State parks tend toward the rowdy set, though I like to think I’ve progressed in my tolerance of my fellow asshole. The State park caters to families in what the young man in the gatehouse referred to as “the resort experience.” I was in the agricultural region of central Washington, and we’re not talking D.C. here. We’re talking industrial orchards labeled by time zone. We’re talking the stench of ammonia hanging on the air north of the inland ports of Pasco and Kennewick, north of a munitions complex, where the reek of onion and olfactorially indecipherable spice competes with fertilizer and manure as the scent of the day, nay, the century. Where the land sprawls flat, and its muggy in friggin’ May.
Into this milieu I drove almost aimlessly, and became lost searching for the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge and the famed Drumheiler Channels, a part of the Channeled Scablands. The Ranger kid with the tatted arms who stood in the gatehouse at Pothole State Park didn’t seem to know what the Scablands were.
“They were carved by a catastrophic Ice Age flood,” I describe as I peer into the extended side mirrors of my pickup at the gathering queue of idling RV’s and SUV’s and just plain old V’s. I hate to keep people waiting. “Lake Missoula burst through and flooded through, carving these channels that’re like canyons, and well, it’s really cool and it’s what I came here to see.”
Like most rangers, he’s a people person and very friendly and he wants to help.
“I know where you’re talking about from the way you’re describing it. There’s camping in the Refuge,” and to spare you the details, he gives me directions.
To spare you the details, I’d drove for about 80 miles all afternoon through those factory farms to a place I could’ve found in less than 8, if I’d paid attention to the road signs a couple hours ago. “Not paying attention,” says an old timer named Michael who’s camped and hiked the world, “got me into all the trouble there is.” Then there’s also the fact that the guidebook I used was a bum steer. Blame that.
I opt for the Wildlife Refuge instead of Pothole State Park. I didn’t like the name, and the place seemed rather buggy. So I drive across this causeway over a large reservoir (out west, State parks have an affinity to large reservoirs) to Columbia NWR. No camping permitted. The gatehouse guy had described a road to another place in Refuge where he said there was camping. I cannot find it on the first pass.
I finally find the road he talked about. There’s camping. Maybe one whole campsite in skeeter infested brush. And it’s taken up by horse people. Not half-man, half-horse mythological beings, but equestrians.
And the impressive Drumheiler Channels weren’t all that impressive. The guidebook promised that they would be. The pictures in the guidebook made it seem like they would be. They photo-shopped those pictures, man. The Wikepedia pics made them seem at canyon-depth; wandering, sharply cut defiles. The Channels were maybe about 30 feet deep and muddy and stinky from that damned reservoir with the agricultural runoff. Expectations lead to disappointment leads to resentments leads to bitterness. I wasn’t exactly bitter, but I was disappointed. After southeast Oregon, anything was a comedown, I supposed.
Hmmm. There was that second entrance to the NWR I saw from the road. Back over the causeway. The second entrance is blocked to all wheeled traffic. The fucking guidebook said there’d be plenty of roads onto the Refuge. A vast cloud of mosquitoes, timed to hatch for my arrival, harangues me back into my truck.
Back over the causeway. Miles each time. One of the roads that the guidebook says will lead down to the scablands leads me onto the farmlands. Back to the State park and its resort experience, where I hope they have a billet for my road-weary head.
“I really can’t understand it,” I say to the kid in the booth at Pot Hole State Park. “I camped for free, without even having to register, at Hart Mountain last night, and that’s a wildlife refuge, too.”
“I think they closed off Columbia because too many people were wrecking it,” he explains, and refunds me $5 of my $30 for my aborted National Wildlife Refuge experience. “I’ll give you a real quiet spot without anyone else around. If it gets noisy later, feel free to move to a quieter site.”
I’ve come to accept that State campgrounds are noisy places. That many people won’t keep to the quiet hours (usually 9 or 10 at night). That kids don’t have mute buttons, and that people like to drink and set fires (legally). For this reason, I have with me a few sets of good, swimmers’ ear putty that really doesn’t do anything to keep out the noise despite the fact that I am hard of hearing. God made ears real well. In the old days, it was a plus for survival reasons. In State parks, hearing is a liability. I just put up with it. Usually, around 11 or so, the kids wind down and everything settles into a cricketty quiet.
But tonight, large choruses of men and women take turns singing authentic Mexican folk sings far into the night. It’s very loud even far across the campground, and drinking attends to it. But with its vihuela strumming an accompaniment and the soulful lyrics in Spanish, it filled my heart with a distant longing as well as did their hearts. It told the truth. No matter where you’re from, you can always translate the spirit’s desire for home, always translate the words into your own tongue, since the melody of the homesick is easily heard by all hearts.
