Backroads Ch. 02byAdrian Leverkuhn©
"Is this your motorbike?" she asked. Her lilting accent was thick, almost indecipherable; I guessed Irish, maybe Scot, but I didn't really know.
I nodded as I walked up to the Wing. "Last time I checked."
"It's fantastic! Huge! I've never seen anything like it."
"Really? Are you into bikes?"
"No, not at all. Never been on one."
She continued to walk around the Wing, looking at it, for a moment, with what I took to be a form of mild astonishment. Next to the bike the woman looked almost dwarfish, tiny.
She couldn't have been more than five feet tall, yet neither was she what I'd have called petite. She left the impression, in fact, of being rather more round than anything else, but she wasn't fat, not even plump. Maybe it was her face, maybe her body, but there just weren't any hard lines or angles anywhere on her body; all was soft and -- round. She was wearing jeans and hiking boots, and an oatmeal colored sweater; a blue New York Yankees ball cap was strapped to her yellow backpack.
"So, where're you headed?" I asked. "Up to the park?"
"That's right. S'posed to be a motorbus come round in a bit."
"Lord no. Just packed light." She touched the saddle, looked at the Wing again.
"Where're you from?"
"Oh, yes, I'm off to Portland after Glacier."
"Me too." I looked at her, possibilities turned over in my head like tumblers in a safe.
"I really need to get something to eat and my bus isn't due for an hour. Man in the station said the diner across the street is pretty fair."
"Want some company? I could use a bite myself?"
She looked at me with that. "Sure. I could use some help with the menu."
We walked across the street, into a dark place that seemed to be filled with slot machines and pool tables, but there were some tables in the back, and a waitress walking by with a load of food. We made our way through the tiny casino, our eyes not yet adjusted to the smoke-filled darkness, and we groped our way to a table along the back wall. She leaned her pack against the wall, sat down and looked around, trying, I guess, to make sense of these bizarre surroundings.
"You'll excuse me," she said, "but is this place is simply the norm, or is it as strange as it seems." She looked a little uneasy. I looked around the room; my eyes could make out a bit more now. About half the machines in the casino were being played by old men, most appeared to be Native American and drunk. A couple of glassy-eyed women leaned against the bar on the far side of the room nursing tall glasses of beer and counting coins.
"You're out west now. Things are different here, different than most places in America. Still a wild independent streak in the people here."
"I was thinking it's like a time warp. Weird, you know? Like a saloon in the old west, from the movies, like, but full of Indians and neon lighting."
I laughed. "Pretty fair description, really. Lots of booze and drugs out here now, a lot of dead end roads, no where to go."
"Do they still live on reservations? The Indians?"
"Yeah, all over the place, but usually the land isn't worth a damn."
"You sound like you know a lot about it."
"Not a lot. I worked on one for a year, north of Seattle. Indian Health Service; part of my training."
"Oh, you a doctor?"
"So? Booze? Dead end?"
"Not much to talk about. It's a welfare state gone bad, cradle to grave socialism, no incentives. Most of the men are fat and diabetic by the time they hit their teens; the women usually wait until after they've had a couple of babies before gaining their third hundred pounds. A huge percentage are alcoholic, lots of drug abuse, and free health care waiting to pick them up when they fall down. They don't have any incentive to improve their lives, so most simply don't. They give up. If they weren't on a reservation they'd be homeless, or worse."
"Why? I mean, why is it allowed to continue?"
A waitress came by with menus then and we ordered a couple of Cokes while we looked it over.
"So, what's good here," I asked the waitress when she returned with the drinks.
"Chicken-fried steak and fried are good, home made. The steak sandwich is good, too. Every time the governor is in town he gets it."
"The governor? Really? Should I be impressed?"
"What's a chicken fried steak?"
"Ah, you'd better give us a minute here," I said to the waitress.
"Sure thing, honey."
"I think we'd, uh, do better here if we knew each other's name, don't you?" she said.
"Right," I said. "James, uh, Jim Winchenbach."
She leaned over the table, right hand extended.
"Jennie," she said as we shook hands.
