The Trail, scene thirty seven
The kid was right, it was cold. They sat with their backs against the cab side of the box, wrapped in their bedding. The sides of the box were made of horizontal strips of aluminum painted white, with gaps of a few inches between each strip. Tom leaned close to the side of the box periodically and assessed the countryside to see if they were making progress. After a half hour they passed from the narrow and timbered canyon to open agricultural fields of golden wheat, and green corn plants, the leaves dying on the edge. They passed through a little city, and Tom wouldn’t have known what its name was if he hadn’t looked across and seen a sign on the road leading into the city that read, “Welcome to Grangeville.” The temperature started to warm as they drove south, and they stowed their bedding. The truck slowed as it climbed a long, sparsely timbered grade. Cars whipped past them with a whir of rushing tires contacting pavement. Finally they made the top and started descending. Cat sat cross legged in one corner. He pulled out the walking stick and started whittling the last few inches of uncarved wood. Tom alternated watching him work, and looking out through a slat at the scenery as it whipped by. He turned to Cat, “When I was in 5th grade this new kid moved to our school in the middle of the year.” Cat glanced up from the stick, letting Tom know he was listening. “Normally when that happens all the girls like that boy, we used to call it, new kid magic. That wasn’t the case with this kid.” Tom stared out at a steep roadside grade they were passing through, the earth still fresh looking in the cut. Cat stopped working and looked at Tom after a few seconds of silence, as if to say, continue. “He was super quiet and withdrawn, and totally uninvolved with the other kids. So after a few days it was almost like he had never arrived.” Again Tom stared out the slat at the scenery for a few seconds, this time Cat just waited. “About a week after he got there we took a field trip to a bottling plant, and it was a couple hour bus ride. The seating was assigned so that they could do accurate head counts, so I ended up across the aisle from the new boy. Well, the kids that sat behind him were little assholes.” Tom picked up a piece of dried tomato stem from the floor and rolled it back and forth between thumb and index finger as he spoke. “They started messing with the kid. They reached over and pulled single hairs from his head at first, laughing every time the kid swatted at his head. Then one of them put a glob of cherry pie filling on his head. The kid stood up and said loudly, will you guys please leave me alone? Only…it didn’t come out that smoothly. The kid stuttered, like really, really stuttered. Well, you know how kids are, fucking brutal. They started in on him, calling him Porky Pig, mimicking what he’d said over and over with really exaggerated stuttering. I sat there and watched this kid just shrink, it was almost physical, he just got smaller and smaller. Those kids circle him like sharks, they could smell blood in the water. You know, kids find a target, and pick on them so they themselves don’t become a target.” Tom pushed the piece of tomato stem out the window and let it go, then turned back to watch Cat work on the stick. “Something snapped in me, I couldn’t just sit there and watch that kid get torn apart. I stood up and got right in the middle of them, and believe me, I knew the chance I was taking, I might have been their next victim. I started cussing at the little assholes and telling people to shut up and sit down, and after a couple seconds another kid I knew, but wasn’t close with, stepped forward and joined me in helping the kid. When those little pricks saw that the kid had allies, they backed off. I sat next to the new kid, and he didn’t say much, but he wasn’t so small any more either, he sat up a bit taller it seemed like.” Tom used a thumbnail to dig another dried tomato stem from a crevice in the floor. “The new kid and I became friends after that. We hung out all the time. Fished together, shot hoops together, we both liked Star Wars, we became great friends…” Cat looked up at Tom, who was sitting with his knees drawn up, an elbow on each, holding the tomato stem he’d dug from the floor close to his eyes with both hands, turning it this way and that as if he’d found something valuable. “So when it came time for college, he went to Stout, and I became a butcher. Every summer he’d come back, and we’d party a little, fish, do some hunting, and we stayed close.” Tom pushed the stem out of the slat and let the wind carry it away. “So last year he came back to work full time in Lacrosse, and he was around more than normal. I was working just a ton and couldn’t do as much as I’d been able to in the past.” Tom turned to Cat, and stretched, reaching both arms for the sky. “But that didn’t seem to deter him from coming over.” He looked down at his shoe and ran a finger over the edge of its sole. “Yeah, he just kept coming, and how he repaid me for saving his ass, is to run off with her.” Cat had stopped his work. He looked at the top of Tom’s head, as Tom fiddled with his shoe. “Now I can understand why you burned that place down,” said Cat. They sat quietly and digested the story Tom had recounted. Tom experiencing the betrayal raw, as if it had just happened, Cat trying to imagine his pain. Tom suddenly sat up straight, like he’d snapped out of a stupor. “Anyway, I hope all their fucking kids stutter.” They sat quietly for a moment, then burst into rolling laughter.
