It was August and in most parts of the country the weather was warm; there were huge wild fires in California and other parts of the West. The Midwest was under a siege of steamy, hot air punctuated by violent thunderstorms. But, in the northern Rockies of the US, specifically in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the nights were chilly, cold enough that frost formed on the tents at night.
A couple of weeks before our trip, the guests received a letter advising them what sort of gear and clothing to bring on the trip. Not wanting to deprive anyone of a cocktail before dinner, the outfitters suggested that guests could bring alcoholic beverages, but cautioned against bringing an amount that would be too bulky or heavy to pack. They reminded guests that 35 pounds was the limit, including clothing, long underwear, sleeping bag, air mattress, fishing equipment, binoculars, books, and so on.
Oh yes, there was also on the our packing list a reminder to bring towels and a mild soap that would not pollute the wilderness. So, it seemed reasonable that the guest could expect that a portable shower be available so that, after some of the hot, dusty days, the guests could at least wash off some of the dirt and sweat that accumulates over several hours of riding. My expectations were not met. It seems that we were either expected to use the river for bathing or go without.
The first night after the long ride into the wilderness, I could not stand to be around myself. Dirt was caked around my neck from the dust thrown off the trail, and my body smelled like a used gym sock that hadn’t been washed in months. Flies that landed on me became nauseous and dropped to the ground, begging to be killed.
It was bad enough that we lost all modesty. We stripped to our underwear and took clean clothing and towels down an area that was somewhat hidden from the rest of the camp. It was our hope that no one would decide to go exploring and find us as we attempted wash the day’s accumulation of dirt and sweat from out bodies.
It was late afternoon, and the sun was still strong enough to provide a little warmth as we stripped to our underwear. What was unexpected was the bitterly cold water, and the slippery rocks. No one seemed to be looking, but it would have been a pitiful sight to behold. The freezing water and the slimy rocks made us move like rusty robots as we carefully tried to keep our balance. The glacier fed stream was saturated with minerals and our soap seemed to be made out of wax. It took effort to get the smallest bit of lather.
Nevertheless, we persisted and eventually managed to get a film of soap on our bodies. Sheila was smart enough to bring shampoo and kind enough to share it with me. In spite of the hard water, the shampoo lathered nicely, and I could almost feel the grease and dirt peel away from my scalp.
When the time came for rinsing, we both paused. Then, together, we plunged into the icy cold. The shock was immediate. I thought that I would never breath again, but then, as we sat down to dry on the sun warmed rocks next to the river, the feeling was almost one of euphoria.
The second bath was two or three days later after another day of riding and at a different campground. This time our tent was well distanced from the others, and our bathing spot a bit more secluded. The water was just as cold but deeper. Remembering the painful steps on slippery rock I chose to use my grey jogging shoes to protect my feet. Unfortunately, the rubber grips did nothing to keep me from sliding around while the river current did its best to knock me over.
Sheila, on the other hand, seemed to have developed a compromise with the river that allowed her to gracefully bathe in the icy water. She seemed to move with a an elegance that belied the treacherous underwater stones that, in spite of my shoes, threatened to dunk me.
I floundered around, nearly falling three or four times, until I could find a place to stand without wave my arms around like the vanes on a windmill. Then, I tentatively dipped the soap in the water and rubbed the wet bar on my chest. Again, the feeling was as if I was trying to buff my skin with a candle. There was a sequence of repetitive movement: dip, rub, dip, rub, dip rub. After several minutes of the seemingly useless activity, I declared myself clean and reached for Sheila’s shampoo.
My hair and beard were not yet wet, so putting the shampoo bottle on a rock, I formed a scoop with my hands and dumped water on my head. The freezing cold sent something like an electric current through my body resulting in a seizure sort of dance. My carefully balanced position came undone.
As the realization dawned on me, the peaceful valley was disturbed by my loud exclamation of, “Ah Fuck!” Then came that brief moment when there was nothing but shiny, silver bubbles around me. The cold at first shocked me and filled me with panic as I thrashed around, but then I noticed that the water was not as frigid as I thought. I calmed down and stopped flailing with my arms and legs. Slowly I gained uneasy purchase on the slippery rocks and stood up and wiped the water from my eyes. When my vision cleared I saw my naked wife laughing at me, not with me.
A minute later a water fight ensued.
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The sun had yet to rise above the eastern ridge, but I had to get up to pee. I crawled out of the tent and walked to the edge of the bank above the river. Other than the bubbling sound of the water there was no sound. The air had a wonderful, clean scent, the sort of smell that is not encountered in the city. The bouquet of dry grass, of crisp, clean air.
The monochrome of morning twilight was slowly giving away to some tinges of color. Although there were still a few stars above, there was a small rim of gold on the eastern ridge, just below a dark, navy blue. To the west, the flat granite face of a mountain was turning a shade of maroon. The tips of a range further beyond were a burnt ochre. The river’s shimmering surface began to show hints of blue and green.
The glow of a campfire and the smell of smoke pulled my attention away from the emerging day. Faces looked orange, illuminated by the flames, and low voices came from the wranglers and a few guests as they sipped the early morning coffee.
Sheila popped out of the tent, and we walked over to join the others.
The conversation was limited to mumbled one or two syllables.
