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Bear's Den

Autumn hikers travel farther than expected

By Diane HelentjarisPublished 3 years ago 12 min read
Photo by Flavio Gasperin on Unsplash

Kathy turned the ignition key, her brown eyes drawn to Smudge. Like a flexing body builder, the black cat struck pose after pose in the window. His eyes flashed gold with the rising sun. Kathy, popping in a CD, eased her SUV out into the road. Miffed at losing his audience, Smudge, with a sassy tail flick, vanished — off to do whatever it is felines do when their mistresses go away.

Cinnamon-and-coffee-scented steam rose from the cup holder.

“Wonderful,” she whispered. After her troubles in the spring, Kathy had decided to spend Saturday mornings outdoors with her friend Gillian. A nurse, Gillian knew how to be supportive.

With Leesburg in her rearview mirror, Kathy left behind all thoughts of her job, her bills, and her boyfriend. The cloud-wreathed Blue Ridge mountains grew larger and larger in her windshield. Mist hovered over farm ponds as the piedmont scrolled by. Kathy cracked open her window and sniffed the autumn aromas.

She soon passed the last possible stopover before the Blue Ridge, an old orchard outbuilding-turned-art-gallery-and-coffee-shop. In front, tipped against a Conestoga wagon, a sign announced Saturday’s “Pumpkin Carving Extravaganza.”

“Loudoun at its finest, the county where Halloween is hallowed,” chuckled Kathy. She worked for the newspaper so enjoyed wordplay.

Photo by Pat Whelan on Unsplash

The road arrowed straight ahead, aimed at the dip in the Ridge known as Snickers Gap. Visibility dropped to almost nothing as the SUV pierced the fog enveloping the ridgeline. Kathy slowed her vehicle to a crawl. Only the yellow lane markers tethered it to the gray road. She craned her neck to find the turnoff. Just as she swung to go left, a shiny black semi with red flames emblazoned on its side roared past, horn blaring. The SUV rocked in its wake.

“Oh, my gosh!” The truck’s sulfurous exhaust fumes seeped in through Kathy’s window.

“Pee-yew! Smells like rotten eggs.” After her heartrate normalized, she crossed over to park in the Snickers Gap lot.

“No bird watching in this weather.” Birders often positioned their binoculars and long-lensed cameras in the lot, spying on birds commuting up and down the East Coast flyway. But Kathy couldn’t tell a robin from a warbler. She was a hiker, the sort of woman always on the move, good at sports, with chunky legs and defined biceps. She was here to hike a morning’s worth of the Appalachian Trail with her buddy, not to count murders of crows.

She couldn’t see any cars, but off to her right a pair of headlights flashed on and off three times.

Muttering, “Pea soup,” Kathy returned Gillian’s salute. Buttoning up her canvas barn jacket, she headed to the tailgate and rooted through the jumble for her daypack.

“Yikes,” she jumped when a lethal-sounding scuffle erupted behind her. A hawk flapped by, dangling a chipmunk from its talons.

“Wish I hadn’t seen that.” Kathy stomped over to Gillian’s sedan.

“Morning, Gillian. Really foggy but should burn right off. How was the drive over from Winchester?”

Gillian, a stringbean of a redhead with an endearing overbite, smiled as she hoisted her pack. Gillian often smiled.

“Nothing exciting. Glad to get out of town. Cute hat.”

“Thanks. Esme knit it. A Fair Isle.”

“Which way today — north or south?” Gillian tucked her pants legs into her boot tops.

“Well, I’m thinking something new. We’ve hiked these same stretches of the Trail every Saturday since Memorial Day. How about we change it up?”

“How so, Kathy?”

“I found this 1928 Appalachian Trail guidebook over in Frederick — you know, at that funky used book store. Has the old trails. Did a little research. The original trails were abandoned. They went straight up and down the hills and uh, led to erosion. Might be fun trying to find and follow them. What do you think?”

“Hmm. Won’t that be hard?”

“Well, I don’t think the brush has totally covered it up.”

“OK, I’m game. Can I borrow your tick spray, Kathy?”

“Sure, here you go. Seems like they just reused the original trailhead. I think I can see where the old trail was. Look.”

“Do you think other people still use this? It isn’t overgrown at all, just narrow.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right.”

“Can I see the map, please?” Kathy handed over the tattered guidebook.

“You know, Kathy, this reminds me of those maps we bought at the Waterford Fair. Look at that symbol — do you suppose it means a village or a house?”

“Oh, I see what you mean. I don’t think anyone lives near the trail now, but maybe we can find some deserted cabin sites. I brought my camera. I can get some spooky shots of ruins maybe. Let’s go before the fog burns off. Here — we’ll head south toward Bears Den. Let’s find this place. labeled ‘Herrels,’ whatever that means.”

“Are you sure? Bears Den creeps me out. Don’t you think there’s still a lot of hidey holes there for bears?” Gillian gave a fake shiver.

