CORK (not the stopper)

Cork is much smaller than anticipated and quite easy to explore on foot. As such, we tend to overdo it as on Wednesday when we totaled over eight miles. Yesterday we did a bit more than seven. This morning we are doing laundry, and I’m pleased not to be wandering about on my weary old legs.

I tend to be overcautious about the traffic when crossing the street. When I was following Sheila, as she jaywalked, and as I was carefully looking in both directions before crossing the street, I fully missed seeing a small barrier that was intended to keep people from crossing the street. But, my right foot found the raised piece of rubber and I went sprawling down on my hands and knees. No serious injury occurred to my body, but embarrassment still looms largely in my mind. And, I was fortunate in that there were no cars involved.

The weather remains uncharacteristically gorgeous. It has been sunny every day in spite of the area forecast before we left. The bright sunlight enhances the deep green of the countryside and the bright blossoms that decorate the hedgerows,. Also, now on my fourth visit to Ireland I have finally seen shamrocks. It was our Irish Culture instructor that told me that the leaves are much smaller than I thought and that they are everywhere in

my Ireland. [Actually, they are not that impressive.]

So far, other than Cork, we’ve visited Cobh, the charming little town from where the Titanic departed; Blarney, where we did not go to the Castle or kiss the stone but purchased sweaters; and Kinsale, a very touristy town similar to Cannon Beach but ancient. It was in Kinsale that we stumbled upon a church that has been in constant service since the eleventh century. Hell of a deal.

The people of Cork resent Dublin for the latter’s influence on Irish government and therefore prefer other stouts to Guinness. In Cork, folks on the north side of the River Lee swear by Murphey’s Stout while on the south side they prefer Beamish. 

Having sampled them all, I still like Guinness, especially here where it is fresh. 

I realize that this missive is not particularly exciting, but at this age, just having a morning coffee is exciting enough.

Tres Amigo (part 2)

In the approaching twilight it could seen that the park was covered in even deeper snow as a result of the lake effect, a phenomena happens which occurs when the damp air from Lake Michigan’s water meets the cold air moving in from the west. The accumulation amounted to over two feet of snow plus areas of drift that reached four feet or more. But, surprisingly, the park road had recently been plowed. The rest of the campground was invisible, buried in deep snow. 

Before attempting to establish a campsite, it seemed better to report in to the attendant’s office, an old log cabin where a light could be seen through its windows. A forest green Jeep Cherokee with state government plates along with two beat up Ford sedans sat in front of the building. Smoke rose out of a chimney on the side of the cabin. Snow shovels leaned against a stack of firewood next to the door.

All three of us slid out of the GMC and walked up to the cabin. The air seemed bitterly cold after the warm cab, and the window on the front door was mostly opaque, covered by frost. There was a little circle of clear glass in the middle through which could be seen four old guys sitting around a table playing cards. Each had a brown bottle and a pile of chips in front of him. Cigarettes and cigars smoldered in ash trays.

I knocked on the door as Dan and Lance waited behind me.

One man with a blue Cubs baseball cap looked up briefly and glanced at the door through thick, frameless spectacles. He quickly returned his attention to the cards in his hands. 

Each of the men tossed a red chip into the center of the table and went on with their game.

“Pound on the door, damn it,” groused Dan.

I looked back and said, “Jesus, I think I can do this.” 

Dan snorted while Lance looked around.

I slammed on the door with the fat of my hand. All four of the men inside looked up at the door in surprise before a large man wearing a navy watch cap and tan Carhartt overalls stood up as he slid his wooden chair back. He lumbered toward the door and opened it. The warm air of the cabin came out tainted with the foul oder of cigar and cigarette smoke.

“Can I do somethin’ for ya?” His voice sounded like something coming from a bear, to which he bore some resemblance. He had a long, thick, black beard that covered most of his face. His red and black checkered shirt sleeves were rolled up to his elbows revealing massive arms and hands, also covered with a thick crop of bristly dark hair.

“Ya ain’t stuck are ya? Don’t have anything to pull ya out wit.”

My mind flashed back to the Jeep Cherokee, but I ignored it.

“No, we aren’t having any problems,” I answered, suddenly feeling a little intimidated and foolish. “We want to register for a campsite.”

The bear looked at me for a second with a confused frown forming, as if I had been speaking Chinese. He turned his head and briefly regarded his companions, maybe searching for one to interpret. Then, returning his attention to me, he growled loudly.

“Camping? Here? You wanna camp here, tonight?”

He again looked back at his friends. 

“These dumb shits want to register for a campsite!” He shouted.

The company at the table all stared at the goofs now crowded in the doorway. Each of the men had a big letter O formed with mouths, all uniformly surrounded with facial hair. Then they all started laughing.

“The park is closed for Christ sake.” He roared. “I shoulda closed the damn gate, but I didn’t expect nobody would wanna fuckin’ camp here now. It’s goddam January!”

I did not know how to react to a bear that seemed to be ready to rip my head off. I was beyond intimidation. I started to feel fear.

“We didn’t mean to interrupt your game,” chimed in Lance, stepping further into the light. We have heavy winter gear and firewood. Just a couple of nights and we’ll be gone.”

“Look,” replied the big man. “We ain’t rangers or even camp hosts. I’m just keepin’ the place up. I call the snow plow when it gets deep and make sure the pipes in the cabin don’t freeze up.”

If you get cold, you can’t come in here. There ain’t enough room.”

I guess you can camp, but don’t make a mess.”

He forcefully closed the door, shoving us out into the cold before anyone could think of an appropriate response. As we filed back to the truck, we could hear the sound of loud, derisive laughter.

* * * * * * * * *

The campsites were covered with snow, but after Dan and I bickered for a few minutes, we ended up picking a spot among some fir trees where the drift were not so deep. The truck had snow tires, but it still was an effort to push in close to where the tent would be set up. No one said anything as I rocked the pickup back and forth, eventually coming to rest under one of the trees. 

The temperature had dropped more than a few degrees since filling up at the CENEX station. Although it was tempting to get a fire started, it seemed prudent to get the tent up before total darkness fell.

With a couple of scoop shovels that I’d found in my garage, Dan and I cleared the snow from an area where we would put up the tent, never thinking about the insulating property of snow. We put up the stiff canvas tent on bare, frozen ground without bothering with stakes. It would have been easier driving the stakes into solid rock.

While we were struggling with what would be our shelter for the night, Lance made himself useful by unloading the stolen lumber from the bed of the truck. He stacked most of the boards on one side of the tent and arranged a few where the fire would be. He also brought over the folding canvas camp stools, but the metal legs were encased in ice. We’d have to wait for seats until the chairs were thawed by the fire.

