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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail, scene thirty two

Beyond the brightly lit gas station, to the south, it was mostly dark. They followed the road in the same direction their ride had gone, and within a few minutes were walking down the gravel shoulder of the road. Large trees were visible in the moonlight, and peeking here and there through them were white yard lights that disappeared and then reappeared behind the trunks of trees as they walked. “I’m ready to crash tonight, I’ll tell you that much,” said Tom. “Yeah, me too,” said Cat. They leisurely crossed the road to the west side, there was no traffic at all to contend with. “Normally I have some idea about where to go in a town I’ve been to before, but the last time I was here, I was in the downtown area, and there was a big river that ran right through it. If I remember correctly it runs this way.” In the dark Cat started his hand on the left, which was east, and moved it to the right, which was west. “If we can get to that river, that would be a good place to bed down…or do you think somewhere around here would be okay?” Tom looked over the blue, moonlight stained fields. They were fairly open, but here and there he saw darkened structures and couldn’t tell if they were houses or something else. “I’m tired enough to stop here, but I think I’d rather be somewhere that we aren’t gonna get rousted out of at 5:00 in the morning by cops or some asshole…I guess the river sounds fine…”

They walked south at a measured pace, neither fast or slow. Behind them they could hear individual vehicles, swishing down the freeway, and in the fields to either side were crickets, their call so steady that it became like white noise and they no longer heard it. Over the tops of the treetops to the east they could see a large mountain, its face brighter in the moonlight than those around it, must not be timbered, thought Tom. On the top of the mountain was a bright aircraft warning light, then his attention was drawn away, in the distance he saw the glow of a vehicle’s headlights growing. Cat elbowed Tom, “Let’s get down and let this car pass in case it’s a cop.” They walked down across the borrow pit and sat butt on heels in the weeds until the car passed by. When they got back onto the road Tom said, “Why were you worried about cops? We haven’t done anything wrong.” Cat made a snorting laugh sound. “Doing something wrong ain’t got shit to do with cops harassing two road dirty guys carrying packs through their town in the middle of the night…they’ll find a fucking reason to run us out of here. Believe me, I know.” Tom hadn’t thought of it from the cop’s point of view, nor had he considered it from an experienced drifter’s point of view. “Never would have thought of it in that way,” he said. Cat snorted again, “Better keep that in mind if you’re gonna do this shit very long.”

They walked for twenty minutes and only dodged two more cars in the process, both of them heading north. Across a field of low vegetation ran a heavy row of trees from the west all the way to the road, then picked up again on the east side of the road. Cat stopped and turned an ear toward the trees and stood quietly for a moment. “Yep, that’s the river, hot damn it’s about time, I’m shot.” They quickened their steps, and in minutes were underneath the canopy of massive cottonwoods, slowly picking their way to the west through downed branches and thick brush, dried leaves crunching under their feet like popcorn. The river turned slightly to the south, and where the bend of the river was made, huge chunks of jagged white stone fortified the bank as rip-rap. When they reached the corner there was a small clearing. They took a few minutes and stomped away dead grass and bushes, then dropped down on their knees and made sure there were no stones or other protuberances that would stab them all night as they slept. They unrolled their beds on the smoothed spots, kicked off their shoes and laid down. Tom couldn’t remember being more tired than he was at that moment. The gentle, rhythmic burbling of the river passing over the rip-rap combined with the crickets made it sound like a movie soundtrack, almost too perfect. The westerly fading moon cast the only light that was visible. After a few initial adjustments to find the most comfortable spot, they were dead quiet. Tom was nearly asleep when Cat’s voice woke him. “I was born at the wrong time. I don’t think the way I live is so different, or weird…I was just born at the wrong goddamn time, that’s really the way I see it. If I’d have been born in the 1870’s and I was a cattle bum, no one woulda thought anything about it. I wonder if a cowboy back then ever laid out under the moon and thought, I shoulda been born a hundred years from now…I bet they did, I really do.” Cat was quiet for a long time, and Tom thought he’d gone to sleep, but then he heard him say almost to himself, “Yeah…I was born at the wrong goddamn time.”

The valley was filled with lemony yellow light and a mild breeze moved steadily up the river when Tom opened his eyes. The sun was probably up, but the mountains on the eastern edge of the Missoula valley hadn’t allowed its rays to touch the earth yet. Tom rolled over and could see that Cat had put his pack back together, but there was a pocket on the side open. He sat up and got out of his bag, the morning air had a sharp edge to it, and he shuddered in response. He rolled his bag up and put it away, then strolled over and looked at the river. On the far side, Cat stood in waist deep blue green water, his hands were out to his sides, flat to the surface of the water, feeling the smooth current pass underneath them. His hair was white with shampoo suds, and a toothbrush poked from his mouth. He was looking upstream at something, Tom turned to see what was drawing his attention. On the water’s edge a tall Blue Heron stood, just as still as Cat, its white head, and bright yellow beak a stark contrast to the blue gray of its surroundings and plumage. For a full 30 seconds the man and the great bird held an uneasy truce, one measuring the other, then the bird squatted slightly, before leaping and unfolding its massive wings and flying up the river until it was out of sight. Cat turned and smiled at Tom, then raised a hand and started brushing his teeth. “How’s the water?” Cat sank slowly and laid his head back until just his face showed, the toothbrush like a periscope, “It’s refreshing…check that, it’s cold as fuck.” Tom laughed. By the time he had his toiletries out and his clothes off, Cat had his pants on, his face lathered, and was shaving. The water took the breath from Tom’s lungs, and when he came to the surface he couldn’t form words, and just gasped for breath, before finally saying loudly, “Son of a bitch…”

