Long Road to a Cheeseburger

It was mid May, and it was unseasonably chilly in Charlottesville, Virginia, fine for jogging, but a bit cool for sitting around, so I decided to buy a long sleeve tee shirt. The trip into town would also be a chance for our grandsons, Foster seven and Mack four, to get out of the house with us—a fun outing. 

Foster, a lanky blond kid, was able to get himself strapped in on his side of the back seat in his father’s ten year old Honda while Mack needed some assistance with his carseat. The thing was obviously designed by some sick-minded engineer who actually never would use the device because he actually hated kids. The car seat had four straps: two to go over the child’s shoulder and another two that came up between the legs and buckled in the middle of the kid’s torso. The effort to get all the buckles in place left me sweating and were so tight that it seemed that Mack would not be able to breath. Instead, he bitched about the straps being too loose. 

I told him to deal with it. 

After banging my head while trying to slide into the driver’s seat, I fumbled with the key. The dark interior of the car was not relieved by the dome light. In fact the dim bulb seemed to suck illumination out of the auto as I stuck the wrong key into the ignition. The mistake caused the alarm of the other vehicle in the garage, a new Toyota Highlander, to blare in distress. The boys thought the bleating was hilarious and started laughing. Sheila also seemed to think the situation was quite amusing and started giggling.

My mood became even darker as I almost tore off the side rear view mirror backing out of the garage. The garage was less than ten years old and yet the doors seemed to be made for a VW Bug. 

The laughter increased as I drove off the short drive and into the grass and bushes barely missing the large maples and irises next to the fence. When the car was at last on the street, Mack commented, “Opa, you’re so funny.”

Meanwhile my wife was shaking so much I thought she was either having a seizure or going to wet her pants.

The old Honda did not have a GPS system, so we had to rely upon Sheila’s phone to guide us to a store where I might find a souvenir UVA shirt. It wasn’t ideal as the snotty voice on the cell phone would tell me three seconds too late when I should turn, and we ended up touring several neighborhoods of old Charlottesville that we would have otherwise missed. Meanwhile, Foster, the seven year old, is offering his own advice on where we should be going. 

By some miracle we ended up in a small shopping area where there was supposed to be a store that sold souvenirs of Virginia. After wandering around for ten minutes, a FED-EX driver gave us walking directions that would lead us to the Virginia Store. The place had Virginia themed pillows, jellies, napkins and thousands of stuffed animals, but no tee shirts. Of course, both Foster and Mack immediately bonded with the pigs and bull dogs and begged to have one of each, as if they didn’t each have about a thousand stuffed animals at home. 

Somehow we managed to leave the store without purchasing anything, but the clerk told us about another store that was close that did have UVA products. “Close” was a relative term, and we would end up having to drive several miles, which meant that I had to deal with the demonic child car seat again. And, once more Mack complained about how loose the straps were. 

I said nothing.

The store was actually pretty easy to find, and we spotted it just as we pulled into another small shopping center. There was plenty of parking on the street as this was the pandemic and not a lot of people ventured out to go shopping. Sheila saw another store that might have a top for her, so she took Mack and Foster came with me. 

The long sleeve tee shirt for which I was searching was near the entrance to the store, right next to another rack of stuffed animals. Foster was pulled to the critters has if he were made of iron and the display was a strong magnet. 

I admit to having been emotionally lazy at that moment. I just wanted to get this shopping expedition over, so I told Foster to pick a stuffed animal for his brother as well. He picked a dog for himself and a cow for Mack. A cow for crying out loud.

Sheila had spotted a store where she might find a casual blouse for herself, and we all went into the place to look around. Foster immediately started gathering items off the displays, sunglasses, a cell phone holder (of courser he has no cell phone), plastic cups, and other pieces of crap. I told him to put it all back, but after the experience at the other store, he seemed to think that he had carte blanche and kept picking colorful and shiny items for which he had no use.

Mack was impressed with Foster’s collection and quickly started his own. However, when I told him to return the junk, he was willing to do so. Of course he had no idea from where he’d collected his prizes, so I followed up, and so on.

Sheila had chosen a couple of blouses and placed them on the sales counter, ready to pay. Foster came along and put his stuff along side, but then was confronted with a hard choice. 

