The Days collectively winked. They smiled. They licked their full and rosy lips. The Days lined up in front of me, just waiting to be taken. With an easy equanimity borne from frolicking amidst the wild and green, they waited. Some tapped their toes and hummed contentedly. Others danced joyfully in circles. The first three sat cockeyed on barstools at the Dirty Shame Saloon, rang the bell and ordered another round of something dark and yeasty. The first Day belched moistly without covering his mouth.
Earl old pal, god of weather, graciously bestowed upon this adventure into the imagined and unknown clear skies and breezes mild. Two conditions imperative considering my mode of transportation: VW camper bus with high-rise fiberglass turtle-top, a vehicle that is entertaining as hell to keep within the lines in any kind weather. Be it inclement, be it fair. It’s just easier in fair.
The bus putted on, faithfully if not enthusiastically, over one state line and then another. In celebration of the busted radio, I composed psalms to the Roadtrip to sing along with the arrythm of the engine. Often I pulled off the road, listening to rivers meander, stretching my long and restless legs, letting the two big dogs out to pee and frolic. I watched the odometer tick off miles and I grew thirsty. I imagined English would be waiting at the Dirty Shame, wedged solidly between Days One and Two, ordering another round.
He was not. Prayers to Earl and myself answered, I arrived two hours ahead of schedule. This never happens. So I continued up the byway in search of a site therein to revitalize. I parked the bus in the cool shade of dense and fragrant pine gathered about an old service road, and let the big dogs out to romp. I romped right along with them through tall trees until the overgrown gravel road gave way to primitive trail and the trail gave way to thick impassible brush. Eliciting goose bumps, I stripped down and cleaned up in a chill and snow-lined creek, decided to go cowboy (cowgirl?) — very liberating — and pulled on fresh and faded blue jeans and a clean T. I brushed my hair. I brushed my teeth. I fished a barley wine from the cooler and drank deep.
At the Dirty Shame, Rick, Bartender Proprietor-Priest, poured me a tall one, relaying that English had phoned to say he was two hours behind, his intended route yet to be plowed out from the past season’s heavy snows. But with a Moose Drool bedded down patiently before me and new friends in the making, none of the waiting mattered. The big dogs were invited into the establishment and life was sweet. So I made those friends and nursed that beer, while the big dogs lounged on the worn wood floor.
Day One tipped his hat to me and promptly fell off his barstool. It had been a long one.
The sun was just narrowly above the hills when in walked English, throwing open the door to release long, sinewy fingers of cigarette and cigar smoke, friendly vulgarity and loud guffaws. I stood up and walked over. We grinned and wrapped our arms around one another. Squeezed. Tendrils of soft dark hair were blown askew and into his dark, mischievous eyes. It was a very nice effect. He was wearing a thick cotton shirt that had seen better days, a tattered pair of shorts, and he smelled like the forest. For all of my waiting, the payoff was fine.
I introduced English to my new best buddies at the bar. With eyes bleary, Days Two and Three scootched over to make room as he pulled a battered barstool next to mine. Spread-eagled and snoring, Day One hadn’t budged from his spot on the floor.
All through the evening, the bell was busy ringing. Thirst was no longer a dilemma. Another Rick grabbed a guitar from the back of the room and played Celtic folksongs for a while. He really was good. Barkeep Rick joined in at times and was pretty good himself. Old Bernie told a few tall tales and we all belly laughed. Bernie had been in the valley for a very long time. I felt like I had been in the valley for a very long time. It was beautiful. Before English and I ended up joining Day One, who was clearly passed out cold and had begun to drool, on the floor, we thought we’d call it a night. We slept entwined and peacefully in the bus parked on the grass and weeds behind the saloon, beneath a starry starry sky, full moon, big dogs, thick blankets.
In the wee hours, Day Two arrived naked — without a stitch of cloud cover, entertaining temperatures in the high teens and masterfully finger-painting a layer of serious frost onto the inside of the bus’ windows. It was so cold, Day Two’s teeth were chattering loudly and her knees were knocking violently. All three of us were in dire need of hot coffee. We walked over to the wee mom & pop, cozy’d up to another fine drinking establishment. Yaak Valley: population 300 give or take, two taverns, one one-room schoolhouse, one place of worship and one sparsely stocked store offering bad but gratefully hot coffee in leaky paper cups. It was easy to see wherein the priorities of this populace lie. Good for them. We reclined in the bus, watching the sun straddle the hills, while eating trail food and sipping steaming Joe. Day Two burned her tongue on the coffee, cussed sweetly under her breath, smiled sheepishly and quickly began to warm up.
