Just Beyond the Tree Line

One hour east of San Diego lies beautiful Mt. Laguna. At 6,000 feet above sea level, this forested oasis rises above a vast desert and is known for its collection of Jeffrey pines. My newly wedded wife along with our two best friends had spent the afternoon preparing for our annual late-summer camping trip to the area. Stocked full of our favorite camping goodies and enough alcohol to last the weekend over, we found ourselves in great spirits looking forward to our weekend in the forest.

A few miles before our exit the sound of my favorite Florida Georgia Line song, one I’d heard a million times before, was interrupted by a phone call from my best friend, Jason. His voiced boomed over my car’s blue-tooth, “hey” he said, “we’re going to get off at Pine Valley to grab fire wood.” “Perfect,” I responded as firewood was the one thing I had forgotten on our list, “I’ll follow you.” I handed the phone to my wife to ask if she’d replay the song when I was quickly interrupted and told to make the next exit two lanes over. I veered over as quickly as possible, cutting off a large truck and simultaneously apologizing.

The next left took us into Pine Valley, a beautiful pine tree dotted community similar to the small towns outside of Yosemite National Park. After two minutes driving down the main road we made a left into the general store, which was surprisingly well stocked with anything you’d ever need to for a luxurious weekend of camping. The clerk helped Jason and me carry our six bundles of firewood to the trucks as they were oversized and the girls stayed in the car. After setting my bundles in the truck bed I was shaken by what I saw in the tinted reflection of my back window. Jason had dropped his firewood and was in full sprint towards his truck yelling inaudibly.

I ran over to find his girlfriend in tears, wide-eyed and pale as if she’d just been scared like a young child who’d woken up from one of those horrendous nightmares. I hugged her until Jason came jogging back. Completely out of breath he said, “Did you see that man trying to get into the truck?” My heart sank, I responded with a dismal “no.” We agreed it was some creep who had never made it out of this small town and preyed on passing tourists. As quickly as the ordeal started it stopped and we made our way up the mountain, speakers blazing as if to drown out any recollection of what had just occurred.

That night our camp was set in record time. The kitchen, tents, easy-up and campfire were all ready to go in under a half hour which, we figured, was a personal best for the foursome. With no further responsibilities and the stars illuminating glow on full display, we decided to look for conversation at the bottom of a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue we’d purchased to celebrate our gathering. Two hours went by before a consensus to embark on a night hike.

As we started down the trail towards the edge of our campground, I couldn’t help but notice the hairs standing straight on the back of my neck. I am a fan of ghost stories so it was not out of character to be a little scared wandering into the night. I had, however, drank more than my fair share of whiskey and was able to shake the unnerving feeling of being watched. We turned down an unmarked trail leading to a meadow surrounded by thick forest on either side. The girls were laughing at each other’s jokes, the guys were rolling their eyes and the night was headed in the perfect direction.

Right as the meadow came to an end and the trail lead into a thick, forested overgrowth. Jason, who was leading our hike, gestured for the girls to go ahead so he could walk with me. Once the girls took the leadership position, he grabbed my forearm with a force so hard I almost yelled in pain. The only reason I kept quiet was because of the look of absolute dread in his eyes as he whispered, “The man from the general store earlier today has been walking just beyond the tree line for the past 10 minutes.”

I pushed him back on the trail as if everything was normal. If this psychopath really was following us the last thing we needed was for him and the more importantly the girls to know. As we fell back into our single file pace, I saw the man walking no less than 50 feet away hunched over in a manner similar to a wolf stalking prey. The blood drained from my head and a sharp pain of sheer stress went shooting through my shoulders. The scariest part was that I only noticed him from my peripherals as I refused to turn my head out of fear that he’d notice me noticing him. From what little I could see it was very clear he was in possession of a machete or a large knife. My adrenaline pumped through my veins like a riptide in the ocean.

I wittingly blurted out that we’d left our campfire burning and had to return to camp immediately before I received a ticket from the park ranger. The girls reluctantly agreed, they were by the book and hated the idea of breaking any laws. They skipped past me, hand in hand headed back to camp. The juxtaposition of their mood compared to Jason’s was so polar opposite it brought upon a sense of painful confusion. Again this could have been the whiskey, but my brain could not calculate how two individuals could be having possibly the best night of their life while another was seemingly drained of all life.

As Jason walked to my side, eyes straight ahead as to not raise any further suspicion, I saw something I will never forget. Tears were running down his pale face and he’d been clenching his fists so hard his fingernails drove into his palms drawing streaks of blood down his wrists. We walked for what seemed like and eternity but in all reality was just over 15 minutes back to our campsite. I forced Jason to take the lead and we walked no less than a body’s length from the girls. Our stalker walked beside us the entire way back, at this point I was sure he knew I could see him. I thought of the sick pleasure running through his mind of watching a poor 25-year-old man squirm under the pressure of protecting his new wife and friends from an armed psychopath in the middle of the forest.

His stalking became somewhat of an unbearable taunting to the point that I almost broke down, telling everyone to run. Just as I was about to open my mouth, we’d made it back to camp. I then mustered up the courage to lie and say I could see a camp ranger at our site to which the girls took off running in an attempt to remedy the impending fine. As they took their first hurried steps, I heard loud footsteps to my left. I turned and saw our stalker in direct trajectory running as fast as he could. He was barefoot wearing nothing but ripped jeans and brandishing that large knife. Now was the time to scream and give warning to the group so I let out the loudest, “RUN” I had ever yelled in my life.

He ran over Jason knocking him out cold on the ground. I was fortunate enough that the other campsites had heard my plea for help. As I ran towards our stalker bracing myself for the imminent damage, three other campers tackled him to the ground. It ended up taking five full grown men and the park rangers Taser to subdue this overgrown creature, I can’t even call him human. As we brought him down he screamed in a manner similar to what sounded like an injured horse about to be put down.

At this moment the girls saw Jason lying unconscious and the gravity of the situation had set in. Their ear piercing screams coupled with the look in the stalkers crazy wide eyes was the most frightening thing I’ve ever experienced. Unable to move by the weight of the campers he lay motionless except for his eye movement. It was as if his jaundiced eyes were his last means of escape. They swirled about in uncontrollable circles, dilated and bulging.

Fear had paralyzed my body and the adrenaline came down so quickly I immediately fainted. I awoke ten minutes later to the foul scent of smelling salts and a blinding set of red and blue police lights. Some friendly paramedics took my vitals as the park ranger questioned me. I was still in shock and could only give a mild recounted version of what had happened. My wife and friends safe in the back of an ambulance which filled my heart with comfort for the first time in what seemed like ages. This was immediately replaced with fear at the sight of the psychotic man in the back of a squad car being driven off, ramming his head into the window. Blood started to smear the glass from his broken skin. He eventually stopped but only to stare directly in to my eyes with a nightmarish smile.

We learned he was a convicted killer and had recently escaped from a psych ward. He clearly had his wits about him as he was over twenty miles from the institution and functioning enough to ruin what would turn out to be our last camping trip to Mt. Laguna.