“But why do you have to go alone?”
My fiance and I had been through this about a half dozen times already, but even as I was putting the finishing touches on my packing the night before I’d scheduled to set out she thought she’d try one more time to convince me this was a bad idea.
“I’m not sure what you think is going to happen, babe. I’ve hiked most of this trail before for years.”
“Sure, sure, but you’ve never done it all once and you’ve never done it alone and you’ve never done it when it was cold at night. I just don’t understand why you have to do this solitary mountain man thing during October when you’ve always avoided hiking up there.”
I’d been explaining to her since I’d started planning the excursion to New Hampshire’s Presidential Range that it was just about wanting to have days to myself with no one to depend on but me, but that was only half the truth. The other half was that I was getting married in a month and I knew that once that happened it’d be near impossible to ever have another adventure like this by myself. I also may have been having a minor panic attack about the entire wedding but at the time I told myself I wasn’t running away.
“It’s just something I feel like I’ve got to do.”
I zipped up the top of my pack loudly and started going down my list one more time. Everything was checked off and I’d double-checked that it was all packed away, enough food for eight days and extra layers for if there was a serious cold snap.
“But the weather up there is nuts. What if you get hurt and you get a freak blizzard or something?”
“Never going to happen,” I said. “Look, I know you’re worried but it’s not going to be a big deal. I’ll be gone for a week and change but I’ll be back before you know it with tons of photos to show you. Besides, I’ve got the disposable cell phone and I’m sure there will be other people out hiking too. Trust me, it’ll all go fine and I’ll be standing right in front of you in desperate need of a shower before you know it.”
“You’re a grown man. I know you can handle yourself and I know you’re familiar with the trails. I’m not nagging and I’m not being silly. I just want you to make it back safe and unhurt.”
“I get that, Jamie. I do.” I set my pack over next to the front door of our apartment. “I know what I’m doing. It’s all going to be fine.”
*** * ***
Jamie dropped me off at the trailhead the next morning as the sun was barely starting to come up. I said my goodbyes quickly because she’d been nearly silent the entire ride out and I just didn’t want to argue about things anymore. There’s nothing worse than wanting to get away from someone you love, for you and for them. I kissed her, told her I loved her, and then I was off down a wooded area of the trail alive with the yellows, reds, and browns of Fall. After about fifty feet I looked back to see her still standing there next to the car. She waved weakly like she was still lamenting my decision. I smiled but didn’t wave back. The trail took a wide turn to the left and then she was gone from sight, the trailhead completely obscured by trees.
The first day went great. The trail climbs up from the lowlands and across the thirteen peaks of the Presidential Range. It’s known for its terrible weather and record-holding wind speeds during the winter but I expected not to experience too much trouble overall. Maybe the odd snow toward the higher elevations but nothing much else. But down on the forest level you’re completely surrounded by trees for miles with leaves so thick that you can barely make out the sky most of the time.
Toward the evening, I ran into a young couple on their way back to the trailhead and gave them a wave and a “hello.” They didn’t wave back and they hiked right past me with barely more than a nod. I paused for a minute to drink some water and watched after them. The woman looked back at me as they moved away. She was wearing hiking shorts, and the entire backs of her legs were covered with what looked like bright red scratches. There’s lots of rocks and bramble along the trail. More than once I’d stumbled off the trail myself and ended up with cuts all over my arms. “No wonder they didn’t speak,” I thought, she just can’t wait to get home and into the bath. But still, they’d be extremely lucky to get back to the trailhead before night fell.
I yelled after them, “Hey, do you have a flashlight? It’s going to start getting dark soon!”
The couple had been hiking fast and either didn’t hear me or didn’t care to reply. The woman with the scratches looked back for a second with a worried look on her face then turned back around.
“Unprepared people go out into the wilderness all the time,” I thought. “They’ll be stumbling along the trail by 7pm with all this forest cover.”
Still, you can’t make people listen. I shrugged and hiked about another mile before I found a place off the trail to camp. It was nice and flat and after hanging my food up and away from my tent to keep the bears away I slept like a log through the entire night.
*** * ***
The next morning, the trail started to incline greatly as it climbed toward the peaks and there were a number of trees that had fallen across the path which I had to navigate over and under that made it harder work than it might have been.
Around noon, starving, I stopped to eat at a bend in the trail. I was halfway through when I noticed an entire backpack just a few yards off the trail. Walking over to it I could see that the pack was brand new and inside was an entire mess kit and even an entire bottle of propane. I was trying to figure out just who might have left a full pack like this when I saw something eerie on the back, something I’d seen just the day before, scratches.
