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[Here is the second of several journal entries I wrote in the old fashioned way, with paper and what-da-ya-call-it, pen, while I was in Montana.  This was was written on Sept. 7, about the events of Sept. 7. They’re going to be a little jumbled up, but bear with me…]

Sept. 7th, 2002

Last week I camped at Clearwater Lake.

It’s a quiet, flat lake in what would otherwise be a large open meadow in a pine forest.  It’s shallow and warm.  Three-quarters of the circumferences of the lake is marshy, boggy grasses and reeds, while the other quarter is dirt sloping gently down to the water’s edge.

There’s a small stream on the North side that provides a gentle egress for the water. The lake is fed by springs, I believe.  A hiking trail meanders around the lake, and there’s one path in to reach the lake.

There’s good fishing, and so, though it’s about half a mile from the forest logging road to the lake, there were two or three small boats and rafts in the water when I arrived, backpack tightly cinched, that afternoon at the shore of the lake.  I walked around to the far side, because I was planning to stay for the night, and I wanted to catch the early morning light over the lake.

As I made my way around the lake, the air was calm and serene.  I stopped frequently to look at the fish jumping, the whiskey jacks darting from tree branch to tree branch, and I even saw a doe standing completely still in tall grass between the pine trees.

I turned off the trail once i reached the far side of the lake, and I walked up a hill, climbing over or around some fallen trees.  There was a sub crest of the hill, with a slight depression behind it.  I had a view of the lake, the ground was soft, and the hilltop would give protection from the wind.  There was room enough for me to stretch out my sleeping bag, mattress and bivvy sac (an outer, waterproof covering like a tent but just big enough for a sleeping bag).

I stretched out, looked up through the tree tops at the swimming pool-blue sky, wrote in my journal, dozed off.

I woke a little later when hunger nudged me.  It was still light out.  I took my food sack, cookware and stove down to the path by the lake, boiled some water, hydrated some flakes and powder into a passable meal of spicy macaroni and cheese, ate, rinsed up, walked along the path to find a suitable place to hand my food out of reach of any forest critter.  There was still a set of fishermen on the lake, but with plenty of light left, I figured they’d be gone at dusk, which looked to be less than two hours off.

Fed, warm, with campsite secure (or so I thought), I walked back up to my nook and stretched out on top of my soft sleeping bag.  When a chill came, I first got into my snug sleeping bag, then put the bag into the confining bivouac sack, then zipped it all up, and finally fell into a light but peaceful sleep.

From that relaxed sleep, I woke to hear myself screaming at the top of my lungs.

A loud crashing noise had suddenly come out of the pitch black night, yards away from my toes, a series of heavy footfalls that I could feel as well as hear.  The hollow echo of their thumping ran through my chest, which my heart had vacated.  I think it was hiding behind my stomach.

My arms, confined by my sleeping bag, had nevertheless independently tried to leap up and cover my head.  I was coughing in terror at the pain caused by my trying to shout through my frozen throat.

All of this happened in a split second.  Not for a moment was I confused as you sometimes are on waking.  I went in one stroke from asleep to knowing that I was in the middle of the mountains and that something was going to eat me.  Or was it?

Had I imagined it? There was, after the first few thumps, a complete quiet.  And it wasn’t entirely pitch black, for I could see, 80 feet above me, treetops tracing a torn edge around the navy black star scene far away.  I strained and strained, though, and of the lakes, the trees, my backpack, or even my own legs wrapped inside the bright red straightjacket of a sack, I could see nothing.

Then, another rustle, a slinking, sneaking, subtly-heard noise of ... retreat?  Oh, I hoped it was a retreat.  Or maybe it was my mind assigning a good spin to a bad, bad, very bad situation.

Then, another optimistic thought: It’s those damn fishermen, come to play a little trick on the City Boy from Los Angeles.

Quickly, before analyzing this critically for even a second, I yelled “Assholes!” in my toughest tones.  Though my voice sounded tight and strained, it didn’t crack as it sometimes does in times of pressure.  Nothing, no sound.  I interpreted this simply that they were leaving me alone now.  No fun, this nut case, that’s what I’d be thinking if I was them.

Quiet again.  Peaceful.  I’ll just go right back to sleep.

Or maybe just lie here instead, straight as a board, staring blindly up at the only source of light that I’ll have until dawn, starlight through pine needles.

I’ll just wait for my eyes to adjust so I can see around me.  Never mind that it’s been two hours of pitch black and I can’t see my own elbow.  There’s no moon tonight.  Why the hell not?  Where the hell is the moon?  Sun goes down, moon comes up, right?  Someone’s asleep at the switch.  Asleep.  Sleeping.  Asshole.

I thought about getting out my flashlight, but cold hard Logic and paralysis by Fear teamed up to talk me out of the idea.

For one, said Logic, using a light would let those asshole fisher-children known exactly where I am, and then they could come tease me again.

Secondly, Logic continued, using a light for even a moment would give me night blindness and leave me in poorer condition than before. (“Yeah,” said Fear.)

On the third hand, my flashlight, chosen because it weighed less than a fountain pen, also gave off about the same amount of light as a fountain pen, that is to say, not very bloody much, and it probably wouldn’t shine farther than I could spit, and Fear had handily dried out my mouth so that wasn’t very far.

