The Wildlands

By Peter Bergman, Jr.

I remember the first time Ricky pointed the sign out to me.

"That sign right there, Ken," Ricky said, pointing. "The one that says 'Wildlands.' What is the Wildlands?" Ricky stopped at the intersection and pointed to the sign. Actually, there were several signs, shaped like arrows, attached to a post. Each arrow listed the name of a resort or other such business that was located in the direction the arrow pointed. Webber's Resort, Shady Lake Resort, Dickenson's Campground were among the names on the dozen or so arrows at the intersection, all of them pointing down Silver Lake Road.

It was in May, and the snows had finally melted away, the last remainders washed away by rain. The trees were budding out and starting to leaf. It was too early for Mosquitoes, but we knew they would soon hatch out, as soon as we had a couple of hot days. Boredom had started to settle in, as we waited for school to end for the summer and the weather to get nice enough outside for the beaches to open. We had stopped at the intersection of County J and Silver Lake Road. County J was a big loop that branched off Highway19 North went around Big Bass Lake then reconnected to 19 again. Numerous small roads branched off from J, some turning east towards Big Bass Lake, some turning west. Silver Lake Road was a fair sized road heading west.

Ricky and I lived on South Creek Road, which was one of the many small roads branching off Silver Lake road. There were three houses, including ours, on that road. I had passed through this intersection my whole life and had paid little attention to the signs. Ricky had moved into the area two years ago. We had both been freshmen in high school at that time and soon became friends. In a small town like Timber Ridge, the entire freshmen class was less than 50 students, so everyone pretty much got along. Now, two years later, we were juniors and Ricky had his driver's license and a car. I usually rode with him to and from school.

I looked at the sign, noticing it for the first time. It read "The Wildlands" and pointed down Silver Lake Road. It was the third sign from the bottom and just as generic as the others.

"What is 'The Wildlands'?" Ricky repeated.

"I don't know," I replied. "Probably a resort or campground. Why?"

"I never heard of it," he said.

I thought for a minute. "Neither have I," I said. "But there's dozens of small resorts around here that I haven't heard of." The numerous lakes in Northern Wisconsin were dotted with small resorts and campgrounds, which survived on tourists visiting the area from Milwaukee, Madison, and Chicago during the summers.

We continued on to school, and I soon forgot about the sign. It was a couple days later when he brought it up again.

"I looked in the telephone book," he said a few mornings later. "There isn't anything listed with the name The Wildlands."

"Maybe they don't have a phone," I said.

"I want to know what it is," he insisted. "It's driving me crazy."

"Maybe we should follow the signs and see where they take us," I suggested, curiosity starting to get to me.

"Yeah," he agreed. "Let's do that. How about tomorrow afternoon." It was Friday, and we didn't have school the next day. Neither of us worked that weekend, so we had the time.

"All right," I agreed. "Give me a call in the morning and let me know what time."

We ended up asking Judy and Rachel at school if they wanted to go along. They were both sophomores and had been our girlfriends for most of the school year. They were thrilled with the idea to go adventuring, exploring. Ricky picked me up about noon, and we ran to town to get the girls. After picking up Judy and Rachel, the four of us stopped for burgers at one of the fast food places. After we ate we set out to find out where the sign 'The Wildlands' would take us.

Judy and I sat in the back seat, while Rachel sat in front next to Ricky. The radio was tuned into a station playing the top 40. Judy snuggled against me, and I put my arm around her shoulders, pulling her even closer. In the front seat, Rachel was pressed against Ricky. He drove with one hand on the steering wheel; his other arm was around her. I pressed my face to the top of Judy's head, smelling her blond hair. She had used some fruity scented shampoo recently. I liked it. She suddenly looked up at me.

"What are you thinking about?" she asked.

"You," I said, and we kissed. Her mouth opened slightly, and my tongue darted in. She had told me when we first started going out that I was the first boy she had French kissed.

After a minute, we parted, and she looked at me. "Are you sure this isn't just an excuse to take us driving," she said, her blue eyes smiling. "Maybe run out of gas. Is that what we're going to do?"

"Maybe," I said, smiling back. "Would that be a problem?"

"I didn't say that," she said playfully. "I was just wondering what I should be expecting."

"There," Ricky said suddenly. "There's the sign." He pointed at it as we turned off county J and onto Silver Lake Road.

