Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Book 1 of the Dawnwalker Cycle
The clear air -- that was what got to Randy the most.
He hadn't realized it at first, since it had come on gradually, but somewhere in New Mexico he noticed a mountain far in the distance. When he'd driven for another hour, it was only perceptibly closer, lying low and green against the blue sky, dotted with puffy white clouds, offsetting the scrubby brown desert he was driving through. Since Tucumcari, he'd been on the route of the fabled, long gone Route 66, and there were still traces of it here and there along the truck-dotted Interstate. "Get your kicks on Route 66" was all he could remember of the song, but somehow he felt like he was in touch with a vibrant remnant of the past, and he wished Nicole were along to share it.
He'd last seen Nicole at breakfast at the Spearfish Lake Cafe on Thursday morning. They'd had a hectic evening finding gear and packing it, but Randy had most of what was needed; Nicole was able to loan him a couple of items that had been up the trail with her. What an epilogue to that journey they'd have! They'd eaten breakfast and mostly talked about what to put in the new house. Randy figured that talking furniture and carpets and draperies meant that this was really serious, and in the foreseeable future she'd be living there with him. Nicole had seemed both happy and sad to see him go.
He'd promised to call her from Flagstaff, both before he got on the river and after he got off, then they'd gone outside, had a long goodbye kiss, and he'd driven off with mixed feelings of his own. It would only be three weeks and change -- not as long as she had been gone on some of her even-shorter trips, but it would be the last one, a coda of his own to trips for both of them.
In the midst of the confusion on Wednesday afternoon, he'd found time to get the trusty Rand McNally from the Dakota, and had spent some time working out the route and the miles. It turned out to be a little more than his eyeball projection, but only a couple hundred miles more if he took two-lane US-54 across western Kansas and part of Texas to Tucumcari.
The west didn't come at him all at once, but gradually; in Iowa, he noticed the trees were a lot different, more sparse. As he went on they got scrubbier, and in western Kansas, they became a rarity. There was a huge open sky, prairie and wheat fields as far as the eye could see, rolling far off into the distance. Then, even that turned to sagebrush desert, occasionally dotted with cattle. The distances were huge; the place was empty except for the thread of Interstate highway that was almost a bridge of civilization across a vast, empty, dry wilderness. The route wound mostly through desert, although mountains began to be more a feature of the landscape once he was in New Mexico. He sat in the truck and drove, head occasionally swiveling to take in sights strange to a North-Country boy.
And, mostly what he did do was drive, for three full days. Randy had no problem with driving for hours on end; he had done it often enough and liked doing it. He started early and kept moving, only making pit stops when the gas gauge started to get low, then stopped late and found a motel. If it had a pool, he'd take a swim, go to bed early, and get up early the next morning to do it all over again.
His route took him right through Kansas City. He knew Myleigh was there somewhere, but he was tight for time on this leg of the trip. He thought maybe he'd stop and try to find her on the way back -- she couldn't be hard to find on a small college campus.
It was late in the afternoon on his third day of driving when he finally pulled into Flagstaff. It was right up there in elevation, and the air was even clearer and brighter than elsewhere. It was up high enough that it was out of the desert, and the mountainside behind the town was dotted with the green of pines. It was a nice town; he was impressed, after some of the nondescript prairie and desert towns he'd passed by on his way. A person could like living here, he thought.
He drove right to the Canyon Tours office, but no one was around; it was evening, after all. He'd thought there might be some hope of tracking down Crystal, but she was nowhere to be found. He found a place for dinner, then drove back out to the Interstate, found a motel with a pool, went for a swim, then called Nicole. She was happy to hear from him, and he spent a few minutes telling her about his trip. She said she missed him and was waiting for him to come back. She'd started getting ahead of the lesson plans a little, and said she thought she might drive down to Camden and look at furniture some, maybe next weekend, if she got far enough ahead.
Maybe he shouldn't have put off the phone call until last, since it was hard to get to sleep, and he woke up a little later than he had the last couple of days, but still with plenty of time. He found a place to have breakfast, and then drove back over to the Canyon Tours office.
