Nestled in the hills of West Virginia is a little town called Rachel, home to a post office, Downs United Methodist Church and my parents. During a visit in early December, I had a choice between running along the winding back roads or along the rocky defunct train tracks. I usually avoid the roads because of the narrowness and frequent blind bends. My main concern about the trail following the old train tracks was hunters; it was the height of hunting season after-all. When I expressed my concern about running along the old train rails, my mother said, “Oh they aren’t hunting along the trail.” Great! I made my decision.
As I reached the start of the trail, heading towards me in a bright, neon orange vest carrying a rifle in one hand was a bearded man. Ha! I was right and Mom was wrong! But my inner gloating was interrupted by a gunshot echoing in the air. Well, while my original worry had just been confirmed, nothing short of a giant black bear standing on the path was going to stop my momentum. I was wearing my red fleece pull-over and matching red fleece hat so even if it was an overcast dreary day, a hunter wasn’t likely to mistake me for a deer. I figured the odds were in my favor and continued to run.
Unlike most rails-to-trails, this trail was not paved; instead, it was lined with fist-sized chunks of gravel –most definitely not ideal running terrain, but if I was careful and watched my feet, I could lower my chances of twisting my ankle or falling. I ran slowly and carefully along the rough path enjoying the peace and quiet.
Eventually, I made it to the neighboring town and increased my pace. I ran along residential streets past the library, the school, and churches until I made it back to the wooded trail that would lead me back to my parent’s house. My mind was wandering ahead already –imagining a hot bath in a large claw-foot bathtub. Startling me out of my thoughts, a four-wheeler roared past me, not slowing down or seeming to care if I managed to get out of its way.
Fuming at the driver’s rudeness, I resumed running while contemplating hurling a hunk of gravel at the driver’s head. As I turned a bend in the trail, the first tingle of fear tickled my spine. Ahead of me, pulled off a little to the side was the four-wheeler and driver. My pace slowed as I considered my options. Maybe the driver was having mechanical difficulties; maybe the driver wanted to apologize for being a jerk; maybe the driver was waiting to attack me, or kidnap me!
Awareness of my vulnerable situation struck me like a red brick through a glass window, shattering the peaceful solitude and any illusions I had of safety. I was completely alone in the woods of rural West Virginia. I didn’t have my cell phone or anything to use as a weapon. On my left was the steep side of a hill and on my right was an embankment leading to a creek. If I had to, I could jump into the water to escape, but it was early December and the temperatures would be freezing. Would the driver follow me and try to drown me?
As I got closer to the four-wheeler, my heart-rate tripled and I prayed fervently that I was overreacting. I ran by and noticed a couple things about the driver: he was wearing an orange jumpsuit and a helmet with a tinted visor –well protected from pepper spray or a large rock. He didn’t acknowledge me in any way and didn’t immediately follow me. I breathed a sigh of relief and my fear subsided. Phew! It was just my overactive imagination fueled by too many crime dramas.
Or at least I thought so for a few minutes until the four-wheeler passed me again and again stopped as if to wait for me. I didn’t see any rifles or a bow, so while the driver was dressed for hunting, he didn’t appear to be actively hunting –at least not actively hunting an animal, but according to a recent episode of CSI: Miami I’d watched, men did hunt humans for sport. This time I was sure the driver was playing with me.
As I prepared to pass him for a second time –only because I had no other choice –I braced myself for whatever he might say. As a long time runner, I’ve experienced come-ons, insults and threats while running –not often and rarely intimidating, but it has happened. As I ran past him, he said nothing. His silence was more threatening than any comment I’d heard in the past.
By this point, the end of the trail was close and I ran as fast as I could until finally the trees gave way to houses. As my fear fully evaporated, I debated whether to share the experience with my family. I knew my husband would scold me. He always tells me to take my cell phone and I nearly always forget it. It wouldn’t have done me much good anyway in this situation; the driver of the four-wheeler would have finished with me or carried me off way before the police could have reached me; however, if the crime shows I watch are right, they could have tracked me through my cell phone had I actually been kidnapped; regardless, my husband was going to be a tad irate with me if I told him what had happened.
However, the upside was that this incident had succeeded in convincing me of what my husband couldn’t – running alone can be dangerous. It’s important to take precautions, like carrying a cell phone and even some pepper spray. It’s also a good idea to let someone know how long I plan to run and to map out my route so that someone knows where to look for me if I’m late.
Despite the scary episode in the backwoods of West Virginia, I’m not scared to run alone or on wooded trails, but I am smarter about safety. There are big bad wolfs out there and a girl’s got to be prepared.
I was very fortunate that nothing happened to me on that run. I’m still thanking God for protecting me. My prayers are with missing runner Sherry Arnold’s family and friends.