I Don't Go Camping Anymore

Let me preface this by saying that I realize that camping alone in the middle of nowhere isn’t the smartest activity a person can engage in. I’ve lost count of the times that well-meaning busybodies have lectured me about it. But, frankly, I just don’t care.

You see, all of my life I’ve done things that I don’t particularly want to do. I went to school, I got a job, I pay my bills. Camping--the stillness and the solitude of the forest at night--gives me joy, and joy seems in short supply most days. I never felt afraid in the woods, no matter how remote. I only ever felt calm, peaceful, like I was doing what I was always meant to do.

That doesn’t mean that I never took precautions. There are three things that a solitary woman needs in the woods: a good first aid kit, a good compass, and a good dog. I always went out with all three, and I always thought that those things could keep me from whatever might be out there in the forest.

I was wrong, of course. But just because I only ever considered the living threats.

The last camping trip I’ll ever take started out normally. I had planned a three-night loop through a stretch of woods I’d never been to before. Due to the unfamiliar and remote terrain, and the fact that I wouldn’t be following an established trail, I was only planning on hiking about eight miles a day before setting up camp each evening. That way I wouldn’t ever be too exhausted to make good decisions, and could generally enjoy my new surroundings more thoroughly. I loaded up my pack with all the supplies I’d need, told my parents where I’d be and when I’d return, and headed out to a part of the state that was completely foreign to me.

I arrived at the forest early in the day and parked alongside a deserted stretch of gravel road. I could see no sign that the road had been driven down in quite some time, and the thought of having this whole section of woods to myself filled me with a moment of glee. That moment intensified when I opened the passenger side of my car to let Suzie out.

Suzie was the kind of dog that provoked endless speculation about her genetic line, but ultimately she was several different kinds of mutt all rolled into one. Though not particularly intimidating to look at, Suzie was loyal and protective. I wouldn’t go on a hike without her by my side, and she was never happier than when she was walking along with me. Suzie gave me confidence that I could handle whatever the wilderness threw my way.

With my pack loaded high and heavy on my back, Suzie and I headed out into the woods. The route I had chosen was rugged and varied, and often I had to stop to check my map and compass. I had opted to walk along the ridgeline the first day, and found that the way was a gauntlet of loose rocks and fallen trees. There was no sign of humanity there. No empty bottles or trail blazes to pull me back into civilization. Despite the hard going, it was paradise.

That evening, I set up camp at a clearing near one of the higher ridges. I turned in a bit earlier than I had originally wanted, driven into my tent by the bite of the early fall air. Suzie snuggled in next to me as I zipped myself into my sleeping bag. Before I knew it, I had been lulled into sleep by the chorus of chirping night insects around me.

I woke up in the early morning hours to silence. A glance at my watch showed that it was 1:45--too early to be anything other than dead asleep. The full moon above illuminated the night, and I spent several seconds watching the shadows of the tree branches dance across the top of my tent. It was downright cold by then, and I zipped my sleeping bag more tightly. I looked at Suzie, still laying next to my body. Her eyes were open and focused on something beyond the tent. The wind must have woken her, too. I closed my eyes, hoping to fall quickly back to sleep, when I felt Suzie growl against me. I murmured a reassurance. “It’s probably just a deer, pup.”

Something, though, didn’t feel right. Suzie wasn’t the type of dog to growl at passing animals. In fact, she lived her life as though other creatures were curiosities at best, and distractions at worst. The only time I’d heard her growl like that was two years ago when a black bear came shuffling down a trail and caught us unawares.

In a weird way the thought of a bear outside the tent was a relief. My bag was hung from a tree, and bears in this part of the country weren’t known to be aggressive. I stroked Suzie’s fur and waited for the animal to sniff around the campground, determine that we weren’t that interesting, and leave. I strained to listen, but all I could hear was the sound of Suzie’s growling, so low and constant that it could have been a purr. I waited for what seemed like hours, but never heard the animal outside. As the morning went on, Suzie’s growls turned to soft whimpers, and I let her crawl into my sleeping bag with me. The sleep that came was fitful and interrupted by strange nightmares, but the morning sunlight eventually made its way into the tent.

You may be wondering at this point why I didn’t turn around and walk right back out of the woods, to my car, and back to civilization. Well, the simple reason is that I wasn’t worried. So, I thought, a bear came around the camp site. It wasn’t that big of a deal, and besides, I’d be another eight miles away by the time night came around again. I packed myself up, had a leisurely breakfast and set out again.

The morning’s hike was uneventful and beautiful, though Suzie stuck disconcertingly close by me, neglecting her usual explorations and mouth ajar with anxiety. Every time I tried to pet her she stiffened, so I let her be and continued walking on.

We stopped in a quiet clearing for late lunch, more than six miles into the day’s hike. It wasn’t until I was packing up to leave that I noticed it. The silence was total in this clearing. No birds, no cicadas, no rustle of leaves where squirrels leapt from tree to tree. It sent a chill down my spine, and I noticed Suzie watching the woods ahead.

“Let’s get out of here, girl.” She looked up at me and whined.

