Authors: David Yeadon
Tags: #Nonfiction, #Retail, #Travel
Travels to the Wild Places of the Earth
for Richard Anderson and
—whose early encouragement
made these adventures possible
Adventures Far Too Close to Home
Venezuela’s Gran Sabana: Journey to a Lost World
Haiti: “Behind the Mountains, There are Mountains”
Costa Rica: Misadventures in an Oasis of Peace
Gran Canaria: On Becoming a Native
Morocco-The Last Caravan: Travels with the Blue People
Scotland-The Outer Hebrides: Among the Crofters and the Weavers of the Tweed
Scotland-Torridon: Learning with Lea
England-The Pennine Way: Along the Backbone of England
Greece-Kea: Looking for Zorba
Iran: Boar-ing Days by the Caspian Sea
Travels in India: The Travails of a TET
Nepal-Kathmandu: An Unfinished Experience
India-The Kumbh Mela: Swamis, Sadhus, and Instant Salvation
India-The Rann of Kutch: A Long Journey into Nowhereness
India-Getting to Goa: From Dreams, Into Dreams
Thailand’s Golden Triangle: Vagabonding Among the Hill Tribes
Southern Thailand: Sea Drifting and Other Serendipities
Hong Kong: Way Out Among the Islands
China-The China Flyer: To the Back of Beyond by Train
China-Inner Mongolia: Yurts, Kangs, and Kashmir Goats
The Wildest Places of All
I was ready for my journey around the world.
Every item on the last of my lists had been checked off. Bags plump and polished in the corner of my studio. Even my jeans were pressed—a seemingly ridiculous refinement but it made my wife, Anne, feel better about my going off spouseless this time. “At least you’ll look good when you start (tiny tears in the corners of her eyes)….” God—I hate leaving. And anyway I wasn’t going yet. Three more days before those long sad hugs and last words. Three days to get the mood right. Three days to throw off the shackles and see things fresh again.
The mood had been wrong for far too many weeks. Checklists, bills, letters, tiresome waste-time phone calls, tying up all the loose ends—and more damned checklists. (Even lists of lists. That’s crazy.) I measured my days in the number of check marks on my clipboard. (I’d even add stupid piddly items just for the pleasure of checking them off.) I hadn’t even left yet and already I was loopy. My friends sensed it too. “For God’s sake—go!” they said with various degrees of tact and understanding. They were right. But my mood wasn’t.
Just take off for a few hours, I told myself one lovely sunny morning, two days before my flight to Venezuela. Do the old backroading bit—get the “on-the-road” again feel. Let things happen whatever way they will for a day. Get into the flow. (I talk to myself quite a bit. Sometimes I make sense.)
So I did. Off in the car one last time and out from the city on a serendipity jaunt—taking whatever roads appealed. Stopping whenever I felt like it. Chatting with anyone who looked interesting. Going with the flow and all that good stuff.
I found myself nibbling on the edge of the Pine Barrens, an enormous wasteland of sand, swamps, cranberry bogs, ponds, and pines that sprawls over a fifth of the state in southern New Jersey. I’d been there before, years ago in my early days as an “earth gypsy,” and written a little on the history and the elusive “Piney people” who inhabit the deeper interior. To some, the Barrens are utter boredom. Mile after mile of javelin-straight highways through the gloom of conifer forests. Hardly anything to see. A brief flurry of activity at the Great Adventure park and then more endless woodland wastes until the Jersey shore resorts.
But to the more adventurous, this area has a special aura of the unknown. There is no silence quite like the silence of the Barrens. On a hot day when the wind dies, the pines stand motionless; ferns droop, ponds and lily-topped swamps lie still without ripples. Nothing moves in the wasteland. Sandy paths gleam bright white in patches and meander into the gloom of the forest. Even the flies—monstrous in size and appearance—retreat into the fissured bark of the pine trees. The aroma of resin hangs heavy. A snake sleeps in a comfortable coil shaded by a rock.
Those who take the time to wander the Barrens find a region bursting with history, legend, and strange tales of even stranger people who live deep in the recesses of the forest. There was once a Robin Hood of the Pines who plagued the region, stealing from the wealthy landowners and giving to the poor. Then there’s the story of the “Jersey Devil,” a cloven-hoofed enigma whose antics seem to be as varied as the individuals who claim to have seen it. A composite picture of the creature, which seems to spend most of its time in the Barrens region, includes features of a bat, kangaroo, horse, and serpent. Some claim it has a distinct appetite for human flesh, while others endow it with the gentle characteristics of an elderly philosopher whose favorite occupation is the discussion of ethics and politics with learned men of the state.
