It was supposed to have been a fun weekend excursion into the mountains with some friends. Jerry. Carla. Derek. An easy pass. A beautiful lake. Clean water and the possibility of fishing in the outlet stream. It was supposed to be a chance to relax and let go of the cares and concerns of the preceding week.
The stream, laughing at me, paralleled the trail a foot off the worn path. The moon, full and pale, helped me guide my feet as I scrambled down the valley. The weak beam from my headlamp bounced around as I jerked my head left and right. I couldn’t afford to catch my foot on a rock and tumble. I couldn’t afford to slow down. It was getting closer.
A howl followed my footfalls and the hairs on my arms and neck rose for the second time that night. My heart felt like it was going to burst out of my chest, pounding out a discordant rhythm with my heavy steps. My lungs were on fire as I sucked in ragged breaths to continue to fuel my flight. I was nearing my end. I knew it. It knew it.
Another howl, playful, joyous in its pursuit, erupted behind me. How had it made up so much ground? I couldn’t afford to turn and look for it. I might fall. I might not want to see how close it was. I urged my legs to move faster and somehow they managed to oblige.
I could no longer hear the creak. I was moving too fast, too loud, the only sounds I could hear were those of my flight: blood in my ears, air sucked in and blown back out through my cracked lips, my boots scrambling for purchase on the loose rocky trail. I cataloged these sounds and then pushed them aside. I needed to hear what else was out there.
The shuffling snort of a creature, on my heels. The pitiful whine of a hungry animal, licking its lips as it prepares to pounce. The rapid beat of soft padded paws, churning the pine needle strewn soil, with the occasional scrape of a long sharp nail on stone. I heard all of it.
Low hanging branches whipped at my face as I sped passed them. I felt the sting and lash and the flow of blood as more than one welt was raised and ripped free. I couldn’t duck, I couldn’t try to push aside the branches, I couldn’t slow down. The wounds oozed, pouring blood down my forehead, through my eyes, dripping from my nose, and cheeks, and chin. i was aware of it, but none of it hurt.
I heard the snap of tooth on tooth and felt the pull at my jeans as its jaws reached out for my flesh. The denim tore free, but I was, luckily, unscathed and somehow manged to keep my feet. My momentary elation at temporarily avoiding the creature was crushed by the low throaty growl as it expressed its ire at having missed me. The playfulness of its pursuit was gone and only business remained. The business of food. The business of survival.
I lost sight of the trail as the moon slid behind the towering canyon walls. It no longer mattered. My energy was gone. My whole body screamed at me to give it up, only my mind was unwilling to acquiesce. It was very aware that surrender was not an option. There was no better luck next time, no valiant first attempt – you’ll get them next time, no participation award.
Somehow my feet managed to stay on the trail. Somehow my mind coaxed my body into continuing on. Another snap and searing pain shot up from my heel, a flame coursing through my body and radiating out the top of ears. I didn’t have the energy to think about what that would mean. I hadn’t fallen. My feet were still moving. I was surviving for another minute.
The moon broke free of whatever crag it had been hiding behind and flooded the valley with light again. With the taste of my blood fresh in its mouth, the beast turned its snout to the heavens and let loose a roaring howl of triumph. The sheer pleasure in its voice caused me to falter and I went sprawling into the dirt and mud at the edge of the creek. There wasn’t a single part of me that didn’t hurt.
I could hear it shuffling closer. I could feel its breath on the back of my neck. I thought about screaming but the fall had knocked the breath from my body. I closed my eyes and hoped the end would come quickly.
The grunts and snorts were replaced by Jerry’s voice, “I told you we shouldn’t go camping when there was a full moon.”
Fine. Whatever. Lesson learned, whatever good it would do me. But, really, who would have ever expected Jerry was a werewolf. I clenched my jaw and waited for the stab of pain that would signal the onset of his feast, and the pain never came.
I cracked my right eye and gazed up at his hideous form, all shaggy hair, sharp claws, and long jutting snout. He smiled down at me, all teeth, pointed and drooling, “Next month we’ll be able to go running together when the moon is full.”
I didn’t immediately understand, but the following month when I changed, we did go running and it was a blast.
But, never forget to be mindful of who you invite backpacking. Your friends cannot be trusted. Perhaps more importantly, be mindful of when you venture into the wild. The next time you hear that call that doesn’t quite sound like a coyote singing to the moon it may be Jerry and I sniffing out your trail and then it will be your turn to run, or join us.