August 17, 2003

What I Did During the Blackout

We didn’t get a blackout here in the Pacific Northwest, but Shelly and I wanted one. So we went “camping” this weekend at a long narrow lake in a canyon in the central Oregon desert.

Proper camping is when you hike at least an hour to a remote place in the sticks, preferably near a lake at the foot of a volcano, humping a pack stuffed with fifty pounds of provisions; camp stove, dehydrated chicken and rice, water filter, MacGyver knife, sleeping bag (no pillow), tent (no frills), waterproof matches, and beef jerky.

“Camping” is when you pitch your tent next to the car in a “campground” where you can listen to the ballgame on the radio of the guy in the parking space next to you.

We pulled into the so-called campground just after dark and took the last tent space. We hardly needed a flashlight to pitch the tent. The place was lit up like a parking lot at a sports stadium. Every campsite had at least one lantern on the picnic table. The people across from us had five.

So the tent thing was easy. Then I lay back to look at the moonless night sky and listen to the crickets. I needed those crickets. Only they could unwind the coil of urban stress in my back. Then I could melt into the shimmering sky and rest.

But it was not to be.

The family to our left had five kids, all of ‘em fighting over who got to play with the dump truck.

Near as I could tell, the oldest person in the five-lantern family across from us was fifteen years old. There were at least eight of them, and every one had a case of the giggles. The girls in the tent swatted each other with pillows, and the boys outside played cards and slapped their hands on the table.

The family to our right had two and a half kids, all of them boys. “Get up and help your mother with the pots and pans.” “But, Dad, I don’t want to do anything right now.” (I could relate.) “You’ve spent all of fourteen years not doing anything. Now move.”

People are not supposed to behave this way in the woods after dark. Especially not in a canyon that amplifies sound.

Our “campsite” was on the path to the bathrooms. The path is a street, mind you, paved with asphalt and slathered with gravel. Every kid under twelve who walked by insisted on scraping his feet. Shloomp shloomp shloomp. Their mothers always seemed to be yelling.

It was just like the city without any walls. It wasn’t nature. It was a tailgate party minus the beer.

I couldn’t enjoy the crickets, so I figured I’d just go to sleep. It was all I could do to shut off the racket.

In the middle of the night I woke to Shelly squeezing my hand. She sat bolt upright in her sleeping bag and cocked her head sideways.

Something’s happening. Something’s out there.

We heard munching sounds. An animal was eating our food. And it wasn’t a raccoon or a chipmunk. It was too loud, surely a large mammal. A deer? A bear? Then I heard feet scrape past our tent. Shloomp shloomp shloomp. Human. Some dipshit eating our Cheeze-Its in our camp at 2:00 in the morning.

Shelly unzipped the tent. Heavy feet clomped away in the darkness.

She wanted to walk to the bathroom but didn’t want to wander around alone, not with the Cheeze-It Killer on the loose. So we both went. The canyon walls were awash with a spooky gray moonlight. The band of the Milky Way was bright as a celestial grow lamp. Mars shimmered above us, as close to Earth as the planet has ever been. It was quiet for once, and it was finally dark. The lanterns were out, the yammering silenced. Every third tent we passed vibrated with snoring, but at last I could listen to the crickets.

Then the horror show started. First one then at least a dozen coyotes howled at the moon, then at each other.

If you’ve never heard coyotes you have no idea what I’m talking about. It is the sound of a hundred madmen stabbing babies with scissors. High-pitched, piercing, feral, bloodthirsty, and mad.

They are harmless animals, but not everyone knows it. Most people don’t get the chance to hear them, especially not those who treat the great outdoors like a suburban block party on the Fourth of July.

The hysterical shrieking ricocheted off the canyon walls. We were surrounded. The tent-snoring stopped. A hundred pairs of eyelids snapped to attention, and no one dared giggle or make a ruckus.

For the first time that night, everyone understood where they were and what was expected of them.

We’re not in Portland anymore. We’re in the hinterland, in the desert. There are things out there and they don’t like the blazing light and the racket.

I climbed into bed and was lulled back to sleep by the chirping of crickets.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 17, 2003 10:43 PM
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