If I’ve heard that once, I’ve heard it a hundred times. But you can never recall where you were and who was with you around the camp fire. Most people who have camped as long as I have, have heard it too. All huddled around a camp fire, the stories thick, entertaining and sometimes even true. There’s just something about that perfect fire that tops off an evening with friends.
We’re lucky enough to have the Zen Master of fire builders as one of the mighty four. Leland, Mac as his close fiends call him, is not boastful about his exemplary skill. In fact he doesn’t even acknowledge it. But all who have witnessed it, are in awe. Oh sure, anyone can learn to build a fire. But can they make it suit the night? Just right for the weather. Not too hot on a summer night. Hot enough to warm you on a cool night with humidity that makes your exposed skin feel clammy.
It was around one of those fires when Mac said “Hey, I think someone’s shoe is burning”. You get so comfortable that you might rest your shoes on the edge of the fire ring and be so engrossed in the camp fire banter that you don’t realize your toes are toasting. But this night was different. It would be the night we would most definitely remember where we were when we heard it. No, the campground amenities were not outstanding. The fall foliage was very nice, but I’ve seen a lot of autumns in my years roaming the earth. It couldn’t be the perfect fire in front of me that cemented the memory of that night. I’ve witnessed Mac’s fire wizardry many times before. It was the events that followed that night that etched the memory in my brain.
Although the campground was full, the mighty four were camped near the end of a loop that had trees behind it and only one camper between us and the hiking trailheads. The camper next to us at the end of the loop was a pop-up unit occupied by a man and woman we estimated to be in their mid thirties with two dogs. Many times we find a reason to chat up the neighbors when we’re camping but in this case we just didn’t get the proper window of opportunity. We didn’t see anything unusual except for one oddity. There was a small battery powered lantern next to the pole with the site number on it. We just surmised that they had company coming and marked their location for friends who would arrive later. Sure enough, later in the evening while we were doing our fireside chat, a pickup truck pulled up and parked on the grass at the neighbors. One fellow hopped out and met up with the couple. All was well and good at this point.
A good park ranger will make the rounds in a crowded park just to make sure no one is too rowdy and just to make his presence is known to thwart any ideas of excessive rowdiness. Seems it’s not legal in Missouri State Parks to park on the grass. He stopped in the middle of the road so as not to break the rules. He saunters over to the pop-up where the couple and their friend are inside. Of course a pop up with clear vinyl windows affords anyone close a peek inside, even though it might be like peering through a light fog. “Does this truck belong to one of you?” the ranger addressed the people inside with the door still closed. An affirmative answer was received. “I’m sorry, but you can’t park on the grass so you will have to move it.” It was at this moment that the demeanor of the ranger changed from calm to excited. His voice changed to that of the swat team member knocking on the fugitive’s hideout door. “Sir, open up this door right now!” reaching for his service revolver holstered at his side. The knock on the door rattled the whole rickety pop-up. At this point in time the mighty four paused their fire pit chat and had all eight ears in tune to what is occurring next door. It’s not common to hear what sounded like a police TV program going down in the campground, at least not in the campgrounds I’ve visited. While looking for rowdy people, I’m sure the ranger didn’t expect to be the rowdiest one in the park that evening. It was at this point we retreated to our camper and pressed our noses up to the windows facing the drama. The occupants were actually somewhat docile as they exited the pop-up and were in hand cuffs at the speed it takes for a mosquito’s wing to flap twice. They weren’t likely to escape since they were hand cuffed through slots in the picnic table. Within 10 minutes we had two county patrol cars and a state patrol car lighting up the campground with pulsating blue and red lights.
Just as they were about to haul off the threesome in separate cars with the lights on top, one of the officers asked the friend who arrived in the pickup if he could search his truck. “No” was his flat reply. The officer knew he would need a warrant if he didn’t get permission. But then, I understand meth doesn’t treat your brain well. The pickup owner asked the officer if he would lock his truck for him. The officer knew this was permission to open up the vehicle because there was no way to lock it without opening the door. I didn’t see it but I could imagine the corners of the officers mouth turning up slightly as he answer, “yes, sir I can lock it up for you”. Once the occupants were off to their holding cells, the pickup truck has it contents scattered all over the meth lab camp site. It looked like the meth lab had exploded, but thankfully it was just the result of a very thorough search.
Our night calmed down a bit after that. Only one more first time camping event for Mac and I to deal with. Seems they took the human occupants, but left the dogs tied next door. After a number of hours listening to continuously yelping dogs, somewhere around midnight, we decided we needed help. Mac and I walked up to the campground attendant’s campsite and knock on his fifth wheel door. A couple of minutes later a portly guy in just his thong came to the door and we told him our dilemma. After all I had already seen that night, this guy made my eyes hurt. He simply said “I’ll call the ranger”. I thought, that ranger guy is really having a bad day. Within minutes he arrived at the campsite with his truck that had a shell enclosure on the bed. The dogs weren’t too happy to be going with this guy who had cuffed his master and carried him away. No problem, super park ranger gets some kibble out of his truck, let them get a good sniff, tossed it in the back of the pickup truck and the dogs followed. I don’t know what park rangers get paid, but this guy earned a years worth of salary on this night.
It was later when chatted with the ranger that we learned he spotted illegal drugs and paraphernalia on both the outside picnic table and inside the camper. The drug paraphernalia turned out to be a meth lab. The mighty four are a somewhat sheltered group from the dark world around us. We had never smelled meth cooking before and were sure there was a shoe melting somewhere nearby.