A Walk in Fear

Everybody has heard stories about events and intuitions which are unexplainable.  The dog that walks three hundred miles to get home after being separated its family on a camping trip, and the traveler who extends her vacation one day and later reads that the airplane upon which she had planned to return home had crashed and all on board lost, are just two of myriad examples which come to mind.  Many will tell such stories and most will admit that they have no idea how or why this phenomenon works.  I am one of those people.  I have a story to tell and I have no idea of what reality lies behind it.  I will let the reader judge for him or herself.

I have always been very comfortable being outside.  From the time that I was capable of remaining vertical under my own power my father would take us camping in the mountains east of San Diego.  There was little there that represented a threat to us.  Urban growth and vacation/retirement home construction in the rural areas had not yet compressed the territories available to mountain lions to the point where they would target humans for food.  Reports of attacks were extremely rare, to the point where it was not considered to be, well, worth considering.

Much more likely to cast a shadow on our camping and hiking experience were denizens which lived much closer to the ground; rattlesnakes and scorpions for example.  Every morning we would shake out our boots before inserting our feet and every evening we would shake out our sleeping bags or blankets before crawling in.  For snake safety my dad taught me to carry a hatchet on my belt and whenever possible find a five foot stick for any hiking activity.  I loved to crawl through the native landscape up hills and down valleys and a few good raps of the blunt end of the hatchet on a cluster of boulders would send sound through the wonderful acoustic medium of stone and alert any snakes on, under, or near those stones to the fact that I was there.  Any snakes in the area would return the favor and we blissfully avoided ruining each other’s day.  The stick, in accordance with our family tradition of playing with words, we named a “snake snick”.  The stick would be used to poke at and rattle the low chaparral that we would frequently walk through for the same reason that we would tap the boulders.  An extra bonus was that we used the stick as a walking stick when walking in broken terrain, which I still do to this day.

As I aged my enjoyment of the outdoors only grew.  After I left the Army at almost 21 years of age I became an ardent camper and backpacker, looking always for more and more remote places to put up my tube tent and unroll my Army surplus mummy bag.  These trips took me mostly into the Sierra Nevada mountains of California and I almost never saw anything that stirred up any sense of danger.  There were exceptions however.  On one trip my friend Warren and I were camping along the Kern River in the southern Sierras.  We had hoped to spend a couple of days in the wilderness and do some fishing and exploring but on the first evening, shortly after getting our tent up, unrolling our sleeping gear and getting a cheerful little fire going, into our camp walked Stony.

These were the glory days of hippiness and young people in California were very open to hitchhiking and crashing at strangers “pads” and welcoming wanderers in the woods into one’s camp, but we quickly discerned that Stony brought more to the table than just another wandering free spirit living off the land.  Over the course of the next hour or two we learned that Stony carried a couple of very sharp knives and a legal document from the Great State of Texas certifying that he was crazy.

Stony was very proud of that piece of paper, and he proceeded to spend the next hour or so graciously putting a keen edge on my machete while he explained how he came to possess this prized documentation and how he ceased to be under the care and protection of the Texas mental health establishment.  He had been an unwilling recipient of the attention of that Texas agency and had somehow managed to wriggle off of their hook and plop his crazy ass in our tent in the now pitch dark night, a good many miles from nowhere.  Stony went into great detail about the relationship which he enjoyed with the State of Texas but for the life of me I can’t remember one thing that he said.  This was only two years after the Charles Manson thing and my attention was focused on something far different than Stony’s life history.

Warren and I turned in quite early that night and we later learned that neither of us slept that night as we awaited the return of the sun.  After what felt like a million years that procrastinating orb made it’s reappearance in the eastern sky and we announced to Stony that we were heading back to San Diego.  Stony gladly accepted an offer to take him back to Los Angeles, an offer that we had never made, and so we lit out together on the road which led back to civilization.

Along the way we drove through Bakersfield and pulled into a Denny’s in order to use the restroom.  At least that’s what we told Stony.  The three of us went in together and while Warren and I occupied the two urinals Stony disappeared behind the door of one of the stalls. That was just the break that we had been looking for.  Without a whisper of communication we both raced for the outside door.  We threw ourselves into the car, and I was chucking Stony’s gear out of the window into the Denny’s parking lot while Warren was peeling out, heading for the exit.  Moments later we were giggling like schoolgirls as we celebrated our regained freedom while tooling down that dusty California highway in the scorching California sun.

So the point of that rabbit hole which I just took you down is that I had only rarely encountered anything in the great outdoors with either two legs or more that caused me any real concern.  Why, then, am I telling this tale?  The answer to that lies in the story of the last unprotected walk I ever took at the mercy of nature and what nature sometimes contains.

