A good friend of mine and I decided to take a road trip out to California after my freshman year of college. We left from Ft. Lauderdale early one Summer morning and set off on a three week journey.
Before embarking, we’d bought a bunch of camping equipment. We figured why spend the money on roadside motels every night? There would be plenty of camping grounds to use along the way. Although our combined camping skills were a couple steps below “novice,” it still seemed like a great idea at the time.
On the 4th day of our escapade, we found ourselves ahead of schedule. Leaving Tucson, AZ. we decided to deviate a little and check out the Grand Canyon. After all, neither of us had ever seen it.
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This detour would be the first (and last) time we’d attempt to make use of all the extra equipment stashed in the truck’s bed.
According to our map, Grand Canyon National Park looked close. Even after setting out into rush hour traffic, we planned to eat dinner at a campsite outside the park.
Turns out, neither of us could read a map too well. Or at all.
Night began to fall. We were still 60 miles outside the park.
Every camp ground we passed was first-come, first-serve. We weren’t first. Or second. Or even anywhere near the podium.
At the stroke of 11:00 P.M. we pulled into a gas station to pick up some firewood. It was beginning to rain and we saw lightning in the distance. Preoccupied with the weather, we only half-heard the cashier’s warning about elk. Something about them being out near the roads.
We shrugged it off. We were a couple of suburban Florida boys…what the hell was an elk anyway? Didn’t sound as tough as a gator. Or a snapping turtle.
Or even walking through a non-gated community after midnight.
We continued to drive. About 8-9 miles outside the park’s entrance, we encountered a campground with a large NO VACANCY sign. We pulled in anyway.
Large RV’s and campers had claimed every site. We passed a dozen or so on our way to the back of the grounds. 100 yards after the final RV we finally found an open spot.
We set up our makeshift camp and cooked some spaghetti. Afterward, I climbed into the tent and passed out within minutes. My companion ventured into the woods to take a leak.
On the way back from relieving himself, a branch snapped to his right.
He stopped for a beat and looked around. Neither seeing or hearing anything more, he decided to climb into the tent and get some rest.
Soon after lying down, he began to hear noises outside the tent.
It sounded a bit like footsteps.
No, it was DEFINITELY footsteps.
Allow me to pause and set the scene for you, dear reader:
The hour was approximately between 12:30 A.M. and pitch-black o’clock at an isolated campsite surrounded by dense forest.
Our fellow patrons were asleep inside their locked and enclosed RV’s. We were two teenagers with a flimsy tent and a Ford Ranger. With a Florida license plate.
And there were weird noises approaching our tent.
Thinking fast, my companion came to the most obvious conclusion:
Some joker was trying to steal our ultra-cheap bargain basement cooking supplies!
He began to yell.
I woke up to “…WHO’S THERE? GO AWAY! WE DON’T HAVE ANYTHING! LEAVE US ALONE!”
What was going on? My inquiry resulted in a hatchet shoved under my nose and a whispered “Take this!”
He told me afterward he actually heard my eyes snap open.
Wide awake and staring straight up, I listened as hard as I could.
I heard them too.
They circled us, coming to rest behind the tent. Then, the sound of the stakes being…pulled?
I whispered to my friend to hit the panic alarm on the truck.
The calm night erupted in a cacophony of horns and lights. I was exhilarated with my quick thinking under pressure. Any animal would have been startled by the unexpected noise and bolted back into the night! After about 10 seconds, he turns off the alarm.
But as soon as the last echo faded, we heard the same footsteps slowly plod back into the woods.
We both sat straight up. Afraid to speak, we typed furiously into our phone screens to communicate. This was the gist of the conversation:
Him: What do we do?
Me: We have to go investigate what’s going on outside the tent.
Him: You’re right. Great idea.
I had the hatchet. He had a baseball bat. We planned to rush out from the tent and meet whatever was waiting for us on a three count. So, on 3, that’s what we did.
Well, he did at least. My zipper got caught in the tent flap.
My companion was in all likelihood being murdered in some gruesome fashion, while I was losing a battle with a tent zipper. This is why I don’t go camping.