"So, Jennie from Dublin. Chicken fried steak. A landmark of the American culinary tradition, a product of the deep south. You take an almost inedible piece of tough meat, you pound it, hopefully that makes it a little less chewy, then it's dipped in egg batter and dredged in flour, salt and pepper, then fried until a dark, crispy brown. Usually served with something euphemistically called 'cream gravy', which is an artery clogging concoction made from flour, milk, and the particulate remains of what has just been fried. If done well, Jennie from Dublin, it is outrageously good tasting and hideously bad for you. With home made French fries it is beyond good."
"And a steak sandwich?"
"Out here? Usually a small strip steak served on a long roll. Maybe some beef juice or brown gravy. Pretty plain."
"So you're having the fried steak."
"Better make it two, then."
"Absolutely." I caught the waitress's eye and she came over and I ordered.
"So, what's it like? Riding that yellow beast?"
"Fun, I guess. I rode a smaller bike years ago, well, decades ago, and caught the bug to do it again a couple of days ago."
"Yeah, like last Wednesday."
"Can't explain it, really, I just wanted to ride again. I don't know why. Guess I wanted to see a lot of this country while I still can. Once you hit fifty it seems like the slide really picks up speed, you know. Ten years flies by in a blink, and ten years from now I might not be up to it."
"I know what you mean."
"What about you? Why are you here?"
She laughed. "Why indeed? I've never been to America, always wanted to see the west. Your Amtrak has been advertising a lot, especially on the web, and I bought a pass that lets me ride anywhere I want for a month. I flew to Boston about ten days ago, went to New York and Washington, then over to Chicago. I've been to Lexington and Concord, the Statue of Liberty, and the Lincoln Memorial. I wanted to see Glacier National Park because of that movie, What Dreams May Come. You remember? With Robin Williams? That lake scene in the mountains in the beginning? It was filmed at Grinnell Lake, at the Many Glacier Lodge, and ever since I saw the film I've wanted to see it."
"I didn't know that. Pretty film, though. Weird, but pretty."
"Yes, well, next I want to go see San Francisco and Yosemite, maybe LA, then the Grand Canyon. And I want to see what's left of New Orleans. Then I'll have to hurry back to Boston to catch my flight home."
"The Grand Tour. Well, that should be fun. Hell, you've already seem more of America than most people here ever do."
"Yes, isn't that funny. A lot of Americans are probably more familiar with France or Italy than their own country. Air travel, I suppose, changed everything."
"Wonder what'll happen when that becomes too expensive. You know, with oil prices and all?"
"The world will change again, don't you think? Maybe this will be regarded as a golden age some time in the near future. Hard to imagine, though."
"So, what do you do back in Ireland?"
"Really? Such as?"
"I, uh, well, I'm an MP, a member of Parliament, in the Seanad, or what you would call the Senate."
"You're a senator, with a backpack, taking a train ride across America?"
"You just took off. To go take a train across America?
"Well actually, don't tell anyone, but I'm, oh, what do you call it?"
"That's it!" she almost shouted. "I've been trying to remember that word for days!"
"And I just ordered you a chicken fried steak. Oh my and Good Golly Miss Molly."
"Why? What on earth ... why are you making such a face?"
"You'll be ruined for life, that's why. You'll never want to go back home after this. You'll want to move to Mississippi and have children with names like Billy-Bob and Alice-Ann. You'll develop an attraction to strange music and an uncontrollable compulsion to drive a pickup truck to the Dairy Queen for a Dilly Bar. All this awaits you after just one chicken fried steak."
She laughed. "Do you s'pose they have corned beef and cabbage, then?"
"Too late, Senator. Here it comes. Say goodbye to life as you knew it."
The waitress put the platters down on the table, then rushed off to refill our Cokes; I looked across the table at Jennie from Dublin, at her eyes. They were as big around as saucers; she was shocked beyond speech. She was staring at the plate in front of her, at a pile of golden brown French fried potatoes four inches high and ten around, at a steak maybe twice that size, every last bit covered with thick white cream gravy, and I saw a look of complete shock on her face.
"Is all this is for me?"
"That's a fact," I said, grinning.
"You could feed a family of four..." she seemed dismayed. "I mean, why? Why so much? How many calories must such a meal contain?"
"About ten million or so. That would be a fair guess, anyway."
"Dear God. I feel full and I haven't taken a bite."
"That's the grease. Even the odor is fattening."
"I have no doubt..."
"Well? You gonna try it or make me eat 'em both.?"
