I need to get this information off my chest. I’m writing this on the shoulder of the highway in Utah. It’s 4 am, and I’ve been driving nonstop for almost 2 hours. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Utah, but it gets pitch black at night; nothing exists beyond the high beams of my car. Well, at least from what I can perceive. I know something is out there, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was backpacking through Zion national park, this fantastic place where the canyon walls are a deep sunset red, and pine trees grow straight out of the rocks. Even in my delirium, I can still appreciate the beauty of it. My trip wasn’t anything serious, just a 3-day turn around trip spanning about 30 miles in total.
I don’t see that many people around this time of year, aside from the occasional day hiker. Most tend to stay out during the winter due to cold weather, snow, and the risk of flash floods brought on from the rainy season. I, however, thrive in isolation. The fewer people around make it easier for me to appreciate the park and all its natural beauty.
For the uninitiated, backpacking is a challenging activity that most people don’t dare to try, which is unfortunate. I feel like people come the most alive when they push themselves to do these kinds of things. And as cheesy as it sounds, you really do experience some magic when you’re this far removed from the city and our modern luxuries. I could go on about the ecosystems that have never encountered human contact and how it feels to step into a truly wild world, but I’d be talking out of my ass. Because after today, I realized I genuinely have no idea of what lives in those woods, or any area not lived in by people.
It was my second night; after two long days of walking in a straight line and slowly pacing myself and exploring, I set up my tent and got ready to hurry back to my car. As much as I love the outdoors, nothing can compete with the sensation of hot fast food after several days of roughing it. As I ate my military rations, I was already imagining the cheeseburgers I’d be eating the following day. Over the last two days, I walked about 15 miles into the park, covering about 7 miles a day with my heavy bag. I’ll be the first to tell you how important it is not to overpack for trips like these; every pound makes a difference when you’re carrying it through the brush. Even short excursions can be challenging if your bag is too heavy. Fortunately, I learned from my previous trips and kept my pack to around 35 pounds.
After my meal of powdered lasagna and a candy bar was finished, I poked at the hot coals in my makeshift fire pit. I also packed a camp stove to cook with, but when you go camping, you have to make a campfire. It’s an unofficial rule that everyone follows. There’s something about being in the wilderness at night that triggers a subconscious instinct in us to build a fire and illuminate the dark. Our ancestors used this instinct daily to survive, and it became embedded in our DNA. Tonight, this instinct kept me alive.
As my fire began to shrink, my desire for sleep began to increase. When you’re in the woods with no technology, the oppressive darkness brought on by night naturally makes you drowsy. I was getting ready to stand up and put out my fire when I suddenly noticed the sensation that I was being watched. The feeling washed over me, and after identifying it, I realized there were no sounds in the woods around me. Even in winter, you can hear noises from the non-hibernating critters. But all I could hear was the wind rustling through the trees above me, and see the gaps between branches barely illuminated by the light of a crescent moon. At the time, it felt like a better idea to build my fire back up. I could always put it out later after all, and this was my last night in the woods, so I could spare using extra materials…
As I put my remaining wood in the fire, I thought I heard something in the treeline. I had set up my tent in a small clearing, no larger than 15 feet. It was just big enough for me to put my tent in the center and have about 10 feet on all sides. So, whatever I was hearing was incredibly close to me, and even with my medium size campfire, I couldn’t see anything outside of the clearing. A couple of times, I heard rustling in the leaves, and I shined my spotlight in the direction of the noise, but all I would ever see were the same piles of dead leaves that cover the forest floor everywhere else in the winter. I didn’t smell blood, or rot, or anything you usually read about in ghost stories. I genuinely had no idea at all what was moving around my camp, and I think that was more unnerving. I just know that something was circling my shelter, but wouldn’t walk into the clearing. This isn’t entirely unexpected, after all, Zion is home to many different species of animals, including coyotes, foxes, and mountain lions. My worst fear at this moment would be to have a cougar in my camp, not the fun kind in this case.
I sat back in front of the fire after patrolling my site’s perimeter and found a red flower right in front of where I sat before. Now, I know this may seem insignificant to the uninitiated, but finding a flower like this in the middle of January was entirely out of place. And stranger still, I had no memory of seeing this flower from the previous 3 hours of sitting by the fire. I studied it closely, noting that it was indeed rooted to the earth. It hadn’t been placed on the ground, it must’ve already been here, and I just didn’t notice. I picked it and realized I didn’t recognize the species. I’m no expert on the flora and fauna of Zion, but I haven’t seen a plant like this anywhere before. I washed out the bag my MRE came in and placed the flower inside, to take home and look up on the internet. I was sure someone on Reddit would be able to identify it.
With no other oddities, I eventually gave in to my exhaustion and went to sleep. I know you’re not supposed to, but I let my fire burn out on its own. It was low enough I didn’t think it would be a hazard, but the soft glow gave me a feeling of security to sleep.
