Backroads Ch. 03byAdrian Leverkuhn©
I woke in the middle of the night thinking about Mary and Jennifer, about the two of them together and how the experience of that night had been like a life-preserver thrown to a drowning man. As out of the blue as the two of them had been, as furiously out of character as my response to them had been, there was something of them that lingered in the air above my head that night. I couldn't quite get them out of my mind. Then I realized I didn't want to, not yet, anyway.
Jennie lay next to me, her hair still damp from a quick dash to the shower; she was breathing quietly, peacefully, yet somehow I knew this peace was something fundamentally uncharacteristic of her. She had engaged life on so many levels, so many I'd never know, and they'd all left their mark on her. But the man she alluded to, the man who'd somehow torn her up and tossed her aside had left deep scars. Her lovemaking with me had been tentative, she had been unsure of her every move, and after a while I sensed she had been hurt, and badly, and there had been no one around to help her put the pieces back together again. Other times I felt like everything was a game.
It was, I soon saw, like she wanted to be told what to do, told how to act to act in bed. Not that she didn't know how, or hadn't done so before; no, it was like she had been broken by a man as a horse might be broken. She'd been told how to behave, she'd been tamed, controlled, and she liked it, and just once that night I'd felt her respond to our union in a way that had truly frightened me.
I had been on top of her, her legs pulled up close to my chest, and with her eyes wide open, locked on mine, she'd put my hands around her neck. "Hurt me," she'd said, "hurt me. I deserve to be hurt." I had been stunned, shocked, couldn't go there with her, and I guess she figured out fast I wasn't wired that way; she came back from the edge and reverted instantly to the tenderness I seemed most comfortable with.
Was it all an act?
And who was acting?
There was something fundamentally unfair about this too, and not to me, but rather to her. I couldn't know what needs this earlier relationship had awakened in her, or what this other man had developed in her to meet his needs; all I knew was in that moment I felt as though I was standing at the edge of the known world, and I'd been afraid for the first time in a long, long time. Of what, or why, I had no idea. What we had experienced was satisfying, to me at least, but I knew I'd been unable to go where she wanted me to go. We'd soon grown tired, and with muscles sore we retreated to the shower.
I'd held her while hot water ran down our bodies, kissed her, then I felt the welts on her back. She'd watched me, watched to see how I'd react to this insight but I hid my face in her hair, moved my hands to her shoulders, ran into the comfortable arms of my denial. She'd not said a word; I think she understood.
I hoped she had, anyway.
I woke before she did, went down to the Wing and got some things, came back up and she was in the shower. She came out lightly, danced around the room while she dressed, then she went over to the windows and opened them, looked out on this vast alpine landscape and breathed in deeply.
"What a fantastic place!" she said. "The air here is so... pure!"
We went to breakfast, took a walk down by the water's edge then got her backpack and carried it to the Wing. I half expected her to bail out and take the little red Ford Park wagon over the highway, but she strapped on her helmet like she'd been doing it for years and hopped on her seat. After the bike warmed up we were off, the brisk mountain air hitting our faces, making our eyes water. Traffic was light, low clouds nestled in deep valleys across the lake.
Brake lights ahead, cars stopping suddenly, pulling sharply from the road. I eased off the throttle and coasted to a slow roll; a hundred yards ahead a Grizzly bear, her back all silver-matted tufts, and three cubs walked out onto the road. The mother eased out onto the road and stood up, looked my way, and suddenly I felt like I was on the menu again. After what felt like several hours the bear slumped back to the pavement and resumed her walk toward the lake, which was about fifty feet off to the left of the road; her little cubs bounded around and wrestled with each other all the while. I shut down the motor and listened to them; they sounded like puppies playing, setting out the rules of their game.
We got on our way after the bears disappeared in the wood, wound our way through deep forests and across roaring waterfalls and turquoise pools. The road began the long climb up Logan Pass; the air grew cool and thin, even my gloved hands began to feel the cold. There was no one ahead of us and though the speed limit was a little on the slow side I managed to make more than respectable progress up the narrow road. Occasionally a motor home would come lumbering down the steep grade towards us, taking up – it seemed – more than its fair share of the road, and a couple of them passed within – I felt – inches of us.
