I have been a business traveler for just over 15 years. My travels have taken me all over the country, to large cities and very small, rural communities. I have traveled in large groups and with myself as my only companion. In the beginning, I would I would stick very close to my client and hotel location, rarely venturing into the community. As my confidence grew, so would my explorations. Depending on where I was at for the week, I would take at least one night and drive through the area to experience the culture, see the sights, or meet up with an old friend that I had recently reconnected with. I would do this without much forethought for my safety. I never paid attention to my surroundings. I never even thought to give my family an idea of what I would be doing or where I would be going. It never dawned on me that if something ever happened, would they even know where to start looking. As a young 20-30 something, you just never think of those things or that bad people can be just around the corner. Well, I learned my lesson one Wednesday night in Southern Kentucky.
My husband and I had been married for a couple of years. The pastor that married us had moved his family from our hometown church to a rural farm community in south western Kentucky over 3 hours from where we lived. I had client that was just over 30 miles away from my pastor’s new church. Whenever I was in the area, I would drop in to see them and attend their Wednesday night services. I had been to his church several times and was somewhat familiar with the area, or so I thought.
On this particular Wednesday night, I was running a little late and there was a ton of construction on the main highway. So much, that all of the signage had been removed up and down the highway and the landmarks had been disturbed. I had an idea of where I should turn, but I wasn’t completely sure since I didn’t recognize the area. I stopped at a gas station to confirm the location of the road I was looking for. This was so important, because this was a farming community and all roads off of the main highway were completely lined with corn fields. One wrong turn and you could get lost in the corn forever. Keep in mind this was before the invention of GPS and smart phones.
So, I stopped to ask for directions. In my family, I am the only person who will ever stop and admit that I am lost. My husband – not on your life – he would rather drive in circles than ever ask for directions. Drives me NUTS.
I pull into a convenient store directly across from the street that I think I am looking for. The parking lot was fairly empty with only two vehicles, other than mine. One of the cars belonged to the clerk behind the counter and then there was a panel van at the pumps with driver in the store. I paid little attention to this as it is a scene that plays out at gas stations every where in the country and at any time of the day.
So, I pulled up, parked, and went inside. Without any thought, I blurted out to the clerk that I was looking for highway 345 and could he tell me if it was the road across the street. The clerk responded that he wasn’t sure but I was welcome to check out one of their maps. I proceeded to the map section of the store (remember gas stations actually carried maps!!!) and found that the store was out of the local maps. I yelled this to the clerk and asked if he had one behind the counter.
This time, the other customer responded that he had one in his van and that I was welcome to walk out there with him to use it. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and this unwavering fear came over me. I have no other way to describe what I was feeling except in that moment, I was very scared for my life. There was something very, very wrong here and my next actions could mean the difference of whether I would see my family again.
I politely thanked him but declined his offer and proceeded to meander through the store while keeping an eye on him. He was watching me throughout the store. I pretended to shop, gathered a few items, and acted like I was heading to the check-out. When I started up to the cashier, so did he but at an awkwardly brisk pace like he was in a hurry all of a sudden. As soon as he was occupied with the cashier, I dropped everything and ran for door. I jumped in my car and tore off down the road across from the store.
This road was a narrow country road, lined with corn stalks on both sides. There was nothing down this road except 10 miles of corn and the church. There wasn’t another house or business or even a place to turn around if I found that I was lost.
I am racing down this road with my heart pounding and adrenaline pumping, praying it is the right street. I glance in my rear view mirror and see a pair of headlights following me. My first thought was that it could be other church members just going to Wednesday services. Then, I noticed the time. It was 7:10 and services started at 7:00.
As I drove, I turned right then left then right, following my memory of directions to the church. I was on the right road and the headlights were continuing to follow me. It was dusk, so I couldn’t quite make out the vehicle, but, I thought it was the van from the store. What was I going to do? When I arrived at the church, I would most certainly be the only one in the parking lot. Could I get parked and into the church before this van reached me?
I decided that I would park my car as close to the door as possible, whether there was an available parking spot or not. I could not leave any room for this man to approach me. My intuition, instinct, or whatever you want to call it, knew that my life was in imminent danger. So as I continued to drive, I watched the headlights follow and I planned my escape.
I finally arrived at the church parking lot and pulled into the lot like a bat out of he$$. I raced to the door, through my car into park, jumped out and ran to the church doors as if my life depended on it. I opened the door to the church just as the van (the same van from the gas station) raced in behind me. There happened to be a deacon of the church just in the vestibule. I was shaking and crying and he knew something was wrong. We both went to the door to see the van making a U-turn, screeching his tires in the process and heading back out the way he came. He was gone and I was safe. But that night opened my eyes to the dangers of being oblivious to your surroundings and how important it is to pay attention to your instincts. Just a few years before this, I may have been more naive and trusting and could have seen myself making a different choice in that store. I could have trusted him over my instincts and followed him to his van. Then, this story would have played out on the evening news.
Another lesson I learned is the importance of leaving a trail for my family to follow if the worst case scenario happens. If this man had gotten to me, my family and friends wouldn’t have known where to begin to look. No one knew my plans that evening. No one knew the hotel I was staying at or even rental car I was driving. I could have ended up as one of the thousands of other men, women, and children that go missing every day and are never seen again.
This changed me and my perception of the world. I always tell my family where I am and what I will be doing. I am constantly looking over my shoulder at the people around me. I am never the first person off of the elevator in the parking garage or hotel. I am never ashamed to ask for an escort to my car if I see something suspicious in the parking lot. Some people snicker and smile when I tell my story. Maybe they think I’m a bit dramatic or paranoid. That’s fine. I’m alive, I’m aware, and I refuse to be a statistic.