This Bizarre Night in Our RV Was Straight Out of a Movie: A Series From Life on The Road
We absolutely love the freedom of the open road. We equally love the freedom of flexible schedules and destinations. RV life is truly addictive and the opportunity to be digital nomads is a blessing. We’ve boondocked many times, zigzagging across the country, but this night made me second-guess our choices. I thought wildlife, including nearby bears and mountain lions, were the root of my apprehension, but Bruce and I quickly realized wild animals were the lesser problem.
We’ve come to much prefer boondocking to campgrounds. The solitude and space are unmatched. Not that we don’t have neighbors sometimes, but all our untethered neighbor experiences have been positive so far. However, with boondocking, we understand the risk of solo camping. Often our location is only found with longitude and latitude markers on the map. This means we are fully on our own — even without cell service. There is no official campground to feel safe on of their property, or rules and regulations to keep everyone on the same page. There is also no security, no gate locked at night, and no vetting of neighbors via registration, if you will. With total freedom comes assumed risk, and it’s up to the individual to weigh the risk versus benefit, as well as doing a lot of homework to know what they’re getting into with open, dispersed land.
On this trip, we drove for hours to reach a particular dispersed land in an undisclosed state. Once again, we have the perfect knack for arriving to a new site in complete darkness. Ug! It is very hard to set up camp in the black of night, and this dispersed land was extra tricky with small outcroppings along a single-lane, dirt road. With no guarantees of an open spot (a chance taken with boondocking), we drove along the washboard road that left our brains a bit scrambled, and things not battened down in Eddie (our RV) bouncing around.
Site by site, we hoped for an open space to park for the night as it was late and finding another dispersed land within hours was hopeless. To our delight, we finally found one! But Bruce wanted to keep driving to see if there was another campsite that would get us closer to the lake. Our personalities are opposite. I was good with the first spot we found (with my sometimes-annoying boundaries) and call it a night. His (sometimes-annoying) curiosity and drive to keep pushing, however, has pushed me out of my comfort zone many times over our thirty-one-year marriage … mostly for the good. Together we balance each other.
We finally reached the lake and enjoyed a small victory after traveling the long teeth-chattering, mind-jostling, and tire-testing road. It was beautiful and I was glad we were there. Across the lake were many lights, some strung between trees and some free-standing. This hidden community reminded me of the one in the movie The Village. It was tucked back in the woods and cutoff from all civilization. After all, we had driven for miles on a dirt road which is owned by the government and is totally undeveloped. The lights looked inviting, like we were missing a party.
Bruce said, “Let’s drive over the lake to where all those lights are. It looks beautiful!”
I replied with my usual stay-within-the-limits approach, “Um, I don’t think that’s a good idea. This is where the designated dispersed land officially ends so that’s probably private property.”
“I just want to take a quick look. Maybe it’s more land we can stay on and it’s worth looking at,” he said.
Reluctantly, I agreed with the stipulation we would turn back to where we were legally supposed to be. It was after 11p.m. We drove our 32’ RV over a small bridge and as soon as we reached the other side of the lake the vibe felt off. Some of it was a gut feeling, but I couldn’t help but notice camper after camper deserted in the woods that looked like time forgot. Vines grew up their sides and over the roofs, as weeds and brush crept up from the bottom. The campers looked abandoned, and I thought maybe they were, except for the NO TRESPASSING signs surrounding them. It was freaky to see these campers hidden off-road, looking post-apocalyptic as nature slowly reabsorbs them into itself. The KEEP OUT, PRIVATE PROPERTY, and TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT signs were everywhere. It seriously looked like we had just entered a B-rated horror movie and we were the happy campers who ignorantly wandered onto land we shouldn’t have. Throw Bigfoot, zombie, or an alien in the cast and we’d be all set.
I pointed all of this out to Bruce who was focused on the ever-narrowing road. “I don’t think we’re supposed to be here, wherever here is,” I said with great caution.
“We’re almost to the lights,” he said. “Just need to follow this road along the bend,” he reassured me.
I was extremely wary of this secret world we had stumbled onto and didn’t care about the lights anymore. He drove on, looking straight ahead, while I started into the night at the sides of the road; our passing headlights casting a quick glimpse of the spooky campers which sat hauntingly in dark silence.
Suddenly, a pickup truck approached us from behind and sped past us. I’m not sure how he fit around our camper on the small road. Bruce said convincingly, “See! They’re going there, too. I think it’s going to be cool. Let’s check it out!”
To our confusion, we watched the pickup truck drive around the long bend and almost reach the lights. Then it did an abrupt turnaround and drove back toward us. Something felt super sketch at this point as it drove up next to us and stopped. I held my breath.
The driver rolled his window down and Bruce did the same. The driver was a man in his twenties. The guy who rode shotgun next to him wore a sweatshirt, baseball cap, and sunglasses (which I noted as it was almost midnight by then). The passenger never looked at us or acknowledged us, or the situation, in any way. Between them sat a large dog who, oppositely, never took his eyes off us — not in what felt like a friendly way.
The driver asked, “Hey guys, everything alright?”
Bruce answered, “Yeah, thanks. We were curious as to what all the lights are over there and wanted to check them out.”
“You don’t want to do that,” the driver said. “Those folks keep to themselves.”
