Stripes, an orange barn cat, would keep scarce, the barn?s owner, a middle-aged woman told me. The woman, fed up with Colorado winters, had packed her horse trailer for Florida. She pointed to the rafters where she had spotted the feline?s ears. I cat lurked, nestled in the pink blanket of insulation that separated the horse stables from an attic. Stripes had climbed a steep ladder to achieve the cozy loft, so steep I wondered if the ladder wouldn’t tip back if I attempted the same climb.
Three months later, early February in Colorado’s crotch of coal-country, here I am, housesitting on the howling plains of nowhere (thanks Poe Ballantine.)
I?ll check on Stripes, I decide on Day 1.
I have grown unaccustomed to winters at 6,200 feet in the West so I need some reason to get outside. To the barn and back. A great start.
I have checked the barn daily now for three weeks and have seen evidence.
Evidence of something.
But no cat.
The food in the cat food dish, replenished from a galvanized pale locked shut with a bungee, disappeared regularly until we moved the desk from underneath it.
I needed a desk. I scrubbed every surface and took it into the?living room.
I moved the cat food dish to a cat-accessible corner shelf. I?even shifted?the filthy padded office chair so Stripes might have used to reach the food. Stripes must have made some effort to shed on this vile step-stool, so thoroughly had this task been accomplished.
But the cat food remains untouched.
In the farthest section of the barn, the part that has a door open wide enough for a small pony to enter, I found a dead rabbit. The least edible parts of a dead rabbit, I should say. Subfreezing temps had kept it fresh.
Daily I checked. Daily the rabbit remains?dwindled.
Could a cat even catch a rabbit? Locals informed me it must be a jack rabbit, no small bunny.
When temps get above 40, the time odiferously comes?to employ the snow shovel to remove the rabbit, which I noted, had been white. By now, it was really hard to know that it had been a rabbit. Even the ears were gone.
Still. Cat food remains untouched.
A few more?inches?of snow allow me to examine tracks in and out of the barn.
Surely this is a fox, I conclude.
Maybe the fox has eaten Stripes too.
I hike the back 20, all I can muster without snow shoes. I sink in to my knees, sometimes deeper. I find a den with tracks radiating to distinct points: a distant tree, a closer bush, the barn. But I can?t figure out to whom the tracks, fuzzed over by hoarfrost, belong.
The warm temps make the deep snow even harder to get through. Then the sky clears and the temps drop to single digits. Suddenly, not only can I walk on water without getting snow on even my bootlaces, I can walk the fence of the entire back 40. So that?s what I did today.
I quickly spotted the rabbit tracks.
Then I confidently confirmed that Stripes still lurks ? but the certainly-cat-tracks head straight for the horizon, the distant horizon where I often see minuscule black cows forming a line where hay is daily distributed.
But I also found at least three other distinct tracks?not to mention the ones that appear, wander around for about 20 feet then disappear. Birds.
I found hair, coated in hoarfrost, clinging to the barbs on the wire fence. White hair, brown hair, long hair, short hair. No recent tracks for clues.
I paused in thought. This, maybe this is MY hair from last summer, the last time I visited this fence. No, it is too thick and brown. Elk, antelope, deer all frequent the neighborhood. But this hair is almost 12 inches. I remember reading in the paper that someone hit and killed a wild horse on a local highway last week. Hmmm.
The tracks interact with each other and I wonder who is following whom. Some cross a slope, ignoring the barn. Some approach then wander away from the barn. One set seems labored, the creature dragging something, maybe a dead something, maybe just its tail.
I know what you?re thinking.
No. I?m not going to install motion-sensor cameras.
The interstate highway system was designed by Eisenhower, my middle-school son told me many years ago, to create a place to land airplanes should our cold war enemies succeed in blowing up our airports.
?? during World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower was still thinking about good roads as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, where he oversaw the invasion of Western Europe and the defeat of the Nazi army, which was able to move quickly on the autobahns running throughout Germany.?
Just 60 years later, interstates offer me the chance to visit just about everywhere in the country pretty darn fast. With no ill-intent.
So July 30 I headed out from my sea level home near Washington D.C. and by August first I was in the hills of Missouri reading a sign marking Lewis and Clark?s journey to the Pacific. Not there yet, but well on my way.
Merriweather Lewis, William Clark and an enormous Newfoundland dog named Seaman, who left Illinois in spring, 2004, would get to the ocean a year and a half later. By 1919 the U.S. Army was able to cross the country in 62 days. (Thanks, ibid National Archives article)
I could do the trip in a couple days.
Now in 2016, Me, my son, who we know here as ?Seth,? along with our dog, who we?ll call ?Natalie,? headed out from Washington D.C. to celebrate our birthdays. Seth was born on my 31st birthday so in a few weeks, the day I would turn 50, he would turn 19.
It had been a tough decision to celebrate in this way.
I was born in the 50th state and my mother and stepfather had invited us to the land of Aloha, where they live, to celebrate. It seemed appropriate.
