When hiking alone in my twenty-fifth year in the southwestern barrens of the Newfoundland interior highlands, I found myself lost for three days in which events took place that disturbed me in ways I thought not possible. In those seventy-two hours I wandered aimlessly but not without purpose into what I can only describe as some sort of grand hallucination or a waking fever dream, and the thought of those days in that lost wilderness brings me to tears now as I type these long-repressed words which have plagued me for a lifetime. Forgive my ramblings and my endlessly meandering mind and my thoughts which run too long and too wildly and remember, please, that those same unending images plague me in a way that you could never begin to imagine. Forgive me, reader, as I try to describe the agony that I endured in those days and throughout the sleepless nights since those steps I took into a world best left undisturbed.
A long weekend on holiday from the teaching college seemed to me the perfect opportunity to rediscover places I had visited in my youth with an uncle – my mother’s brother – who had trapped foxes and beavers and mink and the elusive arctic hares which used to run like lightning through those lands. He had taken me on camping trips into the barrens where we walked and talked and fished for trout in cold little pools and sat around small fires brewing tea in apple juice cans. He would tell me stories of his people, the Mi’kmaq, and of how they would hunt the herds of woodland caribou that ran thick as sheep through the unending country in the days before the white man and the moose and the coyote came. He would tell me of the Beothuk, who are now all dead and gone to the last, and whose paths his elders had once shown to him. The same paths they used to tread on their annual migrations from the country to the shores of the sea and beyond. And he told me, if my memory is worth trusting after all these years, of the people that had lived there even before those native folk, whose language and paths and territories and legends and gods were witnessed only by the dead ancestors of our dead ancestors, and of whom there was no living memory other than the rumor that they had once lived in that land. He shared with me the subtle and minimalistic clues of their heritage that he had gathered from his elders, but much of it was unknown to him even in those days because he had been forced into learning by missionaries under the name of the Catholic church at a young age and they had schooled him in English and forbade the uttering of his mother tongue.
From what I was able to gather from him before he passed away in his forties is not enough to fully describe the culture of those people. None of their language or customs were known to him, and of their origins he would simply state that they were of that place – not that they had originated there, but that they had always been there. He did not know what had happened to them, and nor did anyone that he had ever spoken to. It seems to me now that the truest explanation of those people is that they once were there, but now they are not, and any pondering as to why this is the case is so far removed from the time of those folk that it becomes an irrelevant question. Of their territory he was very specific, and from this I gather that they were not a people of great number – possibly existing in one large community or tribe due to a reliance on a localized resource which was in great supply in the region, or perhaps it was the locale of their last stand against some greater outside threat that was beyond their understanding or comprehension and against which they resisted desperately until the speakers of legends forgot that they had ever occupied a place that was not this one. According to my uncle, it was within the barrens that they lived, and it is this area which remains in its state of undeveloped wilderness as I write this sentence.
It was because of this mystery that I was drawn to that region as a child, and I would daydream endlessly about hiking across the expanse in search of some evidence of those people – perhaps the remains of a settlement or burial site. I wanted desperately to know what had happened to them, who they were, and what their relationship with the land was. However, my uncle would always follow the same few paths on our hikes into that country, and if I were ever to implore about some far off location beyond the regular areas explored he would sternly redirect my attention to the current path and express a sometimes extreme anger towards my tendency to stray. Despite his urging and constant arguments about the dangers of being lost in the barrens, my eyes and my thoughts always wandered toward the horizon and the turns not taken.
Finally, this inherent curiosity led me to set foot again into that vast and lonesome place, taking with me a small pack of provisions and a tent to set up in case of rain. It was my plan to set course from the stretch of highway near the Middle Ridge Wilderness Reserve near Bay d’Espoir and trek due west – I would end my hike on the highway near the Annieopsquotch Mountains and hitch a ride to the nearest bus terminal. I set out on the eleventh of October at dawn with the sun at my back and the retreating night ahead of me and grinning to myself as each step brought me farther and farther down the inevitable route that would lead to the rest of my life.