Once the tent was up, Dan brought over a small folding table and put the gas stove on top. Next, he attempted to unscrew the cap on the fuel reservoir but found his fingers had turned numb from the cold. He swore to himself and put on gloves.

Meanwhile, I grabbed a can of charcoal lighter fluid and liberally squirted the stuff on the wood that Lance had prepared. Taking the Bic lighter I leaned down to ignite the fire with a flick of my thumb. For a brief moment it appeared that the fuel would not burn. Then a small, blue flame appeared on the edge of a board, slowly expanding and turning into a dull orange spot of fire in the center of the wood pile. Not exactly a bonfire.

The roast chicken was frozen, solid as granite. The potatoes were also stone hard. The food needed a decent fire to thaw. Dan’s chili was also a hard, brown piece of ice in the pot. He filled the camp stove reservoir with white gas and pumped the plunger to build up the pressure. He lit the stove and set the frozen chili on the burner. The flame burned a hissing blue.

Night had fallen and outside the dim light of our tiny campfire, the sky park was fully enveloped in black. Lance stepped away from the circle of light and looked up at the sky. 

“Hey,” he exclaimed. “The Milky Way is incredible!”

Dan and I wandered out to join him.

Not only was the Milky Way brilliant, the sky was filled with twinkling stars. There seemed to be a hundred constellations visible. Never had the night seemed so filled with celestial bodies. There was a slight glow on the eastern horizon, a promise of a rising moon.

The stolen wood had yet to expand into a warming campfire. Any heat that the small flames put out seemed to be absorbed by the surrounding air. It would be awhile before we could comfortably sit and get warm.

Lance, still enchanted by the night sky, pointed to the east and said, “Look, the moon is coming up. Let’s go look at the lake while the fire builds.”

Dan and I didn’t answer but slowly sauntered after the hobbit who was already on his way.

There was no trail, and the snow was deep. It was slow going as we high stepped toward the shore. Although the air was cold against our faces, the exertion of our movement kept our bodies warm. By the time we reached the shore, we were actually starting to perspire and our breaths turned to frost on our beards.

Reaching the area where the shore should have been, a sheet of think had formed creating a shelf that extended almost a hundred meters out toward the water. A full moon rose above the sparkling waves and lit up a fantasy beach of mysterious shapes of white forms and crystal caves.

Enchanted by the unexpected museum of art, we wandered among the ice figures stopping to huddle inside fanciful caves. In the distance the lake shimmered in moonlight as the waves undulated with soft grace. Time moved at a different pace, and it seemed as if we were out on the ice shelf for hours, even days, until Dan broke the spell.

“God damn it,” he shouted. “My leg is soaked.” He’d managed to break through some ice into  frigid water below. But, when we looked at him it was obvious that he’d only sunk in as far as his boot heel. When Lance tried to calm Dan with this observation, Dan ignored him.

“I gotta get back to the fire or I’ll freeze my leg off.” He was in a panic state. It seemed better to say nothing and follow him back to the camp.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Most of the wood on the fire had burned during our absence, and there was only a disappointing glow from the coals and a few, sporadic weak flames. Dan and Lance were quick to gather more of the stolen boards and toss them on the dying fire. The wood slowly caught with the help of a little more lighter fluid, the decent fire was restored to its previous state but  still threw little heat. 

The chicken and potatoes remained in solid state. The chili had a minuscule bit of liquid bubbling up one side of the aluminum pot. Not enough to fill a small spoon.

Dan fumed and hissed as he again pumped the gas tank.

“I thought it would be nice if I could at least have a little chili while my foot thawed out,” he complained.

I pointed out that his foot wasn’t frozen and, in fact, his boot wasn’t even wet.

His brown eyes blazed as he retorted, “Bull shit! I sank up to my knee back there.”

Your jeans don’t look wet,” Lance observed.

Dan glanced down. Then, after a second of silence, grunted, “Well, it felt cold. My boot got wet.”

Lance and I silently concurred that it was best to leave the matter be.

The fire had, at last, built itself into a proper blaze, but there was as yet little heat coming forth. The chairs, however, could now be folded into seats, and we pulled them close to the fire where we sat down, trying to feel some warmth. Dan pushed his right foot near the flames. Lance smiled to himself as if enjoying some private joke.

“Ah shit!” Dan shot up, knocking over his stool and hopped around. There was a slight hissing sound  as he stuck the melting sole of his boot into the snow. He continued to swear as his foot gradually cooled. After a few minutes he stopped hopping and started to limp while Lance and I valiantly tried to keep from laughing. 

Next, Dan, while pretending to ignore us, not daring to look at us yet, went to check on the progress of the chili. Nothing had really changed. There was still only a bit of liquid barely moving up the side of the pot. He returned to the fire and picked up the stool, sat it upright and sat down

“I thought it would be nice ,” he repeated, “if we could just get a cup of chili whenever we felt like it.” He sneered, looking at me as if the frozen food were my fault. 

I grabbed a bottle of beer and tossed it to him, thinking that his special brew might dampen his anger. Popping the top off, he stared at the bottle as it foamed over the lip.

I opened another couple for Lance and myself. Taking the first swigs we all noticed the same thing. The beer was starting to freeze.

“Fuck!” We all exclaimed in rough chorus.

Dan moved with admirable speed as he moved the cases closer to the fire. The fire that was now beginning to dwindle again. Lance and I moved to put more of the stolen wood on the fire, and we all started to gulp the beer as long as it was still in a semiliquid state.

It became obvious that there would be no chicken or potatoes fir dinner. That part of the meal remained frozen with no sign of thawing. But then the hobbit got up and grabbed the axe and pulled the chili off the stove. Before Dan could object, he dumped the frozen block of chili on to the snow. Picking up a hatchet, he chopped off a small chunk, picked it up and put it in his aluminum cup. Then he put the cup on to the hot coals near the edge of the fire.


His cup was from an army mess kit and was large enough so that the melted chili could be shared. Lance poured the hot, bubbling food into smaller cups and then hacked off another chunk to heat. Unfortunately, most of the chili was gone within fifteen minutes, and there was nothing else but fizzy beer for nourishment.

Dan threw more wood on the fire in an effort to get the fire hot enough to generate some heat, but the cold still leaked in through the multiple layers of our clothing. We scrunched closer to the flames and grabbed more beer. The brew was icy and only half of it came out. Water freezes before alcohol, and the taste was strong, like bad, low grade booze. Dan twisted the top off another bottle.

