Now that the firewood is split, stacked, and the last of the warm afternoon sun has been sucked from Indian Summer, it’s time for a story. A story that involves glimmering leaves, an insane sunset, fourteen moonrises and a road name from a Stephen King short story. So throw a log in the fire – or turn the thermostat up – and put your feet up. Hopefully by the time you’ve read this, you’ll understand the knot in my stomach or maybe even feel the chill that reverberated up and down my spine.
Every October, my better half gets a hankering for us skip over HooDoo Pass and explore one of the many endless primitive roads that snake through the Clearwater Forest. She really has to twist my arm to cooperate. Can you sense the sarcasm? I too, enjoy seeing what’s around the next corner or over the next hill. This year’s pilgrimage had plenty of both. Not that I had a bad feeling about this trip, but my antenna raised a bit the morning we set off. Maybe it was because that week, the alternator went kaput on Tammy’s car and only the kindness of a nearby neighbor rescued her from a five mile hike home – in darkness, uphill, and in snow. Armed with a new alternator, topped off with fluids and a full gas tank we nosed the Subaru over the funny sounding pass and into the never-ending forest.
The previous year’s journey saw us travel a hundred miles off asphalt until we came across a town in the middle of nowhere. It was a two bar, one gas station kind of place, where the favorite color was camouflage. I immediately fell in love with the town, but my infatuation may have had more to do with 1970’s gas pumps than the personality of the town or its inhabitants. The girl at the gas station didn’t seem to know any of the town names I inquired about. And they didn’t even have a map.
“John, what about your GPS?” I can hear you ask.
“Really?” If you know me, you know I don’t carry that kind of tech in my vehicles. Tammy and I like to dead reckon. Heck, we drove to the Oregon Coast without getting on any interstates. At one point during that trip in some remote ranching area of eastern Oregon we followed a truck and decided that whatever direction it turned we would go in the opposite direction. It’s just how we roll; the adventure is more important than the destination. But I digress. It wasn’t until we got home – after this year’s trip – that I looked at a map and saw that we were merely thirty miles from our goal, and by paved roads to boot. But over a burger and without the luxury of hindsight we decided to call it and we retraced our steps through the Hundred Mile Forest. It was during this jaunt that we bantered away and came up with one of our most memorable sayings – Karmamyalgia. The term is a reference to a certain pain-in-the-ass that got what was coming to him/her – in the form of chronic pain. Used in a sentence, it would go something like this: Luther’s Irritable Bowl Syndrome metastasized into Karmamyalgia, what a shame. The term will make its debut in my upcoming novel Montana Rural, until then, it’s our secret.
Anyway, this year I decided that when we came to a certain fork in the road we would go in the opposite direction than the previous trip. When we passed a place called Scurvy Creek I had images of our car breaking down and us contracting scurvy and our asses falling off or something like that. Why would I have such visions? On a road trip similar to this – one much closer to home – we got stuck in a snow bank, had to sleep in our vehicle and hike out the next morning. Getting stranded is a common nagging fear, especially the more you take silly adventures, especially over roads where vampire rocks like to jump up and sink their fangs into oil pans. Because why my wife is the queen of preparation, I don’t fear bodily harm or even death – I’m certain we could weather just about any storm. No, what I fear of dealing with the inconvenience of hiking fifty or so miles and then returning to rescue the vehicle.
Now my gut told me that Highway 12, the closest known paved road and what I deemed the Yellow Brick Road back home, had to lie somewhere over one of these mountains. And as long as we had over a half a tank of gas I was willing to press forward finding the elusive way out of the endless forest. Further we drove, passing waving fishermen and gawking hunters. Then we hit paydirt. A sign. Highway 12 55 miles. Yes! Instincts had served me right. Little did I know, this is where the adventure began.
Math told me it would be at least a five hour trip. When the going was good, top speed would be fifteen miles an hour. The car climbed this hill, rounded that corner. With each new scene, both of
us craned our necks to see an elusive Jackalope or maybe a bear or moose. Mile after mile, only rocks and ruts greeted us. To the side of the road, hillsides gave way to canyon walls and deep ravines. In the distance snow speckled mountaintops. “There the one’s on the other side of Highway 12. That one’s in the Selway,” I said brashly, so sure of myself.
