I wrote this with the intention of submitting it to one of the primitive magazines but never got around to doing that. Rather than let this stagnate on my computer's hard drive, I'll post it here. I hope you enjoy it.
(edit) I've gotten some great feedback on this story. I feel it's only fair to let you folks know that this is a work of fiction. I'm not nearly as good an outdoorsman as the man in the story, or his mysterious visitor.
I sat in my truck having a last soda before putting my gear together. Even though I had prepared for this by taking “survival” classes and learning about how to survive in the wilderness, this was still a big jump and I was a little apprehensive.
My plan was to hike into the mountains for three days and two nights, and to live solely on what I had with me or could find in the land: food, tools, and shelter. Doesn’t sound that hard, does it? Your average granola eating backpacker does it every weekend. But I was throwing a big wrench into the works by having with me only what I would have had as a primitive resident of this land: buckskin clothes, leather pouches, dried meat and berries, and a bow and arrows I had made myself. I did make a couple anachronistic additions; I had a wool blanket and some aspirin. And since I’m a less than competent knapper, I also had a forged steel knife, primitive style, of course. I still have my standards.
I finally decided that this wasn’t going to happen if I didn’t get my rear in gear. There wasn’t anyone else around at the trail head so I changed into my buckskins at the tailgate of the truck. I double checked all my gear, rolled up my blanket, hung it over one shoulder, and hung my quiver over the other. For the time being I would leave my bow in its case on the quiver. I needed to make some miles to get to my campsite and having a strung bow would be too much of a temptation so slow down and creep.
It took a little while to wear the cobwebs off my city muscles and get into the rhythm of trail walking. I was glad that I had taken the precaution of gluing thin rubber soles to my moccasins. I know rubber soles aren’t primitive but a lifetime of wearing shoes had left my feet somewhat tender to the trail. Besides, the rubber helped with traction on slick rocks and I didn’t relish ending my trip with a sprained ankle, or worse.
All my other trips had been with light hiking boots and I was surprised at how much quieter the moccasins were. I was seeing birds and squirrels that normally would have had plenty of warning that I was coming up the trail. One turn of the trail brought me upon a bobcat with a chipmunk under its paw. I don’t know who was more surprised, me for walking up on one of the forest’s best hunters, the bobcat for having been surprised, or the chipmunk for his sudden reprieve as the bobcat sprang into the bushes.
When I stopped to rest I thought about how this trip was going so far. I felt more in tune with my surroundings than I had on any other foray into the woods. I don’t know if it was the spiritual feel of my (mostly) primitive kit or the way in which I blended into my surroundings better, but the forest seemed to accept me more readily than in the past.
It took a couple hours of walking and a hot spot trying to turn into a blister on one toe, but I finally got to my projected campsite. While this spot wasn’t completely unknown, it was a little off the beaten path. Besides valuing my seclusion, I didn’t want to have to explain how I was dressed or what I was doing to a Girl Scout troop or a Sierra Club hiker. For some reason I just didn’t think they’d understand. My campsite was up against a big boulder that was set just slightly back into the tree line. The site overlooked a meadow with a small lake about two hundred yards away. A clear stream came out of the trees a few yards to one side of the boulder and chuckled across the meadow to empty into the lake. One side of the boulder offered a natural campsite that must have been catching traveler’s eyes for a few hundred years. Soot stains on a small overhang in the ancient stone bore evidence of many fires preceding mine. When I was here a couple years ago I found an arrowhead deep inside a lightning split tree while I was gathering firewood. There was no telling how long ago the arrow had missed its intended target and struck the tree but it was one of those big grandfather trees that were here when Lewis and Clark were in diapers. Workmanship on the head was incredible, far surpassing my own pitiful creations. My own knapping has been in a “learning” stage for quite some time. The arrows I’d brought on this trip were tipped with my best efforts. I reasoned that if they weren’t beautiful or weight matched, at least they were sharp and they may give a lethal blow to a rabbit or squirrel.
I took off my various pouches and bags as well as the blanket and quiver and set everything on the grass. A few minutes wandering through the woods at the back of the campsite gave me enough firewood to last the weekend. I wouldn’t be needing a big blaze, just enough to give warmth and to cook with. Building my fire against the boulder would reflect much of its warmth back to me. I also took the time to gather a couple armfuls of long grass and dry pine needles for my bed. After gathering firewood and bed materials I switched to gathering food. I took my bow out of its case and strung it. Hanging the quiver at my side had me ready to go shopping for dinner. Deer season wasn’t open but I had been seeing plenty of squirrels and even a couple rabbits and marmots during the walk in. Past trips told me that the edge of the forest line would be good for rabbits but squirrels would be just a little deeper into the trees. If I turned to marmots I’d find them near boulders and stumps out in the meadow.
