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Ever since I can remember, I have always loved to hike. I grew up near the Mark Twain National Forest and fell in love with the dense woodlands, countless swift rivers, and rolling hills. You could walk for miles without any signs of civilization.
There is something special to me about discovering new places and exploring nature at your own pace.
Eventually, I had to move away from the country to go to college. I was disappointed with the established hiking trails near my university city. Not because of the scenery, but because of the people. The urban environment spoiled what made me passionate about my hobby.
The once pristine trails from my memory were now littered with trash. People made too much noise and scared away the wildlife. These were not true hiking trails, but more exhibits of nature that were spoiled by convenience.
I remember the first night I had the idea to go hiking after dark. At night, everyone left the parks and nature trails, and the night was much cooler than the 100 degree daytime summer heat. All it took was one trip and I was hooked. Usually I would go to the trail in the daytime and take a moment to scope out the park. My primary concern was avoiding the attention of the forestry wardens.
Although there would probably be no serious consequences if I were caught, it added a small element of danger which made it more exciting. Up until this point, I had been night hiking 15 or 20 times, but what happened during this trip changed everything. I have not been able to bring myself to go back since.
I had been to Ha Ha Tonka State Park a couple of times before, but had never had a chance to see it at night. The park is beautiful, as I'm sure anyone who has been here would say. The main feature of the park is the ruins of an old turn-of-the-century castle constructed on a huge bluff overlooking the Lake of the Ozarks.
The scenery consists of glades, meadows, natural bridges, sinkholes, and caves. Ha Ha Tonka, whose name is translated as "Laughing Waters" in reference to the gushing springs in the area, is said to be named by the Native Americans. The park was well maintained and was crisscrossed with many trails, boardwalks, bridges, and outlooks. Here is some information on the park and some pictures.
The park is closed at sunset so I had scoped out an area, mainly being concerned with a place to park that would not draw attention and find an efficient way into the park after dark. I found the perfect spot about a quarter of a mile past an old nearby post office. Since I was not familiar with the area and had to walk through the forest, I had marked the trail-head on my GPS and grabbed a trail map during the daytime so I could easily locate it at night.
I got out of my car and got my gear ready for the trip. I set my location on my GPS so that I would be able to locate my car at night without any problems. It was a little after midnight when I set out to find the trailhead. The night started off beautifully. It was a full moon, which offered plenty of light to see where I was stepping. I remember it was warmer than usual that night, but there was almost no wind at all, which was perfect. Less wind meant that I would be able to hear wildlife (or forestry wardens) before they saw me. After about 30 minutes, I found the trailhead easily enough and got started on my way.
I continued to walk through the woodland and came upon a large clearing. Before entering, I paused for a moment to take a drink of water and allow myself to become acquainted with the sounds of the night. I closed my eyes and listened to the crickets and tree frogs echoing through the forest. After placing my water bottle back into my pack, I looked across the glade to see if I could spot any people or wildlife. I didn't see anything.
I paced slowly at first to warm up and to conserve my strength. The scenery went from an open meadow to scattered shrubs, and became denser and denser until I was surrounded by dark forest. Stripes of moonlight that filtered through the tree limbs projected onto the path, which provided enough light to see without a flashlight. I noticed a large rock on the side of the trail and took note of it as to not to trip over it in the dark. As I got closer, it became clear what I was looking at.
I retrieved and turned on my flashlight, careful to keep the light low to the ground. What I saw paralyzed me: it was a dead deer. I've happened upon dead deer while hiking, so this wasn't a rare occurrence. I've also hunted a fair amount in my youth, which included skinning, field dressing, and butchering, so I had seen many in my lifetime. But I had never seen anything like this.
It was a white-tailed buck, which was common to the area. It was about 200 lbs and had an 8 point rack. If you don’t get a good shot at a deer, it will bolt away, and if injured will eventually bleed out and die. If it goes far enough, the hunter will not find it. I’ve also seen deer that a coyote or stray dog may have run down and eaten. But as soon as the light shone upon it, I knew this wasn't the case. The skin was missing. It was not unheard of to find a partially eaten deer, but it didn't look like an animal had been feeding on it.
