01 Feb There’s something inhuman south of Seattle
I’ve talked about my road trip on this board before. Sick to death of working myself to death, I took the first vacation of my life last year. A beat up rebuilt Yamaha Zuma and a foolish sense of optimism carried me across the western United States on an adventure that seriously made me rethink everything I thought I knew about the world.
I loved Seattle, with the hip original hippy neighborhoods and the perma-carnival atmosphere of Pike Place Market. The bridge troll was a highlight. Gotta love a city that sees a bridge and goes “You know what this needs? A giant concrete troll.”
Getting out of Seattle, however, was a total nightmare. Restricted to back roads by a motor that capped at 40 miles an hour I must have gotten lost a dozen times despite all the help I received from baffled gas station attendants. So I was behind schedule when it came to finding my campsite.
Some miles south and a little east of the city there’s a free campground. It’s most often used by horse riders and boy can you smell it. That’s actually what guided me in the last few miles. There’s a gravel road off of a service road and then a few crooked unpaved paths off of that. The trail markers were all bent, broken, or faded. In the end I had to follow my nose.
I set up my junior scout tent in the fading twilight. Mine was the only one there. I had the place all to myself.
After a quick meal of apples pilfered from a previous campground I did my usual travel log spiel to my video camera by lantern light before turning in.
I’m not sure how long I slept. I know I checked the time but I’ll be damned if I can recall what it was. Something had disturbed my well earned beauty rest but I was too groggy to remember what it had been. I sat in a stupor, too alert to fall back asleep but too sleepy to be totally awake.
Something brushed the side of my tent and suddenly I was more awake than I’d ever been.
I had done plenty of camping by that point. I was familiar with the sounds of the usual nighttime critters, from raccoons to coyotes. Nothing had ever bothered me in my tent before, just snuffled around camp before wandering off and leaving me be.
From the sound of the footsteps, it was walking on two legs. That was a first. My mind immediately jumped to the worst possible conclusion: bear.
There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about how to deal with bears and a lot of it depends on the type of bear. Sitting there in the dark with my heart beating in my throat I had no way of telling which species I was dealing with. Shout out or play dead?
I was thirty yards from a sturdy cement block outhouse that might be better shelter. As quietly as I dared, I slipped my boots on and got ready to dash. The tent zipper seemed impossibly loud in the night as I worked it open centimeter by centimeter. I moved agonizingly slowly.
Once outside I craned my neck around to see if the bear (if that’s what it was) was between me and the outhouse. With the incredible illumination of the milky way I could see the campground clearly all the way to the treeline. There was nothing out there.
I could feel something watching me. It was like feeling an insect crawl along the back of my neck. There was no logical way for me to know something had it’s eyes on me but out there in the dark, in the middle of nowhere all alone? I couldn’t dismiss it.
Still on high alert I crept along and tried not to crunch the gravel under my feet too loudly. The outhouse was still my best bet. The door was propped open by a stone but inside there was a heavy duty bolt lock. I would have to spend the night surrounded by the smell of not only horse but also human poop but I figured that was a fair trade for not getting mauled or eaten.
My hand was on the latch when I heard the awful crunch of footsteps in gravel behind me. I kicked the stone propping the door open out of the way and slammed the heavy metal door shut, no longer caring how much noise I made.
Whatever was on the other side had thumbs. Something tugged on the door as I struggled to bolt it shut. I won, but it was close.
There was a metal mesh along the top of the structure for ventilation. Through it I heard the bellows of heavy breathing that matched my own.
My phone was back in my tent because I am an idiot. There was no way to tell time. The same stupid impulse that brought me out there in the first place kicked in. I had to know.
Silence. Maybe they hadn’t heard me. And then
I could have shit myself; I was in the right place for it. The voice was feminine like my own and the sound of it was a kick to the gut. I couldn’t even tell you why it made me so uneasy. The sensation was like when you’re walking upstairs and you’re expecting another step but your foot comes down on empty space.
“I’m sorry, I thought I was alone.” I said.
Every syllable was jarring.
“I’m sorry I freaked out. I didn’t think there was anyone else here.”
“Sorry. I’m here.”
You’d think now that I knew it was another camper I would have opened the door but I never did. Some deeply buried instinct kept me from taking my hand off the bolt.
“You scared the crap out of me. Are there more tent sites out in the trees or something?”
“I’m something. There are more.”
Her words made me sick to my stomach. Again, I couldn’t have even told you why, only that they did. From her odd syntax I guessed english wasn’t her first language.
“Do you need to go? Use the bathroom, I mean. Because I’m going to be in here a while.” That wasn’t a lie. I wouldn’t have opened that door if it was my own mother on the other side.
“You need to go.”
Her grasp of english was improving with every sentence. There was something weird about that.
“Look, I’m sorry if I scared you but you started it by creeping around in the dark. I won’t come out. Can you go somewhere else? I’ll be gone in the morning, I promise. I just wanted to sleep in peace.”
“You need to be gone. I promise you I creep in the dark. You won’t be here in the morning.”
Fear cemented my mouth shut. The more I spoke the more she did and I didn’t want to hear her voice any more. I’m sure that makes me sound like a bigot or something but I had the feeling I was feeding words to her and the feeling was not pleasant. It felt like she was hungry for them.
The same instinct that told me to keep quiet the first time kept me from running my dumb mouth off again. I was either dealing with someone who was not mentally well or was something else entirely. There was a threat in her words or the way she spoke them and I had no doubt she would be able to carry out that threat.
I kept my hands on the bolt while they cramped and the first rays of sun crept sluggishly through the mesh at the top of the walls of my shelter. It wasn’t until the sun was strong enough to make me sweat in my self imposed prison that I felt – brave? stupid? – enough to speak again.
“Hello? Are you still out there? Hello? Anyone?”
There was no answer, which was the best outcome I could hope for. I opened the door.
My tent was untouched, at least from a distance. The oppressive feeling of being watched had dissipated. I dressed and broke down camp in record time. My moped cranked to life but it wasn’t until I went to put my helmet on that I saw the footprint.
I’d kicked that rock pretty far. It was close to my bike. Naturally, I went over to it. I had to know.
In a clear outline of fresh mud there was a single print on the smooth grey of the stone. Not human, but a hoof like that of an unshod horse or goat. It was so fresh, so vivid. It hadn’t been there last night when I used the bathroom before I’d gone to bed.
In the soft mud in front of the outhouse door were more of the same, some of them on top of my own boot prints.
If you want to go looking for whatever the hell it was, be my guest. Just be careful with your words out there. Because I figured out what was wrong with that voice when I watched the playback of my travel log video.
It was my own.