I and my wife had just arrived at Miami airport.
It was February 2006 and after 2 weeks of taking her nursing exams that guaranteed her green card and our ability to become permanent US residents, we had flown back to the UK to clean up some loose ends.
Arriving back in Mimai was a wonderful experience knowing that this time we weren’t holidaymakers, but here to stay.
Then it all went wrong.
No, we didn’t take a wrong turn out or Miami airport. And no, we didn’t run out of gas on Alligator Alley resulting in a night spent in our car being attacked by malevolent mosquitos.
We got in the wrong line for customs.
We joined the line for UK visitors as we have on the dozens of previous trips over the years to the US.
When it became our time to present our passports the customs official saw the visa signifying we were residents.
There was no smile, no welcome, not even a gentle admonishment for getting it wrong, he just called for a supervisor.
What followed had us feeling unsafe not in the sense that we ever feared for our lives, but in a wtf have we done committing to a country that treats its guests like this? kind of way.
We were first split up and put into separate rooms.
Then, over a 5-hour period of which about 4-hours was staring at blank walls wondering what was going on, we were questioned on why we were there and why we were trying to gain access to the country as a visitor when we were a resident?
It was all incredibly intimidating and nerve-wracking.
When we were both allowed to leave, again, there were no smiles, no good luck or welcome to the United States, and certainly no apologies, we were simply told we could go.
I have no clue who this group below smiling for the camera are. But I suspect if our experience was anything to go by they’re actors brought in because the actual customs and border officials have no clue what smiling even is. And that belief has formed over dozens of trips into the country from overseas not just this one.
I have had a handful of other negative experiences coming back into the US at the hands of US Customs.
It really is something the US needs to get a handle on because it’s often guests of the United States (who bring billions of dollars into the economy) first point of contact and can leave a nasty taste in the mouth.
Having said that, I’m happy to say that was the worst experience I ever experienced in the 15 years of living there. As a whole, Americans are very hospitable and friendly people who made us feel very welcome and contributed to a great period in our life.
Peter Wade visited all 50 U.S. states many times
Having been almost everywhere in America, I’ve found most places from coast to coast to be safe and welcoming. But every once in awhile, I’ve happened upon a place that made me feel very unsafe.
My visit to East St. Louis, Illinois, known as the murder capital of the U.S., was one such place. Driving through America’s most dangerous neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland, near Monroe and Lanvale streets where a staggering 1 in 13 people become a victim, was pretty intense.
But one place in America made me feel most unsafe, a place that was absolutely terrifying. It has no address, so I’ll provide the GPS coordinates. You can look them up on a map if you’re interested.
42.775491 N, 123.928540 W
42.775491 N，123.928540 W
There we were, driving through the remote Oregon woods near the Wild Rogue Wilderness. A friend of mine drove the car, helping me complete my crazy mission of seeing every point of interest in America. Driving along the rural road pictured above, we were checking off another national forest, and then heading to the macabre place where Dewitt Finley was buried by a snowstorm on Bear Camp Road for six months, followed by the place where the Kim family was infamously trapped. A link to information on that road appears at the end of this post. If you get into trouble out here, there is no cell phone reception and nobody to help you. There are many remote places like this in the United States, but there is so much more to the story. The unpaved roads went for miles and miles and miles. It was an uneasy feeling, but simultaneously serene, peaceful, quiet. That only masked the real terror in the dark forest.
The horrifying adventure
I had to pee. We stopped the car on the side of the gravel road, not far from the edge of a cliff. I stepped out. It was about that time that a giant flash of brown fur bolted past me. This enormous bear nearly the size of our car had been eating on the cliff’s edge out of view, and I had caught it off guard. The great creature bolted up the sheer incline like it was flat ground, racing within inches of me and scurrying up the opposite bank with ease. Had it actually been pursuing me, I would have no chance of escape. This is an animal that can outrun me, outclimb me, and outswim me.
Indeed, these aren’t nearly as aggressive as grizzly bears nor polar bears, both of which I’ve also seen in the wild. But the number of bears in this location was shocking, and the bears that worried us the most were the females we saw with babies. Honestly, at this point, peeing wasn’t my biggest concern.
It was the fact that we were running low on gas (because this side trip was completely spontaneous), there was no civilization for a long way, and the prospect of walking for hours to find the nearest paved road while passing female bears during the precise season in which they all had cubs in is what petrified us, far more than seeing grizzlies and polar bears at a safe distance.
That glimpse of cold, dead eyes of the bear that ran past me, eyes that didn’t care if you ever saw your loved ones again, had me flustered and rattled. But I thought about it logically. From past experience, after seeing one bear or a group of bears, I had never seen a second bear or second group just a mile away, not even in Alaska with a high density of grizzlies. Spotting bears was random and infrequent, so the chances of being in danger just a mile down the road were low, or so I thought. So we drove a little ways and stopped again. I looked both ways before exiting the car.
Standing at the edge of the woods, where the forest encroached into the gravel but still too nervous to walk in very deep, I was ready to complete the task. Surely that was the only bear we’d see today. And then, my worst fear came true. A horrendous crashing sound nearby broke the silence, some huge animal bounding through the trees and snapping large branches with its girth like they were little twigs. It was another massive bear that came far too close for my comfort. I had startled the creature, and I was again very thankful it didn’t attack me. This beast was at least four times my size, and something smaller ran through the brush as well, perhaps a cub!
They are everywhere
We began to realize that the bears were all around us. Not one, not two, probably hundreds! When we started to pay attention as we continued driving, we could see them moving through the woods, at least one every couple of minutes. I had never seen anything like it, and I’ve been all over the world. We saw more than 50 bears for sure, including female bears with cubs. I still have this vivid image in my head of a female bear we saw standing against a tree, easily seven feet tall, looking up at two cubs climbing down the trunk, then back at us, then back at the cubs, and then back at our car. She was not happy to see us. In fact, these animals probably hadn’t seen a human being in a very long time on these remote roads. You could sense that this was their domain, not ours.