That first day was difficult, as it took time for my body to adjust to the task at hand. Two years of studying at a desk were not the best preparation for my chosen route – which would take at least four days to traverse – but I forced myself onward, draining my water canteen every few hours. At last, I had reached the point of no return, where the last visible signs of human civilization would dip below the horizon. I stopped there and filled my canteen at a small stream, and looked around at the vast and deeply blue sky and felt for the first time in years a sense of just how small I was within this wide and ancient land. I turned for a last look toward the highway in the east, then continued to walk. In the middle of the afternoon I crossed through the remains of a forest that had burned long ago, where bleach-white bones of limbless tree husks stood in stark contrast against the rusty berry bushes that covered the high ground in that time of year. Later, I stumbled on the remains of a campsite – the occupants of which had left dozens of shattered beer bottles strewn across the ground in a wide arc around their fire, as though they had been betting who could throw the farthest. That night I slept beneath the stars in a dry hollow between dwarf fir trees and watched the stars flickering overhead in the inky blackness. I had never felt so alive.
The second day I woke with a start as the little stunted trees around me shook with a thundering of footsteps and I stood up to find my camp surrounded by a small herd of migrating caribou. There were about fifty, and they moved steadily eastward, chewing at the ground and puffing steam from their long muzzles and they had soon passed me by heading into the sunrise. That day I walked slowly, because of the muscles cramping in my legs, but in a few hours I had found my pace again and moved steadily westward into that place, opposite to the journey of the caribou. The land began to change as I carried on, with the springy semi-tundra hardening into a dry and unforgiving soil that resisted any pressure, and if I closed my eyes I could almost convince myself I was walking on asphalt. By noon I came to the edge of a wide valley, carved by glaciers and millennia of erosion into a sloping bowl that stretched nearly to the horizon on the other side. There was a river flowing through it, and I decided that I would rest there. It took until late afternoon for me to come to the river and when I did I was more tired than I could ever remember being. My feet were blistered, my shoulders aching from my pack, and the smell of sweat in my clothes was so strong that I stripped naked and wrung them out in the cold, clear water.
I began to think, then, that my trip was not as well planned as I had thought. I had only just enough food for three days – although I was sure I had packed more – and I hadn’t brought a change of clothes because I thought it would save space. My mood turned sour and I stared angrily at the valley wall before me and made the hasty choice to climb it before setting camp. It would be dark by seven, but I didn’t care – I was so fed up with myself that I just wanted to get the hike over with as fast as possible. I didn’t dare turn back, because if my friends at the college got word that I’d forfeited my great adventure they would never let me hear it out, and despite my bad temper and my sudden impatience, I still longed to see the expanse in it’s entirety. I marched up the hillside, faster than was wise, through the thinning trees and over rocks and under arm-like, scooping branches and around another, larger herd of caribou that flowed toward the river in a flood of fur and antlers. The hours flew by and still I climbed on in my stupidity and it was well after sunset when I stumbled blindly onto the crest of a small hill at the valleys edge and set camp for the night. I ate ravenously and laughed at my own stubbornness and lay in my sleeping roll watching the flames before quickly falling into and deep and exhausted sleep.
