We had entered deep into the woods, far past the reach of a usual day hiker who just needed to get out for a few hours before returning to the comforts of their urban life. Out here the trails had a little less wear to them, with the force of the natural world pushing ever so slightly upon the trail as shrubs and saplings had taken root upon the outer fringes throughout the years. Only the occasional hiker or backpacker came out here to stir up some dirt along the path and keep the influence of nature at bay. My companion, a middle-aged man named Mike with a graying mustache and loose skin around his cheeks, was dressed in hunting cameo and an orange vest, carrying with him enough supplies to last him a month out in the wilderness upon his back, and a rifle held steady in his arms, kept up an impressive pace. Although his pace had begun to slow the deeper we got, but not by much. Not even winded, but always looking for a means of stalling us, I gasped and did my best impression of an exhausted hiker.
“Can we,” I panted, “can we take a breather?” I bent over forcing myself to inhale the fresh mountain air.
My companion turned around looking at me with a disappointed and slightly irritated look. His face red and drench in sweat. “This is your third time this mile asking for a breather. What kind of trail guide are you?” He asked.
The best kind. I thought. “I don’t hike this deep that often,” I lied.
“I ain’t paying you to mope about,” he said.
I didn’t answer. I just forced myself to have the ugliest panting I could. After many trips like these, my acting had gotten rather lifelike.
“Alright, alright,” Mike shook his head. “We’ll take a five-minute water break. But you better stop complaining until we reach our destination. Okay?”
I feigned a few thank yous and took off my pack retrieving a bottle of water from one of the side pockets. As we stood there in silence, the sounds of the forest filled the gaps between us. The wind whispered through the trees, birds chirped, and somewhere far off a river filled the silence with white noise. I felt at home here, even with an armed man dedicated to hunting America’s most endanger beast, I felt a thousand times more comfortable than I ever did within the concrete confines of the city. As we stood there, not saying a word to one another, we heard it, the grunts of the beast.
The grunt sounded like an ape. No, not quite that, but closer to that of a large heavy-set man with respiratory issues imitating an ape, unsettlingly human to the untrained ear. It’s no wonder that people had dismissed claims of the creature as nothing more than folklore or a hoax for centuries.
Mike turned up trail pointing his gun towards the origins of the sound, eyes trained down the scope. “Put your pack on you pansy,” he said. He tried to whisper it, but his excitement had gotten the better of him and instead he spoke somewhere between a whisper and a murmur. I did as he said, not without forcing a huge wheeze and a cough and making sure the pots and pans hanging off my backpack rattled like a drum kit as I put it on. Mike looked over his shoulder at me, perturbed by my perceived ineptitude.
Once my pack was on, we continued down the trail. Mike’s rifle still pointed outwards, as if it were a flashlight in the darkness.
I took up the job as a trail guide to escape the suburban hells cape that was my hometown. I left that life behind many years ago after I graduated college and headed straight towards the mountains many states away. Only returning twice a year for Thanksgiving and Christmas, each time I returned I felt a visceral pain in my gut, the concrete scars cut across the one prairie landscape of North Texas bled into me and tore at my insides whenever I returned. Once the trials of the holidays were over and I returned to the solace of the mountains I could then let my body and mind heal for the rest of the year until November returned. I was a creature of the mountains, and you could not take that away from me.
I had become an emissary between the people of the cities who ventured out here for a gasp of fresh air from the oppressive smog of the cities. I lead many hikes for young Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, to young couples looking for a weekend getaway or their retired counterparts trying to stay active, along with the occasional hunters, although due to our state’s strict conversationalist laws there weren’t many who bore rifles legally out in these parts. The ones who did, however, were looking for a particular kind of beast. One that had become so endangered that it took refuge within our collective consciousness under the camouflage of a cryptid. The skunk ape, Sasquatch, or as you may know them as: Bigfoot.
