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Miles to go, p.16
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       Miles to Go, p.16

           Richard Paul Evans
 
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  “You’re from Wallace?”

  “Most days I am. Seventy years of ’em.”

  Kailamai walked with her head down, not involving herself in the conversation.

  “What do you do in Wallace?” I asked. “For a living?”

  “Prospectin’ mostly. Some loggin’, but mostly prospectin’.”

  “For gold?”

  “Always gold. Well, that ain’t entirely true. I’ve done some silver, but mostly gold.”

  “Have you had much luck?”

  “I always have luck,” he said with a slight chuckle. “Just sometimes it’s the good kind, sometimes it’s the bad kind. More the latter.”

  “Do you have a family?”

  “I did the whole nine yards. My kids live nearby. They keep in touch sometimes.”

  “Your wife?”

  The look on his face was answer enough. “Done with her. Or she done with me. Don’t remember which.”

  “So, in all those years of prospecting, did you ever find the mother lode?”

  He swatted at the air in front of him. “Nah. Thought I’d found her a few times, but her milk always dried up.”

  “How many years have you been looking?”

  “About since I was old enough to hold a pan. I’m still lookin’.”

  “How do you do that?” I asked. “Carry on for seventy years without success.”

  “Success?” he said. “I’m this side of the dirt, relatively healthy, good friends, kids not in prison, don’t know what your definition of success is, but that’s mine.”

  “Of course,” I said, feeling the reprimand. “I meant, all those years without finding what you were looking for…”

  “Ah,” he said. “The question is, what would’ve happened if I found her?” He pointed a bony finger at me. “Worst thing you can give a man is what he wants. The lookin’s the thing. When a man gets what he been lookin’ for, the road ends, don’t it.” He smiled. “But you’re young. You’ll figger it out.”

  As I thought this over, an old Dodge truck pulled up on the shoulder ahead of us and stopped. “That would be my ride. You wanna lift?”

  “No, we’re just walking.”

  “Good day for it. You be safe now, sometimes the loggin’ trucks pass a little too close to the shoulders.” He opened the passenger side door and climbed in, and the truck sped off.

  Most of the day was easy walking, with wide shoulders and plenty of shade. Kailamai and I talked a lot, covering topics as broad as religion to why I had never had a pet dog. And then there were Kailamai’s jokes.

  “A doctor is talking to his patient one day, and he says, ‘I have some bad news and some terrible news.’ The patients asks, ‘What’s the bad news?’ and the doctor says, ‘You only have twenty-four hours to live.’ The patient says, ‘Oh no! What news could possibly be worse than that?’ And the doctor says, ‘I’ve been trying to contact you since yesterday.’”

  Twenty miles or so into our day, we entered Coeur d’Alene National Forest and the roads started climbing again. The roadsides were all inclined and uncampable, and it was getting dark when we reached the state line of Montana and Lookout Pass Ski Resort.

  We walked up to the front doors of the resort, but even though there was still some snow on the ground, the lodge was closed for the season. The place looked abandoned, so we pitched our tent behind the main building. I was connecting the last pole on our tent when Kailamai whispered, “Alan.”

  She was discreetly pointing at a man who was standing near the lodge looking at us.

  “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked.

  I stood up. “Evening,” I said.

  “You can’t camp here,” he said gruffly. “It’s private property.”

  I walked toward him. “I’m sorry, but there’s no place else around here and it’s getting dark. But I promise we’ll be gone before anyone else gets here in the morning.”

  He looked over at Kailamai then back at me. “You’re not in trouble with the law, are you?”

  Kailamai walked to my side. “No,” she said.

  “You know we probably wouldn’t tell you if we were, but no, we’re not. Sorry about trespassing. We would have rented a room, but there was no one here.”

  “We close on the fifteenth,” the man said.

  “Please let us camp here,” Kailamai said. “I’m really tired. We’ll leave early.”