I woke in the night to my little fire dying into feeble smoldering coals and struggled out of my sleeping roll, fighting to keep from shuddering in the unbelievably cold air. The temperature had dropped unexpectedly and frost was gathering in the tips of the surrounding vegetation, glowing in the soft blue light cast down by the moon which was waning but as of yet bright enough to illuminate my campsite. My hands were numb, and after struggling to get the fire going again I gave up and fumbled in my pack for the tent. In the minutes it took to set it up, I found myself jumping at small sounds and turning quickly to look over my shoulder. The silence of that hill in the night was staggering, and each movement I made to adjust the tent straps or stamp down a peg or throw my belongings inside it brought an unbearable sensation down upon me, as though I would give myself away – but to whom? At last, I had erected the tiny shelter and pulled myself inside it, head first, and wrapped myself in my sleeping roll to settle once again into a peaceful sleep. It was at this point I realized I had forgotten to tie the tent flap shut. Being as tired as I was, I decided that a small draft would be tolerable, and I tucked myself in doubly against the cold with only my head protruding. I lay there for a while, listening to the sounds of the barrens outside, of the persistent fall breeze rustling against the canvas, of the last few coals sputtering out in the cold, of the movement of caribou in the valley below grunting in the dark.
And the night drew on and I lay there, breathing quietly and watching my breath turn into a moist fog that hung in the tent like the smoke of a doused candle. I listened with increasing intensity to the minute sounds of the world outside, which seemed to be growing more and more sparse as the moments passed. The winds became gentler and less chaotic and after a time they ceased completely and the air hung heavily over the world. In that stillness and absolute silence came the suspicion that there was something moving nearby, outside my little canvas tent. I did not see a shadow cast by the moon against the thin and tightly bound fabric, nor did I hear a noise that would give away the approach of an entity into my small camp. I felt – in that void of sound and light which surrounded me entirely – a change in the air of which I cannot accurately explain.
The very night itself seemed to be drawing in on me, pressing itself into my skin and brushing obscenely against the space near the back of my neck and shoulders, as if to suggest the presence of some invisible form that had wandered unwelcomed into that place and passed through it without noticing my huddled form laying crumpled in fear across its path. I held myself still, reducing my breaths to shallow murmurs, and fought against the hollow pain raising in my stomach, and when the sound of my own low gasps for air became unbearably distracting, I took in a lungful and held it, waiting against hope as cold, stinging sweat oozed into my eyes. I used the last of my faltering willpower to resist the urge to blink, and focused the entirety of my attention on the narrow window left by the unfastened flap of canvas hanging above my feet. I waited.
In all of that vast and empty nothingness out there, I could plainly see some pale thing run past the open end of my tent.
I gasped for air, unable to stop my body from emitting a small shriek of fear, and I lurched forward, plunging my head out through the tent flap and into the night. I stared all around, scanning the hillside for as far as I could see, but there was nothing there. Slowly, quietly, I backed into the tent and tied the flap tightly shut, and buried myself in my sleeping roll, curling into a shaking ball with my knees at my chest and covered myself entirely. I was still laying in that position, still shivering, still drenched in a sticky, waxy sweat when I lifted my face from under the blanket to realize the sun was starting to rise. I exited the tent, slowly at first and then springing wildly around, darting left and right, hoping to confuse any intruder that may be watching and waiting for a chance for surprise attack, but there was only me alone on that hill. I stuffed my tent hastily into my bag and gathered my few possessions and noticed with a sideways glance that my fire coals were still smoking hot as I turned to leave camp, despite the fire having gone out hours ago.
With the morning sun warming my back I started to regain some of my nerve, and within an hour I was convincing myself that what I had seen could be nothing more than a lone animal passing by. Perhaps it was a straggler caribou from the herd in the valley, and perhaps my heightened senses during that moment were a symptom of my being alone for nearly three days. I told myself – out loud, as though to an audience – that there was nothing to be afraid of. Now, I figured, I ought to be at about the halfway point of my hike, but as I examined my small and tattered map, I realized that I must have walked slightly off course, either to the north or south. None of the landmarks that I had expected to see from the map were visible, and the wide valley that I had crossed the previous day didn’t seem to show up at all on paper. I was lost, but what kept me from panicking was that I knew if I kept walking westward I would eventually reach the highway, as long as I kept my head straight and didn’t start going in circles. It would have been possible for me to turn back the way I had come, but something kept me going onward, deeper into those barrens and away from the valley I had crossed.