“Christ,” he swore. “This tastes like bat piss.”

Lance, not normally a beer drinker, choked on a cold swallow and coughed. His grimace showed through his thick beard.

I reached for another beer and noticed two bottles were broken, missing the necks. It seemed prudent to say nothing.

Meanwhile, Dan had gulped down his beer and went back to the stash for another. Now there were four broken bottles. 

Surprisingly, he did not curse but gave out advice.

“Drink fast,” he advised. “The god damn bottles are exploding.”

Lance, of course, had a better idea. He opened another bottle and poured the unfrozen beer into his cup. At this point there was even less liquid, so he opened yet another beer and added the beer to that already in his cup, the same cup that he’d used for the chili, unwashed.

Dan and I followed suit and soon we were all drinking strong, chili flavored beer.

We all kept moving closer to the fire until we seemed to be actually sitting in the blaze rather than near it. It was almost comfortable other than the smoke getting in our eyes. If anyone had seen us, it would have looked like an attempt at self-immolation by three members of a satan worshipping cult.

In less than an hour, the rest of the bottles were broken and the last of the wood was on the fire. We all kept edging into the fire as it died. Every so often one of us would cough from the smoke. Our eye watered, and our noses wept as well.

At last only a few, intermittent flames flickered out of the coals, and the cold air moved in around us. The party was over. 

We crawled into the dark tent where there seemed to be waves of  cold air radiating from the ground. No one had thought to open the front flap. The interior of the tent seemed even more frigid than the outside air. The thought of removing our parkas, let alone our clothing, seemed foolish and we climbed into our sleeping bags fully dressed, including boots.

Lance seemed to fall asleep immediately and was softly snoring. Dan huffed and swore to himself for what seemed to be half an hour or more. He was having the same problem that I was facing.

My breath was condensing on my beard and mustache and quickly froze. To defrost my face, I ducked my head inside the sleeping bag where the ice would melt. I stuck my head out and tried to wipe the water off my face. The moisture would again freeze. Repeat like a turtle like a turtle poking its head in and out of its shell.

Eventually we were all sleeping but restless. Lance woke up and got up to stick his head out the tent door. If he needed to pee, he must have changed his mind and crawled back into his bag.

Waking frequently, I would go through the ritual of ducking my head in and out of my bag several times. The tent stunk of smoke, chili and farts. It was a restless night for all of us. Cold continued to creep up from the bare ground. No one fully slept for for more than a few minutes at a time.

A dim light grudgingly appeared as the night finally ended. I looked over toward Dan’s bag and saw that it was already rolled up and packed on top of the insulation pad. Lance also was gone, but his bag lay unzipped and open.

I struggled out of my bag and stiffly arose. Shaking my head and swiping at my face, I tried to get the ice and water out of my beard. 

Little pin sized holes in the appeared on the wall of the tent where flying coals from the fire had landed. Near the base, larger spots were burnt through where the canvas had actually burned. Repairs would be needed.

Just outside the front flaps, little pyramids of beans could be seen, courtesy of Lance.

The sun had not yet come up, but the sky was a brilliant blue. It was light enough to see that

several areas on my jeans and parka had been burned where hot coals had landed. The toes of both boots were blackened. The others had similar damage to their clothing. We all smelled like scorched cloth and wood ashes.

Dan had folded his table and stowed it as well as the camp stools in the bed of the GMC. Lance picked up the broken bottles and put them into a large, black trash bag. We hastily pulled down the tent and, without bothering to fold it up, threw it in the back of the pickup. There were few words spoken as we got ready leave. 

“Jesus Christ!” Dan exploded as he looked east, toward the rising sun and the lake. The ice shelf upon which we’d been flocking the night before was entirely gone, broken up and washed away while we were sleeping. Now there were huge waves washing at the exposed shore.

No one said a word as each of us contemplated the shore, imagining the disaster that we barely missed. We might have been floating around in the middle of Lake Michigan or even silently resting on the bottom under the tortured surface.

We piled into the cab quickly, ready to leave this misadventure behind. I pulled out the choke, gingerly pumped the gas pedal, turned on the ignition, and pressed the starter button.

“Uhn, uhn,,,,uhh”

The engine barely turned over.

No one said anything. I tried again.


The motor turned even slower. I was ready to try again.

“Wait,” said Lance. “Turn on the headlights.”

Dan and I looked at him with concern. His suggestion seemed crazy. It would take even more power out of the already weak battery.

“Just for a minute,” Lance said. “The current will heat the battery a little.”

One more crank of the motor might be our last chance, or it might be the final blow. Sixty seconds of voltage, might take less from the small charge that was left in the battery. 

Dan looked at me. I shrugged. We couldn’t just sit and do nothing. 

I switched on the headlights.

Dan looked at his watch and we waited while the seconds slowly dragged by. After what seemed like five minutes, Dan said, hesitantly, “Ok, give it a try.”

I turned off the lights and held my breath as I again hit the starter.

“Uhn, Uhh, Uhh.”


“Fuck!” Dan, of course.

I tried again.

“Uhn, uhn,,,uhhnnn,” as the battery started to fail.

But then, a cough from the engine. 

Once more.

“Uhn,,,,,,uhn. Cough, cough’” and the motor roared to life.

We all cheered, including Dan. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

Afraid of stalling, I chose to let the motor warm up as it charged the battery. Lance fiddled with the radio. Being Sunday, there were a number of stations broadcasting religious services from places as far away as Texas. Lance explained that the waves bounced off the stratosphere or something. He kept tuning until he found a local station that was just reporting on the weather. 

“It’s a beautiful, clear morning, but be careful. Dress warm. It is twenty-eight degrees below zero!”

“And now here is Kris Kristofferson with Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goalpost of Life.”

Tres Amigos

It was late in the evening shift at University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, and the last rounds had been completed. Now, Dan and I, respiratory therapy interns, were catching up with charts and patient data in our report room, a disused lab that had been converted to a featureless room with a few orange plastic chairs, a couple of wobbly desks, a sink and a counter. On the chipped surface of the counter sat an ancient hot plate that had two burners, but only one worked. That burner had one setting, high. There was always a glass carafe of dense, bitter coffee that seemed to be days, if not weeks, old. Nevertheless the brown juice was essential in keeping us awake.

Well, awake is probably the wrong word. The condensed, burnt, foul brew produced an effect of being stunned and intensely awake at the same time, rather like a snort of high grade cocaine (or so I am told).

