Friday 10:00 a.m., 72,250 miles on the Venza
How many times now have I set out from southern Park County, MT to spend a week with my young grandson in Bend, Oregon? This week, July 21-28, 2017, give or take a weekend, is written into his calendar as our weekend. My grandson is 7 years old. I’m...quite a bit older, 75.
I always mean to leave early, 7 a.m., even, to get ahead of crowds in Yellowstone Park. Going through Yellowstone in summer saves three hours travel because I’m taking the southern route through West Yellowstone, Boise, Idaho and the dry high plateaus of eastern Oregon rather than through Missoula, the panhandle of Idaho and the eastern dry hills of Washington. I like going through the Park. Fellow travelers are cheerful. We’re all on the lookout for bears and I don’t expect to see them as the day warms up, but there are always last-minute delays before departure: finding my road atlas and the reading glasses that allow me to see highway numbers on it. Once going through Craters of the Moon National Park in Idaho, I turned right instead of left and would have ended up in Kellogg or at least Ketchum, except for the direction compass next to the rearview mirror. There is always last-minute cleanup at home in case I get so lost I never get home. Or sidetracked.
This day I stopped at the Gardiner post office to mail a letter and got into conversation with an astrophysicist named Paul. Comparing travels, he talked about an accident in Arizona that broadsided him and kept him in hospital for four months. He’s on his way to Glacier Park in a white van, thinking Glacier will be cooler than Yellowstone. He looks like an astrophysicist, absentmindedly combing back a shock of fading auburn hair with his fingers.
Friends were sitting on a bench outside the P.O. visiting. One had seen mention on Facebook of the killing of a female grizzly at their house near Jardine. She resented the posting because this had happened after the grizzly had killed and eaten their dog and caved in the roof of the chicken house. I knew about the grizzly because the couple had given me the one remaining chicken, just to keep the bear from coming back after it. It terrorized them for two weeks before they shot it.
1:30 p.m., in West Yellowstone
There’s more to each of those stories from the post office.
Astrophysicist Paul was knocked unconscious by the sideswipe of another car and pinned in twisted metal. The driver who sideswiped him was unconscious too. First vehicle on the scene was a church bus full of people who, when they saw that Paul’s car was sliding toward the cliff that bordered the mountain road, parked sideways against the car, halting its slide. The bus passengers stayed with him for several hours until help came. An emergency crew armed with metal shears had to take off the back of the car and work backward, sliding him in his seat out the back.
“When I came to, I couldn’t move much. I could hear my arm clicking and knew it was broken.” His rescuers told him they had only one helicopter on standby. It would transport the driver of the car that hit him, who had possible internal injuries. He would have to ride in an ambulance. He asked to go to the largest nearby Arizona city, and was kept there recovering, in traction, for four months. Fortunately, he was a few months shy of 65, and still covered by his employer’s insurance. Medicare didn’t want anything to do with his $500,000 hospital bill!!
I wasn’t in a hurry. I stood to hear the friends who had been criticized for shooting a female grizzly. The husband vividly remembered the night his wife shook him awake and told him the grizzly was back. He fell asleep again and was wakened by a scream. He picked up an old shotgun loaded with slugs.
“If I’d been fully awake I might have grabbed Sandy and shoved her in the door, but the grizzly might have hit the door. It was going for her. I shot. Our grandson was a little wild then. He shot over my head when I walked toward the downed grizzly. He said he was afraid it wasn’t dead. I don’t do very well with guns going off.” “Vietnam,” Sandy said, in explanation.
“When the Fish and Game guys came, they put Sandy off to one side. She had a bright light shining on her, and I had another. They went over every inch of that bear making sure we hadn’t taken even a hair for a souvenir. For four weeks they never responded to our request to have the bear removed.” He had worked in law enforcement. He finally convinced the Fish and Game he’d shot the bear in self-defense.
Past Idaho Falls, the highway divides. It always catches me by surprise. Once I took the turn to Salt Lake City and had to do a left turn across the “Maintenance Only” intersection. This time I didn’t turn at all and had to consult my atlas at a Conoco Filling Station: Highway 86—not Pocatello or Salt Lake—but right, to Burley, Idaho. There’s a trucker’s cut-rate motel in Burley where I’d stayed before, adjacent to a more upscale-with-swimming-pool motel.
There were stop-and-start delays because of a car broken down on the interstate blocking both westbound lanes. There was a longer traffic jam in the eastbound lane, I noticed.
At this hour, Ringo the cockatiel is wondering where the person is who covers up his cage at night. That 75-year-old lady is laying out her clean, soft sleeping bag on the bed of Room 434 of the Budget Motel in the middle of southern Idaho, wondering how much extra it would cost to call her husband. I should have asked at check-in how these room telephones work. If they work.
Here it’s worth mention that once I got only halfway through the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, even though I think the author is a Montanan.
I managed to plug in the small plastic radio by the bed and got a station: British Broadcasting Channel (BBC), which comes on at 9 p.m. At 10 p.m., Rachael Maddow will appear on the flat-screen TV on the bureau if I punch 209...but I’ll be asleep by then. The telephone rang. It was my son John, who is beginning to understand that his aged mother has to be monitored now and then, gently guided in the use of mechanics and sometimes reminded what day it is. However, I am laser-focused on the way to his house. John said he’d leave the house unlocked for me. Tomorrow’s Saturday, and they’re going fishing. Most probably they’ll be home before I get there.
And where is my car key? In the pocket of the old comfortable blue jeans on the other bed of this two-double-bed motel room. All I have to do tomorrow is turn the key in the ignition of my red Toyota Venza, and drive to Bend, Oregon.