Tales abound of pirates, smuggling ventures up the Mullica River deep into the Pines, and, during Prohibition, illicit stills down sandy tracks visited by mobsters in long black Cadillacs. But perhaps most curious of all are the tales about the Pineys themselves, the hermitlike inhabitants of the Barrens, who have attracted disproportionate attention.
“The Pineys? I’d use that word careful in these parts if I was you.” So I was warned by a bartender in a rundown roadside tavern near Batsto. “Folks don’t take too kindly to being called Pineys by outsiders. Too many wrong things bin said about ’em. Too many clever ‘fessors snoopin’ ’round these woods. Should mind their own damn business.”
It’s true. Pineys is a much-maligned word for a maligned people who, over the generations, have developed a life-style of self-sufficiency in the forest—living off hunting and harvests from the carnberry bogs around Woodmansie and Possum Trot. Their ancestors may have been early colonists who abandoned the coastal plantations to seek greater personal freedom in the back country. Later they were joined by Tory renegades, deserters from the Birtish army during the Revolution, and members of notorious “banditti” gangs who plagued the area during the 1800s. Other outcasts, criminals, and adventurers from the cities on the fringe of the Barrens gave the forest dwellers a reputation for licentiousness, indulgence, and illegal activities. Marriage was virtually unknown; inbreeding led to an unusual degree of feeblemindedness and Mongoloid characteristics among the young, and hunters brought back tales of abandoned revelries deep in the forest.
Even today, deep down in the narrow backroads, there are those who prefer the silence of the forest to the jingle-jangle world outside. They don’t particularly welcome visitors and have a distinct aversion to snoopers, and any stranger using the expression “Piney” might just end up with a backside full of buckshot—or worse. “Best to leave them in peace,” I’d been warned more than once.
Such tales of Pineys and bog monsters give these dark woods an overtone of mystery and dread. That day I came the feelings seemed unusually intense. Or maybe it was just me. Liberated at last from lists, I was ready for the joys of “randoming,” the wonder of wild places, and the tantalizing tingle of tiny terrors, which gives my unstructured travels the edge that I crave. While the Barrens offer abundant historical and other diversions, including a variety of swimming pools and parks, wineries, and even the restored bog-ore mining village of Batsto, I wasn’t in the mood for structured experiences. I sought pure unchecked serendipity.
Somewhere, deep in, I left the main highway. A white sand backroad curled off by an abandoned Baptist church buckling by the roadside. There was no direction sign but it looked an inviting detour. Shafts of sunlight sparkled on the track. Beyond I could see a stream and a small bridge. I’ll try it for a mile or two, I thought. See where it goes. If it dead-ends, I’ll backtrack. The tingle tingled and my spine loved it.
The first few miles were delightful. The car sped along on the sand. The white surface was dappled with light and moving shadows from the trees. On either side the pine forest grew darker and darker. It had that true backroad feel. I was in my element. I could sense the silly regimens of the daily grind slipping away and something inside soared. I was happy again, rejoicing in freedom—glad to being the buzz again.
If I ever had doubts about the value and purpose of my life (and I did, often), moments like these removed all my guilt-laden cynicism and questions and reminded me that the decision I’d made years ago to abandon my career as a city planner and become a true earth gypsy all made perfect sense for me now.
I could be nothing else. I had one life to live (so far as I know) and this apparently was the way I was meant to lead it—seeking out the unusual, the unknown, the hidden, the forgotten, and sharing some of these secrets with others in sketches, photography, books—whatever.
I’d had to endure the usual “you’re crazy,” “you’ll never do it,” “you’ll become a bum” (or more often, “you
a bum”), “you’ll never make any money doing that,” and the inevitable “what’re you going to do when you grow up?” But recently, I didn’t want to “grow up” and have never been particularly enamored of most of the trappings and trinkets—the materialistic “carrots”—of many Western societies. Life has always seemed too precious and too short to waste it collecting TV sets, cars, and property (even power)—doing things that you know deep down don’t satisfy you, don’t give you that fleeting but oh-so-invigorating sense of centeredness by responding to the real you (or yous) in you, and not worrying overmuch at the consequences. Just doing it because you know you should be doing it and couldn’t really be doing anything else—and hoping that your spiritual overdrive knows where it’s going even if you don’t.
My car seemed to know exactly where it was going on that lovely warm afternoon, deep in the Barrens. It drove itself on these winding trails through the forest. I just sat there and breathed deeply in resin-scented breezes. I knew there’d be months of travel head—all over, the world—new people, new experiences, new adventures, wherever I wanted to go. I was on a rolling high. Everything was in synch. This was the moment I’d wanted, I’d needed, before I left on my real journey. Me and life and the beauty of everything around me, all in total harmony. Great!
