by DW Getchel

Zara woke up to a patch of light streaming through her tarp tent. There was a crispness to the air as she wiggled a little deeper into her sleeping bag. Tilting towards the opening she could see the lake she set up camp next to at dusk the night before. Closer to shore she spotted a tent she missed when scoping the area. It made her feel good knowing there would be someone to talk to today.

It had been days since she last saw someone. But that’s the point when backpacking through the backcountry. Only people that are really serious about experiencing the outdoors would be here.

Though late in the season, Zara was happy to still see snow on the tips of the mountains surrounding the bowl she’d hiked down into the previous day.

Something scurried across her view, then back, stopping in the center. Just a marmot she thought. Curious, unafraid creatures. Part of the “chill” group of creatures encountered in the woods she always told anyone who’d listen.

Laying there for a moment, staring, waiting for the other to make a move before Zara gave in because nature was calling.

After relieving herself, she gave a big stretch while taking in the landscape. Shattering the silence, her stomach grumbled, reminding her it was time to eat.

Coffee and a package of Cinnamon Pop-Tarts, a hikers breakfast of champions. With her down bag wrapped around her for warmth, she scanned the area.

Besides the tent in front of her, no other sign of humans. Just the right amount she thought.

Out here in the wild, it’s a fine balancing act of solitude and company.

Biting another piece off of the cold, high calorie pastry, Zara’s mind wandered to who was in the tent. A couple on a honeymoon trip, another solo hiker like herself? Probably not a family. She would have heard them as voices tend to carry when there’s nothing to silence them.

Crumpling the thin foil wrapper, Zara pushed it back into her food bag and continued sipping her coffee. The cold night air was finally being chased away by the sun and more forest creatures would start milling about her camp soon. The marmot was still rummaging around for food, glancing her direction every so often.

Letting out a huge sigh, she reveled in the simple life that happens only when she went backpacking. A hot mug of coffee, shelter and a little food. Not to mention an amazing view. If only it could be like this always.

As Zara finished the last of her coffee, she ran through the days plans. Get water from the lake, pack up, hike to the top of the ridge and camp in the trees. Simple day ahead she thought.

Making her way down to the lake, water bladder in hand, she eyed the tent off to her left, wondering if she’d have the pleasure of meeting the only other soul out here.

The lake was cold, filled by snow melt and crystal clear. Zara filtered it anyway, but at this altitude, the water would have been fine to drink straight. A painless precaution she always told herself.

With a bladder full of water, she walked along the shore watching the wind blow gentle waves over the pebbles that crunched under her shoes. When she got in line with the other tent, she stared at it, listening. Backpackers weren’t known to sleep in late.

As she started heading back, she noticed deep red streaks that seemed to lead to the mystery persons tent. As she got closer, it crossed her mind that it was blood, maybe they were a hunter. That wasn’t uncommon in the backcountry.

At the door of the tent the blood was much more pronounced. Her heart leapt into her throat, feeling the pounding of increasing beats. She called out. Nothing.

With her shaking hands she tugged on the zipper and a smell of death escaping its confines. A body, dead. She didn’t have to move in closer to see that. Stumbling backwards, she landed in a small bush, twisting her ankle on a rock. Grabbing it she looked around, panicked that there was a bear still lurking around. Looking towards the outsides of the bowl she didn’t see anything. Her breathing was still heavy as she locked eyes onto her own tent. Someone was standing there. She made out the silhouette as it turned towards her.

Scrambling up, she started hobbling in the opposite direction.