An Unforgetable Night in the Woods

NEARLY FOUR DECADES HAVE PASSED since my autumn car trip to California from upstate New York in 1972, the first of numerous journeys to come in the intervening years. I was a free-spirited youth yearning for travel and adventure, which eventually took me to the far reaches of the continental U.S. This journey, like others before and after, was a solo trip of self discovery. That year I left Rochester, NY on a rainy early morning in October, heading southwest toward West Virginia, where I spent my first night at a rural farmer's field-type campground.

The next day I made my way through the winding roads and mountains of West Virginia toward Kentucky to the west, and felt inspired to seek out a large, pristine forest to camp in that night --ostensibly to immerse myself in nature and drift off to sleep by the sound of wind in the trees. That is how I used to view camping in the scenic woods and wilderness areas. I saw it as a rejuvenating retreat from the over-developed, fast-paced world into the restful and rejuvenating forest its effects. As the day progressed, I made my way across Kentucky, stopping only for lunch and fuel. At one of these stops, while looking over the road atlas, I noticed a sizeable wooded state park at the western end of the state called "Land Between the Lakes" -- named so as it was bordered on the east and west by two large lakes running north and south, and straddling the Tennessee border. That seemed a good place to consider, even though I would be short of covering the distance I had planned.

Upon reaching the area in late afternoon, it seemed ideal for my purposes. The open paved road leading into the park appeared inviting, with no gate or entrance booth to be seen. Being off-season, it appeared to be deserted, although some distant boats dotted the lake. I followed the road back into the woods as it climbed the hills and curved around into the interior of the park, glimpsing as I went the receding lake through the trees until it was out of sight. I continued on deep into the the woods, driving several miles before I arrived at a remote area and an abrupt end of the pavement. There was no continuing dirt road; the asphalt simply terminated at the edge of the trees.

I stepped out of the car and surveyed the area, noticing a pathway off to the left leading to a small clearing in the woods, perhaps 25 yards away. It appeared to be a camping area made to accomodate a tent. As I looked around, I had a sense that something felt odd about the place, and the usual feeling of peace and refreshment I had felt in the past, being in the woods, was now curiously absent. But I dismissed it as simple road fatigue, and proceeded to unload the car and set up my tent in the nearby clearing.

During the repeated trips back and forth to my car, I became more aware of the earlier feeling of an inexplicable strangeness in the air, which for me was unusual, but which I continued to dismiss. It was now dusk; soon it would be dark and I would be busy in my tent preparing dinner. The preoccupation of attending to those immediate functions was helpful, and I focused on that. But after dinner while studying the maps for the next day's journey, a distinct feeling came over me of being watched. I had heard from others about this strange sensation, but I had never experienced it until now. It was a definite intuitive awareness, clear and unmistakable. Then, involuntarily, the thought came: "There is someone or something out there!" I felt an accompanying involuntary shiver and quickly reviewed my situation. I came to the conclusion that there was nothing to be done about it now; it was pitch dark outside with no lights anywhere except my tent, which when internally illuminated with a lantern, glowed brightly in the forest like a bright orange jewel that could be seen from a great distance. My general outlook had always been that I tended to put trust in the Universe and my place in it -- whatever the circumstances might be. And it was this fatalistic attitude, which allowed me to turn off the lamp and go to sleep. But I was not to sleep for long.

A few hours later, in the middle of the night, I was suddenly shocked awake by the beastly sounds of something growling, grunting, and snarling louldly, and aggressively crashing through the brush from a distance and advancing directly toward my tent. I sat bolt upright in my sleeping bag, terrorized, my attention locked on the strange and menacing sounds approaching -- and instantly, intuitively knowing: "THAT is what I have felt watching me!" For long moments it came on until it stopped abruptly and fell silent, perhaps twenty feet or less from my tent. It was then, at that peak moment of panic, that something even stranger happened.

I have thought about this next occurrance for years and do not know what to make of it. As if it wasn't strange enough for an unknown beast to storm toward my tent in the middle of the night making weird and threatening sounds, abruptly stopping short and becoming completely silent -- then, at that exact moment, before I had a chance to think about it, I felt a sleepy wave of peace come over me from some unknown source, and I felt I was being guided to simply lay my head down and go off to sleep like a baby, which is exactly what I did -- ! I saw no angelic vision nor heard any inner voice, no instruction nor promise of protection, just the bizarre notion to simply lay down and go off to sleep! I have never understood how that intense moment of terror could be instantly transformed into a night of peaceful sleep, but that is what took place. Was it a protecting angel? Was it an example of supreme denial? Whatever it was, it remains a mystery.

The next morning I awoke with a start, and the frightful experience of the night, just hours before, came flooding back into my consciousness. My mind raced but could not account for it all nor make any sense of it. Even more unsettling was the realization that I never heard the thing leave! But it was now a sunny morning and as I cautiously looked out through the tent flap, everything seemed quite natural, with no sense of danger at all. I inspected the area around the tent and could not see any obvious evidence of anything having been there, as the forest floor was covered in fall leaves and brush. I quickly packed up my gear and was off, promising myself to find a KOA campground that evening, and hopefully set up my tent between two motorhomes!

This event prompted much thought and reflection, and left numrous lessons and implications to reflect upon. I do acknowledge so-called supernatural forces, i.e., angels and spirit guides, and if it wasn't the timely assistance of a supernatural helper at that critical moment, then I have a new respect for the power of denial! But the nature of that presence, or "wave of peace" that came over me was as vivid in its own way as was the sound of the approaching beast. It was powerful enough to bring to awareness that quiet inner spirit that resides in each of us regardless of circumstances. Again, I have always traveled with a sense of belonging in the world, wherever I chose to adventure, to have faith in the situation, and to be open to a higher source of guidance and protection. Certainly, for me at least, allowing for this trust or abandon into the larger scheme of things was verified and quite useful in this strange event that I will never forget.

I have since taken a different view of the deep woods and wilderness in general, and while it is still beautiful and compelling, I no longer go off by myself to camp in its depths. And based upon my subsequent reading on the subject of remote areas and strange encounters, I prefer to view it from a distance. Perhaps this brief account illustrates an important point about life in this world and the conditions therein, and how we might enlarge our awareness and appreciation to include the benevolent but unseen presence that seems to be with us wherever we go. It is a reminder, in more ways than one, that "we are not alone".

David Roeck