The Ultimate Horror: Car Camping

Essay by Jane Koerner

Outdoors – August 1994 – Colorado Central Magazin

I’ve been in a flood and three tornadoes. I nearly drowned in a lake when I was six, and I crashed my Dad’s car onto the front page of the Kansas City Star in college. Since moving to Colorado so I could be closer to the mountains I love to climb, I’ve bounced 40 feet down gravel and collided with a tree. I’ve turned upside down on a rappel off a mountaintop and contemplated destiny 2,000 feet beneath my bare head. But nothing terrified me half as much as car camping.

Public campgrounds are reputed to be the safest places in the state to spend a night outdoors. Nothing like a snoring neighbor or the soft light of a nearby kerosene lamp to scare away the bogeymen of nocturnal imagination. But the night I spent at O’Haver Lake Campground on Marshall Pass was like spending a night in a haunted house.

Actually, after the bumpy ride up Marshall Pass with a collie-shepherd breathing down my neck from the back seat, I was very pleased when I got the last campsite, Number Seven, even though it was between the water pump and the outhouse.

I didn’t bother putting up the tent. Just piled the inflatable pad, the sleeping bag, and my one concession to homestyle comfort, a feather pillow, on top of the ground cloth.

Beside me in Number Six were the possessions of a family loyal to Ford Motor Company: an LTD, an Escort, and a silver Airstream. In Number Eight, on my other side, were two motorcycles hitched to a boat hitched to a Winnebago. I wondered how that arrangement had managed the washboards of Marshall Pass.

According to the bumper stickers, the family in Number Eight was fond of canyons: Grand Canyon, Chaco Canyon, Bryce Canyon, the Royal Gorge, and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. A lot of gear, currently not in use, had collected in their small family plot: a Coleman stove, a small Sony color TV, a chain saw, and four unoccupied lawn chairs. In comparison, my sleeping bag and pillow looked pathetic.

As I settled in, two adolescent cowboys rode their Yamaha mustangs around and around the campground. One reared when the front tire struck a rock, but the rider was too determined to be tossed off. This so amused my dog that he barked for 10 minutes.

Across the street, a man in a red Coors cap doused his firepit with too much lighter fluid, igniting his T-bone steak. Apparently he didn’t read Smoky Bear’s warning at the entrance, so he ended up putting out sparks until sunset.

The night was cloudless so I could see the waxen

image of the moon skimming the treetops and the reassuring lights of Denub, Vega and Jupiter. It looked as though tomorrow would bring perfect weather for the hike I had planned with John. He would be joining me at daylight to ascend a peak I had longed to climb for several years.

I DON’T REMEMBER what awakened me. But a boat as incongruous here as the Queen Mary had run aground on one of the hairpin curves of Marshall Pass. At first, rescue efforts went badly — judging by the headlights sweeping the area between the ground and the treetops. My dog barked useless threats, and the Ford Motor aficionados in Number Six woke up and aired their marital grievances en route to the outhouse.

Not long after that Number Eight decided he needed more firewood and attacked the ponderosa next to his Winnebago with his chain saw.

Then the boat crew began celebrating the extrication of their vessel. They built a couple of bonfires on the hillsides above the creek, and the one they called “Tex” lumbered up to camp, and urinated on my right rear hubcap. My dog growled, but didn’t attack. (Maybe he thought the intruder was marking somebody else’s territory.)

The wind took revenge, but on the wrong person. It gusted with fury, and raindrops as big as lima beans splashed my exposed face.

I left, and the raindrops grew bigger and bigger as I drove up Marshall Pass. I couldn’t see the oncoming rocks, potholes, curves, and cows — until they nearly hit me. Two miles, three. four, at least eight. I lost track. I didn’t stop until the road leveled near the top of the pass and O’Haver Lake Campground was nothing more than a black bottomless pit.

My tent went up In a hurry after the wind slammed my car door shut between me and the heater. The dog was just as eager as I was to crawl inside the tent, but he had acquired an unpleasant odor somewhere — so I shoved him out of the tent and let him fend for himself in the rain. It rained all night.

John arrived at 8 a.m., dry, warm, and cheerful. He sniffed the air and asked my why I had camped three feet off a road covered with cow pies. The dog shook his wet hair and disappeared under the car.

“Because I’d rather take my chances with cow pies than car campers,” I answered.

And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since that night on O’Haver Lake.

Jane Koerner is the editor of the Colorado College alumni magazine. She car camps at undeveloped sites now.