It was Thanksgiving Day, and nearly 50 degrees in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The snow from a recent storm/cold snap was melting, and we had nothing on the docket but enjoying the outdoors. We drove down to Los Alamos to hike and stopped at Tsankawi, an ancestral pueblo village, that’s part of Bandelier National Monument, where we walked, heel to toe, along narrow foot paths and rocky ridges, climbing ladders to reach new heights and beautiful vista views.
There were few others along the 1.5-mile trail. We passed one older couple, greeting them as they ushered us ahead, and for at least a half hour, it felt as though we had the whole dwelling to ourselves. Neil walked a bit ahead of me, as we made our way across the slippery, ice-filled ground. But eventually, he slowed down because there was a man ahead of him who was walking/scrambling/scooting over the rocks and ice quite slowly. With such a narrow path, it’s impossible to pass anyone unless they want you to.
We came to a large rock with a ladder attached to it. This was where we’d climbed up, earlier, coming up the trail, and now it’s where we had to go down. Except there was one problem: the man was standing with his back to the ladder. Staring at us.
We busied ourselves. I walked over to the opposite side of the rock and looked down. Neil followed me. There had been one ladder we’d climbed where we had the option of scrambling up rocks instead.
“Is this the one that had the alternate route?” I asked Neil, loudly.
“No,” said Neil, just as loud, gazing at the ground 10 feet below. “We’ve got to take the ladder!”
We both looked at the guy, who then turned and, backwards, descended the ladder. We followed.
By now, we were about 100 yards from our car. It was the home stretch. But an inherently creepy feeling had settled in. I found myself looking at the man with a whole new scrutiny, trying to judge whether or not that creepy feeling was justified. He seemed to tilt to the side when he walked. Had a bit of a twitch. And he was making a pretty dedicated effort to maintain our same pace.
To our right, the bathrooms appeared and Neil announced that he was going to use the men’s room. I turned at the same time, planning to use the women’s room. The guy overheard us, and was now walking, double time, to get to there first. “Please let this be a single-room bathroom with a locking door,” I’m thinking to myself, worried, at this point, about the guy following Neil into the bathroom.
Time seemed to slow as the guy craned his neck while walking past and looked at me anxiously. I felt my hairs raise. That’s when I noticed that he was heading straight ahead, towards the women’s bathroom. I threw out my hand towards the bathroom in “be my guest” fashion, and said, “Go ahead.” I’m not sure the invitation mattered.
Neil finished up and came out, and I traded places with him. I could hear, next door, that the guy was no longer peeing, but I didn’t hear the door open. I dried my hands and when I opened my door, he walked out of the women’s bathroom at the same time. Neil and I gave one another a look. At this point, we’d been within 10 feet of this guy for about the last half hour, but no words had been exchanged. We both wanted out of there.
We were closing in on the cars, so I started to jog along the path. Neil followed my lead, pretending to be a monster and faux chasing me (this is not out of character, actually). We got to the parking lot’s thigh-high post. Neil hopped it with ease, as I climbed over more slowly. I swear I felt someone breathing down my neck right then. My cheeks flushed in annoyance, and I actually stopped myself from turning around and saying, “Back the fuck off.”
But I figured, we’re here. Our car is within sight. It’s over. Right?
We walked through the parking lot, which is right next to the highway. We weren’t the only ones there. There was a car backing out in front of us, and another woman getting into her car a little further ahead. By all means, we should have started feeling safer now. But we didn’t. Because our car was last in the parking lot, and as we passed one car after another, the guy was still following us.
Until there were no cars left.
I was feeling pure adrenalin as I quickened my step towards the car. “Open the door, open the door,” I was trying to beam the message to Neil, who was holding the keys. He was on the same wavelength, and we both opened our doors in one quick swoop. As we both sat down, we went to lock the doors. That’s when the back door opened. And the man climbed in. And the man sat down.
We both turned around and start screaming, each with our own flair.
“Get the fuck out!” yelled Neil.
“Sir, you do not belong here!” I screamed, having no idea where the politeness came from. “Get out of the car, sir!”
And, thank god, he listened. He looked scared, in fact, and opened the door and got out. He stood next to the car with his hands in his pockets, like he’d just been scolded, and he paced. Neil and I locked the doors and looked at each other. “Did that just happen?” We tried to catch our collective breath.
Neil backed the car up a bit, ready to go, but waited, to make sure that the guy didn’t try to get into anyone else’s car. After a few minutes, I told him I thought we were ok to leave, and we pulled away. It’s all we talked about for the next few hours, and, in hindsight, we start putting things together. Like the realization that, being stuck behind the guy for so long, we’d actually had quite a while to study him: fair skin, long sleeve t-shirt and dad-style jeans, glasses.
In fact, in looking back, it seemed odd that he wouldn’t just stop to let us pass. We were carrying out a conversation at a normal tone, which, in the middle of the high desert, can come across quite loudly. It was as though he was following us, from the front.
Then there was the way that he’d waited in the bathroom. The realization that he’d actually run, following us, to the parking lot. The shock that a total and complete stranger got in our car with us and we couldn’t stop him.
And the relief that nothing actually happened.
I have no idea how you’re supposed to act in that situation. When do you decide to trust your instinct that something’s not right? On the trail? At the ladder? The bathroom? Even then, what’s next?
It actually makes me sad to think back to the image of the guy standing there, hands in pockets, pacing, like we’d scolded him. Clearly, his reality is different from ours. Things make sense to him in a different manner than they make sense to us.
In my gut, I don’t think he’d had any intent to harm us. But you never know, do you?
We ended up going on another hike after driving away from there. After the jitters left (well, most of them), Neil wondered if we should have called 911 and reported it, more for the guy’s sake, than for ours. I said I thought we did the right thing. I hate the idea of being responsible for a guy–who, ultimately, did nothing but really, really freak us out–getting locked up, or who knows what.
But there are two sides to every story.
What would you have done?