By Heidi Espenscheid Nibbelink
“That ought’a hold her for now.”
I drop the car’s hood and slip the roll of duct tape over my wrist, wearing it like a bracelet. “Just a cracked radiator hose,” I tell the stranded driver. He peers at the closed hood like the sun will hit just the right angle to reflect hidden instructions in the shiny finish. The wind lifts his sparse white hair as he leans on his metal crutches. They’re the kind that only come up to your elbows. The kind they give to people who aren’t going to get better.
“I taped up the hole,” I tell him, holding up my wrist so he can see my duct-tape bracelet. “It should make it to the next gas station just fine.” I look over at Bridget and she nods. “We’ll follow you to the exit.”
“I thank you,” he says, and painstakingly crawls into the driver’s seat, hauling one crutch, then the other in through the front door before cranking the engine. It coughs into life. No clouds of white smoke curl from under the hood. He nods in relief and we head back to our car to follow him down the highway to the next exit. I bet my tape job will last longer than to the next service station. I bet it will last a week, at least.
Bridget and I were headed to the Bighorns for a five-day backpack into the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area. Five days away from my family was an unprecedented luxury and had required weeks of negotiation. I’ll watch the kids while you go to happy hour IF I can go on my backpacking trip. We were set to hike in at Baby Wagon Creek. Baby Wagon was a funny enough name, but the one time I’d gone camping with Gabe we’d pitched a tent beside Crazy Woman Creek. That isn’t as uncommon a name as you might think. Makes you wonder what happened way back. What sorrows had washed downstream?
Our motorist waves as he takes the exit and we fly on by. “Even if it takes thirty minutes to get to the trailhead, we should have plenty of daylight left to hike in,” Bridget tells me. She studies the topographic map spread across her knees. I know she’s already got our route memorized, but she keeps looking. I have no idea where we’re going, was too busy to look at a map, barely had half an hour to shove my things into a backpack and hope I got the essentials before it was time to go. I’m trusting her.
Since her divorce three years ago, Bridget has spent more nights sleeping outdoors than in. She and her current boyfriend work as field biologists, going wherever animals need to be tagged and tracked. Bridget and Vince migrate north in summers, south in winters. Prairie dogs in Wyoming, mountain plovers in Texas, woodcock somewhere in the Midwest. We haven’t seen each other in six months.
“I’m so glad you made me pull over for that guy. My first instinct is always to think it’s a scam. I read too many scary articles online.”
Bridget’s red-gold hair is tied back with a blue bandanna. She wears jeans and a t-shirt stretched tight across her breasts, like always. I blather on. “I wonder if it was weird for him to be rescued by two women?”
“Maybe.” She shrugs.
“It was kind of a rush to be able to actually fix it,” I continue. “You know, instead of just lifting up the hood and going, ‘Yup. That’s an engine all right.’”
Bridget turns back to her map. I drive in silence, attuned to any signal that she’s ready to open the doors and windows and valves she’s sealed shut and let me in.
Bridget and Andy’s divorce really screwed up my social life. They were the nexus couple. They hosted the parties with the best food, the best drunken guitar playing. They liked doing stuff with us that included our kids, something many of our other grad student friends had no use for. When Bridget tried to explain the split she’d said, “Whenever we were supposed to spend time together all we did was get drunk and have sex.” My husband and I looked at each other as if to say, “Um, isn’t that what marriage is?”
Of course our marriage is more than that. Too much more, with two kids, a cat and two dogs, and endless renovations on our 100-year-old house. Not to mention squeezing in a couple degrees apiece alongside job and extended family obligations. Getting drunk and having sex sounds like a vacation.
After the split, Gabe and I negotiated. OK, I get Bridget for cross-country skiing on Saturday morning, and you can have Andy for happy hour on Friday. We made sure they were never in the same place at the same time, no easy feat in a small college town. After a year, Andy headed up north, and Bridget met Vince and became a nomad.
The first night along Baby Wagon Creek, lying encased in nylon, I miss the gentle feet of my cat making her nightly walk up my legs and across my belly before settling next to my shoulder. I miss the warm breath and sharp elbows of my children crawling into bed with me after midnight. And I miss the constant of my husband’s body next to mine; the sighs and shifts I know how to read in the dark.
Instead there is the rustle of wind in the tops of the lodgepole pines before it glides across the meadow to rattle the tent’s rain fly. I listen to Bridget’s unfamiliar breathing next to me. Sometimes I can’t hear it at all and, like when my children were babies, I wonder if she’s still alive.
I wake up sometime in the night with my heart pounding and a cry echoing in my ears. It’s so dark I can’t tell any difference between eyes open and eyes shut.
“Elk.” Bridget murmurs, and rolls onto her side.