One of the pulmonary medicine residents had left a copy of an outdoor magazine on the counter next to the hot plate. It was a diversion from the paperwork, so I idly picked the issue up and fanned through the contents. It opened to a dog-eared page with an article about winter camping. Being a hiker and enjoyed backpacking, I started reading the piece.

The story rhapsodized about crawling out of a tent in the early hours of the morning to witness the stillness of a January night, no illumination except that coming from the stars. One could observe the Milky Way without the interference of artificial city glow, and witness the tiny streaks of meteors racing across the firmament. With decent binoculars, the craters of the moon could be seen, possibly even the rings of Saturn.

The article included photos of an orange tent in the snow made luminescent by a gas lantern inside. Also, there were pictures of beautiful young women and handsome men gathered around a small campfire sipping wine while one of the them strummed a guitar. Other pictures depicted moonlit couples joyfully gliding on skis across a frozen winterscape.

Without bothering to read the whole piece, I was immediately enchanted with the idea of snow camping and mentioned it to Dan, tossing him the magazine. 

Dan and I had a lot in common: we were both veterans, had the same taste in beer, did not trust capitalism, had the same taste in music, and both had long hair and beards as did half the population of men during the hippy period. During breaks we went backpacking, exploring the woods of northern Wisconsin and in the upper peninsula of Michigan. While I recalled the beauty of the rivers and lakes as well as drinking beer next to a campfire, Dan was more likely to remind me of the mosquitoes, deer flies and chiggers. We were also likely to blame each other for the one time we got lost, but that episode was buried, hidden deep in both of our memories, a subject best left alone.

But, in the long run, our friendship was life long.

He glanced at the magazine with the usual distain he reserved for my ideas, his hawkish face ready to sneer. But before he could look at the article, the loudspeaker, placed deviously at ear level in the lounge, announced an emergency in the intensive care unit. 

“DOCTOR MAYDAY, ICU!” Was the announcement. Not Code Blue or even Dr. Blue as in other hospitals. The thinly disguised message was broadcast throughout the hospital, but in our room it had the effect of a grenade going off in a small space. 

The article was blown out of our minds as we ran out the door.

* * * * * * * *

Weeks and months went by; summer into fall; fall to winter. When the first snow flurries of December floated through the cold air, Dan and I were sitting in a pub called The Brat and Brau near the University of Wisconsin campus with our friend Lance. The tavern was almost as old as the school and had the ambience of a German beer hall with heavy timbers, heavy, dark beer, dim lamps and a large, stone fireplace that hadn’t seen a flame in at least fifty years. 

Lance was a different sort of fellow, shy and reclusive with long, dark hair that looked as though he’d slept with an angry chicken. His black framed glasses were held together by a safety pin and tape. He always seemed to have an aura of wood smoke about him. 

He was a dietician aid who worked in the University Hospital kitchen. Dan and I met him when we worked part-time as students in the office across the hall from the cafeteria. Lance had the  job as a requirement of his conscientious objector status to avoid the draft, but few people were aware of his educational accomplishments. He had a double major in physics and English literature. He presently was in a master’s degree program in some obscure area of computer science.

In spite of his intelligence, he tended to live in a world of fantasy. Instead of Jesus or Buddha, he worshipped J.R.R.Tolkien. He had all the songs in The Lord of the Rings trilogy memorized. Plus, he was an excellent musician accomplished in piano, violin and guitar—the latter he played as he sang of elves, dragons, and the strange folk who populate Middle Earth. 

Lance ended up being sewer commissioner in a small town a few miles south of Madison, a position that he held for over thirty years.

But I digress. 

So, as snow began to fall outside the pub, I recalled the article that I’d skimmed in the outdoor magazine.

“Have you ever camped in the winter, Lance?” I casually inquired.

“No, of course not. Why would I do that?”

“Dan and I read this article about it a few months ago, and we might give it a try this winter.”

Dan gave a long, loud sigh while objecting, “We did not read the article,” he explained. “And,” he continued, “you did little more than look at the pictures of the women.” 

He took a self righteous swallow of beer. The foam on his long mustache gave his lean face a look of age and wisdom. A twenty-four year old sage.

Lance wanted to know more.

Encouraged, I ignored Dan’s rude interruption and continued, improvising as I went along. I described the scenes in the magazine and the equipment, pointing out that we already had parkas and sleeping bags. There was an old, canvas, cabin tent in my garage, and Dan grudgingly admitted that he had a Coleman stove. After I ordered another pitcher of the sour,  dark beer that that we preferred in those days, he started listening to what Lance and I were proposing. Soon he started contributing to the conversation. As we drank, we started planning a trip to a small campground in Point Beach State Forest on the shore of Lake Michigan. 

As the idea began to shape up, we took different assignments. I thought I could borrow a truck. I would also bring a baked chicken and some potatoes to roast in a campfire. Dan would prepare some chili to heat up on his gas stove, and bring a couple of cases of Special Export beer. Lance would supply the songs and bring his guitar.

* * * * * * * * * *

The pickup was an old, dark green GMC half-ton named Goliath that belonged to another friend who had generously let me have the truck for the weekend. But, he opted out of my invitation to join us for winter camping. His excuse was, “You must be nuts!”

The truck was badly rusted and had a hole, stuffed with a dirty red cloth, in the floor on the passenger’s side. The exhaust pipe exuded a dark blue trail of smoke similar to that of a coal burning locomotive. Steering the machine was a difficult matter, more like herding it down the road. The muffler was rusted through, and the motor was loud enough to be heard from miles away.  It consumed gas at the gulping rate of ten miles per gallon. But the truck had its good points:  It started with a complex method of using the choke and pumping the accelerator just right, and it usually kept running once the motor warmed up. 

The pickup was necessary to haul campfire wood as the chance of finding anything to burn at the campground would be unlikely during summer, let alone winter. The wood was in an old barn that belonged to my landlady, Mrs. Haug, who lived in another town about fifty miles away. The old boards were from a house, torn down decades ago, and was tinder dry after being stored for so many years covered and away from weather.

Yes, I stole the wood.

* * * * * * * * * * *

It was around ten on a Saturday morning when Dan arrived in his Jeep. The day was clear and rather warm for late January, and snow melt made the unimproved street next to my house sloppy with icy mud. Still, the temperature, at thirty-nine degrees, gave us encouragement for our adventure. The day seemed almost balmy. 

A few minutes later Lance showed up in his vintage, faded orange Volvo. 

All three of us wore similar clothing, parkas, blue jeans, and hiking boots. Lance’s coat was army surplus olive, mine was dark blue with patches of leather where it had worn and Dan’s was dark brown with black fur trim.

