A Pine Barrens sightseeing trip on a sunny May day seemed like a good idea at the time. The guidebook from the library had warned that the back roads could be nearly impassable after a heavy rain, but the state was in the midst of a dry spell. So Steve and Eileen packed a picnic lunch and their digital cameras, and set out in high spirits, bumping along sandy roads that wound through quiet pinewoods and past cedar swamps where Snowy Egrets stood like statues and Great Blue Herons rose from the water with solemn, majestic sweeps of their vast wings.
When they arrived at the Quaker Bridge, the first stop on the scenic route that they’d photocopied from the guidebook, they parked their white Accord and got out. They stood on the bridge for a while, staring down into the swift-moving, swirling dark water, and then snapped silly photos of each other pretending to fish or leaning mock-precariously over the bridge railing as if about to fall in headfirst.
They climbed down beside the bridge, and hiked along the river for a ways, stopping to take photos of the abundant lacy ferns and colorful flowers dotting the banks, before returning to the car to eat a leisurely lunch, using the Accord’s hood as an impromptu picnic table.
The next stop on the tour was Batsto. The guidebook instructed them to drive across the Quaker Bridge and turn right onto the old carriage road that led to the restored bog iron mining village. What the guidebook had failed to mention, however, was that the roads beyond the Quaker Bridge (if they could even be called roads) were a confusing mishmash of sand trails that meandered off through the trees without rhyme or reason. Trying to separate out the road to Batsto from the others was like disentangling a strand from a skein of yarn that a cat had got hold of.
Making their best guess as to the correct route to take, they headed out. Too late, they discovered their mistake. The ground here was pure white sand: soft and deep and treacherous, and they had only gone a hundred yards before the Accord got stuck, its wheels spinning futilely, unable to find purchase in the loose sand.
Steve did his best to free the car, repeatedly shifting from forward to reverse, trying to rock it free of its sandy prison. But all he managed to do was sink the sedan deeper and deeper until Eileen, standing by, shouted over the scream of the racing engine to tell him that the tailpipe was getting buried.
“Oh honey, what are we going to do now?” she asked, when Steve shut off the engine and stood next to her, contemplating their car, sunk nearly axle-deep. "We'll never be able to push it out of there."
It was so silent without the car running, Eileen thought. Too silent. She suddenly realized just how completely alone they were, and wondered why they had ever had such a crazy idea as to drive into the Pine Barrens.
“We can call 911, I guess, and see if they can find someone to come and tow us. There’s no point in waiting to see if someone will happen by.” Steve laughed, but it was a grim laugh. “This isn’t exactly the New Jersey Turnpike.”
But the depths of the Pine Barrens (the middle of nowhere, Eileen’s mind supplied) was not an area that Verizon’s service apparently covered.
“C’mon, sweetheart, cheer up.” Steve pocketed his useless cell phone, put his arm around his wife and gave her a bracing hug. “Think of it as an adventure, one we’ll tell our grandchildren about some day.”
“If we live to see them,” Eileen said. The shadows were lengthening, the sun alarmingly close to the treetops; where had the afternoon gone?
“Hey now, stop being so pessimistic. Get your purse and then we’ll lock up the car and walk back to the main road and get help.”
“But that’s miles, Steve,” she protested, dismayed.
“I don’t see that we have any other choice, honey. We can’t just sit around like bumps on a log hoping someone will happen along, and I’m certainly not leaving you here alone while I go find someone to tow us out.”
Steve was right; there was really no other choice. Without another word, Eileen opened the passenger side front door – reaching down for the handle, an odd and dismaying sensation – and retrieved her purse. Her husband locked the car with a beep of the remote, and then they set out back the way they’d come.
They’d only gone about twenty yards, however, when Eileen halted and cocked her head to one side, listening intently. “Maybe it’s just my imagination, but I think I hear an engine,” she said hopefully.
Steve listened, too. “You know, I think you’re right,” he agreed. “How’s that for timing, huh? I guess someone up there is looking out for us.”
They trekked back to the car and waited. The engine noise grew louder and closer, and within a few minutes, a small blue Toyota pickup truck with oversized tires came bounding out of the woods on their left. Steve and Eileen waved frantically at it, just in case the driver of the truck missed them, but it was unnecessary. There was a brief horn toot of acknowledgment, and the pickup headed in their direction.
The driver of the truck pulled up next to the Accord and got out, leaving the engine running. He was a small man, dressed in faded jeans, scuffed work boots and a red flannel shirt.
“The sugar sand got you, huh?” he said, sounding sympathetic.
