by Randy Miller
Chapter 1. UPPER EL DORADO
UP, up, up, and now a sharp left turn, steeper now & a gradual right turn, quick & short downhill & another sharp left, now a short steep climb, peddle hard, breathe hard! Upper El Dorado was not a real steep uphill mountain bike trail, but it was difficult. Rocky, roots, & a different obstacle every second. Across a creek, now another short uphill & a fast downhill, NOT TOO FAST!! Now a quick left & another uphill, CAREFUL! Now it leveled out for a bit, force a few deep breaths, stay calm, now a steep uphill, breathe deep! Only one or two feet wide, the narrow trail continued upward for another hour longer before connecting to a fork in the trail & the downhill section to home. It was late afternoon on this mid-September ride & the days were getting shorter, but I had plenty of time to reach the fork & the route home. I could see another rider coming downhill towards me, the trail was slightly wider where we passed each other without stopping. It was Mitchell. Hi Randy, hey Mitchell, be careful Randy, it gets dark really fast up this far in the forest, thanks Mitchell, I’m heading home soon. Steeper now, peddle hard, now coast, catch my breath, sharp left & downhill & I can see another sharp left, SLOW DOWN. Now another rider is coming towards me & downhill. It’s Holly, hi Holly, see you tomorrow on cold lap, sounds good Randy, see you. Now more uphill, peddle hard. I marveled at how my heartbeats always made adjustments to its rate, depending on how hard I peddled & my breathing was also an automatic response, but I could force a few quick breaths during coasting sections to aid in the next strenuous uphill, where my heart rate & breathing would return to automatic mode. More uphill, peddling a bit harder now, it’s getting late & the shadows are growing taller. My own shadow is twice my height & the sun is almost completely obscured by the thickening forest, but I’ve still got just enough time to get to the upcoming fork in the trail & the downhill to home. I’m probably the last biker up this far in the forest & everyone else has headed home. I’m alone up here now. 15 more minutes of uphill & I’ll be at the fork. Push harder, my heart is pounding & my breathing is deep, it’s getting late. Mitchell was more right than I thought, it’s almost dark, but the fork towards home is a fast downhill & I know it by heart, no worries, almost there. And then it happened so fast & was over before I really knew what happened… PSSSSSSST, The unmistakable sound of a flat tire. OH NO, NOT NOW!!! QUICK, get my wheel off, grab the spare tube, HURRY, put the tube on, pump it up, faster, it’s almost dark PUMP IT UP! Just a bit more, ok I’ve got it. Now ride hard, the fork is just uphill from here, heart pounding harder now & gasping for air, getting nervous, PEDDLE MAN, it should be right around the next corner, is this it? YES, a quick turn to the right, now move it, Randy. I’ve coasted 30 seconds & the trail suddenly ends, DAMN, I took the wrong fork, back uphill to the main trail, turn right… or do I turn left? Stop, think, heart pounding harder than ever & gasping for air, then one very deep breath & looking down, I can’t even see my feet. It’s dark, I’m stuck right here & I’m afraid!
Chapter 2. THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE
For several minutes I just stood there, angry, mostly at myself, scared, sweating, but starting to breathe normally now, searching for a way out of my situation, then finally giving up. I have no choice. I’m spending the night right here. Find a comfortable place to sit down & don’t fight it! I remember a flat rock next to where I last saw my bike & behind it was a tall fir tree. Just behind the tree was a pile of rocks the size of washing machines with an opening like a small cave. I could crawl in there if I needed a safe place to sleep… away from any wild animals, ha. I smell like a wet dog, nothing will be wanting to eat me tonight, I laughed to myself. Oh, this is f…ing PERFECT. I’m going to crawl into a bear’s cave to sleep… Great!!! Hmmm, this is actually almost comfortable. Ok, sit down & lighten up a bit, it’s one night in the forest, ya big baby. OH, my cell phone 4% charge left, I can text but not call, texting my wife now. Hi, I’m ok, I got a flat tire on El Dorado, I’m stuck in the dark & I’m spending the night in the forest, I’m ok really, don’t worry. See you tomorrow, text me back later if you…… my phone goes blank.
Ok, now what? It’s 7:30, it’ll start getting light around 6:00 tomorrow morning. 10 hours of???
Orion’s Belt was just becoming visible & slightly west of the top of a tree in the dark sky. It’ll be all the way across the sky before morning, it’ll be my timekeeper. Except for the stars in the sky, it’s pitch dark now. I can’t see my own hand in front of my face. The only activity I have is my thoughts & memories. Sit back, calm down, breathe… I’m ok… I’m ok now.
