Wilderness Park on the outskirts of Lincoln consists of 14 miles of hiker/biker trails on either side of meandering Salt creek (or as I call it, the crick).
For the many kids who have passed through my life, Wilderness was a great place of entertainment. In the winter, we used to cross-country ski out there, and when the crick was frozen solid, we often went ice-skating up and down the winding ice way. In my time, I have rode horses through there, canoed down Salt Creek during spring flooding, and spent many winter nights hunkered down beside a fire out in the middle of those woods.
One spring day while hiking out there to a fort we’d built out of branches, my foster son, Chad, and I heard a high-pitched yelping coming form some distance ahead of us. We took off running down the trail and soon came to the old railroad bridge spanning the creek. There, just on the other side, were two men who appeared to be beating on a poor dog sprawled at their feet.
The poor dog was yelping and thrashing around, his leg trapped in a steel trap as the two men were frantically trying to free it from its jaws.
Chad and I ran across the old railroad bridge and went to help the two guys. Both were crying and totally out of control. I told them to calm down and to back away from the dog so it could settle down. I then tossed Chad my gloves and said, “Put these on and try not to get bit when you grab the dog!”
Chad nodded at me and slipped on my rather thick gloves. He then kneeled down and grabbed the dog by his shoulders, pinning it to the ground. I kneeled down, studied the poor dog’s leg, and reached down to pry the trap open. Chad immediately pulled the dog’s leg out from between the pincer-like jaws of the now opened trap. The dog stopped yelping and went limp in his grasp. One of the men scooped up the bleeding dog, while the other wrapped its leg with his shirt. They then both ran off down the trail, without even glancing back to say, “Thanks for your help.”
Chad grinned and said, “Well how do you like that? We just saved their dog and they didn’t say one word to us!”
“I bet the dog would have,” I said. “He probably had better manners than his masters.”
We walked on to the fort where we had a fire and I shared a new story with Chad. Long after dark, we poured our thermos bottles filled with water on the dying fire, and proceeded to walk out of the woods.
As we neared the old railroad bridge, a strange, high-pitched screaming came from the deep woods behind us. Both of us being armed with walking sticks, spun around and brought our sticks up into defensive positions.
It then came again, sounding closer this time.
I whispered, “What the hell is that?”
“A lady,” Chad gasped. “Sounds like a lady screaming!”
It came again, over to our left and definitely closer this time. Chad moved behind me. I glanced back and smirked, “O, Brave One, who will stand in the gap beside me, right?”
Chad wasn’t smiling. He was peering hard into the darkness. He took two steps closer to me, but did not join me on the trail, leaving me to face whatever was coming first. I raised my stick and prepared to launch an attack on whatever came charging out of the darkness.
We waited. Our hearts beating wildly. Vapor trails leaked from our lips. The night air was nippy. A low wind had picked up, and then the sound came again. Closer this time, and definitely closing the gap between us. I forced myself to say, “Chad, stay behind me and whatever happens, don’t run!”
Chad reached out and silently placed a hand on my shoulder. He squeezed hard to acknowledge my sound advice, and stayed glued to the spot directly behind me.
I let out my breath in an explosion of slight relief as the scream came again, farther away instead of closer to us. It was then gone.
We must have stood there for another ten minutes, trying to decide if we should take to the railroad tracks to get out of there, or if we should cross the tracks and cut through the old archery range to take a short-cut back to the truck. It took a while for us to move.
We were both shaken by the mysterious noise, and we still had no clue what it had been.
Only after we reached the safety of the truck, did I share with Chad what I thought it was. “Remember last year up in North Omaha,” I said as we peered out through the windshield into the dark trees beyond the truck. “State troopers shot and killed two mountain lions that had walked right into the city. They say mountain lions scream like that, although what a mountain lion was doing this close to Lincoln, I have no idea.”
“Maybe,” Chad said, “it was someone’s pet that escaped from its pen. I heard some guy had a mountain lion in a cage out by Pioneer’s Park. Maybe it escaped and was looking for a meal.”
“Well,” I said as I started up the truck, “at least we ain’t gonna be its dinner tonight. But that was sure creepy.”
Another creepy experience happened a few months later out there at Wilderness.
Chad and I had hiked all the way down to Saltillo Road, which is where Wilderness Park begins. As we rounded the bend, some guy dressed in blue clothing came stumbling out of the woods, soaking wet from his neck down to this toes.
