Beware of Camaro

Column: I'm So Hungry I Could Eat a Gas Station Sandwich By Paul LeDuc Pretzer

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We were in the middle of nowhere. Well, I suppose if you had grown up on the Oregon coast you weren’t exactly in the middle of nowhere, but by our standards, Midwest, West Michigan tourist land and all, it was the middle of nowhere. Heading down Highway 101, about ten miles south of Florence, bound for Reedsport, a friend’s, a comfortable place to sleep, and most importantly, a shower, we heard a horrible thud followed closely by a continuous grinding sound, like gravel being shaken in a metal trash can, or maybe a bit more like a dozen combination locks going for a spin in a big tumbler. I was driving at the time and pulled over. Once I had pulled over, the van wouldn’t go forward or backward any more. We were a little over two weeks into the first Jim Jones and the Kool-Ade Kids tour, roughly twenty four hundred miles from home, and the rear axle on our van, unbeknownst to us at that moment, had basically blown up.

It had already been a long day. We had driven the width of the state, leaving Idaho at the crack of dawn, where we had spent the night pulled off the side of some service road after Keltor had been threatened by an extraordinarily large flock of angry white owls driving down the highway at three in the morning, or at least that’s the story we got out of him, and he has always stuck to it. We arrived on the coast later that day, in my old hometown of Florence, with a tiring stretch of state left in our wake, and went to my favorite place for pizza. It was dark by the time we finished eating and headed to Reedsport to meet up with my friend from childhood, Gary, who was going to put us up for a couple days.

The good news was that we were only about ten miles from Reedsport and Gary, but the bad news was that we hadn’t passed a house or place that looked inhabited for at least a few miles. Finding a house was one thing, but finding a house with a phone and someone to let us in and use it after dark was a different matter altogether. I was familiar enough with the area to know that we weren’t going to stumble upon a gas station with a pay phone in either direction, at least not until we hit Reedsport. This wasn’t what anyone would call civilization, and sparsely populated would be a bit of a hyperbole. We decided that we probably stood a better chance of coming upon some house or dwelling continuing south because we knew we hadn’t passed anything from the north for several miles.

The only decision left was who was going to make the hike. Which of us was destined to venture forth on this quest? Or maybe something a bit less dramatic.

It was decided that two people would stay behind in order to guard the van, and more importantly, the gear inside of it, and the other three would walk until they found a phone to call Gary to come and rescue us. This wasn’t a duty anyone, except Steven, who had the strangest sense of adventure, wanted to take on. It was a much less arduous duty to remain behind in the safe confines of the van, kicked back, and listening to music, rather than negotiating that hilly and curvy stretch of 101 in the creeping darkness of a young night.

We didn’t draw straws, that much I know, but the method with which we decided who would stay and who would go escapes me now. Perhaps it was rock-paper-scissors. More likely it was payment for a debt or favor, an IOU in the bank for someone, but who knows? I do remember that Steven volunteered cheerfully. And I know that Scotty and I ended up going as well. I believe the decision was based in part on the fact that David wanted to play chess and Keltor was the only other person who knew how to play chess, so they stayed behind, apparently to play chess by the light of the fluorescent camping lantern. To the best of my knowledge, it was the only time on any of the road trips, at least that I can remember, either of them played chess.

The three of us headed out into the strange night. Starting out, we made the best of the task before us and chatted as we walked. The tour was young, our album was coming out, we had the world before us, so we just laughed and told stories to pass the time. We were pretty bummed out about the van, but not knowing what exactly had broken or gone wrong yet, we had no idea that we should be more worried than we were, and we were really more concerned and focused on finding a phone, and getting rescued, and getting the van towed. Our spirits were high for a little while, considering the situation, but only until we started to realize how far in the middle of nowhere we were.

It didn’t take long before we felt like strangers in a strange land. We walked in the blackness that only comes with isolation, up steep grades, around sharp corners, down steep grades, around more sharp corners, and all the while feeling smaller and smaller. I remember when we passed our first reflective mile marker and how long it felt it had taken to travel that mile, negotiating the hills and curves, and realizing how long it had taken us to go such a short distance, and how disheartening that was. There was only an occasional motorist who passed by, but no one stopped to ask us if we needed a ride, although they had surely passed the van just down the road with flashers on. Considering the name Jim Jones and the Kool-Ade Kids was painted on the side in huge letters, I really don’t blame them.

One car that came upon us took notice, however, but not in a good way. A Camaro heading south, on the same side of the road we were walking on, came around a corner and slowed down a bit when we came into view, like a bull slowing its stride to measure up its target without losing too much momentum. We turned to look at the oncoming car, like three stupid, ugly hissing possums, and saw them gun it and swerve off the road towards us. It was a half hearted attempt, but enough to freak us out and cause us to jump out of the way, towards the ditch. Due to the topography, there wasn’t a lot of room to get off the road; it was all big trees, thick undergrowth, or drop offs. From the safety of a patch of rhododendrons, we could hear indistinguishable shouts and jeers as the car sped away around the next curve and into the pitch.

We got up, dusted ourselves off, and were left without words, just staring at each other and trying to get a handle on what had just happened. Chalking it up to some bored, heartless assholes, we started walking again. It only took about two minutes or so before the sound of that big engine, somewhere down the road, unseen behind a curve, headed our way. We stopped in our tracks, unsure what to do, but ready for anything at that point. Headlights splashed against the trees on the bend of the curve up ahead, suddenly a cruel contrast between safety and danger, and grew in intensity until the Camaro, as if connected to the pool of light by some hidden line, broke into the curve and accelerated in our direction. My first thought was oh, shit. My second thought was that we were okay because they were on the opposite side of the road now, heading north. I suppose, in hindsight, this wasn’t the brightest analysis of the situation, considering this was a car that had tried, or at least pretended to try, to run us over a few minutes before and had now decided that it was worth the trouble to take another run at us. Apparently, Steven and Scotty lacked the same sense of imminent danger because they didn’t make a move either. All three of us just stood there, dumber than ugly possums because we didn’t even have the sense to play dead, and waited to see what they had in mind.

