All names are pseudonyms and have been changed to protect the identity of the people in this story…except Matthew.
On this episode of Dateline
If there was any way my episode of Dateline was going to start, this was it. My friend and I were driving through the desert with no cell service, following a stranger from the Internet in our rented Kia Soul. The further we got away from civilization, the more I could hear Lester Holt’s voice narrating the beginning of my tragic death.
Holt would begin the episode’s intro with his famous tagline, “Hello, I’m Lester Holt, and tonight on Dateline, we’ll hear the story of a young girl on vacation who was brutally murdered in a sacrificial ceremony.” Every word, perfectly rehearsed in an even cadence and clear tone.
Then, a compilation of quotes from my family and friends would follow.
“Yeah, we started to worry when we didn’t hear from Katelin for a few days.”
“She also took risks when traveling. I mean she was by no means a cautious traveler, but we never imagined this,” someone would say as their voice cracked and eyes brimmed with tears.
“She was such an amazing, fantastic, beautiful person with a great sense of humor. Truly one of the best people I’ve ever met,” a friend would lament before sobbing uncontrollably.
And after the heartfelt assertions of my character and how special I was, suspenseful music would play as grainy photos of the murder scene appeared on the screen.
Then, the music would speed up and become more intense as a shadowy figure stabbed a CPR dummy in a flash of red light. The music rings in your ears. Your heartbeat thumps with the ominous backtrack. You’re on the edge of your seat wondering why this poor girl was brutally murdered and dismembered.
But, the longer viewers watched it, the more frustrated they got. A college girl sits on her couch, digging into a bowl full of low-fat popcorn, mumbling to herself, “Are you fucking kidding me? This girl is so stupid. Why the hell would you agree to stay with a stranger from the Internet in the middle of the desert?”
“She kind of deserved it if she was that stupid. I mean the guy invited her to a vampire-themed blood moon party,” other viewers would huff before they flipped the channel to HGTV.
And as much as I want to say these viewers are wrong, I have to admit they have a point. Bad people do exist. And I’m sure there are many people out there who would jump at the chance to steal my wallet, pack me in a shipping container, and go all Hannibal Lector.
However, I tend to operate under the naive mindset that people are more good than bad. And maybe your mom was right. Maybe you shouldn’t talk to strangers. But, at this point, I was already in too deep. We had just arrived at our host’s home, miles away from civilization and cell service.
“Okay, so we are meeting with Joe and his friend down at Bluewater Lake,” I announce to my friend, Matthew as I load the directions into my phone.
He looks over at me, takes a deep breath, and then sighs before taking the next right. I know at this point he’s already tired of my antics, but I don’t care.
I had never couchsurfed before, but now seemed like the perfect opportunity. We were in Utah, only a few days into our camping road trip. And even though we were supposed to camp the entire time, a shower and a couch sounded better than spending another night covered in dirt, sleeping on the ground.
Plus, the guy I had found, Joe, seemed normal enough. In reality, he was the only one who had answered me back, but whatever, who cares? He was probably really cool. And, even if the whole thing did blow up in our faces, well, we’d at least have a cool story. Everything was going to be fine
We drive down the rocky dirt road to Bluewater Lake, and as we get closer I can make out Joe and his friend’s trucks parked next to the artificially blue water. Well, here we are.
Matthew looks over at me and raises his eyebrows. I take a deep breath and return his glance before I get out of the car and scramble down the gravelly slope to Joe and his friends.
“Hey, Joeeeee? I’m Katelin…from couchsurfing?” I ask with hesitation as I approach the two-man party. Matthew follows behind at a distance, and I edge closer like a cat, feeling like I’ve intruded. They’re facing the water, but as soon as Joe hears me, he immediately hops out of his lawn chair, turns around, and confidently walks toward me with his hand out.
“Hey, nice to meet you guys,” he says with a hint of a smile and firm handshake. His hands are tough, ropy, and covered in callouses.
His friend, Brianna then takes the liberty of introducing herself with a tight hug.
“Hi, I’m Brianna. Joe’s a really good dude so don’t worry. You’re in really good hands,” she asserts in an accent that I can’t quite place.
Hmmm, strange thing to say, but I guess it makes sense given the couchsurfing situation. Oh well.
Matthew looks over at me and widens his eyes as if to say, “Okay, weird alert. Let’s leave now.” But I ignore him.
Right after introductions, Joe and Brianna offer us beers and chairs to sit on. Joe even offers me a hat from his truck after he sees me shielding my face from the sun. Huh, see these are good people. I’m pretty sure serial killers wouldn’t care about their victims getting sunburnt.
We sit for about two hours, talking, drinking beer, and roasting in the sun. Matthew is antsy the entire time, but I enjoy the conversation. Joe and Brianna are unlike anyone I’ve ever met. They’re a weird combination of hippy and redneck. And I’m not talking about good ole boys who grow their own marijuana. No, Joe and Brianna are more like spiritually independent nomads who just happen to have a penchant for ATVs and the second amendment…and well, yeah marijuana too.
But even then, Brianna and Joe are more than that.
Brianna has wild, curly hair that matches her personality. She’s vegan and has an athletic build. But she’s not a pretentious vegan, and as far as I can tell she’s not seen a gym in years. She has the frenetic energy of a Border Collie and tempers herself with copious amounts of whiskey. She runs through her stories of drunken escapades and dirt-biking adventures quickly, as if she can’t get it out fast enough. And she has this kind of “Fuck you attitude. I’ll do whatever I want,” that makes me think we’d be best friends in another life.
