Rocky Mt. High (part 2)

After all the preparation, an entire morning of packing and waiting, it was still a thrilling moment to ride across the wooden bridge that crossed the Sun River and enter the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The walls of the canyon that housed the stream were steep, and the water that rushed below was clear but tinted an iron brown. The horses and mules took no notice of the height or the roar of the water, but then they’d been crossing this span for years by now in all sorts of weather and seasons. The riders, however, were excited. The wilderness beckoned.

There were weathered wooden signs that welcomed us on the wilderness side of the bridge and others that reminded us that bicycles, motorized vehicles and power saws were not allowed in the area. Only hikers and animals were permitted entry.

The air was warm, but we were shaded by tall firs and pines as the trail followed the course of the river below us as we continued toward the interior of the wilderness. It was a bit nerve wracking as my horse walked along the narrow trail on the edge of a cliff several hundred feet above the rocks and river. Ben seemed to take no notice of the height and kept following Rango, who plodded along following Chase on his mule. 

The sound of the leather parts of the saddle had a tranquilizing effect on me after a while. I started hearing nonsense songs that reminded me of riding when I was a kid riding on my horse, Paint, as I herded cattle. 

“Squeekity squeak, squeekity squeak. Pet the cat, pet the cat. Squeekity, sqweekity, pity the kitty, pity the kitty. sqweekity squeak, pay the bill, pay the bill . . ..”

After an hour, Will on the lead mule, called for a break after the trail veered away from the river, there was a small clearing where we could stop for lunch. It gave me an opportunity to test my ability to dismount without assistance, an exercise that gave me a little more confidence. I managed to slide off my horse without falling down. It wasn’t the most graceful dismount, but I was pleased to not be sprawled in the dirt, or worse, horse manure.

The vet, although he’d been riding a month prior to this trip, managed to twist his hip as he got off his horse, and the physician needed two crew members to haul him off his mount. Sheila, with a little help from Brenden, slid off Rango without a problem.

The horses needed to be tied to a tree while we rested and ate, and Will showed me how to do a quick release hitch. Well, he tried to, but it would take a couple of stops before I finally learned the trick. Pull the rope around the tree, cross the line to the other side making a numeral 4, pick up the left point of the 4, make a loop by pretending to check the time on a wrist watch, pull the loose end of the rope with a loop through the loop of the 4 and pull end attached to the horse tight against the tree. 

“Simple, right?” Will asked.

I felt like it was advanced calculus.


Sheila and I retrieved our sack lunches from our saddle bags and found a fallen log where we sat down to eat. The bags resembled bandanas like the one on my neck so that the neckerchief could be pulled up when the trail got dusty. The first thing I pulled out was a rolled tortilla, but instead of retried beans or taco meat it enclosed something that looked like red sausage. Sheila was of the opinion that it was pastrami. It was something that was not supposed to be served at ninety degrees inside a tortilla. The red slab was extremely salty and tasted rather rancid.

Also inside the bag was a plastic sack containing bbq flavored corn chips, a container of M&Ms and a small, spotted apple. To be honest, I was jealous of Sheila’s lunch. She had the same wrapped thing, but she also had unflavored chips and a pack of peanut M&Ms. I admit, also, that I pouted and wondered if all our meals would be so mediocre.

The group was called to order by Will, and we went to mount our horses again. Some of us found logs to step up on so that it was easier to get in the saddle, while others attempted to step up on the stirrups and pull their bodies over the horse. It was a matter of learning the coordination of using legs and arms rather than strength.

It took about an hour to get through this lonely part of the valley where the only wildlife to be seen was a bald eagle floating from one side of the burn to the other. The guests were momentarily distracted from the burned trees and hot day as they all shielded their eyes to watch the bird soaring through the blue sky. Even the wranglers were impressed.

It was time to head into an area called the “Big Crispy,” where the green, tall, shade-producing foliage gave way to a barren landscape of black and grey trees, victims of a forest fire several years ago. The trail, since it was no longer protected by shade, was dry and dusty. The mid afternoon sun was hot, and the top of my bald head became wet with perspiration under my cowboy hat.

The verdant view of Pretty Prairie (yes, that is really the name) could be seen almost a mile before the riders reached the end of the burn. The guests had been told that the real scenery started after leaving the Big Crispy, and the change was like going from a black and white movie to full color. The green vegetation and blue color of the stream refreshed and beckoned us.

We rode for another mile or so after we reached the prairie that had not only tall grass, but several varieties of wild flowers such as asters with purple petals and golden centers, sunflowers, white daisies, multilayered petals of cream pearly everlasting with sunny yellow centers, lavender fire weed, and bright orange paintbrush to name a few. The number of evergreens was small, and they grew mostly alone, not in groves like we saw in the upper forest. Here also were scrub willows and small stands of birch with the spotted white bark and broad leaf maple. The spears of grass were not so green as they’d seemed from the distance, but were already turning yellow, gold and brown now in late summer.

We came to a small brook that flowed with clear water. The horses in front of Ben took little notice of the little stream, but he decided to study the situation for a bit before surprising me as he leaped across. Not expecting the sudden lunge, I almost got tossed off the back of the saddle. Of course everyone that saw the jump was quite amused, and I heard cruel laughter behind me. I thought I should deserve applause for my horsemanship. 

It was another mile and late afternoon when we stopped along the river. Will advised the guests to get their water bottles and come with him to the water’s edge where he used an ingenious device containing a bacteria filter and pump to refill our containers. My own container had to be refilled twice as I still had a lingering thirst and the unpleasant remaining taste of lunch remained.

It was announced, to my relief, that the spot next to the river was where we would spend the first night. Sheila suggested that we pitch our tent where we stood, on the bank overlooking the bubbling water, a few feet from the rough path that led to the stream. 

Next, our tents and cots were distributed, and I was rather disappointed that we were expected to erect the tent ourselves. It wasn’t that difficult, but I was tired and feeling stiff and sore from riding most of the afternoon. There was a bit of self-pity in my aura, but it came even more evident when we went to put the cots together. They reminded me of a large Chinese puzzle constructed of canvas and aluminum tubes. It was embarrassing once we found how easily the pieces fit into each other.

In spite of my trepidations, based on the deplorable lunch experience, dinner was quite nice, meatballs with scalloped potatoes and mixed green salad. The surprisingly good meal restored my expectations of Will. The portions were large, so I passed on the dessert and from the look at the offering, it was just as well. Some kind of white slime with a glop of red in the middle.

The pack animals were turned out to graze with many of the horses hobbled on their front legs so that the more adventurous could not wander far. Surprisingly the horses that were shackled found a way to get around by stiffly moving with a modified canter, raising their front legs and propelling themselves forward with their hind feet. They would graze for 10 or 15 minutes, and then one of them would decide to hurry to another area in that inflexible hobbled gate.

The pack animals were turned out to graze with many of the horses hobbled on their front legs so that the more adventurous could not wander far. Surprisingly the horses that were shackled found a way to get around by stiffly moving with a modified canter, raising their front legs and propelling themselves forward with their hind feet. They would graze for 10 or 15 minutes, and then one of them would decide to hurry to another area in that inflexible hobbled gate.

The mules needed no such limitations as they tended to stay in the area of the horses in spite of having the freedom to explore. Chis explained it was the mares to which the mules where attracted. He said that the mules would not wander too far as long as there was at least one mare close by.

The hybrids acted differently from the horses, and exhibited a delight in being released from duty by jumping, running and kicking up their heels. Every so often one of the mules would race down the bank to the river, drink its fill and then race back to join another as they grazed among the tents. They wore bells, so that the crew knew where to find them in the morning, and it was a comforting sound to hear them munching and the sound of the bells throughout the night. It was also the absence of bells that would awaken the crew to go out into the night and look for the pack animals.

