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Miles to go, p.19
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       Miles to Go, p.19

           Richard Paul Evans
 
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  The next two days were some of the dullest walking I’d encountered yet on my journey. The view came with two options—flat, dull landscape with trees or flat, dull landscape without. The roads were smooth, with wide shoulders but no coverage from the elements. The only excitement was when someone threw a plastic cup filled with soda at me from a speeding car.

  Seven days from Butte, I entered the Gallatin National Forest, Earthquake Lake Geologic Area.

  The lake had a surreal quality. The water was thick with moss and the tops of dead trees poked out of its surface like stubble, some even in the center of the lake. A mile or two past the entry there was an observation point with a plaque:

  On Aug. 17, 1959, a 7.5 earthquake triggered

  a massive landslide.

  80 million tons of rock—half the mountain—fell,

  creating this lake, now 4 miles long and 120 feet deep.

  That explained the trees in the middle of the lake. The next day I reached West Yellowstone.

  CHAPTER

  Forty-seven

  The last time I was in Yellowstone I was wearing Superman underwear.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  When I was seven years old, my family took a trip to Yellowstone National Park (the same trip my father and I had talked about at the IHOP). That was years ago, a unique era, when America’s love affair with the car was on a par with our old fear of beeping Russian satellites. There was a remarkable, though admittedly charming, naïveté to our perception of the park—almost a collective suspension of reality in our national imagination. Yellowstone was just a grand, outdoor stage show with animal actors conveniently placed for our entertainment—moose were gawking, Bullwinkle creatures, and bears were domesticated fur balls with names like Yogi and Boo-Boo, who loved picnic baskets and tourists and were more than happy to pose for photographs. It has taken more than a few grisly maulings to alter our collective paradigm. Wild animals are, well, wild.

  While my mother was standing in line at the restroom near the Old Faithful Inn, my father and I watched a tourist (I remember her looking like a larger version of Lucille Ball) walk up to a wild buffalo for a prized photo op, her husband, eyeing her through the lens piece of a Brownie camera, verbally nudging her: “Just a little closer, Madge. Yes, just a few steps more. Yes! Like that! Put your hand up, yeah, rub its neck.”

  The buffalo looked at her through glassy eyes roughly the size of tennis balls like she was the stupidest creature on God’s green earth (possibly true), trying to decide whether to walk away in disgust or trample her for the ultimate good of the human gene pool.

  My dad watched the scene unfold with a curious, mixed expression of amusement and envy. Ultimately, the buffalo didn’t do anything but walk away. Sometimes nature takes compassion on stupidity.

  I don’t know what self-talk might take place in a buffalo’s brain, but I imagine it went something like this, “These guys are really at the top of the food chain?”

  Like so much of life, the anticipation of that trip was even better than the trip itself. A few weeks before our vacation my mother took me to the Buster Brown shoe store to buy some new Keds—green canvas boat shoes with whitetrimmed soles—and a new T-shirt with a picture of Charlie Brown running at a football held by Lucy. (Digression: why, oh why, didn’t Charles Schulz let Charlie Brown kick the football in his last comic strip—what hope he could have left humanity!)

  We were in the car for a length of time that, to my young mind, seemed the equivalent of my entire secondgrade year, but in the end it was all worth it. Being an only child, I was denied the pleasure of fighting with a sibling (He’s on my side of the car. He stuck his tongue out at me! He touched me first.), but on the plus side, I did have the entire back seat to lie down on.

  We owned a candy-apple red Ford Galaxy 500, a car slightly larger than a sand barge, with considerably worse mileage. I remember once we were climbing a hill and my father pointed to the gas gauge and said, “Watch this.” He pressed down on the gas pedal and the gas needle visibly dropped a point or two.

  My father was uncharacteristically generous on that trip, and I was allowed, actually encouraged, to purchase a souvenir. I chose a ceramic bear with fuzz painted on all the right places, and a box that had a wood-burned sketch of Old Faithful. I remember the agonizing internal debate that went on in my young mind between choosing an authentic Indian hand-sewn leather wallet (manufactured in Taiwan) or the box. In the end, the box won out since it had a real lock and key.

