found seed pods to pop, satisfied that I was having a real Uncle Wiggily Fourth of July. There are no fireflies in the Beartooth Mountains, but summer thunderstorms nearly always provided a spectacular sky show in late afternoon. We roasted hot dogs in the old stone fireplace and listened for that moment when they began to whistle, while sparks wafted harmlessly up the chimney, bright against the soot-blackened stones.
Once inspired, I found many treasures in my forest. Horsetails were natural puzzles. The sparkly sand next to the creek was the pixie dust from Neverland; with that and my happy thoughts I could fly to the highest peaks of the canyon and chase the mountain sheep. Logs across the streams were balance beams, where I could pretend to be competing in the Olympics. Rock gnomes lived in glittering cavities inside granite boulders, and I made miniature tipis with sticks and leaves for the elves to use when they thought I wasn’t looking.
Two years ago a spark did enter my forest wonderland, despite the ban on fireworks, and for a short time the Shire became Mordor. Thousands of acres around our cabin were blackened; even the rocks peeled and crumbled. The early lessons I learned in finding joy and beauty in simple, small things have helped me heal along with the forest. I stop short in awe when I round a corner of a trail and see a mass of bright yellow balsamroot against the stark background of black bark. I trace the green ribbons lining the streams as they wind down the bare hillside. I wait inside the outhouse, hardly daring to breathe, until the mother and baby moose have wandered away after nibbling the new leaves on unburned trees near the cabin.
Uncle Wiggily would have gathered ashes to make soap for Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy.