My husband is a farmer. I’m a wannabe writer and the poster child for wanderlust and macabre imagination. I’m the insomniac who watches YouTube gore into the early morning hours. Sebaceous cyst extraction is my usual appetizer; the main course is generally crime scene analysis or serial killer documentaries. Aside from that, I’m a really nice lady with nine grandchildren who aren’t afraid to spend the night with me. My husband is the most regular guy you’d ever meet. His body clock is tuned to the seasons and his bedtime is as consistent as earth’s orbit. He’s quiet and unassuming—the kind of man who never runs in an emergency or expects anything in return.
We recently had a narrow sliver of time, 48 hours, between harvest schedules so Mister suggested we take our new used camper van up into the hills for a couple days of boondock camping along the Cle Elum River. It’s always a crapshoot when you attempt to camp in Bureau of Land Management areas. Though you avoid the camp fee of National Forest Recreation sites, you never know if, a) you’ll find a spot and b) what kind of neighbors you’ll end up with.
The five-mile stretch of well-worn campsites was heavily populated. Brightly colored tubes, kayaks and rafts dotted the forest clearings alongside weekend lodgings of tents, campers, school-busses-turned-camper, trailers, pick-ups, Jeeps, dirt bikes and family cars. We navigated the dusty potholed road upriver past clusters of people ambling about in neighborhoods made of nylon, canvas and aluminum. We avoided the groups downing Bud Light and blasting Lynyrd Skynryd as well as the groups with 2.5 dogs per capita. We had come to read and relax–in quiet, if possible.
We found an adequate better-than-nothing spot and slid our campervan in between two tent sites. Both were void of people. Our small stake of BLM land had a generous wedge of river view and just the right amount of trees; enough for shade but not too dense that you couldn’t find a spot to doze in the sun. We breathed in cleansing lungs full of fresh air and noted the birdsong periodically punctuating the quiet. Sigh! Satisfied we weren’t infringing on anyone’s free space we extended our awning, laid a rug, set up our folding chairs and extended the slide out on our camper van. Set up was complete in ten minutes and we were ready to decompress.
We grabbed ice cold drinks out of the fridge and sat down in our fold out chairs complete with attached footrests! Ahhh, the life! Mister dove straight into The Wright Brothers but I had to take note of our surroundings before I could bury my nose into my book—a self-imposed text on memoir writing. Beside us, to the north, I observed a humble site: two older cars, a tent with broken poles, two mismatched lawn chairs, a blue and white cooler sitting in the sun on a stump and a small patio BBQ sitting on a large rock. Beyond this was a big tent trailer setup with all the comforts of home. Visible were two electric fans hanging from a large awning, three tables, a large bouquet of fresh flowers, colorful lights strung from trees, designated living areas for food prep, lounging and dining. Two bright yellow kayaks lay at the edge of their invisible camp boundaries. A shiny portable gas fire pit was situated on a low-lying rock with roasting sticks leaning against it. The mid-fifties couple did however have three dogs of various Rottweiler mixes. We found out later that Rottweiler Mom (no human kids) is an account manager for several rock bands. She recently fired Steven Tyler because “He’s a jerk,” she said. Her Alice in Chains hoody was covered with short hairs from Chance, Rufus and William.
The site to our immediate south seemed odd. It looked like the occupants had been abducted mid-meal, days ago. My imagination kicked into high gear and I pictured some misfortune that sent them barreling off to emergency services with a grave injury. The camp was sort of spread out in no particular order, no rhyme or reason. I’ve done a fair amount of camping but I’ve never had occasion to need a single five pound hand weight and if I had I’d probably not have left it lying out in the open ten yards from my tent and campfire pit. Dirty dishes were piled haphazardly next to a portable grill with an attached gas can. Two foam mats, in three pieces, were strewn in the bushes on sparse clumps of grass–nowhere near the tent or the sleeping bags. One tent lay deconstructed in a heap; two mountain bikes were cast aside. A large blue tarp covered a lumpy collection of something. Bodies? I sniffed the air. Empty water jugs lay dispersed throughout the site. A dismantled chain saw was poking out of a five-gallon bucket next to three 12-foot lengths of 2×6 fir boards. About 15 to 20 partially chopped firewood stumps lay stacked in various places throughout, though a burning ban was in effect.
I tried to read my pretend homework but my mind kept trying to resolve the scene to my right. Every so often I would think out loud, disturbing my patient husband comfortably enjoying his book and the quiet. “That is the weirdest camp site I have ever seen. Something isn’t right.” Mister kept his eyes on the page. “Uh hmm. Looks like a homeless camp to me,” he mumbled unalarmed. I looked to my right again and said, “What homeless person carries a chain saw and lumber…a purple five pound hand exercise weight for that matter?” I felt a mild obsession coming on. Mister glanced my way—clearly he sensed it too.