When my nightly urge woke me, I found an Ansel Adams moon above the southeastern skyline, and the Milky Way extended itself across the night. Over the western edge was a broad splash of light that I did not recognize, but after a few minutes I realized that it was a comet. It was Neowise, the celestial body that had been on the news, but until now, I’d not been able to witness because of clouds, city lights or other obstructions. I was tempted to wake others, but then, in the chilly night, my enthusiasm would probably not be appreciated by others. In the end, it was a beautiful few minutes that I enjoyed by myself. I heard the river, smelled the clean air that was part of the magnificent night around me.

To be continued.

Rocky Mountain High

Part I

The wind was merely a soft breeze after we’d gone to bed in our tent next to the river. The gurgling sound of the stream was loud enough to hear without my hearing aids and had almost immediately lolled me to sleep. Later, a wind came up, and the noisy ruffling of the tent walls and snapping of the rainfly overpowered the water’s song. The commotion woke us and kept us awake for most of the night. As dawn approached, the wind became stronger yet, and the tent walls were reaching inward, slapping us, making sure we were awake. 

There was no point in staying on our cots inside the tent, so we got dressed and went outside where others were waiting, watching their own tents sway back and forth while drinking the predawn coffee. No sooner than we had our cups filled when we saw our tent collapse as the storm broke two of the support ribs.

This was the beginning of the third day of our pack trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a protected area south of Glacier National Park. It extends 60 miles across the Continental Divide, is over a million acres and has mountains with peaks over nine thousand feet with broad valleys at four thousand feet. No motorized vehicles are allowed in “the Bob.” Not even chainsaws are permitted. Downed  trees that fall across trails, pushed over by frequent high winds, are cut with hand saws. The only way to enter the Bob is by foot, on horseback or on a mule.

It was over a year ago, before the corona virus pandemic, when masks weren’t part of our everyday attire and people could have conversations without using Zoom, we were invited to attend a gala that supported the Montana Natural History Center here in Missoula. We were members, and I occasionally volunteered by sitting at a desk at the museum, answering the phone, and pretending that I knew something. There was wine served at the dinner, and I got carried away with the bidding at the auction. Sheila, upon whom I depend to keep me in check in such circumstances seemed also affected by the wine and kept prodding me to bid higher. When the bidding stopped, I found that I had purchased a six-night, seven-day pack ride into the Bob in August while not even knowing if, at my age, I could get on a horse.

Later, we realized that the purchase was for just one person. Sheila had to get her own package which almost doubled the price of our trip. 

We met our riding companions at an orientation meal in a back room of a small restaurant in Choteau, Montana, which is roughly sixty miles from the staging area for pack trips into the Bob. They were an interesting, mixed lot: a middle-aged rancher from Dillon, MT; an older woman from Arizona who had built up her own highway construction company; her cousin, middle sixties, from the Los Angles area, a retired school teacher, an army veteran and a champion body builder; a sixty year old farmer and his young daughter from Nebraska; a retired hematologist/oncologist, seventy-nine; and a retired veterinarian, also seventy-nine, who raised Japanese beef and had, as he explained, multiple midlife crises; and last was a 29 year old fellow who really wanted to work as an outfitter, but had a girlfriend who did not want him to be gone from late May to November.    

Even though our company left the motel by 7:30 the next morning, we didn’t arrive at the staging area a mile or so from the entrance to the wilderness area until almost noon. The long drive from Choteau was interrupted by a stop at the General Store in Augusta so that the members of our party who wanted to fish could get licenses. At the same time, on the advice of the outfitters, Sheila picked up a pair of long johns, an item which I thought might be a bit superfluous since it was yet early August. It was an action that I would live to regret.

The road out of Augusta was for a mile paved, but then it turned into loose gravel for 15 miles.  The vehicles in our caravan spread out from one another as the wheels turned up plumes of choking dust. The National Forest road that we turned onto was mostly dirt with rough washboard ripples that slowed our progress, but we had to slow down even more as large washed out ruts and deep pot holes became frequent on this really shitty road.

The caravan arrived at the corals late morning. The outfitter crew had canvas tarps lying next to the paddock where the horses and mules were waiting for us. The guests hauled their bags down from the parking area and put them next to the tarps and stood aside so that the crew could work on packing up.

Chris, who wears Teddy Roosevelt glasses, appeared to be a real cowboy with leather vest, bandana and chaps was in charge of the loading; it was obvious that he was impatient to get started. Irritated about the late start, he muttered and cursed under his breath as he weighed the bags carefully so that the packs would not be unbalanced on the pack animals. 

As Chris fumed and fussed, the rest of the wranglers ignored his foul mood as they helped Will, the cook, load his kitchen and cooking gear with the same care for balance. The heaviest load was for Crackerjack, a huge mule that contained a mixture of Percheron and Appaloosa in his genetic makeup. It took four men to heave Will’s heavy and bulky equipment on to the back of the giant animal.

In addition to Chris, who was the also chief of stock handling, there were three other members of very capable and hard-working crew who took care of us during the pack trip: Will, the cook, who also led the string of guests on their mounts and was a wealth of information about fishing, mules, history and politics; Brenden was the crew member that was going back to the University of Montana after the end of the trip; and Trent, fishing instructor, stock expert and a fellow that was ready to help all of us stay on our mounts.

Of the ten guests, we all rode horses except for the young man who wanted to be a crew member. He rode a mule. There were seventeen pack animals of which only four were horses. The rest were mules. It turned out that all four of the crew members preferred mules to horses. They all opined that mules are smarter, stronger, more sure footed and more comfortable to ride.

“You either hate mules or you love them,” claimed Chris. Then he continued, “And, even if you hate the mules, you work with them long enough, you will love eventually love them.”

In spite of the strong preference by the crew for the hybrid animals, the guests were assigned horses for the trip, except for the young fellow who asked for a mule.

Sheila’s mount was named Rango, a name that sounded like it would belong to a wild and jumpy horse, but, as it turned out, Rango was a bit slow and lazy. No matter how much Sheila kicked with her heels, he mostly just plodded along. After a good distance opened up between Rango and the horse in front, he would break into a rough trot to catch up.

My horse was named Ben, a coppery chestnut with a blaze of white on his face that ran from his forelock down to his nose. A quarter horse in his early teens, he was extremely well trained and responsive to reigns as well as little taps from my heel.

Ben was much different from Paint, the big horse that I had when I was growing up on a small farm in Iowa. Ben would back up with the slightest pull on the reigns and would stand still when the reigns were loose. Paint would take advantage of anyone who let the reigns a bit slack and run off at a gallop without the constant pressure pulling his head back. Once he started to run, it took a quick and strong effort to get him stopped before the ride turned into a run away. With an unfamiliar rider he would race back toward the barn, jumping fences and gates on the way to his stall. My father and I were the only ones who could control him.

Meanwhile, the other guests were introduced to their rides. The woman from Arizona, who dressed like a rodeo queen, was given an older horse named Bart who immediately showed his disinterest in the trip by lying down just after being saddled. This act of rebellion was, apparently, something new in Bart’s repertoire, but with a little prodding and a hand full of hay, he reluctantly got up and accepted a bridle.

The biggest concern that most of us older guests had was related to mounting our rides as many of us had not been on a horse in decades. The problem was solved, at least at the trailhead, by leading the horse next to a three step, black, fiberglass stairs where the rider could climb up and merely slip a leg over the saddle to mount. The unasked question was: would the stairs come along on the trip?

Once all the guests were on their animals, we all stood around, the horses somewhat impatiently, waiting for another half hour while the pack animals were loaded. The horses finally settled down after their riders realized that their mounts would stop pacing around if they were allowed to graze while waiting. At the same time, a mule suddenly realized that it was not going to go along on the trip and voiced its displeasure repeatedly as we waited.

