The Trail, scene thirty four
The road wound through the steep canyon like a snake, undulating left and right in a steady climb. For long stretches it paralleled a stream, and the sun was at an angle where every bit of current caught and reflected its rays in a dazzling display. Tom leaned against the side of the truck and watched it pass by, mesmerized. Behind him Cat and Rick were engaged in a deep, quiet conversation, and Tom could hear the rhythm of their voices, but couldn’t decipher the meaning. Ryan and Sunny sipped beer and held hands, and sang along to the Marley songs, the sun turning them, and the entire cab a kind of soft, warm yellow, like sunflowers. Tom couldn’t tell if they’d been driving a long time, or if the time distorting effects of the marijuana were warping his perception, but it felt like hours and hours had passed before they turned off onto a dusty patch alongside the highway and bumped and vibrated to a stop. The smell of warm pine pitch and dust filled the cab, and tall dark shadows of trees stretched out like angular giants across the road. They climbed out and unloosened their bodies. Ryan stood on his tiptoes with his arms to the sky and gave out a feline growl as he stretched. Cat and Rick got out, the leather satchel over Rick’s shoulder. Cat tapped Ryan on the back, “Can we leave our shit here, or should we take it?” Ryan turned and thought for a second, “I’d probably take it, it’s a good little hike in.” Cat sensed that Tom was not in the best decision making space, “Tom, why don’t you grab your bag, we might need it.” Tom, almost robotically, grabbed the bag and shouldered it out of muscle memory. They followed in single file, Ryan, Sunny, then Rick, over a wooden plank foot bridge that spanned a rapid river, then up a well worn trail that was so beaten into the earth that gnarled roots protruded here and there, and were polished from thousands of foot steps. The sun shone through the trees and dappled the ground between shadows, and Tom thought the pattern looked like the patches of a Giraffe’s pelt. In the distance a tree had blown over long ago and left a knotted and crooked root wad exposed. A gopher stood atop the largest of the roots and chirped sharply every few seconds, as if to announce his presence, before disappearing in a flash of whirling tan fur as they moved past him. They walked over a little rise, and when they got to the top a clearing opened up, the meadow below was green, much greener than what they’d walked through. The clearing was surrounded by narrow, tall, very dark coniferous trees, and a hint of sulfur came to Tom’s nose. Right in the middle of the clearing was a pond surrounded by gray boulders. Steam rose from the water, and 5 or 6 people lay in the water, very still, the robin egg blue sky and snow white clouds reflected perfectly on the surface. Ryan stood with his hands on his hips, “This is Jerry Johnson hot springs, let’s get in.” Tom watched as the others he was with disrobed, leaving their clothes right where they had been standing, as if they themselves had melted away and all that was left were the little heaps of clothing. They picked their way to the water awkwardly, moving sharply this way and that as their feet came in contact with sharp objects on the ground. On the far side of the pond a man sat on a boulder playing a guitar. He sat cross legged, and was completely nude except for a red headband that held long brown hair back behind his ears. He had a very thick, long, and dark beard that seemed like it could get in the way of his playing, but it didn’t. The effect of the marijuana had mellowed, but Tom was still very high. He looked down on the pond as the others settled into the hot water with sighs of pleasure, and he thought, If you’re gonna experience this, just do it… He dropped the pack, shed his shirt, jeans, and underwear and walked into the water. He expected people to look, but they didn’t. The water was perfectly heated, and after he found a comfortable spot where all but his head was underwater, he wondered if he could stay in that perfect bliss forever, like he’d found a shard of heaven that had slipped to earth, and he was sitting in its radiance. The man up on the rock stopped playing and lit a cigarette, and it was so quiet that Tom could hear the sulfur burn as he struck the match. He looked down on the water, “You folks from around here?” Cat spoke first, “Me and Tom are just moving through…” he hooked a thumb at Tom as he said it. Ryan, Rick and Sunny said they were from Missoula. The man nodded and picked up his guitar again, “Any requests…I mean if I know the song that is,” he laughed. Cat looked up at him, “Do you know, Take it to the Limit, by the Eagles?” The man nodded, “Like the back of my hand.” He took a big drag of his cigarette, then impaled it by the filter, and still burning, on the end of a loose guitar string and started strumming and singing, his voice raspy, like gravel in a coffee can. “All alone at the end of the evening…” he started. Tom looked at the big blue sky, the mountain peaks over the tops of the trees. He smelled the air, pure and clean, the music perfect in his ears, and he wondered if he’d ever spent a better moment in his life.
