The Freedom of the Open Road

The first things that climbers and mountaineers think about, obsess about, and dream about are cold, hard stones and mountains, stretching into unknown skies above distant plains. The second thing that climbers and mountaineers think about is the open road. The open road can be any road; any highway; any dirt track; or anything at all. It is an abstract concept and cannot be quantified in mere words. It is every road and no road. It is absolute freedom; and it is a means to get to the wild. It is a symbol of freedom; and it is something, like the hills that always has a siren song. To me, the pull of the open road, and the influence it exerts was best summed up by J.R.R. Tolkien, in this iconic quote, “Roads go ever ever on/Over rock and under tree/By caves where never sun has shone/By streams that never find the sea/Over snow by winter sown/And through the merry flowers of June/Over grass and over stone/And under mountains in the moon/Roads go ever ever on/Under cloud and under star/Yet feet that wandering have gone/Turn at last to home afar.” (Tolkien, The Hobbit).

If you were to ask me, every climber, every mountaineer, and every adventurer needs to experience the pull of the open road at one point. And, if I was to be further pressed, I would say that every person needs to experience the freedom that the open road provides. On the open road, every person has the ability to see their life for what it is and what it could be free from the constraints and distractions of everyday life. Yet, for all of the potential that the open road brings, for all of the positives that it can provide, it is wild; it is uncharted, and it can be dangerous and deadly.

In 2002, I set out on the road in my SUV. It was my first grand journey. I planned to live out of my car or tent for four months, and I planned to climb and mountaineer my way across most of the Western United States. I planned the trip based upon what information I could glean from books, and paper maps, as there was no outdoor internet community to provide me with trail reviews, reports, or GPS tracks. My main asset on my journey was me: I had great outdoor skills; I had spent hundreds of nights camping and adventuring domestically and abroad; I had been in tight spots in distant locations; and I knew the difference between a coyote howl and Sasquatch. Also, as ex-park service, I knew that the wild was wild, and that in the wild, there were dangers from man, beast, and the unknown. I knew the risks; I accepted them; and I was not afraid about things that went bump in the night. When I set out on the trip, I took my skills, my huge stockpile of paper maps, my used gear, my ramen, and my peanut butter. I did not take, or own a GPS unit – they were too expensive and too unpredictable at that time. I also did not have a personal locator. I did have a cell phone – but as a practical matter, it was useless unless I was in a major city.

After two months on the road, I entered Colorado. Before Colorado, I had climbed my way across Southern California, Arizona, and Utah. I had had adventure after adventure and I wanted more. After a week in Colorado, I was sold. There were more fourteen thousand foot mountains than you could shake a stick at, and if that wasn’t enough, there were tons of thirteen thousand foot mountains. There were hundreds of miles of dirt roads to explore; and thousands of acres of National Forest to camp in. As an added bonus, the people were friendly and helpful. At that point, Colorado seemed like heaven to me.

In this state of stinky mountaineering bliss, I found myself outside a small town in Colorado, heading up another dirt road into yet another National Forest with plans to climb yet another mountain the next day. As I bumped up the fifteen or so odd miles of dirt road, I stared at the scenery – trees, rivers, more trees – all fenced in by high peaks and marveled at how fortunate I was to be the only one seemingly in the area. At 16.3 miles, I checked the handwritten notes I had written on my map, and determined that the area I was in was the right area for my next day’s climb. Off the road, there were a couple of slightly developed areas that climbers had clearly utilized before. I backed in, turned off the car, and decided that I would just sleep in my car as I felt too lazy to set up my tent. Since I was free of camping chores, I decided to take a quick walk to see where the route would leave from the next day, and to see if there was anyone around who could tell me about conditions on the mountain. I walked out of my site and headed up the road. On my left, a small stand of aspen trees rustled in the end-of-day breeze. On my right, darkness had already fallen in what was left of the actual forest.

Past the stand of aspen, the road topped out in a slight rise before heading east. To the West was the approach I was looking for, along with an additional campsite. This site had a tent in it. Since I didn’t want to intrude on anyone, I called out a cheery welcome, and got no response. On the off chance that I hadn’t been heard, I decided to head into the site and see if it was indeed empty. I took two steps into the site, and stopped. I stopped because the site just didn’t have a tent in it – it had a weight bench as well. That was odd. Even more odd was that the weight bench was tipped over. The bar, and the weights were piled haphazardly around the overturned bench, and from what I could see, rusting.

I opened my mouth to call out again – and then decided not to. Instead, I looked around me. There were no new tire tracks in the site, and there were no foot trails – or prints around the site. If anything, the site was slightly overgrown. And, as I looked closer at the tent, I realized that it wasn’t just old – it was faded. I paused. On the one hand, I had seen so many things brought deep into National Forests – couches, trailers, and televisions that a weight bench wasn’t out of the ordinary, even if it was overturned. On the other hand, it was a little strange that all of this stuff had been brought out to the middle of nowhere and more or less abandoned.

After a minute, I convinced myself that perhaps, this was someone’s summer climbing base camp, and it was none of my business. As I walked out of the site, and back onto the road, my footsteps seemed unnaturally loud to me; and as a result, I walked faster and faster until I was in my car. In the darkness, safe in my sleeping bag, I shook my head at myself. I was scared…of an abandoned campsite? I had ran back to my car because it was….mostly dark? Those actions were so unlike me. I couldn’t believe that I had given myself the heebie-jeebies over nothing. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about that abandoned campsite. After a while, even my ridiculous thoughts ceased, and I began to fall asleep.

