It had been a weekend of doing stupid things that might have ended with someone dead, injured or badly humiliated if our luck had flipped on us. But we were lucky people by and large, graduate students taking a mid-semester break to get up to some drunken winter nonsense in the Berkshires. First Saturday morning order of business was this: jumping out a hay bale window on the top floor of a barn. A cast iron bale-loader stuck out above the window, throwing a long and skinny shadow, like a dowsing rod meant to locate deeply hidden wellsprings of idiocy, over the snowdrift into which we landed.

Given the sun and the abundance of snow on the surrounding fields, the afternoon was shaping up to be a real cornea-sizzler, best to be avoided. We were extra-receptive to pain given our beer and bourbon hangovers and the chagrin some of us felt for the buffoonery of the previous night, when we’d driven the baleen plate of our toboggan directly into the shins of a girl we didn’t really know, and who we suspected, even before we nearly broke both of her legs, didn’t like us much. (She was the girlfriend of a friend, a semi-grudging weekend participant.) We’d strap on our touring skis and head for the shady respite of the woods. Single-file trudging, we’d sweat out some bourbon and some contrition, we’d survive socially by cracking irreverent jokes passed up and down the line with our lone canteen of water.

We started out along a shady road, balancing our skis on the sand-rilled crust of the plow ridge. We ducked into some birches, following the deep punctures of a stranger’s boot tracks. Yesterday’s heat melted the snow; the night refroze it into a tough rind that had yet to pixillate back to corn snow. Forget the woods, we thought, emerging into a sun-blasted tundral expanse. We stripped off our layers, turbanning our heads with anoraks and sweaters. We found a partially frozen river. As can happen on rare occasions in one’s adult life (and only reliably when one is on mushrooms), we started to see the world more fancifully, more capable of magic and imagined menace. Boulders, glazed like giant doughnut holes, pinpointed the river’s sub-snow wending into the near distance. Water burbled beneath sheets of transparent ice, portholes onto a giant underground sea.

Like the nature around us, we became things we were normally not. With our sweater turbans we were desert nomads. The girl whose shins we’d bashed with the toboggan softened her defensive stance toward us. The literary theory we weren’t reading and the short stories we weren’t writing and the veins of the circulatory system we weren’t memorizing became meaningless brain harpies from a distant adult land.

We followed the river until we found a place to cross it. We skiied back into some woods, angling up a slope that forced us, on occasion, to sidestep our way to more level terrain. At a certain point we got hungry and realized we didn’t have much in the way of food beyond a bag of nuts. This was also the point when we realized we’d been skiing for almost three hours, and the sun was about to cross the yardarms of the highest tree limbs, and it was getting progressively colder, and we hadn’t brought evening-appropriate clothing, and we weren’t exactly certain how to get back to the barn, and we’d brought neither a map nor a compass. The imagined menace of the woods reared up around us, suddenly and terrifyingly actual.

A logical person suggested we retrace our tracks. A more logical pointed out that it would take three hours to do this, and it would be dark in less than two, and moreover this idea was a bad one because we hadn’t brought a flashlight.

At first our lostness was an occasion for nervous joke-cracking. We pooled our survival skills, which amounted to some wrongly remembered scout lore and anecdotes culled from books like Alive! Someone tried, and failed, to climb to the top of a tree. We planted a stick in the ground to determine, via the shadow it cast on the snow, which direction was which. The stick cast a shadow, but then we couldn’t agree how to interpret the shadow, nor did this matter much since we didn’t know in which direction we should be heading anyway.

Our jokes – about killing squirrels or the lamest among us to provide group sustenance – became increasingly forced as the sun slid behind a low-lying scrim of clouds and the temperature accelerated its decline. While not alone, we were each very much alone; we were people who knew each other only as a bi-product of seeking silly fun that bordered on the age-inappropriate and left no mark. Unironic worry or flat-out despair were terrains we were far more afraid of losing ourselves in than the current one, and all of us were determined to publicly venture into neither.

We continued to ski. The bon vivantedness of our exchanges became increasingly coded with a double-edged worry. Would we have to spend the night in the woods? And which of us would be the first to break social rank and outright panic about this possibility? Fortunately, our luck and our composure held. We’d been lost for little more than an hour when we heard the grainy sounds of car wheels on the sanded asphalt of a road.

Our post-trauma high was instantaneously amnesia-inducing. Hearing the sounds of the road was like receiving a negative pregnancy test after being convinced that you were knocked up; the imagined life you didn’t want but that appeared, in all likelihood, to be your life, was eradicated in a millisecond and left no lasting impression. You’d have unprotected sex again, you’d go into the woods without a compass and food again, you’d go into the woods without a compass and food to have unprotected sex again.

After shucking our skis, we rode our endorphic aftermath at a nearby pub called Caesar’s Shed, a roadside faux-log cabin set at the backside of a parking lot and indicated by a giant Parthenon-shaped sign. Midway through our first beer pitcher, someone suggested we each sketch a map of our trip. We all agreed this would be a great idea, not least because it would banish, by turning the experience into a witty parlour game, our lingering collective unease about what almost happened.

Pencils and bar napkins were procured; we each retired to a semi-private corner of Caesar’s Shed to transfer to the napkin the 2-D mental shape we carried of our travels through the woods. When we compared napkins, we were surprised that each of us had drawn, more or less, the exact same map, the coordinates and the shape of the loop synching up to an uncanny degree, leading us to believe that, poorly prepared though we were as survivalists, we’d accessed, from some Neanderthal crevasse in our brain, a shared biological compass. Or maybe it was a tracker instinct, or maybe it was a species-preserving form of stupidity, the same instinct that allowed those distant forerunners of ours to upreparedly cast off into the wilderness and stare death in the eye only to return to their caves and their tribes and their fires, unchanged by the experience and willing to do it again.


Photograph © eddiemcfish

A Vacation From Myself
J.G. Ballard