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Thursday, 31 January 2019

Just Me and a Biker Gang, Camping out in the Wilds of Oklahoma

I'm taking off for a month's creative retreat in the northern wilderness (Scotland, that is). While I'm away, look out for a couple of extracts from my book Between The Rockies and a Hard Place ( While I'm away, I'll be writing about my life-long relationship with natural landscapes, my delight in travelling to remote places, my occasional need for solitude. In Oklahoma, when I was driving up (and down) the 100th meridian, I was reminded why I generally feel safer on my own than in company. 

After hundreds of miles of this kind of scenery, those bikers kind of livened things up for me

Boiling Springs, when I got there, turned out to be the central breeding-ground for the State of Oklahoma’s mosquito population. It was densely wooded, with fallen trees rotting at crazy angles in stagnant pools. Surprisingly though, the bugs seemed to have turned in early. Or perhaps they were waiting for the weather to warm up a bit: it had barely touched ninety during the day, after all.

The place had been constructed, or landscaped, or hewn out of virgin swamp, in the 1930s. It was a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps under the New Deal legislation that brought hope and self-respect to so many of those thrown out of work by the Depression. They even had a memorial to the CCC near the entrance, a marble thing erected in 1985 to commemorate the park’s fiftieth anniversary, and included on it was a relief portrait of the camp mascot, a German Shepherd named Mustard.  

What you want when you get to a place like this, late in the day, is one of two things.  Either to find that it’s totally deserted, in which case you may feel reasonably sure that you’re perfectly safe – that is, you’ve only your mortal dread of the dark to contend with; or that there’s a reasonable sprinkling of camper-vans or tents around you, in which case you may feel reasonably sure that you’re probably safe – always leaving aside the possibility that all those retirees sitting in rocking-chairs outside their aluminium-clad Airflows aren’t part of giant conspiracy to do away with you. Well, you wouldn’t laugh if you once spent a night in a city park in Nebraska to be told a few miles down the road next morning that, ‘Hey, they caught those sonsabitches at last, eh?’ What sonsabitches, I asked. ‘Oh, coupla high school kids on a killing spree. Been kidnapping and murdering lone campers across the Midwest these last ten days.’  

So, the last thing you want is to find that you’ve got one other person, or, even worse, one other group of people, for company. Imagine how I felt when I passed a bunch of six barrel-shaped, mean-looking guys lounging around a collection of monster bikes with low-slung saddles and convoluted displays of gleaming chrome. Some of them had receding hair tied back in pony-tails; others wore piratical bandannas; all of them had bare upper arms decorated with a blend of scar-tissue and tattoos, along with daunting amounts of muscle. Plus at least one crucifix. If there’s one thing that scares the living shit out of me, it’s psychos wearing crucifixes. I was once rushed out of a bar in Albuquerque when a biker with bandages round both wrists and a cross tattooed on his fore-arm asked me whether I’d accepted Jesus Christ as my personal saviour. I made two mistakes. One, I told him I was an atheist; two, I laughed. My friend, a paramedic with considerable experience among such people – he spent most Saturday nights scraping their victims off the sidewalks – hustled me out of there. Fast.

Now, I’m well aware that not every biker is a Hell’s Angel, and that not all of them make a habit of killing their old ladies and spit-roasting their offspring. I’ve seen the weekend supplement pictures of them cradling their little tattooed cherubs. Trouble is, do you believe what you see in the Sunday papers? I’m not paranoid, but I do have a healthy fear of the unknown. And, inasmuch as I only glimpsed this bunch of murdering cut-throats once – and inasmuch as most of them wore mirrored wrap-around shades – I was in no position to make a balanced judgement as to the likelihood of my getting out of the Oklahoma Panhandle alive.     

Trying to ignore what I’d seen, I chose a secluded patch of grass, open on three sides but with a stretch of water behind me. There was little likelihood of their launching an assault through three feet of black slime, surely. I put up my tent, then did a bit of exploring. What the place lacked was drinking water. There were the usual stand-pipes, but the supply hadn’t yet been turned on for the season. However, I still had a four-gallon container of spring water in the boot, and I had a couple of bottles-full on the front seat.