“Afraid so,” Steve replied, embarrassed in that way only a man can be when another man catches him doing something foolish. “I guess we should have realized it wasn’t safe to drive across it.”
The stranger gave him a reassuring smile and a dismissive wave of his hand. “Don’t feel bad – you’d be amazed at how many folks it happens to,” he said. “Most of the guidebooks don’t provide an adequate warning about the sugar sand and how treacherous it can be, especially if you don’t have a four-wheel drive vehicle.”
“Our guidebook certainly didn’t,” said Eileen in disgust. “It also said there was supposed to be a road to Batsto here.” She gestured around her. "Do you see a road?"
“Well, I do, but if you aren’t familiar with fingerboards, it can be pretty confusing.”
“What’s a… fingerboard?” she repeated, the vernacular unfamiliar to her.
“An intersection where a number of different trails meet, like here – that’s what we call them in the pines,” the man explained.
“Oh, I see. So you’re a Piney?” Eileen was surprised. Not that she knew much about them, but he somehow didn’t fit the vague image she’d always had of the people who lived in the Pine Barrens.
“That’s right,” he said, and there was a definite note of pride in his voice.
But her husband was less interested in Pineys and pines terminology than in a solution to their dilemma. “My wife and I were discussing what to do, and we'd decided to walk back to the highway to get help. But I was wondering if you might be kind enough to give us lift to the nearest gas station that has a towing service.”
“I’ll do even better than that," the man said. "I’ve got a recovery strap in the back of the truck, and I can easily tow your car out.”
“That’s so very kind of you,” Eileen exclaimed, relieved. “But we’re terribly sorry to put you to so much trouble.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble at all,” the man replied, and smiled. “It won’t take but a few minutes to get your car out and you’ll be on your way again.” He reached into the cab of his truck and retrieved a pair of well-worn tan pigskin work gloves. “Besides,” he added as he pulled the gloves on, “we take care of each other around here.”
He got back in the truck and maneuvered it until the rear bumper was aligned a few feet in front of the bumper of their car. “You’ll need to put your car in neutral, no brake - just like the car wash,” he told Steve, and while he did, the man retrieved a wide yellow nylon strap with loops on either end from an aluminum toolbox in the bed of the pickup.
Strap in hand he knelt and reached underneath the bumper of the Accord, deftly attaching one end of the strap to the tow hook. Then he attached the other end to the trailer hitch of the truck. He worked with a calm deliberation that reassured them both he knew exactly what he was doing.
When the strap was secured, he stood, brushing the sand from the knees of his jeans. “I’d like the both of you to go stand over there under the trees, just in case the strap breaks,” he said. “It shouldn’t, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.”
So Steve and Eileen did as instructed, and watched while their rescuer got into his pickup truck and put it in gear, creeping forward until the nylon strap was stretched taut. Then, slowly but surely, their car started to move inch-by-inch out of the sand until it was resting on solid, level ground again. The tires were covered with fine white sand, but it seemed otherwise okay.
The man got out of the truck, put their car in park, and undid the recovery strap. “You’re all set,” he informed them cheerfully, as they walked up.
“Bless you,” Eileen said. “I can’t tell you how much we appreciate your kindness.”
“We’d like to give you a little something for your trouble,” Steve added, reaching for the wallet in his back pocket, but the stranger shook his head as he stowed the recovery strap back in the toolbox.
“Thanks, but that’s really not necessary," he said, stripping off his work gloves. "Like I told you, we take care of each other around here. Just be sure to stay on the paved roads and out of the sugar sand in future, okay? Or get yourselves an ATV,” he added, smiling.
They laughed at the suggestion, thanked him again, and then got back in the Accord. The man climbed into his pickup truck, but he didn’t immediately drive off. He was clearly waiting to be sure they made it safely back onto the Quaker Bridge Road.
Only when, with a final farewell wave, they’d crossed the bridge, heading back to civilization, did the truck finally move, circling around and disappearing into the trees again.
“What an incredibly nice man,” Eileen remarked. “Whoever says that Pineys keep to themselves obviously didn’t meet him. He was a real Good Samaritan, and you don’t find many of those these days.”
The small blue Toyota pickup bounced along the rutted trail through the pines, hurrying homeward. Behind the wheel, its driver shook his head and gave a rueful chuckle. Foreigners. They were the third couple this spring he'd found by the Quaker Bridge with their car set in the sugar sand. He was starting to make it a regular stop on his way back and forth from the cabin.
Just wait until I tell Elijah, Sean thought.