Dealing With Stranger Danger While Traveling | Castle Crags State Park, California
to the beginning of the
second road trip series
on Whisked Away By Words:
❄️ The Winter NorCal Road Trip! ❄️
Right when Winter Break started on the last week of December, I embarked on another long camping road trip with my dad. Having already experienced my best road trip experience of my life back in the summer of 2017 when I drove through California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, I was a little bit nervous to compare this road trip with my previous one. We were also were going to be camping in completely different temperatures compared to our last road trip, and lastly, there was another factor that made the outcome of this road trip very hazy:
We had no plan for what we were going to do on the trip.
Though I don’t regret anything from my summer road trip because every place that I went to taught me something new and enlightened me in some way, I did have to let go of some places I wanted to visit because of the time constraints my dad and I had for our trip. We had to get to certain places before certain times, and therefore couldn’t wander off to explore things that caught our interest on our drives. Personally, I think being able to stop whenever you want to take pictures, explore, or hike a few miles to a random place that you see pop up is really the pinnacle of what makes road trips such freeing experiences — you see things that you would never see at home, and thus feel encouraged to act more accordingly and be more adventurous.
The best example I can pick out of how planning our summer road trip made us less able to freely explore places would be in my post about driving to Moab, Utah. Along the way, my dad and I decided to stop in Canyonlands National Park, but were only able to see three of the main attractions they had on Island in the Sky because we had to get to our accommodation before nighttime. Even only visiting three attractions felt very rushed — we would have totally loved to explore more of the Island in the Sky portion of Canyonlands, but we couldn’t without changing everything that we had planned to do in the next few days.
So, two days after I got out of school and completed my last final, my dad and I embarked on our Winter NorCal Road Trip on the last few days of 2017 — starting on December 24, Christmas Eve. We might be driving up to Oregon, or we might just stay in California; we could be out for only three days, or an entire week; and temperatures may force us to stay in motels or sleep in our car instead of tenting. We had kayaks, equipment for 4-wheel-driving emergency situations, a tent, an air mattress, two sleeping bags for each of us, layers and layers of clothing, backpacking backpacks, our new water filter, and, of course, our cameras, to name a few essential items.
On this trip, we could be doing anything in between the categories of “nothing” and “everything”.
I had no idea which part of that spectrum this trip would fall in, and that made me anxious… but at the same time, by not giving ourselves a structured itinerary to follow, my dad and I were allowing ourselves to put our most adventurous selves forth.
This road trip would be what we made of it, and because I was feeling very adventurous after several weeks of nonstop studying for finals, I was ready to make this road trip the best one yet. 😉
Thank you for deciding to join me on the second road trip of Whisked Away By Words — I hope you enjoy the stories I found and experienced along the way, and learn a few more things about California throughout this journey! 😊
Without further ado,
let’s get whisked away on the
❄️ Winter NorCal Road Trip! ❄️
It’s inevitable that eventually, if someone travels, they will encounter strange people and/or situations that make them feel uncomfortable, or even in danger. That feeling can happen at home, of course, but something about encountering scary situations while traveling when everything is already so new and foreign makes these situations appear more terrifying than they are in the moment than in memory.
Right off the bat of my road trip, upon arriving near my first destination, Castle Crags State Park in Northern California, I was in a situation that reminded me to think more deeply about safety during traveling. Allow me, then, to tell you what led up to that point:
After driving several hours up north and enriching ourselves with the experience of pretending to be locals at the grocery market of a small town (picture of store above), my dad and I arrived at Castle Crags State Park. We drove around the loops where the campsites were located, picked the best one (we saw no one at the campground, which made us happy because we knew we were the only ones crazy enough to freeze in tents on Christmas Eve 😆), then drove outside of the park to explore a little bit.
A little bit away from the park, there were a few houses that seemed to be placed randomly near the train tracks, the side of the paved street, and in the woods. It was a little eerie driving through these sparsely spaced houses that numbered to up to about five total — trash and faded plastic children’s toys littered the front lawns, and though there were clearly signs of people living in these houses, the homes still had a lonely and sad sense of being abandoned.
Upon driving into the street past the railroad tracks, I saw this crazy house with so many things on the property it’s hard for me to describe what was going on in the front yard of that house. After driving a few minutes into the woods on the dirt road and finding it gated where the other Castle Crags campsite was located, we turned around to drive out. I had my camera on and was ready to take pictures of the house I saw earlier so I could capture how strange a clearly messy and lived-in home could evoke such a huge sense of loneliness.
