19 February, 2004

A Southern-belle Camping in Idaho in the Winter
A Valentine Story

Etta arrived in Missoula on Wednesday night clad in the latest urban wear. She lives in Pensa Cola Florida selling pharmaceuticals for Organon. She spends her money on fashion and manicures—massages on the stressful days. She’s about my age, 25, damn motivated and cheerful, loves her job, loves her life.

So she decided, well, we decided it was time for her to come out west for a visit. We dated for a summer while in school in Tennessee and have been close friends ever since. If we split cost of the ticket then the trip would be great for us both. Why not Valentine’s Day? This was a few weeks back so I had time to plan. Where should we go? What is the best I can offer of Montana to a girl who has never seen this country?

Skiing was the obvious choice. I had three days and four nights. We could hike Waterworks hill behind my house, cross-country ski in the Rattlesnake Wilderness north of town, or take a trip up in the Jocko Canyon where I used to live in the Mission Mountains. But when I think of something that epitomizes Montana to me, I think of hot springs. This, to me, is ironic as hell seeing how all the hot springs I visit are in Idaho—but state lines are arbitrary; it’s all northern Rocky wilderness. I’ve been to Weir; I’ve been to Jerry Johnson—but the one I’ve always wanted to visit, the one I have always heard the highest praise for is Goldbug.

South of Salmon, Idaho about twenty miles is a little trailhead at the end of an unmarked gravel road. If you walk up the trail through the mountains into a high canyon the steam starts to gather in the trees. The hot springs run hot and strong this time of year and the thought of camping in the cold keeps the crowds low.

But I’m getting ahead of my story.

I figured this would be the great spot to show the glory of the west to Etta. Romantic too. And I’d get to go—at last. So it’d be good for all.

So Wednesday night we walked around town, ate good Indian food at Tipu’s, drank some wine. Thursday we went to a class, Joyce’s Ulysses, rode bikes, drank tea, hiked up Waterworks to watch the sunset, ate good Italian food at Zimmerino’s—my first time—drank much more wine, danced, and were merry. Now Friday, we woke up a bit drearily and went to packing our gear. The plan was to go skiing at Lost Trail which is on the border of Idaho-Montana and only twenty miles from Salmon. From there, after a day skiing, we would drive south for a soak in the springs and a night under the stars.

She bathed and groomed while I packed. I threw it all in the car and we hauled off by nine-thirty. The sky was densely blue, a rare winter day, not too cold or blustery. The drive was great—great tunes on the college radio station. Etta had never skied but made it down the bunny slope first try, just busting at the line to the rope tow. Up the mountain she was rather stellar, learning all the little tricks fast. She was confident and smiling, loving looking like a ski bunny as much as actually skiing. The blue kicked her ass, but I think she was just tired.

We turned in her rentals and drank a celebratory “local” beer. Widge hopped out of the car and yellowed the snow and rolled and twisted and scratched his back on the packed ice. We loaded up and headed south. Rather exhausted Etta passed out right early on, leaving the road and the scenery to me. Going down the pass into Idaho there were no radio stations to be found, no traffic either—just ice and slow going.

We hit Salmon—only twenty-three miles to go. I got Etta awake to read the road signs to me. At mile post 282 we crossed a bridge and saw our road on the left. The gravel and snow road didn’t look so welcoming, barns and sheds and other human structures dotted the land. Not so sightly. But it was starting to get dark so we focused on getting out and ready to hike.

I should say I. I got us ready to hike, well in the sense that I packed the packs, organized everything, ect., ect. Etta saw to it she would stay warm. She sat in the car organizing her jacket and gloves and I don’t know what. There was nothing she could have done anyway. It was my show; I was bringing her out into this strange cold world. The responsibility was mine.

With that said I should mention that it was Friday the Thirteenth. The stars, the Heavens, the fates, and all the rest had been against me all day. But they had never slowed us down a hair. I say this all in a sort of preliminary defense, because our luck would not ostensibly hold out.

We set out at dusk, Etta in her skiing attire and hiking boots and me in thin sneakers, Etta carrying sleeping bags and me everything else. Etta has strong legs, big calves and thighs; she made her way up the trail steadily. The light and mountains were beautiful. I hadn’t seen Idaho in a couple of years and I had wanted to see Goldbug for about four years. Dusk is my favorite time of day. The snow turned purple and red. There were scattered spots of ice which Etta first navigated gingerly but with a certain self-confidence. But as night sank in and the trail reached higher and higher into the canyon and trees our going slowed.

