Epilogue – On Kelly’s Pond
I began writing Monster Hike the day after I returned to Austin. It spilled out of me quickly, and in six months I had a draft. For six more months I edited and rewrote it and proofed it again and again, cutting this and adding that, until it felt truly finished. To my surprise, I found a willing publisher almost immediately, and by mid-November — almost exactly a year since I had finished the hike — the book was out.But much had changed in that year.
For ten months, Donald Trump had been president. That was one change.
Another World Series had come and gone, and this time it was none other than the Houston Astros who had prevailed in another thrilling seven-game series, against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Houston had needed that lift, as much of the region had been submerged for weeks in August and September by Hurricane Harvey. Great swaths of Sam Houston National Forest had been shut down by the historic deluge, and as winter approached, the hiking and multi-use trails were being reopened little by little as they dried out and became passable.
In doing research for my book, specifically about fatalities or missing persons reports within SHNF, I had come across a harrowing account from May 2017, six months after my hike. A toddler had gone missing at Stubblefield Campground. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I mumbled to myself as I read the online article, of course thinking of Bob Garrett’s story in which a sasquatch apparently reached into a tent to try to snatch a small girl. All of East Texas was braced for a tragic end to the story, but little Ezra was found in a briar thicket about four hundred yards from camp twenty-four hours after he’d wandered away. He was a little scratched up and thirsty but otherwise fine. The detail that caught my eye from the news accounts of that episode was that an unspecified agency was en route in helicopters with thermal cameras that they just happen to have at the ready, which might detect the boy’s heat signature. They were not the ones who found Ezra, but rather an aunt who had flown to Houston that day from California to join the search.
• • •
I had not been back to Sam Houston National Forest since the Monster Hike — too busy writing and enjoying the privileges of fatherhood. But I had wanted to go back. Of course I did.
Thinking about bigfoots so much while writing the book had made me skittish about going back, and it was time to “get back on that horse” with regard to camping and hiking, and perhaps to check the final box of my investigation — to see one. Since the book published, I was now “out” as a sasquatch believer, and most every conversation started with, “Have you seen one?”
“Well, no I haven’t seen one, but I’ve heard them.” Cue look of skepticism. “And I’ve found tracks.” Cue more skepticism. I wanted to be able to just say, “Yes, I’ve seen one!” Maybe this would be the trip.
Wade messaged to see if we could reinstate our New Year’s camping tradition after a year off. We could go back to Sam Houston — nearly two years to the day since the “Knock-knock, who’s there?” episode, just for a one-nighter.
Yeah, that sounded good.
Wade left it to me to determine where we would camp and hike, and I perused maps for areas with trail loops and primitive camps I had not been to before.
As I’ve said, when you are within their range, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to where you might see one. Could be six miles in and a thousand yards off the trail, or it could be a parking lot, or crossing the highway, or walking over the lake on a bridge. Going into remote areas within their range doesn’t seem to increase your odds, according to the sighting reports.
Indeed, there was one spot that seemed to be particularly “hot,” and that place was not remote but rather one of just three developed campgrounds in the forest, Kelly’s Pond.
At sunrise on New Year’s Day, 2018, we rendezvoused at my house. There was a dusting of rare snow on my windshield. The forecast called for a low of 21 degrees that night. As we were car camping and not backpacking, we loaded the bed of my truck with the dutch oven, my homemade plywood chuck box, camp chairs, firewood, and anything else we deemed useful. Wade, having read my book, this time took his 12-gauge shotgun, and a 9mm Glock pistol for good measure.
The mile-long dirt road leading to the pond was lined with pullouts, and to our surprise every third or fourth one was occupied by a vehicle. Some had pop-up campers, some tents, some were just cars with tarps staked beside them. One of the sites was occupied only by a plain white van with a dent in the side. “Why don’t they just put a vinyl wrap on that thing with ‘pedophile’ in all caps?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Wade replied, “you know that guy’s wearing a clown costume.”
The dirt road passed through an open gate, and inside was a beautiful clearing next to two large ponds, collectively “Kelly’s Pond.” Eight concrete picnic tables, liberally spaced, adorned a gentle grassy slope north of the pond.
There appeared to be just two parties within the campground, which was two more than we expected for a night forecast to be 21 degrees. The first we came to was a large RV, a 36-foot Rexhall Rexair, with a car parked next to it. Every such campground has a park host, and I took this to be the one assigned to Kelly’s Pond. Leaving Wade to scout the best campsite, I approached the RV and knocked softly on the door.
A woman in her twenties with hair dyed pink and gray answered the door.
“ ’morning,” I said. “Are you the park host?”
“Nope.” She smiled. “We’re just boondocking — boondocking across the country.” I was not familiar with this term. She descended the metal stairs and explained in friendly tones that there was no host, and that they had arrived three days earlier. Soon, another Millennial appeared behind her in the doorway and likewise came out to visit. This one had blue hair, tattoos down both shoulders and a nose ring that protruded down and out of both nostrils. The free-spirited couple, River and Carrie, respectively, were nomads, motoring across America, camping and making money by doing search engine optimization and other freelance drivers of internet business wherever they could connect to wifi.
