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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail, scene thirty three

Traffic streamed back and forth as they marched steadily southward. They were full, clean, and rested, and for the first time in days they shared high spirits. A cool breeze moved up from the southwest, and was just strong enough to keep them comfortable. Tom was taken with the mountains. The sun brightly lit the faces of the timbered mountains to the west, but those on the east were still in shadow. “I’ve never been in the mountains before…I mean, not like this. When we were kids we went skiing up near Wausau at Rib mountain, but after seeing these mountains, they should have named it Rib hill,” they both laughed. Cat scanned the mountains from east to west. “The last time I was here I was so flat ass broke and hungry that I don’t remember noticing them like this. I was so desperate to get out of here that I caught a ride with a guy going the opposite way that I wanted to go,” Cat laughed at the memory, “It’s funny how hunger colors your perception of a place.” Tom stopped and took his pack off, then removed his hooded sweatshirt and packed it into his bag. “One time when I was a kid a couple of buddies and I decided we wanted to sleep out in the yard. My old man had a ragtag piece of shit old tent that was missing half the poles, but we didn’t care. We set it up and used broom handles and anything else we could find to prop it up. He had one of those Dollar store little round barbecues too, you know the kind, about as big around as a basketball and they sit about 6 inches off the ground. We sat there with the flap of that tent open and had a little fire in that barbecue, and we cut sticks and roasted hot dogs over the fire, real outdoorsmen we were,” Tom laughed. “So we ate those hotdogs and told bullshit stories late into the night before we went to sleep, must’ve been 2:30, 3:00. I remember I had a dream about this big storm coming, a big black tornado just smashing the shit out of everything, and it woke me up. I sat up and could feel my stomach just bubbling and churning like the tornado I’d dreamt about was in there, and I could feel everything wanting to come up.” Cat lit a cigarette as he listened to Tom talk. “I ran out into the yard and heaved for what seemed like an hour. After I was done I went in and told my mom, and she put me in bed and checked for a fever and all the stuff moms do.” Suddenly Tom was acutely aware of his words as he recalled Cat’s story of abandonment, he gave an almost imperceptible glance sideways, but if Cat was upset, he didn’t indicate it. “Anyway, long story short, it was the flu. A couple days later all of the other kids that had stayed the night got sick too…but that didn’t matter to me, I blamed the hotdogs for making me sick. I didn’t eat them for years afterward. When you said this place reminded you of being hungry, and that’s how you associate it, well, that’s my association story.” Cat smiled, and narrowed his eyes at Tom, “Yeah, I got where you were going with that story. I’m slow on the uptake, but maybe not quite that slow.” Tom met his gaze and realized he had explained the connection as if Cat were a child. They both laughed.

