This story is reprised from my 2008 book, Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed. It has long been one of my favorite stories and I recently revisited the site to report on how the place has changed. Stay tuned for that.
The riverside wood opens into a cutover area under high-tension wires. Run-off from an unsheltered, gravelly slope has gouged deep ditches across the path. Some of these have been filled rudely with smashed wooden palettes and sawn posts. This was not done for the mountain bikers who frequent the trail.
The path widens and forks as it enters a deeper wood. I choose the fork nearer the river, though as I proceed the land rises steadily. A large area has become a dirt-bike course, with criss-crossing trails, banked curves, and groomed jumps. Despite this obvious human interference, an uneven terrain, cut with deep ravines, and a heavy tree canopy hung with thick vines makes it seem wilder and wilder.
Reaching the crest of an escarpment I look down into the broad hollow below with a mixture of wonder and dread. If wilderness means pristine land, untainted by society, then I am nowhere near it, but if it means untamed, savage conditions then I have discovered the "heart of darkness" in metropolitan Milwaukee. Distrusting my senses I climb down the steep slope, clutching tightly at branches as if their stability will also ensure sanity.
Up close the scene at the bottom appears more surreal than sinister. It has a campy air of post-apocalyptic devastation splattered with carnival colors. The rusting hulk of an ancient Gremlin is nestled into the ground, hood and doors ripped from hinges. The original color is long forgotten, concealed by successive layers of pink and chartreuse paint-ball splotches. The topmost layer is moist and vivid. I glance around nervously. This is the indisputable domain of renegade paintballers. No one is visible.
The rotting guts of several other unidentifiable cars decorate the scene at strategic intervals, radiators and engine blocks exposed, batteries tossed aside, hoses and wires protruding from all angles. Doors and side panels have been propped here and there against living trees and fallen logs alike. These redoubts are reinforced with river rocks, driftwood, plastic mesh fencing, and long strips of sheet metal. Though I am appalled by the wanton disrespect for nature, there is a place deep inside of me that holds a spark of childhood delight. From my own youthful war games I recognize a dormant instinct to assess the territory quickly for maximum tactical advantage. Its virtual remoteness makes this an ideal setting for clandestine conflict.
The river encircles the 'battlefield" in a wide arc. Stands of huge willows and cottonwoods, along with smaller box elders and hawthorns, anchor a bit of higher ground in the center of the oxbow. Floodwaters have cleansed the ground repeatedly, scouring away the soil, exposing underlying rock, and leaving twisted tangles of debris wrapped around the upstream sides of trees, boulders, and bulky metallic carcasses alike. Wargames aside, this would be a truly wild and dangerous place after a thunderstorm.
The secret of this place's remoteness lies just ahead. The river emerges from gargantuan triple arches under the massive concrete wall of a railroad bridge rising higher even than the bluff down which I scrambled. Inside the tunnel under one of the arches I meet the perpetrators. I had imagined teenagers out for a bit of a lark. I find the truth more chilling. There are four men, dressed in camouflage, ranging in age from thirty to fifty or so. They don't appear to be having fun, bearing grim expressions and nasty-looking short-barreled weapons. In the dimness I make out several opened ammo boxes and numerous small pink and yellow balls, along with beer cans in the dirt and graffiti on the walls. Most incongruous is a complete set of bleachers propped on a sandbar like a reviewing stand for the military exercises outside. How it came to be here is beyond my imagination.
Distracted, the men look up at me. I wave briefly and say something politely banal. They go back to loading their weapons.
Next to the railroad embankment is a slope slightly less steep, which explains the presence of the abandoned cars, if not the bleachers. A remaining mystery is yet to be solved: how can we learn to appreciate the wildness inherent in the land, and not debase it with barbarity?
Excerpt from Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed, published by the Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2008, p. 78. © Eddee Daniel.