“Nah. It’s just a made-up name because the rocks make a cave there. Got a great view of the Valley. Come on, don’t be chicken. The AT doesn’t have a bear problem around here.”

With a dubious glance, Gillian zipped up her hoodie and hoisted her pack. She followed her friend, her face with an anxious expression she quickly converted to a grin whenever Kathy turned around.

An hour later, the girls had traveled straight down the first dip in the ridgeline and half-way up the next.

“Pretty easy to follow, isn’t it, Gillian? What’d you think?”

“It’s fun, but the fog sure isn’t going away. Maybe it’s gonna rain. Sure don’t have to worry about crowds. Love the temperature today.”

Experienced in the Virginia outdoors, the girls hiked with confidence and chatted amiably. Except for her college years In Blacksburg, Kathy had always lived in Loudoun. She couldn’t believe she’d let her mother talk her into moving back home.

Gillian said she didn’t mind staying where she’d grown up. She enjoyed nursing and giving back to her community.

“I think I should move out, Gillian. Too much same ole same old. Atlanta sounds good or maybe I’ll move to Argentina and write…”

“Shh,” whispered her friend, grabbing the bottom of Kathy’s barn jacket. “Did you hear that? I think someone’s behind us.”

“I don’t hear anything. Oh, wait. Yeah, it’s probably just a deer or a fox.”

“Maybe it’s a bear, Kathy.”

“Well, if it’s a bear, then WE BETTER TALK REAL LOUD LIKE THIS,” shouted Kathy.

Silence. Gillian giggled and the girls trudged on.

Photo by Mathias P.R. Reding on Unsplash

Shh — there is something behind us. Definitely,” whispered Gillian.

Indistinct noises crystallized into foot falls. The girls stopped and turned around. Gillian poked into her hoodie’s pocket till her fingers wrapped around her pepper spray.

“Oh, it’s just a lady.” Her grasp on the cannister loosened. Down the path strode a woman just about their age wearing a long green dress. Eyes straight ahead, she veered from the path into a large colony of mayapples.

“Hey, uh, hey…” Kathy’s voice trailed off as the woman pointedly ignored her.

“Well, she’s no fun. What the heck is she wearing, Kathy? Who goes in the woods in a prairie dress? With those weird Doc Martens?”

“I think they’re called brogans. And that wagon train bonnet she’s wearing — she has to be a reenactor. Lots of them around here. Or maybe someone’s shooting a film. Guess she’s trying to stay in character.”

“Remember when we dressed up for the Waterford Fair to sell gingerbread? That was a hoot.”

Louder noises echoed down the path a few minutes later. Tinny music interspersed with footsteps. A man and three boys crested the hill. All were dressed in period clothing of the 1800s. The man carried a fiddle. The tallest of the boys blew on a harmonica.

“Hello there,” tried Kathy. The boy with the harmonica turned and gave a loud toot, but otherwise, the four ignored Kathy and Gillian. They followed the path taken earlier by the woman in green.

“Oh, well, maybe they don’t speak English,” said Gillian who liked to look for the brightest possibilities.

The girls hiked deeper down the trail. Interspersed with slender poplars, old oaks became more common, their gnarled thickened branches adding gravitas and darkness to the woodland.

Photo by Klim Musalimov on Unsplash

An explosive crashing brought a shriek from the girls, only to be replaced by laughter as a yearling fawn bounded across the trail in front of them.

“Oh, my, Kathy — you should have seen your face. You were scared. Admit it. You thought it was a bear and you were scared. Or maybe a bobcat or a mountain lion.”

“There are no mountain lions in Loudoun County, Gillian. How many times do I have to tell you? They died out ages ago. And bobcats are little. If you want to be afraid, be afraid of rabid raccoons. Those’ll kill you.”

“Maybe we’re not in Loudoun now?”

The girls moved on. The talk moved on, too, to their boyfriends. They never ran out of topics for conversation.

Eventually Gillian came around to the day’s hike: “Think this might have been an Indian trail?”

“You mean Native American or indigenous people. Yeah, probably.”

“Have you noticed, Kathy, the change in the atmosphere? The air feels heavy, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, maybe there’s a storm coming in. But this feels different, sort of thick and oppressive, like we’re walking through clear Jell-O.”

“Now that you say that, Kathy, it reminds me of something. You know, my cousin used to rent a house in Purcellville that was haunted. Really. A little bungalow. House felt just like this, all the time. Weird. We liked to sit in the parlor and scare ourselves silly with the Ouija board. Stop a sec. What was that?”

“You’re always hearing something. Oh, wait. I can hear it, too. Sounds like our creepy old-timey friends tuning up.” A fiddle wailed, followed by the pumping rhythm of a harmonica.

Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash

“Sounds like an Irish tune or a folk ballad. Must be that kid we saw with the harmonica. Don’t you like old folk tunes? You ever listen to the ones collected in the ’30s — the Smithsonian has them online. Sounds like that. Really must be some movie crew or reenactment gig, don’t you think?” rattled Gillian.

