Things That Go Bump in the Wild

Sure, the wilderness is beautiful. But it can also frighten you out of your mind.

Oct 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

   Photo: Keith Carter

When you're little, the basic laboratory of scariness and mystery is a tent in the backyard. The 30 feet from the tent flap to the back door spans an immeasurable distance, mentally; a ghost story told at the kitchen table is an anecdote, while the same story told by flashlight late at night in the tent howls with the darkness all around. Love and learning and charity may begin at home, but, for most humans, fear begins outside.

As a young man I sometimes used to fantasize about how great it would have been to wander the American continent before civilization ruined it. I dreamed of seeing the Great Lakes before industrial pollution, the Appalachian hills before strip mining, the Great Plains before the railroad, etc. The fantasy has been common in the years ever since most real American wilderness disappeared. At the end of the movie Shakespeare in Love, for a recent example, Gwyneth Paltrow walks slowly from the sea across a broad, white beach in the 1590s, a horizon ahead of her as big as the American future. The actual people who saw that kind of horizon didn't react to it with joyful anticipation all the time. They didn't know the Great Lakes and the Plains and the Rockies were out there. They saw only the dark tree line at the border of their stump-filled clearings, and they were afraid.

Anything could be out there, anything at all. The first Europeans on the land didn't have the science to conjure UFOs in the wilderness, but they certainly had the theology to imagine a wilderness of devils, a boundless waste occupied by Satan and his works. The most wild-eyed among the settlers wouldn't even admit the consolation of shared humanity between themselves and the original inhabitants; in the words of Cotton Mather, the Puritan divine, American Indians weren't human; they were "tawney serpents." The terror of the unknown continent took physical form in these presumedly wild men. Indian raiders would sometimes descend on frontier cabins like a sudden localized hurricane and, after dreadful, fast destruction, disappear with captives of whom no trace would ever be found, except maybe a baby's bonnet, a piece of ribbon, or the blue eyes of a half-Indian child met at a trading post years later.

Mysteries terrify, especially mysteries that extend from who-knows-where right to the edge of town. The progress of us new arrivals clear across the country has been a persistent attempt to stamp out the mysteries and submerge them under pastures and softball fields. For some reason, people can accept the worst mishaps and violence in built-up places, and yet still become electric with fear at the thought of getting jumped by a wild creature in a place without roads. As anxiety sufferers know, ordinary fears, even bad ones—fear of your husband leaving, of financial reversal, of news from the doctor—can seem small and manageable compared with the dizzying spiral of unspecified fear that bores through you when you have nothing real to be afraid about.

One evening, several friends and I were walking along a wooded trail on our way back from fishing at Argyle Lake, in a rural part of central Illinois. The subject of the Argyle Monster, a local legend, came up. Dave said he had seen it once, at a distance. Rick said it had once followed him through the woods for several miles. They described it as a large cougar that walked on its hind legs because both of its front paws had been damaged in a trap. Also, they said, the Argyle Monster screamed like a woman. Half kiddingly, I was asking them for more particulars. At that moment we came around a bend and heard a weird sound. We saw where it was coming from, but at first couldn't make sense of what we were seeing.

A large water snake was writhing on the surface of a small pond. Sticking out of the snake's mouth was the front end of a very large frog. The frog's front feet and widespread toes were clawing in the air, and it was making a noise from its wide mouth—a noise of amphibian protest, outrage, desperation, and horror beyond any emotion you would expect from a frog. The noise locked tight on our nerve endings, bypassing the ears entirely. We all must have hollered, because the snake recoiled in surprise and spit out the frog, who then frog-kicked calmly across the pond to some weeds, his dignity regained.

As we continued down the trail in the gloom, whatever had been ironical or theoretical in the Argyle Monster tales was gone. The woods had become foreign woods, not ours. I didn't believe in the Argyle Monster, but that was the opposite of comforting, because I believed even more in the scariness of the woods in general. I believed not in the monster but in the scream. At the back of my mind I kept deleting images of tree branches like bony fingers and knotholes like staring eyes. My friends and I talked nervously and little, hurrying to get down the trail while there was still enough light.

In short, my friends and I had caught a case of the yips, also known as the creeps. Outdoors, especially when you imagine you're far from anywhere, the yips are ready to get you at any time. The man who walked in circles in a blizzard and collapsed ten feet from his barn died of exposure, but what brought him to it was a case of the yips unhinging his mind. People are subject to the yips because, even in moderately far-flung places, what one knows for sure is gigantically outnumbered by what one doesn't. Behind the thin line of logic, panic is waiting to stampede. All it requires is a flicker of disorientation, an unexpected jolt, or an encounter with a mystery too spooky to explain, and it's off.

At such a moment, imagination is not a friend. Adventurers who accomplish the most outdoors are often the dullest to talk to. Kit Carson, the famous mountain man, had a life of wilderness adventures enough for 50 movies, but when he recounted his exploits in his autobiography, you'd have thought he was describing going down to the corner for cigarettes. Clearly, if he had been the sort to let his mind run away with him, in some of the situations he got in he would've frightened himself to death.

Sooner or later the mind will do what it wants to, however, no matter how you try to rein it in. It has its own affinities and its own momentum. And the mind is irresistibly attracted to mysteries, being one itself. When I lived by myself in the woods in northwest Montana, I had a neighbor—a survivalist and a quoter of the Book of Revelation—who often told me creepy things. Once as we were walking back from getting our mail, he told me that there was a nest of witches in the area. He pronounced the word nest with quiet, sinister relish. I laughed, and he said I could think what I wanted, but if I ever was driving on a deserted road and came upon a line of people with their arms linked across it, I mustn't stop, but must run right through them, because that's how the witches waylaid their victims.

When he told me information like this, my neighbor always gave me a narrow-eyed look that was both piercing and foreboding. Nobody could darken the woods the way he could. After I talked to him, the lichen-hung firs, the muddy road, the overcast sky all seemed to pulse with unnamed fear. Eventually my neighbor moved away. I was relieved to see him go. Upscale ranchettes began to spread their orderly clearings where he'd had his goat pastures and double-wide trailer. With him gone, the woods' dark enchantment lifted. They became landscaping. And of course the spookiness and darkness and remoteness that first drew me there had left, too.

We go to the woods, or any place out and away, for the mystery there; sometimes, for a dose of fear right below the level of toxicity. Usually the object is to restrain it. But in benign circumstances, when you don't have to take care, a case of the yips can be fun. Let the panic stampede, let the unexplained mystery scatter your reason. You know that's what the Unknowable really wants of you. Constantly it undermines the rational stops constructed to keep it back. It wants so much for you to quit trying to figure it out, and just accept the incoherence, and come unglued. Mystery has its own ideas for you.

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