I prefer hiking without a lamp. I am used to it and so long as the moon allows for it I am happier. But the darkness began to make Etta nervous and the trail was getting a bit treacherous, so I deemed it time to get out the headlamp. Here the fun begins: there is no headlamp. Left it in the car. How could I?—the lamp? A lamp is a pretty darn handy piece of hardware while camping. I know where I left it. In the rush to get out I buried it in the truck while packing. Fool. I hate telling Etta this, but she’ll have to suck it up. I think fear is a good thing to experience
from time to time, but I don’t tell her this.

Within the next twenty minutes she is totally mortified. We stop and I calm her down. I look up and see the glow of someone’s camp just a bit farther up the trail. Etta blames herself for her “de-compensation.” She said she is prone to being emotional when she is exhausted. We find a camp spot; we drop packs and I get out the thermos of hot chocolate to keep her warm. I hurry to the task of getting camp up as quick as possible. I set the tent up in the dark and Cas, another camper below us brings us a light at Etta’s request, which I grudgingly accepted. Sleeping pads out, sleeping bags zipped together, empty pack at back to rest feet on, toilettres, food, stove, water, ect all stored and organized.

The stars shone like mad. They hung like they were right over our heads. Orion’s belt was just over the mountains in front of us. I figured with two good sleeping bags zipped together warmth wouldn’t be an issue. My tent has a flap that can be unzipped from the top of the tent so that I can look straight up at the stars from lying comfortably in my sleeping bag. For this reason I opted not to put the rain fly on. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and life was a lot more romantic this way.

Etta was cold so I told her to get into the bag while I cooked dinner. We could get warm before going down to the springs later. This idea of getting naked, getting wet, then getting out, getting dry and getting back to camp baffled her. It does sound rough when it is twenty degrees out—but it is worth it.

So I get the stove and the fuel out. Knowing that I have all that there is, I stare quizzically at the fuel bottle: it is capped, that is to say that it has a top on the bottle when it should have a pumping mechanism. How had I not noticed this in the morning? Well it was about five hours earlier then I like to wake up and I had hardly slept the night before, not to mention all the wine. Plus, where was the pump? It is always on the fuel bottle. Ah, I bought a new one, or I replaced a part; I fixed it.

Oh this sucked. I laughed out loud, and Etta asked me what was so funny. I told her I didn’t think she was going to find it so funny. It took a while to summon the courage to tell her. No cooking, no mac ‘n cheese, no more cocoa, no oatmeal; in fact, since I had bet on boiling snow for water and didn’t bring the iodine which I frankly just forgot, no more water either. We still had a couple of quarts, so not to worry. In the back of my mind I knew that as long as we had the wine, a big bottle of Yellowtail Chiraz, Etta would be fine. That was all that we really needed.

She brought it up first: “Well, I guess we’ll just drink more wine.” She was a hell of a sport. I went for the corkscrew. I needed to warm her up a bit. I turned the screw in the cork deep and gripped the handle of the army knife ready to pull. As I pulled back against the bottle, something gave, but it wasn’t the cork—no pop, no vacuum seal—and it wasn’t the screw, it was still bedded in the cork. Instead I looked at the knife. The base of the corkscrew had rusted away and broke off, leaving the knife in my hand and the screw in the bottle. I looked at the bottle in awe.

This was almost too much. When in one hour had so much gone so awry? Up until this point I had been impervious, perfect, a good, true southern host to the mountains of the north. But now, in the cold, in the remote night, far from anything comfortable or seemingly safe, all was crumbling. I knew better than to pack for a trip in the groggy morning. I hate mornings: we don’t work well together, only for sleeping. Now because of a morning and a little time since my last jaunt into the hills, I am rusty and poorly attuned to the delicate art of camping.

No wine. No dinner. This was too much. I took the bottle and headed down toward Cas to see if he per chance had a screw, not that it would work at this point, seeing that there was already a screw in this particular cork, but I had to do something. It was one of those new synthetic corks, not so susceptible to being pushed into the bottle. Miraculously I was able to thread Cas’ screw betwixt mine and popped the bottle open. I was quite proud of this meager accomplishment and sauntered back up to camp with a bottle and further knowledge of where the springs where.

