We went camping a lot, the four of us. Also canoeing, hiking, and sailing. Avid Outdoorsmen, we liked to think. Although far from serious adventurers.
We all came from the same small town in Southern New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia. Rich was a law librarian at a big firm in the City. Frank an architect. Rob was a counsellor for the Blind at the Veterans Administration. I worked in business development for a large translation company. We were reasonably fit. Other friends often joined us on our excursions, but we were the core group.
This particular trip was a 3-day hike along the Batona Trail in the Pine Barrens. Fifty-five miles, the trail softly carpeted in pine needles and running alongside small rivers and streams. We were carrying our gear in backpacks and the load was heavy but we’d done this before, in far more mountainous terrain. It was early Fall, the air crisp, the notorious bugs of this marshland all but absent now. Perfect weather. Perfect place. Good friends. Looking forward to setting up a camp on the riverbank as the evening falls, cooking simple meals and drinking good scotch around the fire as the night descended.
Leaving the family for 3 days was difficult, although my girls were used to these Walkabouts and the wife happy to see me getting exercise and being with friends. I think. But there was guilt. Things to be done around the house. Worries about money, aging, my ever-expanding girth: the happy middle-age shit that bounces around your head at night. But out there, in the wilderness, all of it faded away. The only thing to worry about was putting one foot in front of the other, not falling drunk into the campfire. And not whining. About anything.
So when Frank suddenly called out, “Hey, you said no rain today, Rich,” we all stopped.
“Yeah, what’s with this…fog?” asked Rob.
We stopped for a moment while Rich, master of all things technological, consulted his device. At 6’7 he loomed over us like a particularly stern telephone pole.
“There’s no rain,” he shrugged. “Not supposed to be cloudy either….” The sky has turned a leaden grey, pregnant with rain, and as we looked up there was a sudden flicker of lightning, but not any kind of lightning we’ve seen before. The forks were small. Like sparks.
“That’s weird,” said Rob.
“Is it like, some kinda localized thing?” I wondered. Derechos weren’t uncommon in this part of the country, sudden microbursts that move in with little warning. We’d had a beach camp destroyed by one, several years earlier, scattering our shit far and wide.
“I don’t think so…” Rich scratched his head. We all checked our phones but out here in the deep Pine Barrens there’s no signal. All we had was the GPS with emergency satellite messaging that Rich always carried. He’d already downloaded the route we’d take, and could measure our progress.
“Nothing we can do, anyway,” Frank said, shouldering his pack. “Let’s move on.”
We trudged onward, strung out along the trail. I was out in front, as usual. I wasn’t much for chatting on these hikes. I liked to hear the birds and the babbling of brooks. Rich was the same and stayed about twenty yards behind me. I could hear Frank and Rob way back there, keeping up a constant patter.
“Hey John,” Rich called. I stopped, waited for him. He nodded up at the sky. “What do you think that is?”
The heavy rain clouds appear to be shimmering in an odd way. The light at ground level seemed particularly golden, the way it gets sometimes before a big storm and there was a kind of thrumming in the air, an electrical hum. I dropped my pack for a moment. If we did get a lightning storm, here in the deep woods, surrounded by pine trees, we’d be in trouble.
“I don’t….” I began to say. And then it happened.
The only way I can describe it was a renting sound, like ripping fabric. Four dark shapes flashed low across the sky, and at first I thought they were fighter jets. There was an air force base maybe fifty miles away, another to the south. Between us and the open ocean was sparsely inhabited pineland, so they could have been low-flying jets. But they were not. I caught a glimpse of black lozenge-shaped craft, no wings, no engines, just these smooth shapes. Like bullets.
Frank and Rob caught up to us.
“You guys see that?”
“What the ever-living….”
“Were those airplanes?”
“More like missiles…”
And then everyone laughed. I had thrown myself to the ground as the.…missiles, whatever they were, passed overhead. Now I picked myself up, sheepishly, brushing pine needles from my pants.
“Instinct,” I sniffed. “You guys' wouldn’t know. You’ve never been in combat….”
“The only combat you’ve seen is outside an Irish bar,” Frank laughed.
