It's in the dark woods, about two and a half feet tall. I face it alone.
|The campfire is still close enough to be glowing through the trees, and I chuckle as I walk, think about the tall tale just told there. I don't have a flashlight, but pride myself on being able to navigate by the light of the stars on a moonless night well enough to find a tree to pee on.
I'm working on quite a buzz.
Another twenty feet and I look back to assure I'm alone and far enough away. I take a deep breath of the cool air away from the fire and lean on a tree to unzip my jeans. Ah, the smell of high altitude pines. I think about the buzz and bright yellow lights of the hard city below as I look up.
People talk about feeling like they can reach up and touch the stars. But that never seemed right to me. Out here more than anywhere the vastness always struck me with a kind of vertigo. It always seemed I could fall right off the planet into that infinite depth, into the arms of the mystery itself.
Don't pee on your shoes, dude. You don't want to show up at the campfire with that tell-tale splatter, or worse - dribbling down your pants. I look down to my target spot on the ground as I move my foot back.
And there it is.
In the dark, I can only make out a vague shape, but my spine and scalp begin to tingle as primal instincts rise to respond to the quivering thing a few feet in front of me.
Only once before have I had this sort of reaction. That time I was just a boy, afraid of the dark. That time, it was purely my imagination.
This is real.
It's hard to tell in the dark, but it seems to be standing there facing me. And it's about two and a half feet tall.
The day had started innocently enough, and there was nothing unusual about classes other than that they were in the middle of nowhere.
The Chatterley University summer campus is in the Sangre de Christo mountains of Colorado, in the Rio Grande National Forest. And while the adjacent San Luis valley is one of the most arid places in the US, the Chatterley campus is beautifully couched in lush evergreen. Our classes are more often among the mature conifer ecosystems or the sparse juniper desert highlands than indoors in the few formal classrooms.
Today our ecological studies took us to an alpine lake up the mountain, several miles on dusty, rutted roads.
"How were you so lucky as to get picked to wade out in the water for the samples?" I asked Laura, my girl friend, as we were on our way back to camp. We were, after all, talking about snow melt.
We commonly rode to our study sites in the back of a '58 Chevy pickup, eight or ten of us jammed in the open bed, a few lucky ones in the cab. Today, I was in the back with Laura, and I'd enjoyed holding her tightly as we jostled down the road.
"Oh, well, I'm not sure, but I think it's because she knows me better than just about anyone else."
We were talking about our invertebrate zoology prof, a bespeckled woman with limited social skills.
Laura and I had finally gotten together after two years of unfortunate timing. We first met each other in a political science class, and though we were mutually attracted soon thereafter, were unable to do anything about it because one or the other of us was committed to someone else during that time. We finally found our chance this summer session.
So after a hard day of collecting samples in freezing water and bumping over dusty roads, Laura was more than ready for relaxation at the campfire. And I was ready to spend some quiet time with her there.
Even as I stand transfixed looking at the thing, I can feel my body rapidly yielding to rising primal urges. A powerful and ancient fight or flight reaction is taking over, and I'm no longer in control.
I begin to growl.
A thousand jumbled thoughts are running through my head. Having eliminated all known creatures matching the description of this shadowy figure, what was left of my rational mind was quickly sizing up the facts. Two legs. 2.5 feet tall. Nocturnal. Not scared off by my vicious display.
And now it's stomping.
The primal thing within me ups the game without warning. I begin to do what I can only describe as barking, though my unpracticed skills in this regard would have embarrassed my dog Wingnut.
Let's just take a breath here for a moment so I can provide a public service to those of you who may one day find themselves in similar circumstances.
The mistake I made in that dark and inebriated moment was to allow myself to entertain certain science fiction fantasies, rather than allow my rational mind to produce the more probable (and correct) solution that the skunk I was viewing from his business end was indeed as uncomfortable with the encounter as I was, but without the alternative to vocalize.
It was an unfortunate lapse in judgement on my part.
In the final analysis, and without going into boring details, I can recommend from personal experience that rational thought and the more probable scenario should always be fully considered first.
That, and it's a good idea to carry a flashlight.