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Idyll Threats

When you’re heading for a remote getaway, it’s best not to watch a bunch of horror films first

Author Chris Sumberg Illustration Michael Byers

travelessayOur drive up the Maine coast had been perfect.

Colorful buoys adorned the sides of clapboard fishing huts. Lighthouses sat atop promontories. Roadside shacks provided us with lobster rolls and homebrewed soda. It was so idyllic it hardly seemed real. But then, not long after we passed the road to Bar Harbor, there was a shift in tone. My wife, Mary Pat, was the first to notice it.

“How long has it been since we saw a car?”

It probably hadn’t been that long, but she had a point. The road had gotten emptier, narrower, gloomier. I checked the map, downloaded from the vacation rental website, which was clear on must-see attractions, like the chainsaw sculpture garden, but a bit fuzzy on street names. Just then, a car zoomed by, its driver invisible in the lurid hell-glare of the dipping sun. It was starting to feel like one of those films in which lost vacationers pull into a rundown gas station attended by a man who spits in the dirt while making vaguely ominous remarks. “You sure you want to go there?”

On the face of it, my discomfort didn’t make much sense. We’d been planning this trip for months, excited by the prospect of having some alone time in the woods. I’d been reading a bit of Henry David Thoreau to get me in the mood—“I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude”—and had brought a small pocketknife along, in case I felt like whittling. Now, the reality was sinking in: We were heading for the middle of nowhere, with nothing but a small pocketknife for protection.

Finally, we found our “rustic” cabin. It was down at the end of a long dirt road, perched on a fog-enshrouded bluff. Other than the wind whooshing through the trees, there was no sound at all. Suddenly, the deep woods around us seemed less Henry David Thoreau and more Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

“Is it a little, er, creepy out here?” said Mary Pat.

“Uh, no,” I lied. “It’s, uh, restful.”

In truth, I think our unease went deeper than a few too many nights browsing the horror section on Netflix (thank you, Cabin in the Woods). Our guidebook promised an “untrammeled wilderness.” What the book hadn’t mentioned, though, was that untrammelled wildernesses can dig up all sorts of uncomfortable primal concerns: falling into a ravine, freezing to death, becoming something’s lunch.

Even Thoreau, who didn’t have access to Netflix, was not immune to such jitters. As Bill Bryson points out in A Walk in the Woods, “Thoreau thought nature was splendid, splendid indeed, so long as he could stroll to town for cakes and barley wine, but when he experienced real wilderness, on a visit to Katahdin in 1846, he was unnerved to the core.”

As we stood and regarded the cabin, a screech rang out from the woods. “Shrike,” I said. I’m not sure why. We hurried inside, accompanied by a swarm of bloodthirsty mosquitoes, and set about switching on every light in the house. Later, lying in the glare of an overhead bulb, I made a mental note of every possible permutation of entry point (window, cellar door), weapon (sword, cudgel) and body part (head, gizzards) applicable to our situation.

The next morning, despite the fact that I’d gotten about 45 seconds of sleep, things didn’t seem so bad. The sun and a light breeze had cleared the mist, and as we sipped our coffee on the deck, we could see a small harbor dotted with pastel-colored lobster boats. Even the mosquitoes had calmed down. “You want to take a walk?” I asked Mary Pat, who replied that she would be delighted. Soon, we were strolling up a potholed road toward the nearest village.

A pretty little place it was, too, its whitewashed houses bathed in the morning sunshine. Certifiably normal citizens raked gardens, washed windows and tinkered with cars. Near a weathered barn, a sinewy man sharpened a farm tool on an old-fashioned whetstone, the lopsided wheel tick-tick-ticking merrily. Everyone had a hello and a smile.

We ate at a small diner, then made our way back to the cabin. Sheep bleated in nearby fields. The air was thick with the scent of peat and balsam. At last, we had discovered the good kind of solitude, the companionable kind.

That night, I drifted gently toward sleep, lulled by my wife’s breathing and the ticking of the old grandfather clock in the hallway. What a lovely sound that was. Tick-tick-tick. And then it hit me. I sat upright and prodded Mary Pat in the back. “Hey,” I whispered, pointing at the darkness beyond the door. “Who do you think has been winding that thing?”

Chris Sumberg, a Clinton, Tennessee–based writer, would like to apologize to the good people of rural Maine, the vast majority of whom, he is sure, are not ax murderers.

One Response to “Idyll Threats”

  1. Ellen Ahern-Lunn Says:
    March 31st, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    I liked this travel piece. I’ve only been to Maine once, but the writer described it well according to what I know and remember about Maine. His writing is colorful and vivid (I wish that my writing was as descriptive as his), and he showed his sense of humor. The ending was very clever.

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