I am happy to be unencumbered and anonymous in my Budget Motel room. There is no notepaper, pen or bottle of lotion. There are, however, one shampoo, two soaps and a coffee maker, as well as the TV and Magnavox radio. Simplicity in the extreme.
At the beginning of my trip, Paul the astrophysicist asked, “Why are you going through the Park?” “I like the southern route.” I told him about Oard’s Gallery and gas stop east of Burns, which was a watering hole in the 1800’s for pilgrims who had managed to navigate the winding, impressive canyon of the Malheure River. The present owner of Oard’s is descended from those first pioneers. He said, “I should go there.” His wife died when their daughter was 5. He was getting mail from Medicare in his summer mailbox in Gardiner.
I like to meet visitors to the Park in summer. They’re as interesting as bears. And more numerous.
I thought about Tom, my husband, who has worked in Yellowstone Park for 30-some years. A woman should never marry a man who is younger than she is. He will sooner or later wonder if he could have done better. But could he? Could I? He will have fed and watered my horses, and said goodnight to Ringo Starr, the cockatiel.
I’ve come 296 miles.
Saturday, July 22
At 9:30 a.m., it’s 68° in Burley. I’ve had a motel breakfast, also a hot bath and a good night’s sleep and am ready to cruise and listen to Idaho radio stations for a while.
“Steve, a 5-foot robot patrolling for security drowned itself in a shallow water fountain. Steve could roll, whistle and beep. He may already be outdated by the latest software technology.”
“John McCain has announced he has brain cancer.”
“Twenty million people are in danger of starving in South Sudan. A million refugees have fled to Uganda.”
A sign at a southern Idaho rest area asks that anyone driving this route (Highway 40) regularly please keep a tally of road-killed barn owls and notify a bird biologist at Montana State University. Barn owls have been committing hari-kari in road traffic at night. I don’t drive this road more than twice a year, but I have noticed once or twice, a clump of light feathers that might have been a barn owl. I wonder if it is really possible, driving at highway speed, to positively identify an owl that has been flattened into roadkill.
Crop dusters are spraying fields. A dead badger is easy to identify at the edge of a potato field. There are numerous hawks, flying and resting on telephone wires.
At quarter of 12 Boise time, at a rest area just east of Boise, I left my porcelain drinking cup in the rest room and went back for it—but got myself turned around and went into the wrong restroom...the trucker’s restroom. I realized my mistake when I came out and saw semitrucks. I must have been thinking about barn owls. Or 80-degree heat rattled my brain.
Another gas stop in Ontario and a long stretch of onion fields in eastern Oregon. At quarter to two p.m., I was entering the Malheure Canyon. No road sign prepares travelers for perpendicular walls of barren rock shutting out sunlight and a road that follows the curving track of the Malheure River.
A little way into the canyon, there is the “Shoe Tree”—another more temporary landmark with no announcement to prepare for it or explanation of it either. What is a summer, leafy tree doing with pairs of all kinds and sizes of shoes hanging by shoestrings from its branches like mysterious, magical fruit?
I wasn’t in a hurry. Oard’s Gallery is the first sign of civilization beyond the canyon, and I stopped to say hello to whoever was minding the gift shop and to admire a collection of Native American cradleboards, some old and some new, that are on display at the back of the store with impressive price tags. There is a relic of a gas pump serving up non-ethanol gas, $4 a gallon. A beat-up dusty truck with Texas tags was parked at the gas pump. A distinguished, well-dressed older man who said he was from Chicago stood with the truck. He was commenting about this non-ethanol gas to the proprietor whom I recognized, a red-haired woman in her 70s.
When she disappeared into the museum, I took the opportunity to reassure him that non-ethanol gas was best for older vehicles, which it looked like his was. He said the truck was his son’s vehicle. He was accompanying his son and his son’s friend from San Padre Island, Texas to Bend. The boys were planning to tent camp until they could find jobs and a place to stay.
“Do you think they’ll make it? They’re young.” With scarcely a pause I said, “Yes, I do.” I thought about my own arrival in Montana years ago. I had worked in Yellowstone, boarded with a family in Gardiner, lived as custodian of a Gardiner motel the following winter and as caregiver for first an elderly stroke victim, then a retired maintenance engineer from the Park who had two wooden legs. Meanwhile, painting pictures had gotten me a couple of shows with encouragement from local artists when I was really at the end of my rope, living in the uninsulated milk house on the ranch that was keeping my horse. After a winter with two weeks of 20 below zero in January, the most beautiful young man appeared at my humble door, asking for paintings for his gallery and offering me a job and a warm place to stay. His sister had a little hotel in Gardiner. She worked bartending at the Two Bit Bar—their family business—and needed a babysitter for her young daughter. Her husband was recently killed in a car accident. All along the way there had been helpful people. This young man eventually became my husband and father of my two sons.
The two boys traveling with this Chicago man looked very young. The father was paying for his son’s gas. They got into their old truck and left. I went into Oard’s and, not in any hurry, arrived at my son’s just in time for supper.
Sunday, July 23
“What was the most interesting part of your trip?” my daughter-in-law asked the next day. I told her listening to political commentators on the radio who contradicted everything the ones I listen to in Montana were saying. And I showed her the Navajo pottery bear I bought at Oard’s. Horsehair is fired into the glaze on its back. A small turquoise glued into the bear’s hump represents its protecting spirit, strength and honesty. The prayer-feathers pattern radiating from its side and haunch remind of the spiritual presence surrounding it. A zigzag beneath represents the path of life. And a fish in the bear’s mouth assures the tribe that his people will never go hungry.
I had come 736 miles.