"Probably some resort or something," Rachel said. She sat straight in her seat, no longer leaning against Ricky, but still sitting next to him. She was taller than Judy, almost as tall as Ricky, with long brown hair. Her eyes were brown.

"That's what I said," I agreed.

"It's not in the phone book," Ricky explained. "I don't know what it is, but we're going to find out."

I turned back to Judy. She reached toward me, nibbling on my ear. Then I heard her whisper, "He's an obsessive/compulsive person, isn't he?" I knew she had psychology this semester. I was in that class last year.

"Um umm," I agreed.

"Me, too," she said, and we started kissing again. I heard Rachel mumbling to Ricky but was too busy with Judy to pay attention to them. We continued to kiss in the back seat of the car, as Ricky drove us down Silver Lake Road. I occasionally glanced out the window between kisses, recognizing the road we traveled on. We passed South Creek Road, the road both Ricky and I lived on.

After some time, I felt the car slow down and heard Ricky exclaim, "Aha!" I glanced out the window and saw we were turning onto Crystal Lake Road. There were five of the arrow signs pointing down Crystal Lake Road, including the one that stated 'The Wildlands.'

"This is boring," I heard Rachel mumble. I looked toward them, waiting for Ricky to reply, but he merely gave her a dirty look then turned his attention back to the road. I looked at Judy, but she shrugged and pulled me closer again, nuzzling my neck. I wrapped my arm around her and held her.

We continued down the road, passing a pine tree plantation and a small hobby farm. After some time, we passed the Boy Scout Camp and the Christian Youth camp. Both camps were located on the large lake. Both camps had been on the signs we had passed back at the beginning of the road. We continued down the winding road for several miles.

"Did we miss it?" Judy asked.

"I don't think so," I replied.

"No," Ricky said from the front seat. "I've been watching and haven't seen anymore signs."

"It's probably a joke," Rachel snapped. "Someone probably put the signs up, but they don't go anywhere. Let's go back to my place and play video games."

"This road loops around and connects with Highway 43 up near Newton," Ricky said. "If we don't pass another sign between here and there, we'll head back to Timber Ridge on 43."

"Ok," Rachel agreed, not turning toward Ricky. She continued to look out the passenger window. Ricky started to say something, but she reached over and turned the radio up.

After several more miles, I looked up from Judy as I heard Ricky exclaim. "There's another sign!" Glancing out the window, I saw another one of the arrow signs, pointing down a narrow road. The road sign named the road as Muskellunge Road. Ricky turned the car down the road.

Both sides of the road were forested, with dense brush. We passed a couple of run down houses that looked like they were abandoned.

"I think we might be in the state forest," I said, remembering when my Dad used to take me grouse hunting. I wasn't sure where the forest was, but I know it was somewhere near.

"There's a county map in the glove box," Ricky said. Rachel opened the map and took it out. She unfolded it and began to look for Muskellunge Road.

"There's another sigh!" Judy shouted, pointing.

Ricky slowed as he approached the next sign. It pointed down an unnamed, two-lane dirt road.

"Here's Muskellunge Road," Rachel said. "It winds around and ends at Stone Lake. The map doesn't show any roads coming off of Muskellunge."

"Maybe this is the Wildland's drive," Ricky said, turning the car down the dirt road.

"Let's go back," Rachel said. "I've got a creepy feeling about this."

"I put over thirty miles on coming this far," Ricky said. "We're almost there now. Might as well check it out and be done with it."

Rachel leaned back in her seat, her arms crossed in front over her chest.

We followed the winding, dirt road through the forest, with Ricky driving. An occasional walking trail could be seen leading off the road and into the trees, otherwise there was little variation of the forest. We passed a few low, wet, swampy spots and several stands of tall trees. Once, I was looking out the window, when Ricky suddenly slammed on the brakes. Judy and I pitched forward, nearly colliding with the seats in front of us. Swearing, I looked and saw a deer dash into the brush. We continued on.

After several miles, Ricky slowed the car down again. "There," he said pointing. Another Wildland sign was on the side of the road, nearly concealed be the thick brush. The sign pointed down a narrow, single-lane dirt road.

"You're not driving down there," Rachel said.

"Sure, why not?" Ricky grinned, turning the car onto the narrow road.

