Almost a Hammer Blow to the Face

My only self defense weapon was a hammer; I kept it under the driver’s seat. On one occasion, I felt myself reaching for it, on another; I’d wished it fired bullets. Both were in Oregon, both times I ended up not needing it… Thank God.

Back in twenty-ten, I drove across the country and back on an epic personal journey. Little moments from that trip pop out from the dark cobwebbed-corners of my memory as I’m falling asleep sometimes. Last night, a vivid image flashed onto my inner eyelids. Just like the first time I’d seen it, warm tingly fear washed all over my body… Here is the story as best as I remember…

After a too-quick tour of Yellowstone, I’d spent a long day droning across Idaho, looking at nothing but grey and brown rock.  Another 12 or so hour day behind the wheel and I was glad to see the green irrigated fields near Vale, Oregon, it was just across the state line. My big road atlas showed the tiny green triangle of a campground just adjacent to town.

It was mid-evening when I talked to the elderly couple who had been caretakers at Bully Creek Reservior for over 25 years. They asked about me and where I was from. They proudly gave a short history of the lake. They probably offered a cup of coffee in the morning, but overall it was the trees they went on and on about. They told me how the desolate area had been dammed up by the city. The rocks of the high desert gave way to a vibrant lawnscape with shrubs and over 200 trees. They had done all that work themselves and they were outwardly proud of their accomplishments.

After meeting them, I picked the site and began to setup. My campout routine in-progress, I walked the dog and made the bed. This night I chose to drive back to town for dinner. I pulled into the dated Star-Lite diner, where they were packing up the buffet and getting ready to close. A decent plate of homecooking later, I was headed back to camp, feeling quite content with the small-town hospitality overall.

The campground had quieted down and I plugged in my computer next to the tent. I uploaded pictures and wrote a little blog about my day and all was well. It was just after that, when I decided on a hot shower before bed…

I entered the concrete blocked cube of the shower house with my bag of soaps and a rumbly tummy. It was probably dark outside and there might have been one of those yellow sodium lights drenching the room in a weirdish glow. I was the only person in there, and I felt just a little awkard for some reason.

I dropped my clothes bag on a shower bench and then headed for the metal-partitioned toilet stall. I entered, turned around, began to sit down, and swung the door closed right in front of me. I would normally have been reaching for the lock, but I was caught staring in shock at what I saw.

In very large, very black and VERY deliberate handwritten letters was the phrase:


“Umm… okay… ha, I mean… huh, that’s a different form of bathroom vandalism…” My mind was trying to rationalize, while my body had instantly expressed a layer of cold sweat all over. “Umm, yeah, so that’s funny and strange, and some punk kid would laugh if he saw me right now… right?”

I was so set on not being bothered by this message, that I determined to continue with my bathing and dressing in fresh clothes. I did my best to efficiently make quick work of it all with my ears tuned to every click of a cricket, and my back to the cinder-block walls.

Yeah, I was a little bit bugged by those words…

Striding cleanly across the lawn to my tent and my tied-up dog, I contemplated tossing the whole campsite into my truck and peeling out in a cloud of dust…

Nothing seemed to be out place when I got there. Roxy was calm and the neighbors were too. I was parked in an open clearing with good visibility. I was trying to ease my racing thoughts and laugh off this little prank.

I wondered though, as I tucked into my sleeping bag, if I was being foolish for staying around here.

It was tough to sleep that night. I thought back to my conversation with the almost-too-nice older couple. I noticed the quaintness of the little lake next to the Norman Rockwell town. I started to make up crazy stories in my head, and I might have started to believe them.

The caretakers’ stories about those trees seemed to be central to something. They kept mentioning the numbers of those things. Was it 224, or 218, or maybe 256? Anyway, the exact number was their point…

What did that number mean? What could I possibly NOT ESCAPE from? Don’t tell me there is something sinister buried at the base of these lush green trees dotted around this mini oasis in the desert??

I had the hammer next to my pillow, but I was wishing that damned thing was a gun!

I don’t even remember packing up that morning, I just know I did it really early. I might have grabbed a few minutes sleep at most. I did wake up alive though. I’d made it till morning at least!

My heart sunk again as I motored out of camp but realized that my gas tank was dry. I would have to go back into Vale and stop there to fill up. Was it not the lake that I couldn’t escape? Was it maybe this little picture postcard community itself?

I drove up next to the pumps at the mid-town station under a faded Sinclair dinosaur sign. Even before I’d stopped, I noticed a stoutly built man eyeing me and my truck. I didn’t want to let my nervousness show, and those words YOU WILL NOT ESCAPE, kept circling my consciousness.

Sitting in the driver’s seat I’d pulled out my log book to write down the mileage. I also watched the man moving among the cars around me, and I was remembering where I’d stashed the hammer. Sure enough, he was almost instantly inside my open driver’s window with his large face close to mine. I wrapped my fingers around the worn wooden handle. I began the yank from under my seat, pulling-up the heavy-ended tool when I realized what he was saying.

His barking words were about gasoline and what kind I wanted. I was shocked and stirred-up from the night before, and it took me a second to comprehend. He was there to pump the fuel. I didn’t expect that. I almost had just attempted to swing a hammer at close range, into this stranger’s face. Thank God, it wasn’t a gun!

I was probably shaking as I paid the bill and grabbed a bag of ice to deal with later. I was ready to get the hell out of Vale, Oregon. I just wanted it to be a tiny speck in my rear view mirror! About 5 or six miles west of town, I started to realize that things were probably ok. I was a couple hundred miles into the barren rock landscape of eastern Oregon, before I truly calmed down…

Maybe it was a prank. Very likely somebody had a good laugh thinking about freaking people out, just like me. I’m sure everything was fine the whole time… right? I mean, I did leave that place in one piece. I did make my ESCAPE. There isn’t any new tree to add to the orchard next to the shores of Bully Creek Reservoir with my name on it… right?

The mind is powerful my friends. It is our best friend, or worst enemy. Maybe even worse than the dangers of the ‘real’ world… and I’m not sure if we can truly ever Escape from it, can we?


Aaron Nichols

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