But Etta, to my surprise, was still rubber-cold. I gave her a little wine, but she didn’t want to sit up. So I took off my shoes and climbed in. Widge huddled at our feet. We all snuggled and to me it felt cozy warm. It should only be a matter of minutes now before the warmth comes back to the girl.

But there was no such luck and I got a little concerned. I slowly stripped layers off of her (She was still bundled up like a skier). I zipped up the tent. I took off my clothes as to get my heat as near to her as possible. Nothing worked. She was only in her spandex-like long johns. To my amazement, when I stuck my hand in her pants to feel her leg, it was soaking wet. Her long johns were trapping her sweat against her skin. I stripped her down and rubbed her dry. I gave her my long johns and we spooned and she started to warm up.

As the night proceeded to get colder, the tent produced a thick inner ice layer. Leaving the fly off was a huge error. We didn’t care about the stars; we just wanted to be warm. We snuggled and rubbed to stay warm. I fed her water and snickers bars. We had a fair time of it. Of course, the camp site was far from level so we kept listing to the side.

As the sun began to rise and it was still cold as hell I told her it was time to motivate. I had to pee anyway and was sure she did as well. We needed to get up, throw on our shoes, “create fluids,” and make a dash for the springs. I stood up, grabbed the towels and felt oddly rejuvenated by the light and movement. It wasn’t so cold as I’d thought. I packed a little bag: wine, banana, candles. I forgot the tobacco; it was morning after all. But it was no longer Friday the Thirteenth. I found a brownie I had brought as a surprise desert—now it was breakfast.

I went down to the pool and found it empty in the vague morning light. I stripped naked, shivered, and found the stones warm under my feet. Etta was close behind me. She looked so beautiful, standing on the brink of the pool. We had worked hard, paid a price for this moment. Etta wore a look of amazement: “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said; “Oh my God, this is so unbelievable.” It was for sure. I had wanted this moment for so many years and never, until now, had made it happen. And I was so glad to have her with me, a friend since my early college days in Sewanee. I hadn’t seen her in years, but have always loved her and been close to her if only by phone.

We sat with wide eyes full of wonder and warmth. All the ills of the night were paid for. I poured the wine, icy cold and fresh. The taste was strong to an empty stomach. Somehow I wasn’t hungry. Etta was so pleased by the brownie which we savored. We talked for hours, staring down at the valley below and the mountains and clouds before us. Etta could hardly believe it all. We did make it after all. By twelve or a little before I got my first good rumble in my stomach. All of a sudden I realized how damned hungry I was. My hands and feet were ghostly white and wrinkled like never in my life. It was time to go.

I told Etta to stay put and I would go and strike camp and pack the rucksacks. She stared singing “Cheeseburger in paradise.” This would be our next quest: to find the great hamburger joint in Salmon and belligerently feed ourselves. I was ready. The air was so arid that I dried almost instantly. My core temp was so high that the air only felt mildly cool to my skin. I got dressed easily and jogged back up to camp. My hands cooperated as I unloaded the tent and stuffed the packs. The sleeping bags were now great cubes of ice from all the condensation. I shoved it all in and looked up to see Etta coming up the trail.

My hands were cold now but it was time to head down. I was pumped. I had saved one mini Snickers to give Etta a little boost on the hike down. We hoisted our packs and with smile and glad hearts headed downward.

The trail was much easier in the light of day with our troubles behind us. We made fast time. Etta could really spread out her gate and I had trouble keeping up. I found my car keys first try and cranked up the hoopdee. “We survived,” Etta said. I forgot this was her goal, but I was none the less thankful myself. Of course I still had to drive the three hours home, tired, dehydrated, starved, and still thinking I may be traveling under a doomed star.

Etta fell asleep; I tried not to. We made Salmon and we found the greatest hamburger joint in all the universe and time. It was a painful gorging; it hurt, but it was a glorious pain. A soft drink was never so good. Etta had a Corona.

After that, the rest of the drive was a breeze. It was Valentine’s Day. I had flowers hidden in the closet at home. We got home at six. At nine-thirty we had dinner reservations at Sushi Hana’s, my favorite restaurant in Missoula. In the fridge I had a bottle of Irish Cream. Before bathing, Etta’s feet were still cold so we had to get into bed and cuddle for a while. After dinner we came straight home and fell dead asleep.

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