My Last Camping Trip
One day in September of 1983 we decided to go on a patrol camping trip so that we’d get some prizes at the end of the year. Our scout troop owned a campsite up on top of a big, rocky hill. It was just our rotten luck that when we agreed to meet to start the camp out, there had been a steady rain going on all day that didn’t look like it was going to stop for hours. But our parents were all either going away for the weekend or thought rain was no reason to cancel a camping trip. Anyway, it was just barely going to be warm enough for this to be our last chance to have a patrol camp out that year.
There were four of us trudging up one of the thin paths on the hill with our limited gear under dismal green ponchos: Me, Eric, Tony, and Sam in that order. We were miserable and irritable except for Tony.
We had reached a point where we enjoyed hurting Tony. Tony was one of those kids that get put into Boy Scouts of America only because they have a parent that wants free babysitting. I imagine most of the time his mom mostly talked to him by yelling at him, and the only way he knew to relate to the rest of us was to annoy us. He was also the youngest guy in my patrol and the shortest so it was fairly easy for us to bully him, especially when we thought he was doing his best to bring it on himself. I think Tony was delighted that the rest of the patrol was already on edge so it would be easier for him to get a rise out of us. At that moment he had decided to focus on Eric.
Eric was a real goody-goody most of the time. He was a pretty good athlete and an A student. I’m pretty sure that at fifteen he’d never had sex, a puff of anything, or any booze. But he loved beating on Tony as much as the rest of us did. That seemed to be his only vice, and frankly, it kept the guy from creeping me out by being too perfect. He’d certainly looked ready to give someone a beating when I glanced back at him during that little hike.
Hey, Eric!” Tony said. I glanced back over my shoulder. Tony had run up next to Eric like a puppy dog cause he knew otherwise Eric would ignore him. There was barely room on the path for him to do that if he turned himself sideways.
“What?” Eric said.
“I can read your mind!” Sometimes Tony would be weird or still like a little kid when he pestered us.
“Okay.” Eric said. I looked forward again.
“Think of a number! I can guess it!” Tony was pitching his voice up.
“Okay.” Eric said.
“It’s thirty!” Tony told him.
“You’re just saying that. Really I was right. Wasn’t I? Huh, wasn’t I?” From the sound of ponchos rustling, I assume that Tony began to push against Eric. He would do that for minutes on end if you’d let him. Sometimes he might even start humping your leg if you were another scout.
“Get away from me!” Eric said. I didn’t see it, but it was obvious even before I turned round what had happened. Eric thoughtlessly pushed Tony away, just wanting the little creep off him. As narrow and slippery as the trail was, he had pushed Tony off it. Tony screamed as he went down the very steep portion of hill, almost catching several trees before having his legs tripped out from under him by a stump. The stump was unfortunately only a little uphill from a large sandstone rock. Tony went into it headfirst with a sound of a loud “crack!” I stared at him for half a minute or so then, and he didn’t so much as twitch from what I could see.
“On my god.” Sam said after a long silence, which seemed to snap the rest of us out of it.
“Let’s go help him.”
“Yeah.” I said. Back then, this meant running down there to carry him to the nearest house out of the park since cell phones for kids were still decades off. I tried to start down the trail but Eric was still standing in the way. He turned to me.
“We’ve gotta tell people what happened right,” Sam stopped and looked over at us. Eric looked down at him. “We need to tell everyone that he slipped and fell, got it?”
“We’ve got to help Tony!” Sam shouted.
“And we will!” Eric said. “But first, we need to be clear that we’re going to tell everyone that he fell, right? You got me, that’s what we tell everyone?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I didn’t see it happen.” Eric looked and me, and nodded. That seemed good enough for him. Then he looked back at Sam.
“You pushed him. We have to help him,” Sam said in bewilderment. Sam had never been the cleverest guy in the patrol, but I would have thought he’d have the sense to play along under the circumstances.
“We will!” Eric responded. “But first, I need you to say that you’ll tell everyone that he slipped and he fell!” I nodded desperately at Sam, gesturing for him to tell Eric what he needed to hear so that we could get down there to try to help Tony.
“No,” Sam said. Eric stared at him.
“Alright,” Eric said. “Let’s go.” We walked quickly, not about to run for fear of slipping and falling like Tony just had.
“It wouldn’t have done you much good anyway.” Sam said after a little while, apparently trying to help Eric feel better. “Tony still would have told everyone you tried to kill him no matter what.”
“Yeah, but that’s Tony. Who’d have cared if the rest of us had our story straight?” Eric answered, his voice flat. He seemed to speed up from behind Sam.
“Which way do you think would be the fastest to- HEY!” Eric grabbed Sam. Sam yelled as Eric dragged him to the edge of the path.
“Say it!” Eric shrieked. “Say that you’ll tell everyone that he slipped!” Eric sounded more scared than he did intimidating as he held Sam at the edge of the path, seemingly ready to let him fall.
“Fuck you!” Sam yelled and he began to flail. He hurt Eric more than I would have expected, judging by how Eric grunted. Maybe it was pure adrenaline, but Sam got free somehow and began pushing him to the other side of the trail, right into a cliff.
