Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
April 17, 1999
Over the last couple days, Scooter had spent a lot of time staring out the windows of several different Greyhound buses. In spite of all her outdoor experience over the years, she was pretty much an East Coaster. Except for her one trip to OLTA in Idaho, and that was farther north, she'd never even been very far west of the Appalachians, so from Knoxville west it was all new country to her.
She spent a lot of the trip pinching herself to make sure she wasn't dreaming. She'd been half in shock when she put the phone down and hiked over to the office to tell Leon that she was out of there. She told him she hated to do it with no notice, but even before she could get her apology out, he broke in, "When something like this comes by, you've got to grab it. I understand, Rhonda. Opportunity knocks but once. Now what can I do to help you get out of here?"
The next few hours had been a blur, of gathering up her few belongings, packing up stuff she thought she might need, throwing out or giving away more than half of the few things she'd managed to accumulate in the years she'd been at NOC. Leon offered to keep her bike and a few things she might want someday, just in case. By the time the light was fading, virtually everything she owned was packed in her backpack, a daypack, and a big, battered canvas suitcase that Leon had given her from his attic. Then, to top it off, Leon and his wife had driven her into the bus station in Knoxville. All he asked was that she let him know how everything worked out, and he told her if it didn't work out there would still be a place for her at NOC. Of course, she promised to keep in touch.
In spite of the discussion with Crystal -- and a brief talk with Al to confirm that Crystal wasn't bullshitting her -- this was hard to believe. She'd been praying for a ticket out of NOC. This was apparently it. If this worked out, great. If it didn't, she had pretty well resolved that whatever happened she wouldn't be going back there; this was the chance to break away.
The bus left Knoxville very late. It was still in Tennessee when dawn rose, and halfway across Arkansas when the sun set thanks to a layover in an extremely scary terminal in Memphis. When it rose again, after a layover of several hours and a change of buses in Oklahoma City, she was in a different world, one she'd read about and seen pictures of, but had never quite understood until she saw it. The Great Plains of Oklahoma and Texas were barren and empty, miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. Even from the window of the bus, she could sense the big dome of open sky overhead, the far horizon without much between it and her. There were only occasional trees; to someone like her, raised in the eastern forests, that seemed strange, not right. She'd seen pictures of the Grand Canyon, of course, but somehow suspected that the reality would be considerably different.
By the time the sun set that day they were getting into New Mexico, and there were hints of distant mountains off in the west and north. There was another long layover in Albuquerque, an overnight she spent in the bus station, sleeping in a not very comfortable chair; after the sun rose, she stepped outside once or twice for a breath of fresh air, and could see mountains in the distance. With a practiced eye, she could see that they were not close, even though they towered above her. She thought of herself as a mountain girl; after all, Roanoke is in the Appalachian foothills. The last several years she'd spent in the Nantahalas and the Smokies, and had hiked through the Whites in New Hampshire and climbed Mt. Katahdin in Maine, at the end of her AT hike six years ago -- but that nameless mountain to the east seemed bigger than Katahdin! And it was only a warm-up of what was to come. This desert southwest was going to seem a strange and different place, and she began to wonder a little about just how different it could be and whether she could handle it.
The next bus heading west didn't get going until midmorning. By now, Scooter had a pretty good idea of when she could expect to be in Flagstaff, so she called Canyon Tours to ask them to get a message to Crystal of when she would be arriving. The woman on the phone said that Crystal was out back and pretty busy, but that she'd get the message to her. As the day faded, Scooter sat on the bus again, watching distant mountains get slowly closer as the light faded in a spectacular sunset. We are a long way from North Carolina, she thought.
Finally, not long after dark, the bus pulled into the station in Flagstaff. For better or worse, she was here, and soon she'd be finding out if this was real, or what. She was relieved indeed to see Crystal standing in front of the station as the bus pulled in, the first time she'd seen her in over two years. A few minutes later, she was off the bus, and in the arms of her old friend.
Crystal was a good four inches taller than she was, and an even more physical person, a couple years younger, rather plain-looking, although rugged. She was broad through the shoulders, and a glance at her bare arms showed that she was still heavily muscled. She had on cutoffs and a green and white T-shirt with a cartoon of a fat little guy in red-checked hunting clothes, on a surfboard, against a background of the outline of Lake Superior. The T-shirt was lettered, "Northern Michigan University Surfing . . . Superior Waves". This wasn't the first time Scooter had seen the T-shirt. She'd thought it was just a joke until she'd met Crystal's boyfriend Randy, and later her college roomie Myleigh, who explained in prissy language, "Yes, we are among a small group who are considered either demigods or certifiable lunatics for daring to surf the ice-water mansions of Gitchee Gumee." The stories Crystal told of winter storm surfing on Lake Superior weren't just stories at all! Scooter was a mildly accomplished skier and snowboarder, even for a Southeasterner, but she was a rafter who knew what cold water was all about and even the thought chilled her.