He was a big, burly guy and he joined us on the trail, winded from what had obviously been a long run or a long swim. He grinned at us and said, “Ah, the water is great! I just had me a swim in that creek!”
I knew he was an escaped con from the prison 14 miles down the trail, but I wasn’t letting on that I knew that, and then Chad asked, “You were swimming in Salt Creek? Where did you start from?”
Now I knew where the guy had started from and he knew that I knew that, but rather than demand that I hand over my keys so that he could complete his escape, he shrugged and said, “Hot day. A good day to go swimming in the creek. See you around.”
He then faded off into the woods, leaving Chad and I to stare at the place he’d just been.
A few minutes later, I drove us to the Acreage, a small country store at the edge of Wilderness Park. There I phoned the State Pen. and I talked to a captain there to report his missing convict.
An hour later when I called back to check the status of the escaped con, the captain laughed and said, “Yeah, thanks to you we caught that sum bitch!”
Two months later, we were crossing at the Horse Crossing, a regular spot for horses to cross the creek, when out of the woods came four guards and two dogs. The four men looked at us, then one of them used his walkie-talkie and said, “False alarm! It’s not him! Just two other people walking through the woods!”
The guards and their two dogs then went rushing off into the woods, leaving us wondering who they were after this time.
That next fall, we made another trip deep into Wilderness long after dark.
Chad and I had invited my biker friend, Ben, along that night. Earlier that day, I had heard that two escapees had jumped fourteen feet to the ground on the far side of a razor-wire fence out at the State Pen. One guy had broken his ankle and been caught right away, the other guy was still at large.
As we neared the old railroad bridge, we heard a moan of pain on the trail above us. Like soldiers out of an old war movie, the three of us immediately fell into position. Chad drifted back behind me, his wide eyes on the moonlit trail above us. Ben took up his walking stick and faced behind us, while I took point, my own walking stick raised as I faced the trail winding down to us from the rise of the old railroad bridge.
We were freaked out but ready to fight if the need arose.
The pain-filled groan came again. It was a sound that caused the hair on my neck to rise. My gut clenched up. I couldn’t believe I had walked us into yet another dangerous encounter at Wilderness Park. As I stood there, I vowed to never travel into the park again after dark.
We waited for a long while, all the time listening to this guy’s pain-filled moans of anguish, and we froze. For he seemed to be moving directly down the trail where we stood.
Ben took point with me. Chad faded into the shadows directly behind me. “Should we run?” he whispered. “Should we just get out of here?”
I simply shook my head and said, “No, we face whoever comes down this trail!”
It was those words that caused the unseen phantom to stop. Gravel scurried down the trail toward us. We knew he stood in the darkness directly above us. He knew we were there below him, planted on the trail. We were at an impasse.
He had to go through us to continue down the trail. We either had to turn tail and run, or stand our ground and face him as he approached us from the upper trail.
He then shuffled about, sending more gravel down our way. He then let out a moan and started back up the trail.
I glanced back at Chad, then looked to Ben and said, “Time to go.”
We then backed down the trail, our walking sticks held before us.
One more encounter like that did I have on my many trips to Wilderness Park.
And this by far, was the spookiest yet.
I was out there all alone, walking down the trail, walking stick in my hand. It was bright daylight and I was leaving for the day when this ape-like figure appeared about fifty yards away from me out of the trees.
He had long blond hair and a beard and he was solidly built. He looked at me. I looked at him. And he made a threatening gesture with both massive fists.
For a moment, I froze, not knowing what he intended. I knew immediately he was an escaped con from the State Pen. What I didn’t know is, what he intended to do.
He actually growled at me, his long arms hanging to his sides. He then took two steps forward.
I swung my walking stick up and over my head as if it were a sword. I then brought it down, whooshing through the air, and completed a stroke meant to hack off his head.
It stopped him in his tracks, and he stared coldly at me and then slowly backed away. I stood there, my walking stick held before me like a sword, and watched him skulking back into the thick tree line until he disappeared.
I walked out there, feeling his cold, dead eyes on me all the way, and as I reached the edge of the meadow where he’d first appeared, I raised my walking stick and made a triumphant gesture.
I then walked swiftly back to my truck and drove away, wondering what that encounter had been all about.
Even as I write this, I want to say, “Believe it or not,” but I know this actually happened.
Every one of my most recent stories have been a part of my life, and I can only wonder what will top them.
As wild as my imagination is, I can’t make this stuff up.