Sheila, being much wiser than me, asked him if he wanted the stuff he’d collected or to go to McDonalds. This was like asking someone if they wanted to go to a circus or sit in a car. 

So it was with heavy heart that Foster replaced all the stuff, but unlike his brother, he actually put everything back where it belonged.

With a foolish sense of relief, I followed Sheila and the two gremlins out of the store while wondering how difficult it would be to find our way to the McDonalds that was not far from the boys’ house. It was at that moment that Foster started to run down the sidewalk toward the car. Mack took this as a challenge and ran with the obvious intention of beating his older brother. At the end of the block, Foster paused to look for cars, and Mack took advantage by racing across the street without a glance in either direction. 

Meanwhile, Sheila and I are both screaming our lungs out, trying to get them to stop. It was like trying to get the attention of dogs chasing a squirrel. With Mack out in front, Foster ran with renewed intensity, trying to catch up and reach the car before his brother. Mack, feeling the thrill of an upcoming victory, now dashed across the street in mid block, again ignoring any traffic that might be approaching.

There might have been other times when I felt more helpless, expecting tragedy to fall within seconds, but I couldn’t remember when. To watch those skinny little legs dash into the street made me weak. I was trembling by the time those little shits reached the car.

Now that the boys were safe, my first thought was not grandfatherly. I took a few seconds to think about homicide, but then realized that Sheila might disapprove of my actions, not because she thought the boys didn’t deserve a good throttling, but that she would have to visit me in prison.

I was set to explain how frightening it was for us to see the boys racing ahead of us and not stopping when we called after them. They merely laughed. Somehow, I was not getting through, making my frustration worse. Violence again came into my mind as an option. Fortunately Sheila came to our rescue and ordered them into the car.

Once again I had to deal with the bloody car seat restraint. Either I was getting better at it or didn’t care if Mack was getting squashed. At any rate, the car was silent as we all got settled. I started the car, but left it in park while the air conditioning cooled the air. Sheila raised the question of what went wrong today, but was answered with silence. The boys were subdued, yet they were not ready to discuss the matter. Instead, Foster asked if he could have the sack that contained the stuffed animals. Cheeky little shit.

Sheila calmly pointed out the things that went wrong and wondered if we should still go to McDonalds. The possibility of missing Happy Meals got the boys’ attention. While I steamed in silence and admission of guilt came from the back of the car followed by promises that the wild behavior of the afternoon would not be repeated. I decided that it would probably be the best for everyone if we did go to fucking McDonalds, mainly because I did not want to go back to the house and explain to the boys’ parents why everyone was so unhappy.

The afternoon of fun was not yet over.

There was a long line of cars that were waiting to get to the drive up window. The number of vehicles was so great that there were cars on the street waiting to get queued up. We thought we could avoid the long wait by going inside the restaurant to order, but, this was during the pandemic and the doors were locked with signs on the glass apologizing for the inconvenience.

A few minutes later we were waiting in the street behind a green Mazda convertible with the top down. A young man was sitting in the driver’s seat while a large, golden retriever was on the  passenger’s side. That breed is the party animal of dogs, and all of us enjoyed watching the beautiful creature that looked as though it were telling humorous stories to his driver. 

Slowly the line inched forward, and we were no longer on the street. The boys were remarkably patient, but they were aware that if there was any sort of discontent that we could easily pull out of line and go back home without Happy Meals. [To be honest, my stomach was rumbling, betraying my own set of ethics. I wanted a couple of cheese burgers—the basic ones that I scarfed down as a teenager. I never appreciated the Big Mac and always preferred the cardboard thin beef patty and the American cheese as well as the sloppy catsup and mustard.]

We inched past the big display with the long list of options. Everyone already knew what they would order: two Happy Meals with chicken nuggets, orange juice, apple juice, three cheese burgers (for me), a shit load of fries, and a variety of burgers for the rest of the family.

The line crept forward but there was no one to take our order at the speaker box. The first service window was empty, yet when the guy in the sports car got to the second window, he was handed a soft ice cream cone. The retriever was ecstatic but was astounded when the driver held the treat away from the dog and pushed him back over on his side. [I was quite amazed myself. The guy was in line for half an hour to get only a stinking ice cream cone? A McDonald’s cone?]