The place was open now, and the girl behind the desk -- a young blonde who could barely have been out of high school was sitting there, chewing on bubble gum, just like he'd imagined. He introduced himself, and she told him to park around back, where they were starting to get loaded for the trip. He found a place to park along the back fence, shut off the Dakota, and got out.
"By God, it is you!" Crystal's voice sounded in his ears. He looked around, and saw her standing by a trailer stacked high with rubber rafts, looking tan and fit and wearing cutoffs, a T-shirt and a helluva big grin as she started toward him. "I saw the name Randy Clark on the manifest, and thought, 'Naw, it couldn't be.'"
"Afraid it is," he said, walking quickly toward her. God, she looked good.
"I didn't think you were going to be able to make it," she smiled, throwing a big hug around him.
"Well, I didn't either, till noon Wednesday. Then everything happened at once. I figured I'd better get out of there before Brent changed his mind."
"How's Nicole? Did she get up Katahdin OK?"
"She's just as pretty as ever. She and Jackpine finished last Friday. I picked 'em up Saturday, and we raced back to Spearfish Lake so she could start teaching Monday."
"Full time? In Spearfish Lake? Randy, that's wonderful!"
"I think so, too," he said. "They start on the house tomorrow, and we've been talking furniture."
"Hey, look," she said, "I want to hear all about this, but I've got a shitload to do in the next hour or so. But, we'll have plenty of time for the dirty details."
"Anything I can do to help?"
"Sure, we're a little short of hands this trip. Not even one swamper. Throw your stuff on the crew bus there, and I'll get you going."
The next hour was busy; there were drybags and coolers of food being packed, along with other gear. Randy didn't have time to think about it, but it seemed like Crystal was in charge of the chaos. Just before eleven everything seemed to be done, and they piled on the crew bus along with several other people whose faces he'd come to recognize, but whose names he didn't know yet. One of them seemed familiar, but he'd been too busy to think about it.
Randy found a seat in the back of the bus, and Crystal sat down next to him. "I'm always glad to have packing morning over with," she said. "It's really a hassle, and you can't leave anything behind, or else you're going to have to do without it. Every trip, I think about the story Mike told about Josh leaving the dogsleds behind." She stood up and looked around, obviously counting noses. "OK, I think we got everybody," she said loud enough for the whole bus to hear. "Everybody got everything?" There was a moment of silence, and she continued, "OK, Jeff, head 'em up and move 'em out."
As she sat back down, and the bus started to move, Randy was a little puzzled. "Crystal, you act like you're running this show," he observed.
"I am," she grinned. "I'm the trip leader."
"Trip leader? This is news!"
She let out a big sigh. "Randy, a hell of a lot has happened this summer. I know I haven't told you much in my cards, but I didn't want it getting back to Mom. I didn't want her to slip up around Dad and get in trouble, and I figured it was the safest way. I know you, Myleigh, and her talk back and forth a lot. I've been trip leader since the middle of June. This is the fourth one I've led. Well, actually, three and a half."
She sounded troubled by the statement. "What happened?" he asked casually.
"Oh, shit, long story," she told him. "You remember me telling you about Louise, Al's wife, back last winter?"
"The gal you were named after, has run the Canyon for years?"
"Yeah," she said glumly. "She was feeling sort of lousy when we left with a trip back the first part of June. Al was leading. We got down to Phantom, and there's this message for Al -- Louise was in the hospital, they didn't think she was going to make it. Al got off the phone, said, 'Crystal, get 'em down safely,' and started up Bright Angel for the rim, and all of a sudden I was the trip leader. We got down to Diamond Creek OK, and we found out Louise was dead; the funeral was the next day. Cancer, and it went through her like a shot." She looked very sad, almost tearful. "Randy, we'd become pretty good friends, even though I didn't have much time to get to know her. She had so much she could have taught me. Al was just totaled. I mean, they were that close, been running this Canyon forever. Louise had been supposed to take the next trip, that was the next Sunday, and there was no way Al could even think about that or anything else. The rest of us sorta pulled together, and I took that trip, too, and it worked out OK. When we got back, Al was feeling a little better, not much, and told me I'm now a regular trip leader. What a piss of a way for it to happen, though."
