01 Feb Camping in a remote forest, We found a child wandering in the dark
I’m in a crappy band with some old high school buddies. A few weeks ago, our bassist, Pearce, informed the rest of the band that his parents had flown to Europe and left their house for us in Fort Collins. His dad is a sound engineer, and has a recording studio in the house. We were ecstatic. So we packed light and made the drive from California to Fort Collins, ready to track a backlog of eight songs we’d been sitting on.
It was mid-Spring, and the mountains looked like they were jutting from oceans of blue and yellow wildflowers. The drive was long, but it was nothing short of spectacular.
In fact it was so beautiful that one night after a recording session, Pearce suggested we go camping. I laughed at the idea; they all knew I’d had a somewhat negative experience in the Colorado Rockies a few years ago. But Ronnie and Jeff jumped on board and insisted I not be a wet blanket about it.
Pearce recommended some vanilla tent-camping at the foot of the mountain, but Ronnie had a bright idea. He wanted to do some astrophotography, and for that, he said, “We need to go to a place that’s really dark.” So he spent some time Googling and discovered Comanche Peak Wilderness, a remote section of a popular national park.
“What a great idea!” I remember chirping. “Why, surely nothing could go wrong.”
Of course, shit did go wrong, and it started on the drive up there. People always forget that “evening” begins at around 3PM in the deep woods. As soon as the sun dips behind the tree tops, the gloom sets in and things get eerie. Nothing makes me more claustrophobic than the sight of that heavy murk sliding over the world. My body rejects it because my brain knows it’s too early for dark. I was on edge the second the paved road gave way to dirt.
The other thing people forget is just how loud the woods are at times, and how silent they become at others. The contrast between them can make your head spin. One moment it’s a symphony of owls and crickets and toads, then a branch will snap or thunder will crack, and suddenly you’re wondering if you’ve gone deaf.
And then of course, if you think about it too much, you realize just how full the darkness is with all those watchful eyes.
We went in as deep as we could. We ditched Pearce’s truck on the side of some forgotten road and hiked about a half-mile into the trees. There was no trail. We followed the GPS to a tiny lake nestled somewhere uphill, where Ronnie could set up his cameras and get a clear view of the sky. We hadn’t crossed a solitary soul after entering the preserve a few hours prior, and I felt apprehensive about the fact that no one knew where we were.
By dusk we’d set up the two tents Pearce had borrowed from his parents. We made a small bonfire pit between them, and strung all our food up in the trees like you’re supposed to. Ronnie set up his cameras along the shore, and then we waited for nightfall.
My anxiety worsened as darkness ate away at the sky. The guys didn’t notice; they drank and smoked and carried on. And right when the world went black, leaves began to crunch in the distance behind our tents. A girl emerged from the treeline and stopped at the edge of our little clearing.
This girl was probably eight years old and wore a white dressing gown, like she’d just woken up. She had platinum blonde, almost white hair, and skin so pale she looked like a ghost in the firelight. She wasn’t carrying a flashlight or anything. She’d been walking in pitch black woods.
She squinted at our fire as if it annoyed her, and let out a few wet coughs. We all just stared at each other in confusion while she studied us. There were no roads or trails in this area; this was not a campground. Her presence made no sense.
Jeff eventually called out to her, asking if she was okay, and she replied, “My mom’s sick. Can you guys come help us?”
“Uh…where is she?” Jeff asked.
The girl just pointed into the forest. The trees and shadows and mist clustered together to form a great big wall of nope. I gave Jeff a subtle “fuck no” head-shake. I might be a coward, but I’m not about to get disappeared by some malevolent wood pixie.
Ronnie stood up and asked the girl if they were camping or if they had a house or what. The girl just said, “She’s really sick. Just follow me.” She started coughing again.
At this point all four of us could sense that something was wrong. Pearce, probably the cleverest of us, invited the girl to come warm up by the fire and explain what was going on. I think he knew she’d decline. The girl just turned and walked back into the woods, coughing as she went. Before she vanished, she turned around and said something, but we couldn’t be certain of what. I heard “So you’ll be a liar” but Ronnie heard “Soon you’ll meet the liar.”
We built the fire up a lot more, mostly to keep a good perimeter against the darkness. All of us were creeped out, but after a few hours the guys had mostly forgotten about the girl. They laughed and told stories about drunken escapades.
At some point, Jeff and I went to the treeline to take a piss. I walked about ten steps into the woods and blasted the dark with my flashlight, Jeff following closely behind. I wanted to see if there was a clearing on the other side, or a footpath the girl might have followed. But there was nothing. Just a snarl of impassable trees.
We heard Ronnie shouting something, so we jogged back to the fire and saw him examining the southern edge of the clearing. That was the direction we’d left the truck in.
Pearce said as we passed by, “He thinks he heard more footsteps.”
I heard them too. Standing next to Ronnie, I could make out a new pair of feet trampling the leaves in the dark. It was louder than the girl had been. Probably bigger.
“Show yourself,” Ronnie shouted again. “We are armed.”
