There is no silence quite like the silence of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. On a hot day when the wind dies, the pines stand motionless, ferns droop, ponds and lily-topped swamps lie still.
This enormous wasteland of sand, swamps, cranberry bogs, ponds and pines sprawls over a fifth of the state. It is a region bursting with history, legend and strange tales of even stranger people who live deep in the recesses of the forest: tales of the Jersey Devil, a cloven-hoofed enigma claimed by some to have an appetite for human flesh; tales of pirates and smuggling ventures up the Mullica River; tales of illicit, Prohibition-era stills once visited by mobsters in long black Cadillacs.
But perhaps most curious of all are the tales about the Pineys themselves -- the hermitlike inhabitants of the barrens who prefer the silence of the forest to the jingle-jangle world outside. They don't welcome visitors.
Such tales give these dark woods an overtone of mystery and dread, and the day I ventured in was no exception.
Somewhere, deep in, I left the main highway to follow a white-sand back road that curled off by an abandoned church. The first few miles were delightful, with the car speeding along on the sand. Then the pine forest on either side of the road closed in.
Abruptly, the car skidded on the loose sand and landed at a crazy angle, stuck axle-deep in a little black bog. The driver side was deep in goo, the mud bubbling like a slow-boiling cauldron. But the passenger side was still over sand and I managed to squirm out.
I had no idea where I was. I'd driven miles and miles, taking forks at will, becoming gleefully lost. But I'd been in similar situations before, and I knew all the tricks: sliding something solid under the stuck wheel, letting the clutch in slow, getting a firm grip and zip -- you're out.
So I rambled off into the gloom to find dead pine branches and the like. Soon I had managed to shove quite a pile of debris under the offending rear wheel.
Back in the driver's seat, a gentle roll of the engine, into first gear, gently release the clutch until you feel the grip of the wheel and ...
The swamp sounded like a ravenous whale about to swallow me, clutch, trunk and fender. Great lumps of mud flew everywhere, and the back end suddenly sank another foot into the swamp. I was well and truly stuck.
Then -- right on cue -- the mosquitoes found me. It was dusk -- happy hour -- and they buzzed, swooped and plunged their proboscises into every exposed inch of my flesh.
The silence deepened. No breezes blew and the light was deep gloom -- dead gray actually. I had no food or water.
I knew I had to find the main road, maybe 20 miles back. In all that distance I'd not seen another vehicle or human being, not even a shack.
The situation had lost all its romance. I was downright scared, stuck in the middle of this New Jersey wilderness awaiting the wail of the dreaded Jersey Devil or worse still -- a visit from the Pineys themselves. Only a few weeks before, I'd read of a body discovered deep in the barrens.
I had an enormous bag full of camera gear that I was not about to leave behind, so I packed it up as best I could, locked all the doors and set off at a good pace back along the track. Odd rustlings, followed by occasional grunts and throaty growls, came from the dark forest. I walked faster. Then I heard something else, way back, down the track near the car. And there were flashes through the trees -- very faint at first but getting brighter. Then the noise grew louder, until I recognized the welcome roar of engines.
I hurried back toward the car. Yes, there were lights, lots of them. And they were stopped. Engines were roaring. I had a piece of old rope in the trunk. Bit of a pull and everything would be just fine again. I'd even be home in time for dinner.
I could make out three motorcycles by the car -- big Harley-Davidsons. People were moving about. Each of the bikes had large containers on the back with metal things sticking out. I went closer, half running ... and then slowed.
The metal things sticking out were guns -- enormous shotguns and rifles. Also shovels. And pick axes. In the bright beams from the bikes I could see the riders' long hair and bandannas, leather jackets trimmed with rivets and spikes, mud-caked jeans and enormous boots with metal toe caps.
Hell's Angels? Or something worse?
"Hi!" I tried to sound nonchalant and cheerful.