“I’ve seen some shit,” I protested, shouldering my pack. “Around the Pacific Rim…”
We walked on. After a while Rich grunted.
“The closest John’s been to the Pacific Rim is the toilet bowl in a Polynesian restaurant…”
We all laughed. Then...
Another flash of lightning. Four dark shapes again streaked overhead. Our heads throbbed with the violence of it. They appeared to be circling, flying giant loops in the sky.
“Can they do that shit out here?” Frank cried.
They came around a third time. This time the very trees seemed to bend in the wash of their passage. I was on the ground again, but just because I’d tripped. I was no hurry to get up.
“Assholes,” Rob muttered.
We waited for a while. The sun reappeared. The sky became a perfect translucent blue. Birds began to sing. Whatever that had been, it appeared to be over.
We moved on. After a while we forgot about the lozenge-shaped missiles that had ripped the sky asunder. Probably some kind of secret military shit, sucking up our hard-earned tax dollars while spewing complex hydrocarbons into the pristine air of the Pine Barrens. It made me angry, thinking about it, so I stopped.
We lapsed back into the routine. Me out front, Rich at a respectful distance. Frank and Rob bringing up the rear. We had a goal of fifteen miles this first day. We’d lost some time already. Time to hunker down for the long march.
It took a while but the happy place arrived. There’s something about a backpack, stuffed with everything you need, especially when it’s a good backpack, properly balanced, that gives you a sense of completeness. Everything you need is on your back. No phone. No media. Life is boiled down to the most simplistic of elements and all of that work/life balance crap is forgotten. You’re in the wilderness. You have everything you need. You can survive.
I stopped, looked back, leaning on my walking pole. Rich had stopped too. He was staring at his GPS and rubbing his face.
“What is it?” I asked.
“This is fucked-up…” Rich showed me the screen. The little green dot that showed our exact location was moving in a circle. A wide circle. I looked closer. The dot was moving smoothly, not in the jerky little movements it normally made as it updated our locations. The circle it was navigating was about a mile wide, and as it moved it sped up until it was making a complete rotation about every six seconds.
“I think if we were moving that fast there’d be some serious puking going on,” I joked, but then looked at Rich’s face. He was worried. I didn’t like seeing Rich worried.
“What is it?” Frank asked as he and Rob caught up. Rob was still talking about someplace he’d been in Peru, or was it Chile? His voice tailed off as Rich held out the GPS.
“I dunno, guys,” he said. “This is not right…”
“Restart it, Rich,’ Frank suggested. “Pull the battery and make it reboot from fresh…”
“Even if it is screwed up, we’re still good,” Rob said. He wasn’t big on technology in the wilderness. He looked around for the one of the pink blazes that marked the Batona Trail. He looked again. I looked too. I saw no blazes anywhere.
Rich and Frank were looking too.
“Jesus Christ,” Rich said, quietly. We’d lost the damn trail…
“Tea,” I said, pulling out my little butane stove, my tin cup, my teabags. “We’ll figure it out. Let’s take a break and think, first.”
I’d been lost in the forest before. One time, hiking alone, immersed in thought, I’d missed several blazes and suddenly realized there was no trail anymore. For about ten minutes I tried to backtrack. Couldn’t find the trail, or any features I recognized, and this slow terror had begun to foment in my brain. Far off the grid, deep in the Allegheny Mountains, no signal on my phone, no fancy as a GPS. Hikers got lost up there all the time. The weather could shift dramatically, especially in early Spring like this when there were still patches of snow on the ground. And this was bear country. Black Bear. Not the Ursus Terriblus of the Yukon, the dreaded Brown Bear, but certainly big enough to maul a human to death if provoked. For a moment I’d stood there, terror oozing up through the balls of my feet, the slow understanding of my predicament dawning.
So I’d stopped. Thought about things. Then torn a piece of yellow fabric from an extra shirt in my pack and tied it to a tree so that it was visible from multiple directions. And then I’d moved in ever-widening circles, keeping that yellow fabric in view at all times. It had taken almost three hours before I found the trail. But I found it. I’d limped along until the end and there was my truck and night had fallen long before. The forest had seemed to enclose me and all of the night sounds of animals and snapping twigs had scared the crap of me. I’d never gone hiking alone in the deep forest after that.