  The man exhaled audibly, then shook his head. “Grab your packs and come with me.”

  We left our tent and followed him over to the back of the lodge. He took out a fist of keys and unlocked a door. “You can stay in here. There’s no sheets on the beds, but I’m guessing you’ve got sleeping bags. The bed will be softer than the ground. You can turn the heat up, but turn it back down when you leave.”

  “Can I pay you something?” I asked.

  He shook his head. “No. Just don’t break anything and be gone by ten.”

  “Will do.”

  “Thank you,” Kailamai said. The man turned and walked away. An unexpected kindness. I never even got his name.

  CHAPTER

  Forty-one

  Napoleon said, “My life changed the day I learned a man would die for a blue ribbon.”

  My life changed the day I read that.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  We left the lodge by 8:30 A.M. The road into Montana was a steep downgrade. At noon we stopped at Mangold’s General Store and Motel in Haugan. After stocking up on a few supplies, we walked fifty yards west to the Montana Bar and Grill. A large black Labrador was lying in front of the bar’s entrance. He didn’t move, so we just stepped over him.

  The bar’s interior was decorated with bear and cougar pelts and ram, elk, and deer heads alongside a bizarre assortment of snowmobile carcasses. As we entered, Kailamai looked at the animals and said, “Welcome to the room of death.”

  Country music played over the loudspeaker, accompanied by the whirring electronic sounds and bells coming from a bank of video poker games. A fire crackled in a large rock fireplace, and on the wall behind a green felt pool table a handwritten sign hung:

  8 Ball Break. Sink the 8 ball on your break and win the pot.

  Bartender must see it to pay out. $1 to play.

  There was one man sitting at the bar and one playing video poker. As we entered, the bartender shouted out to us, “Sit anywhere.”

  We sat down at a table near the front door as the man brought out menus.

  “What’s good?” I asked.

  “House specialty’s steamer clams cooked in garlic and white wine. I’ll give you a minute to look over your menus. Can I get you a beer?”

  “No. I’ll just have some water.”

  “Me too,” Kailamai said.

  Steamer clams isn’t exactly something you’d expect to find in a cowboy bar in northern Montana, but the clams turned out to be quite good, and I finished an entire plate of them. Kailamai ordered a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich.

  As we were finishing our meals, Kailamai said, “I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”

  “Go ahead.”

  “The other night, when you pulled the gun on those guys, why did you point it at the skinny kid? He was the only one who wasn’t doing anything to me.”

  “Psychology,” I said.

  She squinted. “Psychology?”

  “It’s like this. A man will die for his honor. If I take aim at the ringleader, he either looks like a coward or he takes a chance and makes me shoot him—both bad scenarios. If I point it at the other two guys, they’re feeling intense peer pressure from the ringleader, so again, they might do something stupid and I would have to shoot them.

  “The skinny kid had already proved that he didn’t want any part of it, so by picking him, the other three can save face, feel like heroes for saving their friend, and walk away. You’ve got to give people a way out, or else the circumstances will take over.”

  “Man, you’re smart. Did
you really think of all that that quickly?”

  “No. Actually the skinny kid was the closest. I figured I probably wouldn’t miss him.”

  Kailamai started laughing. “You’re such a dork.”

  We finished eating and stepped back over the dog on our way out.

  “Montana reminds you that the Wild West still exists,” I said.

  Kailamai said, “Wait until you see Wyoming.”

  We put in 27 miles that day, walking through beautiful, raw country.

  About five miles past Haugan we passed a sign that read HISTORIC TREE NURSERY. It wasn’t the historic part I found odd so much as the idea of the nursery itself in the middle of a forest. A tree nursery in this land of endless forest is like claiming a saltwater lake in the middle of the ocean.

  “Maybe that’s why it’s historic,” Kailamai said. “Did I tell you the one about the duck?”

  I shook my head. “I don’t think so.”

