By Mark Kodama
When I hike, I travel alone. Although I have been warned by many well-meaning friends about the dangers of hiking by myself, I am careful and limit myself to overnight trips. Sometimes, I feel at one with nature in a way that transcends time and space. The modern urban life of science and logic has divided us from our spiritual intuitive nature.
About ten years ago, I was hiking at Bear Lake in the Pine Forest Mountains. It was early April. Patches of snow from the winter still blanketed the ground. The sky turned gun-metal gray as clouds shrouded the black mountain in mist. The smell of the trees seemed to purify my soul.
I stopped at a roadside diner for breakfast. A pretty young waitress with brown hair and gap-tooth smile brought my two-egg breakfast with fresh sausages and coffee. I perused the local paper The Pine Mountain Gazette for the weather forecast. Possible rain.
As I climbed the mountain trail, the air began to thin and temperatures began to drop. Patches of snow became snow drifts, making the trail difficult to follow.
My heart beat as I briskly jaunted up the mountain through the pine forest and across fast flowing brooks filled with snowmelt. I followed footprints in the snow up the mountain, stepping over fallen trees and occasionally sinking deep into the snow.
By the time, I made it to the lake it was nearly noon. I camped in the sun on a large flat rock overlooking Bear Lake where the snow had melted. The lake appeared gray under a pewter canopy.
The black mountain rose in back of the lake partially mantled in snow and a pine forest over the lower parts of the mountain. It seemed more like an oil painting than real life. You could almost reach out and touch the black oil paint smeared on the canvas with a knife.
I heated a can of stew over a can of fuel on my portable metal grill. When I took off my gloves my fingers became numb and my nose watered as the cold wind whipped against my face.
I could see my breath as I belt over the fire and made my noon meal. I kept hearing the distant tinkling of cowbells. I felt a delicate hand upon my shoulder and heard a young woman’s voice whisper “Help me.” I turned but no one was there.
It sleeted and then snowed, the now flakes dancing and swirling in the wind. I sought shelter in a rough cabin stacked with cordwood about a mile back. I could build a fire and dry my clothes.
The wind picked up and the snow began to violently spin, in a frenetic modern dance as the wind blew stronger.
I humped it to the rough cabin in the woods. I looked through the frozen window panes into the darkness and banged on the glass, shaking off the powered snow. I thought I heard a woman’s voice say “come in.” The rumble of the wind whipped through the icy pine forest, making it hard to hear.
I banged on the rough wood door made from dark greenish molding planks. When I received no answer, I entered the darkened cabin and sought refuge inside.
A black metal pot belly cast-iron stove stood in the middle of the one-room cabin. I set down my backpack and started a fire in the ancient stove.
Opening a can of split pea soup, I cooked it on the fire. I boiled water in a small pot to make tea. After the soup started to steam, I removed it from the stove with a cloth towel.
I sat in the small wooden chair at a rough hewn table and ate my soup with a package of crackers, an orange and my tea. At first the soup burned my lips and tongue as I gulped down the thick liquid. Snow continued to pour down and the wind whistled through cracks in the cabin walls.
I hung my coat and socks on a clothes line that stretched across the cabin above the stove to dry. I put a fresh dry pair socks on and then put my boots back on.
I laid my sleeping bag on the floor into the front of the stove on the plank floor.
There was nothing to do so I fed the fire with kindling before crawling into my sleeping bag to wait out the storm. I thought I heard woman’s voice say “rest well,” as I nodded off to sleep.
I had the most peculiar nightmare. I dreamed of a woodcutter and his wife living in the cabin. The husband, about 30, his face covered with a red beard was arguing with his young wife. Finally the wife struck the wood cutter’s face with a rock. He punched in the face with his fist. She threw animals dung in his face. He then hit her again and again with his fist.
She tried to run away. He caught her foot and then began beating her again. “You son-of-bitch,” the woman said. “You will not rest until the day you die.”
The wood cutter beat her upon her face until she was unconscious. He finally split her head open with an ax as she lay upon the ground. Blood spattered upon his face and hands. He buried her body underneath the floor boards of the cabin.
I felt a hand upon my face and a breath upon my lips. “Now, you know,” I heard the woman’s voice say. I awoke with a start.
It took me a while to get my bearings: to remember where I was. The wind was still whistling through the cracks in between the wood logs. The front door rapped against the door jambs.
I stoked the burning embers of the fire. I tore some brittle yellowing newspaper I found in the cabin to use as kindling to get the fire going.
As I put pieces of the paper in the fire I noticed a newspaper article describing a search for a missing woman named Mary Smith. Her husband Billy Joe Smith had been brought in for questioning about her disappearance.
I felt the presence of someone in the room but I could see no one. My stomach turned and goose pimples rose on my neck and arms. “Now, you know,” a woman’s voice whispered.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Is someone here?”
I thought I heard a whisper but could not make out what was said.
“Hello?” I asked. “Is someone here?”
But all I could hear was the whistling wind and the rapping of the door against the door jamb. It was pitch dark outside.
I opened the plank cabin door. The snow was coming down so hard that I could not even see the trees.
I wanted to bolt into the woods. But I had no choice but to remain.
I did not sleep for the rest of the night. I heard no more voices. All I could hear was the icy wind. By morning the wind stopped. Curiously, there was little snow on the ground.
Gathering my trash and packing my sleeping bag, I hurried away. My coat and socks were dry. I put on my overcoat and stuffed my socks in my back pack and hiked down the mountain.
I worried that I would have a difficult time finding the trail back to my car. But the ground was as before, just patches of snow and there was no snow in the trees.
I chuffed down the mountain, eager to get away from the rough cabin in the woods. I heard the cowbells again and the young woman whisper “Tell them I’m here.”
I put my head down and walked faster.
A park ranger greeted me as I walked to my car. I started to say something to him but then thought better of it.
I waved to him and he waved back to me. I decided not to say anything to anyone for many years. “Nice weather, ain’t it?” he said. “I’m so glad the snow season is behind us.”
One day, just recently, I picked up the Pine Mountain Courier. Sheriff’s deputies after twenty years had tore down an old cabin in the woods and found the buried remains of Mary Smith. Her ex-husband Billy Joe Smith was arrested the next day and charged with her murder.