The highway rolled south through tan, bald, rolling hills that led to low mountains. The canyons and draws were choked with scrubby pine and juniper, and houses and towns grew farther and farther apart. The kid that was driving wasn’t joking about not taking many stops. Two and a half hours into the drive he finally pulled into a little roadside rest area, and they all used the bathroom, and that was the only stop he made until they hit Burns Oregon. The constant whipping and roaring of the wind had their cheeks rosy, and a near tinnitus level of ringing going in their ears. The sun was dead above them, and at its apex in the glass clear sky, and it was churning out heat. While the kid fueled the truck, Tom bought hot, premade ham and cheese sandwiches, a big bag of M&Ms, and a 6 pack of coke. Cat tried to pay for his half, but Tom ignored him, so Cat bought two packs of cigarettes instead, explaining, “I still have a few packs, but better to smoke from a surplus.”
The kid was just topping off the dual fuel tanks when they came back out. He replaced the nozzle into the pump, then looked at his watch, “1:23…shit, we’re right on schedule. You guys ready for a long haul this time?” He smiled when he finished talking, and his teeth looked yellow compared to his pale skin. “Absolutely.” Said Cat. They climbed into the box and the kid shut the door behind them. “I’ve never felt more like a farm animal in my life,” said Tom, “but it sure beats hoofing it.”
They drove through a landscape that was high plains, sparse straw like prairie grass interspersed with drab, gray-green clumps of sage. There were rolling hills, ravines, and an occasional little knot of emaciated looking range cows here and there, but other than a few tiny towns, there was nothing. Tom looked far to the north until the earth curved away into a white haze. “Can you imagine what the pioneers thought when they were rolling across this empty bastard? There was no food or water in sight, and I’m sure they were nervous about that. They went to bed at night and laid there listening to bird calls out in the dark, probably wondering if they were really birds, or if they were about to be attacked by natives. Those people had more courage in their little fingers than I’ve ever had in my life.” Cat leaned forward and looked at the prairie Tom had been talking about. He smiled and leaned back. “Maybe it wasn’t courage…maybe they just couldn’t live like other folks.” Tom thought about that for a few minutes, “Maybe they couldn’t…”
At Bend Oregon, they turned south and began a gradual up and down ascent, the high desert they’d been traveling through began to be interspersed with short bushy scrub pine, followed by taller and taller coniferous trees the further south and east they traveled. The trip was fascinating to Tom. As he watched the scenery change from one topography to the next, he realized just how limited his scope of travel had been. He’d been on an occasional trip growing up in Wisconsin, and he’d taken a couple of small trips when he was married, but they were all so destination driven that the in-between areas got lost along the way. This trip was different, there was no real destination, so he felt like was seeing the country for the very first time. “You ever just look at this country as you’re traveling? I mean really study it?” asked Tom. Cat was whittling on the walking stick, an open can of Coke held between his legs and a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. “Yeah, I’ve seen things first hand that most people don’t even know exist, or if they do, they’ll never see them.” He stopped whittling and leaned his head at an angle and looked out from one of the slats. He smiled, his crystal white teeth a contrast to the dark skin. “One time about five years ago I waited until three o’clock in the morning, then snuck around the backside of a well known mountain. I crept past security like a ninja, tree to tree. Spent the night up there, and the next morning I watched the sunrise from the top of Teddy Roosevelt’s head.” Tom laughed, “Are you shitting me? Did you really? Cat laughed and nodded, “I swear to God.” He brushed shavings from his lap and adjusted his pack so that he could lay back on it. He looked up at big fluffy cotton candy clouds, snow white against the perfect blue of the sky. I’ve also seen the sun sink into the pacific from where mount St. Helens used to be, I walked right over the spot where Spirit lake used to be. I stood there and thought about that old man who refused to leave, his name was Harry Truman, like the president. He just sat there and let the earth slide over him, millions of tons. He might be buried deeper than any other person in America. Yeah, I’ve seen some things, I really have.” They sat quietly contemplating Spirit lake, and Harry Truman for a few minutes, the wind created by the vehicle whipping around and buffeting them. An occasional whiff of the smoke from Cat’s cigarette hit Tom’s nose just long enough for him to identify what it was before it was swept away