"Al's the guy in the photo you sent me, right?"
"Yeah," she said. "That was taken on the same trip when Louise died. The film kicked around in my drybag for a couple trips before I got it developed."
"Hope it's OK, but I sent those photos on to your mom."
"It's OK," she said. "She deserves to know something. Anyway, Al hasn't run since. He was on this trip and off it for weeks, Michelle told me, but he's back in the truck and he better go or else we're going to be short a boatman."
"And you're still leading?"
"Yeah, he doesn't want to put up with the hassles," she said. "I think we've convinced him that he needs to get back down into the Canyon, maybe it'll heal him a little. God, I hope so. He's the neatest guy, Randy. What a bitch of a thing to have to happen to him."
"Yeah," he said, hunting for words. "I'd have liked to have met her."
"It's a damn shame," she said. "Guess I'd better explain the other part. See, we're organized into three teams. The teams all are running a week apart, and we can't deal with each other much, so once you're on a team you pretty much stay on it for the season. I was originally supposed to be on Team 2, but when I got here this spring, the staffing was all screwed up. Several boatmen bombed on Al and Louise over the winter, a trip leader quit, and like that. At the last minute, they switched everything around, and concentrated the more experienced people onto Teams 1 and 2. The plan was that I'd run with Al and Louise changing off as trip leader all summer, and then take over as a trip leader next year, so he pulled the greener people onto Team 3, and we were still short of hands. You can always find some yahoo of a boatman who's qualified, but is more interested in having a good time than in a safe trip. That's not good for business. Anyway, Al came to me and asked if I knew of any people he might turn into boatmen. I could only think of four people. Noah was out . . ."
"Noah, from Ocoee Adventures?"
"Yeah," she smiled. "He's youth pastor of Glen Hill Road First Baptist Church down outside Chattanooga. Remember them, Randy?"
"That time on the Ocoee, right?"
"Yeah," she grinned. "It may have had something to do with it, too. Anyway, I knew I'd never get you out of your damn construction company . . ."
"You'd make a helluva boatman with a little raft experience," she snickered. "We may get a chance to find out, too. I tried for days to track Gary down, but I couldn't."
"Not likely," he said. "He and Ruth got married last spring. They're in LA, the last I heard."
"Ruth? Who's she?"
"Oh, yeah, guess you wouldn't know her. She's the gal Nanci's boyfriend threw out of her room. She wound up with Gary's shoulder to cry on, and he dried her tears. She and Gary carried on the surfer legend at NMU for a while. Turns out she's a California surfer gal, and she's better than just about anybody I ever saw except Giselle."
"You mean something good came out of that? I'll be damned!" She grinned and shook her head, then stood up for a second and yelled, "Yo, Scoot! Come back here a minute." She turned back to Randy and said, "That left one possibility. I called her up, told her to get her ass out from behind that counter at NOC and get on some real water."
"Yeah, what is it, Crystal?" Randy looked up, and all of a sudden a familiar face snapped into recognition. Her hair was shorter now, and bleached blonde from the desert sun, but sure enough, it was Scooter, the woman who Crystal had started up the Appalachian Trail with two-and-a-half years before.
"Scooter!" he smiled. "What a sight for sore eyes!"
"Randy, you're looking good," she said.
"Crystal was just telling me how she made an honest woman out of you."
"Aw, I was bored shitless with sitting around NOC and running the damn Nanty," she laughed. "I never even thought of this damn ditch till Crystal called, but I got here as fast as Greyhound could carry me. Best move I ever made, especially since I can't hike much, anymore."
"Knees still bothering you, huh?"
"Yeah, I can go a few miles and climb pretty good, but I just can't take it all day, day after day."
"Tell you what, Randy," Crystal grinned, "It was the best move I ever made, too. See, while Scooter and I are really pretty shy on Canyon experience, either one of us has more raft and outdoor experience than the rest of the yahoos on this crew combined, or the other crews, pretty much, for that matter. And, we're both OLTA, of course, and that counts for more here than I ever dreamed of. Between us, we've gotten through the summer. She got bumped up to boatman when I got bumped up to trip leader, and now she's the trainee trip leader for next year. There's still a hell of a lot for us to learn. We can handle the rafting and tripping part OK, but we're both pretty weak on interpreting the local color and history of the Canyon for the passengers."
