Friday, October 31, 2014

Rhododendron

Editor's note: the conventions of the modern American fireside ghost story tradition are under-studied by academic folklorists, so far as I can discern, but have been in place since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. In honor of Halloween, I figured I'd tell one.

"Of course you all know the rules on how to pee in the woods. We've all heard them, and they're important, so let's not be too embarrassed to review."

There are instructions for a lot of things about camping. I knew them already, because this was not my first year at camp, but the refresher was always helpful. We were getting ready for the annual overnight backpacking trip where we would spend a few nights sleeping under a tarp with our sister cabin, and there were many things we had to know. We had a brief refresher in leaving no trace, and we learned the essentials of camping skills - like how to use the bathroom when you're out on the trail.

Rule number one: the bright orange trowel, which is for whatever reason named "Stanley," does not touch human excrement. It is only for digging a hole (in the proper low-impact manner) and for replacing dirt atop what you leave behind. This is important, because when you're done, it's going in your pack.

Rule number two: this is the only time you leave the trail, and you do so carefully. You start by telling somebody, ideally a counselor, what you're doing. You borrow Stanley, if he's relevant. Then you follow a very specific procedure for where you're going: two see-fars and ten steps. First you pick out a tree, as far away as you can make out and recognize individual ones, and you walk to it. Repeat the process, in roughly the same direction, and then go another ten steps. You're so far from the trail you should have good privacy, and your shit won't bother anyone until it's had plenty of time to decompose. By remembering the look of the two trees you marked, it should be easy to find your way back.

And you make sure to bring your whistle. Going off the trail, alone, out of sight of anyone, is not safe. We all knew the classic stories for telling to the younger campers we wanted to frighten a little, like the story behind why nobody even keeps up the trail to Spanish Cave, or the one about the girl who was separated from her group for just a few minutes and returned to them covered in dirt and sap and scratches and saying she'd just been bushwhacking for hours, but the real dangers are far more mundane. Uneven mountain ground and the occasional venomous snake provide plenty of ordinary opportunities to hurt yourself, and a good shrill whistle can be a great help if anything should go wrong. Plus, it might help you frighten off a bear, if it comes to that.

After our lessons in proper shitting technique, the counselors made sure everyone knew how to tie the essential knots for pitching a tarp tent. They offered advice on what not to pack for the backpacking trip, so as to keep our packs from being too heavy and to make sure we had room for our share of the common supplies and the food. And they told us how to build a fire, and most importantly how to identify rhododendron by its bark.

The rhododendron in question is not the small bush of suburban front yards across America, but a cousin which grows ten feet high or taller, in dense thickets that can only be traversed by following an animal track or by a lot of work with a machete. Over the top of those deer paths, the plant grows back together, often forming a sort of tunnel even darker than the surrounding forest. Trails are blazed around these, passing through them only where the wildlife has already trampled its own way through. Rhododendron smoke is toxic, so if you wind up camped near a stand of rhododendron, you have to know what not to gather when collecting firewood.

After we'd had all the instruction the camp felt we needed, we went back to our cabins to pack, and the following day we departed on our various excursions. My cabin, Boys 8, was all there for the three-week session for the older kids, and so we were going to be gone for three nights. With packs sure to weigh more than when we were younger and not headed out for quite as long, we made sure to pack only what we needed, though in my opinion this still included two paperback novels (just in case I finished the first), and then we set off for our first night's destination: the campsite beside Indian Cave.

We arrived in plenty of time. After we set up the tent and the fire, there was still time for a few of us to explore underground before any amount of darkness fell. By the light of a nearly full moon we cooked our aluminum-foil dinners, and we set a pot of water on the fire to make sassafras tea, there being an abundance of good roots available in that particular area for the purpose. Then, in the eternal manner of middle school children, we sat around the campfire, swapping ghost stories and favorite camp memories, drinking iodine water and fresh-brewed tea, until well past sunset. Finally, we settled back into our sleeping bags for a night under the big blue tarp.