in the wind. Cat sat up cross legged and took a drag of the cigarette, then examined it before taking another quick puff and then flicking it up above the box and into the wind, gone forever. “You know what the coolest thing I’ve ever seen is, though?” Tom shook his head no, “What?” Cat walked his butt around, aided by his hands on the floor of the box until he was facing Tom. “One time I was traveling west through southern Arizona. I met up with this woman who was kind of like a modern day hippy. She called herself Luna, because of some moon worship bullshit she believed in. Anyway, besides all that weird stuff, I liked her. She was funny, kept herself clean even when she was on the road, and there wasn’t a goddamn thing she was afraid of. She had this little blue, beat to shit Toyota pickup that she lived in. She’d pop a chunk of canvas over the box and be cooking some weird mushroom tea in two minutes, she was efficient.” Cat laughed at the memory. So we were traveling along the border and driving across the desert really early one morning and we came to the end of a road that butted up against the Huachuca mountains. That crazy Luna got out with a basket and told me she was going out to gather desert fungus and herbs and shit… Well, I didn’t want to do that, but the mountains were beautiful. She said she’d be gone for a few hours, so I decided to do a little hike. There was a little half assed trail that led through the low foothills, it kind of wound around this way and that through the creosote bushes, and cactus, and it climbed up a little brushy draw. I took my time looking at stuff, I’d never been in the desert before, it was almost like being on Mars. Little gray lizards shooting off into the bushes everywhere, those crazy little gray birds with a doohickey hanging down over the top of their heads.” Cat used his hand to mimic what he was talking about. “Those are quail,” said Tom. Cat pointed at him, “Right, quail. They were thick in there. Anyway, the trail petered out about halfway up the draw, and right at that spot, broken stone, and rock formations took over. I picked my way up higher and higher until I was right near the top. There was a stone shelf that ran around the front of the cliff, almost like it was carved into the face on purpose. Really slowly I worked around on that shelf until I was on the western facing side, and in the shade of the mountain. There was a chunk of white granite that had rolled down onto that stone shelf, and I sat on it. Below me was a big arroyo that led down into a wide rocky canyon, all of it still shaded from the mountain I’d hiked. The sweet smell of desert flowers totally inundated that spot. I sat there and wondered how many natives had sat right where I was, looking for game, or enemies.” Cat looked at Tom, but his eyes were seeing through him, to that Arizona scene he’d described. He was quiet for a few moments before starting again, “It was still, like there was an invisible barrier blocking all the wind. I sat there in that calm, and smelled those flowers, and looked out over the ages. Then, I heard something. It was a tiny sound, like two small pebbles bumping together inside a closed fist. I listened sharply, and for a few minutes there was nothing. Then, the smallest little sound of moving air, like a wisp blown through a drinking straw, but there was no wind. I looked down the hill carefully and there was nothing. I looked back down the trail that I’d walked over to my left, and up the remainder of the hill behind me, nothing. Slowly I turned to my right and looked down the trail, it was empty, then up the rocky hill behind the trail. There was nothing, but I got the feeling that I was looking at something, but just not seeing it. I froze, but let my eyes scan the broken, stone hillside.” Cat moved his eyes slowly, showing Tom how he’d scanned the hillside. “I looked and I looked, and had the weirdest feeling I was looking right at something and not seeing it. Then, to my left and on top of a massive chunk of broken granite, I saw the slightest flicker of motion. I studied the spot for a good ten seconds before the outline of something suddenly stood out from the surroundings. A thick, muscular Jaguar was crouched twenty feet from me. His paws were side by side in front of him, and his chin on top of them. My fucking heart exploded. I couldn’t tell if he was hiding, stalking, or what the hell was going on, but I was shitting myself. I could see his yellow eyes reflecting light, he was a dull gold color, and he was perfectly covered with black spots, he was the alpha out there, and if he’d have wanted me, I’d have been dead. The very tip of his tail flicked so softly as he watched me, like a downy feather. When I made eye contact, he stood and silently turned and disappeared, very calm like, his muscles moving under his pelt like thick snakes. After he disappeared I waited a second and looked over the ledge he'd gone over, but he’d evaporated into the desert…That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. `