"Let me out here," Rachel said, reaching for the door.

Ricky slammed on the brakes and grabbed her arm. "You can't get out here!" he shouted. "We're in the middle of nowhere!"

"I don't care!" she screamed. "I'm not going down that road."

"Come on, Rachel," Judy said, leaning forward and grabbing her friend's shoulder. "It'll be alright."

"Yeah," I said. "It's just an old logging road. Someone probably marked it , so they could remember their way back to a good deer hunting location, or it's probably a good grouse hunting lane."

"We'll just drive down a little ways," Ricky promised. "If the road looks too bad, we'll turn around and go back."

"What if we get stuck?" Rachel said.

"I've got my cell phone," Judy said. "We can always call a tow truck if we need to. We'll get out."

"All right," Rachel said after moment's hesitation.

We continued down the narrow road. Ricky drove considerably slower now, swerving to avoid potholes and deep ruts. The brush and limbs from trees reached out to scrape at the sides of his car. The road twisted its way through stands of evergreens, past tall oaks and maples, down through wet swampy areas, and over grassy knolls. We passed several branches leading off the main trail, some of them too narrow for a vehicle. We remained on the main route.

After traveling for about 15 minutes, the radio station we were listening to started to fade out. Rachel reached for the button and tried adjusting the station, but after another minute it was gone. She stabbed the buttons for the preset stations, but they all produced static.

"Must be some interference," Ricky suggested.

Swearing, Rachel opened her flip-cell phone and pushed the power button. Looking at the display on the phone's face she swore again. "It says no signal!" she said angrily. "Enough is enough! Turn around or I'm getting out and walking!"

"Fine!" Ricky snapped back. "At the next branch I'll turn around."

"Relax, Ricky," I said. "Apparently the signs were someone's idea of a joke."

"Maybe," Ricky said, staring ahead. "But we're so close to finding out for sure. What if it's a secret place or something?"

"If it was a secret, it wouldn't have signs pointing to where it was," I said.

"Maybe," Ricky repeated. "But I just wanted to know." He sighed then continued. "I'll come back here by myself. That's what I'll do. I'll follow the roads the signs point down until the end of the trail. Then I'll see."

I leaned back in the seat and glanced at Judy, who again shrugged. I couldn't understand why the signs bothered Ricky so much. He was obsessed with them.

"There's a place we can turn around!" Rachel shouted, pointing.

Ricky looked. "That's not big enough," he said. "We'll get stuck."

"It is to!" Rachel insisted. "Turn around."

"Not there!" Ricky shouted back. "That's just a walking trail. And it looks too soft."

I glanced out the window. "He's right, Rachel," I agreed. "It's all sand. And it doesn't look very big. There should be something else before too long."

She flopped back into her seat, her arms crossed, pouting.

We continued along the narrow road that twisted its way through the forest. After several minutes, Judy pointed out the window.

"What kind of plants are those?" she asked. She pointed to several squat bushes, with broad, dark-green leaves.

"Beats me," I said. "I'm not a plant specialist."

"Neither am I," she replied. "But my family and I do go camping. And we bike through the forests around here. I've never seen a plant like that before."

We rounded the bend and saw a car parked on the side of the road. It was backed into a narrow branch extending off the road into the forest. As we approached it, I noticed the car looked abandoned. It was rusted and covered with debris from the trees. The tires were flat. It was an old model, from the 70's.

"Maybe they got stuck trying to turn around," Ricky commented softly. "Probably never got out of here."

Rachel spun toward him. "Shut up!" she shrieked. "Just shut up and get us out of here!"

Ricky clamped his jaws shut and continued to drive. After several corners, I saw a wide area in the road, near another branch.

"Try turning around here," I said.

"You want to go back, too?" he asked, turning around in his seat and looking at me. His eyes glared angrily at me.

"Enough is enough," I said. "Rachel is upset. I'll come back with you some other time and we'll check out the road, ok."

He snorted and turned back to the road. Slowing as he approached the intersection, he swung his car into the branch. He pulled as far into the branch as he could. Throwing the car into reverse, he backed out of the branch, and we were facing the direction we had come from. He shifted the car back into drive and we started forward. We followed the road, winding around several corners, and over a few hills.

After going some distance, Rachel spoke up. "Shouldn't we have passed that old car already?" she asked.

