I have always been afraid.
In my childhood bedroom, streetlight against sycamore trees created frightening shadows on my walls: men, I imagined, breaking into our home, creeping soundlessly. Huddled under heavy blankets and bedspread, I waited for the creak of a loose floorboard, sounds of shattering glass, gunshots. These were not reasonable fears. We lived in a safe town. Thirty-five years now the doors of my parents’ house have been unlocked. But my Catholic school days bloomed with images of Christ bleeding out on the cross; and at night, my sleep was shattered by the swelling fury of a drunk father. On every floor the cabinets shook—pills clamoring, china rattling. In the basin of my small mind, fear rose. I couldn’t watch scary movies. I was afraid of pitch darkness and short heights, like ladders and spiral staircases. Terrified of crossing sexual borders, I lost my teenage boyfriends to more willing girls, and carried that fear with me in an already overflowing pocket.
Most of all, though, I was afraid of people disappearing. When Matt died, his sister Jenny and I were on our way into sixth grade, our lives filled with the buzz of summer locusts and the wistful crooning of Donny and Marie. One hot Fourth of July afternoon, long before the scheduled fireworks, Matt lay down in the grass forever. Blood vessels exploded in his brain. Of all the fears I have, I know that Jenny shares this one: that the ones we love will suddenly and inexplicably leave us.
It is Jenny who I hike with the summer I move back home, a small New Jersey town two miles long. We are almost thirty; we have been friends since we were four. We drive out of town, held in the comforts of air conditioning and conversation, passing indistinguishable strip malls, blank-faced suburbs, and glittering Jersey diners until the roadside buildings thin and the pitch pine trees rise. We talk about the lives we’ve led while we’ve been apart. Jenny is engaged to Lou. I have met him once. Lou is raven-haired, olive skinned, with a gentle smile that easily erupts into mischief. He is kind and dependable, and when he met a woman full of fear and loss, he responded with a patient steadfastness. Jenny is happy. The reasonable side of me declares that I am happy for her. But beneath the grid of my smile, I think, How can she marry a stranger?
Of course, I’m afraid to say such a thing out loud.
Jenny follows the signs to Batsto Village. Here, we will intercept a piece of the 49-mile Batona Trail. It is a Saturday in August, windless. A shelf of humidity hangs in the air. The Batona Trail snakes through New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, the most hidden expanse of wilderness on the Eastern seaboard. Here, rumors of the Piney people abound: tales of incest, of children spawned by the devil, of drunken and violent misconduct in the woods. I was nine years old when I heard nothing about the passing of the Pinelands Protection Act, but this piece of legislation would save the landscape while Jenny and I glued dioramas of the Vietnam War, while we slipped on our first unnecessary bras, while we snuck into the woods and applied mascara before heading inside to homeroom. It would take us twenty years to get here, to this moment, and by this time, we thought we could survive anything.
Jenny stops at one of the rare back road traffic lights. There, we see a wild looking man, thickly bearded, with darting eyes and filthy clothes. He is crossing the road at a dangerous place, standing right next to the road sign reading ANCORA. We don’t know anything specific about Ancora—we have never been there—but we remember that when we misbehaved in high school Latin class, Mr. Tremolo would look down his long Roman nose and shake a knuckled finger at us. Behave, he would say, or I’ll send you to Ancora. We gathered that Ancora was the sire of a jail, an insane asylum—or something worse.
“He’s escaped,” I say, waving to the man.
“Semper ubi sub ubi.” Jenny watches him in the rearview mirror until the road curves and he disappears from sight.
At Batsto Village, a weather-beaten trail map tells us that these flat lands will offer no hardships. True enough. We hike easily through the sandy soils, through strands of fire resistant pitch pine grounded by a thick understory of wild huckleberry, dangleberry, blueberry. We pop sweet highbush blueberries into our mouths, giggling like girls. We slap at flies. We are mildly surprised that no one else is on the trail. We are new to this place, and there is much we don’t know. We don’t know that small ticks carrying Lyme disease are now leaping from blades of grass to legs, crawling to our warm, dark places to feed. The yellowthroat warblers, pine snakes, and white tail deer have fled at the sound of our crunching footsteps. We don’t realize that the sandy soil beneath our feet is all there is, as hostile a growing environment as there is, arid and acidic. When rainwater falls on this sandy soil, the water filters through to a subterranean aquifer beneath us, a body of water equivalent to a lake 75 feet deep and one thousand square miles in area. We walk and walk across this shaky ground, oblivious to everything but the chattering of each other’s voices.
