Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hunted

I grew up in Oregon and was acquainted with the outdoors at an early age. My favorite hobby came to be hiking, particularly in areas that are either very dangerous or isolated. The health benefits of hiking were secondary to the thrills of walking the edges of exposed cliffs, being in cougar and bear territory, and knowing that I was far from help. Into the Wild was released in the fall of 2007 and I immediately fell in love. Being a high school senior, I could barely go another week living in my parents' house. The movie spoke to my sense of adventure and inspired me to hike the California portion of the Pacific Crest Trail upon graduation.

I made it from the Mexico border to northern California without much incident. I saw rattlesnakes and black bears, experienced dehydration, but nothing happened that made me fear for my life. Somewhere in the Lassen National Forest in northeastern California, I walked around a bend in the trail only to be startled by two people sitting on a rock dressed in nearly all white.

Their faces were dirty, their appearance disheveled, and the man had a long unkempt beard. Both seemed to be in their forties. They looked like the couple who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart. What struck me as odd about the encounter was encountering anybody at all. I frequently went days without seeing a single human being. Their white clothes could be explained away by the need to escape the California summer sun. Their scruffy appearance could be explained away by the fact that most thru-hikers abandon personal hygiene on the trail. After I said hello, they said nothing and simply watched me as I passed. Even that I didn't find odd. I chalked it up to them being foreign and not knowing what to say.

I camped a few hundred yards off the trail that night, as I always did. Following bear precautions, I hung the leftover food I had cooked that night from a tree approximately five feet off the ground. Packing up camp in the morning, I noticed the food wasn't there. I immediately thought a bear had entered my campsite and so I began to look for paw prints. I didn't find paw prints, but I did find boot prints circling the campsite, two pairs of them. One of those prints led right up the rope from which the food was hanging. I thought of the couple I had passed earlier and everything clicked. I quickly packed up and left. My mind was racing the entire day, but I figured the couple was simply hungry. If they had nefarious intentions, they would have come for more than the food.

Several days passed and my mind was at ease again. I had begun to circle my campsite with sticks to wake me in the event of an intruder, animal or otherwise. I awoke in my tent one night to the sound of those sticks crunching. I grabbed my hunting knife. I tried to relax by telling myself that in the middle of nowhere, the source of that noise is much more likely an animal than a person. Then I heard frantic whispering. It was impossible to tell which direction the voices were coming from. Being in the dark, surrounded by trees, a hundred miles from the nearest city plays tricks on your senses. I debated yelling out claiming to have a gun but instead decided to be silent and retain the benefit of surprise. I heard footsteps circling my tent and was ready to slash and whatever opened it. But just like that, it was over. No more footsteps, no more whispering. I lied frozen awake in my tent until sunrise and opened my tent to find nobody there. The only evidence something had actually happened were the boot prints, the same as before.

Several more days passed and I was now in Shasta National Forest, probably 50 to 75 miles from where I first encountered the couple. The trail became more or less a goat trail. Being on the side of a mountain and above the tree line, I could see the trail winding for miles in front of and behind me. I stopped for water in the rare shade and noticed two hikers miles behind me. All I could see were two white dots moving along the mountainside. I immediately said out loud, "Fuck this, this trip is over." I pulled out my map and looked for the nearest town, which appeared to be Castella located off I-5. The only problem was that it was 25 miles away. I hiked well into the night trying to gain as much ground as possible. I kept losing the trail and decided to set up camp, this time far off the trail and into the forest. I got in my tent and tried to sleep but every little noise kept me awake.

After a few hours in my tent I heard the telltale signs of another bad night: the footsteps, the whispering, the sticks breaking. Sound travels far in the absence of other sound. I knew they were close, but wasn't sure how close. All I could think was "This is fucked up, this is so fucked up. God dammit." Finally a flashlight hits my tent, lights up the entire thing, and goes dark. I unzipped my tent and climbed out carrying my knife, yelling nonsense into the dark. It was sort of like that cliche scene in movies where people in the wilderness hear sticks breaking around them and the camera pans around the trees because the people have no idea which direction the sound is coming from.
Then I heard footsteps running towards the tent and barely made out a figure moving in my peripheral vision. I turned and ran deep into the forest. I tripped several times and ran into several trees. After running for approximately five minutes I tripped, rolled, and came to rest next to a downed tree. I got under the tree trunk and laid still. I saw the flashlight moving around in the distance. I laid under that tree for hours. I was certain they were gone but I didn't move. Eventually birds started chirping and I knew sunrise would come soon. Once it did I made my way back to the trail, abandoned my campsite, and walked the rest of the distance to Castella where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses I-5.

I hitchhiked my way to the town of Mt. Shasta and spoke with the police and forest service. They put me up in a motel for the night, and my parents drove from Oregon to pick me up the next day. I followed up with the police and forest service months later who told me there had been similar reports of items disappearing from campsites throughout the surrounding national forests. However, there had been no other reports of the terrorizing that I experienced. As far as I know, nothing ever came of the couple.

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