We were stopping for a spot of lunch, ‘cold, grey lunch’ I thought and chuckled. Pasta again?
I remember the day well, it was a late afternoon in October 1994, somewhere on the road between Poznan and Bialystok.
How could we be so far from civilisation, in the remotest depths of this unforgiving forest.
The sky was as grey as the road itself which went on endlessly into what seemed like an eternal mix of pine and deciduous trees. The long road never faltering from its direct and disappearing course, far into the distance.
We were reminded of our journey with the occasional swerve of our van to avoid a large pothole or a jolt when a pothole took us by surprise.
Apart from every hour or so, when a car or lorry would pass us, we were on our own and we had the road and our good humour and comradery to ourselves.
Wherever on earth in this void we had stopped looked much like the rest of the day’s scenery.
An empty layby in the middle of nowhere.
Our captain recommended that we get some wood to start a fire to cook our meal.
Our group of six went searching for wood in various directions, into the foreboding and creaking forest.
I ventured one way, in a different direction to the others, or rather stumbled as there were no paths, just an endless parade of light craving trees.
We each returned with bundles of wood, gathered from the tinder dry and decaying ground and slowly we built a pile of wood with which to light a fire and cook our much-awaited meal.
I was hungry and cold, though cheered as always by the pleasant company and the spirit of our trip and also by the support and friendship that we gave each other.
Gradually, finding some renewed confidence I ventured deeper into the woodland in the search for fuel for our fire.
Soon I was lost. Time had drifted into night and there was no road to be seen from where I stood. I looked up into the leafy branches. It was a clear night yet I saw no stars above.
Why had I ventured so far from the road? I must have been absorbed and intrigued in the spirit of the moment looking for twigs and branches which were scarce upon the ground.
I tried to listen in the blackness for a sound. I thought I heard a voice, or at least an echo of one and slowly moved towards what I could hear.
I could see nothing now, no matter how I squinted, I could not get sight of anything apart from darkness.
I stumbled, where was the time going?
I heard another sound like a twig snapping in the distance, could that be the others?
Perhaps it was a bird? I couldn’t tell.
Then I thought, could it be a wolf or even a bear? These forests were renowned to harbour such fearsome animals and I imagined being devoured and attacked in the woods, far away from home.
I decided to stay put, the thick boughs and branches deadened any sound, I was cold with a pang of hunger now and a little frightened.
I couldn’t have been away for more than half an hour, perhaps it was longer than that. I didn’t know, it felt as though time had stopped.
And still I listened, ever more acutely now.
Would I live forever in this forest.
Should I shout? Would I alert whichever creature I had unwittingly disturbed?
Then the sound stopped and I was alone again.
Our captain would have guessed by now that I had been missing and would soon begin searching into the gloom.
On the other hand, throughout the trip I had developed a tendency to wander off somewhat and explore and scout the new terrain that we encountered. Perhaps our captain had tried to call out, perhaps I was further away from them than I had imagined.
I tried to listen closely and more attentive than I had ever done, I heard nothing.
I realised that I couldn’t see or hear anything at all.
Then after what seemed like an age, I decided to shout.
I yelled ‘Captain’? where are you?
I called for the others.
There was no reply, there was a nothingness and an emptiness and I began to feel rather scared!
I shouted louder, this time as loud as I could and still nothing, just a thick and muffled silence.
After a while I saw something, a twinkle of light through the trees. ‘That must be the fire’ I thought. The others had lit the fire!
It was only a glimmer and it was a hope and I followed the glimmer of hope until the twinkle of light got gradually brighter.
I felt easier as I stumbled, hurriedly below the canopy.
Then I caught a waft of woodsmoke and arrived at our van.
I felt so relieved.
The captain and the others had believed that I had been with them all the time asleep in the van, while they chatted and cooked our meal around, what was by now a raging and crackling symbol of delight.
We enjoyed our meal, settled for the night and set off again along the wooded road in the morning.
I learnt three important things that day.
- Fresh pasta cooks quickly.
- Don’t wander away from your friends at twilight looking for firewood in large forests.
- The forests in Poland are massive, ‘get lost in there alone and one may never return.