The shower-block, at least, was open, and the water ran hot – eventually. But the toilets – well, the toilets were a little unusual. Either they’d been deliberately left half-finished or they’d been deliberately half-dismantled. For the stalls, ‘the crappers’, as Americans graphically describe them, were contained by walls that came up to my waist. I looked around for signs that there might be builders at work – or maybe demolition men. But no: the three-and-a-half-feet of brickwork was finished off with a neat dash of cement. They were supposed to be that way. Anyone crapping on this site would have to have an exhibitionist tendency.   

Making quite certain that no one was around, I went to the nearest cubicle, opened the door – I mean the gate – and sat on the toilet seat. Kind of a test run, you might say. Even sitting down I soon saw that I would be entirely visible to anyone who happened to saunter in.

And what if it were the Hell’s Angels? What if I were there in there, minding my own business, and I heard their fairy foot-steps crunching over the gravel? It wasn’t a risk I was prepared to take.

The earth under the trees was nice and soft. With a stout stick I was able to gouge a neat hole, attend to my needs in peace, and bury the evidence under a little mound of black soil and leaf-mould. Job done.

I don’t know where the bikers spent the night. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to know.  If I could see them or hear them, yes, I would be able to keep track of them. But that would have meant spending the whole night awake, watching, listening, quaking. As it was, they were out of earshot and I was able to persuade myself that they’d gone into town, where they’d invade the first bar they came to, bust a few chairs over the proprietor’s head, and then impress the local females by crushing billiard-balls with their bare hands before trashing the whole place and riding back to camp with the best-looking girls slung across their petrol-tanks. They’d doubtless be gone some time. 

I did get to sleep, but not for long. I’d pegged the tent nice and tight, as usual, but it had managed to slacken off and once the wind got to work it flap-flapped all through the night. From somewhere out on the flatlands there was the mournful sound of freight trains whistling through.

I was up as soon as it got light, and had my tent packed in record time. For breakfast I  made do with a can of orange juice. Then, seeing no signs of life, I headed for the shower-block. And there, enthroned on one of the toilets and humming a cheery tune, was one of the bikers. No bandanna, no mirrored shades, ginger hair all askew, leather trousers round his ankles, his eyes glistening perceptibly as a loud ker-splosh! echoed off the white-washed walls. 

‘Real pretty day!’ he called across as I went to the farthest wash-basin and put the plug in.

‘Yeah, right.’ No way was I going to argue the point. 

‘Sleep all right with all that wind?’ I could hear him yanking a few yards of paper off the roll and screwing it in a ball.

‘Oh yeah – fine.  Thanks.’ I decided against mentioning those wakeful spells as I imagined what he and his cronies might do if they spotted me.

I risked a glance in his direction and saw him grin at me as he hitched up his trousers. ‘Yeah, it sure blew pretty hard.’ He walked all the way across to the basin beside me, and washed his hands.  It seemed that he took an awful long time over it, and washed with unnecessary vigour. Perhaps last night’s blood was still there under his fingernails. As I brushed my teeth I watched him rub the soap up his wrists and work it into the thick hair before rinsing off - ever so thoroughly.

After he’d dried – slowly, deliberately, with the same painstaking attention to detail – he held out his hand. His handshake was firm, but his palm was surprisingly soft. His name was Dave, he told me. He wanted to know what I was doing. I synopsised my month-long trip into about eight words. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. But Dave seemed surprisingly meek and mild. He said my trip sounded real neat. He and his buddies were taking a little jaunt too: Houston to Seattle and back via Minneapolis. He’d been in college there, twenty-some years ago.  

I wondered what on earth these guys might have studied, and he clearly read my thoughts.

‘Medicine,’ he said. ‘We were all medics together. Then we went our separate ways. My buddies are all surgeons,’ he said. ‘I’m the odd man out: I’m in obstetrics.’ With that he wished me luck and took off for Oregon.

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