It was almost 12:30 by the time the packs were loaded, and the train was lead by Will on a mule named Charley. Our company was not yet in the actual , but we traveled through a couple of National Forest Campgrounds and noticed that there were about forty stock trailers parked close to the staging area. Although no motorized vehicles are allowed in the Bob, it was pretty obvious that we would not be the only folks that would be riding along the many trails.

The campers outside the Bob area stopped whatever they were doing to watch us as we rode by. It felt a bit uncomfortable before I thought about what a sight we must have made with fourteen riders and seventeen pack animals in a long parade. We must have looked like we were going to be on an expedition lasting months instead of a week.

The troop continued along a trail through the tall evergreens for about a mile, stopping for a short period while one of the guests had his stirrups shortened and a few packs were adjusted. We moved on, walking our animals down a hill where we could see a wooden bridge that was the gateway to the Bob Marshall .

to be continued.

Idaho to Oregon

And now, the exciting conclusions to Dan and Jan’s Excellent Adventure.

Roughly a decade before Dan and I arrived in Twin Falls, Idaho, Evel Knievel had attempted to jump the Snake River near the city on a rocket propelled motorcycle, but failed as an unexpected wind blew the vehicle off course causing the daredevil to deploy a parachute. Mr. Knievel had had more fun than we were having on our trip as we hauled my junk from Kansas to Oregon in a rental truck pulling a vintage VW bus.

GC513WP An Evel Hide (Unknown Cache) in Idaho, United ...

We’d been besieged by a number of mishaps that had delayed our progress including (but not limited to) mechanical problems with the truck, a blowout on the bus, bad motels and bad food. We were becoming as pessimistic as Afghan peasants.

Twin Falls appeared on an exit sign off I-84, the highway we took going east from I-15. It was the first town in Idaho that seemed to have a number of motels, but it soon became evident that Twin Falls was not really on the Interstate. Instead the city was on US 30 as a link that gave access to I-84. It was getting late, and, in consideration of our record on this trip, the dark road seemed to represent an invisible threat.

I was driving while Dan stared moodily out at the shadows in the fields next to the road. A sign proclaimed that the crops in the barely visible rows were sugar beets. Our bored conversation revealed that neither of us had ever seen a sugar beet. We speculated that they might be white.

Albit, plant growth promoter of biological origin - Table ...

There was nothing memorable about Twin Falls or the motel where we spent the night other than the next morning we noticed that there seemed to have been a fight in the parking lot. It appeared to have spilled out of a dingy bar called the Beet next door to our lodgings. A Dodge parked next to our rental truck had a smashed windshield and a broken mirror that hung off the driver’s door. Glass splinters were scattered all around, but a brief walk around revealed that neither the truck nor the VW were damaged.

The bar appeared to be open for breakfast, but we decided that we’d opt for the mini mart at the edge of town where we wouldn’t have to crunch our way across a parking lot full of broken glass. Inside the store we found a heated glass case with a few pieces of what might have been yesterday’s deep fried chicken and something that resembled greasy folded cardboard. We opted for coffee and granola bars.

I was driving, feeling tired and put upon while Dan was dozing fitfully when I looked at the oil pressure gauge and noted that the needle was resting at the low end of the range. After sneaking a look at Dan, I poked at the gauge with my finger, a desperate effort that I knew was useless. The needle did not move.

After due consideration, I decided that it was probably better not to mention the oil pressure issue to Dan. After all the truck was running and there was no reason to disturb his rest. The gauge was probably broken.

The traffic on I-84 again increased as we got closer to Boise. The Interstate ran along the southern end of the city, but it seemed that every driver in Boise decided to jam onto the highway at the time we were passing by. It was also at this point that construction and repairs to the road caused the driving lanes to be reduced to one each way. The vehicles slowed to a crawl with frequent stops. The distance between the first city exit and the last was no more than fifteen miles, but after twenty minutes, we were stopped and we had ten miles to go before we’d be at the western city limits of Boise.

Dan, still in the passenger side, looked over at the heat gauge and casually mentioned that the engine was about to overheat. I put the truck in neutral and gunned the engine which after a couple of minutes lowered the temperature a couple of notches. By that time we started to crawl forward again, but with the slow pace, the needle on the gauge started to creep up again. There was nothing to do but take the next exit, stop and let the engine cool.

There was stream rising from the grill by the time we pulled into a K-Mart parking lot, and the cab began to fill with the sweet smell of hot engine coolant. We both rolled the side windows down and got out to wait.

It was late morning and the sun was blistering hot on the asphalt. Rather than risk sunstroke, we ventured into the air conditioned purgatory of the box store. We were immediately informed by an announcement of a blue light special in women’s lingerie for ten minutes. Indeed, we could see a light similar to what might be on a police cruiser turning in an isle on the far side of the store. Women dragging small children were rushing in that direction.

Old School K Mart Tribute (91809A) - YouTubeInterior shot of the now defunct North Valley Plaza Mall ...    Old School Kmart Cafeteria | Vintage | Pinterest | The o ...

Dan and I were not tempted, but instead wandered over to the automotive section. That department, at the time, still had a large selection of floor mats, wiper blades, engine lubricants and, as luck would have it, antifreeze. We went for the K-Mart brand rather than Prestone, which was was twice as expensive.

We farted around for another half hour in the cool atmosphere of the store and returned to the truck. Happily, we found that the engine had cooled, but the parking lot had become hot enough that some of the tar was getting soft. The edge of our heels left marks on the surface of the asphalt and the smell of coal assaulted our noses.

After dumping some coolant in the radiator reservoir, Dan climbed into the drivers seat. He turned the key to start, and after a few seconds of making a suspicious groaning sound, the engine started. Dan turned his head and gave me a hard stare, as if I’d sabotaged the truck.

I said nothing.

He turned on to the surface streets parallel to the Interstate even though the speed was slow, but at least we could keep moving. The temperature gauge indicated that the engine was not overheating. We would have to deal with the odor of the coolant for the rest of the trip.

A few miles east of Boise we were able to get back on I-84 where the traffic was now light and continued that way as we crossed into Oregon and Pacific Time. We gained an hour, not that it made any difference. We were still way behind schedule, and Dan had to call his work to inform them that he needed to take another couple of days off.

After crossing the Snake River, we stopped in Ontario for gas at an Exxon station near the bridge. I filled the tank and cleaned the bugs off the windshield while Dan went into the minimart to get coffee. Thinking of the pressure gauge, I checked the engine oil level and found, with some relief, that , although slightly low, there was no need to add more. The stick did show that the oil was pretty dirty, actually looking like crude petroleum.

Dan came back with a bag of pork rinds as well as two large cardboard cups of coffee and handed me one before he hopped behind the wheel to take over driving. After climbing in on the other side, I sipped at the coffee and judged that it had been on the burner for most of the day. I left the pork snacks to Dan.

The last big challenge to the truck were the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon, but they were mere bumps in the road compared to the steep grades of Colorado and Wyoming. The truck, however, did not respond well to the climbing highway, and slowed considerably to the work load as semis crawled past us. Black smoke came out of the exhaust pipes while Dan poked his finger on the oil pressure gauge trying to nudge it into action.

It seems that both of us had noticed the inactive gauge, but neither of us had called the other’s attention to it. Why raise unnecessary concerns?

Having gone over a pass, the truck seemed to take heart in the downward pitch, and Dan let it have its way as it caught up with the semis that had chugged by us earlier. As he pulled by one of the larger trucks I looked up to see the driver giving us a baleful glance. He was probably thinking of how he would have to pull around us again when the next steep grade came up.

We stopped for food at a Denny’s off the Interstate in Pendleton, but parked in the lot of a nearby truck stop so that the truck had clearance with nobody parking in front or behind. Dan had pointed out earlier that, with the puzzling mechanism that attached the VW to the truck, it would be advisable not to reverse. So far, the strange hitch had held and there was no reason to give it a chance to fail.

My wheat toast with plenty of butter - Picture of Denny's ...