“Jesus Christ, stop fighting!” I yelled at them. I might as well have been speaking Chinese. I took a few steps closer and saw there was murder in both their eyes, so I stepped back. Sam got his hand on Eric’s chin and pushed his head into the rocks behind him as hard as he could. Eric was really trembling then, like an old man with Parkinson’s. It was as if he was experiencing a panic attack in the middle of a fight. Even so he wasn’t going to just take Sam’s beating. He grabbed Sam again and kind of picked him up like Sam was a tackling dummy and then charged forward blindly, Sam’s poncho over his face. He misjudged the distance to the edge of the path and both Sam and he went rolling down the hill. They struck trees with sickening noises as they fell to a level area.
They were much more fortunate than Tony. I could see their movements and hear them screaming when they stopped falling down the hill. But neither of them even tried to get up.
I walked as quickly as I safely could down the trail and then looped back round to where Sam and Eric were. Both were yelling for my help at first, but as I proceeded down the trail, Eric abruptly went quiet.
“My leg’s broken!” Sam told me as soon as he saw me arrive where they’d fallen. “The bone’s sticking out!” It was true. His poncho had folded up and I saw the bulge in his lower left pant leg beneath the knee. Blood had soaked through his pants with the rainwater.
“Hey,” Eric said flatly. His lack of emotion made me look over at him as Sam screamed at both of us. “I think I hurt my spine. I can’t move my legs. I can’t feel them.” From what I could see of how his body was twisted, that might well have been possible. I didn’t know then how Eric could be so emotionless about it, but in hindsight of course he was in shock if not in psychological denial.
“Alright, guys, I’ll go do what I can for Tony, and then I’ll get help for everyone.” I said. Sam screamed at me that that was the wrong thing to do, that I should leave the park to get help immediately. For all my first aid training, I didn’t know if either of us were right. I thought maybe there was something I could do with the first aid kit for Tony, whose injury had seemed the most severe. Maybe Tony had vomited and I had to clear his breathing passage. I had to check on him. I tried to reassure them before leaving. Sam swore at my back as I ran over to Tony while Eric remained quiet.
I ran to where I’d seen Tony’s head hit the rock. I had walked by it on hikes and camping trips numerous times and knew the rocks and trees. I’d seen the rock that Tony had hit his head on numerous times and knew when I’d reached it. When I did, I froze for what felt like minutes.
Tony was gone.
There was no sign he’d been there except for some blood had pooled by the rock where he’d struck his head. It was still wet and red on the sandstone. I looked around and called for him. I ran a short distance each way around the rock. I didn’t see a sign of him. Not a footprint in mud, a drop of blood. Anything.
I something else as I searched. Sounds seemed to be fading away. I could hardly hear the rain around me. I couldn’t hear my footsteps in the shallow puddles on the ground. I couldn’t even hear Sam although I had been seconds before. My own voice seemed muffled to my ears. I had been afraid before, but I’d never known the sound to fade away like that.
I began to feel something. Not the feeling you get when you’re being watched, but the one you get when someone you fear is standing right over you. I turned, and there was no one there, of course. The feeling didn’t let up. It seemed to grow stronger and stronger. There was nothing to hear, not even my own breathing or the beat of my heart.
I ran back to where I’d left the other two scouts, as fast as I’ve ever run towards anything. Slowly I could hear again that Sam was still screaming in pain and cursing out Eric. Eric barely moved his head to look at me when I arrived. Sam went quiet after I told them of Tony’s disappearance.
“How?” was all Sam could think to say. I felt that sensation again of a presence all around me again. It was faint but noticeable.
“I don’t know. Sam, how are your arms? Can I carry you out of here pack strap style?” I had two years and eighteen inches of height on Sam, so I knew I could carry him out. Sam said I would. Whatever presence I was feeling, he seemed aware of it too through his pain and he didn’t need to be sold on being taken out of the park, painful though it would surely be. I got out my first aid kit quickly, left my pack on the ground, and hastily made him a splint. He screamed as I lifted him up on my back.
“Wait! What about me?!” Eric asked, some emotion back in his voice. I glanced over at him. His eyes were wide, and his skin was becoming pale.
“I can only carry one person. We’ll get you help as fast as we can.”
“But, what if whatever made Tony disappear...” Looking back on Eric, I find it hard to fault him now. He was just a kid. He’d made a mistake, meaning only a little if any harm. The a smaller amount of harm that we’d all inflicted on Tony time and again. Then he’d seen all his life, all his accomplishments, his future, all about to be tarnished because of what he’d accidentally done to someone we all mostly thought of as dirt. He overreacted like probably many of us would back when we had little life experience and perspective of a guy in his lower teens. But at the time, I just glared at him for a second as he lay twisted and helpless on the ground, reaching up to me.
“Maybe you deserve it,” I told him. I turned my back on him and began carrying Sam out of the park.
