An “interesting” moment presented itself during our hike yesterday. But first, some background….the hike in question is an approx. 9 mile loop, starting in RI, hiked mostly in CT, and then back to RI. About 20-25% of the hike is near a large beautiful pond, with the rest deep in the forest. The most deeply forested portion is best described as primordial; as ancient and old as could be. Deep ragged ravines, interposed with swamps and springs, and every conceivable shade and hue of green possible. And soulfully quiet; there is no civilization out there – no cars or boats or people – just the occasional bird. It is as removed from this time as one can be. Spectacular in a word.
Many hikes in our state have at least some component of old roads built into to them. By roads, I refer to 150-200 year old path hacked and hewn through the forest, mud, dirt, and stones, originally cut for horseback travel, then widened for horse and wagon, often now only several feet wide. In some cases these old roads are unrecognizable but form the foundation of the trail. In other cases the trail is randomly mapped through the woods, winding around to clear swamps, cross rivers, and scale ravines at the right places. And it is not unusual to complete a hike by walking a mile or so on an old dirt road still used by people to drive to their hunting or fishing or hiking spots.
A majority of this hike literally just rambles and winds through the land, but the final 2 miles or so ends mostly on an old road, still in use, sort of. It is, in many places, nearly at water level, which means any depressions will fill with water and become big mud holes; and by big, I mean 2-3’ deep, the width of the road (8-10’) and up to 60’ long or more. Frogs live in these “puddles”. And if you’ll please think back to some of my previous posts, our soil is 90% rocks and 10% dirt. So as this road has disintegrated into stretches of muddy mini-ponds, it has also revealed stones…..well, really rocks…..well, actually boulders. There are ruts and boulders that combine to be 4-5’ difference in the “driving” track. It is as torturous and alien to vehicular traffic as one could ever imagine. It could well be a torture track proving ground for 4-wheel vehicles builders.
And it is littered, literally, with pieces and parts of the intrepid folks who still try to drive it. There are sections of wheel well liners, assorted exhaust components, and broken skid plate parts scattered all along this road, comingled with an occasional tire or a similar more recognizable remnant of a truck. I say truck intentionally as anything with less than 16” ground clearance and 4-wheel drive will not make it 20’ on this road. It is that bad. I’ve hiked it multiple times through the years and have never seen a person, bike, motorcycle, or truck anywhere on this road; anywhere on the trail at all for that matter. But having said that, there are always tire tracks in and out of the mud holes that are at least somewhat recent.
By the time you are walking this road, you’ve already walked 7 miles – around 17.000 steps – and you will have gone up and down the vertical equivalent of 23 floors, so you are tired. The road walk is a nice respite and a nice way to end the hike, even though it is littered with the rocks and mud holes. And of course, throughout it all, you are alone. No houses, no telephone poles, not a single sign of life there except for the stone walls built 150-200 years ago. The only thing that reminds you of the modern world are the aforementioned truck parts along the side of the road and the tire tracks. Oh yes, and the beer cans and booze bottles indiscriminately tossed on the side of the road. Seems that desolation yields total disregard for caring about littering, about nature, and about one’s truck!
As we are plodding along on a somewhat straight section of the road, I saw something ahead. Now, I said that the road was straight here, and it was – in the x-axis – no severe bends over several hundred yards. But in the y-axis the ground undulated as it does all through the area, so whatever I was seeing ahead was intermittently in line of sight and then not. But it sure looked like a truck.
Turned out it was.
When we cleared the last uphill and could see forward again, there was a Jeep Cherokee in the road about 100’ ahead. Covered in mud. Motionless and silent. We were approaching the front of the Jeep and I could see by the crazy angle of the right front wheel that the axle was broken and the tire mostly off the rim. It was “parked” (crashed might be a better term) at the end of a huge mud hole, probably 80’ and with at least a total of 6-7’ of elevation change from the front and back dry road and the center of the mini pond. There was a tool box on the road in front of the Jeep, open, top tray out and on the ground with a socket wrench laying on the ground next to it. The rear lift gate was open as well. And there was nothing but silence.
Through this narrative, please recall that we are miles from anything newer than Civil War era. It is completely isolated and devoid of even the slightest chance for help or shelter, should one require either. And please recall the observation of the cavalier method of disposing of the beer and booze containers throughout this area, apparently while crashing one’s truck into and, hopefully out of, huge mud holes and dodging boulders. Ever see Wrong Turn or the Hills Have Eyes? Or Deliverance? Because believe you me, those movies and ones similar to them, all flash through your mind when you miles from anywhere and find a Jeep that appears to be in mid-repair with no one in sight.
