People often ask, “Has anything terrible happened to you so far?” I have to admit that no (fingers crossed), nothing really awful has happened during our journey. Sure, we have bad days, and I’ve narrowly avoided countless collisions with crazy motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians, deer, and one black bear, but overall we’ve been fine…no flat tires, no robberies, no assaults, no scary interactions with people of any kind. Just a minor road hazard bump-up, some beach bums, and a couple run-ins with rattlesnakes. BORING!
So I thought I’d share my Dad‘s story of a truly horrible experience he encountered on one of his trips West with two college buddies. They continue to get together to hike and travel to this day, but this is the absolute worst thing that has ever happened to them on the road…
I woke suddenly from a delirious sleep in the passenger’s seat of the Ford van. We were northbound 20 minutes out of Missoula on Montana State Route 93, a four-lane divided highway. I could see that Tom was concerned about something.
“What’s going on, Tom?” I asked.
“There’s a cop following us; he’s in the passing lane but won’t pass. I’m holding it right on 55.”
We had been driving for about 40 hours straight, rotation style, Tom, Derf, and I, on our way to Glacier Park for a backpacking trip. It was midnight. We had just stopped at a McDonald’s in Missoula for a shift change. Tom was the next driver. He went in to get a cup of coffee. I milled around in the parking lot, stretching my legs, looking around at the sleeping city. Derf slept in the back. After a few minutes, Tom came out with a puzzled look on his face.
“I bought a large cup of coffee but they wouldn’t take any money for it.”
Friendly people, I guessed.
Now the cop’s lights came on and Tom pulled over. We fished around for the registration and license, expecting the usual traffic cop demand. Instead the night is illuminated by a flood of bright lights and we hear a shrill voice call out through a bullhorn.
“Driver, throw the keys out the window!”
“Driver, throw the keys out the window, now!”
“OK!” Out the window go the keys.
“Now, get out slowly — hands where we can see them –- turn around, walk backward toward us!” Tom complies though getting a little annoyed. He disappears into the sea of light.
Next it’s my turn.
“Passenger, get out the driver’s door -– hands in the air -– walk backward toward us!”
I get out. I notice that there is no traffic. Cars have been completely stopped in both the northbound and southbound lanes. I can’t resist turning my head for a look back; police cars half encircle us, a mess of spotlights converge on the van, shotguns and pistols glint from behind the cruisers. The commander leans across the hood of his car clenching his revolver with both hands — he is pumped.
I say, “I don’t know who you think we are, but we’re just heading up to Glacier for a backpacking trip.”
He screams, “Just shut up and do what we say!” They frisk me and demand that I get down on my knees, then cuff me.
Just then Derf sits up. His profile fills the back van window.
A cop yells out, “There’s another one in the van, there’s another one!” They all train their weapons on him; nervous fingers on the triggers.
“You in the back, come out of there, hands where we can see them!”
Derf takes his time but eventually stumbles out of the driver’s door and squints into the glare. They process him like they did us and take us all to separate cars for interrogation. Meanwhile a squad of troopers swarms over the van and pulls everything apart.
I assume they must think we’re drug runners, in a van with New York plates. A cop is asking me questions about McDonald’s, a leather jacket, a handgun.
“Yes, we stopped at McDonald’s for coffee, no, none of us has a leather jacket, what’s going on?”
Finally, as he slowly realizes we are not the criminals they thought we were, he tells me that the McDonald’s where we had stopped was robbed at gunpoint and the employees reported seeing a silver van with New York plates leaving the scene.
At the same time Tom was buying his coffee, the place was being robbed by an armed man in a leather jacket. The workers took us to be in on the robbery. We created the perfect diversion while the criminal apparently walked away from the scene. I think most every active City, County, and State policemen had been scrambled to our van for the arrest.
The search of the van was completely futile. We were clean — not so much as an empty beer can or cast-off roach, no weapons, no bundles of cash, no drugs. When they were all convinced that they didn’t have the perps, they turned off the lights, untangled the cruisers, apologized unconvincingly, and drove off, leaving us standing by the side of the road in the big sky night to repack our clothes and resume our trip, wide awake and wondering if the APB would result in a repetition of the ordeal in the next county…