Soon my mind wandered off to a recent memory & just a few weeks ago, I was getting ready for the day, possibly a little crabby, my son & I decided to skip work & school & went out to breakfast. We got seated at Betty’s restaurant & ordered pancakes yum & scrambled eggs & hot cocoa with whipped cream mmmm yes, please. Afterward, we hiked up to our Secret pond & hunted for snakes & frogs, then skipped rocks across the pond. Wow dad, did you see that my rock skipped 7 times, my best ever! Now I’m sitting here & alone in the dark thinking that was the best day of my life & I didn’t realize it till this moment. I feel so alone right now.
Again, my mind wandered off to a more distant memory, 30 years ago when I was 8. I was helping my dad around the farm & he said, Randy, take Clancy… my dog & best buddy… for a walk but stay out of Dead-End Ravine, I’ve seen some stray dogs there lately. Take my walking stick with you just in case! So of course, me & Clancy went directly to Dead End Ravine! As we started down the steep narrow trail, I could see a small streamlined with ferns & rocks, it was very shady, almost dark, with a natural trail along the stream. I could see a small waterfall just off the main stream & a crystal clear pool of water rippled at our feet. The urge to just jump in the water on this hot summer day was overwhelming, but before I could take my shoes off, Clancy leaped into the pool & splashed water all over me. I pretended to be mad, but it’s hard to appear mad while smiling ear to ear & laughing hysterically at the same time. Clancy knew I was bluffing so he jumped up on me & I fell on a fern & we rolled into a grassy patch all while he licked my face AAAAAAH, dog slobber, I laughed even harder. Oh my god, I miss Clancy so much…
We hiked a few minutes more & soon we both hear it, barking dogs, getting closer & in just a moment, they blocked our way out. We were trapped. Barking first then snarling with mouths open & flashing teeth with raised hackles, Clancy, we’re in trouble, I flew up a small nearby tree, just out of reach of the mad dogs & hung on for my life. One of the dogs snapped viciously at Clancy & as blood ran down his nose, Clancy lapped it up & seemed to join the other feral dogs in their frenzied lust for more blood. Then they turned their attention to me. Snarling & leaping up towards me, I stepped up higher to another branch, but it broke. DAD DAD help me I’m slipping.
SUDDENLY, I’m back in the present, I’m sitting alone in the dark on El Dorado, my heart pounding again & breathing hard. I had fallen asleep! Something woke me up. I’m straining my ears, I can hear something, footsteps, faintly at first, but now distinct, one step, then another, then a dragging sound, like a wounded animal, dragging a lame foot, step, step, drag, hungry, starving, desperate for anything to eat, living or dead!
CHAPTER 3. CLANCY
Don’t breathe, don’t move, my heart is again pounding in my chest, just like peddle up a steep hill, but now it’s because of fear! Ok, breathe, QUIETLY, try to slow my heart rate, it’s pounding in my ears too & I need to listen. There it is again, step, step, slide. SOMETHING is out there, I’m sure of it. Run, get up & RUN… but I can’t, I feel paralyzed with fear. I’m being stalked. Fight or flight, my only choices…RUN! It’s too close now, it’ll pounce on me in 2 seconds, it’ll clamp it’s festering teeth around my neck, crushing my windpipe & while I’m fully aware, I’ll slowly suffocate staring directly into the eyes of a rabid wolf. I see movement now, it’s right in front of me. FIGHT, I can’t MOVE … this is the last breath I’ll ever take, I can smell it now, hideous & vile, our eyes are locked together, oh my god, is see it so close now, WHAT IS IT? Suddenly, the moon shines a silvery beam directly onto the gigantic beast, there it is… it’s a huge, rabbit. A RABBIT??? It takes one look at me, my eyes bugging outta my head & my expression of mortal fear & it hops away! I’m gasping for air again, my heart is beating like a runaway train, breathe, breathe, calm down, it was just a silly rabbit, breathe. 5 minutes of deep breathing, I’m feeling better now. What is wrong with me? I’m almost laughing now, wow, I really overreacted. Yea I was scared, but by a rabbit. I feel so foolish. Come on man, get a grip, I was scared, but why? I was sitting on this rock. I had fallen asleep, I think I was having a nightmare, but I can’t remember what it was about, think, think… I remember walking with Clancy & he was bleeding, there were some other dogs too, barking, no, snarling. I remember now, I stored this bad memory in a part of my brain where I hoped to forget it, but I couldn’t. The memory of Dead-end Ravine came back to me from 30 years ago like it was yesterday, but really I was still sitting on this rock on El Dorado, sleeping. Something in this moment brought back that day with Clancy. Why? I think I was in a tree, surrounded by dogs, now I remember, I was just a kid. Clancy is snarling too??? I smelled something, foul & rancid. Is it the dogs? Or is something festering in dead-end Ravine. It’s all around me. I remember now. Dad DAD help me, I’m slipping. A moment later, I see my father just a few steps away from the feral dogs, he looks tall, 7, no, 8 feet tall. He picks up his walking stick I had dropped on the trail & he wallops the biggest dog right on the head. It yelps in pain & lunges at dad & sinks its teeth in his boot. Without hesitation my dad gives it a mighty kick with his other boot, sending the frenzied dog airborne. The now furious dog shows it’s teeth & is ready to lunge again, but dad is now 9 feet tall & stands his ground., but instead of attacking the dog lays on its back exposing its neck & whimpers, ears down with sad eyes. The other dogs stand down too. The frenzied dogs have surrendered. Even Clancy was wagging & ready to resume our hike, seemingly unaware of the pack mentality & the frenzied attack mode from a few seconds ago.