The interior of Denny’s was delightfully cool, and we decided to actually eat in a booth rather than sit at a counter. There were few customers, and our food, breakfast specials that were served all day, arrived in small skillets. We were hungry, so we did not question the way the food came but dived in like a couple of starving dogs.

It was my turn to driver, and, in spite of the heat and the lingering odor of the radiator additive, I was rather cheerful. This would be the last leg of our long trip to Portland, and I was looking forward to off loading my junk as well as getting the truck off my hands.

I jumped into the seat and turned the key in the ignition. The engine seemed a bit hesitant, but, after a few stuttering turns, it started, blowing out the charcoal exhaust behind. Then the dark smoke became lighter, white, but not invisible. I put the clutch to the floor, shifted into low, and slowly engaged the transmission. The motor did not stall, and we started to creep forward. I pulled forward and did a u-turn at the end of he block and started back toward the on ramp. Then I spotted an old familiar looking VW bus sitting on the side of the road.

It took a couple of seconds before I recognized the bus as mine just as Dan sputtered.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake!”

It took us twenty minutes to reattach the hitch and another ten minutes of double, triple and quadruple checking to make sure the connection was solid.

Dan and I looked at each other with tense relief after the truck started again, and I shifted gears as we pulled back onto the Interstate. Our minds were, no doubt and despite our lack of spiritual acknowledgement, saying the same thing.

“Please, please, please; just get us over these last two hundred miles.”

After a long hill just west of Pendleton, I-84 becomes a straight line that moves horizontally across a dry landscape with patches of irrigated alfalfa fields. The arid, flatness of the area, and the heat allows frequent winds to blow from south to north. There are signs warning drivers of occasional dust storms that can rise up quickly, and motorists are urged to leave their headlights on during daylight hours.

So it was that I found myself trying to drive in a straight line as a strong wind kept trying to force the truck off the right side of the road. It wasn’t a blinding dust storm, but tumble weeds and roadside debris dashed across the highway in front of the truck. It was tiring work, and to make matters worse, the coffee from Denny’s had passed quickly to my bladder. It had only been about fifty miles, but it was necessary to stop at the next rest area.

Blowing dirt got in our eyes and stung our faces as we ran toward the restroom. The wind overcame the pneumatic closer of the building and the door slammed behind us as we entered. As we left, it was an effort to open the door against the wind, and we faced the same beating returning to the truck.

It was a mistake to open both doors at the same time. As I wrenched open the driver door against the wind, Dan was bowled over by explosion of the passenger door. Our jackets flew out of the cab and danced across the parking area. It was by sheer luck that a fellow traveler was able to grab them before the coats launched themselves into the sky.

Once settled inside the truck and after we stopped coughing and blowing the dust out of our nasal passages, we were ready to continue. I twisted the ignition key, and nothing happened. The starter tried to turn the engine over, but the motor seemed frozen. The heat gauge indicated that things were not hot. The battery was good. We had filled up in Pendleton.

Dan explained the situation clearly.

“God damn it. Fuck!” And then, “well, wait a few minutes.”

“As if a miracle will occur,” I said, silently, to my self.

We sat in silence, except for the howling wind, for about five minutes.

“Okay, try it again, but for Christ sake don’t flood it.”

I could feel my face getting red, but I did not respond. With little faith, I turned the key.

Chug. Chug. Chug, roar. Roar.

We looked at each other with wide eyes. It was a miracle indeed. The truck had changed its mind, and we could go on.

Dan, “Let’s get the fuck out of here, and don’t stall it.”

I took no offense this time as I slowly pulled out of the rest area and back on to the highway.

As we approached the Columbia Gorge, the wind changed direction and the truck now had to labor against a gale that was bringing clouds from the ocean. The air became cooler and a few drops of moisture spattered against the windshield. The wipers smeared dirt and bug gunk across the glass. By the time we pulled into Biggs to get gas (roughly the halfway point between Pendleton and Portland), the sky was beginning to clear again, and the wind let up.

An attendant was walking up to the pumps (Oregon requires a gas jockey to pump the gas) as Dan was about to speak. I shut off the motor.

“I was just going to say, ‘don’t turn off the engine ‘.”

I knew that the attendant wouldn’t fill the tank with the motor running, but that wasn’t the point.  I hadn’t even thought of it.

Once again there was silence in the cab as the truck was fueled. After I’d paid inside the station, I found Dan sitting in the driver’s seat——-with the motor running!

He had a proud, shit eating grin on his face, but then admitted he had no idea that the truck would start again.

It was getting dark in Portland, but we were lucky enough to find a storage facility that was still open for business on Division Street. It was sheer luck. I had no idea where anything was in this city, but after two hours of labor, the truck was unloaded.

There was no point in trying to find the Jartran truck rental office, it was late, and it had closed at six. It would have to wait until morning, and the guy at the storage place said that there was a decent motel just up a few blocks.

We found the Star Dust Motel easily enough, but the vacancy sign wasn’t lit. Nevertheless I pulled in and parked the truck (with the VW still in tow) in front of the office.

“Don’t——,” advised Dan.

But it was too late. I’d turned off the engine.

Immediately, I turned the key.

Nothing happened.

There was a vacancy at the motel. In fact the place was almost empty, and, upon inspection of a room, it was obvious why. Although reasonably clean, the furnishings were old and worn. The bed covers were worn and the sheets were almost transparent. The selling point was not only the cheap price for the room; the clerk said nothing about moving the truck.


The Jartran Truck Rental place was several miles south of downtown Portland and I had to buy a city map to find Barber Avenue. Getting from the east side is not easy now, but it was a nightmare for me as there was no such thing as GPS in the mid-Eighties. All the streets west converged on a single bridge over the Willamette River, and then came a maze of circles and turns to find another street that went south.

It was about ten in the morning when I finally arrived at the Jartran place where I immediately complained about the shape of the truck that I’d picked up in Kansas.

The man sympathized with me, but said there was nothing that could be done about my problem. He had no method of compensating me or giving even a partial refund. He suggested that I write a letter of complaint to the president of the company.

A month later I learned that the company had filed for bankruptcy and went out of business.

Jartran Truck Rental | I hadn't remembered or thought ...


If one were keeping score, say Ups versus Downs, even though no players were injured on the field during my move from Kansas to Oregon, the negatives were far outscoring the positives. The Downs made the first point in Topeka when I rented a Jartran truck and the asshole at the agency refused to show me how the towing contraption worked. He claimed that the company’s liability insurance forbade him from doing so. The mechanism looked more like hobbles used to immobilize a cow during branding. It took my friend Dan and me several hours of grief before we were able to hitch my old VW bus to the truck.

The Downs kept scoring with lost keys, getting lost in Denver, mechanical problems with the truck, horrible food, bad motel room, a blowout on the bus, and a tire salesman trying to rip us off in Rock Springs, the Gem of Wyoming.

It was early afternoon, hot and dusty as we drove past Green River in western Wyoming, and neither of us had spoken more than ten words since we left Rock Springs some one hundred miles behind us. Dan was at the wheel and pushing the truck hard as we attempted to make up some of the time we’d lost due to our trail of misfortunes. By the time we crossed the Utah state line, the sun’s late rays were streaming in below the windshield visor. The dry, brown landscape turned a chalky sepia in the fading light. The sagebrush gave off a smoke-musk fragrance. In other circumstances we might have appreciated the beauty of the scene.

Ok, one point for the Ups, the weather had been fantastic.

Aside from a slight dip on the oil pressure gauge, it had been running high anyway, the truck seemed to be running as well as an overworked vehicle of that age and milage could be expected. The fuel consumption was way over what seemed reasonable, but then my only comparison was a VW bus that averaged about 30 mpg and a Rabbit that was getting close to 40 on the highway. The Jartran rental was loaded with my junk and pulling the afore mentioned bus, and great fuel economy was not to be imagined. However, my next credit card bill was something that continued to be of concern.