Joe, on the other hand, is calmer, more observant than Brianna. He doesn’t speed through his stories, throwing out one word after another; he pauses and thoughtfully selects each word. Joe wears dusty black pants that zip at the knee with beaten-up Jesus sandals, and he has a blonde Fu Manchu mustache. He drinks PBR like it’s water, smokes Marlboros, and drives an old, dusty silver 4Runner that’s held together with duct tape and good karma.
Eventually, Matthew’s stares start to intensify, and I suggest we move on to do something else. So, Matthew, and I follow Joe into town to get lunch while Brianna opts to get drunk on her paddleboard in the middle of the lake.
It’s just the warm-up
Twenty-four hours ago, I never imagined that I would be in a scene from the Dukes of Hazzard. Four PBRs deep, jumping over petrified sand dunes in a brand new Polaris RZR S 900 with our couchsurfing host. But here I was.
After we left the lake with Joe, we drove into the middle of town for lunch at Joe’s favorite Thai restaurant. Like most Thai restaurants I’d dined in, this one was a hole in the wall, complete with aggressive fluorescent lights and cheap laminated menus. However, the food was phenomenal…and painfully spicy.
After the first couple bites, I could already feel the sweat forming on my upper lip. I reached for my water again only to find that I had finished it.
Joe looked at me and laughed, “It’s a little spicy, huh?”
“You know spicy foods are really good for your immune system. Your body thinks you’re being poisoned, so it boosts your immune response,” Joe says as he dumps even more chilies on his plate.
Lovely. At least the burning pain in my mouth was justified.
After we finished eating, we had to decide what we were going to do for the rest of the day. Joe had the day off from ATV touring and offered to take us climbing. But at the last minute, he suggested that maybe we could do something else. Maybe we could take one of the ATVs from his work, and go on a tour of our own.
I looked at Matthew and then back at Joe.
“I think we’ll go with the ATVs,” I said, trying to contain my excitement.
Joe’s eyes lit up.
“I think that’s a great choice,” he said with a childlike giggle.
Shit. What did I just get us into?
After lunch, we followed Joe further into town to his work. There was a liquor store-gas station conveniently located next to the ATV center. So, Joe dropped us off to get supplies for the trip, namely PBR and Corona.
With the goods in hand, we walked over to the ATV center and loaded everything into Joe’s cooler. PBR stacked on PBR stacked on Corona. And then, just as we finished stacking the last can into a perfect Tetris game of cheap beer, Joe pulled up in our horse and buggy.
Here we go.
I hopped in the front, next to Joe, as Matthew secured the cargo in the back. Joe hadn’t opened up a single PBR yet, but he was still buzzing, electric, ready to go. Like a kid on Christmas morning, eagerly waiting for his parents to wake up, he impatiently tapped his fingers on the steering wheel.
And as soon as Matthew finished strapping down the cooler, Joe switched gears and drove off into town. I looked over at him and could tell that he was dying to go over the 25 mph speed limit, but he hovered at just that and fumbled with the ATV’s Bluetooth speaker until “Dancing Queen” by ABBA came on.
I couldn’t help but laugh. Joe was a strange dude. When we passed a cemetery, he waved at its occupants. And then he expectantly answered my confused look with a chuckle, “Well, ya know. Dead people are still people.”
But even though he was strange, Joe was cool. I mean I didn’t know any other people who would invite random strangers into their home and take them off-roading all while listening to the “Mamma Mia” soundtrack.
But then again, I didn’t know anyone like Joe.
We eventually came to the off-roading state park/nature preserve—yeah, I didn’t know that was a thing either. Joe stopped at the pay station and gave the operator a cigarette. The operator laughed and reached for his lighter in his back pocket before opening the gate. I guess cigarettes work as a form of payment in the desert.
After passing through the gate, Joe drove down the road to the first big petrified sand dune. He stopped and turned around to face Matthew and me.
“Okay, you guys ready for the warm-up?” he asked eagerly.
Well, that’s what I thought because as soon as Joe began to drive up the hill, I felt the same anxious dread you get at the top of a roller coaster.
Fuck. Fuck. Were we going to make it? The ATV is literally going up a 65-degree incline. Gravity pressed my back against my seat, and I could feel my stomach beginning to drop.
I looked over at Joe to see if he was as concerned as I was, and I saw nothing but a kid beaming with happiness. This was going to be an interesting trip.
When we finally got to the top, I had less than two seconds to catch my breath before Joe switched gears and started down the hill. Jesus Fuck.
My seatbelt is the only thing that’s holding me from falling through the plexiglass. I feel like I’m going to faceplant in the dirt. My hair falls into my face, and my stomach tightens up. Huh, if we do this for the rest of the day, maybe I’ll have abs.
At the bottom, the ATV finally scoots to a stop, and once again it’s horizontal. Okay cool. That wasn’t so bad. I just have to get used to it. It’s fine. Everything is fine.
Joe turned around and asked if we were ready to go on the really big hills now. I hesitated for a moment before getting out of the ATV and saying, “Umm yeah but actually, uh wait one second, Joe. I’m gonna get a drink. Anyone else want one?”