So I’m a hiker. Since I was little, I’ve been in love with nature. I’ve been through forests, canyons, prairie-country, even took an extended trip through the Sonoran. I’d like to walk the whole Appalachian trail someday. Can you imagine that? Surrounded on all sides by forested ridges, the noontime sun filtering calmly through the canopy. I’d need the money, though, and the time off work. Still, everywhere I go, I try to take the chance to hike.
I was visiting home in the Indiana Dunes last week, and I decided to take my old bike out and head down to one of my favorite places. My parents’ house is really close to the Indiana Dunes National Park, and there’s all sorts of really cool trails there. None of them go very far, not nearly as far out from civilization as some of the places in New York I’ve hiked, but growing up it still felt like I had a
little piece of wilderness all to myself. It was fairly cold that day, as Lake Michigan always is, and windy enough that I was glad for my windbreak as I made my way along familiar roads. It struck me as I approached the National Park outpost at West Beach that there was a trail there I never remembered following before, a little sand-covered path that dropped off the road before transitioning to a series of wooden stairs that climbed the dunes. It seemed a little odd to me, because I knew I had been here a hundred times before, and I distinctly remembered looking at those stairs from my bike, but for some reason I always passed them by.
I suppose it was at least partly coincidence. I had never felt the need to go up that particular path the way I felt the need to
explore all the other Dunes trails. And since I had never walked it, it was never important enough to stick in my mind until the next time I saw it. It just lay there inconspicuously, hiding in plain sight. So, of course, I had to check it out. I started off and realized immediately that the sand was too deep to ride through, so I had to lug my old bike a frustrating two hundred meters through the sand until I finally reached the stairs. Luckily for my annoyance, I was able to easily stash the bike in the stairs’ shadow, so I didn’t have to drag it any further. I recall there was something about the stairs that really irked me. Each step had an alternating black-and-yellow strip at the front of it, like an eight inch rise somehow warranted its own personal piece of caution tape. For sure, some people need that to see the stairs, or whatever, but it still felt frustrating. I was there to explore, and the garish signposting made me feel like I might as well have been still safely, boringly ensconced at home. I didn’t want to be warned of all the danger.
Maybe that’s why I did what I did. Can I blame the National Park service for being too careful? For riling up my emotions in a way
that made me reckless? I don’t know. Maybe it is a bad idea to disregard or avoid warnings. For all the technological progress humanity has made, we still cling to the safety of our walls and homes and carefully-placed markings. And not without reason.
I climbed that carefully marked staircase, all the way up to the top of the dune, like I had wanted to. There was an overlook at the
top, and from it I could see the whole complex squatting on the edge of West Beach. It was only a half mile away or so, but it looked so small even from that distance. I felt the whole world was spread out before me. I could see clear across the lake to Chicago, huddled under a cloud bank that looked no higher above me than the dining-room table would to a little kid. And then I turned around, and I saw a place where a dirt path branched off the boardwalk. This was something new, something I bet normal people had avoided, or maybe even failed to notice. And that made me special for noticing it, and more special for following it. I vaulted over the fence and dropped onto the dirt with a little whoof. The ground was a bit farther down than I expected. Then I set off without looking back. I was running along an industrial corridor shaped like a half cylinder. All around me I could see dark water, occasionally lit by
the light of an adjacent building, but quickly fading to blackness beyond. Fat drops of a briny, silty substance occasionally plinked on the glass roof like rain, before sliding down and building up on the ocean floor.
A huge, insect-like creature with four armoured legs appeared suddenly out of the gloom and I heard a gasp of delighted laughter from behind me. I looked around and saw I was holding the hand of a soft-featured teenager with wavy, mid-length hair dyed a
brilliant cyan, wearing a sky-blue hoodie. My hoodie. Their eyes were fixed on the creature in awe.
Though the path spiraled around, I quickly reached the top of another dune, where the path forked. I turned in a full circle, using the man-made features I could still see in the distance to mark my position on a mental map. I then chose the left path, and planned to head for a hill where I thought I should be able to catch that view again, and so gain a good idea of where the main boardwalk was no matter where I wandered next. I nearly fell over going down the other side of the ridge. The path was disused, and a torrent of
leaves had fallen on it, making the journey up quite slippery. I felt a little tickle on the back of my neck as I began to walk again, like the brushing of a phantom leaf. I took in a huge breath of fresh air as I reached the top of the next dune, much more than I would expect from the short climb.
It was almost like the air was heavier down where the trees were thicker. I turned around, meaning to mark my place again, and realized I could not see any signs of civilization from here. All the buildings and artifice that had been extended into this forest was obscured by it. I couldn’t see the last ridge I had climbed, either. I shrugged off the twinge of anxiety that came over me then, reasoning that, the next time the path forked, I could just call it a day and head back. I set my sets on another ridge and set off again. I was running down a dark passageway, the rushing of rainwater through storm drains and the creaking of the vast spiderweb of human machinery the only sounds to accompany my footsteps. I darted through corridor after corridor, third on the left, second on the right, down four flights of the maintenance stairs, listening as a new sound got louder, one that I didn’t want to hear but I knew I would find: the sound of growing.
Then I was inside a massive undersea dome, holding hands with that same person from before, the one with cyan hair. I was speaking in a voice that wasn’t my own, telling them how my father and mother had built this place, built it as a refuge and an experiment. Inside the dome was a massive jungle in prismatic colors. Great oaks and Kapoks, vines, ferns, a thousand species of fungi, and the occasional flash of a jewel-bright beetle or butterfly all lay spread out before us. I squeezed their hand and led the way inside.