"By God, Scooter, what a sight for sore eyes," Crystal laughed, "After the winter I've had, especially. God, it's going to be good to be out on a river with you again."
"Not as great as it's going to be for me to be with you," Scooter said honestly. "Tough winter?"
"Interesting in its way, but colder than the north end of a southbound husky," Crystal laughed. "I saw a lot of those this winter. I'll tell you about it later; let's get your stuff."
Scooter was the only person from the bus getting off in Flagstaff, and by now the driver was rummaging around in the luggage compartment. It took a couple minutes for the backpack, the daypack, and the suitcase to be offloaded, and once again Scooter was just a little sad to realize that this was all she owned in the world, except for a few things in Leon's basement that she might not see again. Not a hell of a lot to show for years of being an outdoor bum. She grabbed the packs while Crystal took the suitcase, and they headed outside toward a beat-up and rusty white full-size Dodge sitting at the curb. "Before we get to talking about the old days and what this is all about, here's what's coming down," Crystal said. "We have to get on the bus for Lee's about ten tomorrow; that's a little earlier than we'd normally leave, but it's the first rig of the season for our crew, so it'll probably take a little longer. That means that you're going to have to have what gear you need for the river repacked tonight. I brought a couple drybags; I didn't know if you have any. I got us a motel room for tonight; I figure your ass can take a night in a decent bed after all that time on a bus. We can run by the Burro and get a beer or two, but if we've got to fart with your gear we probably shouldn't have more than that."
"I could stand a beer or two," Scooter agreed as Crystal popped open the trunk of the Dodge. "But yeah, I can take a night in a decent bed. You don't have an apartment or something?"
"No, I just live out of the trunk," Crystal said as she swung the suitcase into it. "Hell, we only spend three nights in town every three weeks until the middle of November, there's no point in renting something permanently. Sometimes I get a motel room, sometimes I just unroll the sleeping bag in the half-ass little bunkhouse in the barn behind the office. You can leave the stuff you don't need on the river in the car here."
"Makes sense when you look at it that way," Scooter agreed as she loaded the packs in beside the suitcase. "I mean, if you don't mind me borrowing some space from your trunk."
"No, hell no, fine with me," Crystal said. "Looks like we're going to be on the same crew all summer, but if we get shuffled around I'll give you a key to this thing so you'll have some way to get around on break. There's a possibility that we could get shuffled, the crew situation is a little goofy right now, which is how come you're here."
"It was the last goddamn thing I expected in my life," Scooter said as Crystal slammed the trunk. "I'd been looking at The Colorado River in Grand Canyon when you called and thinking that I'd never have a chance to work here because I didn't know anyone. Right at that instant you called. It's a wonder I didn't shit my panties."
"Worked out then," Crystal laughed as they headed for the car doors and got in. "Good deal, too, I think you'll work out well here, you're a natural. See, what happened was that when we wrapped last fall I was supposed to be on Team 2 with Dave and Mary Wells; there's a gal on that crew, Michelle, who got to be a pretty good friend last fall, and I was looking forward to running with her. She's something else."
Crystal started the car and backed out of the parking space as she continued the story. "So, I got out here a little over a week ago, expecting to leave last Sunday, to find out that a trip leader had quit, a couple boatmen had quit, and the schedule was all fucked up. To make a long story short, I only qualified as a boatman last fall, so what Al and Louise decided to do was to concentrate the less experienced people on Team 3, and they're going to change off leading it. I've got more experience as a boatman than the rest of the team, but not as much on this river, so Al and Louise figure I need some seasoning. Which is fine, they're cool people to run with. Anyway, they were still short of boatmen and swampers, so Al asked me if I knew anyone back east who knew what to do with a raft and would like to come out here. You were the first person I thought of, and I figured you were about ready to kill to get out of NOC."
"I wouldn't say ready to kill," Scooter smiled. "But ready as hell to do something else, if I could figure out what the hell it was that I wanted to do. I honestly never figured the Grand Canyon as a possibility; the word is you have to know someone."