Instead, we were headed out to Montana, to seek the Forrest Fenn treasure. I had explained to my kids that Fenn, an elderly gentleman with a twinkle in his eye, claimed to have hidden a box of gold somewhere in a four-state region, a sort of legacy to his sense of adventure. Having spent a lifetime exploring the American West, his battle with cancer had prompted him to think about where he wanted his bones to rest. At some point, his cancer subsided enough for him to go to that place and hide a box of gold coins and historic artifacts worth upward of a couple million bucks. And he hid a bunch of clues on how to find it, in a poem.
I told the kids I felt there was 50 percent chance this actually went down. We don?t know the guy and he appears to be profiting from the sale of a book related to the treasure hunt.
But hey, he is trying to get kids outdoors. I?m up for that. And deciphering a poem? Hell yes.
So here?s the poem:
As I have gone alone in there
And with my treasures bold,
I can keep my secret where,
And hint of riches new and old.
Begin it where warm waters halt
And take it in the canyon down,
Not far, but too far to walk.
Put in below the home of Brown.
From there it?s no place for the meek,
The end is drawing ever nigh;
There?ll be no paddle up your creek,
Just heavy loads and water high.
If you?ve been wise and found the blaze,
Look quickly down, your quest to cease
But tarry scant with marvel gaze,
Just take the chest and go in peace.
So why is it that I must go
And leave my trove for all to seek?
The answers I already know
I?ve done it tired, and now I?m weak
So hear me all and listen good,
Your effort will be worth the cold.
If you are brave and in the wood
I give you title to the gold.
I didn?t buy the book that Fenn is selling?a personal memoir?but I read a bunch of blog posts and read a lot of online articles. I learned anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 treasure-seekers are also looking for the treasure. It was hidden 5 or 6 years ago and a couple people have gone astray in the search.
(One sorry dude, ignoring the specific admonition by Fenn not to search south of Santa Fe or in the winter–set off in an inflatable raft in the dead of winter just south of Santa Fe. He was not seen alive again. Fortunately his dog was rescued. Fenn hired a helicopter to help in the search, which seemed like a nice thing to do. Still, the guy?s ex-wife is threatening to sue Fenn. Sheesh.)
People have sold their homes and committed their lives to The Hunt. And there?s a festival held every June by someone who seems to be good pals with Fenn himself. I subscribed to the listserves, I browsed the posts, I read the failure stories–most of which are actually wild successes as they pried people off their couches into the fresh air.
So together the barely-still-teenagers and I cooked up a theory. Well, it was mostly my theory. Fenn loved Yellowstone (and I love Montana) so let?s start there, I suggested.
Treasures bold. CLEARLY this means ?naked? so we?re talking about a swimming hole. Hmm. I chose one of my favorite places in Montana, found a hotspring nearby and suggested this might be where warm waters rising to the surface halt. We were off and running.
Seth and I packed my pickup, lured the dog into the back and headed West. Seth managed the cd player, I managed the gear shift.
In a couple days, having picked up Seth?s good friend, who we’ll call “Laura,” at Denver International Airport, we were descending the pass toward the Grand Tetons in northwest Wyoming.
The kids gasped as the peaks came into view.
We checked in at the park visitor center and learned one of the last campgrounds in the two parks to have openings was just to our south (The Tetons are just south of Yellowstone.) Sensing competition, I turned on a dirt road that appeared to be a short cut.
Soon I was squinting at clouds of dust ? ?Ever see bison?? I asked Laura.
Soon the two barely-kids were standing on the back seat, poking their heads and cellphone cameras through the sun roof. I drove at a walking pace amid the mammoth creatures. The road was strewn with mini-vans as gawkers gawked and we crept past them to snag one of the last campsites available.
We reread Fenn?s poem. Seth and Laura gave me a stuffed moose as a birthday present. We named it ?Fenn? and parked it in the front seat to give me directions. Laura and Seth shared the back seat.
A day or two later we pulled off the main road near West Yellowstone, staring at a large body of water. If we had interpreted the poem correctly, our million-dollar prize, which would pay not only for both kids? tuition to their very expensive eastern schools, but might get me a new truck with more than a four cylinder engine (that might not have to drop to third gear to make it over these mountain passes) lay just across the body of water, through a meadow, somewhere in the wood. A locally famous fishing hole, home to an enormous Brown Trout, hid just over there, I pointed to a dark calm piece of water.
I knew I could swim it but Laura seemed pretty slight. It was late in the day. Seth asked about bears. Again.
I reconsidered the poem and came up with another solution. ?Let?s try Plan B,? I said–the Lamar Valley in the northern part of the park. There was a ranger named ?Brown? who lived over there a few decades back.
Soon we were walking up a creek bed, ever nigh, marveling at the cast-off antlers and beautiful river stones all around us. We clambered up a steep slope, we scratched our legs on bushes, we found trees with blazes carved by rutting elk, we watched a stream gurgle. I took pictures of the kids sitting by the creek. We marveled at the silence.