When I remember this day, I see the cloudless sky and sharp pine trees. I see two young women trying to reclaim a friendship, passing an icy bottle of water back and forth, wiping sweat on the shoulders of their t-shirts. But from the dark thicket, a gray fox spies. A turkey vulture circles, waiting to strike. A shadow passes and disappears over those poor, unsuspecting girls who dare to cross this sandy raft, this trembling sea.
Three years pass and the sign ANCORA is now covered with tangled greenbrier. I am a new teacher with a superficial grasp of history and ecology, arriving at the ghost town of Batsto Village on a glaring yellow school bus with fourteen students. I ask them if they think their town could have all the businesses and people disappear, like here at Batsto. This was once a vibrant place where workers populated the land and dredged the pond for iron bog iron to make cannonballs for the Revolutionary War. They built furnaces, leveled trees, and prepared charcoal to fuel the furnaces. Trees fell and the sky opened up. Each furnace’s blazing fires swallowed a thousand acres of woodland each year. Then, Pittsburgh’s iron industry was born, and the few remaining trees believed they had been spared. Not so. The lovely sandy soil made fine glass, and the forests fell for fuel again. When the last tree was cleared, the glassmaking industry collapsed, and I suppose the tired workers walked west, to Philadelphia.
Remarkably, my students listen, studying Batsto Village’s only remaining buildings: the mansion, the sawmill, the gristmill. The trees have come back: Virginia and pitch pine, scarlet and post oak, sassafras and swamp azalea. After the collapse of the iron and glass industry, I tell them, wealthy Pennsylvania businessman Joseph Wharton arrived. He purchased Batsto Village and the surrounding land with a sly venture: his wanted to pipe the pure water submerged under the Pine Barrens across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania for them to drink. Luckily his plan failed, and his 109,000 acres of disappointment—now the Wharton Forest—is where we stand now.
Beyond the village is the Nature Center, filled with the labors of an energetic taxidermist. A scraggly beaver is about to sink its huge brown teeth into a piece of wood. There are turkey vultures and egrets, killed and stuffed back to life. Michele, a student who has one blue glass eye, stares into the eyes of an owl. She matches the owl moment by moment—a contest she just might win. Beyond us, a square passage is cut through the wall so visitors might speak to the naturalist in his office; but Gilbert Mika is nowhere to be found. In Mika’s office, you can see a litter of paper everywhere, blanketing the desk and chairs and floors. A poster hangs on the wall, dogeared: KEEP YOUR PLACE FIRE SAFE. Well-worn books tilt along shelves; a tray of slides is perched precariously on an orange Uncle Ben’s box. On top of a file cabinet, there is a murder in progress: a stuffed owl has a mouse in its talons. Cobwebs connect the owl’s wings to the flowered blue wallpaper, and I feel strangely sorry for these creatures: the owl, salivating over its furry meal, is in eternal anticipation; the mouse, forever dangling, is trapped in its terror forever.
The students murmur and point, and I remember Jenny and I, young like them, our heads bent in whispered secrets. All those years ago, we sat in Catholic school classrooms beneath portraits of haloed Jesus and Mary. Like me, she woke to the nighttime thunder of a drunk father and desperate mother. Shattered little girls, we woke on weekends, roller-skated through the empty schoolyard, and somehow emerged from our young lives whole. I like to think that we took each other from the stillness of cobweb and capture into the fearless surge of the world.
Outside the Nature Center, the bright sunlight makes me blink. Clouds skate across the sky. Michele and I follow the others to the dim nature trail, bordered by wild rice on Batsto Lake. We hear distant buzz of a circular saw. As we hike to higher ground, we pass cedar stands and murky water, shaded from sunlight by white oaks and sugar maples. Greenbrier vines tangle around the scaled armor of pitch pines. I tell my students you can dig a half mile deep here and not hit bedrock.
When we reach the Batona Trail, I recognize pink hashes painted on trees marking the trail where Jenny and I hiked three years ago, when she was newly engaged. The trail is still thick, overgrown. I am telling my students about prescribed burns in this forest. We reach a section of the trail where the greenbrier drapes across the blueberry and heather underbrush, then climbs the tall oaks, the sturdy pines, the sassafras with its lovely leaves. Above us, oak leaves flutter like confetti against the sky. A match dropped here would smolder and rise, flames licking the length of the vines, climbing to the treetops. The thought of such a wildfire? Terrifying.
