Stranger at Night: The Conclusion

When I last wrote on this blog I was sharing one of the scariest experiences I’ve had in my adult life in relation to our ongoing series on the rural gothic. If you haven’t seen that post yet, go back and read it, because in what follows I’m going to share how the story ends.

When I left off, we had crossed the border into Colorado and were still being followed by a car that we had tried to lose at a gas station almost an hour earlier. It was dark by this point, and late enough that we needed to find a place to sleep for the night. Plus, we had less than a quarter of gas in the tank – not nearly enough to drive the three remaining hours between the border and Denver. So basically, we were screwed.

We were beginning to wonder if we’d become a blip in a larger story about a serial killer that lurked the highways. I distinctly recall having a specific story I had heard as a child in my mind about a college girl who’d been picked on I-80 in Iowa by a semi-truck, then never seen again. We could vanish and no one would ever find us. That’s all I kept thinking about, though I was also losing faith that there’d even be a hotel for us to stay in, especially after we passed the only decent sized town in the area (population 3000) and watched it fade behind us into the distance through our rearview mirrors.

So what would you do if you were in our situation? How many scenarios would you play out in your head?

Here’s what we did.

First, we crossed our fingers. Then, I called 911.

I didn’t know if that 911 worked in the middle of nowhere, and I was convinced that if it did, the person on the other end would think I was pranking them. I was fully prepared to hand the phone to my husband as “back up” to my story if I was laughed off.  As the phone was ringing, I also thought of the most terrifying horror movie scenario one could at that moment – those scenes where the cop and the townspeople are actually in on the grotesque murderous scam.

I almost hung up mid ring, but didn’t – thank god – because sure enough, the number worked. And because I’m here writing this story, you can probably guess that my worst stereotypes of the rural authorities didn’t come to life.

Instead, the woman who picked up the phone became our hero in our escape. Little did we know, we were about 7 miles away from where a county highway patrolman was watching for speeders. But this was no ordinary officer, she said. It was someone she trusted to help us because it was one of her relatives.  I smiled as she told me this bit of detail because it so aptly fit a completely different (and far more comforting) stereotype of rural America as a place where everyone knows everyone else. For some reason, that tidbit – and her confidence – convinced us to trust her plan.

The 911-dispatcher contacted the officer while we were on hold and arranged for him to set up a checkpoint to stop both our car and the car behind us. The plan, she said, was for him to make it appear as though we were being stopped for something else. Once we were both on the side of the road, the officer would gather more information from us and from the man in the car that had been following us and figure out what to do next.

As we drove on, I held the phone close to me, ready to call her again if anything went wrong, counting down the miles on the odometer as both of us squinted into the darkness. Those last few miles seem to drag on. But just as she had promised, as soon as we got to the designated mile marker we saw lights and saw the patrolman assertively direct both our cars to pull off the road.

The officer started with us, and as soon as I heard him speak, I felt reassured. He seemed the kind of man who really knew his corner of the world and who, as the protector of that realm, wanted to offer us safe passage through. He listened to every detail I’ve written about here in these posts, then instructed us to sit tight while he talked to the driver in the other car. Then he left us there waiting to learn more.

Did you know that following someone without harming them is not a law breaking offense? You can stalk them for hours and unless they retaliate, nothing will happen. That’s one thing I learned that night. Another was that the driver was so brazen that he didn’t even care if the cops knew he was following for hours. When the cop asked him about what had happened he admitted to it.

The cop told us, upon his return from that car, that the man claimed to be following us because he was “having fun.” – he and a buddy who was sitting next to him. This guy claimed he was driving behind us because we were both going to Denver, because he thought it better to drive near others, because, what’s the harm in a little fun?

To this day I can’t decide if those two men were telling the truth to the officer or not. At the time I didn’t believe. At the time, I didn’t believe that anyone could be so flippantly cruel as to think that we’d be entertained by being stalked.

Luckily, the officer also found the story odd. He couldn’t arrest these men, but he could nonetheless help us out. He explained to us that he would hold them there, as long as he could legally, checking out their car registrations, their tail lights…he could just sit in his car for a while pretending to look up stuff.

He told us about an exit more than a mile up where we could turn ourselves around and double back to get a hotel in the last town we had past. That way we wouldn’t have to worry that they might catch up with us again after he let them go.

As we doubled back, we could see from the other side of the interstate that he had kept his promise. There they were still being questioned, and we were on our way to a hotel.

That was the last time we saw our stalker, but hardly the last time we thought of them. We thought of them for the rest of our drive to the town. We thought of them when we discovered that all the chain motels further away from the interstate were taken. We even panicked for a bit as we realized we might have to return the interstate. We were only slightly relieved when we found one open room in a dingy old motor inn that was too close for our comfort to the highway.

We parked our car far away from our hotel room that night and ran across the parking lot to our room as fast as we could. We double bolted the door. We barely slept and when we woke up, we peaked out the window first before heading back out to our car. And we thought about the stalker all day on the way to Rocky Mountain National Park. And then we thought of them some more when we set up our campsite. It wasn’t until we had spent a night there and acclimated the more typical camping concerns of wildlife and weather that we started to ease up.

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