Just back from Patrick’s point, snagging a shower.
We realized that you can camp at the cheap campsites, and then use the expensive ones for showers. You just have to show up early, before the park opens and they nab you with an entrance fee.
I’m sitting in the car, poring through my journals from the past few weeks while the world warms up outside.
To my left is an old man slunk into a lawn chair by a smoking campfire. His hat pulled down over his eyes, hand in his pocket. Long hair, long beard, he looks like most of the elderly men around here. I can’t really tell them apart.
To my left are some young guys my age, sleeping under the stars. They’ve just brought blankets with them to the beach, and I can see one boy’s foot poking out from beneath a rose patterned comforter from where I sit now.
Right next to me is Jacque’s hippie van that he has turned into a home. The back seats have been turned into a couch, and there is a little kitchenette where the window used to be. He is stumbling out, and putting beer bottles close to his face and reading the labels intently.
Where I left off a few days ago– we were heading out to Lacks Creek BLM land to camp for the night. And we got the shit scared out of us.
I have not been that disturbed since one night in Willits when Jess and I were up at two in the morning and delirious, spontaneously crying and convincing ourselves that the commune we were living on was actively trying to end us, calling our parents back home and expressing our last goodbyes at ungodly hours for the good people of the Midwest and East Coast. Imagined things become real whenever another person feels it, too.
We took off down 299 East and took a left turn on some tiny, winding road. The roads were not maintained, and two miles took 20 minutes with the hairpin turns spiraling down, and down and down. We take another turn, and we’re headed up. We drive for about an hour in the fading light, never seeing a goddamn soul, except during a little piece of sunshine where we crossed an old farm. There were three boys sitting on hay bales out front, looking at us, and waving us on with a little smile that we didn’t know the secret to. I had the urge to stop and stay with them. Anything seemed safer than this mystery we were driving full speed ahead into.
“Now it makes sense why the woman at the BLM office said it might get hot up here… it’s so much closer to the sun! This. This is Bigfoot country right here.”
“I’m getting scared…”
“With each passing switchback.”
“If we’re not there in ten more minutes we are turning back.”
Finally at the top of a mountain surrounded by mountains, we got out of the car and were astounded by the silence. It wasn’t a clear, pure silence, but instead a dead, muted, stifling silence. The kind where no one in the world would ever hear you scream. I made note of this, but tried to put it to the back of my mind.
“We have to drive to the campsites– it looks like it’s going to be another fifteen minutes or so… and it’s getting dark. You make the call. What do you think?” I asked my brother.
We decided to carry on. And soon find ourselves looking at a dark, dank little shadowbox cove framed by the dark stained wood around it, labeled as a campsite. It’s literally a few feet off the dirt road, as there is not space on this sharp incline for much camping ground. It’s on display for any strange soul who would also be on this mountain, but it’s unimaginably dark compared to the road. It feels like stepping into someone else’s sticky past, and gives off an almost comical Temple of Doom booby trap vibe.
I don’t even want to get out of the car, but when I do I am greeted by that suffocating silence again. Nothing is moving. Nothing seems to be alive up here except the all consuming trees that seem to eat life. The trees are drinking in the light, and sweating out warning.
We walk over to the fire pit, and perched lightly on the top of it is a little tiny bouquet of dead flowers, tied with a small piece of white string. A little touch of grim garnish.
Neither one of us can hide the look of revulsion on our faces.
My mind is racing, but it’s also numb. This is the type of place that will trap you into a moment in time. A carved out box on a vertical cliff, looking straight at the road like a cage in a zoo, displayed for all who care to gaze into it. You settle into a place like that, you set a tent up, you don’t come back out.
“Alright. I’m calling it. Bad feelings. Bad vibes. We’re out.” I state abruptly, choking on the fading sunlight.
“Op. Anne says we’re moving. So I think we’re going to move…” my brother is talking to our dad on the phone. And he talks a little too long.
“If we’re going to go back down, we need to go now, bro.” I’m desperately announcing out the car at my brother, who’s still lingering. Talking on the phone, taking last minute pictures.
On the way back down, we both breathe a heavy sigh of relief.
“That was a belly of the whale day,” Ben comments as we creep down the mountain in the dark. “Just goes to show us how un-extreme we really are. We had to realize it at some point. It’s good. Let’s just go back to Utah. Utah is safe.”
Getting swallowed by a mountain. We’re plains people. We don’t get this concept of closed in spaces and isolation.
Headlights guiding our path, winding down the road. Bleach bone skin of the dense forest of trees. Most secluded campsite I’ve ever seen in my life.
