INTO THE WOODS – A Cold Night In June
Sunset was approaching, and I didn’t like to hitchhike at night. The trucker who had picked me up an hour earlier, was about to switch roads at a rural interchange. I checked the location, and decided it would be a great place to spend the night.
“Just let me out here.”
“You sure? There’s nothing around here.”
“Yeah, I’m good with that.”
He pulled over and I hopped out, dragging my heavy orange back pack behind me. I thanked him for the ride and waved goodbye as the diesel belched black smoke against the fading sky.
Not a lot of traffic, but I wasn’t looking for a ride. I was looking for a place to pitch my tent. Depending on my location, I sometimes camped beneath a bridge, or culvert. Very occasionally I got to camp in an actual camp ground. Once in Colorado, and again in Montana – I splurged on a cheap motel room. But I far preferred isolated fields with a bit of cover where I could pitch my pup-tent and sleep undisturbed, huddled in my military issue mummy-bag.
My ability to sleep through the night depended a lot on how I perceived the safety of my surroundings. If I was under a bridge – I didn’t bother with the tent or crawling INTO my bag. I wanted to be able to move and react quickly. I just rested against my pack and slept with one eye open. If I was at a campground or park, I usually slept very well -secure in the knowledge that the park was patrolled, or at least access to the campground was restricted. I slept my deepest most restful slumber in Yellowstone. Rural fields or woods, located on private land however- were somewhere in between those two states of mind. Out of sight, I usually slept fairly well, unless I thought someone could somehow find me.
On my side of the highway was a stretch of shoulder, some filthy gravel and grass, a barbed wire fence, and an open field. What caught my attention was a stand of trees across the fence and about fifty yards into the field. A pretty big stand. In Texas, we would have called it ‘thicket’.
A quick look around to see if anyone would spot me and possibly hassle or report me. No one in sight. I tossed the back pack over, crawled through the wire, and hustled into the woods.
I realized after I entered, that it was far larger and deeper than it looked from my vantage point on the highway. That suited me just fine. I walked deeply enough into the woods that my bright international orange tent and pack wouldn’t be spotted from the road. Far enough in that I could no longer hear traffic, if there was any. All the better to rest easy.
It only took a few moments to set up. I had it down pretty well by now. It was a good thing, as my batteries for the flash light had died a few days before, and the sun was fading fast. Once I set up, I decided to take a picture of myself by resting my trusty Minolta on a nearby stump. I had been hitching alone for the last three weeks, my best friend having taken ill and returned home after our first week on the road together.
Nowadays, they call it a ‘selfie’. I set the timer, and assumed what I hoped would be a suitably rakish, ‘seasoned traveler’ pose. The kind of attitude and macho posture that only a nineteen year old would assume. Looking at the picture now – I don’t think I weighed 140 pounds wet. And I was still six feet three inches tall.
When I collected the camera, I noticed that the sunset streaming through the trees gave a nice sunburst pattern. Kind of ‘artsy’. I had a few more shots left on my last roll of Ektachrome (That’s slide film, for you young folks) so I fired off a shot. And because I was essentially shooting into the sun, I bracketed the exposure, and fired a second shot, stopping down the exposure a bit.
The sun was down in a few minutes, and the woods hid any starlight or moonlight from me as well. Too risky to start a fire on private lands, and with no flashlight – there was nothing to do but eat my apple for dinner, and turn in to sleep.
I was pretty tired. I slipped out of my sweaty clothes, and into the bag. Despite my mental assurances that I was safe and secure in this obscure location – I definitely felt a sense of unease. I passed it off to my desire to wrap up my big adventure, and get home. My plan was to get up and get moving as soon as I awoke. With any luck, in a day – or perhaps two – I would be back in Houston, where I would see my girlfriend. I fell asleep with happy thoughts of a frisky homecoming.
There is NOTHING that will pull you out of a sound sleep, faster than the snap of a twig under a footfall – when you’re supposed to be all alone in the middle of nowhere.
I was instantly awake, alert and listening.