Dad reached into the tree where I was still clinging & carried me out of Dead end Ravine, towards home. He carried me on his chest & still trembling with fear, I buried my face on his neck, his beard on one side & his old plaid work coat on the other. He smelled strong, but not rancid like when I was fearful of the dogs. It smelled like fresh-baked bread, slightly burned, or like oatmeal still cooking on the woodstove, or the last bit of heat, surrendered by slow-burning pine branches, smoldering in our fireplace on a cold rainy morning, the chimney losing its draft with the sweet smoky smell waiving through the house. My dad smelled like home. As he carried me towards home, Clancy walked with us, wagging his tail & looking so happy. Clancy died 25 years ago & it still makes me sad. You’re ok now he said, gently placing me on an old cot on the sun porch. My cat puff was sleeping on the other end of the bed & Clancy lay next to the door, he stayed with me until I went to sleep, the smell of his old plaid coat still in the air! I was certain I’d never ever been afraid like I was in Dead-end Ravine.
Later that night, I woke up from the deepest sleep I’d ever had. I gave a big stretch & sat up looking for Clancy, but he was gone, puff was gone too, the cot was gone, I wasn’t in the sunroom. I found myself sitting on a rock, leaning against a tree on El Dorado, crying in my sleep, overwhelmed by sadness.
Chapter 4. RED EYES IN THE DARK
Orion’s Belt has now moved all the way west & was disappearing on the horizon. A faint blue glow was now visible in the east, I’ve been sleeping in this rock for hours, after being stalked by a man-eating rabbit. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been on El Dorado all night & without perishing. I had leftover water from my bike ride & the stale half of an old granola bar. The only near-death experience I had was with the rabbit & a couple screeching owls I thought was a witch. Why did I continue to have dreams, or were they nightmares about something that happened 30 years ago? What was it that jogged my memory of an incident that I tried to forget, but clearly remained stuck in my memory & unexpectedly regurgitated itself because of a rabbit, or was it about being lost in the dark, or about danger, real or perceived danger? Or was it that foul smell? I pondered these possibilities to help me understand why I was so scared this night… for no tangible reason. I really don’t know the answer & maybe I’ll never know. Perhaps it was just a poignant memory that I was now ready to let go of? I considered several options to this mystery but concluded nothing. I still had about an hour of time left before it was light enough to head to the correct fork in the trail & ride home. Hmmm, maybe it WAS that strange smell that connected this night with the trip to Dead end Ravine Clancy & I took, I just don’t know? I do remember my dad telling me to keep a walking stick handy, just in case, so I grubbed around in the dark & found one, 6 feet long & stout. Perhaps it’ll help me scare off the next rabbit. The night wasn’t quite over & still very dark sitting on this flat rock, so I pondered these ideas for a bit longer, just to pass the time. I looked behind me & I could barely see the dark hole where the bear’s den was & I actually considered sleeping in, it seems almost funny now. The faint blue glow in the east was slightly brighter now, but still 45 minutes before I can peddle home. I can see about 10 feet in front of me now & I can just make out the features of my temporary dwelling. Lots of ferns, several piles of rocks, ha! I can see my bike now where I fixed my flat tire, it seems like a week ago. Off in the distance, something caught my eye, the moon was behind me & just for a moment, the moon’s reflection illuminated 2 red dots down low in the trail maybe 15 feet in front of me. What is that? I snickered & thought it might have been my rabbit. My eyes were fully dilated & I squinted to get a better look. There it is again. I stared for a full minute, I think I see something, but I’m not sure what? I can see 2 red dots about 6 inches apart. Then they blinked, what is it? I’m getting a bit nervous now & I can smell something strong and foul, almost like the same smell in Dead-end Ravine. My heart starts beating faster, but I’m still calm. Then they blinked again, my god, I think I’m seeing eyes. The smell of something is now clearly in the air, focus! WHAT IS IT!! I think I’m seeing an animal of some kind, now I can see a mouth, open & full of teeth. This is not some rabbit. The eyes blinked again & now I’m positive, it’s an animal. I think it’s a Mountain Lion & it’s staring directly into my eyes; I’m probably sitting in front of its lair. The hole behind me wasn’t a bear den, it’s a cougar’s den. I can’t BELIEVE this!!! Then the smell becomes overwhelming. Is it the cougar that smells so bad? Was there a cougar in Dead-end Ravine? Is that why the dogs went crazy? None of this guessing mattered now. I really am being hunted. I’m in mortal danger. Flight or fight. I remember my dad when he beat the dogs with his walking stick. He defeated the animal threat by force & by fear. He scared those dogs into submission, but this is a mountain lion, not a few feral dogs. I have no choice now, fight or flight, kill or be killed! I WILL NOT DIE HERE WITHOUT A FIGHT!