We all trooped inside where a pot of coffee was waiting. Dan, who was an espresso aficionado, sneered at the old aluminum percolator, sighed and then poured a cup. 

“I’m hungry,” he declared. “Is there anything to eat around here?”

“You haven’t had breakfast?” I inquired. “Shit, it’s almost eleven and we’re still hanging around here. There might be a bag of corn chips in the cupboard but not much else.”

Lance offered, “I have a couple of apples.”

Dan sighed again and swore under his breath. “I just thought we might have something to eat before we left. But, nooo. All I can get is some stale chips and a dirty apple.”

Laughing, Lance tossed him an apple and said, “It’s not that dirty, just wipe it off on your jeans.”

I said nothing, but it was obvious that we would now have to stop and feed Dan. Otherwise we would be listening to him grumble and grouse all the way to the lake.

We loaded Dan’s gas stove and beer as well as the chicken and chili into the back of the pickup on top of the stolen wood. Dan tossed in three canvas camp stools. There was no room for Lance’s guitar inside the truck and he was loathe to put the instrument in back where it would be exposed to the weather. It was left behind, inside my house. The only thing, so far, that Lance contributed was his sense of adventure and and apples. This was not unusual for Lance.

The old truck had a cracked leather bench seat with yellowish stuffing exposed. Trying to avoid sitting on an exposed spring, I took the wheel and went through the complicated ritual of starting the engine. Dan sat on the next to the right window while Lance was stuck in the middle where he had to move his legs every time the gears were shifted. It was uncomfortably warm inside the cab, once the motor was running, even though the window on the passenger side could not be closed more than halfway. There was always a slight odor of exhaust present coming up from the floor. The radio, which always seemed to be tuned to a country-western station, played a song asking Jesus to kick the singer or something. 

I wasn’t paying attention, but Lance thought the lyrics were hilarious. Dan even smiled.

Our route took us northeast on Highway 151. The road was dry from the warm sun. Other than a few wispy clouds above the northwest horizon, the sky was mostly blue. The fine weather and lack of traffic made the first leg of our trip to Beaver Dam (where, ironically, Mrs, Haug lived) seem short. 

We stopped at a restaurant just inside the city limits so that Dan could have something in his stomach other than the small apple that Lance had provided. By that time we all decided that having a large breakfast would be a good idea since we would not eat until we’d found a campsite and started a fire. Dan’s mood improved as he began to peruse the offerings on the menu. A burly waitress headed our way with cups and a pot of coffee.

The Beaver Cafe was connected to a large Town Pump gas station and had several large trucks parked in the expansive parking lot. It seemed to be a favorite of the long haul drivers moving freight from Madison and southwest Wisconsin to Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, and eventually Green Bay. There were several large men as well as a couple of women at booths and tables shoveling down impressive quantities of heart attack food: fried eggs, bacon, sausages, and butter-soaked pancakes. There seemed to be a mist of grease in the air. We looked forward to ordering as our stomachs began to rumble.

Forty-five minutes later, hunger sated, we walked out onto the parking lot and immediately noticed a change in the weather. Even though the temperature remained above freezing, a chilly wind came from the north. The sky was covered with thick grey clouds. 

None of us was overweight. Lance was a bit lean, but Dan was wiry and thin. I was a stick that wore clothes. Nevertheless, with our full stomaches, the cab seemed crowded, and the truck again became uncomfortably warm. Coats were unzipped, hats removed, and the triangular vent windows were popped open, more than just a crack. The truck’s heater could be turned down, but not off, which made it difficult to get the temperature just right. Plus, the left side of the cab was always a few degrees warmer than the passenger’s side, a situation which frequently became fuel for arguments.

Nevertheless, Dan’s mood had improved dramatically once he’d been fed. He whistled a tuneless melody, and frequently pointed out minor interesting sights: wild geese feeding downed corn stalks, an old rusty John Deere resting in back of a farm building, tattered blue overalls hanging on a clothesline, a deer carcass covered with crows. 

Lance entertained us with fanciful descriptions:  birch woods as a haunted forest with strange folk skulking among the trees as a few Ents ever so slowly inched toward a half frozen stream. 

By the time we reached the outskirts of Fond du lac, the sky resembled a plowed field with furrows of dark clouds. A few snowflakes raced across the windshield as the wind picked up. Lance fiddled with the radio dial, trying to find a station that might have a weather report. Instead, it delivered country western or snarled with static.

Entering Clinton, just a few miles east of Lake Winnebago, a real snow dump had begun and started to collect on the side of the road, but the traffic lanes remained relatively clear. Only one of the windshield wipers worked, but at least it was on the driver’s side. The defroster managed to keep the bottom, right side of the windshield free of snow, but ice began to accumulate around the edges, distorting the view for the passenger.

Half an hour later, at Manitowoc and the shore of Lake Michigan, the highway became covered with snow. The wind was strong enough to rock the truck with an irregular rhythm which made Lance chuckle. 

“Seems like some magical mischief,” he commented.

“Perhaps we should stop at the Prancing Pony and wait for the weather to turn,” added Dan, still surprisingly cheerful as the truck kept trying to pitch itself off the road.

He was playing along with Lance by using the name of a favorite Hobbit hangout, suggesting that we stop at one of the many country taverns in the area. Our leisurely meal in Beaver Dam had caused us to lose some valuable time, and the hours of daylight in January were short. As much as the idea of a strong pint of ale appealed to me, it seemed prudent to get to the campground before sunset. 

After listening to my thoughts and concerns, both my companions concurred to forego the beer break.

Dan agreed, but was not pleased. Lance pulled out a small pipe that was already filled with musky smelling green leaves. After fishing a Bic lighter out of his coat, he handed it along with the pipe to Dan who smiled gratefully and set a flame to the pipe. Soon the cab was filled with a gray haze, and we were all smiling.

Meanwhile, the snow fell with increased intensity. The buffeting wind rocked the GMC, and drifts began to form across the highway. The old truck had a high carriage and snow tires, but each time we hit a pile of snow, it would slide and fishtail. With a buzz on, it seemed great fun to feel the truck’s rear whipping back and forth.

Again, Lance tried to find a weather report but now could find nothing but static.

The fuel gage indicated that there was less than a quarter tank of gas left even though  I had filled it just the night before we left. I pulled into a CENEX station, but as we got out of the truck, the wind almost tore the doors off. The blowing snow stung my cheeks and forehead as I filled the tank, and wind whistled through high-line wires along the road. It might be foolish to keep driving, yet the park was less than twenty-five miles away. And, even though the snow drifts were deep and growing, with snow tires it seemed reasonable to carry on. But before making a final decision, I would ask Dan and Lance.