The western sky turned pink with a few purple clouds when the first billboards started appearing suggesting motels and gas stations near Salt Lake City appeared, and it was full dusk as we pulled onto Interstate 15 heading north. The traffic became heavier, but it was much easier and less confusing than what we’d faced around Denver. There was no diversions through Salt Lake, and we were able put off getting gas until the reading on the fuel gauge suggested we stop in the town of Bountiful. After filling up at the Texaco station, we stopped at a Taco Bell, where we picked up some belly bloating burritos with acidic coffee.

Back on the road, devouring our bean-filled delights and swilling the lukewarm, but jolting coffee, we continued our journey north toward Idaho. With our caffeinated buzz, the darkness did not seem as daunting, and the traffic seemed to be thinning out. The way we felt, it seemed that Oregon was just over the hill, but of course, the Interstate was flat and the distance was going to wear us out.

It was near Ogden that our fine dining began to catch up with us, and the truck cab atmosphere became thick and odiferous. Both windows were quickly rolled down and the dry, cold air of the Utah desert ventilated us, but left us chilled. So we drove several miles with the heater on high, windows down until the next exit with a gas station could be seen.

The truck wheels were still turning when Dan wrenched his door open, jumped out and ran toward the men’s restroom, only to find it locked. He waddled into the station, picked up the key and with very small but fast steps scooted back to the toilet.

I might have laughed at the sight, but I was trying not to fill my own pants. There was no way that I could wait for Dan to finish his business, and I was sure that I was going to have to loosen my load in the parking lot. Then I noticed a woman coming out of the ladies’ john and that she left the door ajar. This was no time for niceties, nor did I look to see if anyone was watching. In the nick of time I was on the throne giving thanks that there was a full roll of toilet paper on the dispenser. I also gave my thanks to St. Christopher that nobody came in to disturb my meditations.

I felt much lighter, even energetic and a bit smug as I washed my hands, but as I opened the door to leave the ladies toilet I met, immediately outside, a rather large, stern looking woman with a key in her hand, ready to insert it into the lock. She wore a pink sweatshirt with a picture of Minnie Mouse and had a shock of brownish hair that looked as if it had been combed with an angry cat. The glare of malevolence through her thick lenses could not been mistaken. She was ready to take me down.

With my quick thinking and wit I said,”Uh, hi. Um, wrong toilet. You might want to wait a few minutes before going in there.”

I stepped around her large person while her head turned like an owl’s, and I waited for a chop to my neck, but I made it back to the truck without harm. I did not look back.

Dan looked rather pale, and rather disquieted. Not angry at all, which was unusual. I asked him if he felt all right, not that I could actually do anything about anything.

“Just let’s get the fuck out of here. Jesus Christ, I don’t know how you always talk me into shit like this.”

I knew right away that he was going to be fine.



The move from Topeka, Kansas to Portland, Oregon during, June 1984 was anticipated with good feelings. The teaching position I had taken, a dual appointment at the University of Kansas and at Washburn University, had pretty much burned itself out. The only time I went to Kansas City was to attend biweekly faculty meetings, and the rest of the time was spent in the less-than-charming city of Topeka with its rather closed society. The two years included springs with tornado warnings; blistering, hot summers; cicada filled autumns; and winters with brutal, bone chilling winds off the western plains. No, I would not miss Topeka.

Dan, who’d been a classmate in college and afterwards become a close friend, had been Shanghaied into helping me move. Even before we left Topeka, we’d run into a problem while trying to figure out how to attach the hitch to my old VW bus so we could pull it with a rental truck. After several hours of swearing and bruised knuckles, we finally pulled out of town.

The trip west had not started smoothly. Lost keys, mechanical problems, and bad motels all contributed to a less than optimistic start from Denver where we picked up the truck at a mechanics shop. The greasy faced guy at the garage said that the engine timing had been the problem, and now the motor was running as smooth as a Swiss watch, a rather dated expression that did not give us a lot of confidence.

By now we should have been experts with the hitch, and, truth be told, it didn’t take us long to get on the road, towing the bus behind. We still had no idea how the hitch actually worked.

It was around ten o’clock on a bright sunny morning when we got on Interstate 25 going almost straight north, and the truck seemed to be running normal: no stalling, sputtering or gulping noises. Slowly we began to resume our own normal patterns of breathing, and no longer were we holding our breaths while listening for the troubling sounds that had lead us to finding the mechanic in Denver in the first place.

We saw the mountains of Colorado slowly drift out of view, and we crossed the Wyoming line where we soon met Interstate 80 near Cheyenne and turned west. Even Dan, ever the pessimist, began to relax as he pointed out the occasional pronghorn and circling hawks floating in the blue sky above the rolling prairie. The day was turning out to be a relaxing drive, and we were pleased with ourselves as we pulled into Rawlings for the night. The small city seemed to be welcoming as we found a decent motel on the edge of town. The clerk was friendly and spoke excellent English, and the room was clean. Both heating and air conditioning worked. The plumbing was up to date with a toilet that could be flushed without our reaching into the tank. We would have both hot and cold water.

After a good night’s sleep and a great breakfast not far from our totally adequate motel, we headed west on another cloudless day. Fired up by several cups of coffee, we were talking in unusually positive terms about what a fine place we found Rawlings to be. After around 70 uninterrupted miles, we heard a loud bang from behind, and in the side mirrors the bus could be seen to be rapidly swerving back and forth.

I knew exactly, as soon as I heard the noise, what had happened. This was entirely my fault as I had failed to unlock the steering when we last hitched the bus to the truck. Every slightest turn that the truck made was just like scraping a pencil eraser on sand paper, and the front tires of the bus, well worn anyway, were now completely bald. The right side had all the rubber gone and had finally blown. It was still smoking as the truck stopped on the side of the Interstate.

Dan took it well, as he pointed out that we’d made considerably good time since we left Denver. Actually, our progress had seemed too good to last much longer. He was even pleasantly surprised when he found that I actually had a spare tire for the bus. He even complimented me on my being prepared for this incident.

Dan has a sarcastic streak that cuts deep.

One of the worst ethnic massacres in US history took place in Rock Springs, Wyoming. An outlaw briefly worked in a butcher shop in Rock Springs and became known as Butch Cassidy.  According to city data, as of 2020 one out of 325 people in Rock Springs is a sexual offender. The foregoing information might supply a little color to the city.

Driving as slow as reasonable so we wouldn’t blow another tire we pulled into a mechanics shop on the edge of Rock Springs that was near the interstate and saw that there were several piles of old tires lying around.  Encouraged we walked inside and saw that there were hundreds of new tires stacked on orderly shelves all around the walls. It looked like our problem was solved.

A guy, about 40 with slicked back hair and with arms that were larger than my legs appeared behind a counter and asked what we wanted, not if he could help us. I inquired about tires for a ‘73 VW bus.

The man paused for effect, looking around for an audience, and, smirking, announced, “We don’t sell tires here.”

There were undisguised chuckles and snorts from the guys working on different race cars and pickups.

Ok, that place didn’t pan out. With our beards and mildly long hair, we apparently looked like hippies or communists. A lot of folks in that part of Wyoming did not do business with that sort.

With all the righteous indignation we could muster up, we left the rednecks and attempted to slam the door behind us. Unfortunately there was a pneumatic door stop that only hissed with the effort and caused more laughter from within.

Three miles down the road we found a Shell station with a modern looking shop that had a large sign in the window that said, “TIRE SALE.” After pulling into the parking lot we got out of the truck and started to walk hopefully toward the store. But, before we had gone three paces, a young man positively bounded out to meet us.

He was a young, Asian guy who looked barely out of his teens. He smiled as he approached and stuck out his hand as he said, “You gentlemen looking for some tires?” Without waiting for an answer, he simultaneously grabbed Dan’s right hand in both of his and yanked vigorously.