"Yeah," Scooter grinned. "Me, I couldn't tell a Kaibab limestone from a Tapeats sandstone if either one of them bit me on the ass. But, we fake it pretty good. Glad you're going with us, Randy. Crystal has told me a lot about you over the years. We'll have some good times."
"I hope so," Randy grinned.
"That all you want?" Scooter asked.
"Yeah, except I'm sure Randy's going to want to pass on some of Nicole's AT stories."
Scooter got a big smile on her face. "Did she make it?" she asked.
"Finished last week," Randy grinned. "Got done just in time to turn into a history teacher."
"That's neat," Scooter said. "I wanna hear more about that. Catch ya on the river." She headed back to her seat.
Crystal shook her head. "Like I said, she saved my ass. I could never have handled this summer without her. At least there's one other OLTA outdoor bum around. So, what's the deal with Nicole, anyway? You two closer than ever?"
"Yeah," Randy nodded. "Crystal, we've got to talk about that, but not right now. Alone, sometime."
"Not really, just something we need to talk about," Randy parried. He really didn't want to do it right at this moment. Except for the sad part about Louise, this was the Crystal he liked to remember -- exuberant, excited, up for it. He hadn't seen much of that the last few years; even last winter, she'd been pretty reserved. Maybe she really was a river person -- she sure seemed full of life today.
"We'll get plenty of chances on the river," she promised. "We'll find some time for just you and me. You heard anything from Myleigh?"
"Not much," he said. "Saw her back in May. She called up and wanted me to haul all her books and stuff down to Athens, so of course, I did. Olivia had graduated and left, with Cynthia I guess, so we stacked them all in her room. You could barely turn around in there. I guess Ron was going to haul them to KC for her. I came through there on the way out, but I didn't have time to stop and look her up."
"You didn't hear what happened with her and Ron, then?"
"No, I haven't."
"They broke up," Crystal announced. "I got a letter from her when I got off the last trip. Same problem as you had. He didn't want to leave Franklin, and she wouldn't stay. I guess it was hard as hell for her."
"God, that's a damn shame," he said. "She really had it bad for him. I wish now I'd stopped to see her. Maybe on the way back. I think I may take a couple extra days and go back the long way."
"It'd be good if you did," Crystal said. "She didn't sound too happy, and I won't be able to see her till around Thanksgiving. I think she needs to see a friend. So, anyway, how in hell did you manage to get away from Clark Construction?"
Randy told the story of how that had worked, plus some other stories, and she told a few of her own as they rode in the back of the bus out to Lee's Ferry. It was a fairly long ride, close to three hours on roads that weren't very good pavement. They fairly quickly got out of the pine country around Flagstaff, and were soon back in a brushwood desert, running much of the way through a valley with steep red walls, and lots of talus slopes laying at the bottom. Here and there were tiny villages -- they were going through the Navajo reservation before long -- and in several places along the road there were collections of rude souvenir stands, mostly empty. It seemed a long, long way from Spearfish Lake. Eventually, they turned off the main road and descended to Navajo Bridge -- actually, a pair of bridges, now, one used only as a footbridge. As they passed over the bridge, they could see the waters of the Colorado below, far down at the bottom of a canyon with nearly vertical sides. If he'd been by himself, he'd have stopped and stared, but he realized that everyone on the bus but him had done it before, and they went on past without stopping. Shortly afterward, they turned off onto a side road, and descended, coming out at Lee's Ferry, the last place to put rafts in before reaching the Grand Canyon. The place was named for a Mormon who had once run a rowboat ferry across the river -- there was a lot more story than that, Crystal told him, maybe she'd have the time to tell it later.
"Randy, we got a lot of work to do," she said as the bus pulled to a stop. "Like I said back at Flagstaff, you're a customer, you don't have to help, but I'll appreciate it if you pitch in."
"You know I will, Crystal." he smiled. "Guess I'm back to being a beast of burden."
"We call them swampers," she laughed. "But it's the same thing."