The Sand Lake is a magical location…and not just because once can frolic in a particularly fetching poncho without feeling weird. Beautiful…quiet (except for the sound of whippoorwills)…and every star–even stardust–is visible at night.
Janelle and I have been planning a return trip for more than a month. Gmail calendars were consulted. Eventually we pulled together a group consisting of 3 girls and 3 boys. I can assure you that no orgy was planned. To be honest, the Sand Lake is a tough sell to most of our Philly friends. It’s far out in the Pine Barrens. There are neither indoor bathrooms nor a convenient snack bar. In fact, the lake is a 45-minute hike from the nearest road. Some of our friends hate hiking. Others don’t like swimming in “natural water.” The list of excuses ran on and on…
On Saturday, every boy in our group bailed on us. We weren’t concerned; an all-girls (JT was the third member of our posse) trip to the wilderness seemed like an amazing idea. Our minds were filled with fuzzy images of female bonding. I baked vegan cupcakes for the occasion (yellow cake with chocolate peanut butter frosting). We packed up tapestries, Fig Newtons, potato chips, and beer. And of course, cameras.
The long drive out to the Pine Barrens seemed to last five minutes, because we were so busy chatting and laughing. All keys and wallets were locked in the car (if you recall, I lost my keys on our last trip to Sand Lake). The hike itself was pretty great. I forgot to wear insect repellent and yet I received no insect bites. This is a miracle in itself! We were excited to see the lake in the daylight (our last trip was strictly nocturnal). When we first stepped onto the beach, we saw a couple swimming with a dog. In a desolate place like the Sand Lake, it is both reassuring and strange to see other humans.
We settled on the same spot we had inhabited the last time. Janelle joked that I might find my lost keys.
We decided to build a fire. Sure, none of us had a lot of fire-building experience, but all of us had a sordid past in the Girl Scouts. Gathering firewood was boring. It was hot and I was paranoid that mosquitoes might be eating me alive. Janelle suggested that we use one of the tapestries we had brought along to transport firewood. A brilliant idea! This saved us a lot of time. We were able to collect an impressively large pile of wood.
Jes dug a hole in the sand. Janelle took charge of the fire-starting. She built a little teepee out of small sticks. Jes found a paper bag in the sand. While litter is terrible, the bag came in pretty handy for starting the fire. We used plastic lighters to get things going, but we agreed that matches would be more useful in future expeditions.
The three of us were really proud of our fire. In fact, it was huge in comparison to the fire belonging to the couple across the lake. We changed in to our bathing suits, cracked open some refreshments (including a particularly fine bottle of “Frontier Wine”), and gloated over our fire-starting skills.
And then the stranger arrived. A middle-aged man with a dog. The man was Dennis and the dog was Petey.
We had seen this man talking to the couple across the lake. And then he wandered over to us. We talked to him briefly. After all, in such an amazing and remote place it would be weird/rude to ignore somebody.
We thought that would be the end of it. But then he sat down by the fire with us. He asked, “Where did you hike in?” We tried to ignore him. Five minutes later, “Where did you park the car?” Lots of questions like this.
And then something really strange happened. I wanted to attempt to photograph the stars. I reached into my bag and my hand touched something metal and plastic. I fished the object out. My eyes seemed to be misleading me.
“Janelle! Jes! What do I have in my hand?”
Both squinted at me. Someone said, “Are those your keys?”
“Yes, but they aren’t the keys I left in your car earlier. These are the keys I lost here six weeks ago!” And there was no doubt of this. This set of keys included the remote control to my car locks.
Our jaws dropped in unison. You see, we had all torn apart my messenger bag looking for them. Each of us had taken a turn removing everything from the bag, checking every nook, pocket, and compartment. Vigorous shakings were included. And a few weeks ago, I had actually removed the lining from my bag and sent it through a cycle in my washing machine. Thirty minutes later, it was moved to the dryer. There was no way my keys could have remained hidden during all of that.
I’m not going to lie: I was really stoned at this point. So the key discovery really freaked me out.
And then the presence of Dennis, with his circular questions about our hiking path and the location of our car…well, it was almost too much for me.
I wondered if the other girls were freaking out, too. Janelle had moved to the other side of the fire, far away from all of us. I knew this meant she was worried/scared. I attempted non-obvious eye contact with Jes, but it was impossible in the dark.
Then Dennis requested a sip of Jes’s wine. Of course, we couldn’t say no…but our hesitation was obvious.
And then Jes said, “Oh, I wonder when Dan is going to be back from getting firewood?”
Yes. We would pretend that Dan was with us.
“Yeah, he’s been gone a while.” I added, “Probably soon, I think.”
This intrigued Dennis. Where was our friend? He had been gone a long time, were we worried? And so on.
My phone beeped. A text message from Janelle. “Creepy, what r we gonna do?”
I was panicking at this point. I was sure this guy wanted to kill us. Maybe with a hook or some kind of gardening tool. Perhaps he had a hatchet in his pocket.
And then he bid us adieu and disappeared into the darkness. I should mention that he did not have a flashlight, which seemed extra-crazy to us. There wasn’t even any moonlight.
As soon as he left, we sprang into action. Janelle walked over to the couple across the lake and asked them if we could hang out with them. They seemed unfazed by our situation. We packed up our belongings and extinguished the fire. We spent the next two hours with our new friends (also from Philadelphia) talking about astrology.
We saw so many falling stars. I made more wishes than I can remember. In fact, at one point, I regretted the previous wish, and used the next falling star to retract the ill-advised request.
We hiked back to the car, feeling much less frightened. We agreed: most likely Dennis was a totally fine guy, but in the wilderness, woman traveling alone are moving targets. And we had nothing to protect ourselves. Furthermore, the news and Lifetime movies are filled with cautionary tales of foolish females being assaulted by seemingly kindly strangers.
We spent the drive home talking about ghosts and listening to moody music. And of course, musing over the miraculous return of my keys.
P.S. The next trip is planned for the end of September, when Tomm is visiting. New and improved plans:
We will bring matches, food to cook on the fire, and more flashlights.
And oh, more blankets and warmer clothes.
Last, but not least, we’ll bring some males. I hate to say it, but we wouldn’t have been frightened if our guy friends had been with us.
Janelle just reminded me: we will also be bringing knives…in case we have to cut you. Because we will. Don’t fuck with us! Did you see that fire we built? Be afraid…very, very afraid.