The house came into view, and I held my camera out of the window, ready to take a snapshot of the house —
— just to immediately have to pull my camera back in. I saw a couple standing in the front yard of the house, and I believe that there is a difference between being bold when taking photographs and being respectful towards other people’s privacy. Despite wanting so badly to capture that house, I couldn’t — and didn’t want to — with the owners standing right there. They watched our car roll past, and as we left the dirt road and crossed the railroad back onto the paved street, I wondered how many cars drive past that couple’s secluded home a day. Not many, I would assume, given how empty the area felt.
Before driving back into the state park to set up camp, I told my dad that we had to park the car and get out to take pictures of this run-down, abandoned house that had a black-and-white poster of a person’s face taped on one of the windows. Do you see the poster of the face on the right window in the picture below? Zoom in; you’ll see it if you do.
… Creepy, right? 😬
Beside the house was an old gas station, which we also explored a little bit of. I was wearing regular leggings at this point in the trip, which was annoying for me because there were thorns on the ground that would scratch my legs if I wasn’t careful. Because of that, I wasn’t able to get behind the abandoned house to explore a bit more and had to stay in the front, but it probably was a good thing I did.
There were many things scattered and half-buried under dead leaves and thorns; within the house was a mysterious mess on a completely different level. Did people around here use this abandoned house as their dumpster, or were the fresh trash bags an indicator that someone temporarily lived here recently?
And more importantly… why in the world is there a creepy poster of a man taped to the window???
It was in that moment, in the front of the abandoned house, that I got this instinctive feeling to look behind me. After an entire lifetime of traveling, I’ve learned that trusting your gut is the best indicator in deciding that a situation feels off or unsafe. With soft footsteps approaching from behind, I turned around and saw the couple from the house across the railroad tracks walking toward us.
They didn’t look dirty, but they didn’t look clean, either. Their clothing was a mismatch of different styles, and though nothing about them screamed that they were dangerous, I still felt a simmering sense of anxiety at the base of my stomach from being approached by two strangers when there was no other person in sight.
I stopped taking pictures and frantically whispered to my dad, trying to notify him that people were approaching us. He had been busy photographing before and didn’t seem to notice them, but when the man grabbed the metal fence separating us from him and his female companion and placed one foot on one of the bottom rungs, he got both of our attention.
“What are you doing?” he asked. He smiled, but it wasn’t the kind of smile I would call kind… it just appeared creepy. The woman stood beside him with her hands in her purple jacket’s pockets and her black boot-clad feet pressed together. I remember noting that she had really, really small feet.
My dad answered and told him that we found the abandoned house interesting enough to stop and take pictures of. “Oh,” the woman said. “I never even noticed this house was here.” She looking at the house with what appeared to be curiosity and fascination… but really, the only way they could have not noticed this house is if they hadn’t been out of their home for their entire lives. This abandoned house was directly across the railroad tracks and street from their home, so unless they never drive out of their home, they would have at least noticed the prescence of this abandoned home.
Or, maybe, that’s how abandoned houses work? In the eyes of locals, abandoned houses don’t really exist? 🤔
The man then made a comment about our car. “Impressive,” he said. “You guys on a road trip?” He looked at me and I gave him a close-lipped smile accompanied with a curt nod. “Well, if you guys like exploring, I have a place to recommend to you.”
Oh? A place to recommend? I immediately wanted to tell the man to not even bother, because there was no way that I was going to go to where he suggested us to go, but the man continued to talk, his hands still clutching the metal cage and his foot still propped up.
“Thank you, but we have to head up to Oregon tonight, so we won’t have time to explore this area any further,” my dad responded. My dad started to walk away from the abandoned house and through the brush separating us from our car parked on the street. As we headed back to our car, the man and woman also walked past the metal fence and towards our car.
My dad and I halted after we got out of the brush and were out on the street.
“Nice car,” the man repeated. He gave our car a few more compliments, then began talking about his recommended place for us to go visit. “There’s this place down at the very end of that dirt road over there,” he said, pointing to the place we just drove out of. It also happened to be the road where his house was located.
“We drove down there,” my dad said. “The end was gated. There was nothing to see, so we turned around.”
“Ah, no, there’s more if you keep driving down. If you guys like run-down stuff like this, then what’s down there might be interesting for you. There are old fountains and ivy… lot’s of ivy.”
No. Way. Am I in an actual horror movie right now?
This is basically what happens in horror movies: a stranger lures you into a secluded place in the middle of the woods, and the horror story begins. Either this man is socially clueless… or genuinely creepy.