  “A duck walks into a drugstore and asks for a tube of ChapStick. The cashier says to the duck, ‘That’ll be $1.49.’ The duck replies, ‘Put it on my bill.’”

  I think I laughed for about five minutes.

  CHAPTER

  Forty-two

  There are two kinds of suffering in this life. That which pursues us and that which we doggedly pursue.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  The next week of walking took us through St. Regis, Clark Fork, Missoula, Drummond, and Phosphate on our way to Butte.

  With each day spent together Kailamai and I grew more comfortable with each other, and though she opened up more to me, she still never talked about her past, which I grew a little more curious about each day.

  There weren’t many amenities along this stretch, and we camped every night in our tent except for the night at Clark Fork, where we had an unexpected dinner invitation next to a river at a fishing area called St. John’s. The sign at the entrance specified,

  No Overnight Camping

  The sign below it named and showed fish that could be found in the river:

  Bull Trout, Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout,

  Westslope Cutthroat Trout

  Around twilight we took a slight detour from the road, and we were walking down by the river when a man stuck his head out the back door of a camper.

  “Have you eaten yet?”

  I looked over. “Excuse me?”

  “Have you eaten yet?”

  “No.”

  “Come on, then. I’m just putting it on.”

  Kailamai looked at me and I shrugged. “I guess it’s time to eat,” I said.

  The man opened his camper door for us to enter. “Watch your step,” he said. He took Kailamai’s hand and helped her up.

  I followed after her, shutting the narrow door behind me. The camper was comfortable, not old but well used, set in the back of a Ford pickup truck. It had a refrigerator, stereo, television, gas stove and oven, a Formicatopped table, and several cushions on which to sit or sleep.

  Our host was tall, maybe a few inches over 6 feet, with thinning reddish-brown hair. He was dressed as an outdoorsman, wearing a flannel shirt and a fishing vest with fishing flies attached.

  “I’m frying up some rainbow and brown,” he said. “I pulled my limit this afternoon, so there’s plenty to eat. Make yourself at home, there’s room around the table.”

  “Sounds good,” I said, trying to look amiable. I could tell that Kailamai didn’t know what to make of the situation or our host.

  The man knew his way around a fish, deboning them with his pocketknife with such ease, I guessed he could have done it blindfolded.

  Watching him reminded me of some time back when McKale brought home a trout from the neighborhood Safeway. My father wasn’t an outdoorsman, and he never took me fishing or hunting, so I wasn’t sure what to do with the fish.

  “I thought you were a Boy Scout,” McKale said.

  “A long, long time ago,” I said, adding, “in a galaxy far, far away. And I never had to debone a fish.”

  “Didn’t you camp in the wilderness?” she asked.

  “Yes.”

  “What did you eat?”

  “Mostly Pop-Tarts,” I replied.

  “Figures,” she said.

  The man sliced a raw fish cleanly down its gut, then flapped back one side of it and peeled out the spine with every bone intact. He dropped the waste into a plastic shopping sack hanging from a cabinet doorknob. Then he cut off the fish’s head and tail, dropped them in a separate bag, and started on another fish.

  “What do you do with those?” Kailamai asked, pointing to the second bag.

  “It’s for the cats,” he said.

  When all the fish were filleted, he combined them all in a brown bag filled with pancake batter, shook it up, then laid the fish two at a time in a skillet of boiling grease until they were light brown and crispy. He dished them onto paper plates for us along with some pork and beans.

  “You’re welcome to eat in here,” the man said, opening the camper door. “I prefer to eat outside.”

  I looked at Kailamai. “I’m cold,” she said.

  “You can stay inside,” I said. “I’ll go out.”

  I took my plate and followed the man out the back of the camper. He was already seated in a fold-up chair facing the river.

  “Pull up a chair,” he said, motioning to an identical chair leaning against the truck. I flipped it open with one hand, then sat down next to him. I cut into the trout with my fork and took a bite. It was tender inside and sweet. “It’s delicious,” I said.