It can't have been very much longer after everyone fell asleep that I woke up, desperately needing to let a little of the tea back out of my system. I only needed to pee, so I didn't care who had Stanley at that moment, but I was going to have to go away from the campsite and away from the trail, so I shook the person in the sleeping bag next to me awake. It was a friend from our sister cabin, Girls 8, and I told her where I was going before I got out of my own sleeping bag fully. After all, you never go into the woods alone without letting somebody know, and I was sure nobody in the counselors' tent wanted to be woken up because some seventh-grader had to take a leak.

The fact that she half-heartedly acknowledged my statement using words that only mostly made sense, then rolled over sound asleep once more, did not bother me in the least.

I fished my whistle out of my pack, put on a pair of real pants over the boxers I was sleeping in, and set out to find a place to pee. The moon was bright and there were no clouds, so I didn't even bother with a flashlight. I found a distinctive-looking tree that could serve as my first see-far easily enough, made my way to it, and then looked ahead for a second. That was easy as well - dead ahead was a dense stand of rhododendron, with a deer trail through it unwidened by any human trailblazer.

I couldn't see all the way out the other side, but I declared to myself that the other end of that natural tunnel would be my second landmark. I made my way into the dark stand of toxic mountain shrubbery silently lamenting my decision not to bother with a light. I could just barely make out shapes well enough to follow the curve of the pathway without using my hands, and walked through the dark tunnel of foliage for what seemed an eternity before I emerged from the other side and took ten deliberate, counted paces.

Then I emptied my bladder of the evening's sassafras tea.

I turned back around and walked a short way before I once again faced the true nocturnal darkness that was the rhododendron through which I had just come. By this point my eyes were just a little bit better prepared for the darkness (for I have never had poor night vision, though a distaste for carrots along with many other vegetables meant that, as a child, it was slow to adjust), and I could see my way much better than when I had entered the first time. I suppose that's fortunate, but it meant I could see what was on the trail in front of me.

I wasn't the only user of that wild trail which led through the dense, dark bush. Standing attentively, dead ahead, was a large black dog.

I suppose my first thought should have been that I had seen one of the few red wolves that had been reintroduced to that part of the mountains with middling amounts of success, but wolves don't have fur that is quite so apt at demonstrating why nighttime camouflage is better navy blue than a true, rich black. And while some kinds of wolves get a bit larger, the red wolves I had seen at the zoo were barely more than half the height of the stocky canine form I saw ahead of me. It was regarding me with a look any lifelong dog owner recognizes as less than friendly.

I did what I've usually done in my life in response to the level of fear I felt being stared down by a territorial dog that likely weighed at least fifty pounds more than I did at the time. I froze. My feet refused to flee, and my fists knew better than to attempt a struggle. So I stood in place, unmoving. My brain began to run through every piece of advice I had ever learned about how one should establish dominance over a dog, while another part kept interrupting and begging me to turn tail, outrun the dog somehow, and then find another way back to camp. I knew either one was a terrible idea; there was no chance of my overpowering this creature if it chose to test me in my bravado, and little chance of finding my way back to camp without a flashlight if I left sight of any landmarks I had made a mental note of. But there was never any chance I would do either one anyhow - both plans required moving from my current position, and I lacked any muscles still willing to cooperate. It was quite fortunate, at this point, that I had already voided my bladder.

The dog did not freeze. Nor did it flee. Unlike me, it wasn't afraid, and the ancient part of its brain responsible for that reaction did not kick in. With the calm and assertive body language of a dog that knows itself to be alpha and you to be an interloper, it sniffed the air and took one, two, three large but considered steps in my direction.

Then it lunged.

With its impressive size, and me tall only by the standards of an eleven-year-old, the dog did not have to leap very high off the ground to set itself on a trajectory that clearly led straight to my throat.

At this point, my body was willing to react again, and the flinch reflex kicked in. I could smell the dog's breath in the same instant my eyes snapped themselves closed, my hands flying up by pure animal instinct to protect my face and neck - and meeting no resistance, feeling no impact. An instant later, when I opened my eyes again, there was nothing to see. The dog had vanished into thin air.

I released a breath I hadn't caught myself holding, looked around to be sure I comprehended the situation, and made my way back to the tarp and did my best to go to sleep.

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