Chapter Eight: On the road again
The days and nights were getting cooler. After my run in with the ranger I moved my camp deeper into the woods. I was pretty certain that nobody had seen the car yet; it was hidden in a good spot and well camouflaged. But the fall hunting season was fast approaching, and I knew that hunters would soon hit the woods in force. And I certainly could never make it out here all winter.
Anne stopped visiting as often. Her daughter was back with her and she was beginning to be preoccupied with back to school preparation. I spent my days hiking through the mountains, reading old novels, and thinking. But I could not come up with any plan that seemed to work. The state trooper and the deputy sheriff had both died. Craig was in intensive care and not supposed to make it. Multiple gunshot wounds, coma, and a murder charge facing him if he lived.
It seemed like heaven living out in the woods. But I felt bad, depending upon Anne’s generosity and meager savings to provide me with needed supplies. I’d known her only about three weeks, but already I felt as though she and I could have been an item under different circumstances. And I hated exposing her to risk every time she visited.
One late afternoon after I had been hiking for about two hours when I decided to swing back by the car to make sure it was still there. It was late summer, the nights were starting to get a chill in the air, but the days were still in the eighties. I had not seen a soul in the woods in three or four days. Until I almost walked on top of the ranger. He had pushed the brush back from off of “my car” on the driver’s side, enough to look in it. He evidently had been peering inside to see what he could see when I came walking over a slight hill, so he heard me coming.
I paused momentarily, then waved to him and said, “Hey, what’s going on?” I kept walking but changed directions as quickly as possible without making it obvious.
“This your car?”
“No sir, mine’s back that way about four miles.”
I kept walking but was near enough to hear him speak again. I stopped and looked back, thinking that he was talking to me. He wasn’t: “Can you check the plates of a blue 1995 LeSabre, license number…”
I picked up my pace and never looked back. As soon as I was out of his sight, I jogged as far as I could, and then walked as fast as I could, back to my camp.
I grabbed what gear I could easily carry. After reloading my pistol and putting it back in its holster and putting the holster on my belt. I was going to miss my little home away from home. Before leaving, I tried to call Anne on the little prepaid cell phone that she bought for me for emergency communications. But there was no signal. I knew from experience that the cell towers did not reach many areas around here. I was camped in a little hollow, and there were some nice sized “Blue Ridge Mountains” around me.
I climbed the nearest “mountain” so that I could leave her a message. I felt that I owed her that much. Unfortunately, that took about forty-five minutes, and nearly wore me out. I was gasping for breath by the time I dialed. Ring. Ring. Ring. “Come on, come on!”
“Hi! This is Anne. Leave a message after the beep.”
“Anne, the cops have found ‘my car.’ Don’t go near the camp. I’m leaving the camp and running again. I don’t know where I am going but when I get somewhere safe I’ll call you.” I hung up and hoped that tonight wasn’t a night that she was going to surprise me by showing up for dinner. She wasn’t due for another two days.
Well, at least I could stick to the ridge of the “mountain” rather than having to stick to the low lands. I started walking again, due north. Though I didn’t know where I was going, I knew that eventually I’d run into a road. And I hoped that by staying on the high ground I could have signal if Anne called me back.
After a couple of hours hiking north, about sunset, I heard them. Unmistakable. Dogs barking back to the south. “Oh, shit.”
But this time I was ready for them. Anne had brought some charcoal lighter fluid to me to make my job of lighting my campfires more easily. I picked it up almost as an after thought when I left camp. I wasn’t sure how quickly the law would come after me, and I hoped I might use it at my next camp.
Add a second arson to the growing list of criminal offenses that I was guilty of committing. Sure, I thought about it. For about a minute. I didn’t want to do it. And I wasn’t sure it would work. It even occurred to me that it would make matters worse. But I didn’t feel as though I had a choice. I quickly spread charcoal lighter fluid on a large area and lit a match.
The prevailing wind out of the north-west had died down considerably, but not entirely. And the forest floor was dry from weeks without rain. It took awhile, but the fire caught, and grew, and started moving down the mountain, sort of in the direction that I had come. At the very least I hoped it would be a distraction.
I walked a ways in the coming darkness, the air was filled with the noise of dogs barking way off in the distance, and the ever-growing snap and crackle of my very first forest fire. I set the fire on state property that had not been logged in decades. Dead trees and limbs littered the forest floor. In a short while I started to become alarmed by what I had done. I could not see the details, but judging by the amount of light to the south, I had created a mammoth wall of fire. I sincerely hoped that nobody would get hurt. But after about fifteen minutes, I did it again. And a little later, I did it again.
Somewhere between eight o’clock and nine I saw headlights below me. A road, not just a trail. I angled down the mountain to try to find a ride, while trying to ignore the inferno that I had created behind me.