There seemed to be no transition from day to night. One minute it was daylight, and the next it was dark, the stars were sharp pin pricks of glittering glass. The man playing the guitar and the others all left, and Ryan, Rick and Sunny sat on the rocks and dried themselves in the residual heat left over from the day. The others were dressed before Tom and Cat had climbed from the water. “You guys want a ride back into Missoula?” asked Ryan. For the first time, Tom had a twinge of wanting to go backward, maybe returning to town, but he knew that would spell the end of his adventure. Cat said, “No thanks for me…” he left a question in his response, not wanting to speak for Tom. Tom shook his head no.
After the others were gone, they got dressed and walked up to the edge of the clearing away from the hot springs and made their beds, and settled in. It was completely calm, and the only sounds were crickets, and an occasional hoot of an owl somewhere back in the dark. “Well, what did you think of your pot experience?” Cat asked. Tom thought for a few moments. “I’m not really sure. It was so different from what I was expecting. I guess I didn’t love it, or hate it, it was just something…different,” he paused for a few seconds, “Growing up they made it seem like you’d die even if you were in the same room with it, and anyone that did use it had to be the worst person ever, just a bad person, you know?” Cat was quiet for a long time, and Tom wondered if he’d drifted off. “Maybe we all have some bad, and some good in us, maybe it’s just easier to spot the bad in other folks' than it is in ourselves. Maybe we should all just concentrate on our own bad, and keep our mouths shut. Maybe that’s what we ought to do.”
Tom woke before the sun was up. The sky was that strange blank white before sunlight somehow transforms it into blue. There was no wind, and for the first time in months Tom could see his breath. The end of his nose was freezing, so he pushed the bag up over it and wrapped his finger and thumb around it. Cat slept flat on his back, and breathed so quietly that his bedding moved up and down slowly, but there was no sound of breath. Tom wondered what day it was, and he kicked himself for not asking Ryan, or the others the day before. It doesn’t matter, he tried to convince himself, but somewhere inside him it did matter, and he wondered if he stayed on the road for years like Cat had, if his desire to know would go away, he guessed not. On the other side of the clearing he heard some tiny sounds. He pulled his hand slowly down from his nose and raised his head. A column of ghostly steam rose straight up from the pond, and there was no breeze to alter it, so it went up and up until it disappeared into the air. He searched for the source of the sound and saw nothing for the first couple of minutes. Then, on the far edge of the clearing a tiny flash of white in the low brush. A few seconds later a little red fox emerged and stood still, his black nose high in the air scenting for danger. He lowered his head and took a half dozen measured, cautious steps, his black legs looking like stockings, before stopping and repeating the sniffing process again. At the water’s edge he looked left and right back over his shoulder, bent his neck and took a quick lapping drink, then almost fearfully looked all around quickly, his ears high and on alert. He repeated the same ritual for a few minutes, then froze, his eye fixed directly on Tom, before whirling, his thick, white tipped tail following him, and like a ghost disappeared into the brush.
They ate a cold breakfast, neither of them sure if fires were allowed, and not wanting to draw attention, then washed their hands and faces in the hot water of the pond. Cat walked around and sat on a big boulder as the sun peeked first over a distant ridge, then through the timber, then formed golden yellow beams in the rising steam. He sat with his legs hanging down over the edge of the boulder, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, and whittled on the walking stick. “I don’t mean to look a gift horse in the mouth, but man, those kids left us in the middle of nowhere,” he said, as he used the knife like a pen in some little intricate spot he was working on. Tom looked up, “I was wondering about that. Are we even going to find a ride out on that road? This might be like it was in eastern Montana.” When he finished talking he squatted down and looked at his reflection in the mirrored surface of the pool. His hair was beginning to grow out, and he could still see some bruising on his face. He stood and twisted to test his ribs, and there was no pain. Weird how I didn’t notice it being gone… When Cat finished his cigarette he pinched it between thumb and finger, and was about to flick it into the water, then thought better of it. He climbed down off the rock and stubbed it out in the dirt, then kicked some dirt over the butt. “Well, we’re all cleaned up, shit, shined, and shaved, maybe if we get back to the highway someone will see fit to bum us a ride.”
