There's nothing quite like camping out of your car and sleeping under the stars. But as awesome as it is to be surrounded by nature, there are also some risks attached.
A Redditor by the username randomlawngnome thought she and her friend Tez would be fine when they set out on what she calls the "Great American Road Trip." They left New York and headed for Los Angeles, zig-zagging through the country for six weeks. As she explains, they had the perfect system figured out never to pay money for a hotel:
"We were both in our early 20s, pretty broke and as my mom had been a long-haul trucker, I suggested that to save a ton of money we should sleep in the back of our hatchback. We purchased some blankets and sheets at goodwill and cut one of them up to make curtains; it was a pretty cozy setup.
By the end of the first week, we'd gotten so we could set up 'camp' in about ten minutes - with luggage moved to the front, curtains up, bedding laid down, and the two of us out for the night. We slept in parking lots, free campsites, rest areas; basically, anywhere it seemed safe and semi-legal. There was never a night (after the first night) where we felt scared.
Until the last week of the trip, in Arizona."
The two girls had gotten pretty used to their "hatchback camping" routine by this point. Meanwhile, they didn't have much of a route planned out, and wanted to be open to as many new experiences as possible, so they would often take suggestions from other campers, locals, and people they met. They had also gotten good at making friends. As randomlawngnome explains:
"We had no shortage of fun, random encounters with strangers. Once, we went to Denny's with a group of rednecks we met at a campsite, riding in the back of their pickup (because I got hungry and overheard them saying they were going to go). Later, we met an 80-year-old cowboy who took us out drinking and taught us to line dance at a country bar.
We played the guitar with some musicians in the middle of a thunderstorm, got fed breakfast and dinner by tons of campers who invited us to hang out with them, and spent the 4th of July with a family who adopted us into their campsite (the grandma gave us some pot-infused candy). Every encounter we had with a stranger was a positive one.
Flash forward to the last week of our trip, in rural Arizona. This night didn't look to be any different. We found a free campsite on Google and drove up into the woods, following our GPS. We were pretty far out of town, and something seemed a little bit off when we pulled up to the campsite. There was one RV parked, and two cars further up in the trees."
"We pulled up near the RV, and a man opened the door. Tez waved hello, and he just stared at her. His expression was completely blank. Then, as if she hadn't said anything he just slowly closed the door again, staring at us the entire time.
Figuring he just wanted some privacy and thought we'd be obnoxious, we pulled further down the road and found a flat spot to park the car. Instead of our usual routine of setting up camp immediately while it was still light out, we goofed around for a while, smoking and laughing and taking dumb photos of ourselves.
Tez pointed out a campfire further down the campsite, and we decided to be friendly. We'd met so many cool people in the previous five weeks by just going up and offering them some drinks or just chatting. So we wandered over.
Near the campfire, there were two men, the owners of the cars we'd seen earlier. They seemed friendly, and we sat down to chat with them. They were drinking and smoking, and we sat down and had a drink with them.
One of the men seemed pretty off, and we came to find out that the two of them didn't know one another. The older man was definitely on some substances; he was spinning in circles and talking about UFOs - but he seemed harmless. This left us chatting with the younger man, who claimed to be a former park ranger."
"He was handsome and easygoing, and we spent several hours just chatting about our trip, families, everything. Then he started talking about the bear.
He'd seen a bear earlier in the forest. Tez didn't believe him, and he pulled out his camera to show her photos of the bear. From the clearing in the background, you could see it was very close to the campsite, and we both were a little freaked out. It wasn't unheard of for one of us to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, so the idea of a bear hanging around spooked us.
The ranger just laughed, and then his expression changed completely. It's hard to describe, but his voice seemed somehow cold. He said: 'If you get out of your car in the middle of the night, it's not a bear you should be worried about.'
I kept waiting for the laugh, or for him to nudge Tez with his elbow. Joke's on the foreigner and the city girl, right?
He never did.
No matter how we tried to steer the conversation away from serial killers, he kept latching back on, and within five minutes was talking about something grabbing us from our car in the middle of the night. The older man was high as a kite at this point and was staring at the stars, not talking. We'd just awkwardly laugh and sip our drinks and try to get the conversation going somewhere else.
Then the ranger stood up and walked towards the cooler to get another drink. At this point, it's pitch black out, and I can't see anything outside the circle of light from the campfire. The cooler was outside of that circle.
Suddenly, there is a red dot in the darkness."
"It took a moment for me to realize that it was a camera. The ranger was holding a camera.
He had taken a photo of us. I could see the screen on the digital camera lit up.
Now, it wasn't odd for the people we met to ask to take pictures WITH us. My friend Tez is gorgeous, with dark hair and blue eyes like a young Megan Fox, and we were friendly. People like having pictures of themselves.
It was an entirely strange thing to have this person taking a photo OF us, without asking, or even indicating that that's what he was doing.
We were both staring at him like deer in the headlights at this point, but instead of realizing what he's doing is a bit weird, he checks his camera, adjusts some things and takes another photo. This time with the flash. No asking us to smile, no proposing a group photo, and no explanation.
After this photo, he comes back to the fire and sits down. Not a word said about the photo.
At this point, Tez and I are mutually freaked out. We make some BS excuse that we need to go set up our campsite, and nope right out of there. When we stand to leave, the UFO guy smiles and says to have a good night.
The ranger, however, looks at us with a smile that doesn't reach his eyes and says, 'Be careful out there, there's more than bears in the woods.'
Every hair on my body stood on end. I wasn't alone in my discomfort either, because Tez laughed a response out and pulled me away from the campfire towards our car."
"We rush back to the car, which we only found in the dark by referencing the RV and jump in the front seats. My friend Tez is all but hyperventilating.
'Why did he take pictures of us??'
I was shaking. I responded:
'I read that serial killers sometimes warn their victims.'
She stared at me for a second and locked the car doors.
'Do you think he just took victim photos of us?'
We both freaked out. She's in a full panic and turns the headlights on in the car. I immediately yell at her to turn them off, because now he knows exactly where our car is.
God knows why, but that is the only night we'd not set up camp. We didn't need to tear anything down, so we just put the car in drive and floored it out of the campsite.
As we got onto the dirt road, he's there. The ranger was walking towards our car with that same cold expression. We raced past him and watched him in the rearview mirror as he stood perfectly still in the middle of the road, facing us.
Tez and I have talked about it over the years, and she's developed a 'Haha, he was probably just messing with us' attitude. I'm not so sure, but I'm glad we didn't stick around to find out.
Ranger, let's not meet. Ever again."