I got to the road and hid behind a tree, trying to figure out what to do. The first couple of vehicle went by without incident. The traffic seemed few and far between, so the next time I saw headlights approaching from the north I stepped out into the road and tried to look nonchalant. As the headlights hit me full in the face I waved my arms and hoped that they would see me. The car went into the other lane and slowed. Bingo.
A not unattractive early twenties or other woman rolled down her window and looked at me.
“My car broke down; can I have a lift into town?”
She looked closer at me. “Ummm.” I was sweaty, dirty; I hadn’t shaved in a few days. I had a gun in my holster on my hip, in plain view. In short, I probably looked like a local. But she didn’t recognize me. She said nothing and drove away. I started walking north.
About fifteen minutes another vehicle approached, this time from the south. I tried again. Again the vehicle slowed and veered into the other lane and stopped beside me. This time it was a young guy, late teens or early twenties, collar length hair, two or three-week growth of facial hair, missing a front tooth. “Will you give me a ride into town?”
No hesitation. “Sure. Hop in.”
I stowed my gear in the bed of his pickup. A beat up Ford 150, late 80’s I guessed. With a loud muffler. As I got in I noticed the gun rack carried two guns, a shotgun and a rifle.
He sounded like a hillbilly. “Where you from, Mister?”
“Richmond.” He seemed a little disappointed. “Been out scouting for deer.” He perked up. “Little early, didn’t see much. Then my truck broke down up in the mountains. Needs a new alternator.” That got him talking.
“Did you happen to notice the forest fire back yonder?”
I hoped he couldn’t see the guilty look on my face in the darkness. “Huh? No, I didn’t see anything. I did notice how dry the forest floor was.”
“Where’s your truck parked?”
“Yeah, you said your truck broke down…”
“Ugh, it was back in the ‘Goshen and Little Mountain Wildlife Management Area.’ I don’t know the name of the …”
“The ‘WMA’? That’s where the forest fire is!”
“Yup. I’m on my way to Goshen. I’m a member of the volunteer fire department. The Virginia Department of Forestry requested all local fire departments to turn out. I was doing a job down near Buena Vista and didn’t get the call until late. I gotta git my gear from the Department and git back and help. Route 39 was closed due to the fire. I had to go around and take the back way.”
“You fight forest fires often?”
“Naw. This will be my first.”
“Naw. I did two tours in Iraq. That was scary.”
I looked at him again. I would have guessed that he was under twenty-one.
He smiled. “I enlisted when I was 17 years old. I served my country, came back here and now I’m married with my first child on the way.”
“Well, be careful, man.”
Chapter Nine: Where to now?
I told him that I was calling a friend to pick me up in Goshen. I didn’t. I walked out of the small town and was back in mostly wilderness. I plopped down and slept like a baby; after worrying a little about the fire that I had set. The next morning I stowed my pistol in my sleeping bag, tried to clean up as best I could in a small stream, and tried walking while hitching for a ride north on what turned out to be Route 42.
After about an hour, just when the sun was really starting to make me sweat, an old farmer picked me up. Turns out he was heading up to “Route 250.” He acted like I was supposed to know what that meant. We passed through small towns, Craigsville, Augusta Springs, Buffalo Gap. He drove slow and didn’t talk. That suited me fine.
When we got to Route 250 I realized that I did know where it was. I had driven that way from Richmond through Staunton towards West Virginia when I had been hunting with my son years before. The farmer was headed east, towards Staunton, so I told him I was headed west and got out. He seemed like a nice guy, but the less people saw of me, the less people who might remember seeing me.
I spent the next few days sleeping as best I could and otherwise hiding out during the day, and walking westward on Route 250 at night. When cars were coming, I hid until they went by. Fortunately, there wasn’t much traffic at night after 9:00.
Somewhere, the road signs said McDowell to the east and Monterrey to the west, while looking for a place to bed down for the day, just as the sun was coming up, I walked up a little dirt road that did not appear to have been used lately. I had to climb over a chain blocking the drive. Back in the woods a short distance I spied a cabin that was not visible from the road. It startled me at first. I was just walking along, not paying attention, I rounded a slight curve and there it was. I hoped whoever lived there was not awake, and did not have dogs.
I eased back around the bend and listened. No noise. No lights. No sign of life. I angled into the trees, trying to get around behind the cabin to get a better look while still being hidden by the trees. After about a half hour of stalking, listening, and stalking some more, I got to a place where I could safely watch while still remaining out of sight from its occupants. I sat down and waited. No law says anybody else has to get up at the crack of dawn. They might still be sleeping.
After a couple of hours of hearing and seeing nothing, I grew impatient. It occurred to me that I did not see any vehicles. Granted, I could not see all of the cabin even, let alone the area surrounding the cabin. All I could see was what looked like one corner of it and a small window. Finally, I gave up and fell asleep, exhausted by the long march from the night before.
