Picture this: [okay, maybe don’t picture it—don’t want to cause any retinal damage—but at least imagine the context] a quadragenarian woman, all decked out in slimming (ha) black sweats and three gallons of sun block, heads off into the hills at a leisurely pace. Fast-forward 40 minutes. The same quadragenarian woman exits the woods at a dead run and bursts into the middle of Kandern’s golf course with an expression a little like this one:
Here’s how it happened. There was a bit of a preamble to the actual trauma. I was climbing my usual steep (ie. lung-crushing) hill when I rounded a corner and found myself staring directly at the sun. I don’t usually walk so late in the evening, so the sun doesn’t usually greet me from that particularly blinding angle. I looked away too late, blinded by its glare. I stumbled up to the crest of the hill with black dots swimming in front of my eyes and briefly considered that the whole “Going toward the light” euphemism for death lacked a bit in practical application—blindness is not conducive to Pearly-Gate hunting.
I eventually regained my eyesight and went on my merry way, wogging to my heart’s content. In Phoenix terms, that means launching into the occasional jog only to talk myself out of it with fabricated tales of world-class athletes who have contracted grave illnesses by jogging in black forests at sunset. Or something like that. I’m easily talked out of such foolishness as exercise.
I rounded a corner (and my previous experience with the Pearly Gates should have taught me to beware of corners) and saw a silver Mercedes SUV parked in the middle of the path. A little alarm bell went off in my mind—but they’ve been going off so frequently these days that I’ve had trouble distinguishing what each of them might mean. Sometimes they’re telling me the apple crisp is nearly done baking, sometimes they’re telling me one of the members of my choir’s bass section has suddenly disappeared (and is probably taking a nap under the risers—it happens), and sometimes they’re telling me that the next pair of jeans I buy will probably be a full size larger than the last. I hate that warning bell in particular. In this case, however, I was pretty sure the warning had something to do with a more serious subject matter…like maybe the latest plot twist on Grey’s Anatomy. Just kidding.
I knew there were three possible reasons for the presence of the SUV on that remote forest road.
- A couple had wanted to find a little privacy and had driven into the woods.
- A local forest caretaker was out checking for downed trees…and had apparently saved up enough money doing so to afford a Mercedes. (I’ve got to change careers.)
- Someone evil was about to jump out of the underbrush, force me into the car, and drive me to his Batman cave. Or in this case, his Badman cave.
I considered my options only briefly before executing a neat turn and heading back the way I’d come. That’s when the crack of a gunshot split the air. Its soundwaves ricocheted through the valleys and hills around Riedlingen as rapidly as Collin’s flat stones in the Kandern stream. I swear to you it felt like the shot had gone off inside my head. Birds careened out of the woods, rabbits dove for cover, and I’m pretty sure a deer pooped. I nearly did too. Picture the previously-mentioned quadragenarian (that’s forty-year old, for those of you who are vocabulary challenged) picking up her pace considerably, with no regard for earlier tales about world-class athletes and mysterious diseases. I walked briskly, not daring to look behind me, lest Badman think I was running, which might have implied that I’d witnessed whatever crime he had just committed.
My heart was just beginning to slow to an only-mildly-dangerous rate (as opposed to the “There she blows!” coronary zone it had recently occupied, to borrow a line from Moby Dick) when I heard a car engine coming. I looked frantically around. To my right was an impenetrable, steep incline covered in thick brush. To my left was an impenetrable, steep decline covered in thick brush. In front of me was a long, narrow path that made me an easy target for Badman and his army of Whatevers. I started to run. I ran like Forest Gump on crack. I ran like the Road Runner on speed. I ran like a Porsche on the German autobahn, like Harry Potter on his broomstick, like Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. I ran so fast and so determinedly that I thought I’d be able to outrun the SUV. Wrong.
The engine sound drew nearer and there was still no possible escape route from the tunnel-path I was on. To tell you the truth, this is when some real panic began to set in. I felt it burning in my muscles. I was out in the woods—alone—being approached by an SUV that had most recently been spotted in the near vicinity of a shotgun blast. The SUV passed me. “Keep going, keep going, keep going…” My brain was hoping the car would sense its signals and just drive on by without stopping. A few yards ahead of me, the Mercedes blatantly disregarded my brain’s instructions and came to a full stop. I had no place to run. The sides of the path were still too thick with shrubs to get through them.
I tried to assume a casual gait and expression (like Bambi looking casual while the forest fire bore down his mom…sure…) and gripped my two would-be weapons more tightly. In my left had was a broken umbrella. A pink one. Very little intimidation value there. But the broken metallic pieces jutting out of it might do a teensy bit of damage if I could wield them like Jet Li in a martial arts movie. In my right hand were my keys. I readied the sharpest one for whatever eye-poking lay ahead and kept walking on stiff, traumatized legs.
Please believe that what I am about to write is absolutely true. The SUV stopped, the door opened, and a tall, trim man dressed in grey-toned camouflage and CARRYING A RIFLE got out of it.
My brain turned inside out. My heart shriveled to the size of a pea. I don’t know if it was the lack of oxygen to my synapses (exercise is harmful) or the time of night or the level of stress I’ve been under lately, but I truly believed my life was in jeopardy. And I swear to you that I prepared myself to die. My first thought was “Jesus, help me”–it wasn’t a prayer for safety (I figured that ship had already sailed), but a prayer for courage to face the violence ahead. I hoped God would also understand that I preferred a quick murder to a protracted one, and that He’d make my passing swift. My second thought was for my students. I really, honestly thought, “Wait—they’re prepared for the whole cancer thing, but I don’t think they’d do so well if Miss Phi Phi were found murdered three days after she disappeared on a self-inflicted walk. And Collin would never forgive himself for ruining my favorite rubber gloves after school today by filling them with water for who knows what reason…” I really did think of Collin and my rubber gloves. How odd is that?
I had to keep walking—mostly because the only other option was to turn and bolt back up the hill, screaming like a banshee. Or a missionary afeared for her life! I managed a tight “Abend” (good evening) as I passed within three feet of the rifle-toting Badman. His license plate read LO GI 400. I made a mental note of it in case I’d have to whisper it into somebody’s ear with my dying breath while blood gurgled out of the side of my mouth. I tried really hard to listen for his footsteps following me, but my pulse was pounding too loudly in my ears for me to hear anything at all. The path turned and led me back toward him, though several yards below where the SUV was parked, and I pictured him using me for target practice, trying to get a good shot off between the trees separating us. I broke into a run again, hoping to throw off his aim, and ran like a mad woman until I saw a small path off to my right that seemed to lead out of the woods and onto the golf course. I beat every sprint record I have ever set during those final few meters to freedom, including the 1985 record I set in pursuit of Tillmann Schmoll. (Terrible name; Adonis boy.)
Three golfers who were just finishing up their game saw me bursting out of the foliage and came to my rescue with the zeal and forthrightness only Germans can muster under such dire circumstances. They raised an eyebrow and went back to swatting at little white balls. Me? I tried to calm my heart and return some substance to my jello-ey legs while the aftershocks of panic coursed through my veins. As I walked home with adrenaline still pinging in my head, I wondered what a man with a rifle would be doing shooting in the woods this long after hunting season had ended and so close to a traveled path, I plotted the next chapter of my very own suspense novel (maybe the newspapers will run a story in the next couple of days about some dastardly deed that happened in the woods!), and I thanked my guardian angels for whatever they’d had to do to get me away from Badman and his army of Whatevers.