Fourth, if I did shine this pencil light at the noise, and I saw nothing but two empty, green, pointy eyes staring unblinking back at me, growing suddenly larger as they rushed silently forward to tear the tongue from my mouth opened wide to scream while I frantically tried to bring my arms and legs out of my Iron Maiden sleeping bag to block the beast, but I couldn’t get free in time (Excuse me, said Logic, but then how was I holding the flashlight? Shut up, lieutenant Logic, General Panic has control of this vessel now!) and none of it would matter because I’d have been dead instantly as my very own brain decided to split into two halves and flee my skull, shooting out my eyes to hide quivering in the bushes, body you’re on your own now, we’re going to take the first bus—OH CRAP, ANOTHER NOISE!

My internal dialogue was derailed by the external jolt of another loud noise from the bushes. At this point, I had been totally frozen in anticipation of another fly-by, so much so that when I actually heard solid, measured footfalls crunching in the dark underbrush, the reality was almost a relief.  I say almost, because after the first noise, two things too horrible to imagine—and I was imagining at an Olympic-caliber level—happened in swift succession, like two skeets blown out of the air by a psychotic marksman.

First, breathing.  Snorts through large nostrils. Impatient.  Upset.  Huffing and puffing—oh, no, not wolf imagery!  Venting from large lungs, sounding much like a 1,356 pound, 8-year old black bear with yellow teeth and a love of Canadian flesh.  Or so I sensed. What ever it was, it was heavy, and it wanted something.

Second, there was more than one! Oh, yes.  I could tell, even though I could see nothing, no matter how I thrashed and turned my head to try and see into the ink jet black cloud of depthless night, and even though my hearing was playing tricks on me because of my sudden head rotations and the sound of my own heart racing like the drum roll before the stunt man jumps the canyon on a motorbike, I still knew, knew in my intestines that there was now more than one beast examining me.

So I yelled.  Loud.  I have no idea what.  The noises shifted.  I got quiet. Another stomp.  Nothing.  And then, suddenly, my mind remembered a nasty little movie called “Blair Witch Project.”

OH MY GOD! what I would have given at that moment to go back in time to the night I saw that movie, to give myself food poisoning or break my own ankle or anything, literally anything, to stop my prior self from seeing that ugly, hideous, evil little horror movie that I now suddenly had filling up my entire head like an internal IMAX theater.

If you haven’t seen Blair Witch Project, don’t.  Ever.  The plot is this: Campers in woods at night hear scary noises.  Later, they all die!

Surrounded by something(s) making grunting and puffing noises and walking in some sort of circle or star or pentagram around me, I tried to put some other image in my head, to drowned out the images of fear I was remembering in real time.  Anything other pop-culture thing would do, no matter how awful: Titanic, Night Court, Britney music videos, Sold Gold Dancers, Magnum P.I., anything, but the Blair Witch would not be dislodged.  Nor, I should remind the reader, would the actual things making the actual noises go away.  They’d been toying with me for about 14 hours at this point, I was certain.

Yes, I did think about bolting to my car, 1.5 miles away, on the other side of the lake, in pitch black up a twisting path, with no light, pursued by mountain lions or hyenas or ghouls or whatever these things where.  I thought about climbing on of the trees near me, but at 60 feet tall, 1.5 feet in diameter and no branches, it would have been a challenge even for me, Adrenalin Man.

Mostly, I just thought very hard about being big and mean and bland and tasteless and potentially poisonous and chewy and being all by myself.  Then, a shift.  Whatever it/they was/were, slowly receded, in such a way that the creature may have just been walking around a log, getting ready to pounce, or going off to look for ketchup and garlic salt.  Whatever, they seemed gone.

The rest of the night, I didn’t sleep so well.

After the sun came up, I slept some more, and better.  Around 10 a.m., a quiet noise awoke me.  Standing on the hill, about 40 feet away from me, a tawny deer was approaching.  He walked slowly, dipping its head to eat a blade of grass as he came near.  He stepped closer, footsteps echoing through the ground.

Another hesitant step, and now I could hear his breath, snorting through flared nostrils.  He could probably smell the salt from my T-shirt and the straps on my backpack, but it was mixed with the odious smell of fear-soaked Travis, and he wasn’t sure what to make of it.  He came closer, about 20 feet away.  I turned my body for a better view.

At the sign of motion, his legs exploded underneath him.  He jumped back, turned in midair, leapt over a stump and, showing his sailboat white tail in distress, disappeared from view.

I guess I spooked him.

* * *


Many people that I’ve shared this story with have said comforting, understanding things like “Oh, yes, deer in the dark can be scary.”

No, deer are not scary, in the dark or otherwise.  Deer are sweet.  Invisible Darth Vader night demons with heavy boot stomping footsteps and me with no source of light and trapped in a confining sleeping bag and wearing just my underwear, and being miles from any other human or say, a hospital or a gun or a priest or anything useful like that—that’s scary.

If I’d heard the deer in the daylight, I would have sighed and smiled that night at their cute thumping and shooed them away.

Also, I really hate the Blair Witch Project.


“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

...who said it?

“Almost every American I know does trade large portions of his life for entertainment, hour by weeknight hour, binge by Saturday binge, Facebook check by Facebook check. I’m one of them. In the course of writing this I’ve watched all 13 episodes of House of Cards and who knows how many more West Wing episodes, and I’ve spent any number of blurred hours falling down internet rabbit holes. All instead of reading, or writing, or working, or spending real time with people I love.”

...who said it?

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

...who said it?

“I play with variables constantly.”

...who said it?

“Only the person who has learned Continual Love coming from a heart of Gratitude/Worship can effectively deal with the problem of loneliness.”

...who said it?




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