Fun camping trip turns into nightmare

in Bill Rauch/Contributors/Voices by

By Bill Rauch

I love my extended family.

So much so, in fact, that I agreed to go camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Brevard, N.C., with one of my extended family brothers and his children last week. We would be seven: three adults and four children. His children and ours, all four between 9 and 13 years of age, are best buddies.

It was an experience to remember … to remember in the future to avoid.

This wasn’t the first time. Over the 2015 Memorial Day weekend the same group had likewise set off together for the Mt. Pisgah National Forest, which is a spectacularly beautiful — and correspondingly popular — place. Because my brother was several hours delayed getting off from Beaufort for the 2015 adventure, we got to the park late and every last camping spot — legal or otherwise — was taken. So we stayed in a motel for the weekend which diminished somewhat the communing with nature experience.

But, our wounds healed and determined to recoup, with high hopes and great enthusiasm we set our sights once again last weekend on Brevard .

This time we got off from Beaufort more or less on time but suffered a setback when just outside Columbia, which is about halfway to the mountains, the fuel pump in my brother’s truck hit the skids. Luckily we were in two trucks so we squeezed his children and all their gear into our truck with us (and our big dog!) and we moved on while he stayed behind to deal with the fuel pump.

A good man with good ideas and strongly-held views, as we were pulling off my brother gave us specific instructions as to which campsite was our destination. Those instructions were: “Go up the road to the fish hatchery. Pass it. Soon thereafter the road turns to dirt and there are turn-offs to the left. Park there. Climb down the little hill to the little trout stream. Step across it and pick the one you like from the several campsites that are there.”

That sounded absolutely perfect and non-debatable, especially to the boys who had their fishing poles and were determined to catch dinner.

My wife says it always rains in the North Carolina mountains — at least when she’s there — and it had been raining apparently in her absence as well, because when we got there the “little trout stream” was up to its historic banks and tumbling fiercely down its course.

Of course there’s no cell service in the mountains, so if we moved campsites we knew my brother couldn’t find us. So we decided to man up, form with the children a six-person human chain to pass both families’ gear across the river, and thusly press on.

By the time my brother arrived in a jelly bean rental car at about sundown we had the campsite humming, including stringing up a clothesline to dry all the wet clothes, and the children cheerfully warming up with cocoa around the campfire.

Saturday morning’s much-anticipated sounds of the woods and the stream were interrupted unexpectedly by police sirens, but we didn’t think much of that. 

We took a big afternoon hike at the end of which my brother suggested we take the children just outside the park’s gate for ice cream cones at the ice cream parlor there. Funny, we noticed on our way out, there were no cars in the oncoming lane, and also out of the ordinary was that there was a police barricade and a sheriff’s deputy at the gate. After parking at the ice cream parlor, while the others got their ice cream, I walked over to talk to the deputy.

He was turning all the cars, and the pedestrians, and the bikers and the bicyclists around and not letting them into the park. To one guy he explained very carefully how to get to Tennessee. Seeing this, I said, “We just came out to get ice cream. We can get back in, right?”

“No,” the deputy said very gently. “It’s not safe. We’re getting everyone out. There’s a dangerous fugitive in there and he’s armed.”

“But our stuff’s all in there.  We’ve got our whole campsite set up.”

“Well, it shouldn’t be long,” the deputy said. “We’ve got some great recent intel and now he’s boxed in.” 

That was at about 6 p.m. Saturday. We put our heads together and decided we’d go over to the local brewery until 7:30 and then check back with the deputy.

You know the rest.

That night we had to drive an hour plus to find hotel rooms because all the other campers who had been kicked out of the park had an hour-and-a-half head start on us. Plus we had a dog — a big dog.

It rained hard that night, and on Sunday and on Sunday night. We pictured in our minds our cozy campsite. But we certainly couldn’t get to it. If the fugitive was boxed in, it was with a very big box.

Incidentally, Mt. Pisgah, if you haven’t reviewed your Bible recently, is the place from which Moses was shown the Promised Land, but he wasn’t allowed to go there.

There was one piece of good luck … if you can call it that because it very nearly killed me.

My brother and his two children headed back to Beaufort in the rental car on Sunday afternoon with just the same old hiking clothes they’d had on their backs since Saturday morning. Clothed similarly, we found a closer-by hotel for Sunday night and went to see “Dunkirk” at the movie theater in Brevard, which was probably the best thing that happened all weekend.

On our way back to Beaufort on Monday morning we stopped by the park entrance.

There an amazing thing happened. The deputy on duty turned us away, but there was a Transylvania County fire marshal there who overheard my story and asked me where our campground was. When I told him he said, “Oh they’ve got the gunman boxed in way away from there. I’m off in about 45 minutes. I’ll take you in if you can be quick.”

I swore to this lovely man: “We’ll be quick.” Forgive me, sir. I know you understand.

After two days of rain the little trout stream was now a raging torrent. The human chain didn’t have a chance because we were down two hands. Given the increased volume of water, it probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. The children would have had to have been college football players.

All the camping gear — especially my brother’s whose tent had leaked badly — was completely soaked. It weighed a ton.

Piece by piece my wife and I carried (swam?) soaking wet comforters, pillows, sleeping bags, tents, and wads of clothes (not to mention coolers, bags of trash, frying pans, hatchets, air mattresses and bicycle pumps) across the ice-slick rocks and through the torrent. As a gesture of thanks — and because there wasn’t a square inch of room for it in the truck! — we were going to give the fire marshal a watermelon we’d brought with us, but it was lost downstream.

Neither we, nor the truck which still smells of wet, nor probably the nice fire marshal who gave us nearly three hours of his time have fully recovered yet.

I love my extended family. And love means not keeping score. But I’m off Mt. Pisgah. 

Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.