I’m told these moments of truth are fleeting. Very necessary, very satisfying, but short-lived. Well, this one was practically stillborn. One moment I was soaring high as a hawk, gliding in the utter freedom of the moment. Next, the car was leaning at a crazy angle, stuck axle deep in a little black bog at the side of the track. I’d taken—correction—my car, in which I’d placed total trust, had taken one of the wriggles in the track too quickly, had skidded on the loose sand into this pernicious patch of swamp, hardly visible in the gloomy shadows. The driver’s side was deep in goo. I peered out the side window and saw the mud bubbling like a slow-boiling cauldron. The passenger’s side was still over sand and I managed to squirm out like a snail from its shell.
I had no idea where I was. I had no recall of how long I’d been in my little reverie, but I knew I’d driven miles and miles on that track, taking forks at will, becoming gleefully lost. Walking back to the main road would take hours (if I could ever find it), and it was already late afternoon.
Obviously I had to find a way of getting the car out of the swamp by myself. I’d been in similar situations before. I knew all the tricks—sliding something solid under the stuck wheel, letting the clutch in slow, getting a firm grip, and—zip—you’re out. All desert travelers tell you about their experiences in soft sand and suchlike. They always seem to live to tell the tales—with appropriate authorial embellishments. And I felt as cocky as they. Couple of well-placed planks in the goo and I’d be off again.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t brought any planks with me—or anything else of use for that matter. So I ambled off into the gloom to find dead pine branches to simulate my plank. Pretty soon I’d managed to shove quite a pile of debris under the offending rear wheel. Seemed nice and firm. Well done, son. (I allowed myself a little complacency.) This guy knows his sticky-situation stuff.
Back in the driver’s seat like a snail in rapid reverse. A gentle roll of the engine, into first gear, gently release the clutch until you feel the grip of the wheel…
The swamp sounded like a ravenous whale about to swallow me, clutch, trunk, and fender. Slurp, goo, and glop. Great lumps of mud flying everywhere and the back end suddenly sinking another foot into the swamp. Not at all the way the desert ramblers do it. A right regal cock-up.
Now I had to climb steeply upward out of the passenger’s side and jump down to solid earth. The front passenger-side wheel stuck a foot in the air. The mud was already over the tailpipe and part of the rear fender. I was well and truly stuck.
And, right on cue, the mosquitoes found me. It was now early evening; the light was getting dusky. And here was this sweet-blooded, muddied human just standing around chomping and cursing and making an ideal happy-hour snack. And did they snack. Far more aggressive than their Alaskan counterparts or the dreaded north woods terrors, buzzing, swooping, plunging their proboscises into every exposed inch of my flesh.
Obviously I would have to find the main road, twelve, maybe twenty, miles back. But I’d taken so many forks…and in all that distance I’d not seen any other vehicle or human being. Not even a shack. Nothing but sand, pines, and blood-mad mosquitoes.
The situation had lost all its romance. For the first time in a long long time I felt scared, stuck in the middle of this New Jersey wilderness, awaiting the wail of the dreaded Jersey Devil or, worse still, a visit from the Pineys themselves.
Their sinister reputation is not all myth. People vanish forever in these parts. Only a few weeks prior I’d read of a body discovered deep in the Barrens. It had been there for months and was in six distinct pieces, placed precisely around a fifteen-foot circle. (Have you noticed how your brain loves to bring back useless fragments of data at the worst possible moments?)
The silence deepened. Even the mosquitoes seemed to lose interest in me now (maybe fear gives off a special antimosquito vibration?). No breezes blew and the light was deep gloom, dead gray actually. I was reluctant to leave the car. I had no food or water. What I did have was an enormous forty-pound bag full of my camera lenses and all that professional traveler stuff I was not about to leave behind.
I unloaded as much as I could, locked all the doors, retied my boots, and prepared myself for a long hike. Then Anne suddenly came to mind. She would be worried. I thought of her looking anxiously out from our Philadelphia apartment window (from the twenty-seventh floor of our tower you could almost see the edge of the Pine Barrens, a mere twenty miles east of the city). She would be telling herself that everything was okay. I had to find a phone, I thought, and then managed a bit of a smile—I had to find myself first.
I set off at a good pace, back along the track that possessed none of its previous romance now. Odd rustlings came from the dark forest. Occasional grunts and throaty growls. I started to walk faster. Then something else. Like a growl but different. And getting louder. Way back, down the track near the car. Then flashes through the trees. Very faint at first like glowworms, but getting brighter.