By the time our bladders were emptied of the coffee from breakfast and we’d climbed back into the warmth of the cab, the wind felt less fierce. It also seemed that it wasn’t snowing as hard. When asked if we should abort our mission and turn back, Dan refused to consider the option.

“Fuck no,”  he objected. “You talked us into this trip and now you want to go home?”

“Plus,” he continued, “the roads going back are going to be just as shitty.”

“We should just go and see what it looks like at the park,” said Lance as he loaded another bowl. He lit the contents and handed the pipe to Dan who enthusiastically filled his lungs with 

smoke. Next, he offered me the pipe. I hesitated, and then thought, what the hell, and took a small toke as well.

Out on the road again, it appeared that the weather had changed, less threatening.  The truck was more stable, easier to drive with less buffeting by the wind. There were a few flurries around, but a streak of blue visible on the western horizon gave a bit of hope that the storm might be over and would not turn into a brutal blizzard.

The road was still covered with snow and had a few slick ice spots. Our progress over the last few miles was sluggish. With our delays and slower driving, we reached the park as daylight began to fail.

to be continued . . .

Halloween 22

The end of October is fast approaching, and the wind has a chilly bite to it. Golden leaves dance across the browning lawn. This morning a few flakes of the year’s first snow fell from gathering clouds that dispersed before noon. The air carries an aroma of wood smoke from the Bitterroot Valley where open fires are still permitted. The cottonwoods’ brown leaves make a sound in the breeze like a shaman’s rattle. Halloween is less than a week away.

In a few days there will be ghosts and goblins haunting the streets of Missoula. Of course some of these tiny spirits will be dressed in disguise. Baby Yoda is popular this year as are Spiderman, firefighters, robots, cowboys and the occasional Batman (no Robin anymore). But, few of the revelers will find their way to our door as our house is at the rear of a dead end street where there are no street lamps to light he way.

It is scary back here. It even gives me the willies to walk on the rutted dirt road at night with the bare branches reaching out to scratch me and grab at my clothing. There are also occasional bears, skunks and raccoons that wander around the neighborhood. It is not unreasonable to imagine more mysterious and possible dangerous creatures slobbering and shuffling through the night. It is not for the sake of religion that the next door neighbor has a cross above his door and braids off garlic hanging next to the kitchen window.

Still, there might be a few trick-or-treaters that make their way, with adult guardians, to our door expecting a handout. It would be prudent to have some Reese’s or Kit Kat’s available rather than offer something healthy like raisins or apples. These specters will be, hopefully, after sugar not fiber; chocolate not blood. 

Sheila, asked me what Halloween was like for me “back in the day.” The question brought back some bitter memories that still bring a tear to my eye.

As a boy, I lived on a farm in the country about six miles from the western Iowa town of Mapleton. My parents were quite conservative, perhaps a side effect of belonging to a Pentecostal branch of the Lutheran church. Or, maybe it was because they were of German heritage. It could have been they were opposed to the idea of Halloween and candy from strangers. 

My friends, who also lived on farms, all seemed to have parents who loved them and would take them into Mapleton or one of the other small towns in the area on Halloween to participate in the activity known as Trick or Treat. But I could only vicariously participate on the day after the event.

One of my school mates who went to the same one-room school would brag about how much candy he acquired on Halloween and describe in some detail about the tricks played on people who either did not open their doors or refused to give up any loot to the threat of Trick or Treat. Kenny talked about soaping windows and hinted that he took part in a nastier retribution that involved putting a paper sack filled with hog manure on a porch, setting it on fire and watch the victim try to stomp the blaze out while covering his shoes with pig dung.

My gullibility left me in awe of the stories until later, when I was about forty, I realized the little bastard was probably lying.

My father, while unwilling to drive me a measly six miles, a trip that would take less than twenty bloody minute, so that I could join my friends, waxed nostalgically about Halloween when he was a kid. 

There was a bell on a tower at the fire hall that was rung every day a noon. On the day after Halloween the volunteer chief found the bell upside down, and when he went pulled on the rope he found himself under a shower of shelled corn.

When a teller opened the doors of the local bank, he found a Holstein waiting in the lobby.

A Model T rested on the roof of the town hall.

He also told me (when my mother was out of the room) about his high school years when upperclassmen would entice younger students to come with them as they drove through the countryside looking for isolated outhouses to push over. The night ended with a freshman being shoved into an open pit.

Ah yes. Great fun.

In the large garden on the farm my parents grew a lot of vegetables, but pumpkins were not among the fall harvest. Instead there was squash, lots of squash of many varieties. Acorn was always my favorite but I also liked butternut, zucchini, buttercup and bon bon. But there was one that I dreaded called banana squash. The color was a sickly gray with dull blue stripes. The banana squash grew to be a rather large size and lying in the dirt they reminded me of an old man’s head with graying skin and blue veins standing up over the scalp.

The baked banana squash’s flesh was stringy, watery, and bitter. It was my father’s favorite and during the fall and winter seasons we ate it at least once a week. 

One autumn my mother decided to make a jack o’ lantern for my sister and me. Since there were no pumpkins, she picked out an especially large banana squash and started to carve it with a butcher knife while we looked on in horror. 

The end product was not what a carved pumpkin was supposed to look like. It was actually more frightening than a jack o’lantern as it more resembled an old man’s head that had been savagely attacked by a mad butcher. The mauled squash looked so bad that even my mother decided that it would not work as a Halloween decoration, so, of course, we had it with our evening meal.

It looked like it would be a typical Halloween without a jack o’lantern, but, on a rare trip to town, Mom stopped in the Five and Dime in Mapleton and spied a cardboard and paper pumpkin that had a candle inside. The cost was not too dear, a mere twenty-five cents, and it seemed that it might be the ideal substitution for the disaster with the squash.

She brought her purchase home and put it on the front porch table where it could be seen from the dining room. When it was getting dark, she lit the candle and went to prepare supper which probably included banana squash.

Just before we sat down to eat, my sister, who was about five at the time, came screaming into the kitchen with the news that the front porch was on fire.

Well, it wasn’t exactly a blazing inferno, but the wax of the candle had melted through to the wooden table and it had started to burn. Even painting the table top could no hide the circle that was left after the fire had spontaneously extinguished itself.

There are no children around us anymore, no one to go out with on the night of Halloween, but we do have a sack of candy waiting, our favorites of course. And, by god, we have a real jack o’lantern painstakingly carved out of a pumpkin, a real pumpkin.

