The howling wilderness

Part 2 in a series – Where the Wild Things Roam

I was making good progress that first afternoon along the clearly-marked trail, when I suddenly came upon a bulldozer track crossing the trail. Beyond the track, the trail was utterly obliterated by a blow-down that must have been a year or two old because it was grown up into an impassable jungle. Not only was there no sign of the trail except behind me, there was not a yellow diamond trail marker anywhere to be seen.

A good rule of thumb that we teach scouts is whenever you have a real problem, like losing your trail in the woods, your first, most obvious solution is always wrong. If your first solution were the answer then the situation wouldn’t have been a real problem in the first place. So instead of blindly following a whim into an even worse situation, set your first idea aside and take some time to try to think about a better solution.

A good reminder of this is the acronym, S.T.O.P., meaning Stop moving, Take a break, Observe your surroundings, and make a Plan. So that’s what I did. I un-shouldered my pack and sat in the shade and drank some water. I got out my map and compass and figured out where I was and where I was going and where the trail should be. I looked at the terrain on the map and the actual terrain surrounding me.

At first it looked like they must have driven a dozer down the trail to push part of the blowdown off the trail, but I followed the dozer tracks for a ways and it became obvious that wasn’t right.

I was still not really lost because I knew right where I was and there was a clearly marked trail behind me back to town, but after some consideration I decided if I could find an animal trail or opening in the brambles ahead then I could follow my compass directly north and I would have to cut across the trail corridor somewhere just past the blowdown. It couldn’t be more than a few yards north.

So that’s what I did. I cut directly north through the blackberry, greenbriar, and climbing fern and sure enough, I ran smack dab into the trail right where I thought it was. Scout Skills saved the day! I was back in business and picked up my pace accordingly. My spirits were rising and I was making progress again.

Then it happened again – the trail disappeared! I repeated my STOP procedure, drank some water, rested, re-oriented myself, and realized that Forest Service Road #208 must lie just a few yards directly north of me. It was another tedious trudge through the vines and briers for several yards., but I found the trail again and popped out on FSR #208 right where I should be.

Listening to clouds

By this point I was hot and tired, my shins and ankles had been shredded by dragging through the thorns, and the sun was getting low in the sky. I started looking to make camp.

I would have preferred to camp farther off the road, but I saw no good camping spots so I found two likely-looking trees right by the edge of FSR #208 and hung my jungle hammock between them. When I lay down and looked up I realized these were two longleaf pines (pinus palustris) that my hammock was slung between.

Because of their long, straight trunks and puffy circular clusters of long needles, longleaf pines remind me of the Truffula trees in Dr. Seuss’ story, The Lorax.

These majestic conifers once ranged throughout the south, but now they are confined to a fraction of their original range. They are not unheard of in Mississippi but they just about only occur in extreme southeast of the state – the pines that we have around home are mostly shortleaf or loblolly pines.

Mankind’s greatest invention and a hiker’s best friend is a hammock. After you exert yourself all afternoon and work up a good sweat, you can lie back in the hammock and it sucks the heat right out of your body. It is like instant anesthesia! Lying there in that hammock with the heat and tension draining out of my back brought to mind the beginning of Wordworth’s Prelude –

OH there is blessing in this gentle breeze, a visitant that while it fans my cheek doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings from the green fields, and from yon azure sky. Whate’er its mission, the soft breeze can come to none more grateful than to me

As an exercise in silence and meditation, I like to, “listen to clouds.” I try to get so quiet that I can almost hear the clouds moving in the sky above me. As I do this, I start to count and identify and locate the sounds around me.

All around me I heard the buzzing of mosquitoes and the chirping of crickets and the rattling of cicadas. As the sun set farther I heard a couple of owls, and many frogs. Besides the nature sounds, perhaps a half dozen vehicles passed down the road beside me that evening. I could hear the drone of traffic on Highway 49 about five miles to the east and farther still, I heard the occasional passenger jet.

Though they made no discernible sound, there were fireflies. When I first saw them, for a moment I thought they were headlights or flashlights. When I figured out what they were, they reminded me of the stories of will-o-wisps – malevolent spirits said to lead unwary people into bogs at night. That’s what I was thinking about when I heard the scream!

Before I came out on this trail I stumbled upon a website describing mysterious and spooky sounds that people had heard in Kisatchie National Forest – sounds like screams and chanting and Indian drums. I didn’t give much credence to these fantastic stories, though I know some animals like screech owls and big cats can make really eerie sounds.

This was really more of a screaming whinny like a frightened horse. It sounded like it was nearby to the southeast in the section of woods I’d just come out of. The thing is, people are not allowed to ride their horses on this trail. I’d read accounts of elusive wild horses in this forest – maybe that was it. It sure sounded like a horse to me.

As I lay in the hammock, dozing and waking throughout the night, I heard a few different screams – maybe a big cat or maybe a fox.

At one point in the middle of the night I got up and the sky was so bright with lights from distant Alexandria and Woodworth that I was moving around without a flashlight and I startled a dog that had been snooping around camp. I heard its nails clicking on the pavement of the forest road as it beat a hasty retreat.

The spooky forest sounds and the dog encounter reminded me of a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s book, Canoeing in the Wilderness, which I was reading just before coming on this trek –

[The wilderness] was ready to echo the growl of a bear; the howl of a wolf; or the scream of a panther; but when you get fairly into the middle of one of these grim forests you are surprised to find that the larger inhabitants are not at home commonly… Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl; it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling.”

After reassuring myself that it was just my mind doing all the howling, I settled back down in my hammock. Then just before dawn, I heard the Indian drums! I couldn’t tell where they were coming from. They started out faint and became more distinct. It was definitely not a dream or a figment because they persisted for several minutes after I was up and moving around.

First thing Elise asked me when I told her about the Indian drums was, “Did you record them on your phone?”

Uh… Well…

Stay tuned for the next installment of Where the Wild Things Roam

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