"Both? You couldn't!"
"You're right, so help me out here. You'll never know if you don't jump in with both feet."
She did, and she liked it too. I managed a little more than half before crying 'uncle'; she piled through a bit less and seemed in genuine distress when she gave up. The waitress came up near the end and asked if either of us wanted desert and I thought Jennie was going to explode. She pushed back from the table, her face red, her expression pained.
"I can't believe anyone would voluntarily do this to themselves. Oh, God."
"Well, I can see Mississippi won't be gaining a new resident this week."
"Indeed, no. No. Oh my God, I can't believe I ate all that."
"Now you know why Alka-Seltzer was invented here."
"What? Does it help?"
"See the cash-register over there? Little blue foil packets?"
"Would you, please, get me some? Oh, Saint's alive, make it stop!"
I walked over to the counter, paid the bill and got a couple of packets and two glasses of chilled water, then walked back to the table.
"Plop-plop, fizz-fizz, oh what a relief it is..." I sang as I dropped the tabs into the water.
"What? There are special incantations one need chant while doing this?"
"What? You didn't know? Of course, foolish woman! Sing! Sing or the cramping will never go away!"
She laughed again, then caught her sides and moaned. I handed her a glass and we clinked them together.
"It's very important to drink this down in one fell swoop," I told her.
"Why?" She looked suspicious now, wary.
"Because it tastes so foul you'll never take a second." I raised mine and tossed it down; she looked uncertainly at me, then shook her head and tossed hers down too. We both shivered about the same time. "That's the Alka-Seltzer rumble. We may just survive."
"I think next time I'll try the steak sandwich."
"Wait 'till you try Mexican food in LA. Geesh! They call it the Aztec two-step, and don't ask. You'll just have to experience it for yourself."
I left a tip and we walked out into the bright afternoon sun, shielded our eyes while they adjusted, and we both saw her bus pulling away from the station across the street at about the same time. We walked over to the Wing, stood silently and watched as the bus drove down the street, and she kind of laughed when it turned from sight.
"Oh my," Jennie said. She laughed again, but more quietly now, the forlorn laughter that accompanies severe abdominal cramps and blowing a dealine. "I'm not so sure I'd have enjoyed being locked in a bus for hours right now. Perhaps I should go find a room for the night."
"Don't you have a reservation at Many Glacier?"
"Oh, yes, well actually at the Lake McDonald Lodge tonight, Many Glacier tomorrow."
"Well, let's strap your pack on back and get going." I fired up the GPS and started looking at the route.
"Come on, there's a motorcycle shop down the street. Let's get you a helmet and go."
I could see the indecision on her face, indecision that bordered on fear of the unknown coupled with a healthy, newfound respect for chicken fried steak, but she looked down the street toward the cycle shop, then at the Wing.
"Alright, let's! I'm game if you are!"
I got her pack bungeed down and helped her climb up, then paddled the bike back and we rode off down the street. As these things so often go, we even found a brown helmet that was a near match to mine. Soon we were headed northeast from town on Highway 2 and off towards West Glacier. Before long we passed the bus she would have been on and waved as we whizzed by. A half hour later we turned off onto the Going To The Sun highway and pulled up to the park gate. A ranger manned a little brown shack; she looked at us as we drove up.
"Just the two of you?" the Ranger said.
"You're kidding, right?" I shot back, and I heard Jennie suppress a chuckle. "Well, it's no use; you caught us. We're trying to smuggle three kids in; they're in the saddlebags."
The Ranger smiled. "Twenty five dollars, sir."
"Uh, wait a minute Jim; the embassy gave me something." I felt Jennie behind me fumbling for something in her jacket, and after a moment she handed a letter over to the Ranger. The girl read it, her eyes went wide for a moment, then she reached for her phone and made a call. I couldn't hear what the girl said but she came out a moment later and stuck a decal on the windscreen and went around back and stuck one there too. She handed the letter back to Jennie along with some park materials and bid us a good afternoon.
"What was that all about?"
"Just something from the embassy. Kind of a 'be nice to her or else' letter, or so I was told."
"Kind of handy. Think you could get me one of those?"
