I could feel him anxiously fretting about downstairs, waiting while I finished packing up my mom’s small, portable telescope. I had my own, of course. Undoubtedly an upgraded version with a stellar digital camera. But for this trip, the sentimentality of using my late mother’s battered and beloved gear just felt so appropriate.
“You’ll be okay, Andy.” A forced declaration instead of an agitated question.
A father, a forlorn figurehead, trying his honest best to reassure us both.
I smiled up at him, my face attempting to convey a solemn assurance that I wouldn’t leave him too.
“I will be, Dad. I’ll take every precaution. But I need to do this. For me. For mom.”
I reached out and squeezed his hand, our normal farewell acknowledgment. Not a man for loud declarations of love, his affections were always shown in quiet reverence. Small, simple gestures of devotion.
I felt the heaviness in his sigh as he released my hand to pull out a worn and folded up piece of paper from his back pocket. With a measured reluctance, he handed it to me.
“She’d be so proud of you.”
His last words as he glanced down at my still fresh tattoo of the Perseus constellation scattered across my left collarbone. My dedication to her. With unsteady fingers, I carefully tucked what I knew to be my mother’s handwritten notes and sketches about her favorite cluster of stars into my own back pocket and quietly left through the open front door.
It was one of those remarkable Colorado mornings; the alpenglow from the Rockies tinting the expansive sky a rosy hue. I had the Jeep open, cool air streaming through and whipping my hair around me like a golden halo. I had plans to listen to my mom’s favorite albums during the drive to Black Canyon in the Gunnison National Park, but the steady vibration of the wind carried with it a moment of pause, of reflection. So, I drove in mellow rumination.
My mother, an avid photographer and lover of the stars, gave birth to me, in a moment of what she considered kismet, during the Perseid meteor shower in the fall of 1992. The well-known interstellar show, caused by Earth’s passage through excess fragments from the Comet Swift-Tuttle, was my mother’s most favorite natural phenomenon. And she had many.
These leftover bits of space debris enter our atmosphere, hurtling towards us at breakneck speed until they burn out, thus becoming meteors. The trajectory of these shooting stars appears like they originate in the Perseus constellation, hence their particularly appropriate name.
Being a resolute believer in acknowledging signs from the Universe, she named me Andromeda Swift after both the Comet and the woman who Perseus himself rescued from a sea monster. She was so proud of her clever little play on my astral influencers, and I, so proud that she was mine.
Before she got sick, we used to camp all the time. We’d travel all over the country, sleeping under the stars, sharing stories of the past, and making plans for our future. She’d reverently whisper enduring accounts of ancient gods and goddesses while we’d all three clasp hands, our backs together, standing strong with our eyes upward, mesmerized by her enchanting revelations.
So now, the first Perseid meteor shower since her own ascension into the ether, I’m taking my first solo camping trip to humbly pay homage to her.
I park near the ranger station on the North Rim of the Black Canyon and haul my pack and camera through trails of sage and oak brush that open into an unparalleled forest of pinyon and juniper. I’ve never been here before, but we had always talked about visiting. National parks maintain some of darkest skies in the country, and this place is no exception.
I stop and eat a small lunch on a bench by a winding stream simply soaking in the experience. There’s hardly anyone on these trails which was admittedly always part of the allure. Plus, no dogs allowed.
The constant hum of an active forest is remarkable. I can’t help but feel she’s here on this journey with me as I close my eyes and tilt my head towards the small patch of sunlight diffusing through the canopy.
As I make my way towards the more arduous section of the hike, the switchbacks offer stunning views where I pause every now and again to take a photograph. I’ve timed it perfectly. The sun is still overhead but not bright enough to mess with my exposure. I should have plenty of time to make it to the top and set up camp before the daylight dims over the ridge of the mountain.
I round one of the tight curves and stop suddenly, startled in my surprise.
A man, dressed in mud-covered jeans and a dirty, green shirt is leaning against a tree on the side of the trail. He’s got a small pocketknife out, stripping the ends of a stick into a sharpened point. His dog, which I know isn’t permitted in this part of the park, looks to be a shepherd of some kind, lean and hungry looking.
My father taught me to never avert my eyes to a potential threat. With this echo of advice and an uneasy tingling awareness, I meet the man’s blank stare, politely nod an acknowledgement, and resume my steady pace.