There was a two gallon coffee pot propped up on stones so that the flames came directly in touch with the vessel. Our arrival coincided with the start of the boil. The aroma of the fresh brew wafted across our noses as we grabbed our cups. Chris hoisted the pot off the fire and poured the coffee for us.
Truth be told, it looked like mud. With each sip came a generous serving of grounds. If a cafe served coffee such as what we were drinking, it would be returned for a fresh cup. The consistency and strength of the campfire coffee would cause Seattle to crumble. They don’t like to chew their coffee.
On the other hand, no one complained about the cowboy version of the morning wake-up cup. Everyone came back for a second or even third serving, and Will had to dump more fresh grounds and fill up the pot with river water. A second pot was ready by the time breakfast was ready.
Later, after breakfast, several of the guests tried their luck with their fly rods. We watched as Wayne walked along the side of the river until he stopped at a fork in the stream where the water had been divided by a small island. He gracefully pitched his line back and forth, extending the reach with each effort. The leader with the fly, when it landed to Wayne’s satisfaction, floated the surface for a few seconds before a trout snatched it. The fish was the first catch of the day.
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The days were lazy for the most part. Will made sure that we had three meals a day: a hearty breakfast, a sandwich with fruit for lunch, and a more elaborate meal in the evening. Over the course of the week my weight must have increased considerably since the most exercise I had was short walks and riding a horse for an hour every other day. Reading, drawing or napping don’t use up a lot of calories.
The last day was a long one. Right after breakfast we took down our tent and folded up our cots to take to the area where Chris was again supervising the loading of the pack animals. It was still early in the day, and he wasn’t as impatient as at the beginning of the week. The last thing that he would pack would be the portable toilet.
While there was no shower, there was a place where those in need could unload in private. It was a small, grey tent with a flap for a door. Inside there was what looked like a white bucket without a bottom placed over a hole in the ground. Inside the hole was a large plastic sack to hold the waste. And it stunk.
The crapper was so uninviting that my clockwork bowels were put on hold. I avoided using that awful facility for three whole days, but eventually I had to face the unpleasant fact that I couldn’t hold it for the entire week.
My curiosity could not be denied. I had to ask about the bags of shit. Did the crew surreptitiously pull the plastic bags out to be carried all the way back to be disposed of outside the wilderness area? Was it burned? What happened to those packages of offal after we left the camp.
The answer was simple enough. The crew just buried the sack where it was.
I was relieved.
The ride back to the staging area took seven hours. There were a couple twenty-minute breaks, but mostly we were on our horses for the entire time. When we at last arrived at the paddock, my body was so sore and stiff that I could hardly dismount. Then I had to drag all of our crap to the truck, but the outfitters came with a reward. We each were handed a can of ice cold beer.
But, the adventure was not yet over. The roads had not improved over the week. The first part of the drive was slow as we crossed over pot holes and washed out parts that a normal car would have found difficult if not impossible to traverse. The second half of the drive back to Augusta was better. Only occasionally did the truck slide on the loose gravel. There were no ruts and only a few pot holes.
About a mile outside of Augusta the gravel gave way to a paved road, and the truck’s dashboard indicated that a tire was low in pressure. It was not particularly worrisome. The same signal had appeared before we left Missoula, but after taking it to a tire dealer it seemed that it was a false alarm.
Once inside the town limits there was a noticeable growl, a sound that seemed to be coming from the street. After rolling down the window, the noise was quite loud and behind the cab.
I stopped, and with all the grace of a man with rusty joints I gingerly stepped out of the truck and looked back at the left, rear wheel seeing a tire that was completely flat.
Only a couple of blocks away was a gas station, but the garage was closed. It was up to us to get the tire changed.
The pickup, which we had borrowed from our daughter and son-in-law, was less than a year old. We had to borrow the truck because our Jeep had just blown the second water pump in two years.
The spare tire was hidden and suspended by chains under the bed and needed a special crank to lower it to the ground. Brilliant idea, but not so great if one is stiff from riding a horse for seven hours.
I looked in all the obvious places for the crank and the jack, but, unable to locate them I turned to the vehicle manual. The book indicated that the tool box was located under the right rear seat. Well, what a fool I was for not looking there in the first place.
Lifting up the rear seat was not as easy as the book explained. There was a lock somewhere that held the seat in place, and the right side could only be raised if the the left side was pulled up.
I pulled up the left side and found a tool box that was empty. By the time I got to the right side, the left seat had slammed down again and locked. Several tries later, I was able to pick up the right seat and found the tire-changing tool box, empty. Well, not empty. There was a nice, quilted car blanket inside. No jack. No crank. There were no tire changing tools in the truck.
Just in time, Sheila came walking down the sidewalk with an air compressor tank. She’d gone into the general store and asked if there was anyone in town that could change our tire. The clerk told her that the station across the street had just closed, but she would call to see if the owner would open up for us.
I used the tank to pump up the flat as far as it would go. The tire was completely deflated and the pressure in the tank could only do enough to get the rim off the ground. But it was enough to get the truck the half block to the gas station.
Instead of merely changing the tire, the burly mechanic removed the flat and fixed it. He said it was easier to fix the tire than to mess with the spare. Plus, he said, we would now have a spare if we needed it. But he warned against driving on these back roads with four ply tires.
That was the end of our excellent adventure of packing into the Bob Marshall Wilderness.