Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Tuesday, January 15, 2002
The next weeks after the holidays went by in a blur for Duane and Michelle. The only unifying feature for them was looking at dog assholes. Somewhere, Duane remembered hearing the phrase, "Unless you're the lead dog the view is always the same," and that seemed especially true for the musher at the tail end of the affair.
Though training had lightened up a bit over the holidays, now it got even more intense. Night runs had been a relative rarity before the holidays; now they ran at least as much at night as they did in the day, to take advantage of the colder conditions and to get the dogs used to running at night. That was why they were out on this trail well after midnight, with the temperature well below zero. It was cold and clear; the stars were blazing pinpoints in the dark blanket of the sky; his breath and that of the dogs left vapor trails as they pressed on through the forest. Michelle was not all that far ahead of him although he only occasionally got a glimpse of her and her team in the bright light of the moon – a "Runner's Moon" he remembered hearing Josh call it, well named indeed. It would be setting about the time they came off this run with light starting to build in the sky. Then, when they got back to the dog barn, they'd have time for a cup of coffee before each of them hooked up another set of dogs and went out to do it all over again.
Sleep had become something grabbed on the fly, any old time of the day or night. They ran farther, too, sometimes putting as much as a hundred miles on a team in a day. The only thing that kept things under control, was that after some discussion, they backed off on the training of some dogs that clearly weren't going to be much help this season; with the local mushing season in full swing, some were even sold to local mushers. They also increased the sizes of the teams they were running, from a normal of ten dogs to twelve, fourteen, even sixteen.
There were some breathers. The second weekend after the holidays, Josh, Michelle, and Duane took some of the younger dogs, that weren't going to Alaska this year but had potential in future years, into Wisconsin, for a hundred-mile race run through the Chequamegon National Forest. It was as much to give the dogs a new place to run as anything else. It was a new experience for both Duane and Michelle, especially the start of the race and the excitement there. Even though they were all running third-rank dogs, Josh managed an eighth-place finish, and Duane a fifteenth. Michelle wound up in eighteenth. The following weekend, they did the same thing in the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota; there, against a smaller field, Duane managed a top-ten finish, with Michelle right behind him at eleventh despite running a team that they figured wasn't good enough to keep up. The next big race that lay ahead of them was the big local race, the Warsaw Run; a hundred miler which Josh and Tiffany had won five times before moving on to do the Iditarod. Michelle would be in the Bahamas for that, and time would be getting short on going to Alaska, but Duane looked forward to doing that race.
But all the training involved, along with the racing, meant that Duane was spending an awful lot of time on a dogsled. It was cold, even cold for January around here, which was good for training the dogs for Alaska where temperatures could be expected to be a lot colder. Duane did his best to ignore the cold and think about other things. Fortunately the back of a dogsled was a good place for that, since it really didn't take much attention to work the team on a familiar and beaten out training trail.
Of course, one of the things he thought most about was the upcoming season in the Grand Canyon. There were a lot of unknowns about running a new fourth team for Canyon Tours. The schedule remained a mystery to him, although Al had hinted that the new Team Four or whatever it wound up being called would be doing at least a couple of the trips inherited from GCR. He didn't even know when his first launch date would be, and perhaps Al and Karin didn't know yet either.
That was complicated by the trip to Alaska, which also wasn't tied down very tightly. Phil, Josh, and Candice were all reluctant to spend much more time away from home than they had to – Candice had her two boys, and Josh had a new baby, born back in the fall. In the old days, Josh and Tiffany had spent over three months in Alaska each winter, starting right after the holidays and not usually getting back until early April. Granted, part of that was driving the Alaska Highway with a truckload of dogs, sleds, food, and gear, but part of it was for training time in the colder Alaska conditions, too.
Since Phil had taken over the actual racing end, things had changed. They didn't drive the dogs to Alaska anymore: they flew them – sometimes on a commercial jet, sometimes on a charter, depending on how prices happened to settle out. In the old days, driving up the Alaska Highway meant the loss of almost ten days of training time and the muscle tone on the dogs was reduced, a loss that Josh and Tiffany had never quite been able to make up. Now, they lost one day at most. As long as it stayed bitterly cold around here, Phil had decided that they might as well stay here and enjoy the comforts of home, which would cut down on the time that everyone would be away. Of course, it meant the date they'd leave for Alaska was still up in the air. They wanted to hold off until the middle of February, but if a warming trend showed on the horizon they might find themselves taking off for Alaska on at most a couple days' notice.
The final training would be done out of Run-8's travel trailer in a campground near Talkeetna, where, for years, they'd put the finishing touches on the dogs and gotten them used to Alaskan conditions. Duane was looking forward to it; Alaska was one of those places where he'd always wanted to go.
