By Bryna R. Campbell
One of the only times I succumbed to the power of the rural gothic was on a road trip with my husband several years after I had moved away from the rural part of the midwest. To be fair, what happened to us that night was objectively terrifying. Still, I wonder how much our imaginations fed into our fears as our darkest associations with the rural seemed to be springing to life.
The setting was western Kansas, near the Colorado border – on I-70, to be exact – nowhere near anything in particular because hardly anything is there. We were at least 8 hours into a road trip with a final destination of Rocky Mountain National Park. Our plan had been to stop for the night in somewhere within an hour or so of Denver, before taking the second leg of the trip on day 2 to Estes Park. But as the sun started to set that evening my husband told me something unsettling that ended up throwing whatever itinerary we had imagined out the window.
In that part of the country, most of the towns are dusty old places of 400 or 500 people tops. A few had hotels (after all this was the interstate) and some had gas stations, but other than that they were empty, quiet towns. These town pop up infrequently in this fast blank space of land. The main “civilization,” as it were, in this part of the country are the travelers using the interstate system to traverse to other more interesting points on the map. We were on that road with vacationers and businessmen, truck drivers and transients, and those, perhaps, who escaping whatever they had at home.
Among this sea of automobiles was a car, my husband told me, that was distinctly, clearly following us.
He had first noticed this car when he had tried to pass a truck, when – as though we were a caravan of cars – it tried to mimic our moves. But he hadn’t said anything at the time to avoid looking paranoid. But then he tried to slow down, thinking perhaps whoever was driving was in a hurry, and the car slowed to the same pace as others passed by both of us. My husband tried speeding up, and it sped up too, often hanging in the opposite lane, just behind us. That’s when he finally decided this was serious and he needed to tell me what was going on.
He was a bit in a panic when he told me. I was too, as you can imagine. Both of us were simultaneously playing out scenarios in our head and sharing them with each other. We had about a third of a tank of gas, enough to get us to Colorado, which didn’t offers much hope since it was just as empty on that side of the state as Kansas. We didn’t have enough to reach a bigger city where we might be able to find somewhere truly crowded. This was before we had smart phones so we could only guess what each small town offered based on our map and the road signs.
I can remember my heart pounding in my chest as we stayed on course for a bit, trying to work through our options as the sun set, the blood red sky turned black, and the clock ticked later.
Never in my childhood had I felt afraid of the emptiness of the country as I had been that evening. Rarely since growing up had I felt a fear of the rural that came close to that. I cursed the habits of small town folk, who tended to turn in early – who often closed their gas stations before 10 pm, and whose main streets looked like ghost towns. I yearned for our St. Louis home, where we had been living at the time – where I could think of a number of places we could turn for help.
I cursed the small town folk of Kansas, then I feared them – not really them but a version of them that I had seen in dozens of horror films of transients or kids out on the road who had believed the people they encountered in the empty rural spaces were trustworthy when they were not.
We couldn’t spot our follower’s license plate, so our imaginations ran in two directions simultaneously. What if the driver was local? What if he (or they, could it be they?) lived in a house somewhere in the vast emptiness of the plains where no one would ever find us if they brought us to it? Or what if the car was not local at all, but someone who roamed the country side looking for victims, like John Wayne Gacy at the bus terminals in the midwest, or one of numerous real or imagined serial killers who could easily get away with murder here in the big open country?
All the while, we were searching for clues in the billboards we’d pass by for somewhere that could give us some kind of refuge or escape.
Then we spotted signs for a large truck stop at the border of Kansas and Colorado. We knew it would be open, and we sensed that it would probably be crowded. Our plan: to pull into the busiest part of the truck stop and pretend to get gas, all the while hoping the car would keep on the highway of course. We weren’t sure what we’d do if it didn’t, but at least we’d be among others, under the bright glaring lights of the gas station.
We took the exit quickly without a turn signal. But not quickly enough. The car followed us into the station and pulled up to a pump two lanes away from us. We sat in the car panicked about what to do. Then we saw a man get out.
He had dark hair, but we couldn’t see much of his features. It looked as though another man was in the car too, but again they were far enough away it was all unclear.
The man that got out of the car pretended like nothing was unusual. He opened his gas gauge. Then he pulled out the nozzle and began to refill his tank.
That’s when we both made the snap decision to simply take off, thinking that we’d have enough time to lose him as he pumped and paid.
The interstate had emptied quite a bit by this point in the evening, which gave us a clear path to speed quickly away. So my husband floored it, going probably at least 90 for a few miles, until after about 20 minutes, we felt safe.
Then, after crossing the border into Colorado where we were in Mountain Time and we could rely on more open gas stations again, we put on some tunes and started to talk about where we should actually get gas, and where we should stay the night.
That’s when we saw those headlights – cold, blue, and thus so memorable – coming up quickly from behind.
They had been trying to find us. They had succeeded. And now there was little else besides us and them on the road.
TO BE CONTINUED………