In a previous post that I titled Ranger Loewen vs The Night People: A True Story, I began a series of posts concerning some of the odd experiences I have personally accumulated over my 60 years. Over the next few weeks, I hope to regale you with tales of "ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night" and you will either discover either the subtle reasons why I have become a writer of the darkly numinous or simply why I don't own nice things.However, though I mark each title with the words "A True Story," I would encourage you to treat them all with agnosticism. These are, after all, nothing more than subjective experiences and I will never ask another human being to accept them as fact. I may be, after all, barking mad.
Or I may have experienced some things that if you think too hard about them might be somewhat unsettling.
I was trudging along the wooded crest of the Blue Mountains in south-central Pennsylvania following the little-known and little-used Darlington Trail. The pouring rain had soaked me to the bone. All I felt was sheer torment. I walked with head down, concentrating on each agonizing step.
It was my second trip in the pouring rain carrying supplies to the four adults and ten young Cub and Boy Scouts who were hiking the Appalachian Trail, I was their support man and they needed the provisions I was ferrying back and forth from the van in the parking lot on Miller's Gap Road to the shelter where they were staying. It was one agonizing mile each way, and I would walk four miles through rough terrain before my mission was completed.
My back muscles were in full spasm and had been for several days from an unfortunate misstep I took before the date of the hike. My swollen ankles ached. My blistered feet burned. The rain on my face, streamed down my glasses, blurring my vision.
The one-mile trip took a full hour each way as with sheer force of will I slowly put one foot in front of the other. My senses were consumed in the pain and the sound of countless raindrops on countless leaves. My pride refused to allow me to ask for help. Anyway, the group had just completed a brutal section of the trail, and I felt it cruel to ask them to expend further energy that they did not have, especially as several of them were dealing with their own physical limitations. As for me, it had been months that I had expended so much energy in so short a time, and I was ashamed at the physical condition in which I found myself.
At the end of the first trip to the shelter, I had downed a Voltaren, a prescription anti-inflammatory medicine for back and muscle pain, but it felt as if I had taken nothing more than a sugar pill. As I took my second and final trip to the shelter, I was debating how I could disguise my pain from the group, and I honestly wondered how I could even make it back to the parking lot.
"Hullo," I heard. The voice was young, soft, feminine, and spoken with a slight trace of lisp. I jumped with a sharp intake of breath, jerked out of my preoccupation with my pain and gawked at the child who stood at the trailside. Walking as I had in my exhaustion with my eyes focused on my own feet, if she had remained quiet, I would have walked right by her never knowing she was there.
I stared open-mouthed. She stood next to a large oak tree, one hand caressing its rough trunk. Deeply tanned with Caucasian features, her long black hair lay flat with rainwater that streamed down her face and body. Her eyes, preternaturally bright and inquisitive, were as brown as her skin. She looked to be no older than eight or nine years old, a mythological sylph made flesh.
Incredibly, she was also nude.
My first emotion was one of complete despair. Here I stood in the middle of a deep wood with a naked, prepubescent girl and with no witnesses to testify to my stumbling innocently into a questionable situation. I could already hear the gossip rending years of what was a flawless reputation.
The second immediate emotion was one of anger toward this girl-child's parents. How could they be so foolish as to let their daughter run sky-clad through the Pennsylvania woods? Did they even know? Did they even care?
The child spoke again. "Are you hurt?" She seemed to be as unaware of her own questionable circumstances as Eve must have been on her first morning of creation.
"I am in a lot of pain," I heard myself say. She continued leaning against the tree, calmly and carelessly drawing random patterns in the muddy forest loam with the big toe of her left foot.
I sighed. "Sweetheart," I said in my best "talk-down-to-them-so-they-can-understand-you" voice, "it's very dangerous to be in the woods all alone. There are bad people who might want to hurt you. And there are mosquitoes and bugs." I nodded at a three-leaved plant standing near the trail-side. "Do you get ivy poisoning?" I asked.
She said nothing but shook her head in the negative.
I smiled at her as best I could in my suffering. "I really think you should go home right now. Where is your home? Are you lost? "
She did not answer. With a slow and graceful turn, she spun on the heel of her right foot and disappeared into the tree.
I know that strange sounds were coming out of my mouth for a good minute as I stared at where the child had been and the seamless tree trunk into which she had disappeared. I shook from the shock and with stumbling steps, I hurriedly made my way as fast as I could from the tree.
Two hours later, on the final pain-filled trip back to the van, I made a wide berth around the tree, staring at it with genuine trepidation. The tree stood impassively, with no elfin changeling leaning against its trunk.
What had happened here?
Is it possible that I experienced an avatar of that limited sentience that all religions say is one of the properties of nature, what some call the genius loci, the spirit of the place? Could the nymphs and naiads of legend and myth have some form of reality after all?
Highly unlikely in spite of what others may say.
I think it more likely that my strange visitor was a hallucination, a pure creation of a mind reaching the limit of its physical endurance. Admittedly, it was a hallucination of incredible clarity and realism. Still, I think it more likely that my mind created a temporary diversion to break free of the pain in which it found itself with no immediate hope of relief. Is it possible that in my determination to reach the exhausted hiking group that depended on my faithfulness to keep them comfortable, my mind, possibly aided by a dose of strong painkiller coupled with the sensory overload of constant rainfall on leaves, intruded with an intense waking dream so as to acquire a few moments of respite?
Whatever the cause--and I strongly lean toward the theory of temporary insanity--I view the encounter as a simple transient experience and nothing more. It does not change my worldview nor my personality or sense of purpose, but I shall regard it as one of the numinous encounters so prevalent in the human adventure and look back on it with a shrug of the shoulders and a puzzled shake of the head.