Road trip USA! (and the psycho hillbilly)
America is a huge country, a place of remote and vast wildernesses where you can truly be in the middle of nowhere. And that remote mountain road that we took out of Yellowstone, heading east through the Rocky Mountains, really was in the middle of nowhere. There were no towns anywhere nearby and our road was a squiggly line across a big white space on the map.
You sometimes hear it said by visitors to the US that they feel like they’re in a movie… and growing up watching American movies and TV does mean everything has a familiar feel when you eventually go there and see it in the flesh. I guess that when people say that, they’re usually thinking of their favourite comedies, action blockbusters, Christmas movies and whatever… but as we drove along that winding mountain road in the dark with some lunatic chasing us in a Toyota pickup truck and making as if to knock us off into the void, it felt like being in a movie alright – but more like a slasher movie…
Ross and I had met Anna the previous year in Rome while Interrailing around Europe in a motley gang of four. Anna and her boyfriend were staying at our hostel and we all hung out together for a few days of cheap pasta, drinks in the Campo de’ Fiori, and drunken paddles in the fountains; a few weeks later we hosted Anna and Trevor in Leeds as they made their final European stop in the UK before flying back across the pond. The following summer, Anna and her friend Shannon were planning their graduation trip, and invited the four of us to join them on a grand tour of the States in Shannon’s parents’ camper van. We couldn’t all make it, but Ross and myself accepted; it was time for a road trip!
We flew to Chicago and were met by Anna & Shannon (who’d driven up from Ohio), and all crashed at their friend’s place for a few days of sightseeing and Jaegerbombs before setting off across the prairies.
We’d camped out in the Rockies, watched the Independence Day fireworks in New Mexico, been put up in the middle of the Arizona desert by a random fishing guide with a (sting-induced) fear of scorpions, stood in awe on the Northern Rim of the Grand Canyon, hiked through the incredible natural wonders of Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park in Utah, drunk & eaten & gambled in Las Vegas, chilled in San Diego (crashing with Anna’s aunt & uncle) & popped over the border for margaritas in Tijuana, got stuck at the Mexico – US border (due to a minor problem with Ross’ visa waiver, which took longer than it should have to correct because the border guards took a little pizza break in front of the line of waiting people), checked out LA, crashed with Anna’s friends in Berkeley and checked out San Francisco, driven up Highway 101 and been dwarfed by the giant redwoods, crashed with Anna’s friends in Portland, driven around Oregon with Shannon’s parents and visited the hotel from The Shining and the house and beach from the Goonies and done Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions in front of the school from Kindergarten Cop (“I’m the party pooper“), drunk bottles of Jaeger in her aunt & uncle’s jacuzzi at their cabin in the woods outside Seattle, and had made it all the way up to Canada where we stayed with our friend Ginny in Victoria.
Ginny was another traveller we’d met the previous summer in Europe (while shooting pool in Brussels) and also kept in touch with (one of the greatest things about travel – every trip leads to new connections and future possibilities). She put us all up in her Chinatown apartment for a couple of days, and then it was time to hightail it back to Chicago in time for a Peaches gig Anna was determined to attend.
So we set off to cover the 2,000 miles from Victoria to Chicago in two days, with our lucky pot plant on the dashboard and a bag of Canadian oranges Ginny kindly gave us as we left… and we quickly ran into trouble at the US border; having forgotten about the oranges, and totally failing to consider our lucky plant, we declared on our customs forms that we didn’t have any weapons, explosives, drugs, contraband, etc etc… nor any fruit or plant materials. The customs guys said they were going to do a quick search, and picked out and held up the bag of oranges like they’d just busted a gang of drug smugglers. We then watched, mortified, as they gave our van a thorough ransacking, before being sent on our way with a 120-dollar fine and 3 hours behind schedule.
The delay meant we only made it to somewhere in the Rockies in northern Idaho by that night, where we threw up the tents in a campsite and grabbed a few hours sleep before packing up and driving on in the morning. There was some debate at this point about whether or not we had time to detour to Yellowstone as we’d planned, but Ross and I were adamant as we figured we might never be in the region again. We still had time to swing through Yellowstone and make it to Chicago in time, I argued, and besides I hadn’t come all the way to America just to miss Yellowstone for the sake of a Peaches gig! So we agreed that we’d head down to Yellowstone, do a quick drive around the main points of the northern area of the park without stopping too much, and then continue on east towards Chicago via Mt Rushmore and the Badlands.
