As a kid I went to summer camp every year in the mountains of western North Carolina, near Asheville and Pisgah National Forrest. Beginning at age 12, campers have the option of going on a three week outing in the wilderness, typically along the southern half of the Appalachian Trail, rather than living on the summer camp grounds. When I was 13 my best friend from home, who had never attended the camp before, was sent with me on one of these treks at the behest of his Mother. He was initially reluctant to enjoy himself because he was a young surly teenager. But gradually he got into spirit of the trip through the legitimately fun hiking, paddling, and climbing activities, and hanging out with the three young 20-something counselors who were our trip leaders.

About half way through the trip we were hiking a remote section of the AT that required us to be away from any small towns, or even formal campsites, for about a 4 day period. On this hike we slept under open tarps suspended from trees, rather than in tents, because tarps require less material to carry. This meant you could come and go from the shelter of the tarp at night without disturbing your fellow campers. It also meant that there was no barrier between you and whatever was out in the woods. There were four boys in my tarp, including my best friend. On the second night of this hike we made camp in a small clearing about 100 feet off the trail.

At around 4am, our entire group was awoken in pitch blackness to the sound of my best friend, violently screaming our names from somewhere out in the woods. I will never forget the terrified urgency in his voice. Obviously all of the campers were terrified as well. As we listened to him screaming, some of my fellow campers began to cry. The counselors told us to remain calm, and began responding to his screams, telling him to stay where he was, and that they would come find him through call and response. Essentially it was a terrifying game of Marco Polo in the wilderness at night. After about 15 minutes they were able to track him down about 300 yards from the perimeter of the campsite, and walk him back to us. When he arrived back at the campsite he was clearly traumatized, shivering, and carrying his sleeping bag. His face was pale white in the lantern light, and carried a look of horror mixed with bewilderment and suspicion. At this point no one was going back to sleep.

As the sun slowly came up, he explained to us that he had awoken in his sleeping bag, lying on the ground, in the middle of the forest, unable to see anything around him. He quickly realized that he was not under the tarp, as none of the rest of us were sleeping next to him. Interestingly, the first thing he did was get out of his sleeping bag, stand up, and go pee. After relieving himself, it dawned on him that he was completely alone and exposed in the dark, he had no idea where he was, how far he was from the campsite, or how he had gotten there. He said he began quietly calling out my name, the names of our fellow campers and the name of our camp. When he got no response he realized he must be a significant distance away from the campsite. Over the course of almost two hours he wandered around groping in the dark, gradually increasing the pitch and volume of his calls to no response, until finally his panicked screams woke us up. To this day I cannot imagine the terror going through the mind of a 13 year old in this situation.

After telling his story, he was convinced that the counselors or some of us campers had played a prank on him by carrying him in his sleeping bag out into the woods and leaving him there. He demanded that someone admit to what they had done. Everyone swore that they would never do something so reckless and cruel. Clearly this was not a funny situation. After talking him down, we all resolved that he must have sleep walked, or sleepily wandered away from the campsite, perhaps looking for a place to pee, and got back into his sleeping bag. This was the most logical explanation after all. He eventually said he accepted this explanation, even though he insisted that he had never sleep walked in his life. Deep down, I knew he still suspected that we were all fucking with him. The only bit that none of us could explain was the three-square inch patch of missing hair that had appeared on his leg overnight.

P.S. My friend and I ended up going to different high schools, and lost touch over the years. Interestingly enough, I do know that he ended up working with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) leading young people on expeditions much like the one we took when we were 13. I believe it is a happy resolution that he was not traumatized enough to never go into the woods again. Although, I do sometimes wonder if he ever considers playing a really good prank on his students.