Kids being kids: We loved riding our bikes on the Monkey Trail, the wooded lot between Donbray Road and Lumae Street in Sixteen Acres. Oh, the thrill of pedaling as fast as you can down Donbray Road, taking a hairpin turn on the right and flying down the dirt path to the other side. An innocent activity, right? Sure, there was the time we almost got our asses kicked on the Monkey Trail, but we survived.
“Adults” being kids: However, in this blog entry I feel compelled to tell you something I had left out of Fear and Loathing on the Monkey Trail, Part 1. I have to write about the other way we rode through the Monkey Trail. Years after we blazed our way across the trail on bikes, we decided to see what it was like to drive a car all the way through this patch of woods, from Donbray to Lumae. At first glance, you wouldn’t even think it was possible to negotiate the narrow pathway with a car. Never mind the plaguing question: why would anyone want to do it?
The answer isn’t complex. It’s similar to President Clinton’s reasoning behind getting blowjobs from Monica Lewinsky: because we could.
Sometime in the early 1980s driving a car through the Monkey Trail became something of a ritual for us, like taking the Fairlawn Cruise. This was especially fun during a night of partying, particularly if we happened to bring someone who had never been on the path. We’d take the Monkey Trail virgin for a ride down Donbray, and suddenly bang a right turn and blaze through the woods on a bumpy ride to Lumae. Rocks slapping the undercarriage of the car, leaves brushing the windows. Doing the Monkey Trail: what a rush.
“Jesus Christ, what the fuck are you doing?” the freaked out person would always say.
“Initiating your ass,” we’d reply. “Congratulations, you made it through the Monkey Trail.”
“Jesus Christ!” he’d repeat. That was the typical reaction.
I have long forgotten which one of us came up with the idea of driving through the Monkey Trail. Boredom might have had more that a little to do with it. (Ya think?) I remember we said something about having a convenient escape route if we were ever chased by the cops in our neighborhood. Just fly down Fairlawn, take a left on Fenway, swing around Martel Road, take a left on Donbray, and then, whoosh, through the Monkey Trail, leaving the police wondering where the hell you went.
So, what is the purpose of this blog entry? To point out that it took us a while to grow up? No. I’m getting to the point.
I went out to take a couple of photos of the Monkey Trail the other day for the blog. I didn’t plan to drive through—there was too much snow on the ground. I wouldn’t want to have to explain a tow truck driver how I got stuck in the Monkey Trail. “Duh, my GPS told me to take a right here.” Nope, I just wanted to snap some pictures.
I drove down Lumae, stopped, and pointed my camera. “Damn, look how overgrown the Monkey Trail is,” I thought. “No one has driven through there in an awfully long time. You can’t even get a bike through there now. I guess no one goes on the Monkey Trail anymore.”
Then I drove down Donbray to take a photo of the other side. And what did I see? A big stockade fence blocking the trail.
WHAT THE FUCK?
Some questions came to mind, other than WHAT THE FUCK? Did a neighbor buy the property and annex it to his yard? Did the city or an abutter put up the fence after people began dumping yard waste and appliances in there? Then the dreaded question popped into my head: was it jerks like us DRIVING THROUGH the Monkey Trail that compelled people to seal it forever? I don’t know. I doubt it. We didn’t perform the act all that much, and I doubt that many others (if anyone at all) did.
What a bummer. Now no kids can bicycle through the Monkey Trail. This may seem like a small downer in the scheme of things, and I realize that I had been away from Springfield for 21 years, but who am I? RIP VAN FUCKING WINKLE? What happened to the Monkey Trail?
Look, I know a lot can change in two decades. I can take the fact that another great wooded area in the neighborhood, The Gully on Fairlawn Street, is now a street with single- and two-family homes. I can come to grips with the reality that the woods on Grayson Drive was cleared to make way for the Grayson House assisted living community. I can take in stride that Greenleaf Park, where I used to play little league baseball next to the Sixteen Acres Branch Library, is now a parking lot. I can deal with the city being too cheap to repair the dam and restore the pond at Putnam’s Puddle, which was one of the best skating ponds in the city. I can understand why Western New England College needs to expand its campus into the forested areas it owns.
Am I forgetting anything? Oh yes. I can even cope with much of Springfield going from a gritty, working-class city to a depressed hellhole with a nearly nonexistent middle class. Shit happens. But why is it that nearly every one of my childhood recreation areas has vanished?
Photo: the Lumae Street side of the Monkey Trail. It's not blocked by a fence, but it's too overgrown to drive a bike into, never mind a car.
I’m taking a deep breath.
O.K. Now that I’ve calmed down a bit, I know full well that the Monkey Trail isn’t missed much in the neighborhood. Hell, kids these days would rather play computer games than ride through the Monkey Trail. Indeed, what was known as “going out to play” when I was growing up—unsupervised by adults—is all but missing in the lives of today’s kids. They’re busy with structured activities, watching TV, and texting and talking on cell phones. Now there’s actually a movement among early childhood experts to “fight for free play,” and they insist the lack of the kinds of play that foster creative thinking and innovation will put the next generation of Americans at a disadvantage in the global economy.
They point to eight to ten fewer hours of free play time per week for the average American child in the past 25 years, and I’m inclined to believe them. When was the last time you have seen kids playing without a grownup monitoring the situation? We’ve got to save the country’s future, and it all starts with places such as the Monkey Trail, where kids can, well, act like little monkeys.
Remember playing on vacant lots when you were a kid? A journalism professor I knew at Boston University, Ellen Ruppel Shell, wrote a 1994 article in Smithsonian magazine that summed up the problem of disappearing “open play” places. In your childhood, she pointed out, “There was a vacant lot or open field, a building site or back alley where you fled from time to time to escape adult judgment and scrutiny. There, far from a guardian's watchful eye, you and your friends made your own laws, appointed your own leaders, settled you own disputes. But the landscape of childhood has changed dramatically. Those vacant lots and open fields have given way to the push of progress— have been paved into parking lots or built into shopping malls and subdivisions.”
PBS even produced a documentary, book, and outreach project last year about the vital importance of open-ended creative play for the healthy development of children. This kind of play is disappearing from children’s lives as their access to woods, fields, vacant lots, parks, and other semi-wild play spaces is diminishing.
These people are right! Do you think we would have had the wherewithal and imagination to drive cars through the Monkey Trail if we had never driven our bikes through it?
I want the Monkey Trail back, dammit, and America’s competitiveness depends on such places, where kids can be kids. Let’s take back the Monkey Trail. The fence is preventing children from a good time. Destroy it, and they will come. It’s time to drive a car through this barrier to the neighborhood kids’ imagination and clear a path through to the other side. C’mon, who’s with me? What? No one wants to drive through the Monkey Trail? Come to think of it, that fence looks pretty sturdy. But so did the Berlin Wall.
Mayor Sarno, if the city of Springfield built that fence blocking the Monkey Trail, the city can dismantle it. It must crumble, like the oppressive wall in the Pink Floyd movie The Wall. Won’t somebody think of the children?
Mayor Sarno, tear down that fence.
Whew, I knew I was going somewhere with that diatribe. Of course, you know I was just kidding about plowing down that fence. In reality, the Monkey Trail is probably part of somebody's yard now, and it would be inadvisable, unsafe—and illegal—to drive your car through it. So just ride through the Monkey Trail in your imagination...and let your kids play by themselves once in a while!