Pause the conversation for a moment. As soon as he said that a second pickup truck drove out from the lit community and sped directly toward us. I sat motionless watching this truck get closer and closer and I wondered if it was going to stop. The pickup pulled up directly in front of us, bumper-to-bumper, nose-to-nose with us, lights shining in our faces. The driver stared at us, not moving an inch. Mist danced in the headlight shine between our vehicles as the man in a plaid shirt and baseball cap gripped his steering wheel with both hands and sat motionless. He was literally blocking us from going an inch further.
At this point, we’ve got a stranger in a pickup on one side of us warning us to turn around and another stranger blocking us from proceeding. We were barricaded on both sides. It’s times like this that a crowded, noisy campground doesn’t sound so bad.
The guy continued to tell us, “These people don’t want to be found. They are anti-government and are heavily armed. They’re okay … if you leave them alone. Did you see where I turned around?”
“Yes,” we gulped.
“That’s where their property begins. You need to turn around. Now,” he sternly warned.
My heartbeat caught in my throat. He was serious and so was the guy in front of us, daring us to go any further.
Bruce calmly replied, “Okay let’s do that.”
“Do you need help turning around?” the guy asked.
“Yes, that’d be great. Thanks,” Bruce said. I didn’t understand how he could be so calm with a poker-face smile. I sat silently watching the pickup truck in front of us for any flinch of movement.
The one-lane road could not accommodate our huge RV and the radius we needed to turn around, so we had to reverse all the way back to the bridge in the pitch, black dark, then trust this stranger to help us turn around on the narrow bridge without falling off the side to the steep drop-off below.
I gripped the hand rest on my door. My heart pounded in my chest, and I prayed hard. We had to put our trust in this stranger, who we weren’t sure if he was a kind, local guy who didn’t want to see us get hurt, or if he was the first line of defense for this off-grid compound. After all, how did he even know we were here? How did his timing of driving an isolated, dead-end road at almost midnight perfectly coordinate with ours other than his comment that he saw us drive by? I had more questions than answers, but I wasn’t talking.
As we began a thirteen-point turn on the bridge, the man in the pickup truck that had blocked us in at the front slowly backed into the woods, keeping the nose of his truck at the road’s edge with lights on and engine idling. He was making sure we were turning around. We were being watched and it was beyond creepy.
Bruce and the other guy managed to successfully get our rig turned around. Finally, the pickup parked in the woods slowly pulled out and drove back towards their compound. Meanwhile, the guy who helped us came over to my side of the RV. My window was down so I could help watch that we weren’t driving off the edge of the bridge. With hands folded, the guy rested his forearms on my door’s ledge, his arms and hands dangling directly over my lap.
Enter my autism. Before social distancing was ever a thing with Covid-19, a typical, natural social space for most people is three feet. I’ve always joked that mine has always been six feet. For this reason, plus I am a woman and do not know this man, the entire experience in general made me feel extremely uncomfortable. If he was one of them, at that point he could’ve yanked my door open, or grabbed me as his hands were literally hoovering over my lap as he leaned in toward the open window, his face so close I smelled his breath; again with the Covid-19 concern.
I thought to myself, “Who feels this comfortable to be this close to someone they don’t know? Why does he feel he has the right to hang on our RV? Why is he doing this?” I pushed myself as far back into my seat as I could without looking obvious as to not offend.
He chatted for a few minutes like this, which felt like an eternity. All the while his rider sat staring straight ahead into the night through his sunglasses, his dog still locked onto us.
What started as a night of dispersed camping morphed into a frightening moment of personal safety and a precarious position for Eddie on that small bridge. The elusive campers hidden throughout the woods with all their warning signage was a huge clue to get outta there. The pickup driver racing toward us and setting us up in a standoff headlight-to-headlight with him was scary and surreal. And this stranger outright telling us, warning us, to not go any further as these folks don’t take kindly to strangers and are heavily armed was terrifying when you’re in a huge RV facing the wrong direction on a one-way road in the middle of the night. I thought this kind of stuff only happened in the movies.
We watched the two guys and their dog drive back up the dusty dirt road toward the highway and we followed at a distance. I kept a keen eye out in our review mirror to make sure the second pickup indeed turned around and didn’t pursue us. We eventually found the open dispersed spot from earlier and settled in for what was left of the night. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sleep with one eye open.
Who were the people living in the off-grid compound? Why were they heavily armed? Armed against who exactly? Why did our presence threaten them? Threaten them against what? Who were the guys who stopped us? Where did they come from? What would the guy, who was blocking us in his pickup, have done if we hadn’t turned around? What could’ve happened to us as no one knew where we were … when where we were wasn’t even on the map.
A couple of thoughts cross my mind:
· Score one for staying on the designated trail. It was our choice to veer off it and one I regret.
· We are thankful for the kindness of strangers — regardless of their origin.
· Trust the gut. There’s a reason God gave us that small voice that sounds an alarm when needed.
· Make a better effort to arrive at our destination before dark.
· Heed the obvious warning signs.
· Learn from our mistakes and don’t repeat them.
· Stay grateful all ended well!
There is nothing like the freedom of the open road. The air smells better, colors are more brilliant, and even the same, old camping food tastes better in the wide-open spaces of life. While it’s easy to lose oneself in the moment of utter bliss, we’ve learned that it’s not good to lose our sanity in the process. Go explore! Have fun! It’s okay to get outside of comfort zones, but let reason have a voice, always travel with a buddy, and stay alert.
My grandmother once gave me the best advice and I pack it with me every time we travel now, “You have to watch as well as pray.”