Why I will never hitchhike again

This happened to me about eight years ago. I had hitchhiked regularly for more than two years. This was the last time I ever did.

When you hitchhike overnight there are two options: Either someone offers you a place to stay or you find yourself a place to crawl into. I always had my one-man-tent and a light sleeping bag with me but I rarely needed them. I’m a rather talkative and friendly guy and usually those people that are ready to let a single young man in their car and enjoy his company don’t mind offering said man a bed or at least a corner in the garage at night and a shower in the morning.

I had been on the road for six days and every single night I was lucky enough to score a bed. The second night I had even been invited to come along to a house party. The third night I was offered to join some sort of family reunion where a father met his kids for the first time in years, but I politely refused because his ex wife obviously minded having a smelly stranger around. In return for being polite I got a beer and a pack of yoghurt and was allowed to sleep in the car.

I think when you hitchhike it’s best not to have a fixed schedule or route. It is much more pleasant to follow whatever recommendations the locals give and drift day by day just a bit closer to your destination. Hitchhiking is not really a way of travelling, I think it’s more a way of thinking – away from get-from-here-to-there thinking towards a more zen-like “the journey is the reward” mentality.

Still, those six days, I got pretty far. I hadn’t tried very hard but I had managed to get about two thirds of the way to my uncle’s place.

I started on Monday, had six days of luck and just when god was getting ready for his day off my luck disappeared.

An older lady took me off the highway and dropped me at a rather desolate country road. There were still cars driving but the sun was getting ready to kiss the horizon. If there’s something you learn as a hitchhiker it’s that when dawn comes no one trusts strangers anymore. No one trusts the lone unkempt man that stands at the side of the road waiting for a ride. And if you are a lone unkempt woman standing at the side of the road you better don’t trust those cars that stop for you.

After half an hour of sticking my thumb in the direction of approaching cars I realized there was barely a chance to get a ride and certainly no chance at all to get a bed.

I started walking off the road and towards a small forest. It’s never good to sleep in the open – the police will bother you, or else drunk strangers might. Forests also give you cover in case you have to do ‘your business’ and they keep wind and rain away. In general when my tent is in a forest I sleep better than when it is at the side of a street.

I had set up the tent and gathered wood for a small fire. My camp was just a few steps from the meadow that bordered the forest – not too deep inside the woods.

I settled down, hummed a song to myself and tried to read with my flashlight as the light source. The wood was too wet and the fire produced more smoke than warmth.

I had read three pages when I heard heavy steps somewhere behind me. Branches breaking. Heavy, soft steps.

Bear.

I was up on my feet with the flashlight in the left and a thick stick in the right hand. The flashlight was not able to reach far and all I could see were trees.

I stood and listened for five or ten minutes. The light flashed from tree to tree but the steps had stopped.

Shouting keeps them away. Shout with a loud and deep voice and they will keep their distance. You want to seem like a big animal.

I shouted from the depth of my lungs.

Instantly the steps returned. They were louder, heavier, faster. They came towards me from somewhere to the left. My flashlight searched for the source but wherever I shone was nothing.

Suddenly I saw the large brown body moving towards me. It flicked from one side to the other, rushed through the trees. The huge stag jumped out so close to me that I felt the warm air of its body brush against my arm. It ran past my tent. Seconds later he had disappeared again between the trees.

The footsteps faded into the distance. For a few more minutes i searched the area where the stag had come. I wondered whether it was my shout that upset it or whether there might have been something else.

With the flashlight in my hand and the stick at my side I tried to read the book again – this time my back leaned against the tent. I read a page, then read it again. Even when I read the page for a third time the words still refused to stay in my head. I gave up.

I left my small collection of food in a plastic bag outside the tent. Then I myself crawled inside, pulled the zipper shut, made sure the knife was at my side and closed my eyes.

Nightmares. The whole night, just nightmares.

Nightmares of someone chasing me.

Nightmares of someone catching me.

Nightmares of someone cutting me open.

