Thursday, September 13, 2012

Red Herring

Bedford-Billerica Dirt Trail
As the trail grew tricky, I was about to turn around. And that's when I saw it in the distance - a tiny patch of red deep in the thick dark woods. I could not tell how far away it was. No doubt it was just someone's barn, but from a distance it looked mysterious and full of promise. It could be anything. As the sun began its afternoon decline, instead of heading home I made my way toward the red shape flickering in the dappled light.

Back in junior high, we had this scary patch of woods behind the school yard. They said an abandoned shack stood there, where in the '60s a serial killer had taken his victims. Children would go missing from the neighbourhood, and it was not until decades later that their disappearances were solved. Only the killer's remains were found in the shack. An old man by then, he must have died of natural causes. Or did he? Everyone knew there were things in the woods where we lived. The kind of things that made ordinary mortal serial killers the least of our worries. This was what we 12 year olds thought about when a ball would fly over the chainlink fence at recess. We dared not go into those woods. 

Cycling along the narrow trail, the memory of all this popped into my head, as did the horror flick Don't Look Now - where Donald Sutherland's character pursued what looked like a girl in a red coat only to find something dark and sinister. Did I really want to reach that red object deep in the woods? I laughed to myself, at myself. This was evidence of how unaccustomed I'd become to riding alone. I would not be having these thoughts with one of my cycling buddies around. It was the silence and the lack of any sign of human activity on the trail that lent itself to being shaped by my imagination. 

Of course none of us had ever seen the abandoned shack. We knew there was a spot in the chainlink fence where you could lift it up and crawl under. My friend and I had been brave enough to do that - though once we did, we just stood there, too paralised with fear to venture further into the woods. But 12 is an age of dares, pacts, and acts of courage. And one day we decided to find the shack. After school let out, we waited for the yard to clear. Then we ducked under the fence and kept walking before the fear could get the best of us. It was hard to know where to go. The woods were unkept and there were no trails to follow. Eventually we spotted what looked like a narrow overgrown path. It was late September, and the dry leaves made crunching sounds under our shoes. We heard no other sounds, not even birds.

Now too the woods were quiet as I rode through them. Where were the birds, the squirrels, the dog walkers? There was only the soft sound of my tires rolling over roots covered with a blanket of pine needles. I kept the red object in sight, but somehow it was no closer after 15 minutes of cycling. In fact, now it began to seem as if I had passed it. It occurred to me that it wasn't along the main trail, but deeper in the woods. And then I saw a path that seemed to lead toward it. It was overgrown. Covered in roots. Barely a path. But I saw no private property signs, so I turned and followed it. 

That day after school we walked for what seemed like forever, though judging by the actual size of the lot it could not have been more than 5 minutes. We gasped when we saw it through the trees: A dirty white wall, surrounded by a heap of bricks where the rest of the structure had once stood. And we gasped once again when we heard footsteps behind it. My friend grabbed my arm, and we began to tremble, not sure whether to run or hide. And then they came out: A middle aged woman in overalls carrying a rake, and a teenage girl, a few years older than us, following her with a large burlap sack. They said hello and warned us about the poison ivy. "It's all over the place, girls. Do you know how to identify the leaves?" They were from the land preservation society. Cleaning up woods, labeling trees. We would have to wait until 8th grade to join. And the white shack? I looked it up years later. It was once a shop selling European auto parts, built in 1982 and abandoned after a fire. It could not have possibly been the hideout of a serial killer in the 1960s. 

I knew I was on the right path, because the patch of red grew closer. The path became muddy and difficult to ride through, which only made my journey feel more important. It was damp here. Mosquitos circled and I could see a small bog through the trees to my left. The vegetation was mostly moss, ferns, and poison ivy. The latter slapped my bare legs, but, knowing myself to be resistant to it, I paid no attention. Now and then I dodged low-hanging branches. The mud thickened. Churning through it, I felt like a determined explorer - until finally, there it stood in front of me: A small red tool shed. No more, no less. Seeing it up close - a generic, prefab thing - even my overactive imagination had to acknowledge the complete lack of anything mystical about the structure or the atmosphere surrounding it. I was at the back of someone's property. And now I had to hurry back before dark, cycling through all that mud again. 

How funny we are, with our love of setting goals, solving mysteries, inventing worthy destinations - when in actuality what we are after is the experience of the pursuit itself, the goal being just an excuse. 

32 comments:

  1. Glad you've figured this out :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Awesome! You should tell more stories like this. I love going on adventures and remember how big the world seemed as a kid after school with no grown ups around and just my bike to take me to the ends of the earth.

    ReplyDelete
  3. And it's not even Halloween yet!

    Just goes to show it's usually the imagining that's the best part.
    Nothing quite as good as a good scare that proves out to be imagined.