Dan doesn’t like to be touched by acquaintances let alone strangers, and he withdrew his hand as if it had been scorched by fire.

Without losing a moment, the kid turned to me and started pumping my hand. “My name is Norman,” he explained, “and I can get you a great deal on some great tires and have you out of here in less than an hour.”

“Well,” I said while trying to extract my hand from his, “ I don’t need more than one tire, and I’d like to get a used one for that bus behind the truck. I can use the bald one for a spare.”

Norman was mortified and responded as if I was pointing a pistol to my head.

“You can’t have mismatched tires,” he shrieked. “That is so dangerous. A vehicle has to have tires that won’t cause shimmying and cause an accident. Safety of the customer is most important to us. Come, let me show you a set of good, matching but inexpensive tires.”

Perhaps it was the momentum of the conversation, or maybe it was the impression that he actually would sell us tires without making us the butt of a red neck joke, but we dumbly followed Norman inside the store.

While the salesman went to check his inventory, we met an elderly couple from Wisconsin who were waiting for new tires to be installed on their brand new Chevy Nova. The husband explained that the tires that the Chevrolet factory put on the car were wearing out after only a little more than a thousand miles. Norman had shown them the the tread on their tires would be gone in five hundred more miles, and that a blowout could happen at any time.

Dan talked me out of leaving immediately by pointing out that we needed to replace a tire before we left Rock Springs. Meanwhile, Norman, the asshole, was happily rolling tires in our direction. As he approached, Dan suggested that we go outside, start over, away from the nice couple from Wisconsin.

Norman had no choice but to follow us out the door, and, once outside, it was explained that we would not buy a set of new tires; not even one new tire. A used tire that was the same size as the other front tire would be fine.

Norman balked, but before he said more than a couple of words, he was interrupted by Dan who was suddenly the one who was losing his patience.

“Shut the fuck up for a minute,” he said quietly, but with sincerity. He then proposed that Norm come out with a decent used tire or there might be a conversation with the nice couple from Wisconsin (not that they would believe a couple of bearded strangers) about their tires.

Whether or not the threat made a difference we would never know, but the salesman did go back into the store as we followed. A few minutes later he rolled out a tire that looked decent, and, upon closer inspection, proved to be the right size. Pleased with Norman’s selection,

Dan asked the price.

“Well,” Norman hedged, “since it is a used tire, we can’t offer a sale price, but it is still a bargain.”

We waited while he looked at us, judging how far he could take us. Finally, he said, smiling proudly as if he were a magician, “Only two hundred.”

Dan confided later that he thought the blood vessel on the side of my face was going to blow.

“Two hundred dollars?” I shouted. “I can get two new tires for that much.”

Taking me aside, Dan told me to just wait by the truck for a minute or two. He then motioned Norman to step away from me and quietly engaged the salesman in a conversation that I couldn’t hear. There was a lot of nodding, shaking of heads and shrugging. Eventually Dan came back and told me to drive the bus into one of the bays for a tire change.

He never explained to me how he was able to buy the tire for $50.


There might be some unfortunate readers that have been waiting breathlessly for a continuation of this exciting saga, but the story must wait for a few weeks. In addition to the interruption of the holidays and not a small bit of sloth on my part, I find that using a keyboard with one hand to be quite difficult.

You see, I broke my left hand while unwisely trying to walk across our ice-covered alley while wearing cowboy boots. It was an accident that could have easily been avoided just by turning around to walk just 50 feet farther on bare, concrete sidewalk.

Age, it seems, has made me no wiser.


It was not yet dawn on that late June day in 1984 when we pulled back on I-40 and would soon be leaving Kansas. We were driving a Dodge rental truck full of my junk and pulling a ‘73 VW bus that contained more of my junk. After having lived in Topeka for two years, I was happily heading back to the Pacific Northwest, specifically Portland, Oregon. My friend Dan, who lived in Washington had eventually grown tired of my whining and agreed to help me move, and so far, he’d begun to regret the decision. The trip had begun with a couple of small problems. First we got a late start after some confounding issues with a hitch, and second, I had managed to lose the truck keys before we even ended the first day of travel. Although we’d eventually figured out the hitch and I had found the keys, Dan was less than thrilled to be involved in this adventure. But, with the start of a new day, he had decided to keep his misgivings to himself.

It had rained during the night, but the clouds had moved on east and the world looked fresh and green as we crossed into Colorado. Surprisingly, the landscape did not change and this part of the state looked just as flat as Kansas. Dorothy would have felt very much at home. The lush verdant of the early morning prairie soon lost its appeal as the hot sun of June dulled the sheen of the early day.

However, after a few hours of driving west the horizon began to change dramatically. The mountains slowly became visible; and after the monotonous plains the rugged, sharp landscape in front of us presented an exciting image. We would soon be up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

But first, we had to get through Denver.

Fortunately it was mid-day as we joined the traffic of the Mile High City, but we we became a little nervous as the highway kept adding lanes while cars and trucks around us kept going faster. Several drivers came up behind the truck and flashed their bright lights with impatience as we tried to steer our way through the city.

I was tempted to speed up, but the bus tended to fishtail if our speed climbed above fifty miles per hour. While I gripped the steering wheel harder, Dan looked at the now-ragged map, trying to keep us on I-70. The Interstate route was not easy to follow as the green signs frequently had destinations of cities and parks without noting what highway we were on. Dan cursed freely as we got herded off onto an exit that led us into an industrial area by large semis that had drivers who obviously had anger problems. A small, slow truck pulling a VW bus did not belong on their streets.

Eventually with Dan alternately wildly pointing at a street that looked like it might lead back to the Interstate, grabbing at the dashboard in terror or cursing at the trucks surrounding us we somehow found our way back to I-70 going west toward the Eisenhower Tunnel and up into the mountains.

It was steep going, but, on the map it looked like the quickest way through the Rockies rather than going the longer route up through Boulder and on through Wyoming. But the grade turned out to be too much for the truck.

We had only gone maybe twenty miles out of Denver, driving with less frantic traffic than earlier, going our top speed of 50 mph uphill when the truck’s engine started acting peculiar. It would be running smoothly and then do something like a hiccup and burp. Then it would continue to run normal for a mile. Then the hiccups turned into something more ominous, a long tortuous gagging sound, like a person might make just before vomiting.

Dan was also making noises, hissing and grumbling each time the motor faltered. He pointed at several possible exits off the Interstate, but I was too slow to turn off. He was ready to yank the steering wheel away from me, but I explained in a loud voice that I was turning into a rest area that I’d spotted. In a louder voice he pointed out that it was not a rest area where we were going, it was just a viewpoint where travelers could look at the majesty of the Rocky Mountains (as well as the smog above Denver).

He was right. It was just a small parking area off the highway where tourists could get out, stretch, take a few photos and then leave. There was no phone booth or even a toilet. Other than a couple of men standing next to their cars, one a beat up old Ford, the other a new BMW sedan. We were alone. The two guys were obviously concluding a drug deal, furtively exchanging cash for a small, clear, plastic bag containing something that looked like salt or baking soda.

By this time our truck’s engine had stopped running. My efforts to start it were futile as I cranked the starter. We could smell gas and agreed the engine was likely flooded but disagreed how to fix the problem. Dan wanted to wait a few minutes and try the starter again. My idea was to place a screw driver into the throat of the carburetor, holding the vanes open, allowing the gasoline fumes to disperse.

The truck’s motor was basically under the cab, and access to it was a metal cover between the seats. After releasing a few clamps and lifting the cover the engine was immediately visible. Dan was dubious and decided that he would watch the procedure from outside the truck, not trusting my ability as a mechanic. He stood with the passenger door open and muttered as I removed the cover off the engine.

It all looked familiar to me as I removed the air filter from the top of the carburetor and handed to Dan. He took the piece and stood back a little further. Not having a screwdriver I rummaged around in the glove box and found an old ballpoint and asked Dan to hold in the throat of the carb while I turned the engine.