I finally escaped, and we began to circle the tent. It had been raining earlier, so the ground was damp. We expected to find footprints or animal tracks around the rear of the tent.
But there was nothing.
We double-checked the truck and our belongings on the picnic table. It all lay untouched. We decided we were being pansies, and crawled back into the tent. More phone typing ensued:
Him: Now what?
Me: We’ll stay up for an hour. If we don’t hear anything else, we’ll go to sleep. When we wake up, we’ll enjoy the picturesque beauty of the Grand Canyon, continue on our way, and never speak of this again.
Him: You’re right. Great idea.
No sooner had we agreed on an appropriate course of action, the footsteps began again. This time they were further away from the tent. Closer to the grill and picnic table.
There was no wind that night outside the Grand Canyon. Other than those mysterious footsteps, it was completely still. Although it was close to a decade ago, I remember what happened next clearly.
The footsteps stopped. We both strained our ears in the silence. That’s when we heard a sound come from the grill.
It was straight metal on metal contact. 3 times in succession:
A vision flashed across my mind of a shadowy behemoth in a raincoat with a scythe ready to disembowel me.
Without one word of discussion, we raced out of the tent and dove into the truck. We sped down the narrow, unpaved path without looking back. Once outside the campsite, we backtracked toward the gas station we had visited earlier. Our plan was to sleep in the parking lot and go back for our stuff in the morning.
If it was still there.
About halfway way back on the deserted stretch of road, we began to notice the elk. HUGE elk. Some taller than the truck. There they were, standing, unmoving. All just outside the reach of the headlights on both sides of the road.
15 minutes later, we arrived at the gas station. Pulling into the lone parking spot, we discussed what had happened.
Was it even real?
Now 20 minutes removed from the fright of our lives, testosterone (some would call it stupidity) took over. We had to have been imagining things. Of course we weren’t facing certain, grisly deaths. It had been the wind. Or one of those overgrown llama-looking things.
We decided to go back. In fact, we HAD to go back.
For our camping gear.
After all, we had spent good money on all that crap. Like $80 – $90 each!
We threw in the Rage Against the Machine CD, and turned around.
Before long we reached the NO VACANCY sign. We crept along the path to our site. Once we arrived, we sat in the truck with the high beams shining into the woods for a few moments.
From what we could see, everything was exactly how we’d left it.
We devised a plan. Again.
My companion would disassemble the tent, grab the cooking supplies, and toss them into the back of the truck. I would stand guard with the hatchet and bat. We would leave the truck running – just in case.
He set to work while I took my weapons and jumped on top of the picnic table…because I thought it would look more intimidating.
I still have no doubt that’s exactly how it came across.
4 uneventful minutes later, everything was in the truck bed, and we were back on the road. We drove through the night. By the break of sunrise, we had made it all the way to the Hoover Dam.
We stopped just long enough to take a photo that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
We continued to Las Vegas, where we had a hotel reservation for the following night.
We got into town around 8:00 A.M. Too early to check-in. We slept in a parking garage until the early afternoon.
Once in the hotel, we took another nap. I woke up around 5:00 PM, and hopped in the shower. When I got out, my friend was sitting in front of the TV with an odd look on his face. Noticing me, he changed the channel. When I asked him what was on, he explained that he had been watching the local news.
They had just run a story on two wanted murder suspects believed to be loose in Northern Arizona.
Specifically, somewhere outside the Grand Canyon.
We decided against talking about the experience any further. The rest of the trip provided other mishaps and adventures, but was relatively uneventful. But we never forgot that night, or that news story.
I’ve never searched Google for the story. To be honest, a part of me doesn’t really want to know the truth.
Looking back now, I don’t believe there were a couple deranged killers outside our tent. But I have no idea what it could have been. Perhaps another traveler or campsite employee playing a trick? Maybe an animal? I’ve heard some larger ones (like elk) will freeze when confronted with loud sounds and bright lights. That would explain the footsteps slowly retreating back to the forest after the alarm.
But why were there no tracks?
Why was nothing touched?
And what the hell was that clanging noise?