They walked for an hour before coming to a highway that veered to the southwest. A big green and white sign indicated that they’d hit highway 93. They turned and followed it, traffic zooming past created whorls of air that caused Cat to smooth his ponytail over and over. The morning had moved from shuddering cold to uncomfortably hot in a matter of an hour and a half, and as they walked along the shoulder of the road they could feel heavy humidity coming from roadside foliage and large cottonwood trees that formed green forests on each side of the road. Up the highway they could see cars parked alongside the road on each side of a bridge. They walked down into the borrow pit to get around the cars and not walk into traffic. The borrow pit was solid gravel, and it was well packed and glinted with the shards of a thousand broken bottles. Music came from somewhere down near the river, and as they crested the riverbank they could see that it came from a big silver boom-box that sat atop a large, yellow, chunk of concrete that had been used to fortify the river bank. A little trail cut through a patch of dried knapweed, and zig-zagged around big rocks and logs until it came out at a wide, white gravel beach. There were a dozen or so younger people swimming, or sitting on brightly colored beach towels here and there on the shore. The cool feel of river evaporation rose up and they could smell earth and a hint of a decaying fish out in the brush somewhere that came with it. They picked their way down the little trail and walked over into the shade of the bridge and took off their packs. Curious eyes watched them, and they could feel the stares. Cat dug into his pack and pulled out a box of triscuit crackers and a can of spray cheese, and they each ate a dozen or so crackers with cheese before splitting a bag of peanut M&M’s that Tom had. Every few seconds they heard a loud shout followed by a body hurtling straight for the water feet first from the bridge above. The person would disappear into the green water, leaving a boil of white at the entrance point. Then, a second later a head would pop up, tilted way back so the wet hair was slicked toward their back, and not in their eyes, and then swim slowly to the near shore, climbing out dripping and glistening with water. Tom stood and walked to where he could watch them jump. The fall was substantial, maybe 15 feet. Cat lit a cigarette and came over to watch too. “Hey Tom, that looks like a hell of a way to get clean real quick, why don’t you climb up and do it?” Tom laughed, “No, I think I’m good with watching.” After the fourth jump they’d watched, one of the kids came to the surface and swam toward them. He climbed out and used his hands to squeegee his long blond hair back, the water running down and dripping from his elbows, and forming little craters where it fell into the gravel. “You guys from Missoula?” It took a second for Tom to realize the kid was talking to them, “No, no, we’re just traveling through.” The kid bent to open the lid of a red and white cooler, and when he did, a silver chain and crucifix dangled. “You guys want a beer?” Tom raised a hand, “No thanks.” Cat said nothing but nodded his head negatively. The kid pulled out a sweating, stubby brown bottle and cracked the cap with a twist and a quick, sharp psshhht. He pinched the edge of the cap between his thumb and index finger and snapped them, and when he did, the cap flew at a weird angle like a careening flying saucer and made a tinging sound as it bounced off a rock and then into the water. He took a big drink of beer and Tom watched his pronounced Adam’s apple work up and down slowly as he drank. He said, “Ahhhh, that hit the spot,” when he finished drinking. He looked over at their packs, “So you guys are just hoofing it huh?” Cat nodded, “Yeah, just trying to get out to the coast.” Tom thought about the statement, he hadn’t really thought about getting to the coast, just getting further south than the cold would reach…why not the coast? The kid took another long drink that emptied the bottle, then turned it upside down and let white foam run out and fall to the gravel. “What way are you heading?”He asked as he turned and put the bottle back into the cooler. Cat answered, “We’re just winging it, but that way I guess.” He laughed and pointed to the southwest. The kid bent and squeegeed his legs with the webbing between his thumb and index finger. “If you guys are going that way, I can take you part way, we’re heading to a place up LoLo canyon right now if you wanna catch a ride…” Tom and Cat shrugged, before Tom said in a half uncertain tone…”Sure?...” Neither of them were accustomed to getting an easy ride, normally it was a two day slugfest to get anywhere. “Awesome, my name is Ryan by the way.” He stuck out a cold and wet hand, and they each shook it. “ I gotta get my girl, and my buddy Rick, then we’ll head out.”

