Site #3 was reserved for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. When I went to bed on Friday night, the site was still empty. As I moved through the campground on Saturday morning, I saw a tent and a car on the site. The campers with the reservation had arrived.
After I saw the campers moving around, I walked over to check them in.
They were a young couple; I’d be surprised if they were out of their 20s. They were nice. They seemed normal, vaguely athletic.
In passing, I mentioned that they must have gotten in late the night before. The woman said they’d missed the turned into the campground, drove right passed it, then drove a long way on the main road before they’d realized they’d gone too far and turned around. Although it is very dark in the area, there is a decent-sized sign at the campground entrance. It seems like if they knew the campground was less than a mile from their last turn, they’d have been driving slowly and looking carefully for the campground sign. But maybe they didn’t know they were close. Few visitors to the area use paper maps, and few visitors know how many miles they’ll be traveling between one landmark and another. Maybe this young couple, like so many other visitors, was relying on their GPS system to get them where they wanted to be. People don’t realize GPS systems rarely work on this mountain.
I noticed their car was something of a beater. It wasn’t shiny. A large patch of paint had peeled off the hood. I noticed the car because most of the people who pay to camp on the mountain have newer, shiny cars.
I saw the couple again a few hours later at the parking lot. When the car pulled in, my co-worker made an unkind statement about it, maybe because it was particularly noisy. Those are my campers, I hissed. Be nice!
I took their parking fee and gave them my usual rundown of what they needed to know regarding the location of the trail and the restroom. As I was doing this, my co-worker noticed the hood of the car wasn’t closed all the way. He pushed down on it a couple of times. The couple didn’t seem surprised or upset to hear the hood wasn’t latched.
The young man was driving the car and ended up parking it at the front of the lot where my co-worker and I could see it. As they parked, my co-worker made a comment about the car coming here to die. Beaters are much more common in the parking lot than in the campground, so the car must have sounded really bad to get so much attention from my co-worker.
After the couple walked the trail, they had a lot of questions about other hikes they could do. My co-worker and I each pulled out a map and showed them routes of nearby hikes that are popular. Then they left.
Fast forward to Saturday afternoon when I returned from the trail: the tent was still up on site #3, but I saw no car and no people there when I checked-in the campers on site #2.
On Sunday morning when I checked the campground for late night arrivals, I noticed there was no car on site #3. Wow! I thought. Those people must have gotten up really early to hike.
When I got back from the parking lot on Sunday afternoon, there was still no car on site #3, but the tent was still there. The seemingly deserted campsite was getting a little weird to me. Of course, maybe the people had returned while I was working at the trail and had left again before I got back to the campground. But while that scenario was possible, it wasn’t the way my campers usually behave. Typically, no one’s gone on a hike before 7am. People that gung-ho about hiking probably go to a wilderness area or do dispersed camping in a remote location.
I went up to site #3 to see what condition it was in. The tent was there, but not a single item was on the picnic table. Nothing but the tent was on the ground either. I didn’t look in the tent—that seemed out of bounds—but I was getting more and more worried about the campers.
Late in the afternoon (but well before dark), the people from site #2 drove over to my campsite. They were tired and had decided to leave early, but wanted to give me their comment card before they hit the road.
I asked them if they’d seen their neighbors from site #3 during the day or even the night before. They said they hadn’t. They’d never even laid eyes on the people, they said. They laughed and said they’d joked the tent on site #3 was a setup so they’d think they had neighbors and keep quiet.
The man from site #2 asked me if I’d been walking near their campsite around eight o’clock the night before. I said I had not. The man said they thought they’d heard a footstep nearby the night before, but they’d definitely never heard the neighbors’ car. He concluded that maybe it was an animal they’d heard.
After the people from site #2 left, I got more worried about the people from site #3. I hadn’t seen them or their car for over 24 hours. I remembered the old clunker of a car they were driving. I remember their lack of maps. I remembered the woman telling me how they drove past the campground and went a long way in the dark before they’d realized their mistake. They seemed ill prepared to deal with being lost or having their car break down.
I wasn’t quite worried enough to make the twenty-five mile round trip to where my boss was stationed. I figured the couple would wander into the campground that night, and I’d feel silly if I had prematurely raised an alarm. I kept the door of my van opened until dusk. I kept my ears open too, listening for the sound of an engine on the other side of the campground, but I heard nothing.
The next day was my day off. I got out of bed before 4:30 and dressed and prepared for my trip to Babylon. I needed to do laundry and wanted to finish before the heat of the day settled. It was still dark when I left, but I made a special point to drive up to site #3 and look for the car. No car, although the tent was still there. Now I was worried! I was 96% sure the couple hadn’t arrived after dark and left again before daylight.
I waited until 7am to call my boss. He knew exactly what people I was talking about. They’d contacted him the night before. Their car had broken down. They’d had it towed to Babylon and had been waiting for the repairs to be completed. They’d called my boss in the hopes that their belongings wouldn’t be discarded. My boss told them not a problem (which would be his catchphrase, if he were a character on a sitcom.)
By the time I got back to my campground on Tuesday, the tent was gone.
I’m glad those people weren’t dead.