This is not that kind of story. This is a real story, with real characters.
This account is so real, in fact, that I’m changing the names. The characters are Terry Barnalo, Baron Barnalo, and Tim Beunier.
I am married to Terry Barnalo, and Baron Barnalo is my son. Tim Beunier is a family friend.
Here’s how it all began:
“I want to show you the swamp,” my husband, Terry, said when we arrived for a short stay at a low country hunting preserve a few days ago. He and Baron had been coming here for many years and enjoyed its unique beauty. I’d been here in the distant past, but Terry wanted to give me a tour of what it looked like today.
So, we loaded into the trailblazer, our friend Tim, Terry, Baron, and me.
As the sun slid to the west, we drove down what seemed a maze of dirt roads through cypress-kneed swamps, and around lily pad filled ponds all under the canopy of moss draped oaks, many of which had stood for generations.
“Take this road,” someone said. And we did. “And this one.” We turned again. We’d been gone about forty-five minutes, and I had no idea how deep we were in the swamp or how far away from our cabin.
We rounded a corner, and the road filled with green water. Not passable. In fact, I wasn’t even sure it was a road.
“Back up here,” we told Terry, who was driving, as we spotted a clearing behind us. For some reason he didn’t. He pulled forward.
That’s when we heard the sickening thud. The front right tire had sunk into a hole. Shifting into reverse only produced spinning.
When we exited the car to investigate the problem, we found ourselves firmly stuck, unable to move in any direction.
The sun continued its descent. There was talk of removing the bumper or jacking the car up, but we wound up trying several other maneuvers. All failed.
“We’re going to have to walk,” someone said.
I grabbed my purse from the car. I didn’t want to leave it behind because it was the best buy I’d ever gotten at TJMaxx. I was thankful I’d taken off the heels I had on earlier in the day, but I was by no means dressed for the Lewis and Clarke Expedition.
We didn’t have a gun, a whistle, a compass, or even a flashlight. I had a tiny little LED light on my key chain. Useless. We had about twenty flashlights at home, all without batteries.
“Do we need this map,” I asked picking up a laminated chart of the land.
“No, we’re fine.”
I grabbed it.
“This way,” Tim pointed, and we set out.
Let me share at this point that the property we were on measures twenty two thousand acres. I’ll write that out with the zeroes for you. 2-2-0-0-0. About one-third the size of the county I live in. And we were at least thirty miles from any cell phone reception.
I wondered if this was some cruel initiation ritual. I’d heard of things like this.
All I could hear was Jerry, oh excuse me, Terry saying a hundred times before when he told the stories of the place, “You don’t want to be in the swamp after dark.”
We were and it was. Can you say alligator?
Now, I’m a planner. I like lists, calendars, and schedules. My idea of an outing in the country is to go in the backyard and pull a chair up under the pear tree. And the only place I ever want to see alligator skin is in a pair of shoes.
We walked down a “road” to a point where it just disappeared, and looked around us.
We then set off across a firebreak hoping it would lead us to a “real” road.
I heard a growl coming from the brush right beside me and jumped.
“What was that?” I said, sure it was one of those big wild Russian boars which populated the area. We’d just seen several a few miles back. Those boars have tusks the size of the Florida peninsula.
“Quail,” Tim said.
“Didn’t sound like quail. It sounded like a pig.”
“Nah, just quail.”
I kept on the lookout just in case.
Someone, I thankfully don’t remember who, had the idea to take off through a briar patch that any self respecting jackrabbit would have shunned.
Sun disappearing behind trees and we still hadn’t even found the road.
I can’t remember whether it was before the briar patch or after that I had a mini meltdown. I’m embarrassed to say it was replete with tears.
That number again. 22,000.
I could see the headlines in the local paper, “SEARCH STILL ON FOR FOUR LOST IN SWAMP, Only clue found in disappearance is yellow purse.” I knew I might have to cast my yellow purse aside on this trek. It’d be just like the people on the Oregon Trail who had to throw out the family silver in order to cross the Rockies. I didn’t want them to find me dehydrated, briar scratched and alligator bit clutching a yellow bag, out of my head, and mumbling something about final clearance at TJMaxx.
On this journey, my companions reassured me numerous times that we were in no danger and that they knew exactly where we were. I knew where I was, too. The United States of America. That didn’t help too much in the present circumstances, however.
The only person I really trusted on this expedition was my son Baron, because I knew his memory was sharp and he might remember something. The rest of us could barely remember what we had for breakfast.
The sun completely disappeared as we stepped from the briar patch onto a semblance of a road. There was some discussion as to where we were, but we kept marching.
Of course, I was trailing trying to keep everyone’s backs in my view. Only starlight now.
“Watch out for the mud,” Tim shouted back to me.
“Look out for that stump,” Baron said.
“Don’t’ stumble over the rock.” Terry stopped to help me dodge it.
I simmered about having to trudge miles back to our lodging in the pitch black. That is if we ever made it. If Terry had only listened to us when we said back up.
I started picking up some of the giant pinecones I’d been kicking aside.
“What are you doing?” Terry asked.
“I ought to have something to show for this little adventure,” I said.
I was aggravated.
Then I heard a whisper in my spirit.
“Look up,” the whisper said.
How can I look up? I’ll fall in one of these ruts.
“Look up,” the whisper came again.
I stopped a moment and stared into the night sky. Miles and miles away from city lights, stars I hadn’t seen in years became visible. Where had they been? This was not the celestial dome of my neighborhood. This was something else entirely.
Oh, Lord, did you drag me out here and let us get lost in the swamp, so I’d see the stars again?
I didn’t get an answer to that one, but I may have heard a little laugh.
Every few steps I’d pause a moment and gaze heavenward.
“How much farther?” I asked.
“Maybe a mile or two.”
I was told that on at least two different occasions.
When I finally saw a lone light in the distance, I wanted to sing the Doxology.
We stumbled into camp and told the other men staying there about the vehicle being stuck. You would have thought we’d thrown a hungry dog a bone.
One of them grabbed a chain, and six of them loaded into four-wheel drive vehicles and set out through the inky swamp.
I told Terry, “I was scared. You always said not to be in the swamp after dark.”
“We weren’t in the swamp. We were on the hill.”
Let me show you the picture again.
Does that look like a hill? I didn’t think so. As my mother used to say, that land was “flatter than a flitter.”
I was mad, but I knew I wasn’t going to stay mad. Here’s why. I can only be mad at Terry for a few minutes, because he has the best pitiful face of anybody I’ve ever known. He used to be called Ted for teddy bear in high school. All he has to do is turn those sad brown eyes to me, and I melt like Jell-O on a Fourth of July picnic.
He’s not even a good apologizer. He’ll break something of mine, and make some comment about someone shouldn’t have left it in such a precarious place. I still can’t stay mad.
I’m really pathetic in that way, and I probably need some sort of help for it. I have many friends who are psychotherapists. Are any of you reading this?
When I get home, I’m going to buy everyone in my family a compass, a whistle, put batteries in the flashlights, and string them all on my family's key chains.
I’m going to have my shoes bronzed, and then I’m writing Lands End a letter and tell them about how I stomped through a swamp with their suede moccasins on. I figure they’ll put me in a catalog or something.
I'm also thankful for the cashmere socks I had on, though I may never get all the briars out of them.
A couple of nights after we returned home, I awoke from a sound sleep calling out, “I don’t know where I am. I don’t know where I am.”
Terry kissed me, held me close in his arms, and whispered in my ear, “You’re home.”
And that my friends, is a perfect example of why I can never stay mad at the man.
In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps (Proverbs 16:9).
He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name (Psalm 147:4).