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Strangers in the Dark - Karen Pedersen Travis

Things are never so bad they can’t get worse. It’s a quip my father used to say—one I never fully appreciated until I found myself facing off with a motorcycle gang in the rain on a dark street thousands of miles from home.


It was supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime, and by all accounts it was. The summer after my freshman year of college, my best friend, Carin, and I planned to backpack through Western Europe for eight weeks to see the world. We didn’t plan to make ourselves a target; one never does. But surprises were bound to happen—and they did, from the very beginning.


On the first day of our adventure, a miscalculation led us to the red-light district of Amsterdam in search of the youth hostel. The streets were wet with rain, soaking our white Nike sneakers and dampening the Western kerchiefs we had tied around our necks. We walked in circles, our backpacks bumping behind us with each step, clutching our Let’s Go Europe handbook, turned to the map section. The air was thick with a mixture of stale beer, wet earth, unwashed people, and other things we couldn’t quite identify.


Our pace slowed and our eyes widened as we passed tall windows, where half-naked women, illuminated by dim lights, danced to the thump of rock music, beckoning people inside. After what seemed like an eternity, we were spotted by an older couple who guided us safely toward the youth hostel. We checked in for the night, not knowing we’d be sleeping in one of ten bunk beds in a large room full of men and women. Crawling into our beds fully clothed, our valuables in money belts strapped to our sides, we slept soundly, blissfully unaware of what other surprises might be waiting us in the days ahead.


As adventures go, this one was filled with “firsts.” First trans-Atlantic flight without our parents; first time we’d ever been to many of the countries we visited; and the first time we’d ever seen a punk rocker in the flesh.


This was the 80s, and punk rock had not yet been embraced in the small towns of Minnesota, where we went to school. But here in Amsterdam, punk rock was in full display on nearly every street corner. When we weren’t staring at the strange clothing, piercings, and spiky mohawks, we were dodging vendors aggressively hawking hashish. We gave both groups a wide berth before proceeding to the Anne Frank house and other, safer, tourist attractions.


Having successfully navigated Amsterdam, we continued our journey with our heads held high, brimming with the confidence of seasoned world travelers. On the train to Paris, we found ourselves sitting across from two very attractive young men. We smiled. They smiled back. They could tell by looking at us that we were American. For the next hour, they spoke to one another in Swedish, not knowing Carin grew up speaking their native language. They were talking about us. And Carin understood every word.


When the train stopped, we collected our backpacks and Carin bid the young men farewell—in Swedish. Their jaws dropped when they realized we’d heard their conversation, but they laughed, taking it in stride. We parted ways, suspecting we’d see them again, as we had so many other young people traveling through Europe. We were part of a tight community of explorers—particularly women, who preferred the safety of traveling in numbers.  


On the way to Luxemburg, we traveled with two such friends—women who lived with their parents on a U.S. military base in Saudi Arabia. After settling into our rooms at the youth hostel and touring the city together, we walked past a movie theater where “Excalibur” was playing. One of our new friends decided to go back to the hostel to write postcards, while the rest of us opted to catch the 7 p.m. show.


The three of us entered the theater and found our way to a row of empty seats. As the lights dimmed and the projector fired up, we ended up sitting through 20 minutes of commercials and previews before the film began. Once the movie started, we were happily transported to the mythical world of Merlin, King Arthur, Lancelot, and the Knights of the Round Table. We were so caught up, in fact, that we didn’t realize it was getting late.


Skipping the film’s dramatic conclusion, we filed out of the theater at 9:40 p.m. In 20 minutes, the gates of the youth hostel would close, and no one would be allowed in or out until morning. Plenty of time, we told ourselves, not realizing our evening’s dramatic conclusion was just beginning.


Stepping outside, we were surprised by how different the city streets looked in the dark. We turned right, in the general direction of the youth hostel. That’s when it started to rain.


Without raincoats or umbrellas, we were soaked to the skin within minutes. Nothing to see here. Just three young women—clearly American—splashing through widening puddles in wet tee-shirts, jeans, and Nikes, with money-belts strapped tightly around our waists. We were hopelessly lost and desperately trying not to panic.


Up ahead, Carin spotted a covered awning marking the entrance to a department store. Seeking shelter from the storm, we turned into the dark space tucked deeply into the entryway and stopped short. The space was already occupied.


Sprawled out on the ground, surrounded by black motorcycles, were more punk rockers. Five leather-clad, tattooed, cigarette-smoking, blue-mohawk-wearing, very damp punk rockers. All men. They didn’t look happy—until they saw us. That seemed to lighten their mood.


The streets were empty. Everyone else had been driven indoors by the storm. The only sound was that of rain and thunder.


Having no choice, we did the only thing we could do. Run.


Carin took the lead, I followed, and our young American friend from Saudi Arabia brought up the rear. We didn’t get far before we heard motorcycles firing up. In the back of my head, I could hear my father’s voice: Things are never so bad they can’t get worse.


As we staggered down the sidewalk, the motorcycles wove around each of us, their riders laughing and gunning their engines. Terrified, we kept going until we could see lights coming from a bar up ahead. Carin stopped and pushed the two of us inside, slamming the door shut behind us. As we turned, the bar grew suddenly quiet. Then, just as suddenly, we heard loud applause—a sound that precedes an evening’s entertainment. The men in the bar began hooting and cheering in drunken approval, as we stood in wet tee-shirts, rain dripping from our blonde hair. 


Things are never so bad they can’t get worse.


Carin took control, leading us past the clapping patrons to the back of the long, dark, narrow bar. As we walked deeper into the room, the motorcycle gang entered through the front door and stood there, blocking our escape.


Seeing we were clearly in trouble, the bartender motioned to a friend who guided the three of us down a narrow hallway, past the restrooms, and out the back where a small blue car sat waiting in a dark alley. We followed, without question. After all, what could possibly be worse than what was waiting for us at the front door?


I didn’t dare answer that thought. My father’s voice in my head grew quiet. I hoped that was a good sign.


The car was comically small, the backseat nearly nonexistent. But in our desperation, we all managed to squeeze in and drive away. I sat in the back seat, the inch-long blade of my red Swiss Army Knife key chain drawn and ready, in case our driver got any ideas.


As the car pulled up to the youth hostel, we could see the friend who’d stayed behind, standing in front of the doors with her arms outstretched, pleading with the staff to keep them open just a little longer. We stepped inside and the door shut behind us with a loud “click.”


We still had five more weeks of traveling to go. There were no cell phones, and long-distance calls were expensive, so we never once called home. But we did send a postcard from every city we visited, so our parents knew we were okay.


“Having a wonderful time!” we wrote. “Meeting lots of very interesting people.”


Karen Pedersen Travis is a retired communication consultant and emerging writer. She received a bachelor’s degree from the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and now writes creative nonfiction from her home in Minnesota, where she lives with her husband and two aggressively loving golden retrievers. She is currently working on her first full-length book about her experiences growing up in Southeast Asia in the 1960s, where her parents worked as Lutheran missionaries.

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