So I more than tolerated the songs that rang throughout that large, tall-treed campground. I listened in with a longing of my own. Until some man started shouting as loud as he could: FUCK YOU! Over and over again. Hushing the play of children and the songs of the homesick. Always emphasizing the second word in his calculated diatribe. 10, 20 times: Fuck youuuuu! It reminded me of a scene from Apocalypse Now. I could hear some of the folk singers trying to calm him. And after about the 20th refrain, he stopped. And the crunch of footsteps through the gravel campground road started. The footsteps started toward my camper as soon as the Fuck you’s stopped. Maybe the same alco-rage-aholic.
They got closer, and closer, and I fully expected the footfalls, like one of the many parts of the mad ambient outside, to die down, to meld, to change with the Doppler Effect as they crunched past the grill of my Silverado. But instead of fading into the distance, they stopped, right in front of my truck. And then they crunched around the camper, which was raised on the paltry six foot bed of my truck. And stopped. And then something or someone fiddled with the canvass at the top of the camper.
Could’ve been the wind. How many times has the wind played tricks on the eaves of my roof, creaked the wheels of my truck? Especially out in bear country, when the bearanoia kicks in. Sometimes I forget to take the toothpaste out of my camper and store it in the cab overnight along with the rest of my food when I’m in bear nation. Bears love toothpaste. And boy, do they need it.
But I know what footfalls in gravel roadbeds sound like. So do you. It started and stopped. Crept. And I crept. Slid out of my sleeping bag and down from my sleeper above the truck cab. I grabbed a rather long, wood 2” x 2” that used to keep the wind-up crank handle of my pop-up camper in place when I cranked it down the roof ¾ of the way while I poked in the canvass sides to make sure the roof didn’t bite through them. It also served as a good weapon, about the size of a ball bat. I pulled out a sizable knife, and in my underwear, with a board in one paw and a knife in the other, I stood as quietly as I could, and waited for someone to break in.
Do I have enough room to swing? Do I have the guts to stab? Do I have legal justification? For some reason, that question occupied me the most. It wouldn’t have been hard to break in the flimsy back door. I dressed as quietly as I could. I thought about calling 911, but as the minutes dropped into the 2:00 a.m., and the folk singing ceased, I got the inkling that the footsteps had moved on without me hearing. After all, I was wearing earplugs, however much they didn’t work. As for the rest: well, I may have imagined it. Paranoia is the price we pay for a good imagination.
As I quietly slipped back underneath the sleeping bag, the footsteps crackled again, just outside my camper. I got on my phone and dialed 911. It wouldn’t answer. How disheartening.
Finally, after about 30 seconds of blowing me off, a dispatcher picked up, yawning:
“911, what’s the nature of your emergency?”
“I’m hearing footsteps outside my camper. I’m at the State park.” Which was about 3 miles outside of town. “My campsite is 116.” Which was about 5 campsites from the nearest camper. Pitch black on a moonless night.
“First, I must advise you to avoid use of all weapons, including firearms, knives, blunt instruments, poisons, and also to avoid any direct confrontation with or acts of violence toward any alleged or potential intruder who may be about in your vicinity.” Or some shit like that. I thought I heard the word poison in there somewhere. Like I was going to go out and offer the alleged or potential intruder a beer laced with thallium.
Great, now 911 was providing nearly as much boiler plate as a commercial for boner pills. I expected the dispatcher to say: Be sure you’re heart is healthy enough for sex. I felt divinely discomfited.
“What’s your name and what state are you from?”
I provide the information.
“Do you want us to send someone out, sir?”
“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “I’m going to go outside.” I fumbled through my pitch dark camper for the flashlight I always had handy, except when I really needed it. “And walk around my camper with you on the phone, and if you hear anything or don’t hear back from me, then yeah, please send someone out.”
“I wouldn’t advise that, sir.”
Well, too bad. I stepped outside, using my phone as my flashlight, and poked around my dark site with the 2” x 2” in the my other hand. After a complete perusal of my campsite, I discovered that I was ludicrously alone.
“No, don’t send anyone out. I appear to be alone.”
“Just call back if there’s any further trouble.”
And we sent our kisses over the microwaves, and I went back to bed.
About 20 minutes later, FUCK YOU!!! FUCK YOU!!! FUCK YOU!!! At least the rendition was consistent. I mean, the guy had a good memory and a great ear.
A car pulled up in the deserted campsite across from mine. Someone in the car blasted country-rock, and I mean blasted it until the four-door shitbox sedan it came from rattled off the ground like a Flintstonemobile in full flight. It lasted about 10 seconds, then cut out. About a minute later, the same mad volume of music exploded from the car’s interior, some genre of trip-hop or jazz foreign to me ears. It played for about half-a-minute, then cut out.