In May of 1984 I graduated from college and soon had an offer of a job  from a hospital in the Pacific Northwest, due to begin at the end of August.  During that last few months I revisited much that had been my life and experiences in San Diego, since I knew that there was little likelihood that I would ever return.  I was by this time in my early thirties and had two children of my own.  I determined one day to take them to the public campground in the mountains where I spent so many idyllic days in my youth.

We parked at the picnic area and then walked the roadway along the Sweetwater River, which couldn’t honestly be called even a creek, through the campgrounds where there were many of the spaces in which my family had set up our camps in decades past.  I told my children stories of those camp days as we headed to the falls, which consisted of a collection of huge boulders protruding from the earth through which the Sweetwater hissed and gurgled and tumbled over, around and ultimately down a rockslide of about thirty feet to the more level creek bed below.

The kids and I snaked our way through those rocks and emerged onto the forest service road which paralleled the river for a ways downstream.  After a third of a mile or so we passed the last swimable pool where many campers and picnickers were splashing and we began to walk out into the utterly uninhabited area of low hills and chaparral that stretched for thirty miles back towards the village of Alpine, and civilization.

As we walked deeper and deeper into this lonely wasteland I became increasingly uneasy.  I wasn’t consciously aware of it at first but in time the tension built to a point where I couldn’t deny that I was nervous.  With my typical grasp of logic and good sense I rebuked myself for being afraid of walking on a road in a forest that I had walked through unafraid for my entire life.  This exercise of mental discipline was an unqualified failure and by the time we were a half mile beyond the previously mentioned swimming hole I had to admit that I was somewhere between fully afraid and terrified.

Afraid of what, I hadn’t a clue.  All I could see were the rocks and hills and live oak and chaparral that I had seen all my life.  Not the softest sound in the air nor the most vague quivering of a leaf or branch gave any hint to a danger lurking just beyond my visual range.  Nevertheless I felt a malice and threat so thick that I might have welcomed the emergence of the source of that threat from it’s covert so that I would know what I had to deal with.

But how would I do that?  I was completely without means for defense other than what hung at the ends of my arms and legs and what grew in my mouth, and I was well aware that any test of strength involving tooth and claw between me and some forest predator was most certainly going to leave me at a distinct disadvantage.  No rocks of usable size could be found in the road and any sticks in sight were either too big or too small to be of use.  There was only me and my two children and whatever was causing the hair to raise up on the back of my neck on that isolated stretch of road.

I suggested to my kids that we had gone far enough and that a return to our car would result in ice cream cones at the hamburger stand in Pine Valley a few miles away.  The kids, of course, greatly approved of my plan, so we turned around and began to retrace our steps back to civilization.  Part of me was glad to be walking away from the terrible anxiety that I was feeling, but somehow the act of turning my back on my fear made it worse.  I did not want to communicate my fear to my children so I was very careful to look backwards as well as forwards without raising their suspicious.  My fear rose higher with each step we took and I felt like we were not closing the distance between ourselves and the swimming hole.

I finally came to the conclusion that we would not be able to make it back to where there were other people; that whatever was causing my fight or flight sense to be exploding like fireworks in July would not allow that to happen.  I decided to challenge to kids to run back to the car so that we could get to the ice cream all that much more quickly.  The act of running, I was sure, would bring on the attack and hopefully I would face the challenge while the kids would keep running to safety.

That’s when I finally heard a noise.  It was not the snapping of a twig or the low growl that I expected.  Quite the opposite, it was the rumble of an engine and the crunch of large, knobby tires coming up from behind us.  I stopped and faced into the direction which my senses told me held the threat and waited for the vehicle from heaven to come around the curve.

And come it did.  That magnificent pale green Forest Service pickup hove into view and I felt like crying in relief.  I raised my arm to flag the driver down and the ranger pulled up next to us.  I lied magnificently, saying that my children were very hot and tired, and would he give us a lift back to the campground.  The ranger explained that this was against regulations but he would give us a ride anyway.  I felt like a child of Israel departing from slavery in Egypt!  I thanked the ranger profusely and we piled most gratefully into that chariot of gold which took us to our car.  I then fulfilled my promise of ice cream and soon we were headed back to the comforting hubbub of the city.

I sometimes think back to that walk in the Cleveland National Forest and the raw fear that I felt there.  Of course I have no way of proving that my enemy was anything more than my overstimulated imagination;  I didn’t then and I most certainly don’t now.  For me however, there is no burden to prove anything.  I could not possibly care less whether anyone believes that there was a hungry horror tracking my children and I on that dusty road so many years ago.  I knew then and I know today that something was there, and only a heaven-sent U.S. Forest Service ranger in a pale green pickup accounts for my writing this story today.

That day marked the last day that I ever walked in the wilderness without carrying the means to either defend myself and those with me or make something pay a very heavy price for it’s dinner.  I have had friends who are more frightened of my firearm than I was frightened on that dusty road.  I respect their feelings, but I never intend to taste the bitter gall of defenselessness and terror again like I tasted it on that road so long ago.

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