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ABOVE: A seemingly peaceful campspot on the shores of Idaho's Lake Walcott. BELOW: The scars on the window left by the knife.
ABOVE: A seemingly peaceful campspot on the shores of Idaho's Lake Walcott. BELOW: The scars on the window left by the knife.

When Good Camping Goes Bad

It was just after 3 a.m. when the chaos began. A horrible sound broke the stillness of the night that was like an unopened bag of potato chips popping. It wasn’t. Rather, it was a madman with a knife attempting to break the window of my car and rob me.

I was camped alone on the shores of Lake Walcott in the trenches of the Southern Idaho wilderness when the violence took place. I was on assignment from NewWest.Net to find the five best camping places in the area. I’d logged some 500 miles driving from Bend to the lake, situated about 40 miles northwest of Twin Falls. My arrival at its cool waters came just before the sun sank behind the brownness of the Snake River Plains. From what I could see, nobody else was at, or even near the lake that evening. A paradise all to my own. I set camp before complete darkness set in. A calm fire made from pieces of half-charred wood and small pieces of crunched tumbleweed was my only company. Well, that and a bowling-ball sized jug of Carlo Rossi burgundy. The fire required constant maintenance to keep from going out. Within an hour I became so frustrated and cold I had crawled into the comfort of the tent. There, I scribbled joyful notes about my peaceful drive and an afternoon spent in Boise with fellow NewWest Editor Jennifer Gelband. I flipped through some pages of Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road.” Both my body and mind felt comfortable and at peace. The feelings would not last.

Five hours after falling asleep my tired, bloodshot eyes were jolted open when another vehicle entered the parking lot near the lakeshore. The vehicle had a loud, raspy engine. My initial thought was that it was merely a fellow camper seeking a quiet place to rest. I glanced at my tiny gray clock and saw that it was 2:50 a.m. Soon after the vehicle’s engine quit and I resumed my peaceful slumber.

Minutes later the engine returned to life with a choking kind of roar. I opened only my right eye and mumbled a few curse words. The vehicle shifted into gear. The wheels crunched gravel as the car slowly drove away from the dark confines from which it came. Again, I fell back asleep.

And I’ll be damned if the car didn’t return three or four minutes later. Its muffled sound screamed across the lake. From where I was camped, about 25 yards from the parking lot, I could tell the intruder was now parked very close to my own car. It was then that I heard the cracking sound of a solid object pounding glass. My instincts, and the courage that came from the wine that still flowed through my veins, compelled me out of my French fry colored sleeping bag and into the night air. The half-empty jug of burgundy sat in a clump of crispy snow outside the tent. I was wearing my teal pajama pants and gray t-shirt. The skin of my bare feet was unprotected from the snow and earth.

I started to move slowly toward the parking lot. After a few careful steps I heard the sound again. Crack! It shattered the eerie stillness of the night. My heart started to pound heavily with a rush of blood and energy. I picked up my pace to steady jog and within seconds stood only several feet from the passenger side of my gold 1995 Honda Accord. A man was peering through the driver’s window and he held something in his hand. I thought it was a club. Turned out it was a knife.

Without thinking, I screamed at the figure opposite me.

“Hey!” I said, with my index finger wrapped tightly around the wine jug held above my head. “What the fuck are you doing!?”

A man, a very scary man, peered up at me. His eyes were glazed and filled with raw surprise. He was sickly skinny and unshaven. Puffs of presumably stank breath poured from his presumably stank mouth. He looked like a morbid blend of Ted Kaczynski and Jeffrey Dahmer.

“I’m just trying to start my car,” he muttered. “Just trying to start my car is all, man.”

The engine of his beat up red Toyota continued to pound and gargle several feet away. I remember thinking, why would he be trying to start his car if it was already running? Before I could begin another thought the man had jumped in his car and started to escape through the lot. He didn’t bother to shut the door or turn on his lights as he rolled away.

“I’m just trying to start my car,” he yelled again, the sound of his voice faded by the miserable purr of his engine and a sudden gust of cold wind.

Gone. I was alone again. I stood shivering on the packed snow of a winter gone by. My hands trembled with fear. I tried to swallow but couldn’t generate the spit to do so. There were only two options: head back to the tent and go back to sleep; or pack up and get the hell out of there. The image of the knife-holding degenerate rolled through my mind. I opted to get the hell out of there.

I packed up quickly in the frigid temperatures of the Idaho wilderness. My titanium tent poles were so cold it felt like I was holding icicles. I didn’t bother to put on a hat because the sooner I was gone the better chance I had of not seeing the beast again. He was out there somewhere. That red car idling somewhere in the middle of the Idaho wilderness. The driver’s beady little eyes squinting as he putted along on a bouncy gravel road.

“Horrible nightmare” isn’t the right phrase, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.

It took about ten minutes to break camp and load the car. Although it was now close to 3:30 a.m. I wasn’t the least bit tired. In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever been so alert in my entire life.