Almost immediately I felt that a box of gold treasure would be ludicrous here. It wouldn?t fit in, it would be a burden to haul out, it would ruin our priceless day.
I pointed out a familiar wildflower, a late bloomer this year. We found our bliss.
An hour or so later, back at the road, I tucked a broken jar that I?d found in the creek into the garbage bag in the back of the truck and we headed west again. The kids said they?d had enough treasure hunting, enough park traffic, enough tourists. ?Let?s get out of here,? they said.
I asked Laura, whose cell service and internet skill exceed mine and Seth?s, to find a campground outside the park. A Forest Circus campground, I told her, those are the best.
?Why do you call it ?Forest Circus?? she asked. It was because my sister used to work there and that?s what she called it. But I asked her why she called ?Harris Teeter,? ?Hairy Tit.? She got it.
We stopped for gas and I told the kids to go into the mini-mart that advertised ?beer, pop, ice? and find something for breakfast. Laura, a Virginia native, came out with a carton of grits. We were good to go.
We climbed into the mountains and found a campsite where we picked berries and slept soundly despite our busybody camp host?s comment regarding bears (?We haven?t seen one since Friday.?)
We didn?t mention the Fenn treasure again. We?d found it.
No, my friends, it is the huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum for example.)
Huckleberries are found growing wild in lightly forested areas of Montana and Idaho between approximately 9,000 and 9,500 feet. (although they?ve been found as high as 11,500 feet) on northfacing slopes only on ground urinated upon by virgin albino elk.
Or so it seems.
And so, it was with delight that I spotted an elderly couple recently approaching their pickup truck on an alpine dirt road carrying the delicate Dairy Gold pails that have justified the sale of ice-cream in large volume to Montanans and Idahoans for three generations.
I had abandoned my duties as sag wagon driver to my husband and his pack of bicycling friends who were beginning the second leg of their continental divide ride from Banff, Canada to the Mexican border. We were in northwestern Montana and I was ready for a hiking break. My destination? The Jewel Basin, which lurks just south of Glacier National Park.
I have profound memories of hiking here to a string of lakes, one of which lay at the base of an ice field, the bluish glacial slope slanting deep into the pool, guaranteeing the coldest swimmable water in the lower 48. I had told my 6- and 8-year old boys that if they completely submerged themselves, I?d buy them each a huckleberry ice-cream cone.
In they plunged.
In my childhood, picking huckleberries was a duty, an obligation, a responsibility just as much as setting the table or doing the dishes when the chart on the fridge indicated it was my turn. But huckleberry picking was also a sort of honor, a privilege for the wealthy. If you could find them, glory was yours. So when I found a patch of the succulent dusky blue flat-ended berries, I pretended I had not. ?Nope, just gooseberries over here,? I would lie.
Meanwhile, I would stuff my face with the juicy treat.
My mother could not actually monitor how many huckleberries went into my square freezer pint container and how many went into my mouth. With four of us kids scattered through the bushes up or down an uneven hillside from a western Montana logging road stealing what was legitimately bear?s food from the largest predatory mammal on the continent, I suspect my mother was not worried about how many I ate. She would monitor the Dairy Gold pail into which we would empty our smaller vessels. My personal standard was two in the bucket, one in the mouth, two in the bucket, one in the mouth.
My sister, who we’ll call Dana, of course was a little more greedy. She, I was sure, would put TWO in her mouth to just the one in the bucket. But since she was so fast, as older sisters are wont to be superior in every way, she somehow ended up with approximately the same amount in her square plastic container as I did. Even though she was five years my senior.
My biggest failing as a huckleberry picker was not that I ate the profits. I was a clumsy child with oversized feet and disproportionately long arms. I would often spill the precious contents of my bucket/Tupperware/freezer pint thing.
One time, when we were picking on the Marshall grade?a logging road next to the ski area east of Missoula, Montana, I set my square container down just uphill of a friendly fir tree to avoid such disaster.
When my mother called from the rusting Volvo downslope, I couldn?t find my prize collection. I searched and searched, investigating every larch, pine, fir. But finally, fearing that my mother would actually leave without me, I plunged empty-handed down the hill to the car, stumbling into the road behind the car, it?s engine already running. I was terrified to be left behind with the bears.
I was empty-handed. It felt awful.
My mother didn?t notice, but my sister, Dana, did. And she was outraged. She accused me of eating all the berries I?d picked and promptly established that I would not get to eat anything containing huckleberries all year long. This would preclude me from participating in Thanksgiving dessert and possibly several birthday celebrations involving huckleberry pie. Also, Sunday-morning waffles would be huckleberry-jam free. It was the harshest punishment I could imagine.
My mother did not enforce my older sister?s edict. If she had, I?m sure I would not be here to tell the tale. I?m sure I would have gone looking for that container, hiking the miles and miles through bear and mountain-lion infested woods instead of watching others eat all the huckleberry pie.
The following huckleberry season, I was exonerated. Not because I picked more berries than my sister, but because when we returned to the same huckleberry patch on Marshall grade, my mother found my square pint container I had lost the prior year.