I don’t get further than five feet away from them when I almost trip on the dog weaving between my legs and aggressively rubbing his muzzle against the flat of my stomach.
“Dude, get your dog,” I loudly insist as I firmly try to push him away from me. Nothing about this feels benign.
The man just laughs, obviously appreciating my discomfort.
“What, you don’t like dogs?” A patronizing tone if I’ve ever heard one.
“Not when they’re in places they shouldn’t be. No dogs allowed on this trail, asshole,” I spit back at him.
His face, previously stuck in a mocking smirk, drops. I can tell he thought I’d demure and be on my way. You picked the wrong woman, fucker.
We stand in a frozen face-off for several seconds, neither of us relenting. Eventually, I watch his face morph into a forged imitation of false amends. It’s grotesque.
“Apologies, little lady,” he replies, as he puts his hands up in mock surrender. “Sometimes Hunter can be a bit pushy, can’t ya boy.”
He calls the dog back with a sharp whistle and Hunter immediately responds to his summons. I narrow my eyes at the man, who has since pulled out a clean, white rag from his back pocket. He begins meticulously wiping Hunter down while murmuring sweet words of consolation to the obviously uninjured dog.
Feeling like this weird interaction had run its course, I cautiously turn back around and hurry up the trail.
“Have a good night up there,” I hear him call at my back. “It’s great camping alone, isn’t it.”
Realizing he’s seen my camping gear, there’s nothing I can do but ignore his ominous farewell. I look over my shoulder several times during the last few miles up the trail, but don’t see him or his dog again.
By the time I’ve reached the rim, the extraordinary landscape is an all-encompassing wonder that I hadn’t quite emotionally prepared myself for. The panoramic vista becomes a blur as my eyes fill with tears and I let the elation of the moment saturate my grief.
My heart will always hold space for her as the vacancy she left will always remain. But moments like this, when I can feel the shape of her influence surround me, there’s only love.
Time passes as I perch on the edge of the canyon, happily snapping photos of this wild land. It’s only after the sun has leisurely passed over the ridge that I remember it gets dark rather quickly up here. The moon is only a slivered crescent tonight, so I make haste getting my gear set up.
I walk almost a mile off the actual trail as I don’t want my campsite to be too obvious. I eat my dinner in contented quiet and settle in to listen to the noisy sounds of nocturnal activity.
This is one of my favorite parts.
Away from the city, there’s no light pollution and the almost absolute darkness evens out the circadian rhythms of all living organisms. The unaltered night sky truly a relic of our shared past.
I set my alarm for 2:00 am. I plan to get a few hours of rest before waking up to see the show. The nature outside the fabric of my tent lulls me to sleep almost instantly.
I awake to the sound of a dog barking in the distance. In my fuzzy sleep haze, it doesn’t immediately register why this sound, nearly obscured by all the others, triggered my sleeping subconscious. I tap the screen of my phone. I haven’t had service since I entered the park, but the time shows 12:30am.
I groan as I sit up, not yet fully awake. I hear the dog again, thinking it does sound closer, when the adrenaline in my body sends shooting sparks of recognition throughout my limbs.
“GET UP,” my brain is screaming at me. “RUN!” It shouts.
And so, I do. With little regard for my personal belongings, I grab my bag, now lighter without the tent, and shove my mom’s telescope inside before zipping it up quickly. I have my flashlight, my phone, and my keys. And then, I run.
It’s a careful jog at first. The logical part of my brain telling me I’m overreacting, that it’s purely coincidence. I can’t leave yet! The meteor shower hasn’t even peaked!
But my gut is telling me something different. I feel hot all over, despite the chill in the air. My stomach feels tight and my breath is coming in short pants from fear. I can’t get that man’s dead eyes out of my mind.
I stop and take a second to orient myself. If I ran left outside of my camp, I should be going downhill, parallel to the trail, right? But shouldn’t the terrain be steeper than this? I fumble around in my backpack and pull out my flashlight. Before I turn mine on, I see the beam from someone else’s, coming from where I just was.
No. How is that even possible?
Then, the bark.
It’s so close and sharp that it bites through the forest, silencing all the other wildlife.
It’s a mad sprint now. My intuition urging me forward without looking back. The dog’s ceaseless barking, the thundering of my heart, my desperate gasps of air, my footfalls kicking up dirt and stumbling every few steps, play on repeat as the soundtrack to my imminent disaster.