So now we were in a bit of a spot and the thing to do was rest for a moment, gather our thoughts, figure out a plan. The Pine Barrens were a 1.1 million acres, most of it far from paved roads, but there were Jeep trails and rivers to follow, and we’d pick up some kind of trail eventually. We weren’t so much scared as annoyed by having missed the pink blazes. It didn’t seem like something we would have done. We kept our wits about us, out here.
So we all sat on the ground and I brewed the tea, Lapsang Souchong, strong and bitter, and I waited to see if we could get the GPS working again before telling them about the yellow rag in the mountains. Rich pulled the batteries from the GPS and put them back in and we all waited as it fired back up.
“Jesus Christ,” Rich said again. He held out the device. The green dot was exactly as it had been, still moving in a smooth circle, but faster now. We were in the dead center of it. I thought of something. Deep in my pack was an old green military compass. I fished it out. At the same time Rob and Frank were looking at their phones because even if there was no signal, the compass functionality would still be working.
But they were not. Rob held his out. The compass was oscillating rapidly, swinging through the axes. Same for Franks. I looked at my old, analogue, simple compass. It too was spinning.
“There must be something nearby, maybe an iron ore deposit or something….screwing up the magnetic field,” Frank observed. It was possible. And there was plenty of iron in the Pine Barrens. The rivers ran black with it sometimes. But Rich shook his head.
“We’ve been this way before,” he said. “Well, near it anyway. We can’t have come far from the trail.”
I filled their mugs with hot, sweet tea. “Relax,” I said, trying to inject some jocularity into my tone. But it came out sounding a little prickish. Rob glared at me over the rim of his cup.
“How’d you miss that blaze, Limey?” he asked, and I knew he was trying to be casual about it but he also sounded a little prickish.
“We’ll figure it out,’ said Rich, soothingly, pulling the batteries once more. I felt bad. I’d been out in front. It was my job to lead the way. I stood, sipped tea, looked around. Frank stood too. Rich worked on the GPS and Rob laid back, pulled his cap over his eyes, and feigned sleep.
And I was looking at Frank as he stared off at something and I felt something cold go through me and at the same time Frank’s mug tipped and hot tea slopped out over his hand but he didn’t seem to feel it, he was just standing there, slack-jawed, staring into the trees.
“Frank…” I laughed. But then Rob was up on his feet too, looking in the opposite direction, his mug at his feet, and Rich, the GPS falling to the ground, was looking in another direction and that chill went through me again, the way they were standing, catatonically, staring to the East, the North, the West, and then my own mug was falling to the ground as I looked to the South.
“Jesus,” I yelped. There, in the trees, were the dark lozenges that had streaked over us earlier. Neatly spaced, standing upright, like sentinels, obelisks that gave no light, surfaces gleaming with condensation. And in that first moment all I could think was, they’re beautiful. I’d never seen anything as beautiful. And sinister. I took a step back. But Frank was moving forward, towards one of them.
“Frank!” I yelled, and I went after him. “Don’t…”
Frank was my height, but a lot stronger. Without even looking he straight-armed me, knocking me down, and continued towards the sentinel. I got up, looked around wildly and saw Rob, and Rich, walking towards two of the other sentinels, calmly, deliberately, saying nothing. I backed up, watching them helplessly, and I kept backing up across the rough piney tundra until I hit something, backing into it, something large and solid and smooth and I twisted around and looked at the beautiful smooth surface and the beads of condensation and it loomed over me, six, perhaps seven meters tall and I remembered, much later, that as a door hissed open, a tall heavy door, although there were no visible seams in the surface, that I’d whimpered like a little kid and looked into the darkness within.
I stepped inside. It wasn’t a conscious action: every sense in my body screamed at me to run. I couldn’t. It simply pulled me in. The door hissed shut. And then my guts seemed to fall to the floor and the outside of the obelisk turned transparent and I could see the other obelisks, the sentinels containing my friends, rising in unison together and I looked down and saw the backpacks and the mugs of tea lying there and then the Pinelands, the everlasting forest of green, contracting, the ocean beyond, the Earth herself, disappearing as we rose, together, into the blue-blackness of space.