But it was that insistence on going via Yellowstone that led to our encounter with the Toyota-pickup-truck-driving lunatic in the mountains. We left the highway and drove a couple of hours south towards the park, before being informed by a park ranger that some of the roads were closed due to a forest fire. So instead of swinging through the park and back out to the highway, we would have to go deeper into the park and exit by a different road, then drive a long way east before connecting with a different highway. As the sun was sinking we watched Old Faithful erupt, then jumped straight back in the van and carried on around Lake Yellowstone, finally leaving the park in the middle of the night along a narrow road that wound away through the mountains.
It would be a cracking drive by daylight, that road, winding along the flanks of a mountain range with a precipitous drop into the valley off one side, but at night the yawning darkness beyond the guard rail was a little nerve-wracking. Ross and Shannon were asleep in the back, Anna was at the wheel and I was riding shotgun. There were no city lights in the distance and no other cars on the road, until we rounded a bend and saw up ahead a red pickup truck crawling along at 20mph…
It seemed kinda weird and I looked across as we overtook, and saw what I can only describe as the classic hillbilly driving that truck – the long, dark, messy hair, the beard, the baseball cap, and the lumberjack shirt, and the generally dishevelled appearance, all matched my (Hollywood-derived) image of a crazy redneck. I only got a brief look at him – I would never be able to pick him out from a hillbilly line-up – but he looked pretty much exactly how I picture a Midwest survivalist gun-nut might look.
I think we commented about how strange it was that he was plodding along at such a slow speed, but we drove on at 60mph and didn’t expect to be seeing that red Toyota again… and indeed we didn’t see it, until it was mere inches from our rear bumper ten minutes later – because he’d sped right up behind us with his lights off. And then suddenly from darkness all the world was blinding light; he threw his lights on full beam as we were going round a mountain bend, and we almost crashed off the road right then and there – Anna did an awesome job not to panic and to keep us from plunging down the mountainside, shielding her eyes with one hand and steering with the other.
We didn’t know it was him at first, all we could see was the blinding light glaring from our mirrors… he backed off a little, and then accelerated again, taking a run at us. We braced for impact, and I pretty much thought shit I’m about to die. But he braked just in time, inches short, before backing off again and then taking another run in.
Ross took a look out the back window as he was backing off, to try and see what the vehicle was – he said it looked like a red pickup truck. The hillbilly. We had no idea what the guy was playing at or what his intentions were, but this was a sketchy mountain road that would require concentration from a driver at the best of times, never mind with a nutcase threatening to ram you off the road for god-knows-what purpose. He kept up this routine of backing off and speeding right back up on our tail, while Anna did an amazing job of keeping calm and keeping her eyes on the road… she suggested that maybe she could try to outrun him, but we figured that he was faster and maybe that was what he wanted us to do to help him get his kicks, and the chances and consequences of crashing would increase with the speed (and they were already bad enough).
So Anna stuck to the 60mph limit, and the rest of us tried in vain to dial 911 – no signal, of course. It was getting more and more like a slasher film all the time – Ross and Shannon moved around as much as they could in the back of the van, trying to make it look like there was a big group of us… perhaps, when we’d overtaken him, he’d looked over and thought it was just Anna and myself, and would be put off by the extra people in the back. But if he did end up forcing us to crash at 60mph in the mountains, it wouldn’t really matter how many of us there were in the van – we’d be at his mercy. So as he kept up this bizarre routine, scaring the crap out of us but still not actually ramming us, we had frantic conversations about what he was trying to do… maybe he’s just a drunk hick trying to scare a bunch of kids for a laugh… maybe he’s a murderer and rapist… maybe he has a gun… but at times like that, your natural flight or fight response kicks in – and flight didn’t seem like an option. So our thoughts turned to how we could defend ourselves.
Ross and Shannon reached back into the camping gear under the seats, giving us a hammer and a knife, and Anna had a can of anti-rape spray in her handbag. Shannon took the can, and Ross and I had a weapon each; we decided that in the event that he forced us off the road and approached we’d hit him with everything we had. We had no idea if he was armed, or what he was going to try and do… but we had basically decided that if he forced us off the road (without it causing us to crash horribly), then we’d have to try and incapacitate him by any means necessary, even if that meant killing the guy
Never in my life before had I actually been contemplating this sort of violent possibility (and nor have I since, thankfully). But the most immediate danger remained the possibility of plunging down into the river below; so then we thought about actually slowing down and stopping safely, if he allowed us, and seeing what he would do – and, if he got out and approached us, we’d jump him as planned. Would it still have been self-defence if he’d approached us like that and we’d jumped out and severely injured or killed him? Legally speaking, I have no idea. Morally speaking, would I have been able to live with it if that had happened and we’d killed him? Not sure – I think I, we, would have been haunted forever. But who expects to ever be forced to make a choice like that? The fact is that you don’t really wrestle with moral choices when you think it’s a life or death situation – and I was ready to try and kill this man if it came to it.