I hear it again, that strange, ringing cry pouring over the meadow, vibrating through the pines guarding the surrounding hills. It takes a long time to fall asleep.
The next day we hike to a nameless little lake Bridget picks off the topo map. We carry day packs and the new fly rods Gabe won from some wildlife club raffle on campus. I’ve been going to the gym semi-faithfully and am at a non-horrible fitness level for me. Even so, I can’t catch my breath at this altitude.
“Sorry I’m such a wuss,” I say as we sit down on boulders for our third rest. The vegetation is so sparse that the trail is only distinguished by little rock cairns piled four or five stones high.
“You’re fine.” Bridget pulls a jar of peanut butter from her daypack and offers me a spoonful. She follows it up with a handful of chocolate chips. She pulls out her map and folds it into a square so our section of trail is centered.
“Where are we?” I lean in for a look.
Bridget taps the map with a stubby fingernail. “The lake is here,” she traces the line, “so we have about two and a quarter miles to go.” She looks at me ruefully. “It’s mostly uphill from here.”
“OK,” I say, wanting to appear stronger than I feel at the idea of two more miles. “I’m ready.”
“Do you want to lead?” she asks, sliding the map into her back pocket.
“You go ahead.”
I’m not confident about my ability to find the next trail marker. Hiking above the treeline is all new to me. I take my place behind her and concentrate on taking one step at a time.
Finally, the lake. I pull the fly rods from my pack and we sit on damp weeds, rigging our poles. We’d stopped at an outfitter’s on the way up and the guy who sold us flies taught us the proper knots to use when tying on the lead, tying on the fly.
“Dammit!” Bridget says. “It keeps slipping!”
“Here, let me,” I say. For some reason, my fingers remember how many loops to make, how many times to wrap the line until it’s secure when tension is applied from both directions. I can’t explain it—I just do it.
We take our poles to the shore and Bridget goes through the sequence with me. Whip the line back and forth overhead a few times, letting out a bit more line each time, then lay it across the water. The fly drops last with a lingering arc, like an inevitability.
To my surprise, I catch three fish. Trout. Stocked by the Game and Fish Department who fly the fingerlings in by helicopter. These fish literally fell from the sky. Bridget has hits, but doesn’t land anything. She says we’d better get back to camp in time to cook in daylight. I clean the fish near the water’s edge, vestigial skills coming back from childhood when I was responsible for cleaning my bluegill before my aunt fried them up for me in her cast iron skillet. I worry about the fish smell on my hands attracting bears. I hope the little pile of heads and guts I bury under a rock will be more enticing than the faint scent I can’t wash away.
After working so hard to climb to the lake, it seems like the way back should be all downhill but it’s not. We’re about halfway back to camp when we hit another steep ascent. After several minutes of climbing, Bridget steadily, me doggedly, we crest the ridge right when fat raindrops began to fall. To our right the trail drops off into a steep, slippery descent of shaley rock. To our left the hill slopes up to a grassy space crowned with an outcrop in the shape of a rough circle, like the roots of a ruined tower.
Bridget points toward the outcrop. “I’ll run up there and see what the weather looks like from the west.”
I can only nod in reply, breathless from our long ascent. Bridget slides her daypack off and leaves it on the trail at my feet. She scrambles up the slope and perches on the rock, seeing what I can’t. She cups her hands around her mouth and calls to me.
“It’s clearing up. This should blow over.” As she speaks, I see an enormous tangerine-colored shape slide into view. Bridget turns to take a final read of the clouds and sees the hot air balloon pop completely free of the obscuring Cloud Peak and ascend into the sudden sunlight. It’s so unexpected and vivid, I forget my tired legs, slip off my pack and climb up the slope to stand next to Bridget.
“That’s so cool.” I pant the words more than I speak them.
Bridget’s hair in the late afternoon light is another version of tangerine.
“Wouldn’t that be the ultimate freedom? Just sail off into the sunset and forget all this climbing?” I say.
“You’d still have to worry about elevation,” Bridget says softly.
She’s right, of course. There would still be elevation changes to monitor, measuring columns of air instead of the slope of a mountain. There would still be maps to follow, far removed from the landmarks they represented. Bridget’s practical mind calculates the necessary equipment, the instruments, the fuel, the weight. I want to step in and cut the tethers, rise from earth and drift away.
Really though, I’d bring my tethers with me. Pile them inside the gondola until there’s barely room to turn around to see the view. Gabe and the kids, books, the pets. My gondola would be so large we’d only lift thirty feet off the ground, bumping against treetops and power lines, not so much gaining perspective as entanglement and adventure. Bridget’s balloon would shoot up cleanly, like a rocket, all her calculations for lift and velocity precise. She’d aim for the high, cold reaches of the atmosphere.