“Looks like we’re getting near the place marked on this map, too. Maybe that’s where the shoot is.”

Reaching the bottom of the hill, the trail snaked beside a narrow run-off creek. A few amber leaves floated along the rivulet, racing downhill. The music grew louder, accompanied by laughter.

As the friends rounded a towering quartz-striped boulder, the music and laughter tinkled to a close. Each note and breath seemed to lift up and float away, up and up, into the gray mist. The last sound was a high clear harmonica trill accompanied by a faint giggle.

“Hello. Helloooooooo,” crooned Kathy. A maniacal laugh, long and drawn out, boomed down from a thick-trunked walnut tree. The girls jumped.

“Hey, hello. Anyone here?” prodded Kathy. A bit of shrubbery three yards away shuddered.

“That’s a hawk, Kathy. They chatter like that.”

A stone chimney’s wreckage emerged from the swirling fog. At its feet, rotted logs remembered the ruined cabin’s footprint. Total silence prevailed.

“Hmm. Well, looks like those people are done gone, that’s for sure. I think this must be the spot marked “Herrels”– the creek’s in the right place for it. OK if I take a few photos? So atmospheric — great for a black and white.”

“Will it take long, Kathy? This place gives me the willies.”

“I’ll be quick. Promise.”

Kathy took off her pack and pulled out a digital camera. Phone cameras were nice for snaps, but sometimes old school won the day, at least in Kathy’s world. Gillian’s eyes shifted from place to place around the homesite, pausing on a spot a few yards away. Gillian walked over.

“Hey, Kathy — get a shot of this,” she pointed to five weathered headstones. “This was the Herrel place for sure. Check this out.”

Photo by author.

The carved names on the tablets were indeed those of the Herrel family — Isaac, Sarah, George, Thomas, and John. Gillian paused.

“Oh, my. Uh uh…” Hand over her mouth, she pointed. Atop George Herrel’s gravestone lay a harmonica.

“Whoa, Gillian. It’s ok — the reenactors must have left it. Check this out — they all died the same year — exactly one hundred and fifty years ago. Wow! Wonder what happened?”

“Oh, my. Uh uh…” Hand over her mouth, she pointed. Atop George Herrel’s gravestone lay a harmonica.

“Whoa, Gillian. It’s ok — the reenactors must have left it. Check this out — they all died the same year — exactly one hundred and fifty years ago. Wow! Wonder what happened?”

“I’m done here,” Gillian lowered her voice. “Do you think it’s haunted?”

“Well, let’s just say I’ve had enough. I’m ready to go. If this map is right, we can hike just a little ways and be at Bears Den.”

“Let’s get out. We can pick up the regular AT at Bears Den. I’m done with bushwhacking.”

With a final shudder and glance at the Herrel ruins and graves, the two friends struck off toward the Den.

Unlike most fall days in the Blue Ridge, the fog persisted, refusing to release its grasp on the landscape and to reveal the woodlands. The girls heard unexplained scrabblings and rustles with the occasional groan as — they hoped — a tree shifted position. Heavy air bore down upon them.

“Almost to Bears Den.”

“Good,” Gillian answered, a smile returning to her face. “Looking forward to lunch in Round Hill. What’s that black lump, Kathy? … Oh, no, bears!”

Three juvenile bears blocked their path.

“JUST MAKE NOISE LIKE THIS,” shouted Kathy, waving her arms to look as large as possible.

The trio of bears — first one, then another, then all three — turned to look and then ambled off as if they had all the time in the world.

“Whew,” said Gillian, “I didn’t know bears had red eyes.”

Kathy stood speechless, then gave a little shake.

“They don’t. Bears have brown eyes. Couldn’t have been….”

A roar loud enough to peel paint off the wall reverberated through the forest. Kathy and Gillian grabbed each other and screamed. A black bear the size of a Clydesdale draft horse raced from the woods, heading their way.

Kathy and Gillian froze as if they’d grown roots or been caught by a wizard’s spell. Finally, Gillian fumbled for her pepper spray. Rising up on its hind legs, the bear’s red eyes glowed like embers in a winter fireplace. Her breath’s sulfurous stink floated down. She charged, but swerved at the last minute to gallop toward Bears Den.

That evening, between visits from trick-or-treaters, Kathy loaded up her photographs to her computer.

In the first shot, Gillian smiled against a backdrop of mist.

“Oh, my gosh.” The next photograph revealed the Herrel cabin, but the walls and chimney were intact. The man with the fiddle sat in the doorway, bowing out a tune. Beside him was the woman in the brogans and his boys. Georgie played his harmonica with a wink at the camera (and Kathy).

Photo by Jorge Illich-Gejo on Unsplash.

Short Story

About the Creator

Diane Helentjaris

Diane Helentjaris uncovers the overlooked. Her latest book Diaspora is a poetry chapbook of the aftermath of immigration.

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