I grabbed some Peanut M&Ms from the camper and returned to my chair. Mister, who was no doubt hoping I’d stop worrying this bone, stuck his hand in the bowl while I nestled into my chair and my book. I whipped out my yellow highlighter and made some progress toward study. Later we assembled our new, and cheap portable gas grill from Wal-Mart. “Should we take pictures of their site? In case it’s a crime scene?” I tried to interject innocently enough. He just shook his head. “You can if you want,” he said. Was there a bit of an edge in his “if you want?”
I resisted the urge to grab my little 12 megapixel Panasonic—I purposely left my heavy gear at home. Mister Might-Be-Getting-Irritated grilled our burgers and I shyly made salad and cut up cantaloupe. We enjoyed our meal over small talk about our day and how nice it was to dine next to the river. I may have looked over my shoulder a couple times at Camp Misery. After dinner we took a walk up-river looking for huckleberries and investigating future potential campsite options. I really had expected to return and find our missing neighbors prepping dinner. Nothing. Nada. I covertly craned my neck to see if anything had been disturbed. Was that latte cup sitting there before? We played a game of Hand ‘n Foot, our go-to and then we watched What About Bob for the 385th time. Still funny.
At 9:00 p.m. we made up our bed and nestled into a comfy night backlit with stars and river song. We listened to our neighbors to the north who were brushing their teeth, opening and closing car doors, and trying to shush a tired toddler. At 10:30 p.m. I silently chastised myself for listening out for our other neighbor’s return. It was like the old days, lying awake waiting for teenagers who’d already missed curfew. It was a fitful night with no movement from next door. Where on earth were the occupants of Camp Weird-and-Getting-Weirder?
Next morning we both unintentionally hit the snooze button on our internal alarm clocks habitually set for 5:00 a.m. I relieved my bladder and peeked through the rear window shade. What? “Bob. I really think you should go over there and look for bodies inside the tent and under that blue tarp.” I was done being subtle. Something terrible has happened next door and I am not going to be one of those citizens who minds their own business and could care less about their fellow man. I’m in no way saying this is how my husband appears to me at times. “Sherrie,” he said in that part spousal, part parental tone that alerts me to his rising annoyance. “I think someone is living there for the summer and they’re probably with friends for the weekend.” Was that a no?
Fine. I slipped into the busy silent routine I resort to when I want to talk but tidying up will have to suffice. He cooked sausage patties. I forgot the eggs. We ate the rest of the cantaloupe. I grabbed M&M’s to round out the meal. Our neighbors to the north were gone and we didn’t even hear them leave. Was What About Bob too loud? I cleaned up the breakfast mess and Mister headed out with the Wright brothers and another cup of instant coffee. Just as I was hanging up the dishtowel Mister popped his head back inside. “There are no bodies in the tent…or under the tarp.” He retracted his head and closed the door.
He thinks that’s the end of it. I went after him. “You didn’t leave any finger prints, did you?”
His chest heaved with a slow inhale. He blinked. Exhaled. “I wore gloves,” he replied in mumbled monotone.
I plopped my book in my chair and announced assertively, “I’m heading up to that pop-up-tent-trailer site and see if they’ve seen any activity next door?”
When you have lived with someone for twenty-five years you don’t need many words. Since Mister isn’t big on words anyway, I have become an expert at reading his body language—which includes blinking, breathing and hand twitches. His breathing said, “Would you please just sit down and read your book!” The unskilled observer would interpret that last page turn as simply a page turn. I know better.
Laurie, manager of rock bands, and Doug, the camping enthusiast, said in stereo, “They’re a shady bunch.” Bunch? Like how many is a bunch? Doug continued, “I came in Thursday night and they were there—two guys. One of them came over with a red cloth sack and said, ‘Hey, guess what? I just caught dinner and skinned it myself…I didn’t even gag!’” Laurie said only half jokingly, “I told Doug they were serial killers and that we should go home! He pooh-poohed me but guess who slept with the axe last night?” We all laughed good-naturedly. I told them that I had asked Mister to go check for bodies and Doug snickered, “I’m beginning to feel run over by crazy women.”
Doug also said that Squirrel Skinner mentioned they’d be gone for the weekend and that they were going into the next town to find some weekend restaurant work. Eww…what restaurant? “They drive an old pick up full of copper wire casings,” Doug said. “I’d watch my cables if I were you!” He laughed and added, “There’s more room over here by us if you want to move!”
I walked back into our camp and fought the urge to make up some huge story that substantiated my, according to Laurie, very legitimate fears. Thank you very much! But I’m mature and just because I have a vivid imagination and watch too much YouTube doesn’t mean I don’t know when to admit defeat and acknowledge my opponent’s victory.
“Well. You were right!” I said as I walked passed Mister who had that prideful I’m-trying-to-be-humble grin on his face. I grabbed the camera out of the camper and headed over to Camp Mystery-Solved. To take pictures. In case.