"Pretty much you do, but you know someone," Crystal grinned. "I just got lucky as hell myself. I was headed back to Randy's last summer after I got back from Hawaii, and I stopped off at the truck stop here for breakfast. On the place mat was an ad for Canyon Tours. Now, my mom ran the Canyon with Canyon Tours back before I was born. I just about grew up on the scrapbook and the stories. I remembered hearing somewhere, maybe from Mom, maybe OLTA, maybe somewhere else, that sometimes they let people take a trip down the river for free if they go as helpers, to help with the cooking and gear hauling, and like that. So, just for the hell of it, I decided to check it out. I got one of the owners off in the corner, a neat guy by the name of Al, about my dad's age, and asked if maybe I could go like that. Well, he wasn't too enthused about it, but he asked if I knew anything about rafts, and I told him about guiding paddle rafts on the Ocoee for four years. That got him interested, and he said, 'It's a lot of work, and we live kind of rough out there. Can you handle that?' Well, I told him I'd been through OLTA and did the AT the year before, and he said, 'Well, all right. The raft truck and crew bus will be leaving in half an hour to rig for the trip tomorrow. If you can get your stuff together in time, I'll give you a try.' I made it with twenty minutes to spare."
"Got lucky, then," Scooter nodded.
"Way lucky," Crystal agreed. "I found out later that was the trip they shifted to the fall schedule, all the summer boatmen and swampers had gone back to college, and I was the only person they'd been able to come up with as a swamper. It turned out that Al's wife, Louise, was leading the trip. She asked me if I'd ever done anything with an oarboat, and of course, I hadn't, but had all that Ocoee experience with paddle rafts, so she let me try it on some of the easier stuff," Crystal related.
"Oar boats?" Scooter frowned. "I've never run one either."
"No big deal. It turned out they're even easier than paddleboats, or at least I think so. Anyway, I wound up rowing maybe three quarters of the trip. By the time we got down to Diamond Creek, I'd just absolutely fallen in love with the Canyon. Next to the day I graduated and had to leave home, it was the saddest day of my life when we reached Diamond Creek," Crystal said. "The Canyon is such a neat place, and now I had to leave it, and God, it hurt to have to even think about it. I mean, I was really bummed. The bus left with the passengers, and I hung around, helping to tear down the boats and load gear and like that. Well, anyway, I guess in that time Louise had talked to Al, because when we got everything loaded, they came to me and Al said, 'Louise said you did darn good for a first-timer. If you want to do it again, be at the office at eleven Sunday for the run out to Lee's.' And I said, sure thing, I'll be there. And then he said, 'You gotta do three more trips and have our approval, then we'll give you a boat of your own.'"
"You did the three trips, I take it?" Scooter smiled.
"You damn betcha, I finished the last one up about four days before Thanksgiving. I went back up to Randy's after that, and wound up spending the winter in a pickup camper, helping some friends of his train their dogs to run the Iditarod. You know, that big dogsled race in Alaska."
"So what's happening with you and Randy?"
"Nothing," Crystal shrugged. "I guess you know, he sort of offered to marry me back before you and I started on the AT -- after the shit with my folks blew up in my face. I told you about that, I guess, back when we were on the trail. When I got off the trail, we spent some time together, and if I'd said yes I'd have had a ring on my finger so quick it wasn't funny. The only problem was that I knew that I'd have to give up wandering around and be a good wife, and I didn't know if I could hack that. He knew it too, and we sort of agreed to let it slide. I was heading back to see if maybe I could pick it up with him again last fall when I found this place. By the time I got back, it was too late. He'd gotten back together with his high school girlfriend; it's getting pretty serious."
"Bummer," Scooter sighed. "Men are like that, I guess."
"This is a little different. See, the thing is that Nicole is willing to settle down with him, I'm not, and we all know it. I'm good buddies with Nicole, she's OLTA too, we were going to try the trail again this summer, but that was before I wound up here. She started the first of March with another girl, the last I heard they were going pretty good. Maybe you met them."
"Might be," Scooter nodded. "You remember trail names?"
"Marlin and Jackpine. Nicole's about your height, maybe, dark hair. Jackpine has got to be six-two or taller, real thin, short brown hair."
"Oh, yeah!" Scooter smiled, "I didn't see them long. It was maybe three weeks ago, they were really booking. They wanted to get done in time to head back to school in the fall." She stopped and shook her head. "God, I wish I could still hike like that."
"Knees still giving you trouble?"
"I can day-hike and climb pretty good, but I just can't keep going day after day."
"Good enough," Crystal said. "Trust me on this one, Scoot; you're not going to miss it."
"I hope you're right, Crystal," she sighed. "I just hope the hell you're right, because if you're not, I've about reached the point where I'll be rafting shit creek without a paddle."