From the rearview mirror of the car parked next to the RV hung what appeared to be a sasquatch air freshener. “I like your air freshener,” I said, motioning to the cardboard bigfoot dangling beneath the mirror.
“Oh, thanks!” said Carrie. A few months of promoting my book had left me much less coy about broaching the subject, and I forged ahead. “Have you all seen or heard anything out here?” They had not. But they had also been sealed up in the Rexair every night. I told them about the book. Carrie said they had an Instagram following of 5,000. “I can post about it,” she volunteered.
Wade had settled on a site, and I left Carrie and River so I could help him pitch camp. It was about one hundred feet from the campground’s other visitor, who had set up his or her two-man tent not at an established site with a picnic table but right next to the pond. It was a great comfort to see that campsite, someone having such a laid-back time, just fishing and “kickin’ it” by this serene pond surrounded on three sides by miles of open forest. That site was the very picture of relaxation.
After Wade and I had set up camp, we decided to go for a hike, something modest, maybe three miles out and back. We divested ourselves of all unnecessary weight but kept cameras and water at the ready and set out to the north along the Kelly’s Pond Trail. We navigated past several muddy sections in single file, and eventually we crossed Highway 1375. Then we decided that was enough and headed back to camp. On our way back, a half mile or so from our sight, we decided to veer off the trail and just sit in silence and see what the forest would show us. It was peaceful, and uneventful.
Back at camp, the short afternoon of midwinter told us it was time to get to cooking. In my dutch oven, we fried a pound of ground beef, then stirred in a tub of mashed potatoes, a package of corn, and gravy, then scooped it out into our mess kits over and over until we couldn’t contain another bite.
Glancing at the tent by the pond, we wondered what sort of hike the resident had gone on and when we would see him arriving back in camp.
Now the sun had dipped below the trees, and I talked Wade into taking a walk around pond before we turned in. As we passed near to the other tent, I noticed a couple of towels a few yards from it, and a pair of flip-flops, as if he or she had been sunbathing.
We walked around the pond counter-clockwise, staring into an endless forest to our south, and ended up near the Rexhall Rexair. The young ladies had a healthy fire going, and we stood there in the dusk and falling temperature and chatted with them.
One thing led to another, and before we knew it, we were again talking about bigfoot. Carrie said she had read a comment on a Sasquatch Chronicles message board that indicated the location of the Torn-Up Camp. I always figured it was somewhere on Lake Conroe, but that is a huge shoreline, and certain follow-up videos that I remember showing the water had either been removed from YouTube or edited to remove the geographic clues.
But Carrie told us where the campsite was claimed to be, and I figured we would swing past it on our way back to Austin in the morning. Frankly, it freaked me out a little that the purported ‘Torn-Up Camp’ was quite this close to where we just had raised our tent.
We talked a lot about the Bob Garrett school of research out here. “Obviously, I believe most of what he claims,” I said. “I do wonder sometimes why all the helicopters in these stories are Blackhawks. That’s such a conspiracy theory cliché.” Carrie and River and Wade laughed in agreement. “Always Blackhawks!”
“So,” I said at length, “I wonder where that guy is in that tent over there by the pond?”
“Oh, that?” said Carrie, “we haven’t seen anyone over there since we got here, three days ago.”
It wasn’t until that moment that it finally sunk in that there were no cars at that campsite. What’s more, this was definitely not a backpacker. This was a car camper; he had driven in. The tent was one of a car camper. The stove was not a backpacking stove. The overturned chair was a camp chair, not a backpacking stool or hiking chair. This was someone who had left everything precisely where it was, gotten in his car and driven away. At least three days ago. This was an abandoned camp.
Did Bob Garrett not say, “We find this thing kind of thing [abandoned camps] all the time out there”? Three in the same area as the Torn-up Camp? Four hundred dollar cabin tents, just left … people just driving off with their stuff everywhere, abandoned in an instant?
The comfort that the pondside campsite had been to us only minutes earlier now morphed into a sickening dread. What had he or she seen those days ago, when the forest was warm enough for flip-flops and sunbathing? What had burst from among the yaupons? What had he caught sight of while fishing, and summarily decided to put down his fishing rod or stew pot, run to his car leaving his flip-flops right where they were, crank the engine, and never look back?
We had talked to River and Carrie until dark, and now it was time to face the night, not in a locked 36-foot RV, but in the flimsy two-man tent that my sons used on Boy Scout campouts.
Wade set out his audio recorder on the concrete picnic table fifty feet away from ours. Next to the dying campfire, we sat under a full moon as the temperature dropped into the thirties, then twenties, and listened to coyotes going off a short distance away. A barred owl sang the famous refrain, “Who cooks for yooou?”
“Dude…” I said softly, shaking my head and motioning to the abandoned tent, “that is so messed up.” Wade was in full agreement.
A short while later, we startled at a loud bang against the truck. I rose from my camp chair and jogged to it, scanning the ground for whatever it was that was thrown. A rock? A large stick? An acorn? I could spot nothing.