I got up and peaked through the rear window of my camper by now, and watched the beater drive off the campsite, and circle the large ellipse which enclosed my campsite along with about a dozen other vacant spots. It parked in the site next to mine, idled. Cut the engine. Turned off the lights. Flipped on the lights. Drove off. Circled my site. Backed in to the space on the other side of my campsite now. Pulled out. Left the running lights on. Cut the lights and drove dark. Over and over, for about a half-hour, pulling in and out. Parking, stopping, standing, idling in front of my grill so I couldn’t drive off. Over and over.
Someone got out. By now, I was out of my bunk, with the 2 x 2 in one hand and the knife in the other. Unafraid. I felt like if anyone broke in, I’d beat the hell out of them. Well, okay, a little concerned maybe. But not really worried. Even though the most probable explanation is that I they probed me for a robbery.
I remembered the two homeless dudes with the broken-down car, the one with the bum leg, who were talking to the ranger in the gatehouse while I was getting admitted. One of them going on about how he couldn’t walk and how his car couldn’t move either. And they said they were going to spend the night in a tent. I could’ve sworn I’d seen those guys scoping me out at the NWR about a half-hour later as I looked for a campsite.
I’d been playing not home since the beginning of this thing with the car. Then somebody in the car has a flashlight beam and he’s lighting up the campsite next to mine from inside the car. I change tactics. If they know I’m on to them, maybe, just maybe, they’ll go away.
So I finally stumble upon my flashlight and shine it out at them, rather obviously.
I hear mumbling from inside the car. Then someone gets out. Uh-oh.
“Did you take everything, even my cell phone?” the young Anglo standing outside his vehicle a few feet from my camper, asks the occupants inside.
The guy standing there arches his back and yells as loud as I ever heard any curse: FFFUUUUUUCCK!!!!! He made the guy who’d screamed FUCK YOU sound polite, understated.
Guess what? I’m scared. The next move for him and his friends in the car is to bust in to my camper.
I get on the phone and dial the magic three numbers. And again, no one answers. More mumbling and movement outside by the car.
Finally, my buddy from dispatch replies to my RSVP.
“Hey, I called before about someone walking up near my campsite. There’s somebody out there and they’re crazy and shouting and they’re gonna break in to my camper any time.”
“Do you want us to send someone out?”
“You can do whatever the hell you want. I’m getting outta here.”
I hang up and the car takes off.
I wind down my roof, step outside and pull up my backstairs. Flip down the roof hasps, and drive off, in about two minutes flat. Someone, either cops or criminals, drives up just as I pull out.
At 3:00 a.m., I’m speeding down a two lane State highway toward the confused freeway entrances in Kennewick. I ended up spending the night at a rest stop on the Oregon side of things, sandwiched between the bass-like infrasound of two idling rigs. Safety, and slumber, at last.
I wasn’t too happy with the State of Washington, especially the central part, especially the $25 per night State park part, where it seems that the local law enforcement and State park system let people do whatever they want until they get a call. Oh, what the hell, it’s Saturday night, right? Let ’em blow off a little steam. It seemed as out of control as any neighborhood I’d frequented on a Saturday night in the bad parts of Chicago.
You never encounter these conditions in national parks. At Hart Mountain the night before, admission and camping were free, complete with a hot spring and no registration. Same in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada and the Alvord Desert and Steens Mountain in Oregon. All of if either NFS or BLM. And Great Basin National Park? No entrance fee. Just a $6 per night camping fee. The stars. The quiet. The rush of streams. The snow of mountains. Peace.
If this offends anyone in central Washington or the State park system there, maybe it can encourage change. I’ve camped out at state parks in Idaho that were as noisy and as muggy and even pricier. I’ve camped in a tent on the coast of Oregon where posters warned of a murderer on the loose. In Illinois, I’ve hiked state parks where gangs held sway. So this isn’t a libel against Washington.
It’s a lesson in the true meaning of tolerance. Do I mean it when I say that I forgive everything, without exception and without expectations? The exception I want to make to the rule of forgiving ends up eating up the rule. All that day on my way up to the scablands, even though my credit card had been cancelled due to somebody’s fraud, even though my camper roof decided not to cooperate in cranking down, even though I hadn’t slept the previous night, I’d decided to float above it all and be Meister Blowheart, which is two grades higher in heaven than a bodhisattva.
Yet when I haven’t slept in two nights and become swallowed by the drunkenness of others and the insanity that flows from that, how forgiving am I willing to be then? I thought about all the people in cities who are born into and forced to grow up and live out their lives in neighborhoods just as crazy, or maybe even more insane.
As I raced recklessly down Highway 17 at 3:30 a.m., swilling cold java and swatting a loan mosquito which sought refuge in the corner of my dash, with a 4” blade and a 2 x 2 stowed behind my seat, I tore my expectations to little pieces.
Sometimes, experience is a grand reversal of expectation. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t learn something along the way.
© 2015 by Michael C. Just