After a couple of hairpin switchbacks the road took off at a gentle incline for the long run to the summit, and this was, to me, anyway, the most interesting part of the ride. There was, you see, a little stone wall on the right side of the road. No shoulder, no safety lanes to pull off onto, just a little stone wall, perhaps a foot and half tall, and no more. I found this a little uncomfortable at first; off to the right were trees and a mountain across a broad valley, but soon the valley narrowed, the road climbed away from the trees and the safety of the valley floor.
Now our view off to the right was of the little stone wall – and air. Air as in a delightful thousand foot drop on the other side of what now most decidedly appeared to be a totally insignificant stone wall, and I could see up the valley ahead, see where this road was taking us. It looked like the road for the next ten miles was going to be just like this, only the amount of drop-off was going to increase exponentially. This of course led me to a mild case of the butterflies, but even they figured out it would safer somewhere – anywhere – else; soon all I felt was my puckered-up asshole trying to glue itself down to the brown vinyl seat.
After a few minutes of this Jennie tapped on my shoulder and asked me to pull over; there was a little pull-out ahead and I gleefully pulled off the road, slapped the kickstand down and hopped off the bike. I wanted to run across the road and hug a tree.
Jennie fished around in her pack and pulled a smart little camera out and took a couple of pictures, asked me take one of her standing atop the little stone wall (and I nearly passed out when she hopped up there), then another with her sitting on the back of the Wing. That accomplished I reluctantly got back on the Wing and pulled onto the road; now the road began to climb with a vengeance, the drop went from passably precipitous to viscerally vertiginous, and my asshole began to spasm like two monkeys with pipe wrenches were down there having fun seeing who could screw it down tightest.
A sign ahead indicated another pull-out; just ahead I could see dozens of cars and campers pulled off beside a rambling waterfall off the left side of the road, and Jennie tapped my shoulder again. I was only too happy to comply again and pulled off the road into the narrow lot. I was just stopping, unclipping my chin strap when I heard it: a blood-curdling scream, then children screaming, all from over by the waterfall. I turned, could see wild-eyed kids and panicked parents blasting from the low brush, running for the safety of cars, then a woman's body sailing through the air followed by the unmistakable roar of a large, pissed off carnivore. I slipped the clutch, dropped into first gear just as the Grizzly came ripping through the brush just ahead of us; I dropped the clutch and hit the throttle and blew past the stunned bear and didn't slow down for a mile, all thought of the chasm below completely forgotten.
Jennie was screaming and at first I thought the bear had taken a swipe at her, then I heard her screams turn to a kind of laughter; maybe just the sheer joy of being alive had overtaken her but I felt laughter was probably the least appropriate thing imaginable under the circumstances. And at just that moment, with the looming precipice still just off the right side of the road, a motor home rounded a bend just ahead, fully taking up about half my lane. I blasted the horn, flashed my high-beams, all to no avail. I could see a pale white Q-tip peeking through the steering wheel, the driver of this moving mountain had to be at least a hundred and twenty years old and probably had the visual acuity of a three-toed sloth. No matter; I had about twenty inches of useable roadway ahead, a two thousand foot drop-off pulling at me with some kind of perverted gravity, and my asshole chose that moment to go into a full and righteous spasm.
Some days life ain't fair.
It's all instinct at a time like that. Brake, keep your eyes on the road, cross your fingers and hope for the best. I was aware for a moment that the Wing was riding the line, that the tires were right on the line between asphalt and gravel, the little stone wall about a foot to the right of my boot, then in a whoosh the Winnebago was by and Jennie was laughing harder than ever – whooping it up, in fact.
There was a huge visitor center atop the pass and I pulled in, parked next to some low, stunted pines, and got off the bike; my knees were wobbly, my mouth dry. I half expected to turn around at any moment and see a cavalry charge of Grizzly bears munching through the crowd headed to and from their cars, but in truth my mind was full of images of the front end of that last Winnebago, and of a yellow motorcycle tumbling over the edge of the roadway and falling and falling to a fiery doom in the valley below. Just for grins, the sight of the woman vaulting above the trees came back, and the bear standing inches from us as we roared past on the Wing. What a fun morning!