Two hours of hunting netted me one broken arrow, a lost arrow, and the realization that the jerky and dried fruit I’d brought would be dinner, and probably breakfast the next day. I consoled myself with that ancient saying known to all hunters regardless of time and culture: “That’s why they call it hunting and not catching.”
I had elected to bring a flint and steel rather than my wood fire starting tools. While I could make fire with the wood tools I was more confident in flint and steel. This was my first primitive trip and I didn’t want to push my bubble too far until I was more comfortable in my skills. I got a small fire going and set some rocks in it to heat while I went to the stream to get water in my gourd bowl. Using my knife I shaved a generous serving of jerky into the water and decided to add some dried fruit as well. When the stones had been in the fire long enough I used some sticks to lift them one at a time into my bowl. I’d done this before at home and it always surprised me how well it worked to boil water. When a stone cooled I placed it back into the fire and put another hot one in the bowl. It wasn’t too long before I had a fairly serviceable stew steaming in my bowl and I leaned back against the rock to enjoy it.
By the time I finished dinner the sun was just about down. I rinsed my bowl in the stream and refilled it with water in case I got thirsty in the night. I have a hard enough time getting to the kitchen at home for a midnight glass of water without killing myself, a trip to the stream for a drink didn’t seem advisable.
With the setting sun the temperature began to drop and I wrapped the blanket around my shoulders as I sat next to my little fire. I looked out over the darkening meadow and thought about the trip so far. I had felt very in tune with my surroundings during the walk in. While my hunting results didn’t show it, I’d seen more game than on any other trip to the area. Walking up on the bobcat and its disturbed lunch had been completely unexpected and would be in my memory for many years to come. Did this “mind meld” with the forest happen because I was quieter, was it because I was wearing earth toned leather clothes, or was it simply because I was acting more as one with my surroundings? I couldn’t tell, but I was willing to accept it as it was. I get a little philosophical when I get tired so this line of reasoning was my clue to fluff up my debris bed, roll up in the blanket and lay down. I made sure the firewood was within easy reach so I could replenish my fire through the night and closed my eyes.
I awoke the next morning to a gray dawn. The sun hadn’t yet come up over the eastern mountains so I put an arm out into the chill air and prodded the fire with a stick. A few coals glowed red in the bed of ashes so I dropped a handful of pine needles from my bed on them and then lay some sticks over those. The pine needles caught pretty quickly so I put on a couple bigger sticks and then pulled the blanket over my head and went back to sleep.
I came awake again when the sun hit me. Temperatures can change quickly in the mountains and I was soon too warm to stay wrapped up. I sat up on my pile of grass and pine needles and looked around. As I blinked the sleep from my eyes I became aware of a slight sore throat and I reasoned that the dry mountain air may have irritated it as I breathed deeply the day before during my walk in. I picked a couple drowned bugs out of my water bowl and drank a deep draught of cold water. I immediately became aware that my throat was sorer than I first thought. Rummaging through my bags I took two aspirin and figured that would be that.
Within a couple hours I realized that was not going to be that. I was sick. Even sitting in the cool shade I could tell that I was getting a pretty good fever. You know how when you have a fever you’re cold so you wrap up in blankets but you’re also sweating and too hot to be wrapped up? I had it with a vengeance. No doubt aspirin would help bring down a fever but I really hadn’t expected to get sick on this trip and had only brought a few. They were quickly consumed to no effect. I knew I’d be in this one until it was over so I filled up with water and then made sure my bowl and cup were both full. I gathered a little more firewood, made sure all my food was within reach, and settled down to get sick, cursing that salesman in my office who’d come to work while he was sick. I was sure this was his fault as he’d wandered around all day coughing and sneezing on everyone in sight.
It must have been some time in mid afternoon that I felt something wonderfully cool on my face and I kind of swam to the surface of consciousness. I was mildly surprised to see the silhouette of a person bending over me but in my fevered state of mind it seemed ok. Whoever it was had a wet rag and was gently washing my face with it. I felt a little cool water trickle into my mouth and I swallowed, wincing as it went past my sore throat. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.