A bear had found it first. The two large incisor holes in the side of the container, its edges shredded by a force larger than we knew our dog capable of, proved I had picked my share.
I stopped and stared at the couple on the Jewell Basin Road. It was late August. Huckleberries? Still? They both nodded. It?s a late year.
By the time I made it up to the lake I had eaten enough huckleberries to make myself queasy. But I managed to save about a cup, just enough to mash into the bicyclists lemonade a tablespoon at a time.
I met the guy we?ll call ?Steady Freddie? on a March 2015 Grand Canyon float trip. Tall, silent, with piercing brown eyes, his face always angled up toward the upper reaches of the canyon, some track of music playing in the back of his head.
I only spoke to his wife of 37 years once, when I called him this spring about some detail of our April trip this year, for which he had agreed to be trip leader. I told her I was impressed with his organizational skills.
?He is OCD and anal retentive,? the frustrated-sounding woman breathed heavily into the phone. More information than I?d asked for.
?He?s meticulous,? I corrected her as politely as I could. But I sensed I was peeking into a dark cave.
Freddie brought two boats to the trip, one I insisted on renting, belonging to his son, who was unable to join us.
Its? a lot of work hauling a raft to the Grand Canyon, a raft and the requisite half-ton of gear. But Freddie hauled two. Forth and back. And he forgot nothing.
My son, known in this space as ?Chance,? had agreed to row the second boat, when a father-son team of rowers had to back out a few days before launch because of a medical emergency.
Arriving at Marble Canyon Lodge where I knew Freddie was staying, I spotted his big truck and trailer immediately. I left Chance there to help Freddie rig and I departed to deliver boxes of groceries to various other boatmen. I knew my kid?was in good hands.
At the launch site another trip had spread itself across the entire ramp, its seven boats leaving space for just two of ours.
Freddie soon arrived with Chance, surveyed the scene and clambered back into his truck. Soon I spotted Chance floating down from the reeds upstream. Freddie would launch both boats from off the ramp entirely, preventing any conflict. Both Freddie?s pre-rigged boats would float offshore, affixed to the outer edges of our two boats that had been granted space by the other crew.
My tactics were more direct.
I spotted a friendly-looking woman among the other crew and asked if maybe they could scoot together a little. She said it wouldn?t be necessary as they were about to leave.
Three hours later she repeated herself –they were just about to leave–so I went to the other boat riggers who graciously pushed and pulled themselves together to make room for the two more boats we had to launch.
This other group, which would be known to us as the ?Montana Seven,? would leapfrog us through the canyon, sharing a camp generously with us once, singing late into the night around a shared campfire.
Freddie never sang with us.
But I thought I heard him humming under his breath as he moved gracefully through his kitchen, the place he clearly loved to be.
Freddie?s kitchen featured a four-burner self-supporting gas stove, another two-burner table-top stove and a blaster?a device used to rapidly heat large quantities of water?used every meal for dishwater.
I noticed the Montana Seven had a single two-burner stove, the kind we all have in the backs of our Subarus for weekends away.
Freddie?s kitchen featured drying racks and a special net with more than a dozen slots for serving spoons, ladles, spatulas of every kind. He also had a special knife-keeper, silverware storage, plates, bowls, mixing bowls, collapsible measuring cups, pots, pans, graters, lids, and no end of Ziploc bags. Everything fit into a huge drybox we carried to Chance?s boat every morning ? until Freddie figured out it was easier to carry it empty and pack it onboard.
Freddie slept every night on a cot with a Cabela?s drybag next to it, placed with a precision that made me suspect military training.
But I would learn that Freddie is a peace-loving man to a fault.
He would do whatever was asked of him, reasonable or not. He quietly digested information and almost as quietly, made the decisions his leadership demanded.
His cot, set up after everyone else had chosen the prime sites, often appeared in the kitchen itself.
And because Freddie awoke to make coffee before anyone else, his cot was never in the way.
The calm, slow approach to everything he did earned him the name ?Steady,? the idea of a rock-climbing wonder-woman we will know as ?Diane.?
Steady Freddie guided Chance through all the knowledge and confidence he’d need to make a flawless run through the biggest whitewater in America, Chance’s first time on the oars.
Then one night at mile 220 camp, known among the knowers as ?Gorilla camp? for a face on a rock across the river from it, that moment arrived when we realized the trip was going to end soon. My spirit ground to a slow drag.
Then Alex started playing La Bamba so Courtney and I started pulling people out of camp chairs to dance salsa with us.
As it grew dark, Alex?s guitar became silent so?Freddie set up some speakers in his kitchen. Soon Sade was whispering the mood we all felt. Freddie danced with every woman in camp. And we all swooned a little.
Diane came up with a new name for him: ?Smooth Operator.?
But I got up close and smelled him, I just couldn?t resist. ?You smell good,? I said, wondering if his wife back home even knew this.
?That is highly unlikely,? he said.
Then it was someone else?s turn.