  My parents and I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a crowd of tourists at Old Faithful, Yellowstone’s most famous geyser. True to its name, the geyser erupted. I remember my father standing there, his hands thrust deep in his back pockets, my mother at his side, holding my hand lest I have the sudden impulse to run and jump on the spray.

  Old Faithful is neither the most spectacular nor the highest geyser in the park. What made Old Faithful so famous is its reliability and short window of eruptions. According to NASA (I’m not sure why they cared about such things), from 1870 through 1966 little had changed the geyser’s eruption cycle.

  Before the feds made laws protecting the site, people would actually throw their laundry inside the geyser, which (I’m told) had a particularly pleasing effect to linen and cotton fabrics but tended to tear woolen garments to shreds.

  Actually, Old Faithful’s spout is not the kind of thing one sets a watch to, as its eruptions occur at intervals from 45 to 125 minutes apart, which means you could be standing there for two hours to watch a spray that may last only 90 seconds—a fitting analogy for life. I don’t remember how long our eruption was; I just remember my father staring at the spout in awe and muttering, “Would you look at that…”

  If you put a gun to my head, I still couldn’t tell you what it is about water shooting from a hole that would attract millions of tourists. It is the only time in my recollection that water spraying from the ground would warrant anything from my father except a curse and a call to the plumber.

  Later that same day we stopped at the Morning Glory Pool. Today that amazing blue pool is fenced off, but back then it wasn’t. There was just a little wood-plank path that wound around it. Walking the path terrified me. The water is crystal-clear, and the rock formation underneath looks like an open mouth, so even though the pool is only twenty-three feet deep, it seemed like it dropped to the center of the earth.

  As we walked around the pool, I clung to my mother’s hand, desperately fearing falling into the water and being lost in its depth. It never occurred to me that at 171.6 degrees, I would be burned into unconsciousness long before I hit bottom.

  Today, due to tourist abuse, the pool is mockingly called Fading Glory. The pool’s once Windex-blue color has changed from tourists tossing in tons of trash (yes, tons), which has blocked the pool’s natural vents, lowered its temperature, and upset its balance.

  I’m not sure what would possess someone to throw trash into these beautiful pools, let alone tons of it. It’s not as if Yellowstone doesn’t offer a hundred thousand acres of convenient landfill. “Clyde, dear, will you take the trash and dump it into the pristine crystal pool? Thanks, honey.” But then, it never occurred to me to wash my clothes in Old Faithful either. Maybe something’s just wrong with me.

  I left Yellowstone Park certain that I would someday be a mountainman: traveling the wilderness alone, eating jerky and venison in my fringed, rawhide suit, which, not counting the apparel, wasn’t a far cry from where I was today. We should be careful of what we dream of, as apparently life, or God, has a sense of humor.

  My father liked to drive at night and I slept for most of the ride home. I still remember the feel and smell of cold vinyl against my face. Somehow I woke in my own bed, the soft white sheets tucked in around me. I miss that. Childhood was magical that way.

  I hadn’t been back to Yellowstone since.

  CHAPTER

  Forty-eight

  Nothing clears the mind (nor colon), like an enc
ounter with a Grizzly Bear.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  Prior to entering the park, I spent the night at the Brandin’ Iron Inn, which had a large replica of a bear trap over the front doors. The next morning I ate an Egg McMuffin for breakfast, then walked into Yellowstone Park.

  Pedestrians, as well as cars, are required to pay an entrance fee and I paid $12, which was valid for seven days. Less than 100 yards past the gate a large sign informed me that I was now in Wyoming.

  Just a few miles in, I passed two trumpeter swans in a pond surrounded by trees growing at 30-degree angles. I was happy to be back in nature and feel her healing. That night I pitched my tent in a place called Whiskey Flats.