  “Everything tastes better outdoors,” he said.

  I took another bite. Living in Seattle, I’ve eaten at some of the finest seafood restaurants in America, but I’ve never tasted fish so good. “You know, I didn’t catch your name.”

  “Great isn’t it, not getting all mixed up in names and brands? Just being. Out here, names are superfluous. It’s how it should be.”

  Frankly, I’d always thought names were a pretty good idea, but after his diatribe I didn’t dare ask him his name nor offer mine.

  He took a pipe from his vest, then a book of matches. He held a lit match over the pipe’s bowl and sucked in the flame. When the pipe was lit, he threw the match on the ground, inhaled deeply, then slowly blew it out. He asked, “Have you been walking long?”

  “A while. I started in Seattle.”

  “That is a walk. Where are you going?”

  “Key West.”

  He looked at me skeptically. “Really?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  He sucked on his pipe. “I’ve spent some time in the Keys fishing marlin. Home of Papa Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Jimmy Buffet.”

  “I take it you do a lot of fishing,” I said.

  “You might say that.”

  “Where are you from?”

  “In my former life, Queens.”

  “Queens, New York?” I asked.

  He nodded. “How long have you been married?”

  “Seven years,” I said, wondering how he knew I’d been married.

  “Seven, huh? Don’t they have laws against marrying minors in Seattle?”

  “You mean …” Since we weren’t using names, I pointed with my thumb to the camper. “She’s just a walking buddy. My wife passed away about six months ago.”

  “Sorry to hear it.” He took a long draw on his pipe. “I had a wife once. I lost her too.”

  That’s all he said. After a minute I asked, “She died?”

  “Our marriage died.” He looked at me. “I murdered it with work.”

  “Where did you work?”

  “I worked for a company called Young and Rubicam.”

  I didn’t expect that. Young and Rubicam is one of the largest and most prestigious advertising agencies in the world. “You were in advertising?”

  “You’ve heard of it then,” he said, not looking altogether happy that I had.

  “I used to be in advertising myself,” I said.
What did you do?”

  “Client services, account management, whatever they’re calling it these days. I was over the Chanel account.”

  “That’s a huge account.”

  “A hundred fifty million dollars,” he said slowly. “You don’t have an account like Chanel, it has you. I was always gone. Anniversaries, neighborhood parties, birthdays, my father-in-law’s funeral. My wife became a stranger. I could tell you precisely what perfumes American women were wearing, in any city in America, in any demographic. But I couldn’t tell you what kind of flowers my wife liked. I couldn’t even tell you what kind of perfume she liked.

  “One day I came home early from a business trip and found her with another man. He was terrified. I’m sure he thought I was going to kill him in a jealous rage. He said, ‘I didn’t know she was married. Honest.’ My wife said, ‘Then you’ve got something in common with my husband.’ “He shook his head. “I’ve got to hand it to her, that was pretty clever under the circumstances. She always had a quick wit.

  I wasn’t sure what to say.

  “We divorced, of course. I quit my job, bought this truck, and started fishing.” He set his plate on the ground. “I’m guessing your wife never wanted to leave.”

  I looked out over the river. “No, she would have stayed.” I turned back to him. “Did you ever try to fix things with your wife?”

  “When I got over my rage, I asked her to stay. I even told her I’d quit my job. But it was too late.”

  “I had a small agency in Seattle. I worked a lot too, but my wife was involved. At least as much as she cared to be.”

  “That couldn’t happen at a big agency,” he said.

  “No, it couldn’t,” I agreed.

  He blew out a cloud of smoke. “I think I was addicted to the stress.”

  “I’ve seen that happen,” I said. “Stress is like a drug. It will kill you as well.” I looked at him. “That’s why you fish.”

  “That’s why I fish.” He took another long draw on his pipe, then let it out slowly. “What are you going to do when you reach Key West?”

  “I don’t know. Eat some key lime pie.”

 
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