… think… what must I do? I remember the walking stick, where is it? Thank god, it’s still in my hands & I’ve got a death grip on it. My heart is beating harder now but I’m strangely calm. I know what I must do! The foul stench is all around me now. It’s the smell of a mountain lion. It always has been. Ok, in 30 seconds I’ll spring to my feet & bash in the head of this creature. One good blow to the head & it’ll be over. I can do this! Take a deep breath, WAIT, not yet, deep breath, one more, show no fear or hesitation, 5 MORE SECONDS… GO! In a flash, I sprang to my feet & with all my strength WHAMMM. Directly on its head, & without hesitation, another CRASH with my stick on its body! My weapon breaks in half & a primitive instinct possesses my entire body. One half of the spear is still in my hands but now with a jagged sharp end where it broke. I’m now standing over the stunned creature & with all my strength, I thrust my spear into its body & through its heart, AAAAAAH, I let out a primal scream & drive it through its body & into the dirt!!! It’s DEAD. I fall to the ground completely exhausted & breathing like a freight train, gasping for air. The smell is horrible now & I almost vomit, partially from the stench & partially from the enormous emotional release. The creature is dead, I killed it!
CHAPTER 5. THE BIG BAD WOLF
I lay in the dirt for what seemed like an hour, panting, my heart pounding like an ancient drum, readying for war. Sweating… the dirt, blending with my sweat & turning to mud. I wondered if my distant cave-dwelling kin ever felt this way. I’ve been reduced to my most primitive elements. Breathing, heartbeat, blood, sweat, mud, day, night, spear, death! Maybe I should get up? Still sprawled in the dirt, I looked towards my feet, I can see my own feet again. Beyond my feet, was a blue glow in the eastern sky, a new day is being born. I looked to my side & could see my half-broken spear, still upright & stuck in the Cougar, or was it a rabid wolf, I still am not sure what it is? I struggled to my knees & crawled to where the spear rested in the beast’s heart & brushed the fern aside to see my kill & there was the jagged spear stuck in nothing but the dirt??? No beast, no blood, just an old broken stick, stuck in the dirt! This is IMPOSSIBLE. Did it escape? WHAT’S GOING ON? It couldn’t have escaped, the spear was still upright & sticking in… the dirt, nothing but dirt? I don’t understand. I saw red glowing eyes, blinking in the dark & the gaping mouth, open & full of teeth. & the unmistakable stench, WHAT IS HAPPENING! Right next to the spear, was an old hollow log, 1/2 rotted with 2 marble size knots about 6 inches apart, & below was a rotting section, decomposed & open, almost like a mouth… I DONT BELIEVE THIS! I saw an animal, staring at me, stalking me, & that smell, that same smell was in Dead-end Ravine, & the snarling feral dogs, scared to death while still clinging to that tree. The same smell… the smell??? Oh my god, the smell was me, the smell was fear, my fear! It’s been me all along. That’s why the dogs went crazy. That’s why the memory I tried so hard to bury, came back to haunt me last night. They were just dogs barking until they smelled my fear. But I SAW red eyes, blinking in the darkness, I KNOW I saw them. I take a deep breath & stare at the ground… There was nothing there! Just a rotting stump, & the moon, flickering through the ferns. There was nothing there… My fear blended with my imagination. I really thought I saw something, the blinking red eyes, the screech owl, the step step drag of a wounded & starving animal. None of it was real. I’ve been sitting on this flat rock, next to the tall fir tree all night & none of my night terrors were real! I’m still sitting on this flat rock. But it FELT real, gasping for air, pounding heart, sweating & smelling like a wet dog. I start thinking deeper now, is imaginary any less terrorizing than actual fear? I REALLY felt afraid. What must it have been like for my ancestors 10 generations before me, or 1000 generations before me, when there were real threats, real animals that would hunt & kill you! How would they determine if a threat was real or imagined? They must have been sometimes stalked by real beasts, but other times, they must have seen red eyes blinking in the dark & nothing was actually there. It happened to