We had a little surprise when we came up to the service window. The guy looked pained when he asked us what we had ordered. Somehow we had missed the place where we should have given our order. We had no choice but to either leave or go back around and get in line. 

It was past dinner time by now, and the boys’ parents were expecting a couple of bags of fast food. There would be little time to prepare anything else for our evening meal. So we drove back out into the street and got in line again.

I still love those little cheeseburgers. 

Cabin Fever part ii

Here, in the North Cascades of Washington, we were the deep winter of January with thick, long icicles hanging from the cabin roof to the ground. Next to the back door one of the pieces covered the porch light giving a bright glow to the icicle. From the cabin snow covered the floor of the woods making it almost impossible to get to the river. The trees were decorated with clumps of white. The front yard and hay field sparkled with diamond chips when the curtain of clouds parted for the sun. 

The quiet around the cabin and in the woods is deceptive. The sounds are different from in the city where quiet can be the absence of traffic noise, the sirens of emergency vehicles or the thumping of a life flight helicopter. Of course one can’t hear those sounds in the woods, so at first it seems silent.

It takes time for the ear to acclimate to the difference between the constant mechanical racket of the urban scene and the more comforting voices of nature in winter.

The first thing I hear is my own breathing as I stumble through the deep snow, a sound usually masked by street noise at home. I am amazed at how loud the bellows of my lungs can be as I explore the woods.

Next I notice the crunching of my steps as my boots break through the ice layer on top of the snow. Then I hear the scrunching sound of the snow as it is compressed by my weight. That noise brings back a childhood memory of being so cold as I did my chores in the winter on the farm. My feet were numb and the scrunch of the snow made me more miserable with each step.

Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch. Puff, puff, puff.

In the woods behind the cabin I am not cold with my insulated boots, long underwear and a thick parka. In fact I am overdressed and start to sweat under the many layers of clothing as I trudge through the deep snow on my way on a deer trail that might eventually lead me to the Methow River.

After stopping to rest and let my breathing return to normal, my hearing starts to tune into the world around me. My ear changes stations, retunes to a different sort of music as I decide if it is possible follow the increasingly narrow path left by the white tails.

A raven laughs at me as it flies from tree to tree, maybe not music, but the rough croak of the black clown makes me smile. 

A flutter of tiny wings draws my attention as the raven gets bored and looks for something more entertaining than an old man floundering around in the snow. Out of the corner of my eye I detect a tiny body flitting from branch to bush. The song of the little bird is not a snide laughter but more of a giggle. The call of the black capped chickadee. Chicka-dee-dee-dee.

A nervous chatter attracts my attention and I see a black squirrel dash across the snow and up the side of a Douglas fir. From its safe station far above me, the furry critter scolds at me, telling me to move along, mind my own business,

I take the advice and continue to puff and grunt as I again advance a little farther. After a few yards I stop again. It isn’t easy going.

The raven returns to mock my progress.

Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch. Puff, puff, puff. Another twenty meters and my body asks to stop for another few minutes.

The river is close enough now that even with my shoe leather ear drums I can hear the song of the moving water. A stream is a chorus of drips, splashes, babbles, shushes, bubbles, roars and even a few yelps. It is an opera, dramatic with a grand story of transformation that never ends. The aria is without words, but the story reaches deep inside to those who listen carefully. It is a tale that started with the first drop of rain and will continue long past human ears.

My breathing is back to normal, time to move on.

Scrunch, scrunch scrunch. Puff, puff, puff. The firs become thicker, the shade has sheltered the snow, and the slight trail becomes even more difficult to discern. I only make a bit of progress,  maybe ten meters, when my labored breath masks the sound of the river. With some reluctance I stop and reconsider. The sun will soon set, but perhaps I can reach the river if I put in a bit more effort. 

I don’t move. I am still a bit out of breath and I won’t get far unless I am more rested. Maybe I am just lazy. Still, as I start to breathe a bit slower and easier, another sense presents itself other than sight and sound. A damp fragrance comes to my notice as air moves through my nasal passages. It is an ancient smell, one that my coarse haired, cave dwelling antecedents would have found immeasurably important—the smell of water.