But it never did… he just kept on backing off, speeding up, backing off, speeding right back up again, probably for a quarter of an hour, with his lights on full beam the whole time. And Anna kept on driving as safely as she could without trying to outrun him or react to his charges, and I had a good look at the map.
The road we were on, which was our shortest route back to the national highway, looked like it was going to become even more winding and exposed as it went up and over a mountain pass, but the map showed that there was a right turning coming up a few miles ahead which went to the nearest town some 30 miles away, a place called Cody. This would be even more of a detour from our best route to Chicago, but our only concern right then was to get to safety, and the town of Cody seemed a better bet than continuing on this increasingly winding mountain road to try and reach the highway. So as we approached the turning, Anna slowed down and indicated, and executed a textbook right turn; and the red Toyota pickup truck slowed down behind us, waited for us to turn, and then drove on straight. And it was over, just like that.
But remembering that he’d already sneaked up and surprised once that night, though, we didn’t let our guard down. We kept the weapons to hand and Shannon took turns with Ross to watch the road behind us, and the tension remained high in the van as we drove the remaining distance to Cody. There we found a phone and called the police, explained what had happened, and gave the best description we could of the vehicle and its driver. And then we got some much needed refreshments from a gas station and debated staying at a hotel in Cody for a few hours. But there was a Peaches gig to be in Chicago for, and we decided to carry on driving through the night as originally planned.
The rest of the road trip was uneventful (as almost anything would have seemed after that). We stopped for a photo at Mt Rushmore, just off the highway in South Dakota, and we made the short detour to Badlands NP (where much of ‘Dances With Wolves’ was filmed). And we did finally arrive in Chicago in time for Anna and Shannon to attend the Peaches concert (while Ross and I – who were a tad sick of Peaches after six weeks in the van listening to her a lot – went for a drink in a nearby Polish bar and talked about football with a bunch of old Polish-American patrons who were surprisingly knowledgable about Leeds United FC). And that was the end of our American road trip. We’d clocked 8,000 miles in 6 weeks, including the whole West Coast from Mexico to Canada.
America is a beautiful country, it really is – the cities are what it’s most famous for, but the natural beauty is staggering. I don’t think any other single country I’ve been to, except maybe China, has such an amazing range of different types of scenery – deserts, mountains, forests, coastlines, and much of it genuinely astounding in scale and beauty. The Rockies tower over you, the Grand Canyon humbles you, the Utah landscape bewitches you… and then you have an all-night bender in Vegas. And we enjoyed such warmth and hospitality from Anna & Shannon’s friends and relatives, and so many free drinks from strangers who were stoked to hear we were driving across the States (or perhaps just liked Ross’ and my British accents), that despite our encounter with a nutcase I must say that America and her people are wonderful. Not least Anna and Shannon – it would be remiss of me not to mention that of the 8,000 miles we covered, neither myself or Ross drove a single one of them! I wish I had had my licence back then – I would have loved to drive along those roads through that amazing scenery. Ross and I attempted to pull our weight in other ways like setting up and breaking camp, but the girls both provided the vehicle and drove the thing, which was amazing of them!
Again, this is one of the best things about travelling – you can meet someone in a hostel bar one year, and if you stay in touch and keep that connection alive, who knows where you might find yourself somewhere down the line (Ginny, who’d put the lot of us up in Victoria, ended up putting up with me again for a whole year as housemates when I went back to Canada for a couple of ski seasons in Vancouver).
Even after being tailgated by a psycho in the Rockies, Anna still completed her night-time driving shift with me on shotgun duty while the other two slept; and I have this clear memory of us driving across the plains in South Dakota (I think) in the early dawn, listening to Madonna and feeling damn relieved that we hadn’t just either killed someone or been killed. The song ‘Borderline‘ has particularly stuck in my head, and whenever I hear it I remember that crazy drive and wonder just who the hell that guy was and what his intentions were. We’ll never know, and I’m glad we didn’t find out.