They were right through the material which was odd since even the cheapest of hiking packs resists the tearing of thorns and the odd tree branch. And it wasn’t just a couple of scratches, it was a lot of scratches and tears clean through. Maybe some rich person just decided to ditch it? I didn’t know but I did yell out in case maybe someone had gotten hurt nearby or was just taking a piss and their pack had rolled off the trail.
“Hello?! Is anyone there?”
My voice just reverberated through the forest. A bird chirped and I heard the sound of the wind and the leaves. In the distance I heard something knock against a tree like a branch falling but then nothing else. I yelled out again and the wind picked up, blowing dead leaves across the trail and high into the air before everything went still. Nothing, no reply.
The pack had no I.D. in it and so I propped it up directly on the trail with a note stuck hanging out of the front pocket that said “Found this off the trail, not mine. No apparent owner nearby” and signed it Michael Darden with the date and time.
You see a lot of weird and unexplainable things if you’re out in the woods a lot but I’d never seen something as odd as this. I always carry an eight-inch sheath hunting knife with me when I’m out in the woods for more than just a day trip but I usually just keep it in my pack as a ‘just in case.’ I took it out of my pack and put it on my belt before putting my backpack on, scanning around the woods one more time and getting moving again. I thought there was a shelter about three miles or so away and I for some reason felt the need to have walls around me.
It ended up being more than three miles and after it had already gotten dark I arrived at the shelter, basically a log cabin with one side completely open. The wind had been kicking up steadily until all I could hear was a dull roar and my night vision was ruined from having to stare at the light my headlamp shone on the trail. So, deaf and nearly blind I stumbled into the shelter and dropped my pack, quickly pulling out my tent and sleeping bag since the temperature was dropping quickly and I was a sweaty mess.
I had my tent halfway up before I caught a shape out of the corner my eye. At the other end of the shelter, about ten feet away, there was another tent already set up completely but with one long gash running down the side. The front flap was open. What the hell was this?
Drawing my knife I yelled to see if anyone was inside. There was no answer so I forced myself to walk over and peer through the ragged gash and check inside. There was nothing, absolutely nothing. Whoever had left the tent there had taken everything else they had with them. There was also no sign of anyone being in distress and there were no belongings scattered outside the shelter like you might see if a bear had wandered in.
I took the tent down. It was an odd distraction and there was literally nothing I could do to figure out what might have happened while it was still dark. Afterward I’d taken it down and shoved it in a corner I went back to setting my own up then getting my camp stove going so I could get something in my stomach. The wind had died down a bit thankfully and the water was boiling in no time.
After eating I killed my lamp, climbed into my bag, and zipped up the tent, leaving my pack outside the shelter walls. I was feeling better but still unsettled and the wind had kicked back up again when I heard what I thought sounded like voices and saw a faint light flickering and bobbing like someone making their way through the woods. Thinking they might be the same people who left the shredded tent, I unzipped the front flap of my tent to get a better look.
For about five minutes I watched the light appear and disappear among the trees but then, off in the woods to my right I heard a knocking like a tree branch falling. Night sounds like that aren’t uncommon. Tree branches fall in the forest all the time so at first it just startled me. But then, as I looked up toward the sound which was up on an embankment I saw what appeared to be a small white face contrasting against the deep dark of the forest. Focusing as best I could it appeared to be a person crouching and looking down at the shelter.
Frantically, I grabbed my flashlight and jumped out of the tent onto the shelter’s wooden floor and shined the light up into the trees. There was nothing there but the underbrush, clearly still moving from where the person had been. I looked over to the left where I’d seen the flashing light in the trees and it was gone. That did it, the couple hoofing out of the wilderness in the evening, the backpack, the tent, the light, and however had been watching me from no more than fifty feet away. None of this was normal. The hair stood straight out on my arms, but I didn’t freeze up.
“Get yourself together, Michael. Get back in the shelter.”
And that’s what I did. I got back in the shelter, knife now in hand and ready to stab, slash, and gouge anything that came near. But I didn’t get back in the tent. If someone came by in the night I wanted to be able to run, not be trapped in a nylon prison. Who knows, maybe that’s exactly what the previous shelter occupants had done. Maybe they’d had to cut their way out for some reason.
So, I dragged my sleeping back out of the tent, pulled my backpack into the shelter with me and sat down for a long night. The wind howled again in great gusts whistling through the cracks in the shelter. I could have sworn I heard voices over and over again but I never turned the flashlight on again all night. I couldn’t tell if you if that was because I was being smart or because I was scared to death.