“No more red car,” I repeated in my brain. “No more red car.”

My next fear was that my car wouldn’t start and I’d be doomed to some awful death alone in Idaho. Maybe they’d find me at the bottom of Lake Walcott during the summer, I thought. I envisioned getting snagged by some kid’s fishing pole as he tried to land that lunker trout his pops had always wanted him so desperately to catch. To have him reeling in the line, all smiles and wide eyed. Only to see the rotting, stinking corpse of some drunken journalist dangling from the end of his 20-pound test line.

Fortunately, my car started.

It was a 20 mile drive to the nearest town. Some place called Rupert. I hate that town. Even driving through it on the way to lake it gave off bad vibes. Stopping in evil Rupert was not an option, I decided. I hit the gas pedal hard and blasted through the 25 miles per hour street signs of Rupert going a solid 65. I made it back to Interstate 84 in 18 minutes. It should have taken at least 30. Probably more like 35.

I headed east with my mind still wired but by body dragging from too much burgundy and fear. Although my window had been pounded by the man’s knife, it had not shattered. There were, however, several long chips where he cut it with the blade. Who the hell tries to cut through a window anyhow? I kept on the 84 as it ducked south to Utah. There, not far from a town called Stone, I pulled over at a rest stop. There were rows of huge trucks in the lot. The sun was starting to peak in from the east. I curled up in a twisted fetal position and closed my eyes. The first image that popped into my brain was the man. The man with the knife. I cringed and fell asleep.

About Joseph Friedrichs

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Book Festivals of the West 2011

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8 comments

  1. Your description suggests yet another methamphetamine addict on the prowl for money or stuff to steal and sell. Trailhead parking and remote campsites are often prime targets for vandals and tweakers. I’d suggest that you consider purchasing and learning to properly use a handgun.

    Regards

  2. Mr Hayes suggestion of a hand gun hardly seems the solution to handling Meth criminals on camp sites. If Mr Friedrichs had a handgun with him and felt the same anger he felt that night where would the situation have gone. Mr Friedrichs might have used his gun and that would have ended the man’s life and ended life as Mr Friedrichs once knew. Murder of any kind even in self defense is hard to get out of one’s mind.
    When a person is so desperate that they will break into a car to steal merchandise that might be worth a couple hundred dollars- let them have it. Give them the stuff in the car and if they look cold give them the coat you are wearing. People who are the hardest to love are the ones who need love the most. Keep guns out of it and the world will be a much better place. As it turns out the Crazy man’s life goes on and Mr Friedrichs was able to buzz on down the road and enjoy a nice journey.

  3. This the kind of reason why I sleep with a handgun in the tent. A few years ago, a couple of tweakers kidnapped a guy from Glacier National Park and killed him, just to see what it felt like.

  4. Tweekers and Handguns?… Pretty sweet! The ol’ gold shark came through once again Mr. Friedrichs. I only ask who looked more like a deranged lunatic? The perpetrator. Or some gangly, half-asleep, half dressed barefoot-in-the-snow guy shouting obscenities and holding an empty bottle, check that….jug of wine above their head. So I take it that this campsite didn’t make the best-of list?

  5. 3,800 miles WOW!
    Sounds like it started with a nightmare now I eager to hear about the rest of the trip.
    By your photo, looks like you saw much nicer people in White Sands–isn’t it amazing???

  6. Well, gosh, Debby, your Ghandi advice could work super in the suburbs.

    Miles from town in the cold, surrendering your stuff to some crank fiend could very well lead to death by hypothermia (keep in mind, it doesn’t have to be all that cold to die that way).

    That said, bear spray is a cheap, less-lethal alternative that anyone can safely use (although a drunk could accidentally spray himself with it).

    If Mr. Friedrichs had doused this child of God with some Counter Assualt, why, he could be safely tucked in at a nice rehab facility, instead of roaming the hills victimizing more innocent people.

    By the way, “Helena,” I’ve never heard of the tweakers-kidnap-Glacier-visitor-for-thrill-kill story. Surely you can provide some documentation (a news story link) that this really occurred.

  7. this is really terrible writing.

  8. A few factual errors have cropped up in this story:

    1) Lake Walcott is northeast of Twin Falls. It’s also northeast of Rupert.

    2) ‘Trenches of the Southern Idaho wilderness’ is not what I would describe the lake as being, really. People live within three miles of the campground, and Rupert is only ten or fifteen minutes away (evil? Maybe, but certainly not Village of the Damned evil). If you really want the middle of nowhere in the same relative area, you camp at Lake Cleveland on the side of Mount Harrison, Independence Lakes, or out at the City of Rocks.

    3) The handgun advice given above is sound. Walcott Park is great for a daytime picnic, but not so great for camping. Any of the campsites from point two is a safer alternative, which is not to say that Minidoka County in general is unsafe: there’s one murder every five years there, if that.

    Regardless, I’m sorry you were scared while in this area. It’s really a pretty decent place to stay the vast majority of the time.