Since I was a child, I have always found peace in the outdoors. It began when my father took me camping at a National Park for my eighth birthday and it is a passion that stayed with me all through my life. Growing up, I would read Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet novels and imagine myself in the North American wilderness alongside Brian, captivated by the wonders of nature around me. Even now, as I begin to enter my 30s, it is still my preferred means of escape. Each and every winter, I clear my schedule nearly half a year in advance and I ask for time away from work, and begin to prepare. I ready myself to escape the cramped confines of the city, to leave all the noise and people behind me as I make my return to the wild, but no more.
Never again will I venture into the untamed wilderness, whether it be a national park or something a simple as an RV park. For nearly two decades, I have deluded myself into believing that I could handle any hardships the natural world threw my way, all because I read some books and subscribed to outdoorsman magazines. Years were spent trying to persuade my husband to join me on these trips, coming to terms with the fact that he wasn’t as passionate as I about the outdoors, but no longer. Still he asks me why I refuse to return, but there are just some things I can never tell. Some things even a husband would dismiss as hallucinations or madness.
It was little more than a year ago when I embarked on my final journey into the wild. There was a national park I had come to love over the years, a place I once considered so beautiful that I took no issue with the hour-and-a-half it took to travel there by air. It was blessed with numerous hot springs, many of which were too hot to bathe in, yet breathtaking to admire, especially when the snow had freshly fallen and all was frozen save for those pools of near-boiling water. There was one hot spring that I loved in particular. The fact that it was nearly a two-hour hike from the campsite never deterred me. It was nestled neatly away in the middle of a small valley where I would sit as close to the edge as I deemed safe and gaze out into the winter wonderland, music playing softly in my ears as I found a peace I was certain few had ever known. Upon my last visit however, peace was fleeting.
It wasn’t until the second day that I was able to trek into the valley. The deciduous forest was absent of leaves, the winter winds weaving through withered branches with its biting chill attempting to force its way beneath my winter clothes, all to no avail. The hike itself was uneventful, almost uncharacteristically so. There was no sudden movement of a rabbit diving for cover or a fox chasing its quarry, not even the tracks of deer that I had long since come to expect to find dotting the snow. My arrival at the hot spring was as unceremonious as ever and the first hour was spent drinking hot chocolate from a thermos, reading a copy of Brian’s Winter with music playing softly in my ears until I felt a sudden chill. Whether it was the wind or some other sense I do not know, but something called my attention to the other side of the hot spring. Looking out across the water I caught a glimpse of colour, out of place in this world of white. Was it an animal? Another camper? I did not know, but I was drawn to find out. It scarcely took me more than a few minutes to circle the waters edge, yet when I came upon the site, I froze.
Frozen blood stained the snow, highlighting the carcass of a grey fox at its centre. The body of the animal was stiff and ice had begun to form around the corpse, clearly having been there for some time. I found it odd that no scavengers had stripped the corpse, as there was no shortage of raccoons, and coyotes in the area, but my question was quickly answered as I stepped closer to investigate. I felt my boot collide with something solid, disturbing something not too far beneath the snow. As I knelt down to examine the item I found that I felt much colder than before, until I exposed the object beneath me and my breath caught in my throat, all thoughts of cold suddenly leaving me.
It was the body of a coyote, dead like the fox and just as frozen. Beside it lay the buried paw of another animal and I suddenly found myself quickly moving to dig out more snow. Another coyote corpse lay beside the first as well as what looked like the frozen form of a dead raccoon. All three bodies had what seemed to be large wounds on the back of their necks, deep enough that I could see what I can only assume to be their severed spines. It was then that I became aware of a sound in the distance, through the trees in the higher parts of the valley. A haunting sound that sounded impossibly beautiful, alluring and terrifying all at once, the sound of singing.
Hurrying back to the campsite I spent most of the journey looking back over my shoulder, listening out for that eerie, wordless song. Upon my return I sought out the first park ranger I could find and relayed to him the things I had seen and heard. He assured me that it was nothing to be concerned about, that coyotes would usually fight over food and that once the snow melted it revealed all manner of animal bodies that would begin to decompose in the springtime. As for the singing, he excused it as either an animal call or howl, possibly some bird late in its migration, reassuring me that there was nothing to worry about. While I admit that his words did put me at ease, I still did not return to the valley for three days.
When I did return it was after much internal deliberation coupled with periodical pep talks whereupon I would tell myself that I had been coming here so long, camping most of my life knowing full well the risks and taking care to act as responsibly as possible. Even with all of this motivation I still did not depart for the valley until after noon, arriving later in the afternoon than I would usually like to.
Looking back on it all now I realize how naive I really was. I wasn’t behaving responsibly, I wasn’t aware of the risks; I was just some city-dweller who’d fallen in love with a story, a romantic idea of what nature was. I’d spent so much time pining for an idea that I ignored the reality held within the pages of the story I treasured so dearly. The dangers of animal attack and of traveling alone, unarmed with no reliable communication. I was no outdoorsman; I was a tourist with a high quality tent nestled cozily on the camping pad of a National Park out who was out for a walk. I was a fool so blinded by my own fantasy that it was through my own folly I found myself in that valley under a setting sun.
The moment I first realized my dilemma was when I noticed that the words upon the pages of my book were becoming difficult to read under the dimming light. To my credit I’d had enough sense to carry a flashlight with me for no other reason than “just in case,” yet the light was still rapidly vanishing in the valley. It was as I was turning to leave that I heard the singing, coming from the other side of the hot spring like before yet growing closer, descending into the valley. My first instinct was to stay and listen to the song while a deeper, much more primal part of me screamed to run, to hide from the approaching sound. For a moment I was frozen in the vanishing light of the valley, unable to commit to any one decision until I saw a glow beyond the trees. Faint yet unmistakable in the darkness of a rapidly approaching night sky and causing me to first take a step backwards, followed by several more until I found myself backed against a tree, instinctively ducking behind it, only to peek around its trunk in an attempt to see the approaching glow. To this day I still cannot fully believe what I saw as it entered into the clearing and made its way to the spring.
I saw God.