You jockeyed your green ’74 Chevy truck up the boulder-strewn dirt road. Your driving impressed but frightened me. In places, the furrowed track was so steep you had to take a running go at it, gunning the engine and charging over rock shards jagged enough to puncture the tires. You held onto the steering wheel, but my lap belt couldn’t keep me from pitching around the cab.
After punishing the Chevy that you called ‘Maurice’, to about 9,800 feet, you slowed at Bull Creek Pass and slid into a turnout barely wider than the pick-up.
You smiled, leaned towards me, and asked, “You okay?”
“Yeah, just queasy.”
“You don’t look queasy. You look great.”
“I feel like crap. I look like crap.”
“You don’t look like crap.”
“You haven’t really noticed, have you?”
“Aw, jeez. Come on,” your smile faded.
“I’m sorry.” I touched your hand.
Happy again, you gestured towards the mountain, and said, “Meet Ellen.”
Feeling jealous, and stupid, and tempted to make a quip about another girl, I took in a breath and kept quiet. I opened the cab door. We’d been driving for hours and my legs wobbled as I stood on the uneven, hardpan ground. I tightened the laces of my hiking boots and then rummaged around in my daypack for Saltines.
Watching me fumble, you said, “Hey, we’re burning daylight.”
I could tell from your voice that you weren’t angry. You never really got angry, just agitated
sometimes, like an animal unsure of its surroundings. I put a salty cracker into my mouth, rubbed my belly gently, and slung the light canvas daypack over my shoulder. Trying to settle my stomach, I breathed deeply and took in the scent of evergreens. My shoulders relaxed. I straightened my back.
We crossed the dirt road. Veiled in a cool, early summer mist, the outcropping of the summit—almost 1,800 feet above us—was still imperceptible. It was nine o’clock. Stunted Utah daisies and rabbit brush grew in dogged clumps among the dwarfed Engelmann spruce. Besides my deep and steady breathing, the snapping of the dried spruce twigs under our feet was the only sound I heard.
You looked jaunty in your Stetson.
Intent on reaching the top, we climbed steadily. You didn’t hesitate or look back. Nearing timberline, the lavender-colored daisies and the spruce disappeared giving way to just a few stubby subalpine firs that grew in parched pockets of soil. We came to an overlook and gazed out at the vast countryside. I was sweating and still nauseous and lifted the damp hair off the back of my neck that cooled quickly in the dry breeze. I gulped in thin air. The boulders surrounding us smelled of concrete, as a sidewalk might on a hot, sunny day.
“The last free-roaming buffalo live here, on Ellen,” you said, taking binoculars from your daypack.
For a long time, you searched for the illusive herd. Content to wait, I sat on the dusty ground and held my knees to my chest.
“Damn, there they are. I’ve only seen them once before.”
You watched a while and then extended your hand towards me. “You’ve gotta see this.”
I took your hand and you eased me to my feet. I peered through the binoculars but couldn’t see anything except countryside that went on forever. “I don’t know what I’m looking for,” I said. “What am I looking for?”
“Here, let me help you.”
You took back the glasses. “There, just below the rise at three o’clock.”
I stared into the lenses but all I could make out was a dark shape that rippled far in the distance like a dim flicker of a fish well below the surface of the water.
“You see them now?” you asked, placing your hand gently on the small of my back.
“Maybe. I do see something. I guess I was expecting more.”
“Man. They’re so wild and free.”
“I’m happy you spotted them,” I said, handing back the binoculars.
We turned around and faced the summit.
“It’s tough going for the next quarter mile. Do you need my help?” Again, you held out your hand.
I touched your fingertips and said, “Yeah, I could use it.”
Soon above timberline, the trail disappeared into a great chaotic tumble of boulders, some huge and immovable, others small enough to turn dangerously underfoot. You guided me and we climbed slowly but intently without further conversation, stopping only for water. Finally, after a long pull, sweating and panting, we reached the summit at just over 11,600 feet. Thousands of feet below, the Fremont River carved a sinuous valley from which red cliffs rose and escarpments undulated to the horizon. Distant plateaus, parched and pink, looked like new skin exposed too long to the midday sun. A sterile wind—free of insect, fragrance, or humidity—eddied and whistled around us. I crossed my arms around my body.
“Jesus,” you said. “What a view.”
You took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. And in that exhalation, I could hear the same note in your voice as sometimes afterwards, when we lay tangled together, when I imagine that you are grateful and pleased with yourself, and with me, and have no thoughts beyond the moment.
At the peak, a rocky bowl provided shelter from the wind. We sat and ate beef jerky, hard boiled eggs, and apples. I took a bite of jerky and let it soften in my mouth. I sucked at the salty meat. It tasted good. I wasn’t queasy any more.
Within this depression, a ledger—inside a metal box—was fixed by a sturdy rusted chain to an iron stake. After lunch, I tried to make myself comfortable on my stony mattress, arranged my hair fan-like around my face, and pulled my hat down over my eyes. You began your ledger entry. Only a handful of hikers made it to the summit; fewer still wrote about it. No more than dimly aware of your concentration, I dozed in the skittish sun. When you finished, you snapped the ledger shut.
We stood, stretched, and began our hike back down.
After we had descended below timberline you asked, “Need a rest?”
“Yeah,” I said, grateful to stop as my legs were beginning to feel weak and unreliable.
Before sitting down beside me, you gathered a handful of stunted daisies.
“Well?” I asked.
“Well?” you echoed, stringing the flowers into a chain. “A good climb. The buffalo … wow.”
“Is that what you wrote about up top? The buffalo?”
“Anything else?” I asked feeling silly, yet impatient.
“You don’t see a free-roaming herd every day.”
“No, but I thought you might have written about, you know, us.”
“Us? That’s a big word,” you laughed and looked at me.
“Or not so big…depending.”
Your smile faded and your gaze went back to the daisies.
After a moment, I said, “I know it was a surprise.”
“Here.” You reached over and put the daisy chain around my wrist.
“Thanks. It’s sweet.”
“I’ve been thinking. You might need better transportation.”
“Transportation?” I repeated.
“Yeah. Something more dependable than your old Honda. I have the truck. It’s all I need. You can have my Mustang. It’s almost a classic.”
“You want to give me a car?”
You had a goofy grin on your face. “Yeah. I figured you could use something.”
I sighed and stroked the delicate petals. Your brow furrowed.
“I thought you’d be happy with the car.”
I looked you straight in the face, “I do need something to rely on.”
“I’m good for it.”
“You are, aren’t you?”
“All the way.”
You turned and looked back at the mountain. The clouds now gone, Ellen stood out in perfect detail.
“Wow, what a girl. She’s something, isn’t she?” you said.
“Yes, she’s something.”
I put my hand on my stomach. The late afternoon wind made me shiver. “I’m cold.”
“We should walk. It’s still a ways.”
The sun slanted through the trees as we neared the Chevy. We climbed back into the truck, and you started driving. I fingered the daisy chain on my wrist.
“I appreciate your offer,” I said. “Of the car.”
“She’s yours if you want her.”
“Yes, I’ve decided. I want her. It. And the car.”
“This is more than just a loaner, you know. I’ll sign over the pink slip.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“We’ll make it legal.”
“And you know, if we take care of her, she will last us a long time.”
“There’s that big word again. Us.”
“Yeah.” You laughed. “Feeling better?”
“I feel fine.”
“We’re all fine,” I said, fingering the daisy chain.
Copyright © 2019 Susan Keller - All Rights Reserved.