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October 2005

Terror in the Trees

Ghost stories always seem scarier beside a flickering campfire. So, dim your headlamp and scoot up closer: our writer-at-large explores the ghoulish beginnings of these age-old tales and shares a few of his all-time favorite blood-curdlers. We dare you to read on.
terror in the trees 445x260(Illustration by Jackie McCaffrey)

We were college students, my girlfriend and I, and we had driven here, to the redwood forest, from San Francisco. I had promised to take her backpacking. She had grown up surfing in southern California, had never spent a night in anything but a feather bed. Being a college student in the mid-’70s, in northern California, my approach to backpacking was “the Earth will take care of us.” Which means I drank water out of streams, ate nothing but bags of granola and cheese and avocado sandwiches, and planned itineraries by asking locals where to camp. I didn’t have a watch, or compass, or a map, because to me, camping was all about not being enslaved by the accouterments of society. It was all about freedom.

To Melissa, though, my brand of exploration meant hunger and crabbiness and “I thought you knew what you were doing when I agreed to come up here with you.”

I told her there was nothing to fret about. I told her that after we ate, our senses would be sharpened, that we’d be fine. What I didn’t tell her was that I had no idea whether we’d find a diner, or gas station, before we ran out of fuel.

And that’s when we saw Ernie’s, just off Route One. A single gas pump on a patch of gravel, and behind it, the diner, a little wooden shack that pulsed cheerfulness through its plate-glass window. It was clean inside, and smelled of pancakes and comfort. The waitress wore a blue polyester uniform with a nametag that said “Kath.” She was a redhead, slim, about 30, and she told us we could sit wherever we wanted. We were the only customers, except for a table of five guys. They all had robes and long beards, but this was northern California in the mid-’70s, so it didn’t seem odd. What did seem odd, what I didn’t notice until I was halfway through our pancakes, is that except for the occasional clattering of dishes from the kitchen and scrape of silverware, the restaurant was silent. The guys in robes hadn’t said a word since we’d walked in. They just stared at the center of their table. When Kath cleared our empty plates, I asked if she knew any places nearby where we might camp for the night.

She did. She told us to continue five miles up the road, then to make a left on a dirt road, and take it another two miles, then when we saw a black boulder on the right, to pull off next to it and take a footpath about a quarter-mile. There was a nice spot next to a creek, a pretty little grove near some of the giant trees. We would be happy there, the waitress promised. She leaned closer and smiled and whispered something. To avoid staring down the front of her blue uniform—Kath had quite a body—I tried to look elsewhere.
That’s when I noticed the fresh scars on her wrists.

“What?” I said.

“It’s a secret place,” Kath said. “I think you’ll like it.”

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