Michelle being gone for two of the next four weeks or so meant there was a very good chance he would be in Alaska by the time she got back. Depending on how things worked out he might not make it back to Flag until about the first part of April. That was a long time to go without seeing Michelle; they were getting a lot closer together, although there were several issues with her that weren't clear in his own mind. It still seemed a little unbelievable that she would want to stay with him, that she had turned down a chance to go surfing in Florida to stay here. Oh, well, she'd have that break in the Bahamas, anyway.
Would he like being on that Bahamas trip? Oh, yes! As much as he was enjoying the dogsledding, he was getting tired of winter. At one point, there had been the possibility that he might be on it, but then the chance to go dogsledding came along and he'd taken it, so couldn't back out now. A winter trip like that seemed like a reprieve from the seemingly endless sentence of waiting for spring. It would be a ball, too. Once again, he visualized Michelle down there, wearing a tiny bikini – there were stories from other Bahamas trips of her wearing a thin thong that turned virtually transparent with just a rise in humidity – sailing around under a warm, blue sky, partying in bars, hanging out with friends. Dreaming about those activities would be torture while he was up here or in Alaska without her.
They'd had a terrific six weeks or so, with things that he would remember all his life, and not just in bed. But was there anything there, or were they just fuck buddies who got together for a while when the time was convenient? Michelle was, well, Michelle, unique, and a literal legend, at least among Canyon boaters. Wild, yes – he'd seen her in action more than once; her reputation was deserved. While he had been known to have his fun from time to time, he thought of himself as solid, steady, reliable. Michelle was a will-o-the-wisp, following her own path. Try as he might, he couldn't imagine anything permanent developing there. It had been fun while it lasted, but somehow he had the disturbing feeling that it was probably close to running its course.
But who knew? This was Michelle, the Wild Woman of the Grand Canyon, unpredictable, almost superhuman. Duane had never heard of her even coming close to a serious relationship, although there probably was a first time for everything. Although there was no telling about the future, the thought that things might be winding down with her probably was pure paranoia. After all, they were going to be a trip leader and assistant this next summer, and possibly for a while after that.
He'd thought about it a lot, but even after much time on it, he couldn't quite buy her theory of being a follower rather than a leader like she'd talked about on the way back from his dad's right after Christmas, though there might have been some sense to it. If true, it would explain a few things about her. She was a good boatman when the chips were down; in spite of doing some hairy things, he'd never really heard of her doing anything that was beyond her skill set. When she set out to do something, it usually got done, even if it was something she didn't particularly like doing, like working in the Canyon Tours office off and on over the past three years. She'd been quite competent and steady working with the dogs the past weeks; he'd never seen her do anything wild or dangerous for the thrill of it. He hadn't seen anything of her trademark superhuman antics since she'd been in Spearfish Lake.
It was something to think about, to worry about, while he was riding around on the back of the dog sled. Whatever happened, happened. It came down to the fact that she was going to be gone at the end of the week, anyway. If he was still in Spearfish Lake when she returned from the Bahamas, they'd have another week or two together, and then he'd be heading to Alaska for a month or six weeks or so. Then it would be time to be getting ready for leading a Canyon Tours team, something he hadn't expected would happen for years, if ever.
There was one good point about the whole deal, he thought, trying to wrestle his attention around to those problems he'd be facing in the not too distant future. Theirs being a new team and him not being around during the annual March rigging season, he figured that he'd get the short end of every stick possible when it came to which boats and what equipment they'd be taking. While he knew Al wouldn't let him head out on the river with pure junk, if no one was around to fight for Team Four they would wind up with the least desirable boats and the least desirable support equipment. But if Michelle were in Flagstaff, there'd be someone to ease that problem. They may be the junior team, but she was the senior boatman, and that counted for something. Moreover, she was Michelle, which counted for even more at Canyon Tours.
Whenever it was decided he'd be heading to Alaska, she ought to head back to Flag right about the same time, which would put her there for most if not all of the rigging, so that part of it would work out. There was even a little extra time in there, time she'd said that she was going to spend with her grandparents in . . . Roswell?
Oh, come on, he thought. You don't really believe that! She was probably just pulling Randy's leg; he'd left her an opening and she'd taken advantage of it. As far as he knew her family was all around Flagstaff, more or less. Her parents lived out at Grand Canyon Village, where their gift shop was located . . . and they did look awful young for their age, just like Michelle . . .
