My wife and I were headed east from Portland, Oregon, to participate in a research project on Isle Royal in Lake Superior. I had volunteered to spend a month on the island monitoring scientific instruments and making observations. We had camping gear for use on the island and to save on traveling expenses we planned to camp on the trip coming and going.
We drove from Portland to a point east of Missoula in Montana where we planned to camp in the national forest that borders the highway. About 10 o’clock in the evening we left the highway and took a side road that led into the national forest indicated on the map. We could not find any camping areas and to our surprise there seemed to be a substantial number of homes along the road.
After about an hour of searching for a campsite, tired from a long day in the car, and with growing frustration we finally spotted a log landing alongside the road that would suffice as a level place to pitch a tent. The landing had not been used for some time and had grown up in grass. Other than nearness to the road it was a perfect location. I parked the car perpendicular to the road and left the headlights on in order to better see about putting up the tent in front of the car.
Trouble with a Local
I was just about finished with the tent when a pickup came along and stopped in the road immediately behind our car. The driver got out and walked up alongside our car but remained standing in the darkness just behind the headlights. With heavy sarcasm in his voice he harshly challenged us and inquired if we were having fun.
A Tactical Problem
Immediately I realized the poor tactical situation that I found myself facing. The stranger was hidden in darkness while I was standing in the bright headlights of my car. The glare of the headlights were blinding me so I couldn’t see if he was armed. I knew that many of the residents of Montana carried and used guns on a daily basis. In fact most pickups we had seen in Montana carried a rifle rack with rifles in place, usually one for each occupant of the truck. There was a good chance this fellow had a gun so I didn’t want to give him any time to work his anger into a feverish pitch. It was time to salvage some element of surprise and give myself the advantage.
Going on Offense
Sounding as apologetic as I could I told him we were merely travelers passing through and had not been able to find a suitable place to camp. While talking I casually raised my hands in front of me to belt level and opened the heavy car coat I was wearing to expose the gunbelt around my waist. The shiny metal cartridges in the gunbelt would certainly be obvious in the bright glare of the headlights. At the same time I turned my body sideways to reduce my frontal area as a target for our new friend. By turning my body I also screened the movement of my right hand to the hand grip of the 357 magnum I was carrying in a holster on the belt.
Fight or Flight
There was great danger in escalating the tension but I felt I had little choice for the man was already in the fight mode. If he was overconfident my actions might surprise him. If they precipitated a gunfight perhaps his actions would be rushed and he wouldn’t take time to aim accurately. If I could survive his first shot the muzzle flash of his gun would give me a target and with “point and shoot” aiming I might be able to take him out of action.
Perhaps the man was intimidated by the discovery that I was armed and willing to take offensive action or perhaps he suddenly realized there might be others nearby who were also armed. At any rate the tone of his voice immediately softened. He mumbled something about camps in the area being ravaged by a rogue bear and he just wanted to warn us. He made a hasty retreat toward his pickup. Thinking that he could be retrieving a weapon from the truck I lost no time in moving out of the lights of my car. Apparently he had enough because with a spray of rocks from spinning tires he vanished up the road in a cloud of dust.
Obviously we were not welcome at our present location and I wasn’t about to stick around to see if our new friend was coming back with reinforcements. We quickly loaded our camping gear back in the car and resumed our search for a campsite. Fortunately a few miles down the road we found a forest service campground with open sites where we spent the night.
Using the car headlights for lighting was a serious tactical mistake. I was trapped in front of the lights and I was not in a position to easily extinguish the lights as I could with a flashlight or other portable lighting unit. With a portable unit I could have turned it toward the stranger, putting me behind the light in darkness and in turn blinding him with a bright light. I would have been able to examine him in detail for the presence of weapons. I would have been in control …a much better situation.