More like ?Sweetest Taboo,? I told Diane.
?One time I lost my boa constrictor in my house for five months,? the man I shall call ?Herbie? said.
We were seated around an elevated campfire, the only kind the National Park Service allowed us on this nearly three-week river trip through the Grand Canyon. The campfire has to be in a firepan and it has to be up off the beach about 8 inches. Herbie was starting another boatman story the way most boatman stories begin. It was just an ordinary day, dot dot dot.
But I paused in thought. Would I have invited Herbie on this trip if I had known that he not only kept a boa constrictor in his house but that he lost it for five months? I felt my eyebrows move together as I looked at the man.
Every person on the trip will agree: Herbie is hands down, certifiably, unequivocally nuts. This guy had not struck me immediately as a wild card. I had been told that Jesus had saved him from drugs and other dark matter. I had been told he was crazy. But crazy man is not what I saw. Not really.
I had met him in 2015 on a glorious 17-day trip through the same canyon. This sketch of Robert Duvall-but-better-looking wore one of two shirts at all times. Either a Kelly green jersey with ?KAHANA? in block letters across the chest, or a photograph melded onto a t-shirt, a photograph of a surfer in his moment of ecstasy, riding a wave in brilliant blues and crashing white foam.
These shirts topped brilliant purple shorts which graced sculpted hiker?s legs.
On that first trip with Herbie he wore earbuds almost always. His half-open smile he often shared by gently moving in close and putting one of his earbuds in my ear. To share. I grabbed him and made him dance a few turns with me almost always. And he gracefully complied, but just for a few turns.
Last year?s trip was different, comprising seasoned river rats exclusively. But my trip this year would have six Grand Canyon river virgins. And some had never been rafting anywhere. It was a different vibe.
Herbie, in his late 60s, is set in his ways. He apparently lives part time in the Denver area, part time on Maui. What is he really excited about? His three dozen grandchildren.
?I don?t carry a cooler,? the boatman said when I was trying to figure out where to load which meals on which boats for the 20-day 2016 trip on which I?d invited him. He would wear the same two shirts as last year.
What? He doesn?t carry a cooler? Every boat carries a small coffin-sized cooler.
It immediately struck me as a good way to get out of carrying a huge piece of very heavy group gear.
But then I remembered he doesn?t drink. A multi-decade teetotaler who would not be tempted to do anything with our beer except throw it overboard.
What would he say if I asked him to carry the beer?all 14 twelvepacks of it?
He didn?t flinch. He found old drybags and loaded them up.
We had a few slowpokes this trip and getting off the beach at 9:30 or 10 a.m. meant fewer layovers, which meant fewer hikes. Herbie was motivated to help and help he did.
Herbie?s boat was ready to go every day shortly after breakfast so he?d see what needed to be carried down the beach to other boats and he would do it. And he never griped or complained or tried to get anyone to help. He just worked.
This year, instead of listening to music all the time, Herbie engaged with others, he told stories and taught newbies the what?s what of canyon life. When a newbie boatman I will call ?Chance? who also looks a lot like my son of the same name, agreed to run a raft when a couple other boatmen had to drop off the trip, Herbie was there to help where help was needed most. Chance, who at 20 is big and strong and ready for anything, had not ever rowed a raft. His river running experience including only smaller rivers and creeks in kayaks, usually an inflatable kayak. Chance was undoubtedly nervous, although he hid it well. Herbie said just what needed to be said: ?You are going to have the time of your life.?
And he was right.
Herbie said what he thought as always, but I never found it offensive, always delightful. But you can imagine how my point of view might not have been universal.
For example, one day while we were sitting around in our campchairs devouring an excellent meal, a woman we will call ?Tarn? commented about an interesting bird, one she either didn?t know lived in the canyon or she hadn?t seen before. Tarn was often commenting about birds or flowers or birds, often using Latin names, often more excited about it than most the rest of us felt was merited. On this occasion, Tarn commented about a bird just one too many times. Herbie just couldn?t take it any more.
?All this talk about birds,? he said to no one and everyone. ?Makes me wish I?d brought my gun.?
At the expense, perhaps, of my friendship with Tarn, I exploded in laughter.
This guy is a redneck through and through, I thought. I am an atheist, he is a born again Jesus worshipper. He is right wing, I am left. He likes raw cabbage with French Dressing, I like real food. But damn I love this dude.
I?m not sure Herbie feels the same way about me. In 2015 I asked the group if anyone wanted to hike up to Newspaper Rock, a long hike from an upper section of the river to an undocumented native American petroglyph. He clearly didn?t believe it actually existed. But when a witness who dared the goosechase with me returned several hours later to confirm, Herbie pulled out his topo maps and tried to ascertain exactly where it could be found?for future reference. This year he questioned me in detail and set off with two other sturdy hikers. They returned that evening, exhausted but victorious. Yup, with Herbie you have to earn it.
And Herbie has to earn it with me too.