They followed the trail back out. It was still very cool, and a little breeze moved through the treetops making a steady shush sound. Every hundred feet or so a squirrel machine gun chattered at them, letting them know that they were intruders. Tom laughed, and Cat glanced over, “What’s so funny?” Tom smiled, “I was just remembering when I was a kid in baseball. You know, I was a pretty good fielder, and I could hit the hell out of the ball. I wasn’t so great at the other sports, but I was probably the best player on my baseball team.” Tom stopped and scooped up a handful of nickel sized rocks from the edge of the trail. “I never came out and said to anyone else that I was the best player, but I honestly was. I used to watch Cub games on TV and dream about wearing that uniform, having a big contract, all that shit,” he plucked a single rock from his hand and threw it at a tree, it missed. “So we had to play this other team from Madison one time, I think I was maybe 14 or so. Anyway, we kept hearing that they had a stud player, he could hit, he could pitch, just a great ballplayer.” Tom threw another rock, this time at an exposed root eroded from the edge of the trail, he missed again. Cat grabbed a handful of stones too, and started throwing them. “So we get to their ballpark and the game starts, and this kid is throwing fucking gas, and he had control too. He’s painting the corners, and he struck out the side…and I had just never seen that kind of velocity and control on a kid his age. It was insane. The little asshole comes up to bat the next inning, and…” Tom shook his head, and Cat could see he was reliving the moment. “...he fouled a pitch off, and even that was impressive. The next pitch he drove, it was a low liner that just kept climbing and climbing, like a college player had hit it. I’ll never forget the sound his bat made, or the crack the catcher’s glove made when that kid threw him a pitch, just a totally different sound. I knew right then the difference between a pretty good player, and just that…that next level. That born talent was just so obvious, and something I knew I couldn’t attain even with all the practice in the world. Anyway, I knew my dream of someday being a pro ended that day. I can still see my teammates star struck eyes watching this kid just dominate.” Cat threw a rock at a tree and missed, “What happened to him?” Tom looked over, “To the kid?” Cat threw another rock, “Yeah.” Tom laughed, “He knocked around the minors, never quite made the show, I heard he owns a bar in Wausau now. The other star of the game became a butcher…” It took a second for Cat to realize Tom was talking about himself. They both laughed hard.
The trail wound back toward the highway, and it was mostly downhill so they made great time. Occasionally hikers passed them going the other way, and would slow a little and give cordial little greetings before moving on. They crossed over the wooden plank footbridge, which was still in shadow, and were at the intersection of the highway when they saw a little clearing just off the edge of the highway. A big, smooth pine deadfall, the bark long gone, laid diagonally across the little opening. They sat on it and took big drinks of water and ate granola bars. The highway was completely devoid of traffic, and the only sound was the rushing of the river behind them. They sat in shade, but the timbered mountainside in front of them was fully lit up in bright sunshine. To their left a deep green broadleaf tree of some kind leaned over the northbound lane, and three shining black ravens sat near the top and watched the road in silence, as if they were waiting for a vehicle to kill them their breakfast. Cat lit a cigarette and stared down the road, “I wonder how far we’ll have to go to get through this forest, might be walking for a while.” He stood and turned toward the river, “At least we aren’t lacking for water.” He took a big drag of the cigarette and exhaled through his nose. “Well, shit…you ready for this Miles?” Tom looked quickly, then laughed, “I can’t believe you remembered that.” Cat tapped his head with the thumb of the hand that held the cigarette, “It’s all right up here, like a steel trap.”
They walked west on the weather beaten road for almost two miles before the first car cruised by, slick and fast, with a rush of air as it passed. “This could be a long, long day,” Tom said. Cat took a half dozen steps before responding, “Yeah, it sure as hell could.”
Morning passed into midday, and midday into hot, dry, afternoon. The canyon narrowed, and as it did so it seemed to block the breeze. The sound of screeching beetles echoed out of the timber and could even be heard above the rushing of the river. Thousands of little chiffon yellow butterflies bumbled around the river and canyon, occasionally landing and moving their wings in a slow motion version of flying. The heat of the sun woke the fresh, clean, smell of pine pitch, and it infused the atmosphere like a massive air freshener. By ten o’clock they had stripped down to tank tops, and had replaced their jeans with shorts. Traffic was sparse, and not a single car had so much as fluttered a brake light in response to their thumbs. They leaned into their packs and trudged along the edge of the highway. Little clouds of dust erupted with each step they took, and then immediately settled back to earth. “Man, we’re never gonna get a goddamn ride out of this son of a bitch,” said Tom, his forehead burned red and glistening with beads of sweat.” Cat shrugged a bit, “I don’t know…I mean, if you’re gonna get stuck somewhere, there’s worse places. Shit, nice river right there,” he lifted a lazy finger toward the river, “big timbered mountains all around,” he raised the same finger and made a slow circle. “You think about that wasteland in northern Montana when we got off the train, and this is a fucking paradise. It’s all in a guy’s perspective.” Tom glanced at him a few times but didn’t say anything for a few seconds, then he said, “Well my perspective is that I’d like to be through these woods…” Cat sighed, but kept trudging along. He used the sleeve