To my surprise, a woman answered him. She laughed and said, “Don’t shoot, just a hiker.”
We moved back and watched her step into the clearing. She was probably in her late-thirties and wore a raggedy hat and an old, beat up pack.
I remember hearing Pearce grumble something like “Real private spot you found here, Ronnie,” and I agreed. How the fuck were all these people bumping into us way out here?
The woman introduced herself as Sara and apologized for scaring us. Ronnie demanded to know what she was doing out here, and she explained that she’d done the full-day loop around the mountain but got lost for a while. She claimed to have found her bearings and now knew where she was going.
“You know the way back,” he repeated to her.
“In the dark. Without a flashlight.”
“Uhuh. I know this area pretty well.”
Ronnie wasn’t buying a word of it.
He turned back to the rest of us and said, “We’re getting cased, you guys. We’re about to get robbed, soon as we fall asleep. Campers get killed by thieves and meth heads all the time.”
“Well thanks for bringing us out here, dingus,” Jeff said.
Sara laughed again. She was real smiley for a woman lost in the woods. In the dark.
“I swear it’s nothing like that,” she said. “Look, I’ll be on my way.”
For whatever reason, I felt the urge to press her further. So I said, “You know, you’re not the only person we’ve met out here who’s walking around without a light.”
That fake little smile fell off Sara’s face, and it took the wind right out of my sails. She stared at me like she could see down into the deepest places inside me.
“You met the little girl?” she asked with a blank expression.
My bandmates all exchanged looks of incredulity.
Sara collected herself, and a new smile spread across her face. She said, “Don’t listen to anything that little brat says. She’s a liar, through and through. Look, why don’t you guys hike down to the ranger station with me? It’ll be safer together.” She pointed behind herself, into the woods.
Something lit up in my brain. This was the second time a stranger had tried to coax us into the dark. We weren’t going to get robbed. Something much worse was about to happen. Pearce seemed to have come to the same conclusion, and he invited Sara to instead join us around the fire. As he did with the little girl, he knew Sara would decline. The strange woman told us she had to get back before it got any colder. And with that, she turned and hurried into the woods.
After a long debate about what to do, we decided that hiking back to the truck was the fastest way to get lost or killed. We hadn’t used a trail and our phone batteries were low. Every time the wind blew it set a thousand trees groaning and shivering, which made it impossible to orient ourselves by sound. And it was so black that if I stared into the darkness long enough, I started having minor hallucinations as my brain tried to make sense of the void.
So we kept the fire blazing and agreed to sleep in two-person shifts. Since Pearce and I were the soberest of the bunch, we agreed to stay up first. But only an hour into our watch, we started hearing the coughs and sputters of a little girl in the distance.
I followed Pearce to the lake’s edge, which lay about thirty yards from our camp. There, we heard an eerie voice wafting on the breeze. I saw the silhouette of a person milling about near the water a few hundred feet away, and realized it was the girl.
She was wandering around in the dark, singing.
We booked it back to the fire and woke up Jeff and Ronnie, alerting them to the girl’s presence. But as we discussed what to do, another voice erupted from nearby, and began singing as well. It sounded just like Sara. Pearce and I jumped into the tent with the other guys and sealed it up, terrified that the time had come for whatever these creeps had planned. But no one approached our camp; the two people just walked in slow half-circles behind the trees, singing together in a language I couldn’t identify.
Ronnie always keeps a menacing-looking trail knife on him when we go hiking, and he scrambled for it while shouting that he’d butcher anybody who came near us. His yelling caused the people outside to go quiet for a few moments. I pulled out my phone to record some of the voices, but my hands were shaking so hard I could barely operate it. I caught a bit of the girl, but then something even weirder happened.
None of us are certain of how many people were in those woods, but we heard a third voice at that moment. It was deeper and guttural, like the sound of some night predator stalking around in a jungle. I’m not certain the noise was made by a person.
Ronnie and Jeff believe the sound is coming from the girl, who has a coughing fit and then begins channeling some demonic voice. Pearce and I think it’s a third person or an animal that was with them, waiting for us to leave the safety of the bonfire. Here is a link to the recording; sorry for the poor quality. I have a crappy phone.
After the commotion, the activity in the woods died down for a while. The guys and I remained inside the tent, terrified, only leaving its shelter to throw more wood on the fire about once an hour. None of us slept. And for the rest of the night, we occasionally heard distant singing, laughing, coughing, and the occasional whisper. Sometimes the girl would say, “Can you help us?” in the exact same tone, as if her voice had been recorded and replayed over and over. We also heard someone, probably “Sara,” climbing a nearby tree and shouting things like “I see you, boys!” and “Let’s go together. It’s safe now.”
And that was it. By dawn we were exhausted from terror and half-frozen in the tent. The noises stopped and the people, if they were people at all, had long abandoned their efforts to lure us into the dark. We packed up and hiked back to the truck, which had thankfully not been ransacked. As far as I’m concerned, the next time I go camping it’ll be in a treeless desert in Arizona. And I’ll see if I can get Ronnie to post some of those night sky shots.