In December 1976, I went to register for classes for what I thought would be my last semester at the University of Wisconsin. Through a series of odd events, my record showed up on the desk of my college dean. He concluded that there was no good reason to keep me around, so instead of approving my proposed schedule for the spring semester, he graduated me even though I had two required courses yet to take. It was like early release from prison, and with the money that was supposed to go to my tuition, Lisa and I bought a used AMC Gremlin and hit the road. Lisa was my wife when I was twenty-one years old. Our marriage was not to last much longer, but this was still a time when all was wonderful between us. 

Our plan was to drive out of winter as quickly as possible, spend a month visiting national parks in the Southwest, then eventually end up in Berkeley, California. When we reached the San Francisco Bay Area, however, we realized that Berkeley was too expensive a place to live if we had no good reason to be there, so we looked at an atlas of the United States and decided that Eugene, Oregon might be a good second option. In retrospect, that was the last time in my life when I just looked at a map and asked, “Huh, where should we go live now?”

Driving up the long lonely stretch of Highway 101 north of Eureka, the road map showed a campground just off of the highway, and we decided to stop for the night. What looked like only a few miles on the map turned out to be almost twenty and what looked like a normal road turned out to be a narrow stretch of rough gravel. In fact, as we drove toward the coast, the only oncoming car we saw barreled straight at us and nearly ran us into the ditch.

When we reached the campground, it turned out to be a large piece of sand just off the beach. There were toilets and not much else. No information signs, no place to pay, and no other people on site. The campground was shaped like the ecology symbol, a large circular road with a second straight road bisecting the circle. We drove halfway down the bisecting road and parked on a patch of hard sand. The clouds were too thick to actually see the sun, but we knew that we had less than an hour before nightfall. Lisa started dinner, while I was to pitch the tent and then walk the beach for driftwood that could be used for a campfire.

The first oddity was a lump in the sand at the spot where I wanted to pitch the tent. As I tried to level out the area with my hand, I realized that something was buried there. It turned out to be a violin case, and inside was a violin. I showed Lisa my prize and put up the tent. Then I headed toward the beach that was a hundred yards away. Not far from our campsite I encountered a hole in the sand measuring three feet by six feet and probably three feet deep. At one end, two pieces of wood were set up to look like a cross.  I should have been a little freaked, but I just grabbed the makeshift headstone as something I thought would burn. I then continued on toward the beach and discovered something that I was surprised I hadn’t seen before. Forty, maybe fifty yards from our campsite was a stack of firewood and the glowing embers of an abandoned campfire. By then, we’d been at the campground for at least a half hour, but we’d not seen any other people during the time we’d been there. Someone obviously had started a fire, then left. I grabbed the stack of firewood in my arms and returned to our campsite.

Twenty minutes later dinner was ready, and I had a warm fire going. It was now dark. The sound of the surf was loud, but pleasing to the ear. While Lisa and I ate, a car entered the campground and slowly drove the outer circle twice. It then entered the bisecting road and came to a stop directly in front of us. I stood up and walked to the car. The driver, a woman I thought to be in her thirties, rolled down her window and asked whether we’d seen her brother.  She was supposed to meet her brother here. I told her about the abandoned campfire, but said no one else had been here for at least an hour. She said, “That’s strange,” and drove away.

I felt fine sitting at the campfire, but developed the willies as soon as Lisa and I crawled into our sleeping bags. I felt a very strong sense that we were not supposed to be there. I put up with the feeling for about fifteen minutes and then told Lisa that this was not going to work. My recollection is that she felt fine about the place, but did not hesitate for a moment when I said that I wanted to leave. She said, “Let’s pack up then.” We threw our sleeping bags in the back of the car, rolled up the tent, and drove away. I didn’t feel right until we reached the main highway. We drove north and spent the night at the first motel we found.

That is the whole story. I have no explanation for the abandoned campfire, the mock gravesite, the woman in the car, or the missing brother. I kept the violin for two years, then gave it to a friend of my dad’s who lived in the Twin Cities. He had a music room for his grand piano and decorated its walls with various musical instruments. I’ve long lost touch with the guy, but have no reason not to assume that the violin still hangs there.

Steven Simpson