Last year on a layover at Stone Creek hikers were setting out in ones and twos for a several-mile hike up to some waterfalls. My companions could not be found so I figured they?d left while I had been washing my hair in the river. So I started up the trail alone, noting that others who wanted to hike were still busy in camp. But I was eager to set off so I did. In less than a mile I encountered a rattlesnake smak-dab in the middle of the trail, rattling away at me. After calming my pulse I tore a page from my journal and jotted a hasty note to the others behind me. ?RATTLESNAKE 10 FEET AHEAD? and I place it under a rock where it could not be missed, with the word ?RATTLESNAKE? clearly visible.
When we met up a few hours later at the base of the waterfall, those behind me thanked me for the warning. Then Herbie descended from his hike farther up.
?Hey did you see that cool snake?? he asked.
?Yeah,? I said, mocking him, ?thanks for warning us about it.?
He paused in pure virgin innocence.
?I didn?t have a paper or pencil,? he said.
Of course he didn?t. And that?s not his style anyway. I suddenly felt sorry I?d mocked him. He just doesn?t think that way.
One time he referred to the women in camp as ?girls.? The ?feminazi? among us responded in fury, ?we?re not girls, we?re women.?
But not me. If I?m a girl to him, I?ll be a girl. What could be offensive, really, about that? Innocence? Naivete? Lack of higher education? I?m good with that.
?I finally tore the house apart. I searched EVERYWHERE,? Herbie was finishing his story, making the universal referee signal for OUT. ?Except the washing machine,? he said, in a quiet, dramatic voice. ?No, not in the tub. I took that washer apart and there he was.? The boa constrictor had been in there for months.
Next time I get a permit, Herbie will be at the top of my list.
Colorado river trips through the Grand Canyon begin at Lee?s Ferry, a sprawling dry, dirty launch ramp?linking a parking lot to a broad calm stretch of the enormous river. My sheer dumb luck recently rendered a permit for me to assemble friends and boats –and beer– for a nearly three-week tour.
Once boaters depart there?s no going back.
The river descends quickly into Marble Canyon, a gorge so desolate it was selected for release of California Condors when they were first re-introduced into the wild.
Boaters must pack in everything they need. No road reaches the river for 226 miles.
Of all the commodities boaters cherish, beer is possibly the most esteemed.
If one group of river runners forgets or loses something, a dishwashing sponge, say, left to dry on a rock, or through miscalculation, a coffee supply, the currency of exchange is beer.
Each trip member carefully calculates how much beer the boats can reasonably carry without actually sinking.
And so, on a recent launch day, I was dismayed when the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale I had indulged myself in tapping –while hauling gear from truck to boat–tucked into a Thermos can-holder, disappeared while I was running an errand.
I had gone in search of the satellite phone that had been left at the house of a nearby friend of the man from whom I was renting it. The SAT phone is required by the National Park Service for private (non-commercial or unguided) trips like ours. When I returned with the small yellow water-proof box carrying the emergency phone, I went looking for my beer, finally calling out, thinking I had simply misplaced it.
?Has anyone seen my beer?? I asked.
To my alarm, a new boater who we will call ?Alex,? a wiry man who joined the roster late in the planning stages and a relatively unknown to me, confessed to pouring it out, thinking that someone had forgotten it.
We would be spending 20 days on the river together, me, Alex and 12 other people. We would urinate in each others? presence, we would share every meal, and defecate into the same ammo can every day. Every trip forms a tribe among its members, sometimes so strong that familial bonds form that last a lifetime.
If we had a cousin, a tribal member, who thought it was okay to pour out, to simply waste the precious substance of life in the canyon, this trip could go very, very wrong.
This fact that he confessed, outright admitted to the crime, indicated just how na?ve this man was.
It did not portend well.
I tried not to express my dismay. I quelled my outrage. I tried to like Alex anyway.
It was hard.
But it got a lot easier fast.
Alex had only run the entire river as a boatman once before and his confidence was a delicate thing. His humility showed through. Not much more endearing in a man, really.
At our first camp, perched above Soap Creek Rapid, the constant roar reminded me of the real hazards of river running, and my crying over spilled beer came to rest. Alex proved to be a competent camper, not parking his tent in the trail, carrying an extraordinary amount of group gear in his relatively small gray boat, always eager to fit into the dishwashing line. His green enchiladas was the best meal on the whole trip.
Every night, he would call out to whomever the kitchen crew might be, ?do you need the D.O. tonight??
The Dutch Oven has been the standard cooking pot for everyone, anyone from cowboy to fishing guide west of the Platte since Lewis and Clark first paddled upstream in 1804.
The heavy iron pot is so heavy that when it contains a meal for 14 people, it is still hard to tell whether it is full or empty by lifting it.
This is one of the many communal items carried on Alex?s raft for the duration of our 20-day, 14-member river trip.
Alex also carried two guitars, a bathtub-sized dry-box filled with kitchen supplies, several water jugs and just about anything else anyone asked him to carry.
