The first time I ever camped in Oregon, cannibals nearly ate me. Or Satan worshippers tried to sacrifice me. Or maybe a church choir was just being friendly. Whatever. They almost succeeded. And since this issue is devoted to the region’s best places to camp, I thought I’d start it off with my best campfire tale.
It was the early 1980s, I was in my 20s, and I often enjoyed the appetites of my age and the era. I drove a lot between my hometown, Reno, and my then-adopted perch, Seattle. I liked doing it in a single, 13-hour marathon run. Oregon, to me, was just a 304-mile stretch in the middle, where people putt-putted along in the left lane, a beer cost a nickel more because of the bottle fee, and, somewhere, maroon-clad cultists lived, led by a dude in a Rolls-Royce.
On one of these drives, a pal, Sarah, came along. Our late start put us in the curves of the Cascades in the morning’s wee hours. Our necks rubbery and our eyes dry, we decided to camp. The winding path down from the freeway led us to an entirely empty campground, the lonely tables and fire pits no more than sharply drawn shadows under a full moon.
“Being here alone is weird,” said Sarah, who spooked easily. But as the shimmying nylon of our unfurling sleeping bags settled, I heard something high-pitched but very, very faint. Singing … a cappella singing … like a church choir … like a medieval church choir. We stood motionless, ears straining in the wind. I whispered aloud what we both suspected: “It’s live.”
“Even if it isn’t,” Sarah said, the moon catching her widened eyes, “it’s creepy.”
I headed to investigate. “Don’t leave me here,” Sarah protested.
“Come on,” I huffed, “aren’t you curious?”
Her voice quivered at a lower octave. “Let’s just go.”
“We can’t leave here without knowing what it is,” I said, turning away. “How will we tell the story?”
So I walked toward the song alone. It grew louder. I saw a shimmering light. Then I heard the snapping rhythms of a bonfire. The flames leapt high and bright enough to throw the shadows of a swaying, hand-holding circle of people onto the surrounding trees.
I stood silently at the forest’s edge. My spine felt like an icicle and my ribs like clamps closing down on my lungs.
Then the singing stopped.
A member of the group stood up and, I swear, pointed my way.
I don’t remember running back to the campground?I’m pretty sure my feet were involved only in the takeoff and landing. With an efficient sweep of my hand, the sleeping bags flew into the truck. Already behind the wheel, Sarah started driving away. In one motion, I caught the door and jumped in. I looked back. Nobody was behind us. But I can’t remember ever being happier to see i-5.
No need to get anxious as you read this issue. Since moving here 20 years ago, I’ve safely camped in Oregon many times. The eastern desert is really, really nice.