Of course, water, by itself has no odor. However, I am convinced that the nose is able to distinguish between dry and damp air. It is this forgotten ability to detect humidity that allowed my progenitors to find water during their wandering through arid plains, mountains and valleys. This hypothesis, of course, is my own and remains untested.

Humidity in the dry air of winter isn’t the only hint of water that tickles my nose. There are subtle bouquets that enhance the sense of the nearby stream. There is an organic touch to the slight humid ventilation through my nostrils, one of decaying leaves and another of fish. I also smell mud. These are not unpleasant odors, but add a vibrancy to the air, one that gives life to the water and the rocky bed of the stream. 

In the dead of winter the smell and sound of the river harmonize to sing of life and the promise of spring.

I am encouraged to continue.

Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch. Puff, puff, puff. The snow gets deeper and the path that the deer have packed down becomes more narrow and veers off under some low fir branches hanging heavy with snow. Dipping down low to cross beneath, the wind gets playful and dumps a load of snow on my back. Unfortunately the parka that would protects my neck and head has slipped down, and cold icy water trickles down my neck. The track beyond is barely visible. The desire to reach the river’s edge is being replaced by a wish to avoid the deep drifts that now form a formidable barrier. 

The raven fires away in disgust and the chickadee is long gone as the sun starts to disappear behind Lucky Jim. With some reluctance, I turn around and abandon my effort. As darkness rapidly approaches, the temperature drops, and the sweat around my neck starts to feel like an ice necklace.

The thought of a warm stove and a book hijacks my desire to reach the river, and begin my trudging journey back toward the cabin. Perhaps I will try again another day.

Cabin Fever, part 1

It was just getting dark as the sun slipped behind Lucky Jim, the mountain across the valley floor from the cabin, but the driveway to the cabin from the highway was covered with snow. About a foot had fallen over the course of the day before we arrived. A pair of vehicle tracks could be seen underneath the top layer, but it was difficult to know what the total depth was. It remained to be seen if Jilly, our Jeep, could get up the hundred yards or so to the front deck without getting stuck. The thought of having to haul our packs and supplies through the deep snow in the gathering cold darkness was not appealing.

Yes, the snow was deep, but the combination of four wheel drive, all terrain tires and my excellent driving ability made the trip from the highway to the front of the cabin a piece of cake.  Now we had to find the key to the front door. We’d neglected to ask anyone and assumed that it would be in the lock box on the garage, but, after crawling through the snow to the side building, the key was not to be found.

We called several in the family who might know where to find the key, and as to be expected in this day of instant communication, no one answered the phone. Eventually we had a few texts containing a variety of answers, but no one actually seemed to know where the cabin key might be located.

Sheila has never been one to wait around for a problem to magically solve itself. She grabbed a shovel and cleared a path to the front door where she found the door unlocked.

The cabin was ready for our visit with dry wood in the box next to the stove and a pail of small sticks and pieces of bark for kindling. Waste paper was inside the stove, ready to light. Within minutes a warm fire was blazing. 

There was still a small, Douglas fir Christmas tree next to the front window with colorful, home made, paper chains wrapped around the boughs. Through the windows long ice sickles could be seen hanging from the roof. Shots of Jim Beam and Pendleton whiskey welcomed our arrival.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

2021. A new year. A new start after a really shitty year, probably the worst year I had since I returned from a short stint with the Marines as a Navy Hospital Corpsman in the last century and ended up in the St. Albans Naval Hospital in Queens, New York with a hole in my left lung caused by tuberculosis. I would spend nine months there before transferring to the VA Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, to have the diseased part of my lung cut out with another six months of recovery and rehabilitation.

In 2020 our lives were being threatened by a rogue virus that jumped from an animal to humans in China and, with incredible speed, became a pandemic. COVID-19 was soon discovered to be especially dangerous to old people like Sheila and me. Almost a year later it was found that 80% of deaths related to the corona virus were people 65 or older. 

2020 was also the year of a presidential election where the loser, Donald Trump, trumped his long history of lies by claiming that the election was rigged and that he, not the legitimately elected Joe Biden, had won by a landslide. Online conspiracy theorists jumped on his band wagon with vicious support that goaded a faux paramilitary in Michigan to attempt to kidnap the governor and planned a follow up by storming that state’s legislature with more armed fools.

