In the summer of ’99 I drove from Loveland, CO to Clayton, NY in about 35 or 40 hours as I remember, fueled on coffee and Colorado Kind, otherwise known as weed. A little bit of drive through fast food as well. I traveled in my Subaru Legacy fully loaded with everything my then-girlfriend and I might need for two months of staying in my hometown in Northern New York with my parents. There was just room enough for myself and my two cats in the car. Ronpopo and Trapper. My girlfriend went by train. Long story.
The one stop I made for any length of time was just outside of Columbus, OH. I was feeling pretty tired having been driving for 25 or 30 hours at that point, and got off the highway where I pretty quickly found a KOA campground. The cats were not in kennels and when I would get in or out of the car it was a real challenge to keep them from escaping, which they were quite determined to do. I planned on just throwing a sleeping bag down next to a fire and crashing for a little bit, then continuing on. I did a lot of road tripping back then and it was my habit to find a KOA and pull in under cover of dark and leave early without paying, sleeping in or next to my car.
I don’t know if you remember, but in the summer of ’99 there was a serial killer on the loose in the midwest known as the Railroad Killer. He was talked about on the news frequently that summer, and I’m sure I heard him mentioned on the radio as I was on this trip. As I pulled into the grounds of the KOA I did cross some railroad tracks, but I didn’t think much of it at the time.
I parked in a quiet spot, extricated myself from the Legacy without letting the cats out, and built a fire with wood I gathered up fairly quickly. The cats, side by side both stared out the windows of the car illuminated in the firelight. I needed to hit the restroom so I walked a little ways to the brick outhouse I saw in the distance. There weren’t many campers here and the occupied sites were quiet and still. I think I was at the sink in the outhouse washing up, looking pretty haggard in the harsh fluorescent light, when this dude came in drinking a can of beer. He took a piss, but immediately began chatting me up. He asked me where I was from, what I was up to, that sort of thing. “Traveling alone?” he definitely asked. He asked me if I wanted to share a beer, saying he hated to just drink alone, and a beer sounded good, and I had none. I did of course have a bottle of Jim Beam under the drivers seat, I always had that back then, and weed, but a beer sounded good. I said sure.
He came back to my fire and sat down with a beer for me that he’d grabbed at his cooler on the way. He started talking about football or something I wasn’t at all interested in, and I began to wonder what the hell I’d said yes to his beer for. But the beer was refreshing. I got my bowl packed and offered him a hit and we both got stoned. The cats looked on disdainfully.
Now, back in the day I was not one to get paranoid when stoned. I was a habitual stoner and if anything, I was paranoid when I didn’t smoke. I only felt normal when stoned. But as the conversation turned to the news and eventually to the Railroad Killer, I started thinking about those tracks I’d crossed on the way in. And this stranger in the glow of the firelight began to grow sinister as I looked around and realized that other than Ronpopo and Trapper, I was alone with this guy in the middle of nowhere. Next to the tracks.
Well, the time came for him to grab two more beers so he got up and walked toward his campsite and I immediately went for the Subaru so I could drive away. I wasn’t about to stay there any longer. Of course as I tried to get in the car the asshole cats both put up their best yet effort to escape. I pleaded with them to let me in. I hissed at them. I smacked the window glass. The stranger was on his way back toward me. I felt like that guy in the movie fumbling to get the key into the lock as the murderer approaches. I squeezed my skinny ass through the opening of the driver’s door no thanks to those two cats, and drove off as the stranger was walking back toward me, the fire still blazing. And that’s the story of how I didn’t get killed by the Railroad Killer.