My buddy Gwyn and I walk our dogs on Martha’s Vineyard all the time. We ramble over Land Bank trails, beaches and, most commonly, the Trade Winds dog park where domestic beasties frolick in open fields, their owners fond as nursery school parents.
But there is one set of woods on this island that reminds me of the "Blair Witch Project." Twice I’ve walked there with Gwyn, and twice we became seriously displaced persons. Two Sundays ago, she suggested we stroll once again in the forest above Featherstone Center For The Arts, off Barnes Road in Oak Bluffs, an area also known as the Southern Woodlands.
I said to Gwyn, “No way. We always get lost.”
She said, “I’ve been there hundreds of times since then, and I never get lost.”
Fair enough. We drove Gwyn’s car to the Featherstone parking lot. Our dogs bounded out, mine a jumbo Boston Terrier named Huxley, Gwyn’s a tiny 12- year-old grey critter named Felix, who looks like a werewolf pup, right down to a wild mane of grey hair, and an under-bite of jutting teeth.
We meandered for about an hour, without a thought about where we were going or why or when we needed to start paying attention. There’s a mico-magical-moment when you suddenly realize you’re lost, but at the same time, you wonder why it’s only now dawning on you because you’ve been lost for quite some time.
Who goes MIA on Martha’s Vineyard? Oh, occasionally we read about an individual with Alzheimer’s who leaves the house and wanders in a nearby woods like Hansel detached from Gretel, or vice versa. But for those of us who function at some kind of so-called normal level, it’s hard to become fuddled in woods that are never that vast, when there’s always a highway or a beach or a trail to spill out to.
But those freakin’ acres above Featherstone! My theory: some kind of a curse has been laid on them. Trails intersect in something you might call the Too Many Choices Labyrinth. Old rail posts hint at some kind of frontier civilization way back when. Lots of signs point towards Farm Neck but, for us, that was way in the wrong direction; we’d have staggered into the parking lot of Lola’s around midnight.
And never once did we get the classic impression we were going in circles. On the contrary, everything looked different all the time, in spite of the fact that Island terrain, with its sameness of scrub oaks and rocks and lichen, never once during our plight looked anything like the ground we'd already covered..
Two and half hours into our ordeal, darkness descended. The air became perceptibly murky, a menacing reminder of doom to two humans and a pair of dogs. Well, truth be told, neither of our pets was Rin Tin Tin, able to pick up on subtle signals. They gamboled alongside us without apparent concern. On the debit side, this meant that, being unlike Rin Tin Tin, neither of these brainless twits could be told, “Go on, boy! Lead us home! Rusty’s making pancakes!”
The atmosphere grew a few shades more grey. We came upon an opening in the forest and a house that had been abandoned long ago. But how abandoned? Certainly no light emitted through the cracks in the boards and the busted-out windows. But the exterior walls had been plastered with art, well-rendered art, but also diabolical. There were pentagrams and death’s heads and all manner of gargoyle-ish figures.
And then Huxley charged towards this house of evil.
This is the point where, in the movie version, the dog’s brainless twit of an owner goes hurtling after him, and the audience, knowing of the ghouls lurking inside, cries out, ‘NOOO!!” The monsters, waiting for the next live victim to scoop into their Venus Fly Trap jaws, make icky horrid slurpy munching sounds. These surviving human stands petrified outside.
Okay, this wasn’t the movie. We got clear of the house, although the question remained, What was that place? Does anyone live there now, in some kind of Una-bomber bizarre retreat? Who painted those pentagrams and devils? Had they performed Satanic rites that now haunted these woods, trapping creatures like Gwyn and Felix and Huxley and me?
Oddly, we never once felt frightened because we kept yakking and laughing. We trod down this path and that path, and while we rambled we discussed stuff like, If we were lost for days and became ravenously hungry, would be descend into cannibalism? Gwyn likes cheeseburgers, so I told her unequivocably, No, she could not munch on me, and I solemnly promised, should she predecease me in the woods, not to snack on her. It went without saying that neither of us would make meals of our beloved dogs.
We also entertained ourselves with made-up lines from old B-movies: “You go on without me. I’m just going to lie down in this nice pile of leaves.” “Take the canteen, and go get help from Mr. Crockett.” “I’ve walked my last step. Tell Fernando I love him.”
I actually felt many times as if I’d walked my last step. And yet the laughter kept us upright.
Finally we heard cars in the distance. We followed the sounds and soon we stumbled out only a little north of Featherstone on Barnes Rd. I made a leash out of my scarf for Huxley, and Gwyn picked up her teacup werewolf to make our way along the lightly trafficked road.
But what if we’d been caught still wandering the unknown terrain in complete darkness? Gwyn had her cell phone, and we could have called for help. But what coordinates could we have given them? Would they send a chopper, with search lights glooming over hill and dale?
My friend, David Whitmon – yes! he of the yellow velo, as in velomobile – writes that he’s vroomed through these woods on many occasions. He’s made it out every time alive. The woodlands intrigue him more than creeping him out: “Along the edge of Old Holmes Hole Road [guess that’s what some of that maze of trails is named] is a slab of a stone with rounded indentations where the Native Americans would gather to grind their corn and grains. The Southern Woodlands was the site of a settlement long before the European invasion.”
When I posted on facebook about too many roads diverged in a yellow wood, Chris Ewing wrote, “I live in Schoolhouse Village, and have gotten lost back there twice at dusk – very scary!”
Rebecca Gilbert of Native Teaching Farm added this choice advice: “According to Celtic legend, if you are lost, you should turn your coat inside out and put it back on. You will find your way out.”
As for me, inside-out-coat or otherwise, I won’t set foot in that forest again. Gwyn will probably venture forth many more times because she’s intrepid. But as for our dogs, they’ve already weighed in with a resounding No: That night they each flopped down on the floor in their separate abodes, and they didn’t move until morning.