Nightmares that ended with my death – but each time the imaginary world turned black I sank right into the next imaginary forest, right into the next chase.

I woke up at 5am. Birds were already singing and through the thin plastic of the tent I saw the first morning light.

The uneven floor of the tent was uncomfortable. There were cold hard lumps of soil under the plastic but I was sure that I had cleared the space before I had set up the tent.

For about half an hour I tried to sleep. There was a stirring outside the tent, some animal rummaging through the underwoods and shaking leaves.

Something struck the tent.

A loud, roaring moan.

I sat up and slowly opened my pocket knife.

The movement continued, more vigorously and loudly. Something repeatedly hit the ground.

I was too focused on the stirring outside. I didn’t notice the movement under the tent’s floor until a dent grew right next to my leg. The dent in the plastic rose from the floor to nearly the height of my leg. I pulled my leg away. The dent stopped, shrunk a bit and moved slowly under the plastic to my other leg.

I quickly pulled my leg away, pulled the zipper of the tent open and crawled out.

There was a fawn on the floor right next to my food bag. Its head was in my direction. It made a faint huffing noise.

I hesitated. I didn’t want to get attacked by a deer for approaching its fawn. The fawn struggled to get up. I looked around but couldn’t see its mother. I got on my feet to sneak away.

I saw why the fawn was struggling.

There were hands around its neck. Two human hands with grayish skin. The hairy and dirty arms came right out of the ground.

The fawn moaned.

There was another hand holding its hind legs.

The tent shook slightly. Just slightly but enough to make me understand.

I jumped away just before the hand appeared from under the tent. It brushed my heel but I had jumped just in time to escape.

The fawn kicked again and tried to get up.

The hand that had attacked me disappeared under the soil. I saw the ground moving slightly, like two snakes under a black sheet moving in my direction.

I ran past the fawn to get back out of the forest.

I rushed through the trees and back onto the meadow. Then I ran to the street.

Only in my shorts I waved to passing cars but they all just drove by until I finally stood in the middle of the street. A large black car stopped in the distance. I ran towards it.

The driver called the police. I’m not sure whether he did it because I begged him to do it or because a screaming half-naked man jumped up and down in front of his car.

I explained what I saw but I doubt that they believed me.

The officers walked with me back to the forest.

The fawn’s body was ripped into pieces. Part of its leg was pulled into the ground. The neck was clearly broken.

The hands were gone.

The officers said I would have to come with them. I asked to at least pack my belongings. They watched while I packed my sleeping bag and finally my tent.

When I folded the tent one of the officers gasped. He pointed to a small hole right below my tent.

Inside the hole was a round, soft shape. A grayish object. It looked like a branch – if not for the wrist.

They unearthed three bodies.

They had all been cut open.

I read the news articles. The people were identified as hitchhikers. Two of them disappeared a year earlier, the other one two years before that.

Still, their bodies were in perfect condition. Some ‘expert’ was quoted that the moist and clay-like soil preserved the bodies so well.

As a witness I had to stay in town for a week. The police paid the hotel for me.

I was called in twice for questioning. The first time was on the day after my ‘find,’ on Monday. On Monday they only asked what I had seen and when I described the hands coming from the ground they told me not to ‘invent’ supernatural stories.

My story was dismissed as some sort of vivid nightmare. Their psychiatrists suggested that I must have “seen or smelled” the bodies and that my mind created the rest of the story to warn me.

On Friday they asked me to come a second time. On Friday they were suddenly very interested to hear my ‘other’ stories. They wanted to know the details of what I had seen.

This time, when I described the hands and how they held the fawn and tried to grab my leg, they didn’t stop me. They didn’t doubt me. They didn’t say it was just a nightmare. They just nodded and wrote it down.

Afterwards I talked to one of the officers. I asked him whether they had any hints as to what had happened.

He said that they don’t know and that they likely will never figure it out. He said the whole situation was ‘weird.’ He said that it was odd that the bodies should have been rotten but were still in good condition. “And,” he said. “There was fresh meat in their stomachs.”

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