The shadowbox campsite was a metaphor for how I felt in Alaska, concentrated into one terrifying minute of pure terror. Up high and out of the way, impossible to get to and isolated. Dark and uncomfortable and uninviting. Only one way out. Only one way down.
“You didn’t feel it?”
“No, I did. To be perfectly honest I felt it when we first started up this mountain, in this forest. But I didn’t want to scare you. It made my scalp prickle. And that little bouquet? That did it for me. Isolation and height I can manage. But when there is a little intentional bouquet of dead flowers, tied with a bit of string. Perched. Just waiting for us. That’s when I freak out. All of today was foreshadowing. The 24 hour starbucks wifi that the girl advised us on but we didn’t think we would need to use. The BLM woman alluding to the horribleness of this campsite, ‘Not many people go there…’ And then Jim telling us we should probably just camp at Patrick’s Point. Oh, Jim. And the last people we saw before we were taken in by that mountain– the locals with those creepy smiles that waved at us. They knew. They knew it was a trap. Deliverance. That single truck that was behind us half the way, but parted as we took the dirt road up the mountain… I had the thought that they were just making sure we were headed that way. And then they were coming back for us later.”
“We could have conquered our fears. Looked out at the sun as it rose in the morning. But there’s also something special about leaving a fear. Leaving the story there. In the crevice of that mountain. We’ll never know. We’ll never want to know.”
“What if Jim was up there?”
“God, man. It wasn’t just a sprig of flowers. It was an intentional bouquet. Tied with a tiny piece of off-white string, lodged on the fire pit. AND it was dead.”
“I’m actually tearing up right now…”
“Oh. My upper lip is quivering at the thought of it all.”
We pass a deer going back down, and it seems to comfort us a little bit.
“What human leaves a dead bouquet?”
“I don’t know, maybe a child? I really don’t know what type of sick person would do that.”
“Did you get a picture of it?”
“No. There was a reason why I couldn’t get a good picture of the campsite. It was just one of those places. Burned into your memory forever, but never any physical evidence. Oh, bats! This is bat country.”
A baby skunk zigzags in front of our car, and I make my brother roll up the window in case it is rabid and decides to make a leap for our faces.
We discuss the cost of a campsite closer to town, versus the gas money and emotional trauma it costs to make it to a campsite far out. We decide it’s more economic to camp closer to our route, even if we have to shell out a few bucks a night.
“Ahhh…. we didn’t even check the backseat before we left! We had the doors and windows open and everything…” I slam my hand around the back of the car, hoping to squash any intruders like a bug if they are hiding under our sleeping bags.
We’re still visualizing scenarios as we escape the mountain, and get back on the 299. Imaginations in overdrive, hearts still beating at an irregular pace and feeling like we just slipped away from something that was no good at all.
Humbling. Adventuring to the test. Also proves researching where you sleep is not necessarily a waste of time.
“We’ve grown from this. We’re now people who’ve driven up a mountain to sleep. And then immediately driven back down it.”
Good old McKinleyville welcomes us back with it’s lights and semi-populated streets.
We debate sleeping in the car overnight. “Cops over coves,” I keep repeating. “This is my environment. I can deal with being questioned by the cops for sleeping in a Safeway parking lot. I cannot handle possibly being introduced to someone in the middle of the night, deep in a haunted mountain alone. You really don’t feel comfortable sleeping in the car?”
“No. I always hated it when we did that growing up. I was worried someone would walk up and be tapping on my window when I opened my eyes. Especially in California… If I were to sleep in my car in any state, this would be the last one.”
“I’ve never even considered that fear…” I say.
“That’s insane. You think of every fear.”
“Camping should be free, man. It’s everyone’s land.”
“I saw the sun.”
We pull up to the closed Starbucks in McKinleyville again, our refuge, and grab their wifi. Brother scores a campsite just five minutes away, right outside of town. We head that way.
Pulling into Clam Beach, the campsites are irredeemably full. I walk up to a few kids our age, and ask about how the campsites work. And they kindly offer for us to stay on their plot with them.
Setting up the tent, the ocean right over the hill, mist in the air, I’m so thankful to be here. We pay our new friends for the campsite for the night instead of the park. Then we sit and drink beer with them, and introduce ourselves. Jess and Emanuel, they are both San Diego natives. Jess has just returned from a summer trip through Spain, and Emanuel tells us about his parent’s home country of Venezuela. An old man walks up, and donates a pallet of wood to the campfire, and I take that as my cue to head back to the tent to pass out.
A long day finally done.