After it passed in front of our house, the ditch went under the fence into Maude's place, through her corral and then into a thicket as tight as a clenched fist. At that point, the fingers of hawthorn, river birch and cottonwood wove themselves into a web of cat's cradle knots impossible to unwind - a mass of limbs, leaves and rotting logs that all but suffocated the sky behind it.

Underneath this thicket, the water ran through a complicated funnel of rock bed and low branches into a world where I never ventured - which was just fine until our new white soccer ball fell into the ditch.Before I could grab it out of the current, the ball was gone, held momentarily by the barbed wire of Maude's fence, and then, suddenly, dragged under and popped up on the other side, jostled toward the deep thicket and then suddenly swallowed forever.

We were too little to know that beyond the thicket were fields on the south side of town, where our precious ball would emerge into someone's alfalfa field, probably unscathed. I didn't know that it wasn't impossible to trace through the tangled brush, even if it took a whole day, and find it somewhere. In my child's mind, I believed it was gone forever once it hit the brush. That belief left me with a feeling of desperation and helplessness, even momentary terror.

We forget the intensity of the fears we experienced as children. We felt that way because so often there really was so little we could do. We were the victims of our own lack of knowledge, players in a game in which we had little control. There was the fear of getting wet, or of Maude, or of dark recesses of brush, or a dark closet, or someone under the bed, or someone bigger than us.

I took a sort of pilgrimage this afternoon along Maude's ditch - along the unknown part, still overgrown after more than 30 years. Maude is gone now. A young couple lives in her house, and there are more houses now on the hill south of her place - even one that I built and lived in and moved away from, all memory now.

So I clamber over Maude's fence and along the ditch to where the thicket begins, determined to walk through it from one end to the other, to realize the mystery - literally, to make it real. The ditch is empty. Still, the limbs are so low and thick that I have to crawl in places on my belly over damp rocks and gravel. If I were younger and willowy, it would not be nearly so difficult.

At times, the going gets claustrophobic, but I am determined to explore this passage from one end to the other. This thicket was such a major part of my childhood - a blind spot, really, yet I never tried to penetrate it until now.

Late afternoon sun filters through the web of branches above me. The scent of musty, rotting wood fills my nostrils, and thorns scratch my forearms. But I am not afraid anymore and, savoring my "adultness," I am actually quite giddy.

I study how the branches loop and twist. Clumps of yellow leaves are matted onto mosslike pages of a mottled manuscript. Other places, leaves cover the ground in a sprinkling. Some last straggling leaves are still falling. The sound of them bouncing dryly from limb to limb is like that of a tiny ball bouncing through the pins of a pinball machine.

After a short half hour, I emerge out the other side and am surprised that it wasn't more difficult. I sense a feeling of exhilaration, but more than that, a feeling of unfinished business being finished - kind of like getting homework done and feeling free.

Free.

Who doesn't have a secret thicket of his or her own - a mysterious door, a fearsome dog, or a vacant lot that seemed at the time so wide and exposed that, subconsciously, it is still avoided?

We forget how often we felt those fears as children, and yet they still influence our feelings after we are grown, sometimes pervasively. They affect us in many ways. Some of us are picky eaters. Others are afraid of the water, or of getting beat up, or of a dark room, or of snakes, or of people.

And so we drag our fears into adulthood like a bag of Halloween masks that we fit unawares onto the new faces and places of our passing. Psychologists call it neurosis and point out that most of us are neurotic to some degree or another. Though it may not make us dysfunctional, bearing our childhood perceptions of the world on the edge of our awareness, we often expect new experience to intimidate us. As often as not, it does.

Going back and peeling away the masks can be very rewarding. The world as we saw it then wasn't nearly so complicated as we made it out to be . . . and if it wasn't then, there's a good chance it isn't now.

That awareness, in itself, is something worth grappling with and growing into. It helps us realize that we did grow up after all.