After he flatly refused to help me with this simple task I found a piece of wire that I wound around the pen and shoved it into place. Then I turned the key of the ignition.

A large poof followed by a flame that thankfully extinguished itself as the engine roared to life. I admitted to Dan that I was not expecting the small explosion, but, I pointed out, the truck was now running.

Dan was not as impressed, and in fact it took a lot of apologies and convincing to get him back into the truck even after the air filter and motor cover were safely back in place. Still, it seemed prudent to have the truck looked at by a mechanic before continuing on up over the mountains. Something that fixes itself will eventually break itself.

We carefully chugged up the Interstate until we found an interchange where we could turn around. As we started back down toward Denver, we looked for a place that had a pay phone (cell phones were still only in the comics as Dick Tracy’s “two-way wrist radio.”) At the same time we saw a green sign that indicated that a restaurant and facilities were just ahead.

The engine started sputtering again as we pulled into the parking lot of a trendy little place in the woods where tourists and locals gathered with a bar connected to a restaurant. I found the rental papers with an emergency number and went inside where I found a telephone booth just inside the entrance. I dialed the number listed on the papers while Dan headed toward the bar.

The person that answered the phone was very friendly and said that the company valued my business and that an agent would be on the line shortly. I waited for several minutes while listening to jarring, loud music from an oldies station. Eventually somebody interrupted the noise with a raspy voice that was intermittent with static.

“Buzz, buzz -lo, this is buzz buzz, how can I help you?”

I tried to gather my thoughts and then babbled on about my predicament for several minutes. A few long seconds went by and the only thing I could hear was another conversation that seemed to be in a foreign language.

I asked if there was anyone there. The answer was now so loud that I had to hold the phone away from my ear. The voice wanted to know where I was calling from. I had no idea, but I explained that I was not far from Denver.

The voice loudly asked what state I was in.

I longed to join Dan in the bar where I could see him wiping foam off his mustache.

After the voice and I shouted back and forth for five minutes, the voice told me to call back in twenty minutes while someone would look for a repair facility close to where we were.

I took the opportunity to go to the bar and explain to Dan what the situation was, and all in all, he took it well. I realized that he’d had more than one beer and was probably on his fourth while he chatted happily with his new friends who were from California and Illinois.

It was necessary to call back twice, but after almost an hour, someone (a woman with an English accent) gave me the address of a repair place with whom the rental company had a contract. The garage was in the middle of Denver, but, she explained, I could go back to the rental agency in Topeka and return the truck for another, if I wished.

After a nightmare of a drive in the early rush hour with the motor threatening to stall at any time, we eventually found the shop just before they closed for the day. The guy at the desk looked as if he bathed in grease and chain smoked Camels as he guessed at what might be causing the problem with the truck. He suspected that the carburetor was sticky and that they should have it fixed by ten the next morning.

There was nothing to be done but to disconnect the bus from the truck while wondering if we could ever figure out to get the complicated hitch back on again. It had taken hours to do the hook up in Kansas and the frustration had almost caused me to break into tears. But with a lot of cursing, sweat and bruised knuckles, we’d eventually found the solution. Hopefully the miracle would repeat itself in the morning.

We found a motel that didn’t look terribly diseased and checked in. The young Vietnamese woman at the desk accepted my credit card without a word and handed us a key. She pointed to the stairway and said, “Your room on floor two.” And as we turned away she added, “No smoke.”

Of course, when we opened the door to the room, it smelled like the place had been occupied for weeks by someone who had a four-pack-a-day habit. I went back to the desk and asked if there was another room. The woman looked at me for a moment and frowned.

“No, no. All full up. Very nice room.”

Later, after returning from the nearby Taco Bell and watching Bonanza in black and white, we noticed that the room was getting quite chilly. There did not seem to be a thermostat or heat control any where. But the room was steadily getting colder. So, I picked up the telephone and called the desk, wondering if the heat could be turned on.

“Oh no. Only air conditioner,” was the answer.

Our evening was completed by finding the shower temperature was barely tepid and the stool could not be flush except by reaching into the tank for a slimy piece of string and pulling the valve open.

Dan said that he would pick the next night’s accommodations.

Leaving Kansas

As the afternoon wore on and long shadows fell over us, the novelty of the puzzle began to wear off. The hitch that would connect the ‘73 VW Westphalia Camper to the rental truck seemed to be designed by someone with severe psychosis. The device looked more like something to restrain a large animal, sort of like the hobbles we put on milk cows when I was a kid to prevent being kicked while hand milking into a pail. The hitch was a tangled mess of chains and clamps, and it came without instructions.

Dan, a friend from RT school, had traveled from Washington State to Topeka, Kansas to help me move to Oregon, and he was running out of patience. We’d expected to be out of town with my belongs stuffed into the truck and bus around noon, but we were still screwing around with the hitch problem. My neighbors had gathered around to give suggestions earlier, but they’d lost interest hours ago. Plus they’d also become offended at our cursing and use of obscene language as if words would somehow magically cause our problem to be solved.

But it was sort of a miracle when suddenly it became obvious how the attachment worked. Clank, rattle, click—and the bus was hooked up to the truck. After a short break to wash the rust, dirt, grease and blood off our hands, we climbed into the truck and headed west on I-70 toward Denver.

Except for the hills and valleys, on the east edge of Kansas where the topography is formed by the Missouri River, the landscape of the state is monotonous, flat as a billiards table. The only relief to the mind-dulling view is an occasional town where there are always three objects that stick out of the prairie: the steeple of a Catholic church, a grain elevator, and a water tower. So riding along a highway while staring into the late afternoon light with nothing along the road other than corn or soybeans is less than exhilarating. But, what are friends for?

The sun had just about disappeared below the line between the flat dirt of Kansas and the hot, white sky when we pulled off the Interstate to stop for the night. The motel was one of the ubiquitous chains that spring up out of nowhere next to a highway interchange. It was at that point that I noticed that the rental truck had two ignition keys, but they were on a small fob with a metal cable that would not allow a key to be removed. [Actually, I’ve noticed that all rental vehicles are like this. They come with two keys that can’t be separated. What is the point?] I became a little nervous. What if I lost the key and there was no spare?

After checking into the motel, we walked to a nearby restaurant that had a sign that promised “authentic, homemade Mexican food.” We were pleased to find a cuisine that we appreciated and entered the place with expectations of hot tamales and retried beans. The place seemed dark after facing the sun for so many hours, and the air conditioning was obviously on its highest setting. A young woman who looked as if she might have a Mexican heritage led us to a booth near the bar. There were neon signs that had Tecate, Modelo and, of course, Bud Light. The woman told us, in a definite non-HIspanic English, that our server would be with us soon.

It turned out that the restaurant was owned by a Pakistani family, and while the food was homemade and hot, it lacked the authenticity that was advertised outside. The retried beans were coarse and the picante sauce had a little taste of curry. The beer, at least, was cold and Mexican.

I was hungry and wolfed my food down while Dan drank his beer and ordered another. He stared at me and shook his head, his plate hardly touched.

“What?” I asked, wiping the strange, brown hot sauce from my lips.

“How can you eat that shit?” he asked with a frown of disgust on his face.

“I was hungry,” I righteously explained. “Aren’t you going to eat?”

He said nothing, but ordered another beer.

Dan has standards.

We finished our beers and I paid at the counter.

It was dark when we exited the restaurant and walked toward the motel. But first we stopped at the truck to get our packs out of the cab. When I reached into my pants pocket I found some coins and a screw, but no keys. My other pockets revealed a billfold, more change, a pocket knife, a filthy handkerchief but no keys. I looked foolishly, but with hope toward Dan.

He looked back at me, blankly, and then it hit him.

“You’ve lost the god damn keys, haven’t you? I saw you looking at them when we got out, and I knew it. You might have just said right then, ‘I’m going to lose these keys.’”

