I'm not sure we recognized it at first, with a roaring wind buckling our tents and a thunderstorm hurling lightning across a menacing southwestern Colorado sky.
Even without the escaped murderer roaming nearby, this was by any reasonable measure a terrible campsite. The grass was dry and mixed with thorns, the ground was dusty and infested with a plague of grasshoppers that twitched over everything. Worst of all, not far from the site, we had seen a snake that looked an awful lot like a rattler. Shotgun shells littered the ground, and lying next to them chunks of white plastic emblazoned with the NASA logo. There were no hot showers, no water, not even a campfire ring.
But somehow, we had stumbled into the American dream, or at least a version of it that remains surprisingly easy to find in the western states, where the fireworks are cheap, the beer even cheaper and, best of all, great parts of the sprawling landscape double as a giant campsite that is free of rules and free of charge.
The idea that we could camp just about anywhere was a wholly unexpected discovery - but, of course, so were the free copies of the U.S. Constitution at a Wyoming gun shop, and the man who insisted we hold his Honk If You Heart Drilling sign on a busy Utah street corner.
Sometimes, serendipity happens with a full gas tank and no real itinerary. We had left Calgary with a vague plan to thread through Montana into Yellowstone National Park.
Then, if we had time, head to parts beyond. We were two couples - my wife and me, plus close friends of ours - whose normal idea of adventure involves a place where English isn't spoken. This time, we wanted to see if our own backyard might brings us the thrill of the far away.
We turned south with our camping gear, a dog-eared road atlas and fingers on the AM dial - conservative talk radio seemed like a suitable soundtrack for this foray into the heart of Red America and its odd attractions. We were, after all, pointed toward some of the continent's strangest vistas - geysers and lava fields; red sandstone arches and salt flats.
FREEDOM TASTED DELICIOUS, SO DID THE BEEF-BRAIN TACOS
After the monotony of Alberta's flatlands, Montana erupted like a fortress from just beyond the border, where the iconic Chief Mountain, a broad-shouldered monolith, stood like a sentinel ushering us into a part of the U.S. drenched in history. Lewis and Clark passed through here, and as we rolled past burnt mountainside forest and onto plains of copper buttes and rust-coloured coulees, we stopped frequently at roadside historic landmarks, pausing to conjure a bygone land teeming with buffalo and bloodied with the massacre of U.S. Indians.
Yellowstone, with its painful queues of RVs struggling toward Old Faithful, passed by like a series of roadside attractions. The Grand Teton range to the south, where we rode horses across rocky streams and hiked to a spectacular hot springs and waterfalls, held more appeal, as did the Mexican restaurant in Jackson Hole, where we found tacos stuffed with beef brain.
But the West, at least as we had imagined it, did not begin to emerge until we left the mountains and rose onto the desolate dry lands of southern Wyoming, where we followed the men in shirts the colour of bubble gum to a small-town rodeo. It was Tough Enough to Wear Pink night in Rock Springs and in the grandstand sea of fuchsia cowboys, we were about to get a lesson in liberty.
"It's tough watching the news and the media these days. Some of those reports are designed to break your spirit," the rodeo announcer proclaimed as uniformed troops - "heroes," he reminded the audience - stood at attention on the arena dirt. "The rest of the world is jealous of our freedom and our lifestyle. If Old Glory could speak, she'd tell us to proudly stand behind our brave men and women."