My boot clips a solid stump and I careen forward, tumbling down a hill and landing into a wet, soggy bog. I know I’m hurt. I can feel swelling in my ankle and one of my ribs might be broken.
My boots squelch loudly as I try to pull myself free. I cry out in hopeless frustration as I can’t seem to unstick myself from this mess.
I feel the flashlight beam surround me like a crown of brilliance. I look up to see his silhouette at the top of the hill I’ve just fallen down, Hunter by his side. I’d expect taunts by now, but he’s just silent. Staring at me while I pitifully flail about.
No. Not like this.
I slow my breath as much as possible, take a deep, fortifying inhale, and yank my feet out of my shoes. One sock comes free while the other stays lodged in the boot. And I run. Again.
The barking starts the moment I launch myself forward. Never, in all my life, have I been so determined. I call forth every ounce of willpower I have. And, for a while, it feels like enough.
Soon, I recognize that my pace has slowed dramatically. The shock is wearing thin in some places and I realize I’m limping. My breath has a raspy quality to it that wasn’t there before. The surplus of energy provided by the adrenaline has dissolved and I’m running on fumes. I can’t keep going.
I reckon I’ve been running for nearly 2 hours. His game of cat and mouse coming to a close as my body starts to give up.
My body, unused to its new gait, crashes into the side of a tree and I collapse. This time, I just stay there, looking up through the branches and watching the meteor shower hit its peak performance, just in time.
I laugh a little. It hurts though, because of the ribs. It’s a delirious, nonsensical sound. I keep my eyes trained to the stars as I hear him get closer.
“I’m sorry, mom. I’m sorry, dad,” I apologize.
But then, I hear something else coming from the other direction.
Are there people on the trail? Am I close to it or am I hallucinating a rescue?
I risk it.
“Help!” I rasp out. It comes out as a garbled cough. I turn on my side and shout again. “HELP! HELP! IS ANYONE THERE?!”
I hear them stop. Yes, them! It’s a group of people!
“Please. I need help! I’m over here!”
I see a flashlight rapidly scanning the woods and I make myself move towards it.
I hear collective gasps and then feel them rush forward to help me stand.
“Oh my god, what’s happened?” “Are you okay?” “Are you alone out here?”
I can’t even answer their barrage of questions as I’m crying in utter relief. I turn around and there’s no man. There’s no dog. I’ve made it.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” a repetitive invocation to my saviors. And one to my mother.
They bring me down to the ranger station and call the police after I tell them what happened. They, too, were hiking up to see the meteor shower. I’m thanking every god and goddess I know for sending me these strangers.
I’m in the station office, recounting the event for the fourth time when the first officer comes back from my campsite.
“It’s a mess. Slashed to shit. I hope you weren’t hoping to salvage anything up there,” he relays this information in a straightforward manner.
“Your car, too. Do you know if he saw you enter the park? It appears he had you marked from the outset.”
I’m exhausted. I hurt all over. My critical thinking is clearly suffering.
“I mean, there’s no way. He was already up on the trail when I came upon him. And I would have noticed the dog before,” I respond.
“It’s almost like he was tracking you,” the stranger, my savior, added.
“You know, there was something odd that happened when I met him on the trail,” I said slowly, trying to remember the details.
“The dog, he was so well trained. He came up to me, nuzzled me all over. It didn’t feel like an affectionate gesture to be honest. It was…aggressive. When the man called him back, I saw him wipe the dog down with a white cloth or rag or something. Very deliberately. And it was the only clean item between them.”
I had my face scrunched up, trying to dredge forth every small detail. When I looked back at the ranger and the officer, they each wore grim expressions.
“What?” I naively asked.
The officer, clearly the one chosen to deliver the blow, sits forward in his chair, his hands clasped in front of him.
“It’s an old tracker’s trick. Basically, a dog is trained to rub your scent on their fur so they can be wiped down with a cloth. They then use that cloth to essentially scent mark you, making it virtually impossible for you to hide. That dog, if trained well, could have tracked you for miles and miles. Sadistic psychopath.”
I sit with that for a minute. I knew it felt all wrong.
“Okay,” is all I can say.
My phone buzzes in my pocket and I see that it’s my dad. The officer had called him earlier and I knew he was on his way.
“Dad,” I almost sob, relieved beyond belief.
“You’ll be okay, Andy. You’ll be okay.” This time, the forced declaration rings true.
“Yeah. I will be.”