There was a huge puddle of blood atop the dead leaves that covered the trail. I looked to the right to where a path was cutting across the trail. The splashes of crimson were bigger than footprints. I exhaled, not expecting the gruesome scene as we were hiking Harriman State Park in New York this past November. My breath formed an ephemeral cloud in the cold air. I looked at my friend Greg, an off-duty federal agent, who kept his gun in a small pouch on his chest. Greg studied the blood, too. I wondered how fast he’d be able to draw it, if necessary. How well could he aim and maneuver with a twenty-pound pack? I turned to the left, where a river rushed through Harriman Park. I reexamined the blood.
“How you boys doing?” said a voice from the river. I hadn’t seen anyone when I had first looked toward the river. But turning back to the water, I spotted a heavyset, bald man in head-to-toe army camouflage sitting on a small boulder in the river.
“How’s it going?” I said, attempting a smile. “Do you think it’s him?” I whispered to Greg.
Greg looked up the bloody path and then over to the man in the river. I looked out from the corner of my eyes at the man and then at the gun on Greg’s chest.
When we had entered Harriman State Park near Diltz Road, there was a sign of a seventy-three year-old, bald, red-cheeked man with a white beard. He looked like a violent leprechaun. The man on the sign was named Eugene K. Palmer. And Eugene K. Palmer was a suspect in the murder of his daughter-in-law. It was believed that he had escaped into the park back in September. An avid outdoorsman and hunter, the authorities believed Palmer was alive and armed and dangerous.
The sign said that he “was last seen wearing an Army Ranger style camouflage hunting cap, a red, long sleeve flannel shirt, olive green work pants…” The man in the river wore a different outfit, had no facial hair, and did not appear to be seventy-three. But Eugene K. Palmer could have easily changed his clothes and shaved his identifying beard. The air was cold enough to make any aged face appear youthful. And there was all that blood.
“I don’t think it’s him,” I said and we carried on hiking Harriman State Park.
The mind does funny things when you’re told to be on the lookout for a murderer at-large. Everyone fits the description in some way, even the skinny white man and round black woman who passed us later on along the trail. I tried to rationalize things: Why would he have been so close to the road? The man was much heavier than the one in the picture. He didn’t sound like a leprechaun.
But I couldn’t get over one thing: Why was there so much blood?
“Is this hunting season? Is hunting even legal in this park?” I asked Greg and kept looking back over my shoulder to see if we were being tracked by a man who had been invisible to me when I had been standing only twenty feet away. “It can’t be hunting season. People hike here.”
A huge buck ran across the trail and leaped over the ridge. I stood beside a tree and waited for an explosion from a rifle.
The entire network of trails was poorly labeled and we lost ourselves on the map. We took turns that led us down dead ends. We were forced to backtrack. We’re going to run into him, I kept thinking. Then we took a wrong turn and arrived at our intended shelter earlier than we had expected.
Camping in Harriman Park with Eugene K. Palmer
Since the sun was going to set in two hours, we decided to use the extra time to collect enough wood to burn through the night and to clean up the shelter, which was filled with open cans of tuna, beer, and beans, along with a horrible stink. A young man arrived at the shelter, too.
“I’ll help you collect fire wwwwww,” he began, but couldn’t stop pushing out the W. The man’s eyes rolled back into his head, his neck tightened, his jaw dropped, and two strands of saliva connected both rows of teeth as he groaned.
I looked over at Greg. His jaw had lowered slightly, too. We’re going to die in these woods, I thought.
“Wood,” the man finally said, finishing his thought, stopping his groan, relaxing his face, blinking away the stammer. “It’s supposed to only get into the 30s tonight.”
“Good because my sleeping bag is only a summer bag,” I said. My sleeping bag was twelve years old and didn’t even hold in the heat in August. November was going to provide a miserable sleep in Harriman.
The young man with the stammer was called Nick. He helped us collect wood and cut the logs down to pieces that the fire could manage.
A fourth hiker arrived to the shelter at dusk.
“Hey,” we said to him.
He grunted and set up camp away from the shelter, uninterested in sharing the fire we had built.
Nick grilled a salmon. Greg and I boiled up water for Trader Joe’s Indian food that we poured over cous cous. We passed around a flask of Maker’s Mark, while the fire gave off heat and Greg’s iPhone sounded off NPR podcasts.
Greg and Nick worried, rightfully, about bears and hanged our food and garbage over the gorge that sat beyond the silhouettes of naked trees. The moon over Harriman Park was a crescent and the lights of New York could be seen in the distance, spilling their sleeplessness into our campsite and dimming the effect of the stars in the black sky.
“Do you think it was him?” I asked Greg.
Greg knew that I was asking about the man in the river. He shook his head. “That guy didn’t fit the description.”
“There was a lot of blood,” I added.
When it was time to retire, because the shelter still reeked of tuna, we slept in our tent. Away from the fire, the temperature plummeted. The murderer in the woods started to become less threatening than the cold. I was frozen. Five layers of fleece and wool on my chest and two pairs of heavy socks shoved into fleece slippers did little to keep me warm. I kept dozing off and waking up in cold puddles of drool. At some uncertain hour, I heard footsteps outside of our tent. Not the footsteps of someone going to urinate, but the footsteps of pacing.
Greg went to piss.
“That one guy who didn’t join us at the fire is just wandering around,” Greg said when he returned.
We’re going to die, I thought again.
Greg checked the temperature on his wristwatch. It had dropped into the twenties. I ripped open the emergency blanket, those silver sheets they give to marathoners after the race, and slid it into my bag. After fifteen minutes, I stopped shivering and managed to doze off. I was relieved and shocked to awake in the morning.
We warmed up beside the fire and filled our guts with warm oatmeal. We left the Harriman Park shelter and, again, lost the trail. We wound up walking below power lines and along a rocky incline. Above us was a good place for a sniper to sit and below us was a wall of thorns, blocking us from accessing the visible path. A few deer sprinted through the thorn bushes and up the hill, across the rocky terrain. I leapt from rock to rock. Eugene K. Palmer had definitely set traps, I figured.
“This looks like the best place to cross,” Greg said when he could see a few stepping stones amid the thorny bulwark. The power lines buzzed above us.
We navigated our way over two downed power lines and through the thorns. My pants shredded as easily as Hulk Hogan’s yellow singlets. My hands were covered in blood from the thorns. We finally returned to the car, where we studied the picture of Palmer again.
“I don’t think it was him,” Greg said.
“There was so much blood.”