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You Did Right to Run
I hike alone. I hike deep in the woods backing the new house. Oh, you didn’t know about this house? Figures. I move too much anyway.
Today, I leapt out of doors at the chance I first got. It was snowing that morning (the first semi-snow of the season, I might add), and I didn’t want to miss the snowy woods. Each day my hikes get longer and longer, not because I get bored of seeing the same thing (not at all that, because, in fact, I count those familiar trees among my very dearest of friends), but because the deeper into the forest I venture, the more time I have to think. (Oftentimes I think that I think too much.)
Well, I slid through the trees today, pondering the cares that had so unwarrantedly jumped piggy-back style onto my back and were sticking to me like Gorilla Glue. I ruminated long and longer on them, paying very little heed to the passing woodland (this is even unusual for me, for I normally focus all my brain-power on the personalities of each tree and rift), and when I broke for short respite on a termite-abandoned stump, I only then stopped my exhaustive thinking. And I listened – I listened to the wintry drafts pummel my friends the trees with unfriendly air. That was a familiar sound, that wind. But there was also another sound too infamous to my ears to be disregarded.
Over the summer, I awoke at 4:24 one morning, knowing that I had been interrupted from my slumber by something outside of my head (this is one of only two times I can remember having this feeling that is so often written about in books). I lay in bed, silent in my expectation; I knew that something was staring through my window. So I remained as though I were asleep and waited for some action to confirm my terrible notion. Only did I have to wait near sixty-three seconds before a scream tore my closed eyes apart. This wasn’t a little-kid-crying-for-mommy scream; it was a mommy-just-got-shish-kabobbed scream. And it hurt me to listen to it. Over the course of the dawn hours, I heard it directly opposite my window a multiplicity of times.
I didn’t go outside without a gun for a week. Some mountain lion was going to get shredded if they dared allow me to glimpse them.
Again, over the summer, I awoke near one o’clock in the AM. I had once more that horrendous feeling that I was awake only because something had awakened me. Not myself. And so once more I waited. And I waited. And the calls of a coyote pack affirmed my thought: I wouldn’t be going outside without my gun again for a while.
Well, time whittled away my fear of the critters. The coyotes lost their scare-factor once they became nightly visitors. As long as I had a wall or a gun to keep between me and them, I was fine. And eventually I stopped carrying a gun. And eventually I started hiking again.
I heard that sound in the woods today. I was too far out for anyone to hear me… scream… like they say in all of those movies. But all of those movies fail to capture only one thing: personal fear. It’s one thing to look at a TV screen and feel mild fear for some actor who could escape the pursuing mummy at the director’s call of “CUT!” But I was too far away to be heard, and I knew that my prospects were not hunky-dory.
The sound I heard was the pound of leaves. Some unaccustomed woods-walker, or, what I feared even more, some accustomed woods-walker that wasn’t afraid to pound around because they knew that they were the reason other creatures walked silently through the woods, was shuffling all too stridently through the gully below me.
I am an expert woodswoman. I have practiced feet that can float through the dead leaves without any racket. I know about survival. That is, I can fling a knife twenty yards easily to a target blade in; I know all that is edible in the forest; I can build any number of shelters for every season of the year; I know what wood is best for making fires, but I can conjure flames from any two-bit stick regardless; I can stalk animals expertly (shoot, I can stalk humans too, though I refrain from the normal practice of that); I can set traps for birds and other small prey. You get my point – I know the woods, and the woods know me. But when I heard the heavy shuffle below me, I froze.
I raised my head and closed my eyes, straining my ears to identify the creature. It was hard to hear over the leafy clamor below. Ok, deep breath. I was silent then; I lifted myself deftly from the log, standing up and scanning through the undergrowth below. Great. I couldn’t see through the too-many little trees. Whatever it was had definitely heard me (remember, I had been suffocated in thought and had not been thinking about staying silent), but they were not concerned about my presence. Clue one: this was something big.
Coyote? I thought, reassuring myself. Gee, I hope it’s a coyote. Coyotes are small, too small to worry about. I could take them easily. I had a knife with me, a little black Smith and Wesson that I enjoyed fingering more than anything. But I held it now to give myself comfort. No, that’s no coyote. It would have heard me and skittered away. Just to be sure though, I jumped down from the stump noisily, establishing my size – and, therefore, power – to whatever creature was in that gully beneath me.
