Friday, June 1st, about 3pm: Leave Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and head north on the 177, a gorgeous stretch of the last of the American tallgrass prairie.
About 5pm: Get to Manhattan, Kansas, the nearest city to my intended camping spot at Tuttle Creek State Park. I check that I have plenty of gas, food, and water for several days longer than the I plan on camping, just in case. Head out of town for the lake.
About 5:30: The GPS sends me down a gravel road, then a dirt road, through a gate with a no trespassing sign, and tries to direct me through a farmer’s field. Um, no. Tractors have gigantic tires for a reason. I turn around and find my own way back, and spot a sign for Tuttle Creek Recreation Area without the GPS.
About 5:45: Arrive at Tuttle Creek, drive down to the lake and find a very lovely camping spot at the end of a dirt road a stone’s throw from the shore. Loving this!
About 8:45: Sunset is gorgeous over the green flint hills.
About 9:15: Stars begin to come out and I am so loving seeing the twinkling white lights in the sky. There isn’t much light pollution here, so I can easily pick out several familiar constellations and the north star.
About 11:00: I’ve stayed up late stargazing and listening to the cicadas, and drift off to sleep staring up at the sky.
About 3am: Wake up to thunder and the rain beating on the roof of the van. I check for any leaks, which I haven’t found since the week after I moved in, but am paranoid about leaks and this is my habit. Then I lay back and enjoy the rain and lightening. Call me weird, but I like storms. There isn’t much thunder but a lot of lightening. It diffuses across the heavily clouded sky, lighting up the entire dome of sky at once, over and over, every few seconds. It is beautiful.
About 3:30: The rain is getting heavier. The lake next to me keeps going through my head, and how I’m parked in a flood zone only a few inches above the water line. I remember several large pieces of driftwood farther up on the hill, so I know the water can rise quite a lot, and this is no small drizzle, it is a full on thunderstorm, but it’s no torrential downpour, either. The chances of a flash flood are more than zero, but probably not high. No, what I’m more concerned about is that I’m parked on soft soil that is getting increasingly soggy as I lie there, with almost seven thousand pounds of van pressing my four small tires into the earth.
Two things keep going through my head. One: this is how statistics are made. And two: I keep picturing myself trying to explain to the ranger, the sheriff, the driver of a very expensive tow truck, and my mother, that I didn’t bother moving when I had the chance because I was too busy enjoying the storm.
Fine. Better safe and wrong than sorry and wrong. I get up, fasten back the curtains, wipe condensation off all the windows to see how much I can see—almost nothing—and start up the van. Suddenly it dawns on me—how I wished for the dawn—my headlights were on the wrong side of the van. The pitch black is broken only by the lightening.
There is no way to turn around, which I knew when I pulled in, and I knew, too, that backing out would be a trick, but I thought I’d be doing this in daylight. As soon as I start moving, I know I’m in trouble. The wheels are already sinking in.
I can feel the resistance on the tires and the soil slipping underneath me. After a few different angles, I find one that gives some grip and move a few feet. But I’m heading the wrong direction. This bit of road is almost exactly the width of my van, and sliding off either side, though not far, would definitely mean getting stuck.
The next hour basically goes like this: back up no more than five to ten feet, staring exclusively at the only thing I can see, the backup camera in the rear view mirror, put it in park and pull the emergency brake, climb into the back and on my bed and wipe the new condensation off the windows, stare out the back windows at the ground directly behind the van and wait for several lighting flashes (at least they’re frequent) to see the road, check which way I need to go, then climb back to the cab, wipe down the condensation to check for any surprises out the front, stare at the backup camera to move another five feet or so, repeat.
That backup camera had no light to see by except the laughable pittance from the taillights and the lightning, so it could only give a very limited, very grainy, black and white picture, made fuzzy by water drops clinging to the lens. It is also one of those refracting cameras that are slightly fun-house-mirror-like, so that everything looks rounded and distances are distorted even at the best of times. And it’s pointed right at the ground immediately behind the van. Have you ever tried walking in a straight line while staring only at the ground right in front of your toes? You end up going crooked without meaning to, right? Now do that with blinders on your peripheral vision so you can’t see what’s around you. Now do that walking backwards, wearing blinders, while wrenching your upper body around as best you can to see right behind your heels. Now do that for close to 1,000 feet, with only a pin prick of light to see by, outside, in pounding rain. It was making me nauseous.
The first 50 feet are the worst, and then the road improves to a (mostly) harder gravel, but it’s not very straight. And there are random potholes to avoid and once a fire ring of large rocks that is a trick to go around.
Eventually, I reach the switchback turn that leads up to higher, and more importantly, firmer ground, and I can start driving forward up the hill.
About 4:30: At the top of the hill at last, I have no idea where else to camp. There are only a few campsites here, I don’t know where they are or if anyone else is using them, I can barely see the road even with headlights, and I’m wiped out, so when I see the latrine building, I park nearby for what little there remains of the night.
About 5:30: At last, I drift off to sleep. It took me a while to settle down after the danger passed. I tend not to panic or get worked up in an emergency and just do what needs to be done, but as soon as it is over, I sort of purge all the feelings I didn’t let myself have before. In this case, that included extreme nausea from staring at that backup camera so much. Fun house mirrors and IMAX movies and that sort of thing always make me sick to my stomach anyway, but this time it was the only possible way to see anything about where I was going.
About 6:00: The sun wakes me up at dawn as usual. I easily go back to sleep.
About 8:30: Wake up again to discover that where I happened to park boasts an absolutely gorgeous view of the prairie hills.
After some breakfast, I drive around and find two other camping spots I could use, but my view from the top of the hill is my favorite. And as long as I don’t look in the direction of the latrine, I don’t even know it’s there. It’s not exactly busy, as there is hardly anyone here.
Now that it is Saturday, a few people do show up during the course of the day, but most visit the lake and leave after a few hours.
I also went back down to the beach, just out of curiosity, and the water line is still where I remember it. There are a few fresh tire tacks drying in the mud in places along that dirt road. I’m happy to see that they are mostly pretty parallel with the road. 🙂
I’m pretty bad at judging distance, but my best guess is that I backed up somewhere around 1,000 feet, in tiny increments, along a windy road, in the pitch black and pounding rain, over soft soil and nasty gravel, around two obstacles, and guided only by the light of the intermittent lightning as seen through the distorted, grainy, and wet image of the backup camera.
It took my stomach a full day and a half to feel completely normal again. (My motion sickness is the stuff of family legends.)
But my second day at Tuttle Creek was brilliantly clear and beautiful. It cooled down to the mid 80s, cooler than it has been in a month. I checked the undercarriage of the van as best I could for any damage, there was none, wrote a couple of letters, took a nap, read a little, picked the seed hulls off my current batch of sprouts, took a walk, and spent a lot of time gazing out at the subtle and intricate beauty of the prairie grasses.
9pm: I was still tired and drifted off soon after dark while looking up at the stars. It was a good day.
Okay, so that title was a bit dramatic. How about, “How I managed not to get stuck at Tuttle Lake”? Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it? Either way, that’s the story of my first night at Tuttle Lake in Kansas. I’ll leave you with this thought:
Things I’ve Learned About Van Life #15: Always park facing your escape route. Sure, you’re tired after a long day and just want to settle in for the evening, and most likely there will be no problem with that whatsoever. But if there is a problem, if it’s the middle of the night and you’re freaked out or the adrenaline is pumping, you don’t want to have to back out of there and deal with anything or anyone who might be an obstacle, while thinking with your instinctual lizard brain instead of your rational prefrontal cortex.