*** * ***
At some point during the night I’d fallen asleep because when I awakened the sun was shining and snug and warm under my bag, knife still gripped in my right hand. I decided that I would continue on the trail since I couldn’t have been more than ten miles from the top of the ridge at which point the trees would give way to bushes and I’d be able to see anyone coming for miles away. I didn’t want to head back the way I’d come into the forest because at this point I was convinced I wasn’t alone out here and that someone very screwed up in the head was messing with me.
As I was taking down my tent and strapping it to my pack I noticed that it was already open. Every button was unbuttoned and every zipper was unzipped. I anxiously checked to see what, if anything, might have fallen out but instead found that right under the main flap there was a hemlock frond. There was no way I put it there. There was no way it could have blown in. I had not unzipped or unbuttoned a thing and it dawned on me that someone must have come into the shelter after I’d fallen asleep and put it there. This was made even more unnerving by the fact that the pack had been no more than a foot from me as I’d slept.
I thought of Jamie and dug into a side pocket for the disposable cell phone and turned it on. No signal—which is exactly what I’d expected. I had bought it to make her feel better basically knowing that I wouldn’t be able to use it even if I’d wanted to.
I shoved it into my pocket, gathered my things and headed out as quickly as I could, determined to make it to the open ridge by mid-afternoon.
*** * ***
I’d been hiking for a couple of hours and making good progress when I came over a small rise to see about four people hiking ahead of me. Basically desperate to be around other people I called out to them, “Hey! Hey there!”
All of them appeared to hear me and turn around. They were wearing a mix of camo and tech outdoor gear. Each had a backpack. One was a woman.
“Hey,” she yelled back. “What’s up!”
I picked up the pace, motioning for them to wait. Once I’d caught up they all seemed mercifully friendly, smiling back at me.
“What’s up dude?” one guy asked. He was tall, taller than the rest with long brown hair that hit his shoulders asked. “You hiking out here alone? You okay?”
“Yeah,” I gasped back at him. “I started early yesterday morning. You’re the first people I’ve seen since yesterday evening.”
“Oh yeah? I guess you just caught up to us. We left out a couple of days ago but this one keeps slowing the pace down.”
Here he pointed to a shorter man who just rolled his eyes and said “Oh, right, it’s me, okay” and stuck his hand out to me. “Hi, my name’s Richard. The tall joker there is Martin. This guy who loves his camo is Jimmy and the lovely lady is Cynthia.”
I shook hands with everyone and introduced myself.
“Do you guys mind if I hike with you for a bit?” I asked, silently praying they’d say yes.
Martin looked at everyone else. “Oh yeah, man, I think that’d be cool with everyone. The trail can get lonely. Believe me, I know.”
Here he nudged the woman flirtingly and laughed. She punched him lightly on the shoulder.
“Shut up, Martin! Jesus!”
I chuckled along nervously. I was still anxious to get out of the woods before night settled in.
“Well, daylight’s burning,” I said. “Shall we?”
“Absolutely,” replied Martin. “You set the pace, bro.”
*** * ***
I did set the pace and it was a blistering one. More than once my four new friends had to ask me to slow down. We hiked hard for hours, stopping only to eat until mid-afternoon when we stopped again to take a rest. I’d been hiking hard and was struggling to catch my breath, but the others seemed to be in better shape than I was. None of them seemed to even be breaking a sweat which, considering how much I’d trained for this trip, was a little embarrassing.
“You know, for all the slowing down you guys were asking me to do, you don’t really even seem that worn out,” I said.
“Oh we hike this all the time,” said Cynthia. “You’re going a little fast than we usually do, but we’re pretty used to hiking here.”
“Well, your conditioning is good. I’m just hoping we can get out on the ridge before it’s dark. That’s literally my only goal today.”
“Why would you want to do that?” asked Cynthia.
It suddenly dawned on me that I had a weird story and that if I told them the truth they’d just think I was crazy so I did what any civilized human would do: I lied.
“I just made a goal of covering a certain number of miles every day is all.”
Richard and Jimmy looked at each other and chuckled. Martin looked at me, shaking his head.
“What’s so funny?” I asked
“Man, you don’t want to do that if you’re going to hike the whole ridge. After nightfall on the ridge there’s not going to be any trees to cut the wind. It’s not miserable up there at night but it is cold and it is loud. Besides, it’s already getting dark. You may as well get one more good night’s sleep before you spend the next few days exposed like that. We’re actually all headed back once the forest ends. Why don’t we hike on a bit more, then set camp? There’s a nice flat spot up ahead where we can spend the night. We can walk you to the ridge tomorrow morning and part ways there.”