The noise didn’t bother the creature in the least. Great. Just great. That just shows what too much thinking will do to you. It’ll seduce you into unawareness, that’s what!
Gee-wilikers. With the thought of coyotes gone, the memory of my 4:24 summer mountain lion screaming fest stare and scare down was all that would occupy my thoughts. Or maybe it was a bear. Well, this was just grand. But I could not afford to lose my focus in panic or over-thinking the what-ifs. Hey, maybe it’s just some big, deaf bird, yeah? Or maybe it’s a raccoon or a possum. The leaf-rustling got nearer. And louder. And I knew it wasn’t a bird or a raccoon or a possum. No. this was something much bigger.
I was back into stealth mode now. I tried hollering a bit, seeing if that would scare the whatever-it-was away, but that didn’t work. And it was indeed working its way steadily up my little protective hill to me, and I didn’t really want that. All I had was my ever-shrinking Smith and Wesson, and that wasn’t enough. So I glanced around slowly, never taking my eyes off of the sound’s direction and found a stick big enough to make me happy. With my luck, though, it would probably be rotten.
I ran quietly over to the stick (well, it was more like a branch) and heaved it up. As long as I could manage to swing it in really fast circles I would survive, I thought. It was probably too late to run anyway.
Now, mind you, I am no coward. Someday I want to be a soldier, so confronting strange noises was not a foreign idea to me. It just wasn’t the most… palatable… thought, trying to batter a mountain lion to death with a way-too-heavy branch while it had the obvious advantage in, well, every way.
This was when I had the genius idea to glance down at what stick I was holding. I knew it was heavy, but it would be good to get an idea about the strong and weak points of the stick. And, boy, it’s a good thing I looked.
I had never seen a black widow spider in those woods. Especially in the winter. But there was the world’s fattest black widow (remember, I knew what it was. I am an expert woodswoman and all that. Ha.) crawling up, up, and up towards my hand.
No stick has ever been thrown with such force.
So I picked a new stick now because after my black widow episode, the leaf-pounding was terribly close and confrontation was imminent. I got a good one – stick, that is. It was slightly pointed, old, thick, hard as a brick, and just what I needed. I held it, twirled it, tested the old fencing moves, and then I ran. Away. Fast. Because the noise was too close and I wasn’t in the mood to fence around a bit with any ravenous puma. Or a bear.
At first I ran quietly; I picked my path with care, avoiding leaves and doing a little fox walk through the forest. But when I mounted and demounted one hill, I ran with more gusto. I heard the sound still behind me, though not so close as was imminent danger. It was more like… imminent on a lesser imminent scale, you know. So there I was pounding along with vigor when all of a sudden the thought struck me like a falling sledgehammer: what if it were not an animal? What if it were a human. I shivered in my sprint, suddenly recognizing my repressed feeling of someone-is-definitely-watching-me (that’s what happens when you think too much, don’t you know).
I loped along at quite a robust pace with fear pounding to the beat of “Eye of the Tiger” in my cerebral cortex. I don’t know why fear chose that particular beat… I am rather tired of that song anyway.
Well, now I was well through the woods. I had another quarter of a mile or so to go before I would fly into an open area where no pursuer would dare follow. That was my territory. I could battle them there quite easily. The mountain lion scream continued to haunt me, but the thought of a human shadowing me was even more terrifying. And there was always the thought that it was a bear.
And then something possessed my brain to tell my feet to stop running. I stopped. I turned around. I shouted behind me, “Stop following me! You shouldn’t be following me.”
And again I yelled after I ran a few more yards, “I say, stop following me. Just stop.”
Well, it was a valiant effort, I suppose, but it didn’t work. When I exploded into my territory the clearing, I finally heard less and less of the shuffling leaves. Eventually the sound died altogether to my “Eye of the Tiger”-pounding ears. When I opened the door to my house, a strange feeling came over me. I kicked off my boots, feeling that my run had been completely unnecessary. Nothing had just happened, I felt. Nothing had really been chasing me. That stuff only happens in little kid’s imaginations and books and in New York City or something…
I walked into the kitchen then and laid eyes on the counter. My phone – that stupid and pesky device which I absolutely refuse to bring with me on my hikes – lay on the counter, flashing its little red light that I had a new text message.
I chose “view now.”
I looked away.
I looked at the message I had received.
I read it.
I read it again.
I got up and locked all the doors.
I told no one what the text said. They wouldn’t believe me anyway.
And then I reread the text…
You did right to run...