She laughed again, and as soon as she had all her stuff put away we took off down the road. The lake itself was impossibly long and narrow, seemed to stretch off deep into mountains north of us, and already shadows were growing long and dark, golden afternoon light dappled the road, filled the air with amber haze. The traffic in both directions grew heavy around scenic overviews and waterfalls, but we easily skirted these on the Wing. A few more miles and I saw signs for the lodge and made the left turn onto the driveway. I could just see the lodge through trees ahead; it looked like one of those alpine mountain lodges that seemed so popular in the 1930s -- the ground floor white painted stone and the upper floors dark brown timbers. I pulled up front into a lot and helped her off the Wing, got her pack off the rack and walked with her into the lobby.
I have a weakness for this old architecture, the vaulting atriums made from hewn logs, Mission Style lamps casting pools of gold light over Stickley furniture. It all feels very western and comfortable, like an old pair of boots, but the Park Service had outdone themselves out west. Timberline in Oregon, the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone -- they are preserved miracles of eclectic design, and so was this place.
Jennie went up to the desk and checked in; everything was ready for her and the guy behind the desk looked at me?
"You don't happen to have another room, do you?"
He smiled. "Sir, we're generally booked up a year in advance, more for popular holidays."
"I see. Any campgrounds around?"
"Pretty much the same applies, sir, until you leave the park." We walked out into the lobby, sat down under a huge mounted elks head.
"Ah. Well, sounds like back to Whitefish for me tonight."
"I'm sorry." Jennie looked around the room as if she was expecting to see someone. "Listen, would you stay here for a minute. I just want to go put this backpack up in my room."
She walked over to the reception desk, talked to the kid behind the counter again and he nodded his head, smiled. She made her way to a stairway and began the climb up. I went to the gift shop and picked up a topo-map of the park and a book about geologic formations along the highway, then wandered over to the restaurant, looked at the menu, and then back to the lobby. She came down a few minutes later.
"There's a boat taking a sunset cruise on the lake in a few minutes," she began, "and I've got reservations for the two of us in the dining room about ten." She held out her hand, waiting for me to take it. "Let's go see a sunset, shall we?"
I stood, looked at my watch, noticed Jennie looking at me, judging me, wondering what I'd do next.
"Sounds like a plan," I said as I took her hand. We walked through the lobby and down to the lake to a little ramp that led to a small steamer. There were a few others gathered round, waiting to board, but the whole operation seemed low-key, off the beaten path. Another kid came down and boarded us, and a few minutes later the boat took off across the mirror smooth lake.
A little v-shaped wave extended behind us and faded away toward the rocky shore; it drifted into ever wider wavelets as it spread. The sky grew darker, a soft light gathered in the air, distant mountains hovered over blue haze.
"So, what's an Irish MP doing playing hooky in Glacier National Park?"
Jennie looked away, looked out over the lake. "Running away, I guess."
Silence gathered in the air, too.
"Shall we talk about something else, Jim?" She was looking at me now, not pleading, and definitely not asking.
"Think that kid's selling beer up front. Want one?"
"That would be lovely." I came back with a couple of microbrews and handed her one.
"So, you came to see Grinnell Lake?"
"Yes, that's right. When I saw that movie, the Robin Williams thing, I thought the scene on the lake was in Switzerland, they said they were there, anyway. Lake Como or something. But then I read they filmed that part here, in the park, and ever since I wanted to see it. Something about it called out to me, you know."
"Is it the park, the scenery that attracts you, or something in the movie?"
"Both, I suspect." She looked out at the lake, and our motion through the air produced a little breeze. Her short hair lifted and fluttered. I thought she looked cute. Not beautiful, not gorgeous, but cute. Her eyes were startlingly clear and green, her skin white but landscaped with an impossible forest of pale freckles under her eyes and across her nose.
"How did you like the ride, uh, up here this afternoon?"
"It was magic. Really, Jim, I had no idea. That last bit, the lake off to the side, the sunlight falling through the trees... it was like a million strobe lights firing through the haze. Oh, and that golden haze. I don't think I shall ever forget that so long as I live. I thank you."
"Thank me? For what?"
She leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. "For giving me that experience. I never expected that in a million years."
I think I was blushing; I'm pretty sure because my face was burning, but it was getting too dark out for anyone else to see. I turned to look at her, at her little round face. She was about a foot shorter than I but there was something almost athletic about her stance, something firm, resolute, or perhaps enduring was the word that drifted through my mind.