The Rattlesnake

We loved our place on Third Street, not only because of its location, but it was a newly remodeled half of a duplex with a beautifully landscaped lawn in front and a private back yard enclosed by a high cedar fence with charming wooden gates. The back lawn was surrounded by a stone patio with an umbrella covered table where we would eat many of our meals in late spring, summer and early fall. To one side was a studio apartment with a covered area that had out door furniture where we could escape the rare rain storm and the more common hot summer sun and drink shandies during happy hour.

Catie, the young woman who owned the place treated us like we were her parents. She kept the landscaping plants in top shape and the lawns mowed. She made sure that the windows, inside and out, were washed each spring and the carpets were cleaned at least once a year. She and her new husband, Johnnie, always took time to talk with us, making sure that we were comfortable. We became quite close to them.

But, even though at our age we should have known, nothing lasts forever. We kidded ourselves into thinking that our blissful life on third street could go on indefinitely. After almost five years at that address, Catie had to sell the place. She’d moved to the East Coast to be closer to her family, and managing a property from long distance was too difficult, plus she and Johnnie were looking to buy a new property in which they could live.

In the real estate boom of 2021, the complex was grabbed up immediately. We’d thought of buying the place for ourselves, but the skyrocketing market quickly punched a hole in that idea. A realtor friend advised us not to invest now, as did our financial advisor. 

The new owner, before closing, made an appointment to inspect our half of the duplex for 7:30 in the evening. The hour came and went as did another hour. We fully expected that she’d gotten tied up and would schedule another time to look at our place, but a bit after 9:00 there was a knock at the back door. Without waiting for our answer, she walked in. 

I said that we’d been expecting her much earlier. Her reply was “Oh, we just got to talking to a neighbor.” She did not engage us in conversation nor did she introduce the man that came in with her. She just walked around, taking photos with her cell phone. Her friend at least complimented us on our art. She barely spoke.

The next morning, after the chilly and rude visit, we agreed that we’d better start looking in earnest for another place to live. We were even more uncomfortable when we found a key lock box attached to our front porch. 

Sheila then found an AirB&B link that was already advertising the unit next to us and the studio in back. The new owner named the place Hip Strip Suites after a popular area that was three blocks away. Soon our private backyard was invaded by strangers and the landscaping was almost entirely ignored. Our lease was not to expire until the next May, but home did not feel much like a home anymore.

During this period, Sheila was recovering from a total knee replacement. So, in order to get her out of the house, we took to going out each afternoon at about 4:00 to cruise the city, looking for areas that we might like. In the course of a couple of weeks, we became rather discouraged. We found no neighborhood that could compare to our Third Street location. We also were “impressed” with the number of trailer parks in and around Missoula.

We engaged a realtor and had family and friends looking for us. It began to look grim, and I began to wonder if we might have to move out of Missoula, maybe even Montana. But then it became obvious that this rapidly inflating housing market was not just local or even in the state. It was happening all over the country.

Whilst I was wringing my hands with despair, Sheila was working hard, looking at different links on the Internet for rentals and possibly something for sale in which we would not have to empty our entire equity.  She found a place in the neighborhood, a tiny house on a narrow lot. The back of the house faced a sketchy looking alley, and the rear gate was secured by a heavy chain as well as an industrial grade padlock. There was also a tiny building that might have served as a garage, but the door was blocked by trash and dried mud. 

The interior of the house smelled of mold with a hint of urine. There was a small room to the right of the entry that held a double bed and an old, beat up guitar that hung on a nail driven into the pasty, yellow wall. Cracks covered the ceiling as well as peeling, tan paint. There was no furniture in the room as the bed took up most of the area. 

The rest of the house got worse as we walked toward the back. Needless to say, we spent little time exploring the rest of the place. 

The situation was becoming depressing. An old town house looked for a few days as if it might become available. It was a vacation rental, but the owner was rumored to becoming weary of cleaning up the place after each guest departed. But, then she decided that it was much more profitable to continue the short term rental rather than having a tenant even on a month-to-month basis. As it was, the home would not have been large enough for half of our furniture.

Then, in late November, just before my birthday, Sheila found a house for rent that had been advertised for only one day. It looked too good to be true. A two bedroom house with a rear, detached studio, plus a two car garage. The utilities were not included and the lawn upkeep was up to the tenant. It also was in a rather upscale neighborhood where the rent might be prohibitive. Nevertheless, we contacted the property manager and made an appointment to see the house the next day.

Devan, the manager met us on time and unlocked the door to the old, nineteen fifties sort of place. The kitchen looked brand new and there was a recently installed wood floor that continued into the very large living area. At the end of the room there was a huge stone fireplace and a large, thick wooden beam extended down the length of the ceiling to the kitchen. 

Aside from the kitchen, the rest of the house was built like an old lodge with built-in pine wooden drawers and obviously do it yourself closets. 

Mount Jumbo can be seen through the back windows of the house we’ve been in for over four months, and it has been covered with snow for most of that period. There are several hiking trails through the area, but no one is allowed on the paths during the winter. The slopes are protected so that the elk can move freely in their winter habitat. The animals are not visible every day, but one day there were at least eighty of them. They might not be apparent to those unfamiliar with the mountain, but if one is familiar with the broad white belly of the mountain, little brown dots might be discovered, and if one has binoculars, those dots turn into elk.

We now live in the area of Missoula referred to as the “Rattlesnake” named for the stream that runs next to our house. It is a parklike setting with woods, trails and a few wild animals. What it doesn’t have is a close, locally owned grocery store like Orange Street Food Farm which was just a couple of blocks from our old residence on Third Street. Nor is the ROXY, a community owned movie theater, within easy walking distance. The same goes for the two bakeries, the two pubs, the stationery shop or the independent book store. However there are no ambulances, fire trucks or police cars racing by at all hours. There are no Alaska, Delta or other airliners flying over our house. There are no smokers next door coughing their lungs out and no aid cars showing up to attend to those residents of the rehab center who need help getting their lungs back into their chests. There are no loud parties that last until three in the morning across the street.

We do have the following: bears that wander close to our bedroom window, deer that have worn a path through the snow on our lawn, owls that can be heard asking for our identification, ducks splashing in the creek, Bohemian waxwings flitting through the bushes. Half a mile from our house, just after we moved in, a mountain lion killed a deer. 