me last night & I thought I had to kill or be killed. Is the primal memory, inherited from my distant cave-dwelling kin still within me? A stream of consciousness transferred from one generation to the next. Is fear the thread that links us together? Is the fear of the unknown actually our greatest enemy? I have recollections of childhood bedtime stories that are just a glimpse of something that came from hundreds or thousands of years ago. The big bad wolf, a screeching owl? Or is it a witch, coming to get ya? The boogie man, goblins, things that go BUMP in the night! Are these scary stories meant to create fear for fun, or is it our long-dead ancestors still trying to warn us of glowing red eyes, blinking in the darkness? I think back just an hour ago, I was truly terrified of the mountain lion stalking me, but actually I was scared of the unknown & I responded with hatred. I wanted to kill it. Are fear and hatred related? Where does fear end & hatred begin? Are they opposite sides of the same coin? Are they like my hands, identical but opposite? When we’re frightened by an individual, how does it become hatred? What about when were frightened of a different country, or frightened of those who worship a different god? When does fear become hatred? Is fear, blended with the unknown, the beginning of bigotry, war, genocide? I caught a glimpse of the tipping point last night. I saw the moon reflecting on an old stump & 2 knots that looked like red eyes blinking at me & in that moment, my fear changed to hatred. But I was fooled. I stepped to the edge & looked into the abyss. I saw red eyes looking back at me & was filled with fear, but they were my eyes. There was nothing there! The actual doesn’t come from out there. It’s in here. Behind my eyes. It’s me! I stabbed a cougar with a broken stick in an attempt to extinguish my own rage, but actually stabbed nothing but the dirt. Our own fear is now the real predator. It’s almost like a disease left over from our ancestors who hunted to live, & hunted to survive. All we really see now are red eyes blinking in the dark. Is our primal memory of actual danger still stuck in our collective consciousness, even though actual danger has changed to perceived danger & we respond with the same violence as our ancestors did, hundreds or thousands of years ago?
The faint blue glow is now filling half the sky. I can see the fork I should have taken 10 hours ago. I’ve been sitting on the same flat rock for 10 hours! I want to go home.
CHAPTER 6. PANCAKES AND SCRAMBLE EGGS
The eastern blue glow has now grown & has enveloped the darkness & is spreading towards the west. Shadows are being forced out. The light of day will soon brighten the sky. It is now light enough to leave, but I don’t leave, I sit back down on the flat rock under the tall fir tree & think overall that occurred over the last 10 hours. I ponder the events that will become my memories of this strange night. So many things occurred, yet I never left my seat on this flat rock. The screeching owl, the rabbit, my best friend Clancy who died 20 years ago, red eyes blinking in the dark, hot cocoa with whipped cream, an old broken stick, the smell of baking bread… my memory still smells it… these mental photos will become the collage of memory that will define this night. Was it the worst night of my life, or the best night of my life? I don’t know. I had been forced into looking at my deepest fears, yet nothing was there except me! Will I still be afraid if it happens again? Probably, but at least it will not be the unknown I’m afraid of. I ponder deeper… is the memory of our past the basis for consciousness in the present? Is this who we think we are, just a collection of memories. Is it memory that forms our consciousness, or is consciousness ever forming our memories? What about now, this one moment without past or present. Does NOW have any value? Or am I sleep deprived & starting to overthink this? Yea… I think I am!
I do know, that I’m getting off this rock now & going home. As I gather myself together, I’m looking over my bike. Tire pressure is good, brakes feel good. Climb on & get to the correct fork that’ll take me home. As I started coasting home, I passed an old broken stick, still stuck in the dirt & the flat rock by the big fir tree. Soon the ferns & rocks & owls were behind me. I imagined the start of a brand-new day. Open the front door. Give my wife a long and heartfelt hug & kiss! Get my 8-year young son outta bed, skip work & school for the day. Go to Betty’s restaurant & have pancakes & scrambled eggs, with hot cocoa & whipped cream mmmm, go to our favorite pond & hunt for snakes & frogs, then skip rocks across the water. I smiled uncontrollably at the thought of all this & while I was coasting downhill towards home, I knew that today would live in my memory as the best day of my life!