It was clear the instant they drove into the campground that this would not be the kind of camping adventure warmly recalled years later. The site itself was faultless — a shady valley divided by a creek that emptied into a mountain lake. For the two young couples crammed into a Subaru that would still smell like a new car if not for the can of beer that had spilled on the carpet, who had driven across the entirety of a state to be here, a dream was about to be dashed. And what a beautiful dream: old friends huddled beside a popping-hot fire under the stars, drinking from a small bar lovingly packed into an old Samsonite briefcase — a night of karaoke without a soundtrack, half-true stories, shit-shooting, blowing off steam. Laughing. When do we ever laugh as hard as we do when we are camping and drinking?
They’d been camping many times before. But the crowd of absolute hellions gathered at Kitt Creek Campground was something straight out of a nightmare — the kind of kids who run around mostly naked, carrying burning fire logs over their heads while screaming in horrid redneck accents about video game heroes. The kind who drop trou and piss right outside their own tent’s entrance. The kind who have been around so much second-hand smoke, they speak with a rasp before puberty. There were eight such creatures sojourning at the tent site directly beside Jake, Amy, Warren, and Tess’s reservation. Making matters far, far worse, the horde was accompanied by a Great Dane restrained only by a makeshift corral of baby-gates and chicken wire. They soon learned his name was Chuy, and when Chuy barked, the valley seemed to throb with echoes. Two apparently impotent supervisory adults slouched over a table and talked animatedly about the merits of romaine lettuce over iceberg lettuce.
Jake and Warren exchanged annoyed glances. Amy and Tess pretended they hadn’t noticed.
When it became dark and each campsite broke into tight orbits around the tiny stars of their respective fires (with the occasional rogue planet bumbling its way toward the heavy-doored outhouse) one of Chuy’s companions decided it was time to listen to the Modern Country Western radio station at full volume. The still night air should have borne the woodland hush that allows communal reverie, but instead carried the hokey tones of trite masculinity and aut tuned steel guitar. The racket drove all but Chuy’s friends into their tents to hope for sleep.
Warren and Tess hesitated outside their tent, watching Jake and Amy brush their teeth by the light of headlamps. Tess was not ready to surrender to the rude behavior of her temporary neighbors.
“Hey, stop! Stop brushing your teeth. Let’s throw one last log on the coals, pass around the Black Velvet, and who knows — maybe the neighbors will turn the radio off and put the kids to bed? We came all this way, and we only have two nights here. Let’s not waste a whole night!”
Amy needed no further encouragement. She raised her toothbrush aloft like a weapon, spat forcefully into the bushes and declared, “Yes. Fuck. Yes.”
The four returned to their seats beside the fire. The bottle of Black Velvet made one trip around. Toby Keith yowled in the distance with insincere integrity, but the music was beginning to seem tolerable and a bit plaintive.
Then an infant screamed from a tent near Chuy’s corral, with all the throat-shredding, incandescent, primal rage an infant can muster. Jesus Christ! What kind of maniac takes eight kids, a great dane, and a fucking INFANT camping? The infant remained dissatisfied for quite some time and had a lot of stamina. The Black Velvet made a final woeful circuit around the fire before both couples retreated to their tents. If not for whiskey and fatiuge, they would have packed up their belonings and travelled all the way home right then.
Chuy barked 7 times that night: thrice at 2:00am, twice more at 3:45, once at 4:00, and once at 5:30, by Tess’s watch. If they slept at all, it was in increments of minutes rather than hours. When the sun rose stark and bright, they greeted it with annoyance and groans.
Half a mile south along the forest service road, there was a singletrack trail from the valley floor to the densely wooded ridgeline overlooking the lake, the campground, and the creek. Warren suggested a brisk hike might be just the thing to start the day off, and perhaps aid in shedding the horror they’d survived overnight.
Jake threw a backpack over his shoulder, one that had been packed to capacity with various party implements: charades cards, black permanent markers, solo cups, peanuts, ping-pong balls, poker chips, etc, which he had only half emptied to refill with water bottles and trail snacks. He had expected to be hungover. The clarity and freshness of the morning felt like a bonus.
They made their way up the trail with a newfound zest and optimism. The dragonflies were shockingly large and aggressive, and the fir trees provided shade so cool it had a substance. The route ascended the nearly-vertical valley wall as a series of switchbacks and was too narrow in many places to allow opposing traffic. When another couple came upon them with a dog, the campers were compelled to backtrack 20 paces to a place with enough footing to allow passage. The massive lake spread out in the distance to a horizon of interlacing peninsulas.
They were now directly above the campsite with a vantage of nearly 350 vertical feet. Its other inhabitants were just beginning to prepare breakfasts. There was a faint scent of bacon in the air, even that far up the valley’s side. But if there was any doubt whether sound carried so well as odors, Chuy’s burst of panicked barking soon settled it. Amy raised her hands to her hears. The dogs voice was was unnaturally loud and foreboding, as if the ten lowest keys of a grand piano had all been struck at once with sledgehammer force. They could hear the saliva flying out of his mouth. From where they stood, they saw that Chuy had escaped his corral and was running pell-mell through the campground. 5 of the 8 hellion children followed him in hot pursuit, screaming and flailing all the way, “Chuy no! Chuy come back!” The beast plowed through Warren and Tess’s tent as if it wasn’t there, and sent the main-pole flying into the trees. As he sped through the rest of the grounds, the sounds of shock and alarm grew only more frantic. Other dogs barked their comparatively powerless fool heads off.
Jake motioned for them to proceed around the next switchback. Forty yards further, they were positioned directly over Chuy’s tent site. Through a break in the trees, the campers could see that Chuy had somehow been recaptured and was being led by the two eldest of the hellions. Though the crisis was over, Tess still seemed unable to gather her thoughts. “I can’t believe these people,” she said.
Jake removed his white tee-shirt and spread it neatly on a nearby boulder. He pulled a large black permanent marker out of the party backpack and wrote something on the t-shirt. He stepped aside so his friends could read what he’d written. Their eyes narrowed with recognition, and they nodded solemnly. Jake put the shirt back on. Carefully, he chose a place on the edge of the path overlooking the tents, now almost 500 feet below. Warren, Amy, and Tess each took a place beside him, shoulder to shoulder. Then, in unison, they jumped.
When they first hit the ground 10 feet below, it was not forceful enough to hurt badly, but that contact was only momentary because the pitch of the valley was so very steep. They built momentum quickly, flopping between trees and rocks, and, sometimes crossing the very trail they had just climbed. The hikers they had passed minutes earlier saw the ragged bodies careening and wheeling downward. Their trajectory was one of horrifying abandon — blurs of blood and flesh, thudding sounds, and blunt unyielding speed. Though I can hardly believe it, not one of them became wedged against a tree or impaled on a rock. They tumbled all the way down the valley side until they came to rest — Jake first, Warren last — beside the campfire of Chuy’s family. By then, they were a mess of compound fractures and every nightmarish kind of injury imaginable, dead as doornails and contorted in impossible poses.
The two impotent salad-loving adults rose from their places at the picnic table. They had not been roused to action by the escape of their untrained great dane. But this — four mangled figures spread across the lawn before them — required action. They hesitantly approached Jake, who had landed closest. One of them tapped Jake’s shoulder, and noticed there were words written on his shirt. They read them aloud, together, struggling to comprehend: “We did this to ourselves rather than spend another night beside you and your horrible children.”
*Rahe has lived in Tacoma since 2007 and is active in various community volunteering endeavors. He serves as Editor in Chief of Post Defiance, an online publication covering Tacoma arts and culture.*