He didn't know Michelle's parents well, but had met them a few times, at season wrap parties or hanging around the office, and on part of a Canyon trip one time. As far as he knew, they didn't drink . . . he'd never paid much attention to it, but if Michelle was pretty impervious to alcohol, and it was genetic, it'd have had to come from her parents, wouldn't it? They might have learned long ago that it wasn't worth the effort. Let's see, her folks are in their early fifties, so that meant they'd had to have been born around 1950, give or take. That UFO supposed to have crashed in Roswell was in 1947 if he remembered correctly, so yeah, there'd have been time for her grandparents . . . "Aw, you're full of shit, Duane," he said aloud to the huskies in front of him.
Although, he thought, if I did believe in UFOs and that Roswell stuff, it'd explain a lot of the mysteries about Michelle – her youthful appearance, her unreasonable strength, her capacity for alcohol, her terrific reflexes and the way she picked up skill sets in a hurry . . . the odd and skewed approach she took to things sometimes.
Then there was Hannah McCluskey, who was some sort of cousin of Michelle's; he wasn't sure exactly what the relationship was. She'd been a swamper on Team 3 with him early last summer, and had picked the rafting up quickly. It seemed likely she'd be a full boatman next summer, especially if Al was that tight on rafters. She was tall and thin without much obvious muscle, but also unusually strong; he remembered seeing her throw a hundred-pound cooler over her shoulder like a longshoreman carrying a sack of spuds, a skinny girl effortlessly doing something he would have had trouble with. As far as he knew, Hannah didn't drink, but then she was a teenybopper, nineteen or something like that, so that proved nothing. Hannah was rather quiet and shy, but that meant nothing, either . . . an unusual goddamn family, any way you tried to cut it, alien or not . . .
* * *
It was getting late in the morning by the time Duane and Michelle put away the last of the dogs from this training run. Now it was time to eat something, to get a few hours sleep before they had to get up and do it all over again. There was no time or inclination for a fancy meal; Duane threw a couple frozen dinners into the microwave to let it work on them while he and Michelle stripped down a few layers of clothing. It wasn't the first time in the past weeks that they'd eaten dinner at midday while wearing their long underwear. Whatever; it was good to be in out of the cold.
"I dunno," Michelle yawned. "I feel so grubby that I really ought to take a shower, but it would cut into my sleep time."
"Yeah, me too," Duane said a little listlessly. They were coming up on having been awake thirty hours straight, and they were due to be out on the trail again much too soon. "On the other hand, I think I will. I can hardly stand myself."
"Well, if you're going to, I might as well join you," she replied with a smirk. "But this time I think just for a shower. If we get to messing around we'll run out of hot water, and that would just leave us cold and unsatisfied. On top of that it might wake us up. I don't know if I could put up with that right now."
"Me either," he said as the microwave dinged with the first round of dinners. Being out in the cold burned a lot of calories; they probably would go through two dinners each, most likely three. He set the next set to going before he hauled the two plastic plates over to Michelle, who was sitting at the kitchen table with a can of Diet Coke in her hand.
"You know," she said, "This time next week, I'm going to look back at today and be glad I'm on the Felicity Ann wearing a bikini, not behind a team of dogs. I feel kind of sorry that you're still going to be doing it."
"Well, not all that much longer," he said. "Another six weeks, and it'll be pretty much over with. Once Josh and I get Candice and Phil started on the trail, there won't be much to do. Josh is going to fly right back as soon as things are under way, and I can't say as I blame him."
"Not with that cute little baby, I can't either," Michelle smiled as she peeled back the plastic on the top of the dinner. "You know, I was thinking about that today."
"Babies," she shook her head, then dived into the frozen whatever it was. It looked vaguely Italian, but both of them were too tired to care. "What Al said back there after Christmas keeps sticking with me."
Duane looked puzzled. "I guess I must be dense," he replied. "I'm not sure I know what you're talking about."
"You remember he said that when my mother was my age she couldn't imagine being a mother?"
"Yeah, I think," he nodded. His dinner sort of resembled turkey – not his first choice but this was no time to be picky.
"It's had me thinking a lot," she admitted. "I don't think I'm quite ready to have you put a baby in me, but I think the day will be out there somewhere in the next few years. Have you ever thought about being a father?"
"Yeah, a little," he told her. "I mean, in a vague, general kind of way. I guess I always figured it was likely to happen sooner or later, but I never really put any thought to it. There's been no reason to."
"I don't think I even made it that far until Al said that," she replied. "Now, well, I see it as something that could happen, maybe even will happen in the next few years. I mean, look at Jennifer and Blake. They're just getting started with the kid thing while most everybody else their age has their kid getting close to graduation. I don't know that we want to put it off like she did, if we decide to do it at all."
As tired and dense as Duane thought he was, he still caught the nuance in her last sentence. "We?" he said, a little surprised.
"Well, it takes two to tango," she smirked. "You realize that, don't you?"
"Well, yeah, but . . . uh . . ." he stammered, catching the full load of her implication. "That's probably a way up the road yet, don't you think?"