By the time the sun was up they had washed, dressed, shaved, and brushed their teeth. They each ate two granola bars and a can of vienna sausages for breakfast. Cat sat on a big piece of rip rap smoking a cigarette and working on the walking stick with his knife. Tom laid on a rock, fingers intertwined behind his head, enjoying the warming sun and watching Cat work. “Way I see it, we can do two different things,” said Cat, “We can walk back to that gas station and try to catch something west, or we can get back out to the road and head south, that’s down highway 93. I think the highway gets us more ground behind us quicker, but heading south takes us into warmer weather…and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but these mornings are getting a little prickly.” Tom sat up and looked at Cat, who hadn’t raised his head from his work, and said to him, “I have noticed, I can feel it coming. Maybe we should head down the highway, 93 you said, right?” Cat nodded, then blew away some shavings that were curled into rounds. They formed little wheels and rolled down the angled surface of the rock and dropped into the slack water at the edge of the stream before slowly working out into the current and disappearing downstream. “Well, south it is then,’ said Tom. Cat stood up and worked his hand over the spot on the stick that he’d been working on, feeling the texture of where he’d carved. “We think the same, that’s the way I was leaning too.”

Within twenty minutes they were walking down the road to the south, the sun on their left cheeks, and their long shadows stretched out to the west. They felt good, truly good, for the first time since they had left Jerry’s house.

The Missoula valley is ringed with mountains, some are timbered and look dark blue when shadowed, and green when the sun is upon them. Tom was mesmerized by them. He’d never spent any time in the mountains, let alone had the time to walk along and breathe the cool air that swept down out of them. Traffic on the road was steady as they walked, but they didn’t really notice because their eyes were on the mountains and the horizon. They’d decided to walk until they were near highway 93 before attempting to get a ride, because they didn’t want trouble with cops. Gradually the open fields gave way to scattered houses, then a gridwork of roads that were all lined with ranch style homes. About an hour into their walk they stopped at a service station and Tom bought two bottles of soda, and two fried burritos for each of them. They sat in the shade against the north facing wall of the station and dumped packets of hot sauce onto the burritos and savored eating hot food. Tom knew that he would never take a hot meal…or food in general, for granted, ever again. “When I was a kid we used to do those atomic bomb drills,” said Cat, who’d obviously had something spark the memory. “They’d tell us, 'Children, if you see a flash, don’t look at it. Drop down with your eyes closed and get under your desk’. Did they do that at your school too?” Cat looked at Tom and waited for an answer. Tom nodded, “Yeah, almost word for word.” Across an oxidized chain link fence behind the service station was a park, and they both watched kids swinging on a tall swing set. Each time the swings went back and forth they could hear a high pitched squeak, like something needed to be oiled. “I used to sit there listening to them tell us the little atomic safety talk and imagine a giant orange mushroom cloud, and building and trees being ripped to shreds…and then I’d look at the little flimsy desk that I’d be using to protect me from a fucking tidal wave of fire. That’s right when I started really questioning the way shit operates in the world,” Cat said. Tom watched a boy in a blue windbreaker leap from the swing at its highest point, land on his feet, then fall and roll, before getting up and catching the swing to do it again. Cat continued, “I used to think that if you were in the very deepest part of Siberia, or the Amazon, and all hell broke loose in Russia or the United States, or maybe everywhere…if you were way the hell out back and gone, all that shit could go down and you’d never even know. I mean, you wouldn’t have a TV set, or radio, and they sure as hell aren’t gonna waste bombs on someplace that isn’t strategic. The whole goddamn thing could go down and you’d be out there eating trout and gathering firewood without a clue.” As he spoke, Cat folded the burrito wrappers in half over and over until they were tight, compact little squares, then he launched them at a trash can, one made it in, the other tinged off the side and laid on the sidewalk. “I used to think about that. A little, quiet, self contained life back in the woods, eating hand to mouth, and just very quietly preparing for winter through the summer months. You know, drying fish and berries and shit…but then I thought a little deeper about it. I started wondering about a woman, maybe I have one out there with me, we have a couple kids, after they grow up…What the hell are they gonna do? They sure as hell aren’t gonna be content just living out in the middle of nowhere eating fish and berries, no friends, no school, no real entertainment, no husband or wife when they get older.” Tom watched Cat, and could see that he’d thought the scenario through carefully. “Then when you finally do come out, there’s nothing to come out to, fucking ash and nuclear zombies. Nope, not for me. If we have a war I want the warhead right here.” Cat raised his hands and made his fingers go apart like an expanding firework, and made a slow explosion sound. “All of it over instantly, the present, the future, and every memory wiped away like it never happened.” Tom watched the windbreaker boy jump from the swing again, roll, and then run across the park toward another group of kids about his age, one of which was carrying a football. He tried not to think of everything being erased…everything. Cat suddenly stood and shouldered his pack. Then he walked over and picked up the burrito wrapper that hadn’t made it into the garbage, and tossed it in. “Well, that ride ain’t gonna beg us, we need to find it.”

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