After that, he kept emphasizing how much ivy was down in this supposedly hidden, run-down area at the end of the unnamed dirt road that led deep into the woods. Hmmm. 🤨 We let him ramble more about ivy for a few seconds, then cut him off.
“Thank you for the suggestion, sir. We have to head up to Oregon now, so good night.” My dad held up a hand to signal the end of the conversation, then waited for the man to leave. For some reason during the middle of the conversation the woman who was with him had left and walked back towards the direction of her home; I have no idea what that was about, but it didn’t make me feel any less uneasy. After the man crossed the street, we unlocked the car and got in.
My dad and I looked at each other.
“Did you notice what I did?” he asked.
“Yes, I did,” I said. I thought about our campsite in Castle Crags State Park, just a short distance away from the home of that couple we just encountered. “We aren’t driving up to Oregon tonight.”
“Mm hmmm,” my dad responded. “But they think we are.”
I nodded. Silence fell as my dad started the car and we started to drive to our campsite.
“Soooooo…” I looked at my dad very seriously. “Are we going to go to the place with the ivy and fountains now?”
A few seconds of nothing — then we both burst into laughter. We didn’t need to tell each other how creepy and cliche-horror-movie that scene felt. Even though nothing dangerous actually happened, that whole encounter made me feel very uneasy that night, and I kept wondering what I would have done if I were in a situation like that… but alone and without someone to back me up. Would I be able to stay just as calm, and thought to emphasize my driving to someplace else to not let strangers know about my whereabouts? I want to remember these encounters in detail so that if I have to deal with a similar situation in the future, I would know how to deal with it.
We got back to our campsite safely in a few minutes and started to set up camp before it got dark:
As you can see, compared to the tent we used on our last road trip (you can see a GIF of us setting up our old tent in Great Basin National Park here), which was huge, the new tent in the two GIFs above is much smaller and more like a backpacking tent. It also kept warmth within our tent from escaping by trapping the warm air from our breaths inside of it instead of letting it all leak out. The air mattress that we pumped up (in the second GIF), two sleeping bags, and layers of jackets, socks, and gloves we wore helped us get through the 35 degree Fahrenheit night as well 😊
I did get nervous while cooking our Christmas Eve meal because there were bear warnings pasted around the campsite, but it was all good, and I was so grateful to have warm noodles for my Christmas Eve dinner. This was the first time I’ve had a Christmas Eve meal without my entire family together, but my gratitude for being able to travel made up for the tiny tinge of sadness I felt from missing my mom and my sibling, who were both traveling in a completely different location across the world at the time. My dad and I lit the fire of our portable stove, boiled some water, then made some ramen for ourselves: our traditional camping dinner dish.
I was nowhere near home, but the familiar taste of the noodles, the damp wooden picnic bench we sat on to have dinner, and the dim glow of our headlamps highlighting the warmth of our breath in the cold night air as we ate made me feel as if I were just at home. I still don’t have a definition for what home means to me, but could home be a feeling of familiarity instead of a place? Could it be an experience that you love and have shared with your family your entire life? Because this — eating ramen that was quickly getting cold from the frigid temperatures of winter, and my fingers hurting from how cold the air was — would definitely be something that I can say feels like home.
Our Christmas Eve feast did not take long to finish. After cleaning up, I put on my gloves, three pairs of socks, and crawled into my two sleeping bags. There were more than a few times when the thought of the couple suddenly walking into our campsite in the veil of nighttime darkness crossed my mind, but I dismissed that as nonsense… because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to sleep. 😅
The core reason I travel is to enrich my life and teach myself about this world, but I’ve never ignored the reality that travel is a package deal of positive experiences, negative ones, and sometimes scary ones as well. It’s important to see the positive sides of everything, but not to the point where you mask and forget about an uneasy situation like the one I had experienced earlier in the day at the abandoned house. I didn’t feel unsafe when interacting with the couple I met, but I felt uneasy, and I shouldn’t ignore that — so I didn’t. That feeling could save me in the future, and learning to recognize that gut feeling of mine will make me a better, more alert, and wiser traveler.
On that note…
that was the first day of my road trip.
Traveling isn’t always beautiful, fun, and freeing,
but that has never been a problem for me
because I’ve always known that that was the case.
I hope you enjoyed my recollection of how my first winter road trip day went,
and have a wonderful day
wherever you are in this world. 😊
Thanks for reading, and cya next time! 😋