Cold on a warm June night? I was sweating, but still FELT cold. I listened carefully. Was I imagining it?
THERE – Again. The sound of pressure on the dry ground cover. A light… VERY light crunching. A deer? A wild hog or dog perhaps?
AGAIN – Closer. But above my head now.
AGAIN – A single foot fall. The way a person might creep. Stealthily placing one foot slowly, before placing another. This was not wild life.
Time to summon that teen-aged machismo. As deep as my voice normally is, I tried to pitch it even lower.
“I’ve got a gun in here. I don’t want any trouble.” I was going for a calm, confident menace. Someone you didn’t want to tangle with, but a situation you could reasonably avoid by simply walking away.
IF you were reasonable.
And no, I didn’t have a gun.
“I’m just trying to get some rest. I don’t want any trouble. I’ll be gone in the morning.” Should I roll out, and reveal myself? I listened for a response.
THERE. – Was that another faint footfall, farther away?
Or was I imagining it all? Perhaps it was pine cones, dropping from the trees.
There was no way I was going to go back to sleep now. I fished my dive watch out of my pants pocket. I had broken the strap a few days before, hooking it on a door handle as I got out of a big rig. I checked the glowing hands – Sometime after two in the morning. I could still get several hours of sleep, all I had to do was relax. Yeah. Not going to happen. I lay awake for another hour and a half, listening intently for the return of the footfalls. I had a pocket knife open in my right hand, and the watch in my other. No more sounds in the night. No more falling pine cones, or dripping water, or rustling animals. The last thing I remember was checking the watch – nearly four. Should be light before too soon.
When I blinked, I could see the walls of the tent. It was morning. Relieved to have avoided some sort of midnight confrontation, I hustled out of my tent, struck camp, packed my gear and checked my surroundings to make sure I hadn’t left anything – turning slowly in circles. Nope, all together, now – which way did I come in?
It was an overcast day, and a little after six. The woods were heavy with a morning mist, but I’m pretty sure I packed in from – This direction. I took off walking.
I had walked just long enough to begin to wonder if I was going in the right direction. I didn’t recall being THIS far into the woods. Then I spotted the edge, and the clearing ahead. I pushed through some brush.
And came out in the middle of a grave yard.
You’ve seen them before. Small, rural graveyards. Family plots from the 1800’s. There were perhaps a half dozen old broken stones. Tilted and covered with moss. No farm house in sight, but it could have rotted away long ago. I stood there a moment, surprised and a little creeped out. I hadn’t actually slept IN a grave yard, had I? No, just next to one.
As far as I knew, right?
Okay then. Not the way I came in. I checked the sky again, and figured I had misjudged by exactly 180 degrees. I turned around and headed back into the woods. Came out the other side, and spotted the highway ahead.
I was home a day later, in the arms of loving family and girlfriend.
The girlfriend plays a part in this story because her father was an amateur photographer as well. He had a really nifty set up for slide shows in their house. He had installed a big pull down screen mounted in the ceiling of their den. With the newest carousel projector, and a remote control. – it was a first rate set up for screening travelogue and adventure slides.
With all my film processed – we planned a night of reviewing The Big Adventure. I sat next to the projector, eager to see them enlarged on a HUGE screen. As he clicked through them, I narrated the locations and told any stories that went with them.
“Here I am, my last night camping out in the woods. Somewhere in Illinois I think.”
“Here is the sunset, going down through the trees.”
“You should have stopped down,” he said.
“I did, it should be the next slide – ”
“Ah yes, much better,” he pronounced. Well hell, I was glad he approved. Then he spoke again. “Who is that?”
“That person – there in the frame, center right. Who is that? Was someone with you?”
“No. It’s just the sunset,” I said.
“Oh, I see him!” my girlfriend said.
“What are you talking about?”
My girlfriend got up and pointed to the screen. “Right there,” she insisted. “Who is that – right – THERE?”
I still get chills, remembering the moment I saw my visitor from the graveyard, his head and shoulders back-lit in the setting sun.
Because he definitely was not there when I shot that picture.