Our tent was not staked down, and before we turned in, Wade and I each grabbed a corner and pulled the tent and all its contents to where its door-flap was within twenty-four inches of the passenger door of the truck.
We zipped up the insubstantial tent door and crawled onto our cots, the loaded shotgun and Glock beneath Wade’s, the G.I. Tanto knife, adorably, next to mine.
We were tired, and the night was still. I was wearing four layers, which packed me into my sleeping bag so tightly I could scarcely turn around in it, and I was sleeping in the same tuque with sewn-in headlamp I had taken on the hike.
I drifted to sleep, and at some point into a nightmare, the kind that splices perfectly onto your consciousness because it starts with you waking up in the same location. In this dream, it was just moments later, and I was awoken by a sasquatch, which was inexplicably already in my tent and holding my hands at my sides with his. I screamed for Wade to help me, but with my lips paralyzed with sleep probably sounded only a weak “ayyyyy! …ayyyyyyy!”
The night passed without further incident. Neither did the audio recording reveal anything suspicious later.
I woke up before first light, rose to sitting, and began lacing up my ice-cold boots, which woke up Wade. “Dude,” I whispered, as he groggily came to. “Dude … let’s go driving around. Predawn is active.” We both knew this all too well.
With the truck heater blowing as hot as we could get it, we rolled the mile out of the campground to the main road, wondering what might have transpired overnight for folks out there along the turnouts. We went north to 1375, then east across Baker’s Bridge spanning Lake Conroe, me narrating the three sighting reports — the husband and wife accounts separated by an hour on the very same predawn morning Wade and I were visited nine miles away, and the poor guy in 2001 who stopped on the far side of the bridge to take a leak, saw one six feet away, shook for two days, and gave up deer hunting for good.
As the forest lightened, we turned back toward Kelly’s Pond but continued south past the turnoff along the gravel Forest Service road. For four and a half miles we descended slowly, bisecting a large peninsula in the lake and scanning the passing forest for shadowy figures of unusual height and build, until the water appeared suddenly before us.
We killed the engine and looked around. We got out and walked in different directions to pee. Some views in the Torn-Up Camp video matched up to what we were seeing; in other regards, it looked quite different. It had been four and a half years since the video was shot in the summer of 2013. The forest certainly takes on a different look summer to winter, but there could have been other forces at work too. The Forest Service might have cleared part of the area, or the rumor mill might have just gotten the location wrong altogether.
We walked around for ten minutes or so, then, satisfied that we would glean no more knowledge from this macabre pilgrimage, headed back up the peninsula to break camp. The Cracker Barrel in Bryan was calling our names.
Back in camp, Carrie and River came across from the Rexair, cups of coffee steaming violently into the chilly air. “Thank goodness!” Carrie said. “When we got up early and saw your truck missing and your tent still here, we thought you’d abandoned your camp too.” We all had a good laugh at the misunderstanding. We could laugh, now that we were headed out of the forest and they were safe overnight in their wheeled fortress.
I gave Carrie a copy of Monster Hike I had thrown into the truck at the last minute in case we ran into anyone who might have been interested. We finished breaking camp and heaved the plywood chuck box and the rest of our gear into the bed of the Silverado. But I had one last thing I wanted to do. As I walked toward the abandoned campsite, I unclicked my phone from its belt clip, turned it horizontal, and began shooting video. I effortlessly channeled Bob Garrett himself.
“Hello in the tent,” I said. I walked to the red canvas camp chair lying on its back, panned to the flip-flops near the beach towel. A thermos sat on the grass with a pot balanced on top of it. I lifted the lid to find a dried residue of stew and a dirty spoon. There was the fishing rod and tackle. The high-end camp stove.
I approached the tent door. “Hello, the tent.” There was no response. “Hello, the tent.” I was genuinely concerned about opening the door. Would I find a dead body? I exchanged glances with Wade, swallowed hard, and unzipped the flap.
To my great relief, there was no corpse. But I did confront a strange sight: in the corner an empty sleeping bag. And directly in front of the door, a stack of plastic bins, several of them laden with new batteries. Was it a deer hunter replenishing the batteries on his trail cams? Was it a squatcher doing the same, one who got more than he bargained for? We would never know.
We pulled onto the highway and noted the blue metal sign: “ADOPT A HIGHWAY – NEXT 2 MILES – NORTH AMERICAN WOOD APE CONSERVANCY.” A few miles away, another read, “ADOPT A HIGHWAY – NEXT 2 MILES – SOUTHEAST TX BIGFOOT RESEARCH TEAM.” It wasn’t just me. It wasn’t just Bob Garrett. There were now so many researchers out here they were competing for highways to adopt.
When I got home, I became Facebook friends with Carrie. We messaged back and forth, expressing mutual gratitude we had met. She had enjoyed the book.
On January 6, she messaged again: “Hey Avrel! So today we were driving around out near Double Lake Recreation Area and saw three Blackhawk helicopters flying around over a wooded area before departing over Lake Livingston, I believe. It was the first time I’ve ever seen one of those in real life … I was surprised to see them! It was in broad daylight, around 3 p.m.”
—A.S. June 2018