Adventure beckoned. We left behind the bus and boarded English’s late-model pickup. Up the road we traveled. The big dogs sat eager in the back of the extended cab, long tongues lolling, twitching noses poked out of windows. Past cabins and homesteads, past the board-and-bat schoolhouse, past the little log church, past a few more cabins. Up the road we rolled until it was flanked by continuous forest, and then out into the woolly wild we ventured. Packs packed and boots laced. We were keenly aware these woods were home to black bear and grizz, big cats and an assortment of ungulates. Neither of us had hiked often in grizzly territory and it felt a little spooky. I watched the big dogs closely.
Upon returning down valley, for two bucks each, we bathed at the Yaak-O-Mat, finding our way back to the Dirty Shame. It was handily the next building over. We ordered burgers and brews and let the good times continue to roll. We saw a few new faces. We made a few more new friends. A slight woman, brown hair gathered into an awkward ponytail, burst like a balloon into the saloon and, wasting no time, tried to talk a familiar patron out of paying any attention to the ring on his finger. He was a good sport about it. A short while later, she slipped into an unintended cartwheel behind the bar, both feet flailing in midair, legs splayed. Her landing scored low but she appeared unharmed. Rick paid her little attention as he poured another round. Sometime before last call, in through the front door, the ponytailed sprite maneuvered a child’s bicycle, resplendent with glittered banana seat and colorful plastic streamers hanging from the handlebar grips. She peddled forth a few feet before tipping over, joining Day Two who, with moss ground into her knees and forest detritus in her hair, had curled up on the floor for a nap.
A blond man walked up to English and me, grinning wildly and dancing with his own round belly while adroitly balancing a drink within his big, chapped paw. He winked at me. He winked at English. He introduced himself as Jeff, flirting with me and teasing English about his mop. He wondered where we were sleeping, so we told him. Jeff said that was no good, offering his cabin located a few miles up the road. He wasn’t using it. What about the big dogs? Without the slightest hesitation, Jeff said to bring ’em along. I pictured a cobwebbed and drafty shanty with an outhouse if we were lucky. Probably no running water, likely no electricity. Hey, just like the camper bus only perhaps a bit roomier.
We arrived to Jeff unlocking the door and flipping breakers. He motioned us in with a hearty sweep of his big, burly arms and mixed himself a drink for the road from a cupboard in the kitchen. He told us to enjoy ourselves and then he left. Just like that.
The cabin was not cobwebbed, nor was it drafty. The cabin’s interior was blanketed in hardwoods and softwoods, comfortable furniture and picture windows that would offer 180-degree views of the sunrise, mountains, river and meadows. We selected a bedroom and made ourselves comfortable, if not ready for sleep forthwith. One big dog made three circles on the braided rug at the foot of the bed and began drafting ZZZs. The other, chin resting on front paws, kept an alert canine watch from down the hall. When all was said and done, we closed our eyes, slowed our breathing, and were carried blissfully away to our own private dreams.
Day Three bolted upright as dawn cracked bright and shiny. We let him out the front door along with the big dogs and found coffee to brew. We reclined on the sofa and watched the big dogs chase Day Three around the frosty meadow.
We found ourselves in a vast and lonely sea of mountain acreage. We moved casually around in our birthday suits, swimming peacefully in the low tide of morning sun that slowly crested through shade-less windows.
There were more Days of course, as I had created quite a few of them. But they had traveled ahead as a group to the top of the next valley east, damn near a stone’s throw from Canada. Days Five and Six, an extremely athletic pair, had already strapped on snowshoes and were camped out at the base of Terriault Pass, sharing an exceptionally succulent apple. It was snowing again in the high country and English and I would catch up with them soon enough. Meanwhile, we had mountain to climb and road to travel.
And on the seventh Day, I rested. I still had a long, long way to go.
Tricia M. Cook writes from a wee hamlet snuggled into the eastern toes of the North Cascade Mountains. Her last story for Mountain Gazette was “Eating Wolf,” which appeared in MG #176. Catch her bimonthly blog, “Living Beyond Lost,” at mountaingazette.com.