"Oh, I'm sure it is," she replied. "I don't quite know how to say what I'm thinking because I'm not sure either, but, well, Tiffany was about as dedicated a dogsled racer as there was, and she gave it up, at least for a while, to do the mommy thing. Duane, I don't want to say I know all the boatmen on the river because I don't, but I do know there aren't many couples with small kids."
"You're saying that if you become a mommy you'll have to give up being a boatman," he said flatly.
"Yeah, I guess that's it. The hell of it, Duane, is I've been a boatman and a swamper for a hell of a long time, almost half my life. I've always figured that was all I wanted. Now, I'm not so sure."
"That scares you, huh?" He said as the microwave dinged.
"Yeah, it scares me," she said. "Maybe I'm finally growing up. Maybe that's what really scares me. I don't like thinking I might have been wrong all these years. Do you think maybe we'll be up here doing this again next winter?"
"I wouldn't be surprised, assuming something else doesn't come up," he replied. "I'm pretty sure Josh and Tiffany and Phil would dearly love to have us back."
She finished her dinner, tossed the tray in the trash and got up. "I'll get those from the microwave. You going to want another one after those?"
"Yeah, I inhaled that one without really noticing it. Thanks."
"This has been kind of nice, you know?" She said absently as she headed for the microwave. "I mean, most people would think of this as a grubby old trailer, but it's got a furnace and a bed and a microwave, hot water, a toilet, and all those civilized kinds of things. I mean, it's not Randy and Nicole's house or anything, but it's been nice to have a place I could sort of call my own, with my guy living with me." She set the next dinner down on the table in front of him while he had a brief instant to comprehend her statement before she sat down and continued. "When you get right down to it, it's nicer than a lot of boatmen have for the winter. I mean, hell, there's Crystal and Preach living out of a suitcase on the road, never the same place two nights in a row; I honestly don't know what Dave and Mary or Scooter and Jim are doing, but I've got the impression from Mary that the place they rent down in Mexico isn't a whole lot more than a roof over their heads with a stinky one-holer out back."
"It's what they want," he said. "I've never heard Dave or Mary complain about it."
"Me either," she said. "Hell, I thought all I ever wanted was a sleeping bag on some sandbar somewhere. You never knew Louise, did you?"
"No, never met her." Duane said. Louise was Al's first wife, who had died the summer before he came to work at Canyon Tours.
"Louise was just cooler than snot," she told him. "She was kind of the model of the river woman I wanted to be. But you know, I got to thinking about it while I was out on the sled today. It struck me that she didn't spend all her time out on the river, and she had a nice home to go to when she was off the river. But then, she and Al never had kids together, and she never knew Crystal was Al's daughter. Shit, I don't even know what I started out talking about, the point I wanted to make. I'm too tired to make sense. I'm sorry, Duane. I guess what I'm thinking is that if we're going to have a future together we need to think about how it's going to involve the river, or even if it does. I don't know. I've been jonesing for the river so bad for weeks now, it's not funny, but I'm really looking forward to being out on it with my guy this summer. But I don't think life on the river is going to last forever, and I don't think the life we live is very good for raising a kid."
"When you put it that way, no."
She was silent for a moment as she ate. "Shit, I'm too fucking tired to even be trying to say this stuff," she said finally. "Maybe it's something I need to work on out on the Felicity Ann. A little sun and a little partying might help me make sense out of things. Maybe it's something we can work out while we're on the river this summer. I'm really looking forward to living with you out on the river. Maybe after a season or so some of this shit will make sense. Don't get me wrong, Duane. When I think about my future, I want you to be a part of it. But I don't have any idea of what that future is, and it might not include the river."
"I guess we cross that bridge when we get to it," he said. "Michelle, I've been thinking about my future, too. I've pretty well come to the conclusion that I want you in it, even though what that's going to mean is pretty fuzzy. In fact, I'm mostly scared that something will happen and you won't be there."
"Oh, I intend to be there if I can be," she said slowly. "I was just worried that this was going to turn into a 'You've been a great fuck buddy, now it's time to get on with my life,' conversation. I don't think that's where we're going, and it's not where I want it to go."
"I've been hoping it wouldn't be, too," he nodded.
"I know I told you that I scare a lot of guys off because of my reputation," she smiled. "But I guess I'm not going to scare you off like that."
"Tell you what," he smiled. "Let's finish that last dinner, take a quick shower, and go to bed to try and sleep on it."
"And make out too?" she smiled hopefully.
"Not tonight," he yawned. "I don't think either of us would want to say that our favorite partner's lovemaking put us to sleep."
"I'll take that risk if you will," she giggled. "Hell, right now I'll settle for anything that'll put me to sleep."