    ReplyDelete
  4. every time you write about this stuff, I feel like we grew up in the same town!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm really pleased to see that you have thoroughly embraced riding through the dirt and mud, much like you took up fast-paced road riding not so long ago. Perhaps one day we'll see you plying the slickrock of Moab, Utah, or dodging big roots and rocks on single track.
    And it's always fun reading about your adventures.
    MT cyclist

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha this trail was a far cry from the slickrock of Moab! [Shudder]

      Delete
  6. That was the best read I've had in ages! And what an awesome place for a bike adventure :)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Reads like a Stephen King novel. One of those stories in which the heroes are kids who face their greatest fears. And what could be a greater fear than the one we imagine. It's good for us as adults, especially parents, to stay connected to what it's like to be a kid. I honestly believe that time spent on my bike helps me with that connection. Thanks for the reminder.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When I read Stephen King as a pre-teen/early teen, I interpreted it as social realism as opposed to a horror genre : )

      Delete
  8. Wonderful story, and so well written. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  9. What a fantastic post!
    You've managed to cram many of my favorite things in here: Bikes, intrigue, stories, creepiness, childhood... and tiny red houses, one of which lurked in the very woods behind my childhood home. I must have invented a million stories about that house. (Nothing as frightening as your reality however!)
    Love the 'Don't Look Now' reference. One of the finest chillers ever.
    Ever considered writing fiction? The YA world could use your voice!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Young Adult", or teen fiction. You'd be a hit!

      Delete
    2. yeah, and you can add vampires and then the studios will buy the rights to your book and make a movie out of it, possibly a trilogy........

      Delete
    3. Vampires is what this blog is missing. Thank you!

      Delete
  10. Seems someone is stretching out as a writer more lately. Good stuff. Would I be wrong in thinking part of you maybe wants to a book?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Fantastic post!
    I think that nurturing curiosity is an integral part of nurturing the spark of life, and you've illustrated so well how satisfying exploration is (even when what you find seems everyday).

    ReplyDelete
  12. Interbike will have to wait. I would haunt this shop:

    http://onespeedgo.blogspot.com/2012/09/my-first-visit-to-bisbee-bicycle-brothel.html

    (there's maybe dozens like it in USA/Europe?)

    ReplyDelete
  13. 20 plus years generous agriculture subsidies for corn and soy beans and ethanol production has driven 99% of midwestern agriculture to huge corporate owned largely automated farming.

    As a result, farming areas have seen a significant population decline with former farmers and farm hands moving elsewhere in search of work. The last couple of years I have done a number of quick tours where I take my bike on Amtrak to Central Illinois and then ride back home.

    Ride down many a small and not so small rural road and you will find similar abandoned properties. I tell myself I'm too old to believe in mysteries behind the doors but when it is just the cyclist, the open road and the abandoned property, the mind can wander ...

    ReplyDelete
  14. Big country.

    You lucky things.

    Here in England we have to go abroad to Scotland at least to get this kind of thing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No spooky abandoned properties in the North?

      Delete
  15. Great story! Reminds me of the movie "Stand By Me". As always, it's the journey, not the destination that one savors. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I showed this post to a friend at work, he just sort of harumphed and called it juvenile escapism(which more or less just pissed me off).
    Whats wrong with giving your imagination a little leash? It gives context to what we decide is reality and can truly create a little reality in those ways that the world still gives us latitude to choose. Why do all the little red shacks peering out of the underbrush have to be rusty toolsheds from Sears? Somewhere one of them HAS to be the gingerbread home of a cannibalistic shrew-herd.

    There's a stretch of singletrack on the North River Gorge Trail that I think of as the place where the "Brujas" live because I once saw 2 women, one elderly and the other middle aged, out gathering mushrooms and stuff in a huge spit oak basket. They definitely weren't wearing the standard local wardrobe for women of a certain age and my "hello, lovely day" was returned with a cheerful response that was more Central Europe than Central Virginia. When I came back down the trail 15 minutes later they were GONE! Probably off in a thick spot or maybe there's a side trail along there somewhere I don't know about you say? Right? HELL NO! There's only one plausible explanation. Witches.

    I do so want those nice ladies to be something equally mysterious and special as one of my very favorite pieces of trail. I want them to live in a nice little stone hovel 10 feet square outside and 3 stories high and 17 rooms inside, with a front door that opens onto some back street in Prague, a backdoor in Tibet and a coal chute that connects with one of the old abandoned mines out here in the woods. Ideas like that make my neighborhood seem more interesting, engaging and worth spending time in.

    I don't go out on my bike to see if the forest service has bulldozed another nice trail into one more bad road, I go out with the burning desire to see Bigfoot. Or at least a hundred year old Moonshiner dragging a 6 foot long Kentucky Rifle and a 7 foot beard behind him. Enough with the convenient refuse barrels and the placards giving longitude and latitude in the middle of nowhere, I want hollow trees full of those crazy mythical Mexican half human half bird things, trolls under footbridges or eery floating lights bobbing in the distance. Hell, I'd settle for Mitt Romney with a cloak and staff muttering about immigration policy. I've had a belly full of reality.

    Nice story. I want more of them,

    Spindizzy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sure it's juvenile escapism. And most of us would be lying if we said we never experience any.

      We ride bikes and the darnest things go through our minds. For me, lately it's been memories of all kinds of things from when I was a teenager. I think that's because we always rode our bikes through the woods back then, and it seemed normal, and that was the last time until recently when I really rode on trails. So now I'm riding on trails and it takes me back to those times. That's really all there is to this post. It wasn't intended to be scary, or an example of my "writing."

      Mushroom picking witches... Now I'm tempted to tell about the woman who grabbed my hand and told me some lucky lottery numbers - which ended up being my birthdate.

      Delete
    2. Oh come ON, lucky birthday lottery numbers from a strange woman on the street? You gotta do better than that.

      Spindizzy

      Delete
    3. Oh yes! Trolls! Tell us some about trolls! And goats! Goats and trolls and bicycles are an excellent combination!

      Delete