There was no other traffic, so they had no problem crossing over into the southbound lane and aiming for us just standing there on the shoulder of the road. Once we decided they weren’t going to pull out of it, we came to life and dove back into the ditch, thankful that this wasn’t a patch of the southbound roadside that dropped down to the Pacific Ocean. They swerved back to their lane as we disappeared and tore north up the highway, followed by the same rowdy shouts, but this time I heard the unmistakable song of, “Fuck you!” trailing out of their open windows on the crest of some heavy metal chorus.

Now they had us worried. There was nothing we could do about it. We were in the middle of nowhere without any help or way to get any help. We were way too far from the van now, a couple of miles, to go back, and who knew how far from any sign of life or a telephone. It was a couple of minutes before the Camaro returned, heading south again. They obviously thought that they would stall between runs in order to give us a false sense of safety. We decided to cross to the east side of the road, where there was a good tree line and undergrowth, a better place to take cover, and we wanted to get over there before we came into their view.

At the moment, we could hear them but couldn’t see the headlights leading around the curve yet. It was about a ten yard steep incline on our side and a dense tree line on the other side, so we climbed it carefully in the dark and took cover, lying on our stomachs in the brush overlooking the road. When they came around the corner, they were moving slow; it was obvious that this was where they expected to come upon us again. They slowed down to a stalking crawl. As they passed slowly underneath our hiding place, we could hear them talking, buried beneath the music that was blaring from the open windows. They were barely moving when someone turned the music off. They weren’t talking anymore, and I was shocked by how quiet it was, save for the purring of the almost idling 350 engine buried inside. I wondered what they were listening for. Did they expect us to be shouting? Lumbering through the brush like clumsy bears? And if so, what was next? If they did hear us in the brush, were they going to get out and come after us? Then what?

We just lay there on our stomachs, part of the scenery, and watched. After what seemed like a long time, but in reality wasn’t, they turned the music back up and continued down the road at a slightly accelerating pace. We could hear the engine accelerate and decelerate around curves for a couple minutes after they left our line of sight.

At that point, we decided time was no longer a factor, and it would probably be in our best interest to hang out for a few minutes and either give them time to get a bit farther down the road or see if they were going to take another swipe. They never came back.

We walked south about another mile and a half, and we walked in silence. Any of the fun or adventure in the quest and been drained by the Camaro, the grueling hike up and down 101, and the disappointment of coming around corner after corner and bend after bend and never coming upon any sign of life. The first mile marker was surprising in how long it had taken; the next couple were nothing short of cruel jabs, taunts, and insults that added weight to each step.

Finally, after coming around yet another slow bend in the road, we came upon a lone house, set back off the road a bit, foreboding in its isolation. There was one light on, near the front door, but it was a room light, not just an entryway light, so I was hopeful. We walked up to the door, which was located on the side of the house, and we gathered under the weak yellow light over the front door. There was a sign on the door fashioned out of cardboard and marker that read Beware of Dogs. I took note of the plural form.

Before then, I hadn’t given our appearance much thought. It always seemed to come up back in those days; people always seemed shocked by the long-haired, scruffy, slightly unkempt rock dudes that we were, at least while on the road that is and especially in remote rural locations, and I usually found it amusing. However, in this particular situation, we were dependent upon the person answering the door finding us trustworthy enough to let us use the phone, or at least make a call for us, and that depended, in large part, in their impression of us upon opening the door and taking us in, visually speaking, in the dark of night, in this remote location, and feeling like we’re worth trusting and worth helping.

Much to our shock, after what seemed like an interminable wait, and despite the rustling sounds in the unseen distance beyond the door and barking of several large dogs, the door opened slowly to the site of a tiny old lady, a trusting soul (whether that trust be in us or her dogs, who knows). Steven gave off the most harmless air, so we let him do all of the talking. He explained our situation, and the wonderful old lady let us in to use the phone. To this day I’m shocked she let us in. I don’t know what it was that she saw or sensed in us that allowed her to help us out, but I am thankful. We found out later there wasn’t another house or phone for several miles, so we would have been walking until dawn if she hadn’t let us in to use her phone.

After I called my friend Gary to rescue us, we waited outside at the end of her drive for him to come. Standing out there in the driveway in the dark, I thought about the guys in the Camaro. I wondered if they broke down and walked to this very same house, if she would have opened the door for them, too. And I wondered if she was the kind of person who would open the door for anyone. It was easy to think about the guys in the car, to feel you knew what kind of people they were, to start filling in the blanks, how crazy they were and all of that. But what about her? How crazy did she have to be? Between all of the people involved, she had to be the craziest.  I mean, as twisted as those guys in the car were or might have been, I guess that just didn’t seem to surprise me that much. You can’t swing a dead possum without hitting a crazy person, or at least an asshole. I guess deep down inside, a part of me expected someone to mess with us in some way. But that lady, opening the door for us at that time of night out in the middle of bum fuck nowhere, that surprised the hell out of me. That was crazy. Doesn’t that make her the craziest of us all?

When Gary picked us up, we continued down the road to our stranded van. We decided to wait until morning to call a wrecker because we were just too tired to deal with it then. Back at the van we found David and Keltor lost in time, engrossed in one of several games of chess they had played while waiting for us, relaxing in the van by the fluorescent light of a camping lantern, with no deeper thought than their next moves in the only round of chess they ever played on the road.

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Paul is a writer, editor, and musician who lives, works, and plays in West Michigan.