I can’t think of a better place to have grown up than our three-acre country place in Lemoncove. The neighborhood was a collection of a dozen houses like our rambling three-acre place, or on scattered lots. We went to each other’s houses to play and ride horses, we rode our bikes up and down the lane, and we lolled about thinking up games to play in our back yards. But the adventure of living in our neighborhood was not the places we lived on, it was what surrounded us.
Living at the edge of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains meant that the terrain had a gently rolling aspect. It was not a far hike to the actual slope of the closest foothill by us, the first one in a string. If you climbed to the top, you could follow the ridge line all the way to Barbies’ Sandwich and Gift Shop, a couple miles away by road. I’m not sure if our mom knew how far we actually roamed. I don’t think we thought to tell her. She just expected us back around a certain time, and we tried to keep to that so no one would worry. But the best playground was the land between us and the mountain.
Walking out from our back pasture took us to an older orange grove. Orange groves were all around us, everywhere. But this one felt like it belonged to us. We knew it. We knew all the hidden surprises, like the old dump in it. When a kid got a new BB gun, that was the first place to go. Line up all the beer bottles and see if you could hit them. A few rows had a random grapefruit tree and couple lemon trees tucked away in them. When we needed a lemon, Mom sent us out to fetch one.
This was the “thermal belt,” an optimum temperature zone for citrus that ran along the lower flank of the foothills, and the grove accommodated the ups and downs of the ground. A decomposed granite pit within the grove was occasionally used by the owner, (we didn’t think of it being OWNED by anyone!) And when they would haul some truckloads out, part of our playground would be rearranged, to our delight. My sister was always the brilliant namer-of-things. The area around the DG pit was “Sandune,” and the hillock beside it that had been sliced off for material was “Flat-Top Mountain.”
The orange trees were a little elderly and had not been maintained like other groves in the area. Some were very large; they were not topped regularly. Since then, the grove has been refurbished and maintained, but at the time, it seemed more wild and wooly. The branches were not kept trimmed off the ground. In my book, Valeria & The Enemy of Time, when I needed to come up with Valeria’s and Theo’s “adventure land” to roam in and let their imaginations guide their play, right away I thought of my dream to create a playhouse within the inner hollow of an orange tree.
The trees were not perfectly hollow. Most had a few pesky leafless branches that messed up your headspace for walking around inside. But they were close to the ideal, with hedge-like evergreen leaves concealing the inner space, all the way to the ground. Clumps of Johnson grass grew here and there, further hiding any potential clubhouse activity. Our grove was a perfect place to “get lost in,” because we never truly got really lost, just enjoyed the challenge of finding our way back out again.
Orange trees and groves will always make me reminisce about my childhood!