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."
And if anyone felt uncertain how to honour that unspoken dictate, he had a suggestion: "This rodeo is brought to you by Coors. It is your God-given right to enjoy an ice-cold beer. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."
Freedom, it should be noted, tasted delicious - and, we soon discovered, we had more to learn from Wyoming's crash course in liberty.
It came as we looked to see the sun setting, which reminded us that we didn't yet have a place to spend the night. We turned to the man seated next to us for a campground suggestion. But rather than direct us to the local KOA, he swept his arm across the horizon and told to us that just about everything we could see was BLM land. BLM, he explained, stands for Bureau of Land Management, the federal entity that oversees the U.S. equivalent of Canada's Crown land. BLM lands, the man told us, are like a never-ending campground, a wide open space for anyone to throw up a tent (unless, we later discovered, signs dictate otherwise - but we saw no signs).
This seemed too good to be true, so we double-checked: If we made camp out there, would we find ourselves looking at the wrong end of a sheriff's pistol? We were assured that we would not. Just to be sure, the man gave us his business card and promised to help if we ran into trouble.
We drove onto a gravel road that wandered into the darkness. Our new Wyoming friend had recommended the White Mountain Petroglyphs, a local attraction. There was no campground here, but that, of course, didn't matter. So we erected our tents on the dusty parking lot. We were completely alone, and it was quiet. Under the light of a full moon, we could make out the outline of the Red Desert, a sweeping plain of sagebrush and sedge that surrounded us. We fell asleep to the sound of coyotes howling; the next morning, we explored the nearby sandstone wall, carved with hundreds of centuries-old rock carvings, and stopped to admire a herd of wild horses, their hooves churning the desert into dust.It was our first BLM camping experience, and we were smitten.
GUNS AND AMMO AND BIG OIL
Maybe it was too much Rush Limbaugh, or maybe it was our own Wild West fantasies, but as we headed south out of Wyoming, we found a gun shop beckoning us inside. Suddenly, we were confronted with an unexpected decision: Did we want a .22-calibre pistol? Or a massive .50-calibre rifle, with shells as long as a man's hand? Both, we were told, were available for immediate purchase, no waiting period required, no licence needed. We could, we were told, with a swipe of a credit card, be gun owners. The mere possibility was nearly irresistible - but we resisted (a good thing, as we discovered much later that we were misled, that as Canadians we couldn't have bought anything anyway). At the time, though, it was enough to recall that the border guards who stood between us and home were unlikely to smile upon military-grade firearms, and we left empty-handed, save several copies of the U.S. Constitution.
Pretty soon, we would be able to deliver our own lessons on liberty.
First, though, we had to shill for Big Oil.
In Vernal, Utah, we spotted a strip mall where a local entrepreneur had rigged up a mini roadside oil derrick with a massive "I Heart Drilling" sign and a promise of free stickers. Who could drive by something like that? Inside, we found a store stocked with I Heart Drilling T-shirts in pink and camo and an ebullient shopkeeper who probably could have made a good living as a TV pitchman. The T-shirts weren't free, which hardly fit with the new theme of our trip, but as we tried to leave, the shopkeeper insisted that he needed a picture of us with one his signs.
And so, in the middle of small-town Utah, we assembled on a street corner holding over our heads a large "Honk if You Heart Drilling" sign. Pickup trucks roared past, horns blaring. The shopkeeper snapped a picture of us - it's now posted for the world to see on an online wall of shame he maintains - and released us from our duties after only a few minutes. We sped off, hoping he wouldn't hear the peals of laughter.
MIXED UP IN A MANHUNT
The road ahead was jammed with fantastic sights. There was Arches National Park and its delicate rock formations, and its sister, Canyonlands National Park, where a rare summer rain brought fields of sunflowers and waves of mist rushing through ochre slot canyons. There was Salt Lake City, and its Mormon missionaries working as Temple Square tour guides (we declined their offer at the end of the tour to have someone visit our house in Calgary to present a copy of the Book of Mormon), and Jackpot, Nev., with its crowd of casinos nestled against the Idaho state line and a liquor store that sold Southern Comfort by the 1.75-litre bottle for $23.95 (U.S.). There was Craters of the Moon, Idaho's bizarre volcanic park, with its black earth campground and pumice hiking trails. There was Ketchum, Idaho, where Hemingway once hunted, and Jackson, Mont., where elk and pronghorn heads presided over a 1950s-era hot-springs resort as the locals told tales of feeding cattle at 40 below and fending off stalkers with a shotgun. There was Hungry Horse, Mont., where lightning crashed so near our tent that we cowered in fear, and Glacier National Park, where we rediscovered that fear as we drove mere feet from towering cliffs on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
First, though, we had another free campsite to find in Colorado in the middle of a raging storm. The sky had turned from an angry pink to an angrier black as we drove down a potholed dirt road. We stopped at a bowl between two small hills that looked like it might provide some shelter, and parked our cars to serve as windbreaks.
We didn't know that, less than an hour's drive from us, an escaped murderer was in a shootout with the cops; nor that his two fellow escapers may well have driven within a kilometre of our chosen site, whose isolation would have provided us no protection. We also didn't know that several States' worth of police were out looking for a car almost identical to ours, believed to be carrying the two on the lam.
We would discover all of that later. But that night, in the middle of the storm, we once again laid temporary claim to a slice of America where we could do what we wanted. We gathered stones, arranged them into a circle and lit a fire with scavenged wood. We drank cheap beer and transformed the empties into launchers for bottle rockets, which we fired off late into the night. At the end of it all, we fell asleep to another night of silence interrupted only by the grasshoppers.
It may not be everyone's definition of the American dream. But it suited us just fine.