I must have been asleep for about an hour before I woke up to the feeling of something large moving under my tent. The best way I can describe it is to imagine if a large snake slithered under your sheets in bed, as you laid down on top of it. It was so unnatural I shot up awake immediately, and still trapped in my sleeping bag, fell over in the process of my escape. Turning on my light and aiming it at the floor revealed that something was moving under the thin material of my tent’s floor, inspecting the warm spot where I was sleeping. My mind was racing as I began to theorize what it could possibly be. Maybe it was a skunk that was getting too nosy for its own good, or maybe it really was a snake, but I couldn’t think of a species of snake in Utah that could be thicker than my arm. Also, again, snakes aren’t usually active in the middle of winter, especially in the dark of night. The fear of the unknown propelled me out of my tent, with just enough clarity for me to grab my bag and step into the clearing.
I can’t begin to describe the feeling of confusion and dread that overcame me when I saw a ring of those damn red flowers completely circled around my tent. They were all planted in the ground the same as the first but forming a perfect circle that nature could not produce so accurately by itself. Without any warning, I heard the sound of fabric tearing apart, followed by the sounds of something desperately clawing at my tent, and what I can only describe as a low bassy groaning. It didn’t sound natural, it sounded more like a low frequency you’d hear if you turned the bass on your car all the way up, and amplified that several times. It was more than just a sound, it reverberated in my insides and made me feel nauseous.
Then, illuminated by my spotlight, I saw a massive arm shoot out from the top of my tent, an inhuman appendage with odd-numbered digits and skin that more resembles tree bark than flesh. The demon limb pulled my entire tent under the earth in one swift move, leaving behind a crumbled mess of dirt, but leaving the flowers undisturbed. I was shocked. I couldn’t move, hell, I couldn’t even process what happened. Nothing in my wildest dreams could prepare me for what I could only describe as a shark pulling my shelter under the compact soil like it was water. I stood there for what felt like hours, but in reality, was only a few moments, I felt that frequency again, from below the earth, it sounded frustrated, like it didn’t get what it was after. I finally found my courage and ran from that spot.
I lost some supplies that I had left inside my tent, and around my campsite, but I couldn’t care less at the moment. I just ran through the brush with my light trembling in my hand. I was constantly bumping into trees and grazing my legs on the thorny bushes, but the only thing on my mind was survival. Fight or flight is another instinct we inherit from our ancestors, the primal knowledge when we know we’re up against something out of our league.
I continued to hear the shifting of leaves behind me, but no matter where I shined my light, I saw nothing chasing me. I would gladly take a cougar at this point, at least I could have identified the threat and could know how to handle it. Then, at the last moment, I caught a glimpse of another one of those damn red flowers right in the middle of my path. I barely noticed it before I stepped on it by accident. As I said, it was right smack dab in my path, almost deliberately placed. The second my foot came into contact with it, I felt the earth shift under my weight. I lost my balance and fell face-first onto the ground. I broke my nose in the process, but I didn’t get the chance to appreciate the pain before that same arm wrapped its fingers around my boot. I don’t think “fingers” is an accurate description. They were more like roots from a tree, long and gnarled and extending across my foot and up my leg.
I released my boot from myself and propelled myself away from the crater. The arm whipped back into the ground, taking its prized boot under the dirt with it. Despite the discomfort of only wearing one boot, I continued to run, bloodying my unprotected foot but not caring about the pain. Survival was the only thing on my mind. I started throwing things out of my pack to make travel a little easier. I had dropped about 10 pounds of gear when I found the bag with the red flower in it. I remembered how the thing attacked me when I stepped on the red flower. Was this thing tracking me because I took the flower? My curiosity wasn’t worth being pulled beneath the earth. I took the flower out of the bag and threw it behind me in the direction of the noise of churning dirt.
Before it even hit the ground, the same arm shot out of the dirt and caught it. To my surprise, it caught the flower with a tender open palm, not crushing the flower. A second arm emerged from the dirt, followed then by a third, and a fourth until there were more arms to count in the darkness. Then, what I perceived to be the creature’s head rose from the center. I say “perceived” because it didn’t have a face or anything I would recognize as a face. But it was in the center of its bulky mass, and the hand with the flower was raised in front of it. In complete contrast to its behavior up until now, it delicately nurtured the flower, applying some kind of ointment to the bottom of the stem where I had cut it out, and planting it in the ground. It’s low frequency now resembled the cooing of a morning dove, still as deep as before, but anger replaced by something else.
At this point, I began to back away from this creature. I stepped on a dead tree branch, and it snapped its head in my direction but turned back to its precious flower. I ran for hours until I reached my car. I’d never been so relieved to find my beat-up pickup in my life. As I pulled out of the woods and onto the main park road, I noticed a couple of red flowers along the side of the road. I made note to steer clear of them, I now know what happens if you mess with this creatures’ prized flowers. Looking at the clock, it was 2 AM. The sun must have set around 5 PM the day before. I had covered 15 miles on foot in that time, and I was still on edge. The ranger station was closed for the night, the lights of the building turned off as I sped by.
I stopped my car because my engine is running hot after pushing it so hard for the last couple of hours. I’m taking a break from camping for now. I love the outdoors, but seriously need to reconsider what threats live just out of sight of man. I’m not entirely sure what I saw tonight, but if you go camping, do not take anything that doesn’t belong to you. And always listen to your instincts. Mine kept me alive today, we have them for a reason.
Credit : Kai the Art Guy
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