"I don't believe in ghosts."
I say that to myself a lot when I'm hiking through deep forests when I'm all alone. Kind of like Bert Lahr in THE WIZARD OF OZ movie.
On June 1 of this year (2009), I took several days off from work so that I could take my travel trailer and run up to the mountains near Wilson Creek to find some solitude. I needed that solitude so that I could finish a particularly stubborn manuscript. As I always do when I'm camping, I went with the idea of cramming as much hiking as I could into the working vacation.
My first full day I decided to head to a cliff top. Along the way I found myself hiking through a kind of forest I'd never encountered. The classic southern coves are filled with what are called Poplar/Hemlock forests. So named because the dominant trees are Tulip poplars and either Eastern or Carolina hemlocks. Both of these trees are relatively fast growing, and both can reach really huge dimensions by eastern standards. But the forest I found myself hiking through was mainly white oak and hemlocks. It was weird. I'd never seen these two species together in such a forest. Of course the hemlocks were almost all dead (as I've belabored here many times), but there were enough hanging on to life so that I could see what the forest must have looked like several years ago: beautiful.
I found myself on a trail that took me along a high ridge line. My intention was to hike out to a peak called Darkside Cliffs. I'd heard the views there were impressive. In addition, I also found myself completely alone. I had encountered no one at all since I'd driven away from the campsite, and there were no other vehicles parked at the trail head. The forest seemed completely deserted of humans, other than myself.
It was getting late in the afternoon so I wanted to get to the cliffs and see the views before the sun started to set. I surely didn't want to get caught hiking in the dark, an undertaking I'd experience in the past, and one which I don't find particularly fun.
When hiking alone, one hears many things. The forest is almost always filled with sounds. Blowing leaves, creaking trunks, bird song, the scuttle of bugs in the undergrowth. And so on. One sound that can get the blood pounding if you've never heard it is the truly creepy groan of tree trunks rubbing together in the wind. There are almost always trees that have managed to be in such close proximity that through exuberant growth or by accident, they find themselves in physical contact. When a high wind pushes them, the creaking and groaning of one woody trunk against the other can make your hair stand on end. There's nothing else quite like it.
And so I found myself hiking through this wilderness, completely alone.
The wind was blowing.
Dry leaves were clattering along the forest floor.
I heard that ominous thunder of one trunk all but cracking against the other.
A voice called out to me.
I stopped in my tracks. "Hello?" I asked. I looked around. The weird thing about this oak and hemlock forest was that it was clear. That is, I could see through it for a long way. There was almost no clinging undergrowth and the limbs of each tree were high on the trunks, making for unobstructed views through the forest.
There was no reply so I pushed on. The wind continued to blow. I could hear the crunching of my boots over the small stones on the path and the cracking of dry twigs under my feet. Again, I heard a voice call out to me. Did it say Help me? Goddamn!
I stopped again. It sounded like a little girl.
"Hello? Who's there?" I yelled it out. I turned around and around, looking in every direction through the forest.
I didn't see a soul. It was just those dark woods. And me.
I was getting to a bend in the trail, so I just pushed on, figuring the wind was playing tricks on the old ears. It happens almost every time I go hiking alone. You make of the forest sounds what you will. I was hurrying again, wanting to get to those fantastic views. But I didn't get far before I heard the voice once more.
This time, I was sure of what I'd heard:
Help me. Help me.
"HELLO!" I yelled it this time. "Are you okay? Where are you? I don't see you!" I stumbled into the forest, headed for where I'd heard the voice. It couldn't have come from more than a dozen feet away. I thrashed about in the woods, looking for someone, calling out. "Where are you?" I kept asking that.
And then, seeming to come from just up the slope within all of those white oaks and dying hemlocks I heard the voice. It was a little girl. Maybe six or seven years old from the sound of her. But I couldn't see her. And this is what she said, practically in my ear:
Help me. My mommy's dead.
You must forgive me. I ran. I ran away and away and away. I didn't look back.