About 11 years ago I went on a camping trip in Poland, hiking on the Belarusian border where there is still some of the most pristine wilderness I have ever seen. I stopped by one of many crystal-clear lakes, seemingly untouched by the pollution from the rest of the world, where I met a local fisherman from the nearby village. He knew a little English and I knew a little Polish, so we chatted in a pidgin mixture of the two, talking about this and that. When it came time for us to part ways, almost out of a horror movie, he touched my arm, leaned in close and said: “Be careful mountain men. They beat and steal and eat you. They in forest.” And with that, he picked up his gear and walked away, leaving me confused and unsettled.
I trudged on, getting deeper and deeper into unadulterated wilderness, with the sounds of nature deafening around my ears. The sky was vibrant blue and the sun was shining brightly, but the words of the fisherman were gnawing at me like a hungry rat. What mountain men? Were they thieving cannibals? What the…? Coming from a big urban center in the first world, I was shocked by how naïve I was. I had forgotten that just because I lived a semi-comfortable life on the other side of the world didn’t mean roving bands of thieving murderers were a thing of the past.
So on I went, further and deeper into the woods until I spotted what I took to be a farm. I decided to camp nearby because, nerves rattled, I thought the presence of some sort of civilization would help me feel safe. I was supposed to be enjoying myself, not freaking out about mountain men! The entire time I was gathering firewood and setting up my tent, I kept turning around, looking in the direction of every snapping twig, every rustling leaf. As night descended I found myself exhausted from acting like a coward for the past few hours and decided to just skip the fire and go to bed. I would enjoy myself more tomorrow away from this neck of the woods, so to speak.
But of course, I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about the words of that fisherman. Mountain men? Really? Eat me and steal from me? In that order? I was deep in thought, scaring myself further when I heard the unmistakable sound of fingernails scratching on the side of the tent. This was accompanied by the sound of twigs snapping and rustling branches. I froze, listening attentively in the darkness, praying that it was my imagination. It wasn’t.
The first scratching sounds came from the left corner near my feet, but the second round, as it were, were right near my head. Whoever was doing it didn’t just scratch a few times and leave, they scratched for a good 15 seconds straight. And this time I caught a shadow moving quickly away: the shadow of a man. At this point I totally freaked out and grabbed my flashlight because that was the closest thing to a weapon I had on me. I sat huddled in the middle of the tent, looking around frantically from side to side, waiting to be killed and eaten at any moment.
Minutes passed. Then hours. No new scratching on the tent, no more dancing shadows, save those of the wind-blown branches. I didn’t dare sleep and so there I sat in the eerie silence, hands wrapped around the flashlight ready to club the first head that poked into the tent. But nothing else happened. Daybreak came, and the day was again bright and warm. There was no trace of anyone outside my tent (I am not sure what I would have even looked for. Broken twigs? They were everywhere!). There were no creepy mountain men hiding behind the trees. No nothing. Did I imagine it? Did I simply dream there was someone there?
No, I didn’t. I was wide awake at the time it happened, and I can still clearly hear the sound of fingernails on nylon to this day, seeing the shadow of someone creeping around outside my tent. I still don’t know who it was, though I sometimes think that the fisherman I met at the lake followed me and decided to scare me half to death. But that seems farfetched because for one, he had all his fishing equipment with him. And two, I hiked for a good two hours or so into the forest. Would he really follow me with all that gear under the blazing sun for two hours? Did he have nothing better to do? As for the farm I saw, upon closer inspection I saw that the house had been abandoned for some time and that the fields were fallow. That debunks the idea that some nosy farmer came out to see who was camping on his property. I don’t know who or what it was that paid me a visit that night, but one thing is for sure: I have not gone camping since.