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If you’ve ever been camping, you have stories of animals — big and small — approaching uncomfortably close to your tent in the middle of the night or rummaging through the package of Twinkies you left in the open. The Observer remembers several years ago unintentionally cornering a large animal — it sounded like a bobcat — in a narrow passage while spelunking at Devil’s Den State Park. The growl of that animal remains clear in our head to this day.

So when the purchase of a new Jeep inspired us to take an overnight jaunt to the woods on the Buffalo River, we decided it might make sense to take a little extra protection on the trip. The Observer doesn’t own a gun and doesn’t generally like them. But, as a downtown resident more adept at warding off panhandlers than black bears, having a pistol on the trip was mental — and potentially physical — insurance for this urban dweller.

We stopped at a grocery store along the way, and there The Observer sought the advice of the beer stocker in the mile-long beer section: What brand to buy? We wanted something on a scale higher than PBR that a woman would like. St. Pauli Girl was the 20-something’s suggestion. “It’s good beer, it’s smooth and the ladies like it.” It might be a girlie beer, we thought, but we made up for it by packing at least as much heat as Charles Heston carries to Sunday service. Ring it up.

After a three-hour journey up Highway 65 that included some four-wheel-drive frolicking near Gilbert, we were outside Jasper. We stumbled upon a campground turn-off that led directly to the Buffalo River. Over a bridge and through a maze of trees and rocks, we found a majestic spot right on the river to camp.

Up went the tent. A nice fire followed. We beat the buzzer of nightfall, and it was almost time to relax, cook some food and, yes, crack a beer.

Then we heard it. In the brush, just 20 yards from our tent, what sounded like an animal cracked brush and rustled leaves just up the hill above our camp. We were spooked. We hopped in the car and hoped it would go away.

After a few minutes of pronounced heartbeats and intense listening, we headed back to the campfire. It had begun to rain lightly. I grabbed the pistol and put it in a plastic grocery bag within an arm’s length.

Fifteen minutes into our dinner preparation, and still slightly on edge from the unidentified animal in our camp, The Observer blurted out feeling good about having “brought the nine millimeter.” We laughed. Thirty seconds later, a flashlight appeared and an authoritative voice called out: “Park ranger. What did you say about a nine millimeter?” The glare of the ranger’s flashlight in my eyes brought a flood of memories, mainly bad ones from high school. He stood at least 6 feet 4 inches, a lumberjack of a fella who looked like he could have started as a linebacker for the Cowboys (during their heyday).

We were worried we were in deep, deep trouble. We were glad that a production team for “Cops: National Park Scofflaw” wasn’t trailing Officer Too Tall Jones.

The upshot: We found ourselves signing a rain- smudged version of my name to three separate tickets: One for camping in a restricted area, another for operating a vehicle off a designated road and one for possession of a weapon in violation of state and federal laws. The last one, which had the potential, at the officer’s discretion, to land us in the pokey, was a warning, fortunately.

We packed up. Many rainy miles later, we found a nice, clean, modern, but mostly unremarkable hotel in Springdale. The two of us were minutes from falling dead asleep. But before we did so, we celebrated our topsy-turvy adventure with a St. Pauli Girl beer.

Off came the bottle caps. Moments later, the verdict was in: “This is skunk beer,” our camping companion declared. “It smells horrible.”

That was the closest we came to a wild animal, on what was the most expensive and oddly entertaining camping trip on record.

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