Alone on the Trail

I arrived home last weekend from a writers’ retreat to the unsettling news that a woman had been assaulted on our Tennessee Central Heritage Rail Trail. Thankfully, she suffered only minor injuries and the perpetrator was quickly caught. Wow. The same thing could just as easily have happened to me in Harrogate, Tennessee.

The fog hadn’t yet burned off the mountain when I set off one morning on a solo walk along the paved pedestrian path that leads past Lincoln Memorial University, which was hosting the retreat. On the arched wooden bridge that spans Highway 25E, I paused to look down at the never-ending stream of cars and trucks and eighteen wheelers whining below me. Then I came to the peaceful part of the trail.

The elementary school on my right was deserted on this summer morning. To my left was a wide swath of vegetation—a tangle of trees and shrubs in endless variety. Rabbits were everywhere. Chigger weed and chicory bloomed in full glory while the last of the ox-eye daisies withered away. Blackberry vines were heavy with fruit, all of it too red to eat, and suddenly I wanted a ripe blackberry more than anything in the world.

Fifty yards ahead of me on the trail was a man wearing a ball cap and blue jeans and a blaze orange t-shirt. He was meandering, not power walking as I was, and I would soon overtake him. The man was tall and lean, his tanned arms roped with muscle. We were the only two people in sight. I wondered if I should turn and walk the other way.

Unbidden came memories of Ray Bradbury’s 1950 short story “The Whole Town’s Sleeping.” It scared me to death when I read it for the first time as a ninth grader and it scares me to death still. But I had my cell phone in hand and was wearing a good pair of Nikes. Surely I could call 911 before this man could do me harm. Or outrun him. Just because he was tall didn’t mean he was fast. I passed the man on his left and started to say “Good Morning,” but he turned his head as though studying something on the side of the trail. So I walked on in silence.

Straight ahead was the Rails-to-Trails pedestrian tunnel that leads to the little town of Cumberland Gap. It’s about a quarter-mile long, muddy and dimly lit. I’d been through the tunnel a few times in the past, but never without a companion. Even then, it was creepy. VIDEO SURVEILLANCE IN USE, the sign at the entrance said. That wasn’t enough to shore up my courage. The man with ropey arm muscles wasn’t far behind me, so I turned around and began hoofing it toward campus, not speaking nor looking him in the eye as I hurried past.

A woman traveling a trail alone can’t be too careful.

(June 25, 2017)