Already there were rangers responding to the waterfall, and people in the parking lot were abuzz with the news. I walked around a moment, got my wits – and my breath – about me, then took off my helmet...
"There's bears all over this fucking mountain!" I heard a passerby, an old man, saying.
"Where? What did you say?" said a woman standing next to us, just getting out of her car.
The man turned to her: "There's at least two Grizz up there on the nature trail. Ranger just shut the trail down. Bunch of folks stranded out at the overlook. They'll have to wait 'til they move on before they can hike back here."
"Is this normal?" I asked. "I mean, they seem pretty aggressive."
The old-timer laughed. "Normal? For a Grizz? They do pretty much whatever the like around here. Lot of rain lately, lots of berries to eat, and they're protected, so no one messes with 'em."
"They're magnificent!" Jennie said. "Jim, that was the most exhilarating ten minutes of my life!"
"Yeah. Exhilarating. The very word I was searching for."
"Pardon me, sir," she continued, "but are there more up there? On that hillside?"
"Yep. Head over to the trail on the right side of the building, walk up there a ways. You'll see all the Grizz you'll ever want to see."
"Come on, Jim, let's go!"
Well, I was back on the menu again.
I think we were both daunted and saved that morning by the sheer elevation of the visitor center. There were stairs leading from the parking lot up to the main building and on to the trails beyond, steep concrete stairs as a matter of fact, and we were both huffing and puffing by the time we reached the top. We set off down the trail, itself modestly inclined, and after about five minutes of this we both sounded like old steam locomotives. We walked up to a large gathering of people, saw a ranger talking and pointing up the moraine and I could immediately see two huge animals up there walking across the flanks of a mountain not two hundred yards away.
Jennie was enthralled. I think she wanted to have one wrapped up so she could take it home with her on the airplane.
We watched the bears amble across the shale face and disappear into low scrubby pines – trees not unlike those we'd just walked through ourselves – then we opted to amble our own little butts down to the visitor center in search of something to eat or drink. This facility being run by the National Park Service there was of course nothing of the kind available, provided, of course, you didn't count the (broken) vending machine by the parking lot.
Granola bars! I still had some granola bars in one of the saddlebags!
We ate the last of them up there and I assure you nothing ever tasted so good as half-melted chocolate chip granola bars. Really. Take my word for it.
I was also beginning to think that maybe Jennie had a few loose screws upstairs.
So of course we pulled into the Many Glacier Lodge not five minutes after they stopped serving lunch. Did I mention something about life and fair?
Anyway. The drive down from the summit of the pass had been just as spectacular, if not more so, than that highly entertaining ride up. Huge alpine lakes lined the way down the valley, each new vista evolved cataclysmically from the landscape, seemed to lie in wait, ready to pounce on us unawares, exploding from around the next bend in the road in overwhelming, rapturous beauty. I'd never seen anything like this anywhere else in America; I'm sure only the high Swiss Alps, perhaps the Italian Dolomites and the Andes could compare with what we saw that morning. And bighorn sheep, too, all over the hills above us. Piles of cars clustered roadside, hundreds of people gathered with binoculars in hand, staring up at the tawny beasts. They were quite a sight. The sheep, not the gawkers.
Filled up with gas in St Mary, turned north and ran up toward the Canadian border but stopped short and turned west to head up to Many Glacier. And it was just like the movie, too. Grinnell Peak, the lake, all of it. The lodge was bigger than the McDonald lodge, more fantastic in that the huge building was so totally out of place. Here was this huge brown monstrosity, another early 20th-century masterpiece, plopped down smack dab in the middle of nowhere. Not another thing around aside from some dormitories for employees, and a campground across the lake.
And of course there were signs all over the place warning people not to feed the bears. Like what, I asked no one in particular, would you feed a Grizzly? Your firstborn son? Your pet Labrador? One of those people who come to your door trying to get you to see the light? I was intensely curious. Who but a future Darwin Award recipient would try to feed a Grizzly bear? I could heartily understand not wanting to be killed and eaten by a bear, but feed one? Surely this was some sign-maker's idea of a sick joke. No one could be that stupid.