Alex wrote funny ballads about river life and played them on his guitar around the campfire at dinner time. Among these tunes, he ceaselessly practiced ?Pomp and Circumstance? in anticipation of his daughter?s arrival on the trip, which was to occur on Day 8 after she hiked the ten-mile Bright Angel Trail to join us. His daughter, who we will call ?Courtney,? would be missing her graduation ceremony at Colorado College where she had just earned a degree in Film and New Media Studies.
By the time Courtney actually appeared on the scene, the simple melody?was so stuck in our heads, we were all mindlessly humming, whistling or tapping to a subconscious version of Pomp and Circumstance. It was a wonder that on the appointed day when Alex produced the cap and gown he had carefully packed for the surprise ceremony, carried out on a steep slope of sand several miles downstream, Courtney erupted in delighted surprise.
The Trip Leader, who we will call ?Steady Freddie,? arrived in good time, donned a purple cape, and spoke eloquent words about family and arrival.
Then the camp collection of instruments, including possibly but not limited to ukulele, nose flute, guitar, and very tired larynxes, produced the familiar tune with unexpected brilliance. Even the cooks stopped their slicing and dicing to fold their hands behind their backs in ceremonious appreciation.
Yes, Alex would grow to be a luminous figure in my mind, not only for his creativity, humor, musical courage, and fathomless love for his daughter, but in his bright and positive approach to any confrontation or challenge.
So when the sad day of our departure arrived, I could think of no way better to express my love for him than to remind him how far we had come. And how better than to ask politely for the beer he held in his hand on that hot, dirty, boat ramp, then slowly pour its contents into the sand.
It?s 8:30 p.m. Monday. My son, who we?ll call ?Chance? puts the Subaru in reverse and pulls out of the parking space, having had his fill from one of Colorado Springs? finest pizza ovens.
I am still trying to get used to the mile-high altitude.
He shifts into drive and peers through the salt- and mud-coated windshield at the red light ahead. He talks about how he needs to get his thesis written, he really needs to get his thesis written. His self-imposed deadline passed at midnight and all he has is 25 pages of script and a brand new bedroom wall that flutters with post-it notes outlining the plot of his film.
He hopes to shoot this summer in northern California.
?What the fuck?? he asks, staring at the brake lights in front of him, followed immediately with an impatient, ?stoners.?
The late model silver Mustang in front of us is plodding along at a 14 miles per hour along the main street, braking for no apparent reason.
Chance is not upset for the same reason I would be. He just wants to get home to work on his thesis. I recognize the relative power and handling capability of a Mustang compared to the 13-year-old Subaru that my son has repaired by attaching the bumper to the roof rack just behind the left rear wheel well using two bungee cords.
Since Colorado passed its marijuana laws, dispensaries have popped up in every has-been storefront in the state. They have not-quite-clever names and they feature the symbolic green leaf shape familiar to every slow-speed boomer who survived the 60s. And that tangy smell of weed has popped up in every parking lot.
My son, I suspect, has sampled the goods and found them dull, just as I did at his age.
And having lived in Colorado more than two years, he has observed the effects of the drug. One of his professors is so high strung the cannabis makes him functional. Others just cruise through their lives at 14 miles per hour.
I remember a family friend whose complex medical issues were well-treated with marijuana.
?I think they?re looking for something,? I suggest, turning back to the reined-in Mustang.
?They?re just high,? he said with authority and some dismay.
Where exactly is the line between interesting and uncomfortable?
I?ve mentioned here before our Iranian friends, Dariush and Yalda.
I was first introduced to Iranian culture when I lived in the rural burg of Kelseyville, California and made the mistake of speaking Spanish to a small woman being dragged to the parking lot from my son?s preschool by a small boy.
Lily and I became fast friends once I figured out that Farsi, not Spanish, was her native language. Her son, who we?ll call ?Nathan? is between the ages of my children. My kids were 5 and 3 at the time.
Lily was a princess, according to her husband, Tom, who as a blue-eyed, blond guy looks more like me than my brother does.
Lily and her sister had fled Iran as young teens when the Shah of Iran was overthrown, because they had been members of the Shah family, cousins. Lily did not know where or if her father lived, for three years. She lived and studied as best she could at a boarding school in Switzerland.
How she made it to the United States, met and fell in love with Tom, moved to our rural northern California burg, remains irrelevant to this story. For this story is about another pair of Iranians I have come to know and love, Dariush and Yalda.
Dariush and my husband met at a gas station, at least that?s what I remember, where one was waiting for the other to fill a bicycle tube with air?the cheater way. Both later claimed to have met at REI in the bicycle section where they both wanted to try out the same bike.
Regardless, Dariush and my husband, Lars, have become bicycling pals.
They have pedaled the C&O Canal, the Alleghany Trail, the W, O & D trail ? and this summer we camped out in Shenandoah National Park midway through their 100+ mile tour of the long green dream.
Also, we have shared many a meal of Persian lentils and rice and eggplant and chicken in complex dishes I fail to remember the names of. Dariush and Yalda have come to our home for enough Thanksgivings now to know what to accept in Tupperware containers as take-home leftovers and what to say ?Oh, it was delicious but no thank you very much.?