Quicker than necessary, I made my way along the path until I hit that other ridge, shaking my head to clear away the strange
daydreams that had suddenly taken hold of me. Once I reached the foot of the next hill I realized it was far too steep to climb. That didn’t seem right. It didn’t seem that way from higher up. I took a breath in as deeply as I could and felt a strange pressure on my chest, like the air itself was reluctant to go in. I felt another stab of anxiety in my heart, and then shook myself, annoyed with how I was letting what must have been just a few tricks of the light get to me this way. I stepped off the path, searching around the base of the hill for a climbable slope. That was my biggest mistake. I never found the path again.
The ground sloped sharply down, dead leaves whispering under my feet, threatening to send me to a bottom I could not see the hard way, forcing me to pay attention to the ground instead of my surroundings. When I finally looked up again, there was no sign of any ridge. I was in a dense, dead forest, strange, skeletal growths of oak, ash, and cottonwood leering out at me. I moved faster, but it was no use. I fled from the trees only to find more trees, the creaking in their dead branches sounding more like cackling than anything the wind would do. And at any rate, there should have been no wind anyway, so why were the branches rustling? They were dead!
Hours of tramping through dense, humid jungle. It was wondrous for the first hour, but for awhile now, we’d just been searching for a way out. The colors dazzled us and gave us headaches, and the bigger animals we saw looked much stranger than the ones we’d seen in books. I stood on the edge of a vast chasm, the sound of growing loud in my ears. Every few seconds, a flash of purple Ley flame would illuminate the huge creeping vines that had torn open this rift and threatened to tear it wider. I knew I had to go down there. I stabbed a Photosingularity Recall Point into the most stable ground I could find and swan-dived into the gaping maw. The ground continued sloping down, drawing me ever deeper into that creaking thicket as the visions assaulted me again. The
air around me thickened, and I found I could hardly see ten feet in front of myself, although there was not a wisp of fog, as far as I could tell. I stepped as quietly as I could, but still the oppressive whisper and creak of the dead forest droned on and even grew.
Suddenly, the tree line broke in front of me, opening a door into a clearing floored by thickened and ancient roots, roofed over
by more laughing branches. I didn’t delude myself any longer that they were laughing. I’d stumbled right into their trap, and they
weren’t about to forgive my carelessness. In the center of the clearing, the roots reared up, forming an almost-beautiful pillar
of twisted, woven wood. Perched on the top was a great, yellow eye the size of my fist, wide and unblinking, gazing in all directions yet never moving an inch. I was sure this wasn’t the heart of the forest – the trees would never let me see that – but for whatever reason they wanted me to see the eye.
I reached a hand toward it—Still holding the cyan-haired teen’s hand, I shoulder my way through a thicket of broad-leaved shrubs grown to my height and half again, revealing a small clearing. The vines and flowers here are alive, so much more so than outside. They’re writhing, kowtowing to the ground and rising up again with seemingly no pattern, but all focused around a massive, closed pod in the center. I sense I am being watched, hunted, and I remember that we have long since stopped seeing any animals—I am struggling against binding roots as they grow over me, trying to free my hand just enough to touch the Recall relay at my belt. A horrific mouth yawns open under me, a tongue of beating, rampant life stretching up to pierce my side and steal all that I’m worth.
Above me, a massive burst of Ley fire begins crawling down the walls of the chasm, scorching and burning the shrieking vines,
but not fast enough. I gasped as the speed of the visions increased, and struggled to hold on to some sense of myself, as I was thrown from scene to scene. Now I was watching a huge cloud of spores descend on a city, taking over everything they touched. Now I was slicing open the throat of a chicken, and sluicing its blood over an ancient dead stump. Now I was crucified on living branches, singing praises in a tongue I did not know.
But I understood my mistake. I understood all our mistakes. All at once — none of us had the respect, the fear that was due to the Earth from whence we came. I raised my hands in surrender and shouted, my voice hoarse from breathing in the oppressive air of
the forest. “We’re sorry! We didn’t know! Let us go, please! Just let us go—” I croaked out the final words and heard them echoed across a hundred, perhaps a thousand, visions, and I heard the crack of thunder above. Instinctively, I squeezed my eyes tight shut and clamped my hands over my ears, too wise to make the same mistake twice. When I opened them again, the eye was spinning, bright white and rimmed with red, unseeing, and I turned and saw a gap in the wall that had closed around me. I broke into a full run, pushing straight through the unwilling trees, branches whipping at me and leaves whispering their ghastly chorus underfoot. I felt stinging cuts on my face, and threw up my arms to protect myself. I might have been screaming; I have no idea. I just ran in darkness and fear, heart pounding, branches laughing, leaves singing, right on through the valley of death before whatever lurked in there could catch me and keep me forever.
Rain soaked me from head to toe, loosening the branches just enough that I could touch the Recall relay, and in a sickening
lurch I felt my body drag itself back through spacetime. A pool of brine bubbled up from below us, soaking and withering the writhing plants and driving our watchers away. I held them close as we raced our way back through the now-open foliage. Somehow, I got out. I finally noticed that I could hear birds again, although I had never marked their absence. I heard the wind sighing through the branches, rather than that dreadful cackling. I opened my eyes. My arms were bloody with a hundred tiny cuts. A parting gift from Mother Nature. I clambered back onto the boardwalk, and walked, shell shocked, back to my bike. I never went back to that trail again.
Leland Culver ’22 is a staff writer
Tina Zhang ’24 is a staff artist