Back at camp, I take out the wine bottle I had stowed away in the bottom of my pack and present it to Bridget. The evening takes on a new tone. The pan-fried trout is crunchy and delicious, the instant rice delectable. My refusal to be the one to light the propane stove in case it exploded seems less childish. A sliver of moon rises over the meadow, sparkling off the meandering creek along the base of our slope. In the absence of a corkscrew, Bridget devises an ingenious method of wedging the flat blades of our pocketknives on either side of the cork. Then we take turns shimmying the cork out of the bottle neck, passing it back and forth in front of the campfire before either of us becomes so frustrated we take the nuclear option of pushing the cork down into the bottle and have to strain broken bits through our teeth.
The cork finally gives way, and, lacking glasses, we pass the bottle back and forth between us. There’s something about staring into a fire that dredges up bits of stories, near-forgotten games. The rhythms of conversation stir, find their pace, settle.
We start playing a game called “Hobbit, Elf, or Man.” Our game memorializes the time I told Gabe that Bridget and I were going to a friend’s baby shower but instead we snuck off to see the final Lord of the Rings movie for the third time, right after Gabe and I had had a Come-to-Jesus-Meeting about no unnecessary expenses. I locked the keys in the car in the movie theatre parking lot and we had to call Gabe to come rescue us. Busted.
“Angelina?” I offer.
“Definitely an elf.”
“No, a beautiful man,” I correct. Wine always makes me a little more sensual. I am inclined toward loving indiscriminately under the influence.
“What am I,” she asks me, “hobbit, elf, or man?”
I consider. The obvious answer is hobbit for both of us, since we are both short and can in no way be described as willowy. But there is something delicate about Bridget as well as solid. She has tiny hands, bony wrists. Her hair springs from her head in waves and tumbles down her back. Scattered freckles across her nose and arms hint at some destiny drawn on her. There is no question she is the smartest person I know.
I am drunk, I realize too late. Tomorrow’s hike will be a trial.
“You’re an elf,” I tell her, “with a hobbit overlay. You’re disguised as a hobbit for a reason yet to be revealed. But your mind and soul are that of the most noble of elves.”
This answer seems to please her. We finish the wine, each take a short walk to pee in the grass, and go to bed.
Nothing about being in the wilderness feels as good as coming out of the wilderness. Five days after we hiked into Cloud Peak, we roll into Buffalo, Wyoming. Our fug of campfire smoke and socks worn two days too many doesn’t prevent us from stopping at a crowded cafe and ordering a huge breakfast.
We find seats at the counter, next to a guy wearing leathers. He’s tied a navy bandanna over his greasy curls. The cafe faces the main road and offers a front row seat for the parade of Harleys that start rolling past the plate glass windows. Our counter-mate tells us this is an annual tradition in downtown Buffalo the Saturday before Rally Week in Sturgis, South Dakota. He’s on his way there himself. Has a sweet bike. Lives in California but makes this pilgrimage every year. He hands us each a business card. It says, “Big D. Voter. Gun-Owner. Citizen. Taxpayer.”
When he goes to the restroom Bridget leans across her plate of sausage and eggs and whispers, “I can’t decide if Big D is a tax accountant from Petaluma playing dress-up, or if he’s the real deal.”
“Definitely Petaluma,” I reply.
Big D comes back to his seat. The parade is winding down, folks are packing up their lawn chairs. We tell Big D we need to shove off. He walks us to our car, gives Bridget another card. He tells us if we need anything, anything at all, ever, to give him a call.
Later that afternoon, I drop Bridget at the field site where Vince will join her in a few days. Two other techs will arrive this evening. The crew has a Game and Fish RV to share, with battery-operated lights and a propane tank in the kitchen. Bridget will head into the truck stop tonight and take a shower, buy some supplies. Her job this month is trapping and banding prairie dogs, monitoring their towns for outbreaks of bubonic plague brought on by fleas. If any of the crew show symptoms of cold or flu, they must start antibiotics immediately. It’s easy to ignore the early symptoms of plague, because it’s just like catching a cold, but by the time it reaches the lungs, it’s too late.
I leave her there, standing next to the trailer in the midst of emptiness. The dying sun glints off her hair, turning her head into a fuzzy golden halo.
As I drive home, back to Gabe, kids, dogs and cat and house, I wonder if one day Bridget will reach into her wallet and pull out Big D’s creased and faded card. If she’ll hear his Harley growling towards her. If she’ll cover her red-gold hair with the helmet he offers and clasp her arms around his leather jacket as they pull onto the highway, headed to Petaluma, following the sun.
Copyright Nibbelink 2020