Dariush is a friendly, smart, honest, funny man with sharp eyebrows, but little hair above them. Yalda?s large brown eyes bely her innocence. She has perfect skin and a rosebud smile that questioned, when I first met her, in halting English, how to change gears on the bike. Now, several years later, she expresses delight and pity and sheer hilarious joy in the language that has become her own.
The two of them asked me to speak at their wedding this fall, an event Lars and I had predicted before, I suspect, it had occurred to either of them. I could see that Dariush loved Yalda far more than Yalda dared imagine. And I could see that Yalda, despite her misgivings about certain attitudes regarding potential in-laws, was interested only in Dariush. Yes, it was meant to be. I was honored to share my observations with their wedding guests, some of whom had flown around the world to be there and could not understand anything I said.
The other wedding speaker, a take-your-breath-away-good-looking guy who spoke in Farsi had the small gathering laughing by, I guessed, conducting a game show style ?guess the fun fact about the couple.? I figured it out when he listed several things, three of which I recognized as food items, the last being ?Pizza.? The crowd all yelled ?PIZZA!?
The dancing at her wedding would not be permitted in Iran, one of her wedding friends had mentioned to me, nor would the gathering itself.
Fast forward past beautiful wedding with dizzying mid-eastern dancing and heart-wrenching Zoroastrian ceremony to the first dinner party in the couple?s new home. Last night Dariush greeted us in t-shirt and painter pants; he?d been working in the garage.
Yalda, busy in the kitchen but unable to tell me what smelled so good, wanted to know whether I liked her choice of colors for the bedroom. I would never have thought how to make wine-purple go with orange. But Yalda had pulled it off.
We dipped shrimp in red sauce, pulled orange segments from their rinds and eventually put our wineglasses on the table and sat down to dinner. Dish after dish of steaming unpronouncable?exotic foods filled the table.
These people, my own dear Dariush and Yalda, had fled a country that forbade their religion. Here they are, right here, entering my hearts as fellow Americans. My own ancestors, I found myself telling them, had fled England for the very same reason just a couple hundred years ago.
My cheeks burned as I looked at Yalda, finishing her degree at our own George Mason University, and felt an enormous gratitude for this country.
As we finished dinner Yalda brought out six containers of ice cream, bowls and spoons.
I had emailed Yalda midafternoon, asking what we could bring for dinner besides wine. I knew Dariush was a sucker for ice cream, so I offered. ?That would be great,? Yalda allowed.
I picked up three flavors of H?agen-Dazs on my way home from errands. I chose chocolate, Coconut with Pineapple, and Rum Raisin. Then I spotted a tub labeled ?Tirimasu.?
Hadn?t Yalda said she loved tirimasu? I wasn?t sure, but somewhere in the depths of my brain, a tiramisu remark from Yalda prompted me to forgo the Rum Raisin for the Tirimasu Gelato.
Always listen to that little voice.
An engineer in Iran, Dariush found a niche fixing and installing heating and air-conditioning systems in his new land. On his way home to Chantilly, Virginia from Baltimore, Maryland, he?d called his new wife. ?Guess where I am now?? he?d asked. Yalda couldn?t guess.
He had stopped for ice cream.
So when he showed up with three tubs of ice cream, she said only, ?Maile and Lars are bringing ice cream too.? Dariush had chosen Mango, Coconut and Rum Raisin.
I was thrilled to see Yalda eyeballing the Tirimasu Gelato.
I went for the Mango, dropping a comment about smuggling mangos from Maui to Montana when I was a child ? the conversation inevitably turned to airport security with a subtext of what it is like to be a middle-easterner right now.
Yalda jumped right in with her story about bringing a remote-controlled helicopter into the states from Dubai.
?It?s a present for my boyfriend,? she told the TSA people.
Dariush clutched his forehead, Lars roared with laughter.
?What?? Yalda asked innocently. ?It is just a toy, and I wanted to carry it on the plane so, you know, it wouldn?t get hurt.?
The man made me wait while he went to get the supervisor, Yalda answered when I asked if they let her on the plane. But finally they let me take it.
Then she talked about bringing some food along on the plane.
?Did you just say, ?this is plastic explosives??? I asked, helping myself to yet more of her ???? ? ???? (yogurt-with-cucumber)
?Oh,? Yalda said, ?when they asked if I had fruits or vegetables, I said, ?yes, of course.?
Lars and I laughed. What middle-easterner travels without fruits and vegetables?
Yalda recounted showing the TSA people her lunch and asking if they would like to try the dish. ?How to make it came to me from my grandmother,? Yalda stated, ?it is quite good.?
Dariush interrupted to add that this was when she only had a green card. The risks!
Yalda told story after story about having to wear the Hijab to school, how her sister didn?t want to wear it and got in plenty trouble.
About that line? The one between uncomfortable/awkward and interesting? ?I could see that Dariush, Yalda and especially Lily, walked a different line, one between uncomfortable and dead.