I had completed first grade when my parents announced we were moving. City life had its perks such as the abandoned grocery store parking lot where we could wear out bike tires riding in circles or the alleys behind the houses that yielded all sorts of mysteries to investigate. My journey to school covered about four blocks—two blocks west on MacCorkle Avenue, a sharp left across all four lanes of traffic and two blocks up Chestnut Street to Spring Hill Elementary. And my childhood would never afford a better money-making opportunity than the Kool-Aid stand I opened next to the sidewalk. The light at Chestnut backed up the evening commuters, and MacCorkle became a parking lot in front of my house. In those before air conditioning days, the glass pitcher with chunks of ice clinking as I stirred, drew the drinking crowd. And I raked in the dough.
Dad owned a tiny lot on Angel Fork, compensation from a family of builders whose taxes he dutifully filled out year after year. One of the builders decided to erect a small home on the adjacent lot, and Dad decided it was time for a change. He bought the framed house, finished it himself, and we moved to the country.
Angel Fork lay miles beyond civilization or so it seemed. We traveled west on MacCorkle Avenue till it passed through Saint Albans. The back corner exit from that bustling metropolis, West Main Street, intersected Coal River Road, the gateway to the hopes and dreams of the Nichols family.
I knew things had changed as I rode the school bus to Tornado Elementary School. The driver dropped us at the intersection of Angel Fork Road and Big Browns Creek Road. Our home waited nine tenths of a mile down the dirt road, so we walked. Raining? We got wet. Snowing? We got cold. Sun baking the adjacent fields? We sweated. Everyday became a new adventure. Of course, back then any responsible adult driving past stopped, loaded up with kids, and gave us a ride at least as far as Main Drive, another dirt road chopped into segments by a creek (a malady common in West Virginia).
I discovered that I was no longer the top of the food chain as Cessna-sized mosquitoes sortied from the surrounding swamps in search of bare skin and warm blood. My first encounter with a snake, a black snake nearly six feet long, convinced me I better watch my steps. And why did Noah take two ticks on the ark, I want to know?
The beautiful milkweed pods, with the gossamer threads holding the seeds, were once prized for their buoyancy and used for life jackets during the dark days of World War II. I collected boxes of them, shoved them under my bed, and learned a painful lesson about allergy-induced asthma attacks. Who knew?
All in all, the country-living learning curve never ended. I survived. I thrived. I gained skills that have served me well down through the years, no matter my place of residence. Like moving dirt with a shovel, a mattock, a wheelbarrow, and a lot of sweat.
Dad and Mom wanted a decent yard, flat and dry. The house sat between a hill which tickled the foundation at the rear and the dusty ruts of Main Drive in front. Both sides flooded at nearly every rain, and navigating the yard was a contest between the holding power of one’s toes and the shoe-sucking vacuum of the West Virginia mud. I lost often.
Dad’s master landscape plan included beating the hillside back and holding it in place with a rock wall using stones he and Mom retrieved in their lifetime together. Often he would pull the car to side of the road to collect a worthy addition. I found a few stones on my hikes that were chosen and felt privileged to contribute. Long after Dad’s passing I marveled at the precision of his handiwork. Dry-stacked stones cut using a sledge hammer and a chisel stood the test of time.
Moving a hillside can be done. Jesus said it takes faith, but ours must have been too weak. It’s really easy with a bulldozer or a backhoe or even a tiny skid steer. We had none of those. Start at the edge. Use the mattock to loosen a pile of dirt. Shovel it into the wheelbarrow. Hitch up the pants. Wheel it to the dump site. Empty the wheelbarrow. Hitch up the pants. Repeat until the desired result is achieved.
In those years of digging I developed strength to lift the wheelbarrow handles, and as I grew in stature my loads came to match Dad’s in volume. I mastered the art of balancing and steering the wheelbarrow accurately. I learned to make the difficult hand position switch from lifting the handles to pushing the handles for a controlled dump. A good wheelbarrow operator can spread the load without the need for much raking.
Boredom was never a problem on Angel Fork. If I tired of moving dirt Dad had another pet project, building a road through the deepest mud I ever navigated. Main Drive was not maintained by the state or any homeowners association. Building our access from the end of the gravel to our parking spot was up to us.
Again the recipe was simple. Push the wheelbarrow. Load and haul big rocks from the hillside or the creek. Dump them in the lowest or wettest spot of the road. Turn the big rocks into gravel using the eight-pound sledge hammer. Repeat as needed, usually after every rain, and certainly after each spring thaw.
Dad’s road lasted, too. One year a crew came through to install county water. They planned to install the pipe up the middle of Main Drive using heavy equipment. The fourteen inches of chopped rock supporting Dad’s road made mincemeat out of their fancy store-bought equipment. And there wasn’t a wheelbarrow among them.
The old wheelbarrow eventually rusted to ruin. I was quick to replace it with a smaller version for Mom who kept up her gardening on Angel Fork. Years later, after she moved into Saint Albans proper, I replaced her wheelbarrow again. Mom could not garden without her wheelbarrow. Shawn and I left it behind for the new owner when Mom died and we sold her home. The new guy will surely need it.
In my gardens here in Raleigh, aptly named Paths of Hope, I’ve worn out one wheelbarrow and started on another in thirty-two years. The current model has longer handles, much improved landing gear for increased stability, and a flat-free wheel. It resides in a place of honor when I’m not using it, upturned over the rich compost. The collection of dents and scratches multiply each season, giving evidence of the wheelbarrow’s hard work.
Sometimes we overlook the faithful, the hard-working, the quiet contributor who makes the difference between success and failure. Without fanfare and with minimal maintenance that humble wheelbarrow rolls on, season after season, assignment after assignment.
Believers, discouragement can sideline us when we wonder if our contribution matters. Take this truth to heart. God sees and God knows.
For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints.
Hebrews 6:10 NASB
Have you hugged your wheelbarrow today?
John and Shawn being silly in the garden.