Sunday, July 31, 2022

A Black Night On The Trail





I was sitting on the step of a shelter on the Appalachian Trail, doing what I normally do while on the hike, pulling everything out of my backpack, looking for the one thing I need that always seems to be on the bottom. I think I need a special pack that opens on the bottom and that might be my one big contribution to the backpacking community. While I'm examining the contents of my pack and marveling at how many things I've brought along that I have yet to use, I'm listening to brother Paul tell his famous stories to a young couple that we met at the shelter. They were quite an oddity. Both were in their early 20's at most and both were fair-skinned red-heads. My kids are redheads and I'm often told by my daughter that red-heads do not go together. I'm not sure if that is some genetic thing, or just that two wildcard personalities don't usually match. But, this time it did and the second thing I realized about them is they were really scared. They were sitting  very close, knees touching and holding hands while they told the story of their last few days to Paul. I was trying not to listen, but did anyway and soon I was getting goosebumps and wondering if I could make it all the way back to the car without stopping....and that would have been an incredible feat, because it was getting late in the day and the car was an 8 hour hike ahead of us.

I frequently marvel how worry and fear can consume me, yet many things I do all the time don't bother me much at all. If my brain can find some kind of math that makes me feel good, I'm fine. For example, surfing. Many people worry about shark attacks, and I live in a place where that is more likely than others, but what I know is that I am way more likely to die of drowning while surfing than from a shark attack, so I spend my energy making sure I'm safe from least until I see a big shark fin heading towards me, then everything changes. Fear on the trail is a different thing. I've learned that the small sounds you hear in the night are not bears, no, even medium sounds are probably raccoons, A bear would sound like a dinosaur plodding in the dark. What IS scary is footsteps, careful, deliberate footsteps.

The young couple was asking if we minded stopping here at this shelter and spending the night with them. That was something I had never heard before. Usually hikers want solitude and hope that you are moving on. These two were hoping we could lend some protection from this ominous person they had met several times and thought he might be stalking them. They described him as an older homeless-looking guy with wild eyes that loved telling horror stories. The girl relayed one that I cannot forget to this day. The man said he had been hiking all day and was running low on food and came to an opening in the woods where somebody had placed some trail magic. Trail magic is a hiker term for presents people leave in the woods for fellow hikers, usually it is food, sometimes, it is something you can't usually get in the woods like a cold beer in an ice chest, but it is always something that brightens up your day in a large way. This time, he did find a large ice chest, and ran for it, hoping for some cold drink and something to eat. He opened chest and found it full of raccoon heads. Somebody had gone to all of the trouble to kill a dozen raccoons and leave their grizzly remains behind for a terrible joke on a hiker.

His wild eyes gleamed at the young girl as he reached that part of the story and she slowly realized that he was the one that had placed the dead raccoons in the ice chest. They left him soon after that, but he was calling after them, asking if they were planning on staying at the next shelter and to save him a place to bunk. They ran as fast as young folks can with full backpacks, and knew that they were now deep in the woods with a crazy person. Their hope was Paul and I. 

This is where my low-level reptilian self takes over...there is no way I'm sleeping in the woods, waiting for crazy guy to show up. "We hike all night until we make the car. I'd rather die from exhaustion than getting chopped up by a serial killer!" Paul wanted to make a stand, find a big stick, make booby-traps, surround the guy, tie him up and take him into the cops.

While this discussion was going on, my brain was also flashing how this would be a great story if i survived, and if I didn't, perhaps that "found diary" would be my "black Travis McGee story". That certainly needs explaining. A part of our society has wanted to clean up our literature, in an effort to show that we are better than we used to be. John D. MacDonald's books may someday fit into that category. He was an old guy, writing that kind of stuff we still get today, where tough detective guy solves the problem while disposing of the bad guy and getting all the chicks...except that in John's day, the female characters weren't too well fleshed out, and the black folks they got even less. Me? I think we need to remember how people were and we read that stuff and didn't complain. I'd like to think we've moved to a higher plane, but I'm not so sure. John did one particular thing with all of his Travis McGee stories: they all used a color in the title. There was a large rumor in the literary community that when John died, he left behind a manuscript that was the "Black Travis McGee Story", the one in which Travis died. No one ever found such a story, but that particular night it occurred to me that this might be the Black Ed Perkins story.

We pushed on, using headlamps and eating whatever we could while walking. All the while listening for footsteps behind us, and that my friend, was the fear feeling I carried with me for a whole night.

We got home, laughed about it, then read in the news that a homeless man that had been traveling up and down the Trail had killed two people with a machete. The description was that two young men had tried to restrain the man while the woman with them ran ahead...Those two young men died. The woman ran the trail for 6 miles......running 6 miles in the woods and knowing your friends were getting murdered behind you....that is a real fear....