Then, I heard it. Crunch crunch crunch crunch. My eyes snapped open. I was no longer half asleep. I was awake. I slowed my breathing; tried to ignore my pounding heart, and listened. It was quiet. The aspen were rustling. I figured I had imagined it, and was about to close my eyes again. Crunch crunch crunch crunch. There. It was there. I had heard it again. It was unmistakable. It was something walking. On the road. Crunch crunch crunch. It was definitely bipedal. It was a person. I knew it was a person.

Wrapped in my bag, wedged in between all of my gear, there was only one thing I could do. I pinched my leg HARD. As tears welled in my eyes, I steadied my breathing. I knew I was awake; I was not dreaming. With that resolved, I would now listen, and determine if there was an actual situation that I needed to address. I listened. I listened. Snap. Off to my left, somewhere in the stand of aspen, someone was walking, or breaking branches. Snap.Snap. Then, it started again. Crunch crunch crunch crunch. Then, in unison. Snap. Crunch. Snap. Crunch. Crunch Crunch Crunch. Snap.

A minute passed, and then another minute passed, and I kept listening. The noises would come; they would go; but I could tell that there were at least two people walking and moving around the area. I laid there, looking at the celling of my car, and I tried to rationalize what was going on. Could be people on a night hike. Could be the people from the other campsite. Could be lost climbers coming off one of the nearby peaks. None of these explanations made any sense – especially as whoever was walking around was not using a flashlight or a headlamp or a lantern. I felt the door next to me. It was cold. It was hard. It was made of steel. I was safe. I was wrapped in a steel and glass cocoon. There was nothing to worry about because I was in a SUV that no one knew I was in.

Or did they? In the dark, my mind began to race. What if, when I pulled in, I had been watched by an unknown person or persons. What if? From my years of experience in the wild, I knew that it was entirely possible, and entirely plausible I could be watched without having the slightest idea. And once that thought had lodged in my brain, I knew that I was not going to sleep that night. I laid there, and I told myself that I was being ridiculous. I had spent hundreds of nights in the wild, I had seen strange lights, I had seen and heard strange things, and always, on every night nothing had ever happened. I was going to lie there, the noises were going to go away, and I was going to be fine. Tomorrow, I was going to climb another mountain. I was going to be fine.

Another couple minutes passed, and I realized that not only was I not going to sleep, every sense in my body was not going to let me relax. Every pore of my body was now screaming the same thing that my brain kept saying, which was: you need to leave. (!) Reluctantly – I decided to leave. I felt ashamed. I had never let any fears stop me from camping anywhere before, but, this seemed to be a special case. Even though I felt ridiculous, I quietly untangled myself from my sleeping bag, and slipped into the driver’s seat of my car. I let out a shaky breath, shook my head at myself for being foolish, and flipped the lights on as I hit the ignition. The headlights shot across the road…and illuminated the whites of a man’s eyes staring back at my car.

He was two trees back from the road in the forest. His face was covered in…something? Camouflage? Mud? Dirt? He was wearing dirty clothes and he was standing there, stock still, half bent over, staring at me. My eyes took all of that in, and before they could register just how strange that was, they saw things in the trees. Symbols, figures, men, all strung from branches, all made from branches, all hung with knotted cords. I saw all of these things in a second and froze.

“OH……..SHIT.” I said, more to myself than anything. I had been wrong to stay all of those extra minutes; so wrong. Reflexively, my foot hit the gas and my car surged forward onto the road.

SHIT!  I swore again as the back swung around wildly. SHIT SHIT SHIT! I looked back. There, caught in the red glow of my brake lights, was a figure – RUNNING – after me. SHIT! I swore again as I looked back at the road, just barely catching the corner, before I drove off the road. I risked a glance back. There were now two figures chasing my car. SHIT! I looked at the dark around the dirt road and knew I had to risk a little more speed. My foot hit the gas again, and I accelerated for two minutes, before slamming on the brakes to swing around the next turn.

After that turn, it was a straight shot down the road for three miles. I put the pedal as close to the metal as I dared, and after a minute, my brain knew that there was no way anyone could catch me, unless they had a car of their own. I was safe. Even though I knew I was safe, I drove faster than I would have through the night down the dirt road until I was on the paved road and back in that small town. When I got in the town, I stopped at the Forest Service office, even though I knew they were closed, and left a note. The note was more supposition than anything – an empty campground – weird people in the bushes – but I had to tell someone. After that, I got back in my car, and put as much distance as I could between that spot and another location.

A couple days went by, time passed, and I relaxed. I began to think about the incident as some sort of stupid prank that I had fallen for. It seemed implausible that there would actually be people in the wilds of America that would be doing that. A week later, I was atop Mt. Elbert with one other mountaineer and his dog. We fell to talking; he asked me what I was doing, I told him about my trip; and where I was going. He listened, and then told me of the peaks he had climbed; and the areas he had been, and the areas I should avoid. Before I could relate my story, he stopped for a second and said, “Actually, there’s this one area you shouldn’t go, because people go missing there every year ….”.

That area? You know what area. It’s the area I just told you about.