I had to admit it. He had a point, and I’d only had two beers.

We peered into the cab, trying to see if the keys were in the ignition. It was dark, but it didn’t look as if they were there. They weren’t on the seat, but we couldn’t see the floor. We went into the motel room and searched around the beds and in the bathroom. No keys

I was now convinced that the keys were on the floor of the truck and went back into the parking lot to look for a stone or something to break the side window of the rental. But Dan, being of the sounder mind, suggested that we retrace our steps on the chance that the keys dropped out of my pocket.

The glow from the street lights of the parking lot gave enough light so that we could see as we slowly went back toward the restaurant. I was temporarily elated when I found something that looked like keys, but it turned out to be a woman’s hair clasp that had been run over several times.

Dan sighed and said he was going to have another beer, and after a moment I followed. I decided that I was going to have several beers.

We stood for a few minutes, getting used to the dark light, then we headed straight for the bar. As we passed the cashier’s counter I happened to glance at a small bowl filled with matches. Nestled among the booklets I spied something other than matches. It was the key fob.

Missoula, Montana

Missoula, Montana.

When snow flakes drift down from the sky and slowly build up on the fence, creating a pure white topping on the brown wooden fence, I normally feel a peaceful sense of appreciation for nature’s art. Usually the snow covers the dry, yellow grass of Fall, the gray of the sidewalk and gives the world a feeling of purity and cleanliness. There is a feeling that the earth is preparing to sleep, gain a bit of rest before arising with energy for a new year.

Today, September 29, the snow is falling on green grass, on flowers that have yet to go to seed, on leaves that have not turned into Autumn’s gold, brown and red. The snow that is coming down brings me sadness and fear. But, perhaps I am being foolish and becoming pessimistic with my advancing years.

Still, I get a feeling that we are burying our collective head in the hot sand of climate change while telling each other that this record cold in September is a random, once-in-a-century turn of events. The snow will soon melt and the season will return to its normal, mild change as the days get shorter.

Will we look at the disappearance of 30% of our grassland birds and shrug our shoulders while saying, “Isn’t that strange?”

The sea life is dying, and the earth’s lungs, the Brazilian rain forest is being burnt to make room for more toxic agriculture that uses petrochemical fertilizer to grow crops that are unnatural and foreign to the tropics. Greenland’s ice is melting into the sea. Last summer was the hottest on record, ever. Hurricanes become ever stronger and more frequent while spawning devastating storms inland.

Isn’t that strange?

The children of the world have taken notice and have left their classrooms to gather on the streets to protest the adults’ ignorance and lack of concern for the welfare of the earth. The leaders of the world, and the parents of the children, smile and give lip service to the young ones. Some of the adults even agree to make resolutions, even go so far as to declare an emergency.

No one with any power takes action.

Meanwhile, I hypocritically drive to the gym in my gas guzzler Jeep that releases heat and carbon dioxide into the air. I think about camping trips into the mountains while pulling a trailer that reduces the fuel efficiency of the vehicle to half. I think about a flight overseas in a jet that blasts heat and poison into the sky.

I think about snow falling on green grass, flowers and summer leaves.

Adventures in Lodging

Having decided to stay in Olympia for two nights and wanting to avoid any motels or hotels, I went with Airbnb  which, in my experience, has consistently provided choices of lodging that are much more homey and less expensive than motel style accommodations.

After spending an hour or so on line, I found a very sweet looking booking in Olympia that had a photo of a one room cabin. The accoutrements included a bathroom and shower, but the real draw for me was the price: $35 per night.

Well, of course, I was a bit suspicious, but there was also a photo of the interior of the cabin that made it look very inviting and the references, while less than glowing, were very encouraging. So, I sent in my request to book. After all, it wasn’t as if I were going to spend a lot of time in my room. It was just a place to sleep.

Within minutes of my application, I received a message that I had a place to stay in Olympia. My host and I exchanged a few e-mails that built confidence between us.

When I arrived in Olympia I quite easily found the Airbnb rental, and the cabin (really a converted shed) looked quite nice, very comfortable. The inside was warm and quiet and well appointed with easy chairs, lamps, a counter with water, tea bags, and an electric kettle. The bed was basically a metal cot, but the mattress made it into a very decent bed.

However, as I looked around, I did not see bathroom facilities. Then I remembered that there was a second door to the shed and went out to check to see if the other room was a toilet, but it turned out to have yard and garden equipment inside.

My host came out to see how I was settling in and told me that the house across the yard from my shed would be unlocked and I could use the bathroom on the second floor. That meant, I later discovered, that when I wanted to take care of my ablutions, I walked out of my shed, across the yard, over the back deck, through the kitchen, past the living room, up the stairs, and down the hall before arriving at the bathroom. And, it was a shared one.

Lucky for me, the yard was dark at night.


After my stay in Olympia I drove down to the Portland area where I had reserved a room through Expedia in Vancouver to stay overnight in a Motel 6. The website (Expedia, not Motel 6) advised me to hurry and reserve a room as there were only two left for the Thursday night I wanted. When I arrived at the motel, the clerk seemed to be unaware of my reservation, but she asked if I wanted smoking or non-smoking. When I gave my preference, the non-smoking, she asked if I wanted a first or second floor room. Queen or king bed? The choices seemed endless and there were, in spite of the urgency that Expedia suggested, plenty of rooms left.

After I’d checked in and was taking my bag up to my room, I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of people wandering around the parking area. People that did not fit a middle class portrait, and, if I were to be judgmental, I might say that these folks looked like they were looking for a drug deal. And, these possible peddlers and users weren’t just around the Motel 6, but I could see a similar lot lurching and stumbling through the properties of Best Western, Comfort Inn, and other chain motels that usually are pretty straight. It was middle afternoon, yet there were people sleeping on the lawns and in doorways. 

I went out for a bit to check out the Columbia Gorge by crossing the river and driving east on Marine Drive. It is always a delight to follow the road that, other than a few marinas and house boats, has an unobstructed view of the Columbia and of a spectacular Mt. Hood with its crown of snow. Unlike the summertime, in April it is still too cold to put many sport or fishing boats in the water, and, in fact, when I stopped at a park to watch the river, there was not one boat to be seen or heard. Other than a bit of traffic on Marine Drive, there was no sound other than a few geese, gulls and ducks.

Next, I drove to Sellwood, where we used to live, and found it in the full flowering of spring. Since spring was still a month behind in Montana, I strolled around snapping photos of tulips, daisies, and fruit trees as well as blossoms that I could not identify. With the technology of my cell phone I was able to share these sights with Sheila and possibly make her envious.

Coming back to my accommodations, this is what I found blocking my way into the parking lot:


After I managed to squeeze the Subaru through the police presence, I joined the gawking crowd outside the motel and waited for something to give me a clue what was happening. I joked to a couple that having all the cops around made me feel safe. The woman snarled at me using the most unladylike, but picturesque description of the law enforcement officers. It was apparent that she did not find the remark funny and did not feel that safe around the police.

Her partner did not respond. His half closed eyes were pretty red, and he seemed to keep his hand on the woman’s shoulder for balance.

An emergency vehicle’s siren could be heard getting progressively louder, and soon the ambulance lights, red and white, flashed dramatically as the vehicle raced down the Interstate. There was little doubt of its destination and more folks stumbled over to the parking lot while the police made a feeble effort to keep them out of the way. It began to seem as though the cops were gathered more for their own entertainment than law enforcement.

After the ambulance driver nudged the vehicle through the ever-increasing crowd, the EMTs pulled out a gurney and advanced toward a room on first floor in the rear of the motel. After a short period of time, less than half an hour, they came back out wheeling an unconscious young man. Everyone came to the same conclusion: he should have just said no.

Of course there were a number of folks that were ready to say, “yes, I’ll have some of that.”

I did not sleep well that night.