Here, the landscape had undergone another transition, and where before there were long stretches of rolling hills, now the rises lay low against the earth, and I felt as though I could see an impossible distance in each direction. The graceful topography of the valley had given way to an endless stony plain scattered with enormous erratic boulders that rose as high as houses and rested uneasily on points that suggested they might topple given the slightest amount of pressure. Upon their surfaces were carved crude forms like the dashes of some lost runic language or perhaps the shapes of animals worn away beyond recognition. Upon closer inspection, I decided they must be the weathered markings of windblown sand, nothing more. It made the most sense. The vegetation was reduced to scattered wiry bushes the reddish brown of clotted blood and the lichen grew thick upon the ground. I walked on and shuddered at the bizarre echoing of my own footsteps off those stone giants and did not stop to rest until the moon overtook the sun in the evening sky.
I wasted no time with fires that night. Immediately I set my tent on a growth of green lichen and climbed inside, fastening myself and my few belongings securely within the confines of those canvas walls and wrapped myself tightly in my blanket. Reaching into my pack, I found my rations gone, lost through a rip in the fabric. Only my water canteen and a few curious stones remained. I shut my eyes and prayed for sleep, as I had only gotten a few hours since my first camp. I wanted desperately to feel the embrace of unconsciousness and for the aching in my muscles and stomach to subside. Even a nightmare would be better than this. But sleep did not come, and in the minutes that followed I fell again into that deep sense of dread that I had experienced the night before on the hilltop. A deathly quiet had formed around me, and the sounds of my own body seemed immeasurably loud. I struggled to keep my entire body hidden inside the sleeping roll – it was slightly too small, and my feet or the top of my head or my back kept protruding into the cold air of the tent and in those moments I shuddered and frantically worked to conceal myself again. I knew that nothing could see me inside the tent, but it didn’t matter. I started to wonder if I had left the flap open again, and – too frightened to check and see – I remained in my blanket cocoon, awaiting morning or some terrible end to the silence.
From outside the tent there came a faint rustling noise. I held my breath again, focusing entirely on remaining still and listening, but there was no need. The sound grew louder. It became clear to me that there was somebody or something nearby, and that they were not alone. The rustling grew louder still, and there was a shifting and a scraping of something soft against the stony floor of the night and then a grinding noise, like the crunching of dry gravel beneath a wheel. I grabbed my forearm and pinched hard, hoping to wake myself from the dream, digging in my fingernails and drawing blood, and I did not wake – I was not asleep. Slowly, with a movement I was sure wouldn’t make a sound, I pulled the blanket down from over my face and forced open my eyes.
Outside there was the unmistakable flickering light of a fire, and it flashed and cast silhouettes of grotesque forms which licked and rippled across the canvas and I could not bring myself to look away. They were like naked shapes of men or women, with their unclothed bodies bared against the night and prancing fluidly by the movement of the flame and their own otherworldly dance. And their long, distorted forms wound themselves around me in my tiny cold bed and sucked the breath from my body as they lifted their arms to the night and sang in a tongue that seemed not to come from their mouths but from the very earth itself, and sounded to me nothing like speech at all. And they were not like men or women. From their bodies there came impossible shapes like antlers or tails or branches of trees or the billowing of clouds or the glistening forms of some rotting thing that had once been alive. They swayed with the fire and chanted and transformed and they heard the screams of terror bursting from my own shapeless mouth and approached the tent and then I knew that there was no hope and my eyes filled with sweat and tears and blinded me so I did not see their faces when they came and dragged me away into the horror that waited out there in that cruel and loathsome night.