Its muscles, tendons, and bone were exposed from its hooves to the base of its skull and were untouched. I noticed something else. Its head was lopped around backwards; something had snapped its neck. The eye, or where its eye should have been, was facing upward and was gone. I don’t know how such a thing would happen as obviously nothing in nature would do that. Someone would have had to shoot or run down the buck and use enough force to yank the head of a large buck 180 degrees. Why would someone do this if the deer was already down for the count?
Then there was its skin. I flicked my flashlight around and didn’t see any fur, marks, or tracks other than footprints of the daytime hikers. When wild animals eat, they usually rip parts of the fur off leaving a fairly large amount of fur scattered on the ground. There were no signs of rot, no smell, and no flies or maggots. Most of all, this was a public trail, so things like this would be cleared in the day time. I wondered if it was still warm, but I really didn’t like the idea of touching it.
This had been done very recently.
Not wanting to stick around, I put away my flashlight and walked away. I wasn't really frightened at that point, but I was on edge. My senses were sharper; I stepped more slowly and with caution so I could hear well. I heard the faint murmuring sound of the waters the park was named after. As I walked, the sound increased. The sound of the quick running water sloshing over rocks sounded like a soft whisper with slight hints of snickering. I could not see the stream, but knew it had to be close.
It had been about 30 minutes since I had seen the deer, and I wanted to get my bearings. I opened my pack and took a drink of water. I retrieved the trail map I took from the forestry department during the daytime and compared it with my GPS’s location. There were no streams within half a mile. I stopped breathing and listened—nothing. The sound of water was gone. For an instant I did become scared, but calmed myself. I rationalized the situation. I figured it was probably the wind; the sound of a steady breeze though the dense forest could easily sound like running water. I was about halfway through the hike and following a trail loop that would bring me back near my car. I picked up the pace.
The terrain became more rocky and rugged. The left side of the trail grew into a large cliff facing and there was a large drop to the right of the trail. This is where I first heard it. I stopped for a moment to listen harder and realized it was coming from behind me. It sounded like a faint step on loose gravel accompanied by a dragging sound. Because of the bend in the trail and the cliff facing, I could not see anyone behind me. But I knew that whatever it was had to be very close. I remember thinking it was strange that I could hear something so faint when there were no other sounds in the forest. I felt my skin prickle and my hair stand on end, and I was rooted in place with an unexplained feeling of fear. Fixed in place, I watched the trail behind me for a few moments and listened closely.
Throwing caution to the wind I called out, “Hello?”
Everything was silent.
I wanted to run. My body was teetering between fight and flight, but I could not move.
My eyes were fixed on the path behind me. I stared long enough that the edges of my vision grayed and tunneled. A slight breeze blew softly through the trees, which made a whispering sound. Was that the wind? I looked at the dense foliage around me and nothing moved, though the sound persisted. Did I get closer to a stream and not notice it? The sound was growing louder now. It was coming for me.
My eyes darted back to the path behind me. There was something there. A shadowy form was hunched down over the trail. Its edges were blurred from the shadows of the trees. I would say it moved, but that's because that is the closest thing I can relate it to. It borrowed the neighboring shadows as its form rose up from the trail. A single eye reflected the moonlight in the center of its mass. The slight whispering sound increased sharply to a swell of gibberish and chatter—a chorus of laughter.
That was it, flee with fleet feet or meet defeat. I ran faster than I ever had before. Adrenaline pumped though my body as I dashed down the trail. I was not able to see the blazes marking the trails, but I knew I was both running away from it and toward my car. The trees around me blurred as I sprinted, the world around me becoming a distortion of moonlight and darkness. I ran until I could no longer ignore the sharp pain in my lower stomach and was completely out of breath. I stopped a moment to catch my breath.
I tried my best to calm my breathing and listen. I took my GPS out and looked to see how close I was to my car. I had a little less than a mile, but I had to leave the trail to get back to where I parked. I could still hear the murmuring in the night, but it was very slight. That was all I needed. I kept the GPS in hand so I didn’t have to stop and take it out. I quickly jogged to the point I would exit the trail and have to go through the forest to get back. Moving through the forest was both slower and noisier. At about a hundred feet from the trail I chanced a look back. The eye was there and it was looking at me.
I could not tell if the trees were moving or if it was only their shadows. Darkness wavered and flowed around it. It was coming. No longer caring about being heard or seen, I took off. I don’t remember how I made it or how long it took. I vaguely remember the pain from running but didn’t care. I made it to my car and got the fuck out of there.
I have never told anyone about it since.