of a shirt that dangled loosely from his pack to wipe sweat from his eyes. “Where are you trying to get to Tom? Ever since we started traveling together it feels like you always want to get to the next place, so where is that next place you keep pushing for?” Tom stopped and took out his water jug and drank. He was irritated at Cat’s words, and he wasn’t sure why. He wiped water from his mouth with the back of his hand, and in turn wiped the back of his hand on his hip. “Well fuck Cat, are you happy here? We’re in the fucking middle of nowhere, it’s hotter than hell, I’m sunburned, you’re sunburned, I could use a hot meal at some point, we can’t scare up a ride, maybe it isn’t the next place I want to get to, maybe it’s this place I want out of?” He had never shown irritation or anger to Cat before, and the awkward silence that followed his rant wasn’t worth what he’d said. Cat looked him straight in the eye, and nodded almost imperceptibly, “All right, all right, maybe there isn’t a destination, maybe you just don’t like it here…fair enough.” Tom didn’t like the response, he wanted anger, ire, something to rub against, but he didn’t get it, and it made him go back and examine his words. He wished he could rewind and not sound like a whiner. They walked in silence for twenty minutes, only the sounds of their breath, and their shoes scuffing through the gravel coming from them. The river began to bow out away from the road and in that bow was a broad pullout, shaded on the south side by huge fir and pine trees. “Take a break?” asked Cat. Tom nodded, and they walked into the shade and sat on the ground with their backs against a big chunk of broken white granite that had been placed to prevent people from driving further into the woods. The river could be heard back in the timber, but it was muted. To there right was a big mud puddle with chunks of green algae floating in it, black and yellow mud wasps worked the edge, their abdomens pulsing as they gathered mouthfuls of mud for their nests. Cat unzipped a side pocket of his pack, and removed a small brown paper bag. He unfolded the top and took out two dark brown candy bars, Big Hunks. He handed one to Tom, “I was saving these for a special occasion, I guess this is it.” Tom took it and thanked him. They broke the white candy into pieces and chewed it down, savoring the sweetness, and feeling the sugar rush. Somewhere down the highway, and coming from the direction they’d just come from, they heard the straining of a motor, and a great hissing sound, As if by some silent cue, they both stood, chewing the candy and using their hands to sweep away gnats and mosquitoes that hovered around their heads as they waited for whatever was crawling up the road.
The square, tan top of a vehicle appeared first, followed quickly by the flat front of a large motorhome. A long antennae bobbed from the drivers side, and on the very top a striped raccoon tail dangled. Steam belched from the grill, and poured from every crack in the front of the vehicle. An orange blinker came on, and the massive vehicle exited the road, pitching and rocking as it lumbered over the uneven dirt pullout. It stopped with a rocking jolt and the steam, which had been tracing back over the windshield and along the sides of the vehicle, went straight up. The engine shut off and they could hear muffled voices from inside. A door opened on the far side from them, and they could see first a pair of white sneakered feet climb out, then a pair of flip flops. The first pair of shoes came around the front of the motorhome and they were attached to a man who looked and moved like he was in his 70’s. He was chunky, tall, and deeply tanned, he walked with a slight limp to one side. His tan head was shiny bald and gleamed in the sunshine. He wore a white short sleeved, collared polo shirt, and a light blue pair of stretchy jeans. The flip flops belonged to a woman approximately his same age. She was short, plump, and even tanner than the man. She wore a pair of white capri style pants and a light blue blouse. Her hair was short and white, and had been perfectly curled and teased into place. She stood back out of the steam, and held her face, one hand on each side, as if she’d just received shocking news. The man was half shrouded in steam as he fought to get the hood open, finally it popped up. He took a few steps back and stood beside the woman, hands on hips. Steam rolled violently upward before disappearing, the faint smell of sweet maple from evaporated antifreeze hung in the air. Tom walked over toward them. “Looks like you folks ran short of water huh?” They recoiled ever so slightly, he’d surprised them. The man, who’d been standing on the far side of the woman, stepped around behind her, then took a step forward, placing himself between Tom, Cat, and the woman. He smiled a little, but it was subtle, like he was in a poker game and didn’t want to send a tell. “Yessir,” he said. “Had this bastard serviced in Miles City before we left, she ran fine the whole way…until we come to these mountains.” Tom was aware that the man felt threatened, so he stayed back, almost on his heels, and Cat followed his lead. They stood quietly, apart from each other, and measured the steam, waiting for it to abate. “The stream is over there a hundred yards or so, if you have something to haul water in, we could fill you back up?” Tom said. The man eyed them. He used his years of experience in judging men swiftly and usually accurately, to see if he could trust them, and if he could, how far. Like a dog he sensed them, and determined they were okay…at arms length. “That’d help us out if you’d be willing. Viv, could you grab that bucket under the sink?” He said it without taking his eyes from the drifters. He took a cautious half step and extended a hand covered with freckles and brown age spots toward them. He kept distance during the handshake, as if he was reaching over a kitchen table. The woman, Viv, came back out and handed them a small blue plastic bucket and an opaque juice pitcher, she seemed unconcerned about their presence, “Thank you young men so much!”