  The next morning’s walk led me past the Midway Geyser Basin and Biscuit Basin, where I watched the steaming geyser water run down fluted, sandstone gullies to cool in the river.

  An hour later a sign told me Old Faithful was just one mile ahead. After a mile I turned off the road to Old Faithful, which I missed erupting by a few minutes when I stopped to use the bathroom. I wondered if I should wait for the next eruption, but instead I returned to the main road and headed southeast to West Thumb Junction.

  I had walked about four hours when I reached the Continental Divide, elevation 8,262. What I knew of the Continental Divide was this—water that falls on the west side of the divide drains to the Pacific Ocean. Water that falls on the east side drains to the Atlantic Ocean.

  What I didn’t realize was that the divide wasn’t some large, straight rift, rather that it moved all over the place, and I ran into two more Continental Divide signs as I walked. That night I camped illegally, hidden in the dense forest just 50 yards from the road.

  My third day in Yellowstone, I reached West Thumb—which received its name from its thumblike projection of Yellowstone Lake—and began my trek around the lake’s western perimeter. The scenery was beautiful and the air was crisp and sweet, similar to my walk through Washington over Highway 2.

  The day proceeded without incident until I had an experience that every car-driving tourist in Yellowstone hopes for and anyone in the wild prays not to have; I encountered a grizzly. I had stopped to eat my lunch when the bear walked into a clearing about thirty yards in front of me. I slowly reached into my pack for my gun, praying that I wouldn’t have to use it, as the advantage definitely belonged to the bear.

  I had once seen a PBS documentary on a bear-mauling incident, and I came away with information that, at that moment, was rather unsettling: the bear’s metabolism is so slow that it can still run two- to three-hundred yards after a direct shot through the heart. With a small-caliber handgun the chances of a direct hit on a moving bear’s vital organs—especially with my untrained hand—was infinitesimally small, and with a round as small as a 9-mm bullet, it might only serve to make the animal angrier.

  I’m not certain whether or not the bear saw me, though I assumed it had at least smelled my presence. It lingered in my area for a tense few minutes, clawed at a tree, and then lumbered off. I don’t think I breathed until then. I waited ten minutes to make sure it was gone, then I walked back out to the road and continued my trek.

  That afternoon I walked past acres of forest that had been burned, leaving black, ashen remains on trees and the heavy scent of sulfur in the air. It wasn’t until after dark that I reached greenery again. I knew from road signs that I was finally near the park’s east entrance, but I was exhausted, so I hiked into the forest and made camp. The bear was still on my mind, and I spent an uneasy night, waking at every snap of twig or coyote howl.

  As it turned out, I had camped less than a mile from the East Entrance gate. I crossed the Yellowstone River on Fishing Bridge, which, appropriately, was lined with fishermen, then stopped at the Yellowstone General Store.

  Even though I had officially left the park, I wouldn’t have known it if it weren’t for the signage, as the road led into Shoshone National Park. At lunchtime I sat down with a sandwich and looked over my map. By adding a couple extra miles to my daily routine I could reach my next destination in three days: Cody, Wyoming.

  CHAPTER

  Forty-nine

  If a man cries in the wilderness and no one hears him, does he make a sound?

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  Cody, Wyoming, was named after the famous (or infamous, depending on what biography you read) William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Cody was a frontiersman and showman who brought the romance of a dying Wild West to wild easterners and beyond, including the crowned heads of Europe. His Wild West show was so popular that it was even said to have improved relations between the United States and Britain.

  Cody, who was a frontier scout and a natural selfpromoter, began as a fictional character in the day’s dime novels after the publisher Prentiss Ingraham discovered the public’s voracious appetite for all things Western—a role the real William Cody stepped into like comfortable cowboy boots.

  I arrived in Cody around 9 P.M., walking in darkness for the last two and a half hours—something I usually avoid since snakes sometimes like to stretch out on the warm asphalt at night. I had covered more than 30 miles that day—driven on by the lights of the city. I wanted a warm room, a soft bed, a long, hot shower, and a meal I didn’t have to unwrap.