Not one of the three enormous men even looked at me. A young girl -- also encased in black leather -- stood off to the side, leg on the upturned wheel of my car. They were laughing -- nasty, sly chuckles.
"Thought I'd never find anybody around here," I said, hearing my voice rise and crack.
Still no response.
Then one of the men turned slowly and looked toward me -- but not at me. I traced his gaze. He was staring straight at my bag, at the expensive equipment bulging through the open zipper. He growled something to his companions and they all turned and stared at the bag, smiling some of the nastiest smiles I've ever seen.
So this is how it happens, I thought. At night. Stuck in the pines. Helpless. With a pack of Pineys -- armed, eyeballing a couple of thousand dollars of easy pickings.
"Can you help me get this thing out?" I asked. "I'm stuck -- "
More gravelly sniggers.
Then one of the men slowly sauntered over to the car and rocked it. I could hear the bog gurgle. More chuckles. Then, as if they did this kind of thing all the time, two of the men moved to the rear, one moved to the front, and a quick heave lifted the whole damned machine and dropped it with a bounce back in the middle of the sand track. All in a second or two.
I stood gaping.
"Thanks. Thanks a lot. Thank you ... " I jabbered.
Now they all stood, arms in riveted belts, and stared -- this time right at me -- with sinister smirks.
"Get in," snarled the largest man with the longest hair.
"Right. Right. I'll see if she's okay. There was plenty of mud around the tailpipe."
I slid into the driver's seat. The engine started on the first try. "Thanks again. I'll just get her turned around and ... "
"You'll never make it that way." It was the big one again.
"Oh, don't worry. I'll find it."
"Follow this guy." He pointed to one of his companions, who was already mounting his bike and revving the engine. "We'll be right behind." They were lining up their bikes.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"Faster way out."
Sure, I thought. Right to some broken-down shack in the darker part of the pines.
They literally coralled my car forward, deeper and deeper down the track, which rapidly became a rutted trail with more swampy patches. The sky was black. I needed full beams to avoid overhanging branches and rocks half hidden in the sand.
Before long there was hardly any track at all, just snaky patches of flattened earth. How stupid could I be, I wondered, but they were still going fast, not giving me a chance to slow down and think. Then ahead was water -- a stretch of shallow swamp. The lead bike spurred through. I skidded and swirled about but somehow made it, branches crashing against my windshield, mud spraying high on both sides.
Okay, I thought, time for action. Put your foot down, get ahead of the front guy and blast your way out.
Waiting for a chance to break.
Then the track widened again, and I could see tire ruts ahead.
Foot down, fist on horn, lights full beam ... My car leaped ahead, missing the front biker by inches, sand hissing on the chassis. A surge of speed and the bike lights were behind me.
Then the track ended. With no warning. I slammed on the brakes and the machine spun in an explosion of flying pebbles and sand.
Just as the thought "Now I've had it" crossed my mind, an enormous 18-wheeler roared past, a couple of feet from my front fender. Three cars followed, flashing past in flurries of hot air. There were lights. A lot of them. It was a highway -- a hard-surface, fast-lane, straight highway.
Someone knocked on my window. It was the big man with the longest hair, and he was mad as hell. He began to sputter: "What the hell do you think you're doing ... ?"
I smiled weakly.
Two other bikers strolled up and peered in with dirty, frazzled faces. One of them said, "Bet you thought you'd never make it out."
I couldn't speak.
"You're okay now. So -- right here and it takes you straight into Philly."
And that was it. They were gone, their lights disappearing down the track into the forest.
I got out of the car. I was smothered in sweat and my legs wouldn't hold me straight. I leaned against the hood. The stars were out, the breeze was cool.
I put one foot down on the hard road.
It felt wonderful.
David Yeadon is author and illustrator of "New York's Nooks and Crannies" (Scribner's) and "New York: The Best Places" (Harper and Row). His most recent book, "The Back of Beyond: Travels to the Wild Places of the Earth," will be released in January by HarperCollins.