Hunger finally woke me up sometime in the early afternoon. Though the nights were getting colder, the days were still pleasant, usually in the seventies. Water was plentiful from the many small mountain streams. But my food consisted of jerky and granola bars leftover from what Anne had bought me. And I had eaten the rest of that the day before. The hunger finally made me bold. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I crept up to the cabin. I left all my gear behind except my pistol in its holster. The pistol had only five bullets in it. None in the chamber meant no innocent civilian could get shot accidentally. I got to what was the back of the cabin and caught my breath. I slowly rose up and tried to peek in the window that I had seen from my old spot. Cheap curtains hid whatever was inside. I ducked down and eased around the corner to the side of the cabin.
It looked like it was just a one room shack, not very big. I tried the only window on that side, and saw only curtains. I peaked around to the front of the cabin. No sign of life. I did notice what looked like an overhead canopy off to the side, a place for the owner’s vehicle to get some shelter from the elements. And what looked like a “buck pole” between two trees. A place to hang deer after they were shot. I finally realized that this was probably just a small hunting cabin, and that nobody was home.
I looked in the one window on the front, and saw nothing. I finally stood up and knocked on the front door. “Anybody home?” I knocked again, louder. “HELLO! Anybody home!!?” I knocked loudly enough so that if anybody was inside they would have to be deep sleepers or deaf. Nothing, no response. I walked back around to the back and tapped on the window, asking the same question. No response. Then I broke the window and carefully climbed in.
The place was indeed a hunting cabin. It had two sets of bunk beds, one on each end. It had a pot-bellied wood stove for heating, no electricity, no running water, a rudimentary sink that drained outside onto the ground, no privy, and a couple of cupboards. Yee hah! It had a few dishes, pots and pans, and cans of food. I opened a can of pork and beans and ate them cold, right out of the can, sitting on the only piece of furniture in the place, a ratty old couch. And those beans were the best meal that I had had in days. Things were looking up.
It turned out that the front door was locked with a padlock. I never opened the screen door when I first knocked on the door, and I just missed seeing it. It was a pain in the ass, but I had to crawl out the window that I had busted every time I wanted to exit the cabin. I brought my gear in and made myself at home.
The next few days were heaven. I slept on a mattress for the first time since my nightmare began. Granted, it was a bare mattress, too soft for my liking, with only a couple of wool blankets to keep me warm. And my broken window allowed in too much cold air at night. And the food was always cold, since I was too frightened that lighting a fire would give me away. But I felt safe and warmer and more comfortable than sleeping outside.
I lost track of time. I figured that it must be somewhere about mid to late September. The nights were getting colder, the leaves were starting to turn. I quickly got back to sleeping at night, and exploring the area around my new home during the day. I never saw or heard a soul, except during the day when I was walking out in the woods, I could hear vehicles whizzing by on Route 250. And I envied whoever owned that little hunting shack.
The worst part was being totally alone and cut off from other people. I am a news junky and I had not heard the news or read a newspaper or surfed the internet since my little incident. World War III could have broken out and I would have had no clue. If that cabin were mine that is one thing I’d change, I’d get electricity there. Well, and a toilet. No toilet gets old fast.
I kept up my walking. I guessed that I had lost twenty pounds or more since my old life ended. I had to add three holes in my belt. I guessed I walked 10 to 12 miles per day, mostly up and down hills or small “mountains.” They might have been small, but they were steep. And rocky. And filled with trees. I was in better shape than I had been since my early twenties. But no matter when I tried to get signal for the cell phone, I never could. I left it off all the time to save its charge, only turning it on a couple of times per day to check its signal. No signal, no messages, I wasn’t even sure if it really worked anymore.
Then one evening just after I had eaten the last can of baked beans, I heard the unmistakable sound of a vehicle coming up “my” driveway. I panicked. I grabbed my boots, my gun and a wool blanket off my bed and threw them out the window. I shimmied out, scooped them up, and took off running sock-footed through the woods. I stopped somewhere near the place that I had been when I first checked out the cabin many days before, and listened.
Some unknown vehicle came up the drive and stopped. I heard doors slam, people walking around, men’s voices but too muffled to hear what they said. I heard the clomp of boots on the front porch, and the creak of what I assumed was the front screen door. Then, for a bit, nothing. For some reason, right then, I felt badly: I wished I could pay the owners for the canned food and the broken window. Maybe some day.
Then a noise so loud that it startled me: It could have been the loud roar of a black bear. Or of a bull moose, if we had any moose in Virginia: “GOD DAMN IT! WHO THE F@#K BROKE INTO MY CABIN!” I grabbed up my things and took off into the woods.
Chapter Ten: “Well It’s a long way to Richmond”