The bad thing about heartbeats (really, the only bad thing) is that, on a quiet night, they sound like footsteps. As your heart thumps louder and faster, the footsteps pick up the pace, coming closer, until it sounds like someone is running full-tilt toward your bed. I discovered this phenomenon as a child, cowering under my floral sheets as my heart drummed a panicked rhythm. The only way to break the vicious cycle was to shoot my hand out of the safety of the covers, switch on the bedroom light, and warily survey the room.
I didn’t have a light switch tonight. I didn’t have much, actually. The blackest night I’d ever encountered had effectively erased all my belongings from this earth, leaving me with just three possessions: a quickening heartbeat, a nearly dead headlamp, and the sleeping bag I was curled inside of. The rest of the world, for all I knew, didn’t exist. Except for the mysterious person who kept running toward my tent but never reached it.
It was going to be a long night in Tennessee.
It had been a long day, too, fumbling with the Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail and feeling chronically lost. Since beginning my bike tour in Oregon, I’d been spoiled by the Adventure Cycling Association’s touring maps. The new guide book wasn’t so easy to follow. I’d ridden 80 miles that day to Fort Pillow Campground, nestled near the Mississippi River in Tennessee. And I’d taken a couple of wrong turns.
By the time I found my way into the campground, it was getting dark. I used the last of my night vision to scan the campsites. They looked abandoned. There wasn’t a soul around, and no sign of a campground host.
The darkness thickened, unlike anything I’d experienced on the trip so far. The sky was flat black, with not a single star or sliver of moon showing anywhere. There were no cities nearby to offer a bit of urban glow. There was nothing but blackness. I pulled out my headlamp and discovered that the batteries were dying, its feeble glow barely illuminating my hand in front of my face. I hadn’t yet selected a campsite, and now I couldn’t see well enough to know where they were located. So I put my tent together as quickly as I could, hunched over each piece and squinting like it was a cross stitch project.
It was dark enough that my imagination began to play tricks. Phantoms boiled in the inky blackness, and turning to shine my wimpy headlamp on them did absolutely nothing to prove they weren’t there. The air was so still and quiet that an ant rustling a leaf on the other side of the campsite made me jump like it was a gunshot. I realized I was shaking. Panic tightened my throat.
I hated this. Why had I failed to get new batteries for this headlamp? Was it so hard to buy a couple of batteries from a gas station? Was I really so busy, riding my bike across the country? I had one job, one mission: to keep myself safe. And, apparently, I sucked at it.
I felt utterly, oppressively alone. Other than the weight of the headlamp in my hand and the texture of my sleeping bag beneath my butt, I might as well have been floating in a black void. I sat cross-legged and blind in my tent, and began to cry. My sobs sounded like hideous strangling noises in the stillness. “Dang it,” I blubbered, smacking myself in the face as I tried to dry my eyes. All the people who’d told me they were proud of me, and that I was brave … I wished they could see me now.
A twig cracked in the darkness. My head turned to the noise, my eyes wide and unseeing. I sat, waiting. My heart thumped loudly. Was it really footsteps this time? I debated turning on my feeble headlamp.
It’s probably an armadillo.
Another twig cracked, a little closer.
A really cute, little armadillo!
My body coursed with adrenaline, and I could feel my stomach spasm in fear. My shaking hand unzipped the tent door, and I peered out. It was just as solidly black outside, warm and still. There was no hint of breeze. My hands felt numb, and although my mind felt wide awake and painfully sharp, I couldn’t think clearly. “This is dumb,” I said aloud. And then, sitting cross-legged in my tiny tent, I began to sing.
Then put on your reading helmet.
I sang anything. Anything that didn’t sound creepy in the pitch black. Children’s lullabies were an absolute no-no, since they sounded like something straight out of a horror film before the ghost appears. Songs by Queen were great. “I want to ride my bi-CYCLE, I want to ride my BIKE!” I yelled. Leaves crunched, twigs snapped, but instead of picturing scary people sneaking up on me, I pictured my caterwauling clearing the campsite of creatures. “I want to ride my bi-CYCLE, I want to ride it where I LIKE!” Snakes, armadillos, and large insects were all scuttling away, their beady eyes wincing at the mangled lyrics and off-key notes. My song was like a force field, pushing them away.
I was making a real spectacle of myself. I dearly hoped there wasn’t a tentful of fellow campers nearby trying to sleep. In the blackness, I could’ve missed something like that.
But no one, I was sure, would be bothering me tonight.