Last night we camped about 11 miles north of all the flooding in Arkansas, and about twelve hours behind it.
The ranger stopped us coming into Ouachita. She'd had a hard night evacuating, she said. "I'm not telling you not to go in, but I will say be careful." She looked behind me to the back seat. "I see you got little ones. Yall be real careful, okay. They lost eleven people on down river."
We crossed a few washed-out bridges and found a horse camp that looked dry. We stretched out in the Tahoe, didn't backpack, didn't set up a tent. A horse camp is a clearing near the road but away from the main park, dry enough that you can back in horse trailers, but isolated enough that you can enjoy the solitude. We were all alone, but there were fresh droppings and hay that said someone had left that morning.
Another ranger pulled into the camp, this one a younger guy. "What time did yall leave this morning?"
"Why's that?" I said.
"I guess yall didn't hear the news yet. They're pulling bodies out of the water down at Albert Pike. I won't ask yall to leave, but be real careful. You should be okay up here, but further down the mountain, they got hit real hard. I'd keep them kids out of the creek."
It was me and my two kids, nine and ten, boy and girl respectively. The creek was still screaming from the night before. Yes, we swam in it, but in a shallow wash about two feet deep. My son found about a hundred baby salamanders, and my daughter was the only one brave enough to do push-ups in that freezing mountain gush.
"I keep feeling like someone's watching us." That was my son. Near dusk, we had to shoot his pellet gun into a stump crouched in the treeline like bigfoot. I had to walk them over to prove it was just a stump and not some mountain monster.
In their defense, it did look like a crouching monster. The frosted sugar side of me half expected the stump to jump up and charge when I shot it.
That night, my daughter said, "I'm getting freaked out," when she heard what sounded like a coyote. I don't know the Arkansas sounds, but it wasn't a coyote. Sounded small, though, and I had my .410, so no worries.
I stood outside the Tahoe listening to the kids watch Hotel for Dogs. I kept stoking that wet fire wood until it caught -- wet wood will burn if you get it hot enough -- and watched it burn down. I don't normally get wigged-out on campouts, but last night I couldn't let go of that little single-shot .410. It's the gun I had growing up, a kid's gun, and if animals have souls, I'm gonna be royally fucked because of that shotgun.
It gets so dark out there you can't see your feet when you piss. I can't speak for women, but I figure squatting down in that sort of dark is borderline insane. I'm glad I didn't have to squat.
Something kept nagging at me. And I'm not the sort who gets nagged, not by bullfrogs and fireflies and a creek in the background. I grew up on a lake, on a creek, catching bullfrogs and fireflies and murdering things with that .410.
I called my wife today when we got back into cell phone range. She was as wigged-out as her daughter, glad to hear from us. "I saw this thing about this lady," she said, "whose daughter got swept off into the current. They could hear her screaming, and they heard other kids screaming, too. They said most of the dead will probably be kids."
"It's so dark out here, baby, that if the kids got swept off, there's nothing I could've done about it. I wouldn't be able to see them, or the shore, or anything else. With all the clouds last night and the lack of moon, I couldn't see the ground at my feet."
And that's when it hit me. That's what I was afraid of all night: Me not seeing a thing, and hearing that scream fading off down river.