I woke in the morning with frost in my hair. My tent and my pack were gone, and around me in a perfect circle lay the remains of burnt wood and coals and bones blackened from roasting. I rose and stared around me, my eyes darting from one boulder to the next, expecting to see one of my attackers out there watching me, but there was nothing. I walked in a circle, jumping and clapping hard in an attempt to bring life back to my numb feet and hands – my boots had been taken as well – and all the while staring around in the dim early light. On the ground there was a chunk of burned meat, and with a full day and night’s worth of hunger gnawing at me I picked it up and sunk my teeth into it, hardly chewing before swallowing and tearing off another bite. On the outside the meat was black and hard, but inside the crust it was still red-raw and warm blood dripped down my chin and soaked my clothes and it seemed to tense up when I sunk in my teeth as though the muscle were still alive. I couldn’t stop. I gorged on the strange flesh and when it was gone I licked off my hands and sat on the ground staring up at the orange and violet sky and broke into sobs of joy or relief or despair – I cannot say what it was, for sure.
And I started to walk again, with my back to the sun. After a time there came the sounds of claws or hooves on the ground but I did not turn back to look. I kept walking westward, even when the great stones on either side began to creak and groan as though they would fall and crush my body into nothingness. I did not stop when the chant began again in my wake, and the sky became choked with clouds and the air grew hot and moist like the cavity of a freshly-dead corpse. The smell of meat was in my throat, and I gagged and fell to my knees, but my retching brought up only ash and bile so I got to my feet again. The sounds of the dancing, chanting things followed me in my hysteria throughout that day and the night that followed, out of the hard plain and over fields of yellow grass and through the stinking bog where my bleeding soles turned the water red.
I dared not turn to face them until the next day after I had passed between two toppled mounds of stone that perhaps once had been placed by hand, and it was in that moment when I finally looked behind me and saw that there was nothing there. Sometimes I think that was worse than everything that had happened before.
By noon I had given up and toppled face down onto the ground and lay there waiting to die. I wanted to die. I did not shudder when I heard footsteps approaching or when the shouting started or when the hands closed tightly around my shoulders, turning me onto my back so all I could see was the blinding white light of the sun in my eyes. It was a hunter, staring down at me, shaking me with a look on his face that told me he had thought I was dead. He half-dragged, half-carried me to the roadside, just over a kilometre away, and helped me into the back of his truck where I lost myself in a fit of tears and screaming and insisted that it couldn’t be real. He drove me to the hospital, urging that I have the food and water he pushed in my face, and I thanked him even though I was too tired to eat.
I never told the doctors what I’d seen, because I know they would have surely had me locked away, and perhaps they would have been right to. Perhaps the medication they would have prescribed me might have helped with the nightmares and the hallucinations I’ve had since then, but I’ve always been too afraid to let them examine me. Maybe they’d make the horrors go away, and make me see the nonsense of my fears. Maybe they’d prove my memories to be false. Imaginings. But if they didn’t?
I tell myself that those visions I experienced were figments of my fevered mind brought up by some long-past trauma in my own youth, and that whatever had occurred in those barrens years ago is lost in time. The dead are gone, and the past is past. But is that the truth? In those spaces, uninhabited for countless years, is there not something lingering of the place it once had been, or of the ones who lived there? Could there, perhaps, in some long-forgotten corner of those endless barrens, remain the memory of what had existed there before our time? Like the decay of a shout or cry or laughter that rings on and on but grows increasingly distant and distorted, could it be that a shadow remains hidden away of the life that had been? Those voices that had spoken in tongues unknown may still be ringing, echoing faintly the response of the land to the human voice, or some other voice that had made a sound. Some wisp of thought may still linger in the roots of grasses or the hollows of ancient trees or the dusty, hard spaces between the ground and flattened stones which wait with inconceivable patience to be kicked aside by the toes of some restless intruder who knows not where he walks. And if he stops abruptly and listens – with a sudden vivid sense of his loneliness and the pulsing in his chest and the breath of hot wind against the back of his ragged scalp, and twists around in his sweaty clothes and holds his breath in his throat in a moment of painful and terrible anticipation – does he hear it?
I’d rather believe I’m insane.
Credit: Keith Daniels