With the exception of never telling anyone where I’m going, I’m generally a pretty safe hiker.
**The contradictory nature of that sentence is recognized and noted.
I carry a backpack with some essentials: lots of water, a pocketknife, a towel and extra t-shirt. Snacks for me and Buddy. Reading glasses, pen and paper. Bug spray with DEET.
One day last month, though, I left my backpack in the car. I had dropped my daughter off at school, and planned to go for a very short hike on the trails nearby. It’s a large preserve, but it feels very near to civilization because the school is so close. There was even a used condom in the parking lot, though I guess that’s not necessarily a symbol of civilization. Anyway, I thought since I wasn’t going far, probably just 20 minutes in and then 20 minutes out, I would free myself from the burden of carrying an extra 10 pounds on my back.
It was early in the morning, and not one car was in the lot. As soon as I started on the trail, I noticed the absence of people sounds – no cars or voices or boats. Lots of crickets and birds, the soft padding of my footsteps, the overwhelming sense of peace.
After about two minutes, a deer fly dive-bombed my head and bit me on the ear. I thought about turning around, but I AM A WARRIOR and fuck those deer flies. Pretty soon, the word went out among the deer fly population that there was a stubborn human in the vicinity wearing shorts and a tank top and no bug spray. I quickened my pace and adjusted my expectation to 15 minutes in, 15 minutes out, all of it marching forward while flailing my hands around my head to bat away this kamikaze biting brigade.
Suddenly, I heard a bit of a commotion off to my right, like something trampling through the brush. I couldn’t see anything. But I heard the unmistakeable fierce growl of a wildcat. I knew it was either a bobcat or a panther, but most likely a bobcat. A bobcat would never attack me without provocation, (I was pretty sure), so it was more thrilling than chilling. I stood still for a moment, hoping to catch a glimpse of it. I didn’t, and was slightly disappointed and decently relieved. Onward.
No more than five minutes later, off to my left I heard a a great crashing splashing noise, like I imagine a charging rhinoceros might sound. It took me no time at all to spot two enormous feral hogs plowing through the marsh. They were gray with black spots and pointy tusks, easily well over 200 pounds. They were headed perpendicular to the path but about 50 yards behind me, downwind, and didn’t see me or Buddy. I was hiking into the wind, so I guess they didn’t smell us, either. Buddy saw them, but he’s a smart dog, and he stood completely still and on alert.
Running into feral hogs definitely felt more chilling than thrilling, and me without my pocketknife! I mean, I’m not sure how I would have defended myself with a four-inch pocketknife, but still. And feral hogs are mean as snakes. Had they seen us, some chaos might have ensued.
I never know what I’ll see in the woods. Just last weekend, Buddy and I came upon a scene that could have been from a kids’ movie about the forest. In the middle of Guana State Park, we found a lovely shaded pond barely visible from the trail. I quietly inched toward it, and saw a raccoon washing its little hands in the water, and a Little Blue Heron wading in the shadows looking for snacks. I half-expected Bambi to come wandering into the picture.
But back to that day with the bobcat and the feral hogs: after seeing them charging through the brush like marauders, I couldn’t start back because that’s where they were headed. So I just kept hiking, spinning in circles as I walked so I could keep checking behind me, thinking this felt like the longest short hike I had ever taken. I looked for a stick to protect myself against a wild boar, but carrying it would be a challenge because I had a leash in one hand and was flailing away at the flies with the other.
After 15 minutes, I turned around, and made quick work of the walk back. There was no sign of the hogs. Back in the parking lot, I gave Buddy some water and chugged some myself. I started my car and waited for the AC to turn cold. Fifteen minutes earlier, I had been alone and immersed in the forest, with wild cats on one side of me and wild hogs on the other, with nothing more than spotty cell phone reception as a weapon. Now I was thinking about the rest of my day: papers to grade, a house to clean, doctor’s appointments to make.
It was not yet 9 a.m.