Sheila put out some bird feeders that hang from the roof of our porch as well as a bar of suet. We couldn’t have them at our old place and were looking forward to seeing chickadees, finches, and perhaps waxwings crowd around the feeders as the winter might make it hard to find natural food. The food stations were up for over a week, but the only thing that came was a cheeky brown squirrel that stretched its body down from the roof to feed on the suet. A couple of days later two chickadees investigated one of the feeder, but apparently the seed wasn’t good enough for the little bastards. We never saw them again.

Now, in late April, the snow has finally disappeared (I hope), and the lawn is turning green. Buds are starting to leaf out on the trees. We’ve been able to sit outside next to Rattlesnake Creek and enjoy our late afternoon drinks before starting dinner. Sheila just told me that a bear got into a garbage can a couple blocks away. Maybe we should be nervous, but we are rather excited about the possibility of seeing a bear. A mountain lion, not so much.

So, we are quite happy in our new home, but, hopefully we are aware that nothing lasts forever. Enjoy it while we can.

Welcome to our Home

Costa Rica #1

Brilliant yellow butterflies float above the tropical plants in the yard below. Another specimen lands on the small hedge next to Sheila. This one is black with a vertical, white stripe with an orange dot on the tip of its wing.

It is late morning and the air is sultry under a partly sunny sky. The humidity feels like a balm on my old, desiccated skin made even more parched by the dry, winter air of the Montana winter. Here, near the Pacific Ocean the warm air carries the scent of endless varieties of vegetation. Palm trees with hanging coconuts line the drive, banana trees wave their great leaves, date palms tower above the dusty gravel road, palmettos squat in the yard. Other palms with a spray of thin, variegated blades guard the steps leading to the lower drive.

Palm trees are abundant, but they do not dominate the landscape. A papaya tree with broad leaves and hanging, orange fruit stands next to a steep, grassy hill. An iguana clinging to the trunk, nods its head up and down, appreciating the possibility of an early lunch of leaf salad with fruit for dessert.

The air also carries the sounds of birds, most of which are inconsiderately hiding in among the leaves of the palms and a huge tree next to the patio. Yesterday a tanager with a large red spot on its back deigned to light next to our pool and serenade us during meditation. Later, a neighbor pointed out a large, round, black bird with a scarlet gullet sitting on a branch, a guan.

Several doves can be heard cooing in the distance, and black birds screech in the marsh. Still, there are a lot of hoots, screams and chirps that come from the trees and bushes that remain a puzzle.

Later, a black headed vulture landed in the yard below, possibly looking for my body. Finding nothing upon which to dine, it laboriously flapped its silvery, black wings making many low passes until returning to its watch in the sky.

Our little casita, about five miles outside the beach town of Jacó, Costa Rica, is relatively isolated sitting on a mid level elevation between two other such small lodges. There are enough plants and bushes so that we can use our own swimming pool to go skinny dipping, an activity in which we can engage several times a day, and once before retiring to bed at night. The pool is also joyously refreshing upon returning from a jog.

Actually, at my age (80 next December) it is not a jog, more a slog, which is a messy gait somewhere between lurching and stumbling.

The gravel road where this clumsy traverse takes place is just about a football field’s length from the casita. It is a tertiary arterial with little traffic, and once past the two buildings there is a broad expanse of grass and small bushes on either side. There is little maintenance and hence, there are many dips and ruts left by vehicles that traveled the road during the rainy season. But, there are very few cars or trucks, and the scenery is terrific, great for a slow jog.

The thought of our icy driveway in Montana a month ago quickly was replaced by the appreciation of the balmy tropical morning as I plodded on the gravel. The road took me through a small grove of palms that waved their fronds at me as I approached another small community of tiny houses, many of which were empty, awaiting weekenders from San Jose or vacationers from the US and Canada. A young blonde woman, dressed in clothing that suggested that she was not a Tica (female Costa Rican) was shoving a stroller with a small child inside. She was careful to avoid eye contact with this old fart as he came gasping and wheezing down the road.

At approximately one mile, where the road became narrow and started a steep climb, I turned around, began my return. About two hundred yards back up the road, I was distracted by a noise off in the bushes. There was no time to think about the possible venomous snake that might slithering around on the side of the road. I’d tripped over a small rock (no doubt rolled there by the snake) and crashed onto the sharp gravel.

My appearance was that of someone who’d been tossed off a train. Both knees were scraped and bleeding. The joint where my right arthritic thumb meets my wrist was sprained and lacerated. My right shoulder was scraped bruised and there was a hematoma on my right bicep. Somehow a hole was torn in the back of my shirt. On the bright side, I’d avoided hitting my head.

As I dragged myself to my feet, the first thought that came to my mind was, “thank god that young woman did not see me.” The second thought was, “how can I hide this mess from Sheila?”

Eventually, I came to realize that no matter how long I hid in the trees, Sheila would at last see this, her bloody husband. So, I tried to look manly and even a bit proud as I limped back toward the casita. She did not yell at me, but still looked horrified at the blood running down my legs and arms. She did not once use the words “stupid” or “foolish.”

Instead of lecturing, she used kind and caring words as she helped me peel off the bloody clothing and shoved me into the shower. And, after applying band aids and an ace bandage, we quietly, and with no recriminations, discussed the possibility that I might raise my awareness to avoid injuries that are more serious now then they’d been in the past, even ten years ago.

Here’s the thing though. It has been becoming increasingly apparent that activities in which I have frequently engaged are becoming more hazardous as I age. And, even small injuries have consequences and take a much longer recovery time.

This latest spill brings to memory of old people falling when we were children. Most kids, like me, probably thought, “so what? I fall all the time. Falling down is part of the games we play. We might cry and moan, but eventually we get up and continue to engage in our roughhousing.”

Of course, children don’t stop to think about how much further adults have to fall. Nor do they realize the frailty of old people. Kids don’t think about the fact that active growth also shortens the recovery time of injuries.

Shit, I only have come to lately realize these facts in the last few years, and I am still slow to admit that my physique is fading before my eyes. My mirror ignores the atrophy of my upper body and the expanding waist line. My eyes glance over the spider veins on my legs without registry.

Three years ago, while cleverly wearing cowboy boots on ice, I slipped and broke a bone in my left hand. Yes, it hurt. And, like my fall here, I was shocked at how hard the ground is, whether ice, cement or even gravel. The surface is unyielding.

I have been bucked off a horse and knocked down on a football field. I’ve crashed on a bicycle and fallen while ice skating (always been a horrible skater). I’ve tumbled down stairs, tripped on a tennis court, and found myself flat on my ass on innumerable occasions.

When did the ground get so hard?

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.







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.