I take my students further into the woods, to the park service’s most recent controlled burn. Here, the light is brighter; there are no oak trees, no climbing vines. Nothing to stand in the sun’s way. The understory grows in threaded shrubs; only fire-resistant pitch pines stand tall. At the base of the pine trees there are rings of charred black—evidence of the park service’s care and intention. A lit match dropped here? The gentle fire would rise to waist level maybe, feebly fueled by the weak kindling of recent grasses and shrubs. The brown pine needles would burn briefly and die.
Controlled burns prevent huge disasters, promote fire-resistant pitch pine succession, enhance the complexity of the acidic soil.
Michele recommends a controlled burn of Gilbert Mika’s office. Then, she turns her still blue eye to me. “Where would you go if you were trapped in a wildfire?”
The air is hot; the breeze has faltered. Michele swats a fly. There is a story of a man who dug himself into the earth, I tell her, covered himself with the bark of the pitch pine, and prayed as a sky-high wall of wildfire passed over him. He survived.
I’m not sure if this story is true.
Michele and I walk together, the same trail I hiked with Jenny three years ago. I have not seen her much lately. She has settled into marriage with Lou, adopted his fierce conservative views. Her days are spent with a newborn daughter and endless, enthusiastic in-laws. I stop walking. I look up to the bright sky and blink away the suffocation of a sudden longing. I cannot look down. My students slow and wait. They think I see something in the air.
I don’t know why I start. I begin to tell them the story of the day I hiked here with Jenny.
We pass the sign for ANCORA.
We drive past the man on the roadside, filthy and fearful.
We are walking on the Batona Trail that hot August day, slapping at flies. I carry Jenny’s cell phone in my waist pack, along with an apple and a bottle of water. We see no one. The trail is empty.
“What would you do if that man showed up here?” I ask Jenny.
I am joking, of course.
Would he chase us?
Would he catch us?
Each step, each joke becomes heavier.
“Seriously,” I say, “what would we do if a man—dangerous—showed up?”
“Does he have a gun?” asks Jenny.
We are quiet, our steps crunching in the sand. We imagine the same scene. A man steps out from the thick of lambkill, wild and dangerous. He holds a gun. The cell phone, zipped securely in my waist pack, would be no help.
“We run,” Jenny decides.
Easy for her to say. Jenny has always been agile, quick, a Division I athlete. I imagine her darting away, me lumbering behind, a dead woman.
We stop walking.
“Do we split up or stay together?” I ask.
We look at one another. We agree.
We split up.
Our chances are better that way. One of us will survive.
“Then what?” I say.
“We run for help.”
We look around. The forest is thick, the wild understory dimming any escape route. We are in an unfamiliar place. Once off the trail, a person could be lost in these woods forever.
Now we have scared ourselves.
“This place is creepy,” I say. I look at the empty, wide open trail in front of us, behind us. “I’ve never hiked on a Saturday—”
“In the summer,” Jenny adds, understanding my point immediately.
“Where is everyone?”
* * *
My students and I near the end of the trail, and through the trees we can see picnic benches, a parking lot, the park office.
“What happened?” Michele asks. “Did you see the wild man?”
“We scared ourselves silly,” I say. “We ran back to Jenny’s car and drove away.”
The students are disappointed by my story. No blood, no gore. No crazed escapee chasing two innocent girls.
I don’t tell my students about my fears. I worry that my father will pick up a drink after 22 years of sobriety. I worry I will be attacked when I am alone, and that I will be too weak to save myself. My mother worries that I will fall asleep during a nighttime drive—that’s how her father died.
Here, in the shelter of pine trees, hours can pass without hearing the trill of a warbler, the touch of cool wind, or the sight of another human face. It’s easy to disappear. In our big wooded world, no one speaks about broken hearts between best friends, the most submerged of sorrows.
Ahead, Jon and Vijay carry a green cooler over to the grass. Lunchtime.
I walk slower, not wanting to leave these woods.
No dangerous stranger crossed our path. No man with a gun. I have feared the wrong thing. Jenny and I never asked, Do we split up or stay together? One of us darted off—that was the plan, right?—legs pumping through the tumble of blueberry and lambkill, while the other lay waiting, fearful and faithless on a bed of pine needles, waiting for the wall of flames to pass.
Clouds appear and disappear. My wounds have made me stupid. I blink away the sun and wish with all my might for something I cannot speak. This afternoon’s glare will surely soften, I tell myself. But I’m afraid it won’t.