“Hey! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to hurt Tony! I wasn’t going to drop Sam! I was bluffing! I’m sorry! I’ll do anything you want if you get me out of here! I’ll give you everything! Please! Don’t leave me alone! What was that!? There’s, there’s something out here! Come back! Please! I swear that I’ll do anything! Please! Pleeeaase! Come back!” His voice faded quickly, and the sound of rain and Sam’s pain resumed. As I walked, the feeling of that presence faded as well.
I had almost a mile to go in the rain before there would be a house with a phone, and Sam was moaning and wincing practically with every step. I made slow, frustrating progress for a few hundred yards before I slipped and landed heavily on my left knee. Sam screeched in my ear after his upper chest his my shoulder.
"I think I broke a rib back there! You can't carry me like this!" I didn’t know how he could have broken a rib and only started to feel it now but I wasn’t about to argue. As carefully as I could in my anxiety, I placed him on the ground in a sitting position and switched the carrying style to firefighter carrying style so that he was mostly over my shoulder.
"Is that better?" I asked him when I'd hoisted him back up. He had winced again as I held him up.
"It still hurts, but it's better." We rounded a curve on the trail and were approaching a fairly gentle slope where the parking lot was situated. I thought of it then as the end of the park. Sam had begun to feel easier to carry, so I felt then I'd be able to make it out of this forest.
I remember that since I'd been in the park many times before, and even with another scout on my back being carried like this who was constantly voicing his pain, things were coming back to normal. Whatever feeling I'd experienced over where I had thought Tony disappeared was going away. Things began to feel so normal that the idea Tony had just gotten up and walked away and emergency services would soon find him was believable. I guess what I felt then was that all I had to do was carry Sam and then it would be up to the adults to take care of all this.
"Oh Jesus," Sam suddenly said quietly. "Run. Run! Run! Fucking Run!" Before I could ask or turn to see what I was to run from, he struck me as hard as he could on the side. He did this again and again, even after I started running. It was difficult to run even a few steps with such a heavy, awkward weight. It became easier when I noticed something that was already too familiar: Sam's voice became quieter even as he thrashed and screeched more shrilly on my back. He might have said what it was or described anything about it, but within seconds he was as muted as my silent steps in the puddles on the pathway.
I reached the bottom of the incline. Sam was convulsing then, which I felt was a sign that whatever I was trying to flee was getting closer. He was still hitting me in the side, but it was weaker and more erratically.
The path up the hill was full of loose rocks and gravel. In weather like this it was impossible to keep a solid foothold, but by some miracle I was able to run up it and maintain a hold on him even as he practically seemed to be trying to break free and I was trembling. I remember thinking that I faintly heard something then, something like a splash. That had to be a good sign.
Halfway up the hill I felt a horrible sensation in my feet. They were going numb. I remember not understanding why, and even with all the momentum I had built up, my feet landed awkwardly, like I'd slipped on ice but still landed on my feet. I barely had time to feel pain in my ankles because they went numb as well. I was barely able to stumble forward before the numbness climbed up to my knees. My legs were useless then. I fell forward practically face first.
Sam got free even with his fractures, flipped over, and crawled up the hill. I tried myself. I could feel the numbness had reached my ribcage by then, but dragged myself across the rocks. I remember perfectly the sight of Sam dragging himself too while twitching and trembling as he crawled.
A force hit the back of my head that felt like a construction beam dropped from a crane. My face went into the ground, rocks stabbing into my cheeks hard enough to break the skin and I seemed to lose all fight and flight instinct. I just lay there like a breathing corpse. Even if I hadn't been numb I didn't have any energy, any hope, any understanding of what was happening to me. I didn't even have the courage to lift my hood up and see what was happening around me.
I don't know how long I lay there. The numbness left me, but I still didn't lift my hood. So little light was coming in under my hood that night might have fallen and I wouldn't have been able to tell. A long time later, the rain stopped. A longer time after that, I began to hear again. I heard birds tweeting, cars driving by from what sounded like miles away. I didn’t move.
After a long time of only hearing the sounds of nature, I heard footsteps approaching me. They stopped suddenly, and then clearly changed to those of someone running up to me.
"Are you alright?" An old man whose name I don't remember said as he leaned over and pulled my hood back. I looked up at him, rocks still stabbed into my face. He winced as he saw it. "Christ, kid. What happened to you?"
"I don't know," I said.
I still don't know. I don't want to. I know that Eric, Tony, and Sam were never found, nor was any trace of anything that might have made them disappear. I learned even that reluctantly. Look for answers? Hell, I don't even go near forests any longer.
Staying away from forests isn't enough. I have developed a need for sound. Always. After a minute without the hearing something, I feel anxious. Sleeping without it is impossible. If whatever got my fellow scouts comes for me, I want as much warning as I can get.
That brings me to the reason I'm sharing this: Lately, even with music at full volume and me screaming my lungs out, I've been experiencing minutes of silence. At home, at work, out driving, when I’ve gone on visits, I’ve been experiencing it.
It’s been many years since the the end of my last camping trip, but it seems like I’m about to feel that presence again. When it wants, I believe it will make me experience a silence that will never end.