I always carry a knife when I hike, not for “protection” but there are hundreds of possible uses for one on the trail. I have several and on this day, I had the small one. At that moment as we walked ever so softly and cautiously up to the Jeep, I sure wished I had the big one. Unsettling does not even come close to the feeling, but is the word I chose when Teri and I spoke about this moment afterwards. And it turns out we both had our own vision of how this would end; hers began with my immediate demise – “they always kill the guy right away” was her logic. For me it was more of a terrifying chess game of trying to figure out where he was lurking, hiding, waiting while keeping myself between wherever that night be and my wife.
As we walked up to the vehicle to get past it, I bent and furtively looked inside to see if there was anyone inside, maybe hurt, maybe drunk, maybe sleeping…..or maybe crouched and waiting to leap. The inside, what I could see of it given the dried muddy water covering most of all the windows, was trashed and littered with beer cans, fast food wrappings, empty cigarette packs, and assorted junk. There was a few articles of what looked like clothing in the back seat and not much else. As I said, the rear gate was open and up and as we passed it there was not much noteworthy aside from a case for sunglasses laying in the road by the bumper. Not a sound and sign of life to be discerned anywhere. Now that I had look in, under, and around the vehicle and found no one, my attention turned to the surrounding woods. Which tree or boulder was hiding a crouched assailant waiting to pounce?
As it turned out, none. We moved through the crash site and past it without anything but frazzled nerves, accelerated heart rates, and overactive imaginations. See, if I had never watched any of those horror movies or read any of those scary stories, I would never have had any reaction to the scene other than concern for the well-being of the driver. There was absolutely nothing to be scared or nervous about except the thoughts and scenarios generated by my imagination. The perceived threat to our safety was borne of years of those movies coupled with a deserted road deep in the woods. Nothing more. This poor guy, whoever he was, had crashed his truck trying to bull run through terrain above and beyond his driving ability and the vehicle’s mechanical ability. He had to have been upset, sad, angry, and frustrated. And then had to hoof his way back on foot to wherever he came from. There was nothing to fear here. Yet fear we did. We feared the unknown and as we rapidly tried to understand the scene, our brains fabricated several possible explanations for what we were seeing as we came upon it. And as with most all humans in such moments, our brains rank them for us, placing the most potentially dangerous or threatening at the top of the list. And of course to do this, our mind uses all available information that seems pertinent, even if that information is not first-hand experience and comes from a movie or a book.
Since I am typing this, and you are reading this dear reader, it is apparent that the scene our brain fabricated for us was inaccurate. And had we actually come across the unfortunate driver, our interactions would not have been as nice or compassionate as they should have been. We’d have been defensive, possibly even offensive, driven by the fear of a trap, of harm. And this is where humanity has always been led astray; we fear the unknown and we often react in the moment according to the information our brain has complied for us – fact or fiction. It really isn’t the brain’s fault though – survival requires every conceivable advantage, and just because it has never happened to us, we’ve never experienced it, doesn’t mean we can’t or won’t.
And I knew this as we came up to the muddy Jeep on the deserted road. I knew my brain was indexing every deserted road horror movie and book we had ever seen or read. And while I didn’t let it rule my actions because I knew what my mind was doing to me, for me, it certainly played into my actions. If I had allowed it to completely rule my behavior I guess we’d have run through the area like maniacs! So I tempered my fear with concern for the driver – or vice versa. I tried to strike a balance between what the situation likely was, against what it could be. So we walked briskly. But as I said, had we found the driver, the initial interaction would have been quite guarded.
We all have those moments where we face the unknown, whether in a store, on a train, or on a deserted dirt road in the middle of nowhere. And each of us will rely on our brains to inform and advise us. We need to always remember this fact. I do not at all mean to disregard or ignore what our instincts tell us – what our brain feeds us; not at all. Always pay heed to your survival instincts.
But also remember that your mind can (and will) load you up with worst-case scenarios. And you may miss the reality of the moment and react inappropriately because of this. Think for a moment if I had fully yielded to my brains Hills Have Eyes warning and ducked into the woods to circumvent the vehicle, all the while with the driver trapped inside and bleeding from the crash; or worse. The fear is healthy and is to be respected, but the more likely (and less horrific) scenario has to be considered. It is much like judging a book by its cover. Today’s lesson from the old Wolff – stay well dear reader!