  The freeway turned into Sheridan, the main street through town. Cody is a real cowboy town. We sometimes think of cowboys as remnants of our nation’s past, forgetting that they’re alive and well—or at least alive. Cowboys are a race as distinct as any I’ve encountered in my travels, with their own language, culture, history, literature, and costumes—a hat, Wrangler jeans, boots, and big belt buckles, the larger the better. They have their own walk as well, a little bowlegged and stooped, as if their backs hurt.

  About a mile and a half into town I stopped to eat at the Rib & Chop House. My meal was large and heavenly. My server’s name was Kari, a pert, fresh-faced nursing student who looked as out of place in the Cody population as I did. She was also the first person I’d talked to in days.

  I took my time eating and when I finally stood, my thighs cramped up. I walked (limped) a few blocks down to the Marriott and booked a room. There was a quilters’ convention in town, and the hotel was crowded with quilters and cowboys, which seemed culturally congruent.

  That night I spent a long time soaking in the hotel’s hot tub. When I first arrived, there was another man in the tub, not surprisingly a cowboy, and he wore his hat. He tipped it at me as I stepped into the water. I pulled off my T-shirt and threw it onto a nearby vinyl chair then settled into the bubbling water.

  “Howdy,” the cowboy said.

  “Howdy,” I said back, not knowing why I was speaking “cowboy.”

  He pointed to the scars on my abdomen. “Look like yer dun yerself a li’l fight’n.”

  “Wasn’t much of a fight,” I said, sinking down into the water.

  “Me too,” he said. He rose up a little from the water, revealing the scar from a knife wound, a slash, across his sternum. “Yer should’a seen the other feller,” he laughed.

  I closed my eyes, hoping he might just let me relax.

  “Where yer frum?”

  “Seattle.”

  “Fishin’ or passin’ threw?”

  I looked at him for a moment, then replied, “I’m here for the quilting convention.”

  “Oh,” he said. He pulled the brim of his hat down and sunk to his chin in the water. A minute later he got out of the tub and left the spa.

  I slept well that night, though I had an unsettling dream. I was walking down a long stretch of highway, as forlorn as any as I’d passed through, when I saw a woman walking alone ahead of me. It was McKale. I shouted to her, and she turned back briefly but said nothing and kept walking. I kept walking faster until I was running, but she just increased her speed to match mine. She was always just within sight and just out of reach. I woke, the sheets wet with perspiration.

  CHAPTER

  Fifty

&nbs
p; The Wild West has never been so dull.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  I spent the next day resting. I had a big breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant, then watched a movie on the pay-per-view—one of the Bourne movies. You really can’t go wrong with Matt Damon.

  I took everything out of my pack, releasing a stale, moldy smell into the room. I discovered a completely withered and black banana, a moldy deli roll, and a couple of half-eaten energy bars.

  I washed my pack in the shower-bath, then left it open to breathe next to the window. I laid out my map, then, based on my route, compiled a shopping list on a hotel notepad. I was still several weeks out from Rapid City. Miles to go.

  I traced my route with the plastic cap of a hotel pen. I would stay on I-90 until I reached a fork in the road about 280 miles east of Cody. I could travel north on Interstate 90 up through Spearfish and Sturgis, South Dakota, or take the smaller road south to Custer, South Dakota. It was about the same distance either way. The upside of heading south was that the roads were smaller and less busy. The downside was fewer amenities. I elected to go south. I put away my map and went grocery shopping.

  As I left Cody the next morning, I felt weighed down, not just because I had stocked up on so many supplies, but because my soul felt heavier. The two-lane highway, like my life, seemed to stretch out to nothing. The land was agricultural, with large, fallow fields for planting or grazing—the patchwork I had looked down on from plane rides in my previous life.

  The next two weeks through southeast Wyoming I felt as if emotionally I had taken a giant step backward. I would detail my various stops, but it would only bore you—I know because it bored me. I stopped writing in my journal. I stopped shaving. I stopped caring.

 
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