"Yeah," Judy said. "We didn't miss it did we."

"I don't know how we could," Ricky said. "I turned around and took the way we came in. Maybe we didn't see it because the brush was thicker coming from this direction."

I leaned forward, peering out the front window at the road ahead of us. "I don't even see any tire tracks," I said. "This can't be the way we came in."

"What do you mean," Ricky stopped the car. "I turned around and went back the way we came."

Rachel glared at him. "You're not trying to pull something, are you?" Judy asked. "You're not still going looking for the Wildlands the sign was pointing to?"

Ricky turned in his seat, glaring back at Judy. "You saw me turn around!" he snapped. "You were all with me! How could I be pulling something like that! I said I'd come back later by myself, and I will!"

"And I said I'd come with you!" I shot back. "Try turning around again. Maybe we got off on a side branch."

"Fine," Ricky said. We drove up a hill and around a corner, and saw another branch we could turn around in. Ricky swung the car around, and pulled into the branch.

Suddenly, the engine died.

Rachel took a deep breath and turned toward him. Ricky turned the key, but we only heard a clicking sound.

"Enough fooling around, Ricky," I said, starting to become angry. "Just start the car and let's get out of here."

"I'm not fooling around," he insisted, turning the key again to no avail.

"Come on!" I shouted.

"You try it," he said, throwing his door open and jumping out. I got out and slid into the drivers seat. Turning the key, the engine only produced more clicking noises.

"Pop the hood," he said. "Maybe a battery cable is loose." I popped the hood and Ricky moved to the front of the car. I heard him jiggle some wires. "Try again," he shouted. I did but there was no improvement.

I got out of the car and squeezed between the brush and the car to the front. I looked at the engine, but couldn't see anything wrong. Ricky and I checked the battery connectors, and the connections to the alternator, and starter. We had Rachel slid over in the front seat and try to start it as we jiggled wires, but the vehicle wouldn't turn over.

"Great!" Ricky said, slamming the hood down. "My dad's gonna kill me if I have to get it towed to town from here. It'll cost a fortune." Rachel and Judy got out of the car and joined us.

"We gotta figure out how to get out of here first," I said. "It's going to take us hours to walk out of here."

"Let's start walking," Rachel said calmly. I looked at her. I had expected her to be hysterical but she was calm. "Let's walk back toward Muskellunge Road," she continued. "I'll keep checking my cell phone. When we get a signal, I'll call my brother. He'll come and get us."

"Ok," Ricky agreed.

We started following the tire tracks we had made coming in. We were going to try and find the spot where we turned off on the wrong road, so we could leave in the right direction. We walked down the road and around the corner. The tire tracks ended on the road.

"What's going on?" Ricky asked, glancing down at the road. "Is this where I turned around?"

I turned and looked back the way we came. "It can't be," I said. "There would be more tracks here. They would be going back and forth as you turned around."

"Maybe the ground is harder, so your tracks didn't show," Judy suggested, walking forward. Her footprints were clearly visible in the dirt on the road.

Ricky stepped toward the side of the road. "Are you sure I didn't turn around here?" he asked. He stepped into the brush, looking for evidence of the car turning around. Suddenly, a vine from a nearby bush shot out and wrapped around him. He started to scream, but the vine pulled him away from the road.

Judy and I ran forward, trying to grab him. His screams had faded, and he was long gone by the time we reached the side of the road.

"Don't leave the road," Rachel said. "It will get you, too."

Judy and I backed away and looked at her.

"What's going on?" Judy asked.

"I don't know," Rachel said. "But I think we found the Wildlands."

We went back to Ricky's car and wrote down everything that happened. I'm leaving the papers here, in case someone else finds our car. We took turns writing, and while the girls wrote, I noticed how strange the vegetation is. I hear distant roars from unseen animals. There are also large, strange bat-like creatures flying far overhead.

We're going to try and follow the road, and see where it takes us. As long as we stick to the road, I think we'll be safe.

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Peter Bergman, Jr.

Bio: Peter Bergman has had short stories published in Aphelion, Planet Magazine, Writer's Hood, and Dark Moon Rising. His recent horror novel, The Unleashed, is available at and bookstores. He lives with his wife and three teenage daughters in Rhinelander, Wisconsin



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