We Almost Spent the Night

By David Citron

It was supposed to be a happy, relaxed, special day. It was my mother's birthday and we were going on a family outing to Hawk Mountain to be followed by dinner at a restaurant. Let me introduce you to my family. First there is my father, an adventurous but not always punctual man. My mother, the birthday celebrant, is a very sensible and usually prompt lady. Then there is my sister, Amy, who usually spends her time trying to annoy me, but on this day was busy channeling her energies towards the trails. My grandmother, an active woman in her seventies, came along to enjoy the scenery and fresh air. I rounded out the group, expecting a dull and, for the most part, typical day.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is a wildlife refuge with many hiking trails from which one can observe all of nature, especially migrating birds in fall and spring. For the less athletic, laid-back type of person there is a mild, well-traveled path, which does not require too much physical exertion. For the adventurous, and physically adept hiker, there are steeper, rockier, more rugged trails. My mother and grandmother chose the mild "walkers'" trail, while my father, sister, and I chose to rough it on the treacherous River of Rocks. We agreed to meet back at the main entrance before dark and headed off on our own paths at about three o'clock.

Mom and Grandma started off on a pleasant, leisurely walk along with many other people, young and old, who were visiting the park that day. They followed the easy trail at a slow pace and carried on a pleasant conversation about the natural beauty around them.

"We chose a good day to come up here and enjoy the fall foliage," remarked Grandma. "It seems that most of the birds have already migrated, though."

"Ah, yes," said Mom, "it is that late in the year already. It's too bad we turned the clocks back last week. It gets dark so much earlier now and we won't have as much time to enjoy the rest of nature. Well, we've reached the end of the trail. We should start heading back before it gets too late."

Meanwhile, Dad, Amy, and I had slowly made our way down the steep, rocky trail towards the River of Rocks. The trail was marked by red spots of paint that were on trees about fifty feet apart. We finally reached the River of Rocks, a natural formation of rocks about a mile in length and a few hundred feet across. "Should we go across?" asked Dad.

"Yeah, let's go!" said Amy. I reluctantly agreed and carefully crossed the uneven rocks on hands and knees. I looked on in amazement as my dad stepped across the rocks as easily as though he were walking down the street. Amy, much to my surprise and annoyance, just hopped up and down the rocks and kept about fifty feet ahead of my dad.

Once across, we decided to walk along the edge of the River through some thick woodland areas covered with underbrush. The trees joined over our heads to form a dense cover which gave the impression that we were inside a small but endless room. As visibility began to fade, Dad said, "It's getting late, should we head for the walking trail across the escarpment or should we go back across the River?"

Amy said, "Let's go back across the River of Rocks!"

To this I replied, "Noooo!!! I'll never get back that way!" Due to the setting sun, we decided to take the shorter route, back across the dreaded River, of course.

Back on the other side, we found ourselves at an unfamiliar point that we could not locate on our map. Though I started to get worried, Amy was unconcernedly bouncing around. Dad suggested, "The most logical thing to do is to head uphill because we are bound to cross a trail leading back." The shadows on the ground were merging into one and giving me the impression that my eyes were falling closed, though I could not have opened them wider. The underbrush merged into a gray-brown mass on the ground with trees sprouting from it periodically.

Mom and Grandma had waited for us at the entrance to the trails when it had started getting dark. After what seemed like a long time of waiting and watching the park empty out, Grandma suggested going back to the visitor center to see if we had gone back there. "It really is getting dark," said Mom, "and I don't have my car keys with me. I hope we don't all have to spend the night here."

After failing to find us at the visitor's center, and remarking about her surprise at our not starting back when it began to get dark, Grandma suggested, "Let's see if we can perhaps borrow a flashlight while someone is still here." They then rapidly made their way to the parking lot and found one car still remaining.

"Would you have a flashlight we could borrow? My husband and children have not yet returned from the trails," said Mom hesitantly to the stranger at this car. Fortunately the man turned out to be a generous example of humanity. He gave them a flashlight, which he said they could keep, even though he doubted that it would work for very long. Mom then decided to come part way to try to find us, even though she did not want to move away from the car.

"We'll probably end up spending the night here by the car and look for them in the morning," said Mom dejectedly.

Meanwhile, we were trudging uphill through the trees, climbing over fallen logs, and pushing through thick patches of weeds, when I suddenly noticed a red mark on a small bent tree. We had to search around before we luckily found another red mark indicating that we were heading in the correct direction. It was getting darker and darker more and more rapidly and becoming nearly impossible to spot the marks on the trees.

I was already nervous enough, when we passed an old, abandoned shack about a hundred feet off the trail. "We might have to use the shack for refuge over night if it gets too dark to find our way back," commented Dad. Suddenly I remembered Charlie Adams' ghost stories about Hawk Mountain. Visions danced in my head of the ghost of a little girl playing a flute and wandering about near an old shack, and the ghost of a man who used to chop up people at his barn and throw them down a well, even after his own ugly demise. As my heart rate increased, so did my pace.

Amy's feet were bothering her and she was getting very tired, so Dad told me to slow down, which was not something that I wanted to do at that point. "Dad, can you carry me?" asked Amy. Dad did at several places, which slowed us down even more. By now we had lost sight of the shack and my thoughts turned to the size of the spiders and scorpions that would welcome us if we had to camp out in the woods. "I bet the spiders are pretty big this time of year," said my father, echoing my thoughts.

"But they don't bite, do they?" I inquired tentatively.

"The big ones do, like the one in that tree over there," said my father, pointing to an ominous shape suspended between two trees and blowing in the breeze.

"What can you do about it?" I asked, walking yet faster.

"Don't sleep with them." said my father.

Our nervousness turned to fright as it got too dark to see the red marks, and I thought of how long a night it would be, sitting and waiting for the sun to rise. The thought, longest eight hours of my entire life echoed through my mind when, by some stroke of luck, I found the first set of stairs carved in the ground leading to the main road and salvation. We then embarked on a seemingly endless pattern of stairs, walk, turn, stairs, walk, turn.

By the time I was near the top all I could see was the difference between the gray ground and the patchwork texture of the ground cover. My father was carrying Amy continuously and he followed my stumbling lead saying, "Slow down!" between gasped breaths. Somehow all I could do, though, was fall forward continuously faster, as if someone were chasing me. Finally, after nearly falling into many holes and tripping over the wooden planks marking the trail, I broke out of the forest and collapsed on the nearest bench to wait for my sister and father. Feeling great relief, the three of us walked towards the entrance gate hoping that Mom and Grandma had not gone looking for us.

"I hope we don't have to go back and look for them looking for us," said Dad.

"Uhnh," I mumbled, thoroughly exhausted. Suddenly I spotted a dark shape a few hundred feet off.

"Oh, there they are!" said Grandma suddenly as she barely made us out coming towards them.

Mom then ran to return the flashlight to the man, who had not yet left the parking lot. "What a way to celebrate a birthday!" she said as we headed out for dinner. Of course that was not all she said!