It had gotten dark. How had it gotten dark so fast? I checked my watch and somehow it said 7pm. There was less than an hour of usable light left. How had I read my watch wrong? Was I so used to checking my phone for the time that I’d become an idiot and couldn’t read analog anymore? I was so frustrated with myself and frankly the four of them had slowed me down. Now I was going to have to spend another night in the forest. I had no choice.
“Fine, I guess I completely misjudged the time somehow. Lead on and we’ll go set up camp.”
“Sure thing,” said Martin, and off we all went up a stretch of trail that seemed to nearly wind around on itself as it switched sharply back and forth making its way up the increasingly steep mountainside. The sun was setting fast now and the encroaching twilight cast a bizarre blue tint across everything, making it harder and harder to see. I stumbled more than once and struggled to keep up.
Eventually we came to a place where the earth evened out just as Martin had said. We all set up our flashlights as we went to work setting up camp. The ground was covered with soft needles and moss. If it had been any other trip I’d have been extremely grateful for it. And then I realized just what kind of needles they were: hemlock.
“Hey, guys, have you all been up here before a lot?”
“Oh yeah, definitely,” said Richard. “This is my favorite place to bring girls. They instantly decide I’m romantic even though they were just hating me a minute ago for making them hike this far.”
He laughed and normally I would have chuckled along with him but remembering the hemlock that had been left in my bag I felt increasingly uneasy, almost light headed at what it might mean. I mean, true, hemlock trees were everywhere in this forest but this seemed off somehow.
The other four had the tents up now and Martin had a backpack guitar out playing some old mountain tune. Cynthia followed along on the harmonica. It was now dark as pitch outside the glow of our flashlights and the sound at least beat it back some.
“How about a fire, guys?” said Richard and before anyone even responded he went off into the woods, light in hand.
I figured I may as well try to eat and besides I needed to do something to keep my imagination from running away with itself. So I tried to zone out while watching my water boil and just listen to whatever song Martin and Cynthia were playing and listen to the sound of the wind in the trees, try to focus on what was normal about the evening and not think anymore about whatever psychotic prank was being pulled on me the night before. Maybe it was some Scout troop or something and the kids were having a go at being shirtless natives or something and ran off when I saw them.
But that didn’t explain the hemlock, the buttons, or the zippers.
Before long Richard was back and he put together the fire. I ate in silence thinking about Jamie and how I wished that I had listened to her, put this trip off until I could have brought some of my friends to keep me steady. I was considering all this, regretting being so stubborn right before our wedding when I noticed the music had changed. It had become odd, shrill, seeming to echo loudly down the mountainside. The harmonica was like labored breathing. The guitar sounded like it was being played with a nail.
“What the…” I looked up at Martin and Cynthia and the music changed back to the mountain tune. “What was that?”
Martin looked at me. “Just some anonymous tune from long ago. Sorry if it surprised you.” He put his guitar down. It was getting cool and we all instinctively moved closer to the fire.
“Something wrong, man?” asked Richard.
“Nah, I’m good. I think my blood sugar is just a little low. I’m feeling a little shaky.”
“I hear that,” said Richard.
I put the first fork of food in my mouth and off in the distance I heard a tree knock, like a branch falling. “It’s nothing,” I said to myself. “It’s a fucking tree branch falling. No goddamn person is going to come springing out of the woods to unbutton my pack and scare me to death.”
A few minutes later I heard it again, still distant. I looked up and almost everyone else was staring into the fire. All except Jimmy. Jimmy was staring at me and when I caught him looking he looked away. A great gust of wind blew through the camp scattering sparks into the air. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Jimmy looking at me again; his mouth was open in a ghastly expression. Thick hair hung across his face like tendrils. He appeared to be laughing.
Horrified, I looked straight at him. Nothing. Just Jimmy staring into the fire. My hand went to where the hilt of my knife should have been, my fingers closing on air. Then I remembered that I’d taken it off my belt so that I could sit on the ground comfortably.
“Why did you hike out here alone, I’m sorry, what did you say your name was again?” asked Martin.
“Michael, my name is Michael.”
“Why did you hike out here alone, Michael?”
Ignoring the question, I asked one of my own. “Were the four of you out late last night walking through the woods with a flashlight? I saw a light out in the woods. Was that you?”
Martin looked over at Cynthia. “Oh my, Michael, what a question. We just love the woods. Don’t we Cynthia?” He looked at her and she looked over at me.
“Oh my, we certainly do,” she said. “Oh my, oh my,” she repeated in a weird singsong that broke into laughter.
“Yeah, Michael, that was us.”
“What were you doing? What were you looking for?”
“Why Michael, haven’t you guessed it yet? We were looking for you. We’d seen you come up the trail and we’d scented you once you got closer but for some reason we couldn’t find you, Michael. Jimmy here was so upset. He feared for you, Michael.”