And Mike was here on a mission: to be the first man to prove their existence. Just like so many men who walked these mountains baring rifles, Mike was just like them all: middle aged, divorced, bored, and looking for meaning. Little did any of them know that they were out in the wilderness with the only man who truly knew of Bigfoot’s existence, and I wasn’t going to let them have their way. Throughout the years I had gotten particularly good at misleading them.
We had ventured further up the mountain side where the Bigfoot cries had come from. The cries had stopped shortly after I made a ruckus putting on my pack, meaning that the Sasquatch had probably gotten my message. Or so I hoped. Mike held out his right arm in a right degree angle signaling for me to stop. Of course, I knew what it meant, but I didn’t let that stop me. I stumbled right into the backside of Mike’s pack, knocking him off balance.
“What the hell is your problem?” Mike said. “I said stop.”
“I didn’t hear you say anything,” I answered.
Mike then proceeded to hold up his arm in that right angle position looking at me dumbfounded. “This means stop, get it? Jesus, did they teach you kids anything nowadays?”
Before I answered we heard another growl off in the distance. Mike made a shushing sign by placing a finger to his mouth followed with a snark comment asking if I knew what that meant.
“Yes,” I said.
“Shh!” He blew like he was trying to shush a class of loud misbehaving fifth graders. He turned off the trail and I followed.
We didn’t get that far before the first signs of Bigfoot. Small tree trunks bent into an arch, some snapped in two. I never quite understood why they did that. Mike, too eager to take down the Sasquatch passed under one of these arches, not noticing the brown fur caught on the bark.
I followed Mike, trying to run at a significantly slower pace as to slow him down, but Mike didn’t turn back. He might has well had abandoned me up on the trail as far as he was concerned. Then I saw it, on the other side of a smaller river, within a grove of aspen trees, a big furry bipedal creature moved between the rows of white trunks downslope of us. It’s dark fur a roaming void within the grove of white trunks. Mike must had seen it too because he stopped, slamming on his proverbial brakes and held his arm up in a right angle. I didn’t stop.
My momentum transferred into Mike, knocking him off balance and sending him to the forest floor. The rifle fell out of his hands and slid down slope toward the river, sliding to a stop upon a large flat face of rock at the edge of the river. I rolled over him and tumbled a few feet down the slope, providing a buffer between myself and the rifle. And you can be sure as hell that I made sure to scream as loud as I could as I rolled along the ground.
In the distance I heard the hasten footsteps of the creature as it took off. On the other side Mike grumbled and cursed at me as he struggled to orient himself. His heavy backpack weighing him down as he floundered like an upside-down turtle. Using his momentary struggle as a distraction, I reached a foot out and kicked the rifle into the river below. I heard it clatter as it tumbled in before ending with a satisfying splash into the water. I watched as the currents picked it up, carrying it far down stream into the lake deep in the valley and wondered how many other firearms I had sent to a similar fate throughout my time here. In the distance, the footsteps of the Sasquatch became quieter, and the dark figure became drew smaller before disappearing under a ridge on the far side of the grove.
Mike got to his feet and stumbled over to the river looking across it for his would by trophy.
“What the fuck is your problem?” He said turning to face me. His face beating red. “Where did it go?”
“Where did what go?” I said sitting myself up, fighting the weight of my backpack. “Your rifle? I think it saw it fall into the river.”
Mike’s eyes grew wide. In panic he looked over the ledge into the water. “No, no, no,” he said. “No, not my baby. God dammit!” He turned to face me. Holding his arm up in a stop position. “This means stop you dumbass! You’re paying for that rife,” he pointed at me. “You hear me?”
I nodded my head feigning disappointment and shame. It wouldn’t be the first rife I’d had to pay for. A small price to pay for the protection of America’s more endangered animal. I had paid them so much by this point that I had begun to call them my dues.
“You have got to be the worst trail guide ever,” he shook his head.
Far from it. I thought. Far from it.
Thank you for reading! “The Worst Trail Guide Ever” was originally submitted to this writing prompt if you’re curious where the inspiration came from.