The Serial Killer Incident

My husband's friend recently became obsessed with mountain biking, a pastime that involves riding an expensive bicycle aggressively through the woods at literally breakneck speeds. I take it from his descriptions that the object of the game is to fall frequently and hard -- the more bumps and blood, the better. Maybe it's the feel of the wind in his thinning hair or maybe it's just the high dopamine-to-contusion ratio, but I just don't get the appeal.

My sport of choice is set on a similar stage but until one recent day it was much less dramatic. I was about four miles into my daily hike with my dog Arlo in a local, bucolic state park. A large and relatively undiscovered refuge, it's not unusual to traverse miles without spying another human being. But on this particular excursion, having not seen one person in the hour since crossing the trailhead, I came to the conclusion I was about to be murdered. My perpetrator was a man who'd suddenly appeared ahead of me on the trail. I was sure I'd seen him earlier in the parking lot. Had he followed me?

I decided to let my husband know, via text message, about my imminent demise. I deftly thumb-typed: "Creepy redheaded guy standing in trail. Smoking cigarette, wearing sandals with brown socks."

My husband replied: "K."

He is a man of few words and I'm a woman of too many -- it's one of our many complementary personality traits -- but "K?" That's all he had to say? I added some drama:

"Serial killer!" I wrote.

"Take picture," he responded.

Insulted, I thumbed back: "Should I tell the killer to smile and say, `Forensics!' before or after he eviscerates me?"

There was a long pause before I received his text.

"Probably before. Bttr safe thn sorry."

Wishing I had made my husband squirm a little by telling him the guy was wearing a hockey mask and carrying a scythe, I shoved my phone into my pocket and lengthened Arlo's leash, chirping a pleasant, "Hi!" as we walked past the man. He didn't respond.

I turned around to apprise myself of his whereabouts but he hadn't moved. The second time I peeked back he was standing motionless; the third time I (not-so-casually) turned my head he had disappeared. I scanned the woods as far as I could but I only saw more woods, so I picked up the pace and headed back toward the parking lot, now about 4 miles away. I searched around for any witnesses to my murder but no such luck. Then I looked hopefully at my companion: at 77-dog-years-old, protecting me is not foremost in Arlo's mind. His preferred activities these days are tail wagging and sniffing for bacon. I wondered if he would remain by my lifeless body until it was discovered by either a lone jogger, a woman on horseback or a group of fifth graders on a science field trip.

About a mile later I was relieved to see a woman and her dog. I nodded toward Arlo: "He's friendly!" I called out. "He's not!" said the woman of her mean-faced, pony-sized dog.

Was her dog foaming at the mouth or was I just imagining it? I stopped in my tracks and tried to put some space between her animal and us, snapping in the 17-foot retractable leash Arlo uses to walk me. But like a one-lane road, the going was too narrow for either dog/human couple to pass without incident; one of us would have to pull over if we were ever planning on leaving the woods.

I thought she should make the first move -- she was the one walking Cujo -- but she didn't. She just smiled. That's when I noticed her dog wasn't on a leash. I jumped off-trail and bushwhacked a wide berth in order to avoid them. She called to me: "My other dog is very friendly but I can't walk them both at the same time!" I'm glad you chose to bring your 175-pound werewolf instead, I thought as a low branch whipped my face.

Hiking at a crisp clip, I was still in the belly of the park. Once I was far enough to have forgotten about the killer and the killer dog, I was struck by how empty and quiet the forest was. There was no noise other than an occasional fly buzzing and a breeze exhaling through the leaves. That's when I saw the mountain lion.

At least I think it was a mountain lion. It was about 100 feet away and partially obscured by underbrush and saplings but I could tell it definitely wasn't a deer. Although it had similar buttery coloring, it had a less startled gait. Unbothered by Arlo and me, this animal had to be a large predator.

I glanced at Arlo to see if his Spidey sense had kicked in but by the time I turned back, the animal had sauntered away into dense brush. I grabbed my cell phone to call my husband but my battery had died during the serial killer incident.

I remembered reading about people getting mauled by mountain lions -- usually in state parks -- and I wondered about the protocol in the event of an encounter. Should I appear submissive or aggressive? Avert or make contact? Should I wave a stick and yell loudly in German? Wait: maybe those rules were for bear encounters only. I suddenly remembered an episode of The Flintstones, when Fred takes some kids camping at Rock Canyon and is stalked by a bear. In order to avert attack he decides to play dead but the bear breaks down in tears over Fred's seemingly lifeless body. Beside itself with grief, the bear holds a proper burial for Fred and salutes somberly as he tosses him off the nearest cliff. I knew there weren't any cliffs nearby but I didn't want to take any chances. Once again I found myself hightailing it to the parking area.

About an hour later Arlo and I made our way out of the forest and through the long meadow and, finally, back to the parking lot. I was pleased to have averted pastoral disaster, but my relief was short-lived: my serial killer had arrived there before me. Having tracked victims in these woods before, he surely knew a shortcut. Wait a minute: he was waving to a woman in a car that was pulling into a parking space. She apologized for being so late, then jumped out and gave him an enormous hug.

As I retrieved a rag from my car to wipe mud off Arlo's paws, I saw the woman with the killer dog trudging up an adjacent hill. The poor animal was so arthritic that the woman was practically carrying him. How could I not have noticed? She waved me a friendly hello. I waved back sheepishly.

And on the other side of the lot there was a man handing out fliers for his lost dog -- a "lion-sized" golden retriever named Simba. How sad, I thought, until I realized I might have some helpful information to share with the owner about his mountain lion's dog's whereabouts.

Walking in the woods, it seems, has its own perils -- hunger (if you forget a Kashi bar), mosquito bites and bad cell service all come to mind. But unlike mountain biking, I wasn't in danger of falling onto a protruding root or rock; I was only in jeopardy of falling prey to my own hyperbolic imagination. Next time, I decided, I would take my husband with me. Bttr safe thn sorry.