When we arrived at the edge of the woods, I immediately saw why there were no bird songs. Their little feathered bodies lay on the forest floor, dotting the fallen leaves with reds, blues, whites, and yellows. I poked a bluebird with my hiking stick, turning it over, looking for signs of predation or illness. I saw nothing strange, other than the mere fact of the lifeless body itself. I expected to need to call Suzie to me--birds were a favorite snack--but she had backed up behind me, another low growl escaping her curled lips. I stepped back to her and clipped a leash to her collar, fearing that she might run. Or that I might. The woods remained dead silent.

My heart had frozen in my chest, clenched tightly but somehow beating forcefully at the same time. Something was very wrong, and I needed to get out of this forest. I stood where I was and tried to think. I was 14 miles from where I parked my car, if I went back the way I came. Given the terrain, I knew I wouldn’t make it back before nightfall. I had in my pack a compass and map. I could try to map a new route, one that might take me back faster, but there was no guarantee that I could find my way before dark either. I was at the halfway point of the route, and I had to make the decision: keep going or turn back.

I thought back to the campsite the night before. Something was out there. Maybe it was just a bear, but maybe it was something else. The thought of going back to that spot to sleep made me shudder. I knew that I needed to keep going. I’d get as many miles as I could during the rest of the daylight hours, get a few hours of sleep and then finish tomorrow ahead of schedule. I just had to make it through another night, and I’d be back at my car.

I steadied myself and forged ahead, Suzie tense beside me, hackles raised. The miles melted behind us. There were no stops, no breaks to look at flowers or have a snack. Just the constant sound of my boots striking the ground to break the unnatural quiet. Birds littered the ground, and when I came to the next clearing, I had to step carefully through a mass of bodies where a flock of starlings was downed. As I walked, I kept an eye on the trees around me, but saw no movement, only that awful stillness.

Slowly the light began to fade, its rays become orange and diffuse through the leaves. I knew that I had to stop, that I couldn’t keep going through the night. The tent, though made of polyester and carbon fiber, would at least allow me the illusion of security. I found a clearing, mostly devoid of dead birds, and set up camp. Suzie whimpered.

“It’s okay, girl. We’ll be out of here tomorrow, I promise.”

I was in my tent before the sun finished its descent behind the trees, hand wrapped tightly around one of my hiking poles, and Suzie next to me. Whatever was out here, I just hoped it would leave me alone. I drifted in and out of consciousness, the strain of the day overcoming me in waves before the nightmares pulled me back into the world. Suzie didn’t sleep at all, as far as I could tell. She just lay there stiffly, every so often emitting another low growl and licking her lips nervously.

When I was awake, I listened. The wind moved the branches above me, but nothing else made a sound. I mentally clung to the creaks and groans of the trees, something familiar and reassuring in this strange place. Eventually, though, that too became twisted and bizarre--the branches began to sway above me ferociously, casting shadow fingers across the top of my tent. The wind, however, sounded as if it were dying down. It was as if the branches were moving on their own. But, of course, that couldn’t be.

I sat up in my sleeping bag, freeing my arms and drawing Suzie in closer to me. The warmth of her little body, and the feel of her breathing gave me comfort in the moments before we both heard it.

A crunch of footfall right outside made Suzie lunge for the tent door. Frantically she began clawing at the fabric, whining and snapping her teeth. I tried to hold her still, but she was fighting me at every turn. When the fabric ripped, there was nothing I could do; she bolted into the night. I heard her yelp seconds later. And the silence returned.

Before I could even process what had just happened, the tent began to shake. The tree branches, once just shadows upon the surface, now grasped and raked against my tent, tearing gashes along its seams. I fought my way out, still clutching the hiking pole, but hopelessly aware of how little good it did. I emerged into the little clearing of my campsite, my ruined tent illuminated by a full moon. The trees were motionless, just as they should be, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. The hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention, though the air was still. The only thing that I could hear was my own ragged breath and the quick percussion of blood through my ears.

I backed slowly into the bark of the nearest tree, feeling totally exposed in the clearing. Minutes passed, or maybe hours, but the silence continued. Around me the shadows morphed and writhed as the moon made its way across the sky. My eyes saw things that were not there, and the cold began to seep into my bones.

I could think of nothing else to do standing alone and vulnerable in the night, so I started talking. At first to myself, and then to whatever was with me.

“Please. I’m sorry.” I choked back giant, ugly sobs. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. I didn’t know. I’m leaving, I swear. Just one more day and I’ll be gone. Please. Please.”

“Please” became a mantra, a point of focus for my ever-unravelling mind. Instead of looking for forms in the shadows, I instead centered my thoughts around the word, how it felt in my mouth and how it sounded hoarser and hoarser as the night went on.

By the time the gray morning light began to seep through the trees, I was numb. I was numb from fear, from cold, from grief. I was unsure if I could find the strength in my legs to hike out of this place. But I did. I left my tent where it lay in tatters and started into the woods alone.

The rest of the day barely registered with me, if I’m being completely honest. I remember the silence, the feeling of being watched, and “please” on my cracked lips. When I finally made it back to my car, I didn’t even have the energy to cry.

Some time later, when I felt well enough to revisit my experience, I looked up the forest, this corner of nowhere, online. I read stories about the isolation and the wilderness of the forest, about logging crews who had abandoned their machinery, about how the trails had become overgrown and useless. I had seen these stories before my trip, and they excited me. The solitude of it all, the remote rugged terrain that had driven the less adventurous away. But now I had context; I understood. The forest wasn’t for me. It wasn’t for any of us, and it made sure that it would always be that way