Not so, the man at the reception desk advised. Lots of folks tried to, he said, every couple of weeks in fact. Bears came down from the mountains and looked over the cars in the parking lots just as the sun started to come up – hoping to find a window down, perhaps, or an argumentative mother-in-law. Some folks, wanting to get an early start on the road after a long vacation ventured out into the parking lots at the crack of dawn. Those that didn't get eaten, I assumed, made it back to the dining room for a hasty breakfast enjoyed for perhaps three or four hours.
"Do they ever mess around with motorcycles parked up there?" I asked, pointing at the parking lot.
The man rolled his eyes. "Do they ever! Make sure you wipe down the seats this afternoon, and don't use anything scented! And don't leave any trace of food."
I had visions of the Wing lying on its side in the parking lot tomorrow morning; in my mind's eye I saw it shredded, looking like a pile of grated cheddar cheese atop a spreading pool of oil and antifreeze. Then a Park Ranger would come up and cite me for littering, followed by an official from the EPA who would fine me for indiscriminately spilling oil in a National Park.
"Let's go get an ice cream cone," Jennie said.
"There's a snack bar downstairs. Ice cream?" She was looking at me like I had grown a third head. "You alright?"
"Fine. Peachy. Never been better."
"What is it with you and bears, anyway?"
"You seem terrified of them. I wondered why?"
"Really? The woman lifting off through the trees this morning like a space shuttle didn't alarm you? Just a wee bit? I mean, this place is crawling with bears! We came about six inches from becoming a first course on the menu. I think I'm quite justified being a little annoyed."
"It's their home, Jim. Of course there are bears here. And it's glorious!"
I saw a man coming out of the gift shop with a huge bottle of "Bear Spray"; he was as while as a Klansman's bed-sheet and looked as though he'd narrowly avoided being skewered and eaten recently.
I veered and walked over to the gift shop; Jennie followed, laughed when I picked up two canisters and holsters.
"Boy Scouts," I said. "You know. Be prepared; all that crap."
"Uh-huh. You know, they have some Astroglide over there. Can we pick some up?"
"What do we need that for?" Now I was really scared. What did she have in mind? Something with me, or a furry four legged carnivore in the parking lot. If it was pain she wanted I was rather certain a Grizzly would be more than willing to help her out.
She just winked at me and bought an industrial sized bottle of the stuff, then picked up several pairs of pantyhose and a tube of toothpaste. I paid for the stuff and walked out to the lobby. Someone screamed, of course, and I saw a commotion out front, then a wall of people running into the lobby; a doorman came in and bolted the door shut. We walked over in time to see a bear walking across a pile of luggage strewn about like an overturned litter barrel, an old man was firing off a canister of bear spray before piling into his Mercedes, then – and this is my favorite part – the bear was standing up on hind legs and licking the spray off its snout and extended front claws.
As the thoroughly cowed bear walked off I dumped my "bear repellant" in a trash can and followed Jennie as she headed off in search of Rocky Road ice cream.
We were out on a huge terrace overlooking the lake, watching a thunderstorm over the mountains behind Grinnell Peak; great cracks of thunder split the air, sheets of lightning rolled through clouds then arced down to mountaintops. We could see a wall of white rain moving our way, the sky above the mountains was black and purple and overtly menacing; kayakers on the lake were scurrying in as fast as they could paddle. They looked faintly funny as they rolled and stroked and thudded onto the rocky shore.
"I love to fuck during storms like this," Jennie said.
"Indeed. Why is that; do you like lightning with your Astroglide?"
She laughed. "Come on, let's go find the room."
"Seriously? Lightning makes you horny?"
"You've no fucking idea!"
"This I've got to see. Lead on."
We found the room up on the top floor, and when I opened the door I could see out over the lake; lightning was flashing everywhere. The room itself was tiny; the walls thin, the curtains looked like they were original issue and hadn't been cleaned since Queen Victoria blew a gasket. There was, I noted, a smallish bathroom, two towels a little larger than a tissue and a window inside the shower looking out over the lake. How interesting. A public shower. I never would have thought of that.
"Let's take a shower," Jennie said.