Scented me? What the fuck was going on? Their voices, everything was odd. The fire seemed hotter, too hot, and I tried to move away but seemed bolted in place.
“What did you do to that couple?” I demanded, raising my voice, accusing them.
Martin laughed and mocked me. “What did you do with that couple? They slipped away Miiiiiiiiiichaeeeeeeel,” and when he said it, and I was staring straight at him, his jaw dropped low, unnaturally low, revealing black teeth, and his eyes blazed with a crackling red light. The sight made me feel physically ill.
Closer now, very close, I heard a tree knock, like a branch falling.
Jimmy stood—the face I had at first seen out of the corner of my eye now plainly seen in the firelight. Cynthia laughed and laughed and laughed and it was so loud, so piercing, that I thought my head would explode. Richard, suddenly next to me, grabbed my arm. “I’m so hungry, Michael. I’m so hungry,” he said, in a tone that mixed sensuality with a kind of sadism. His grip tightened and I felt him scratching me, his nails dragging along my flesh as if he was testing its firmness. All four of them were revealed to me now, unlike anything I had ever imagined. They were tall and impossibly lean and well-muscled. Hair sprouted down from their heads and palms, shaggy and matted, and enormous stained claws hung from their fingertips. A deeply chuckling Jimmy, drool trickling down from his mouth, walked straight into the fire toward me, completely oblivious and unhurt.
And then there was a thunderous knock, a screech, and an enormous tree fell straight into the campsite across the fire. Richard started and in that moment of distraction I sprang up and leapt toward my pack, my hand digging for my knife. The thing that had been Richard recovered quickly from his surprise and sprang toward me. I grabbed whatever I could get my hands on in my bag and yanked it free, swinging it straight into Richard’s face. He fell back as if shot and the other three stared at me, their mocking expressions suddenly turning to horror and fear.
“Come on!” I screamed more out of fear than bravery and it was then that I noticed what I was holding—the hemlock frond. Looking across the fallen tree and behind Martin and Cynthia I saw something else. Small figures emerging not from the darkness of the woods but from the trees themselves, the bark shaping itself into heads and chests, arms and legs. They had a pale color like moonlight and they moved silently out across the campsite. I saw one of them, not even four feet tall, grab a shrieking Richard by the ankle and swiftly drag him out into the darkness. The other three monstrosities appeared to be trying to fight back against them, but they were quickly overwhelmed and the result was brutal. I saw one of the small people holding what appeared to Martin’s severed arm over his head. Cynthia’s shrieks got louder and louder. I clutched the hemlock hard in my hand trying not to fall over until I couldn’t take it anymore.
I grabbed my pack in one hand with the hemlock in the other and I plunged headlong up the path into the darkness. Something was telling me if I could get out of this forest I would be safe. I race along the path, up, up, up it went. On my left and right the small figures appeared, watching me from the undergrowth. Once or twice I thought I heard voices saying “this way, this way.” I ran until I thought my lungs would explode and my legs would catch fire. I ran until the horrible sounds of the campsite were long gone and the faces became fewer and fewer and until I physically could not go on.
Gasping for air, unable to stand upright, I reached into my bag and stood bent over like that with the hemlock in one hand and the knife in the other for what seemed like an eternity before I could breathe again. Ahead of me were the lights of a small town and I realized with disbelief that I was somehow at the trailhead again. There was a sign for the bed and breakfast twenty feet from me for God’s sakes and the trailhead itself was directly behind me. I turned back to look. Nothing.
I didn’t care of this was real or not. I started jogging toward the lights of the town and pulled out the cell phone I’d bought to satisfy Jamie. I dialed home just as I came to a neighborhood bar, brightly lit and full of people. I collapsed on a bench out front and then passed completely out.
*** * ***
When I came to, I was lying in a booth inside the bar and a burly bearded man was smacking me lightly on the face. Behind him, I could see the bartender, an older man with greased silver hair, talking on my phone.
“Shit, man, you all right?” the bearded man asked.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. Hey!” I said to the bartender. He held up his hand, nodded to whoever he was talking to, and then hung up.
“Your wife’s on the way to get you, young man. She was ringing your phone off the hook when we found you outside. Where’d you come from?”
“I was out in the woods.”
“In the woods, and?”
“And, and…I don’t know. I don’t want to say anymore.”
The entire bar went silent. The patrons looked at me and one another. In the distance there was a sound like something knocking against a tree, a branch falling.
My whole body jerked, and the bartender looked straight at me with his eyes wide. He paused, then nodded.
Walking back around the bar he said, “Young man, let me get you a shot and beer. I think I may know exactly how your story goes.”