The density of the bears
By this point, I had driven on practically every rural road in America while chasing down random travel goals, even off-limits logging roads from Washington to Maine. But I had NEVER seen anything like this density of bears; not in Yellowstone, not in North Cascades, not even the grizzly bears in Alaska. It seems we had inadvertently stumbled upon the bear capital of the contiguous 48 states! We never saw another human being, not for hours until we found a paved road. This forest contained two idiot tourists, and hundreds upon hundreds of bears. It was the most unsafe I’ve ever felt.
I was nervous hiking in Alaska’s grizzly bear country, and being around polar bears in Churchill, and standing face to face with a mountain lion (story below). But there was something about being in the middle of Oregon with huge bears at every single turn while running low on gas that was terrifying! It was very surreal!
I could potentially negotiate with a rough customer in East St. Louis or Baltimore or Camden. But there is no negotiating with a bear, especially one with cubs. Therefore, I’ve never felt more unsafe in America. But I will admit the adrenaline rush was worth every moment.
Fact: These animals have brown fur, but they’re actually called black bears. And they get really big in Oregon!
In more than 50 years, I’ve traveled much of the USA, North America and even of Europe; I’ve walked miles through the inner city public housing projects of Washington DC, with no other white faces in sight, as a single unarmed woman, just as I did throughout European cities, and I’ve hiked alone through dark woods without a light where massive beasts I could not see were snorting at me to chase me away from their home (probably deer). But the most terrifying experience I had was as a young teenager, when my vacationing family’s car broke down near a small town and had to get towed in for repairs.
Every single person in that town seemed a bit weird in their interactions with us, though they were outwardly polite, they seemed displeased with our presence and were watching us all the time with an almost predatory intensity, a sort of dead-eyed stare that was measuring us with no empathy, though tried to conceal their interest to our faces. It was late afternoon when our car arrived at the repair shop, and the repairs took many hours, and we could not even be sure if they’d get done that day. So we ended up walking through the town to get ourselves a meal and to try to find a place where we might get lodging if the repairs took more than one day. My brother and I would usually take any opportunity to run and explore and play, but I think everyone in our family was experiencing the hairs standing up on the backs of our next as we felt eyes watching us from all sides, though we could never seem to spot folks staring at us. So for once my brother and I were glued to my parents’ sides like shy toddlers, we just couldn’t help ourselves.
We did get a meal, though it was hard to eat anything with our hair standing on end, feeling like we might end up being on the menu, and then we found a boarding house, but we were getting serious Bates Motel vibes from the place, so we didn’t put money down on a room there, but went back to the repair shop and my dad offered the repair man to pay double-time for his overtime hours if he could complete the work that evening so we could get out of there yet that day, and he accepted. We couldn’t stand waiting at the repair shop in the center of town, where the “go away!” vibe was strongest, so we walked a few blocks to the beach, and tried to hang out there until the time the repairman had said to be back. But even on the beach we couldn’t relax and play in the water, as we usually do at every beach, instead we stuck together and found a place to sit down where we could not be seen from the road, and my parents were facing in opposite directions from each other watching the road approaches through the screening trees, while my brother and I tried to distract ourselves with the sand but our “play” was absolutely silent, though we were trembling.
At the appointed time, we walked back for our car and were so relieved when it was ready - Dad paid our bill and we piled into the car and left ASAP, despite being hungry and tired, we just couldn’t relax until we were several hours down the road, mom and dad agreed they’d rather take turns driving through the night rather than look for a campground in that state at such a late hour. While we were in the small town we didn’t talk about our fears, that would have made them overwhelming, but once we were well and truly away, and the hair on the back of our necks had finally relaxed, we began comparing our symptoms with each other and confirmed that we were all very scared, though we could never pinpoint what it was about the place that was so upsetting. We all felt like we were lucky to escape that place, though nothing had happened to justify that feeling. To this day I do not think that we were just imagining the threat, but I have no desire to find out what it was that was threatening us. I don’t think we were wrong to trust our instincts and leave as soon as we could get away, and try to not attract attention in the mean time.
Robert Blevins Co-Founder at Adventure Books of Seattle (2003-present)
Many years ago, I was on a hitchhiking trip across the United States that lasted for about eighteen months. I had a lot of fun and back in those days I didn’t feel unsafe in most situations. You just had to check out the person who might offer you a ride. (This was back in the mid-70’s when hitching was a bit safer than it is today.)
One time I had to walk across the city of Oakland, California which is quite a long walk, and a few times I didn’t feel all that safe. There I am walking along with this large, expensive backpack full of first-class camping gear, and I wondered sometimes if I would have to drop it on the ground and just run.
Fortunately, I made it safely across the city.
San Jose International Airport on the way to the passport control desk.
My shoe lace had come loose & I nearly tripped over it - I bent down to tie it up & a female security guard screamed at me to get up & keep moving & already had her gun out of her holster in the 2–3 seconds from tripping to bending down.
Great welcome to the USA.
Remy Martin former Professor/Instructor at Riverside Community College (1978-1990)
Where in America have you felt the most unsafe?
I felt most unsafe at the Mexican Border.
Jason Freedman lives in The United States of America
The largest city here I’ve been to is Los Angeles. Been there three times now. Maybe I haven’t spent enough time there, but the only thing that made me feel were the shitty drivers. I felt most unsafe when I was in Paris and was being followed by a group of junkies who later pickpocketed me.