They sat in the back of an old brass colored International Scout on the floor, the seats having been removed. Ryan drove, and his girlfriend sat in the passenger seat, she’d introduced herself as “Sunny” and it was an apt description. She had long, straight, almost white blond hair, a portion of which was braided and pulled back at the temples. She had bright blue eyes, and was deeply tanned. She, along with Rick, were both dressed like refugees from Woodstock. She wore a long skirt made of different colored paisley patches, and a tan, suede bikini top that had three inch leather bangles hanging down. Rick sat across from them and wore an out of date pair of bell bottom Levis that had a triangular burgundy patch sewn in to make the bells even bigger, and a white t-shirt which displayed a black yin and yang symbol. He had long dark hair that was held in place by a braided leather headband. The windows were rolled down, and the wind passing through the cab felt good on their skin. From Tom’s vantage point the sun streamed through the window, and hit wild strands of Sunny’s hair, making it glow like golden streamers as it danced in the breeze. Ryan leaned back behind the seat and fumbled around in a worn cardboard box of cassette tapes, bringing one after the other up, examining it and handing each one to Sunny who stacked them in her lap, finally he found the one he was looking for. “I knew it had to be here.” He handed it to Sunny and she popped it into the tape deck. The Bob Marley song, One Love, boomed through the cab. Ryan smiled at Sunny and took her hand, and they joined in a kind of rocking dance, bobbing their heads in time with the music. Tom watched them and felt a strange sense of jealousy at their freedom to express their love so openly. He had never felt that way with her, not ever. Rick, who had a friendly aura, hadn’t spoken the entire time other than to tell them his name. He grabbed a leather satchel, worn dark and shiny from years of handling, and opened it. He took out a heavy, stubby red and blue swirled glass pipe, and a sandwich bag half full of dark green marijuana buds. Tom watched him open the bag, and pack the pipe. He raised it up and was about to spark it with a silver zippo lighter that had a turquoise horseshoe on one side. He hesitated, “Do you guys smoke?” Tom shook his head, “I never have.” Rick’s eyes got wide, and Cat turned to him, they both said, “Never?’ They were incredulous. Tom was suddenly self conscious, “I just…just never have.” Rick glanced at Cat, “You want a hit?” Cat shrugged and took the pipe, then looked at Tom, “Don’t worry, this doesn’t do me like Billings.” Tom shrugged at him, and tried to act like the thought hadn’t entered his mind. Cat hit the pipe with the lighter, passing the flame in little circles over the weed, and turning it bright red where it caught. Immediately the ashy sweet smell of the smoke filled the cab. Rick took the pipe back and did exactly as Cat had done. He passed the pipe and lighter to Tom, who took it awkwardly, as if he were holding a bow and violin for the first time. He looked over at Cat, then at Rick, then back at Cat. Cat shook his head, “If you don’t want to Tom, just don’t, no pressure.” Rick nodded in agreement with Cat. Tom looked down at the pipe, then at both of the men he sat with, then Ryan and Sunny dancing in the front seat, Ryan watched him with amused eyes from the rear view mirror. Fuck it… He brought the pipe to his lips and lit the bowl, immediately the heat of the smoke hit his mouth, and the ashy taste. He exhaled with a huge cough. Cat and Rick laughed, “You gotta hold it in for as long as you can or it won’t do shit,” Cat said. Tom brought the pipe up again and did as they had instructed, fighting the desire to cough the smoke out. Finally he exhaled and with it he coughed. Sunny said from the front seat, “Hey now you guys, don’t be hogs.” Rick reloaded the pipe and handed it to her with the lighter. Tom leaned back against the side of the truck and waited for something to happen, and because he had never smoked marijuana before he had no idea what to expect.

The road ran south and west for several miles before turning due south, leaving Missoula and moving into a mix of timbered and grassy hills and open fields. They came to a small town, passed through it, then turned west and drove into a winding, tree lined, canyon, steep on both sides. Tom stood on his knees with an elbow on the back of each front seat. The music seemed to surround him and he watched Ryan’s mouth move, and words coming out, and then Sunny’s mouth moving in response, and words coming out, but he couldn’t make sense of what the words meant, though he recognized them as words. Something struck him as extremely funny about the words that were just sound. He began to laugh, and it was infectious, causing them all to laugh. After a while he settled down and sat cross legged where he could see out the front window. Behind him Rick and Cat were talking and laughing, in front of him, Ryan and Sunny danced and smiled at each other. He stared out the windshield and a mile or so ahead was a big red and white sign, it had words on it, but he couldn’t make heads or tails of them. He looked down and could see a clock on the cassette player, 1:23. He stared into the cardboard box full of cassette tapes for a long time. There was something interesting about them, so he studied the jumble. After a long time he looked up and the big red and white sign had barely moved. He looked at the clock again, still 1:23…my time is fucked up. But he couldn’t keep the thought that his time perception was messed up in his brain long enough to give it thought. He watched Sunny open the red and white cooler and bring out a cold beer and crack the top with a bottle opener that was mounted on the dash. She handed it to him and he realized his mouth was as dry as tar. He took a drink of the beer and could feel every bubble of carbonation, he’d never tasted anything more delicious. The Marley song, “I Smoke Two Joints” came on, and he giggled uncontrollably at the irony.

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