It was also the year of social unrest with the murder of Floyd George and the Black Lives Matter movement. There were counter protests with armed right wing extremists like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and other militia groups. Destructive riots in Portland and Seattle went on for months.

We faced personal challenges with worries about family, and the death of a dear friend. Other loved ones became seriously ill with possible terminal outcomes. Personal isolation, mostly in our own home, brought loneliness and interfered with sleep, creativity and the thought process.

With the turning of the calendar on January first, we were somewhat comforted with the news that vaccines are being developed and distributed that will potentially end the nightmare pandemic of COVID-19. We also had a new president to be inaugurated soon. Hope began to be something reasonable to behold.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

More snow fell over night and it was still falling. The temperature was ten degrees and the cabin was cold. There were no embers inside the stove from the night’s fire. 

Looking around for some paper to start a new fire, I could only find a few pieces in an empty cardboard wine carrier. But, the kindling was dry bark. The small bit of paper fired quickly and soon the bark was lit. A few small pieces from the wood box slowly caught and soon larger pieces were aflame. With a few puffs from the wooden and leather bellows, a proper fire began to warm the room.

Sheila had started the Mr. Coffee and a rich aroma added to the early morning ambiance. We sat down at the table where we began our daily routine. First we wrote on yellow legal pads our Morning Pages, a stream of conscience exercise where we write as fast as we can, putting down anything that comes to mind. We ignore grammar rules and spelling. Just write to fill both sides of a sheet. Then we tear our finished product up into small pieces and throw them into the fire.

The writing ritual sort of clears the junk of complaints out of the way and makes our minds ready for proper thinking and creativity. Maybe.

We have a friend who had been doing the Morning Pages for years. She admits that, during some dark periods in her life, she has filled both sides with “fuck, fuck, fuck——.”

Next we sit next to each other on the sofa next to the stove where we ask about the past night. How did we sleep? What dreams did we have? Then we read something. The content varies. It could be something from a Buddhist periodical, a poem, even something as mundane as an article on the Internet. Opinion or news.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

We call ourselves isolated, but at the cabin we have a great Internet connection. If we can get to the road, we are equidistant from Mazama and Winthrop, a mere seven miles. However, there are no next door neighbors, no one walking past on the sidewalk or in the alley. The only visitors are whitetail deer who frequently stroll over the foot bridge behind the cabin on their way from the river to the stack of alfalfa at the end of the drive.

The snow had let up to only a few flakes after breakfast when we pulled on our boots and coats to go out and shovel. There was about a foot of new accumulation, but the snow was piled high on either side of the paths that lead to the wood shed, the garage and around to the front of the cabin where the Jeep is parked. We used scoop shovels rather than the small snow shovel. The snow needed to be tossed over to the side rather than plowed.

The sky cleared as we shoveled and the sun was bright enough to hurt the eyes as it reflected off the pure whiteness of the landscape. The sun and exertion made it necessary to take my jacket off as I started to sweat. It was hard work, but it felt good as I built a rhythm into the loading of the scoop, tossing the snow and lowering the shovel for another go. I tried to remember to alternate sides so that my back would not become strained.

Scoop, lift, toss. Scoop, lift, toss. Scoop, lift toss.

I’d not had much to use my upper body in the last several months after the gyms closed in March due to COVID-19 restrictions. I grieved little when my access to the health club was denied. I hated going to the place. 

It’s not that I loath physical calisthenics, but the workout at the gym seemed pointless with nothing accomplished at the end of two hours. There was not a sense of productivity in working with the weight machines or doing workout training in a room with other old farts. Jogging on a treadmill seemed equally as useless. After a workout I usually felt like I’d lost a couple of hours of my life and had nothing to show for it.

Shoveling snow was different. Looking at a cleared path, sweating from the effort, I could see that something had been accomplished. It felt good even though I was quite certain that the cleared trail would be covered soon with another layer of snow. For now it was a good job done well. 

Rocky Mountain High (part 3)

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.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

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.

“Mornin’.”

“Mornin’.”

“Humph.”

“Coffee?”

“Sure.”

“Thanks.”

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.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

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.

He did.

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.

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.

Will

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.

Epilogue:

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 ...

Utah

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.

 

Wyoming

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.

Intermission

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.