I don’t think too much time had passed before I woke again. I looked around for my new companion and saw him sitting on the other side of the fire watching me. I remember thinking, “I’ll be damned, there’s two of us nuts loose in the world.” He was dressed as I was, in leather buckskins. But he had taken things a little further and had a shaved head. In itself that isn’t uncommon these days but the red and black paint on his face and head was. He nodded to me and I nodded back. Somehow it seemed right that we should communicate silently. Once he saw I was awake and mildly functional he reached to a pile of leather next to him and drew a wood bow from its case. He stood up, strung the bow, and hung a quiver over his shoulder. Taking a last look at me he strode into the forest and was quickly lost to me view.
Kind of a freaky guy, I thought as I struggled upright to sit crosslegged. Then I thought, look at me, if a hiker were to come across me I’d look pretty much the same. I wondered what the odds were that two re-enactor type people would be in the same place at the same time like this; pretty slim, if you ask me. But I wasn’t going to complain, it was obvious that I was pretty sick and his brief presence had cheered me considerably. I was suddenly startled when he stepped around the boulder. Do I walk that quietly? I was also startled to see a rabbit in his hand. Either he had a freezer back there in the trees or he’s a heck of a lot better shot than I am, he’s hardly been gone 15 minutes! I walked for two hours the day before and we know what kind of results I had. Carrying his quiver and strung bow with him he walked out into the meadow a few yards and quickly skinned and gutted the animal. He then walked to the stream to rinse the meat briefly and returned to the little camp. I slept some more while rabbit stew was cooking. I was happy to see that he cooked the same way I had the previous night.
As I lay there in my fever I thought I saw my companion draw my arrows from their quiver. While he nodded approvingly over the nocks and fletching my crudely knapped points earned a grimace. Putting the arrows back into the quiver he opened one of his pouches and pulled out some antler knapping tools and small obsidian pre-forms. I drifted off to sleep lulled by the steady snick and tink of his knapping.
When I awoke the next day my fever was gone and I felt as if I may just survive the ordeal I had put myself through. I sat up from my bed and looked around for my new friend. He was nowhere to be seen. I glanced around my little campsite to see if his things were still there against the rock and they were also gone. In fact, the closer I looked the less I saw: there was no depressed grass where he had sat and lain, my gourd bowl was at my side full of water, not rabbit bones, and there was no pile of obsidian flakes from his knapping. I looked closely where he had sat and the debitage just wasn’t there.
I felt it pretty odd that he had left but I guess there’s no accounting for some folks. It wasn’t like we had shared life stories. I was feeling pretty good so I went ahead and packed my things back up and prepared for the walk back to my truck. I knew I’d be weak from my illness so I wanted plenty of time to take things slow and easy for the walk back.
Four hours later I was back to my truck and really starting to doubt whether someone had shared my campsite with me at all. After a nap across the front seat of my truck, I headed home. On the drive home I turned things over in my mind:
I’d been pretty sick with a high fever.
I had no evidence of anyone else being there with me.
Had I hallucinated the whole thing?
By the time I pulled into my driveway I decided that was exactly what I had done. My mind had taken my buckskin clothes, primitive gear, and desire to “get away from it all” and created a companion for me while I was sick. Well, I think this is something I’ll just keep to myself. My wife knows I have an eccentric side and the people I work with suspect it. No sense in confirming everyone’s suspicions. I racked the weekend up to an interesting trip that could have gone pretty badly, but didn’t. I was a few days recovering my strength but overall it was a weekend well worth the experience.
Epilogue: Three weeks after my camping trip my son asked me to show my primitive gear to his Boy Scout troop. No way could I pass that up so I gathered everything together and went to his meeting with him.
The kids were pretty excited to see what I had so we sat in a circle as I showed them each part of my kit. My handiwork on sewing the buckskins and pouches has never been the best but the kids were impressed; they even liked my crude attempts at beadwork. I strung the bow for them and after threatening dire consequences for dry firing the bow I passed it around the circle. Not wanting to let the kids have arrows at the same time as a strung bow I waited until it came back around the circle to me and I unstrung it before picking up my quiver. I pulled the arrows from the quiver and looked at them with some confusion. Then the hair on the back of my neck bristled and stood on end. At the end of the arrows my crudely knapped points had been replaced with the most beautifully knapped points I have even seen. Without having to compare them I knew that they would match perfectly the arrowhead I had found deep inside that lightning struck tree.
No matter how many times I have re-visited the spot, I have never again seen the quiet man who sat with me when I was sick. But I always wonder just how long he’s been camping there.