a city waiting to be found

When I was 13 years old I discovered that my leafy suburban hometown harboured a place called Hidden City. Riding my bike toward the outskirts of town one summer day, I noticed a dirt track leading off from the main road into the dense woods beyond. So I did what any 13-year-old with a brand new mountain bike would do: I steered into the woods.

It was a perfect path for mountain biking, pitching and dipping with the natural contours of the land, taking in boulders and gnarled old tree roots as it wended its way through the sun-dappled forest. It was not a perfect path for the suburban sedans of the 1980s. And yet as I pedalled deeper into the woods, there came the glint of something strange. A chrome bumper. Then, a bedroom window. Cars. Houses.

The late August light filtered down through the canopy, golden green. Insects buzzed, birds chirped; the main road was unheard, unseen. Just the quiet rustling of this wooded world, and …  splashing in a backyard pool? Laughter, somewhere. The wafting scent of barbeque.

In 1988 my hometown was still full of forest. Maples, oaks, elms, birches; creeks and bogs and thorny brambles. I knew these woods. All those faint trails left by generations past, and the wilder places where there were no paths. Yet here was this mysterious enclave that I had somehow missed, less than a mile from my own house. An entire neighbourhood, 50 acres large.

I look back now and I can see why I was so transfixed by Hidden City (also known as Secret City or the Old City, as my later research would reveal). It was a place between places; an unexpected pocket of strangeness; a rent in the fabric of the everyday. This was the kind of magic that I found enchanting. Since childhood my favourite novels had always walked a fine line between fantasy and realism, limning our world with the idea that it was already something more. Creating spaces where possibility was on equal footing with plausible deniability. But those were fictions, and finished ones at that. This was real, and here, and now. The solid earth, the soaring sky, the twigs snapping beneath my wheels. Ancient boulders velvety with lush green moss. A breeze, a shift of light: the glint of whirling bicycle spokes.

Objectively, Hidden City was just some houses in the woods. Subjectively of course it was much more. It became a fable in my personal mythology; an emblem of the wonder that was enfolded in the everyday. It was a tale of neighbourhoods, of shadows and sunlight, and of the things that can be found when you steer into the woods.