Soon the afternoon passed to early evening and we were climbing as the sun was sinking. We rounded this mountain and the next until we appeared to be hand in hand with the sun. Did I mention that we started to pass over snow on the road? Not much, but enough to let us know it was there. Across ravines, more snow glowed pink in the dying light. We stopped the car. We got out. A chorus of wolf howls greeted us. Look at the sunset pictures and imagine the soundtrack. Unfortunately we didn’t see them, they were somewhere along the mountainside that we had just passed.
Refreshed and energized we set forward. Headlights on we eventually came to an unmarked intersection. We had two choices, go to the left and head uphill, or go right and downhill. As far as I know, rivers and the roads that follow them don’t run on mountaintops, so off to the right we went. Soon the full moon peaked over the mountains. With the moonrise came the willies, and it’s not easy to admit being creeped out by one of my own creations. I wrote a story about a ghost that feeds off the energy of the living, and he happened to stalk his prey under the light of the full moon. In a place where the nearest electric light was miles and miles away, maybe such demons really do lurk. Around each corner I prepared myself to see a dead three year boy waiting for us. The pitfalls of a creative mind, you know – we’re mostly our own boogeymen.
All that was well and good until we came to another intersection and were faced with a sign directly out of Stephen King’s Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut. It’s a short story about
a lady who is so insistent on finding shortcuts that she starts finding roads that aren’t there. As she finds more and more they become stranger and stranger, more challenging and frightening, until she comes across Motorway B in the Maine woods. The payback was her adventures turned her mortal being into a goddess. We weren’t in Maine, but we did find a motorway – Lolo Motorway. Though it wasn’t paved. It was a glorified two-track road with ravenous vampire rocks. Again we were posed with another choice. And this time, I made the wrong choice. At least I thought I did. To the left was blankety-blank saddle and to the right was so and so creek. Hmmm, creeks are lower than saddles so we again turned right. We started to climb. And climb. And climb. We climbed so far that we saw the moon rise two more times as we gained back all the elevation we dropped. At points the road got narrower and the limbs of trees snatched at our passing car. Snow began to line the road. I started looking at the gas gauge, sure that whatever was left in the tank wouldn’t be enough. An hour passed. Below us, deep canyons shimmered in moonlight. The road turned back into the forest and continued climbing. My patience was growing thin. I just wanted to find Highway 12.
And then we came to an intersection and my wife, whose Indian name is One-who-doesn’t-read-signs cried out: “Highway 12, 10 miles.”
I slammed on the brakes. I looked to the left and smiled. I saw the sign. Then, I had a moment of panic. The road was blanketed with a foot of snow. Remember, we once got stuck in a snow bank on a remote mountain road. I took a deep breath and turned the steering wheel. I pressed down the accelerator. We hit the snow and started to plow. The tires dug in and then they slipped, the front end of the car pointed towards the mountainside. Tammy barked orders from the passenger seat. I don’t remember what she said. I was too focused. We climbed further and plowed more snow. We sailed over the crest of the mountain and just like that the road was dry. I turned to her and said that we should be in a Subaru commercial.
Just when I thought we were out of the woods another fear arose. I turned to my wife and asked: “What if the gate is locked?” For those of you who don’t know, most mountain roads are gated and come October the Forest Service comes along and locks them for the winter. Primarily for wildland preservation, but another unspoken reason is to save people from themselves. With each passing milepost counted down to the moment of truth. What would we do if the gate was locked? We didn’t have enough gas to turn around and go back where we came from, and I also knew I didn’t have the nerve. Mile Marker 3, Mile Marker 2, Mile Marker 1… What would we find?
An open gate of course. It was hunting season after all. After we hit pavement I realized Mrs. Todd was onto something. Each adventure seems to be a bit more unnerving, but in return we are paid back with incredible sights, wonderful memories, and a spirit that is fed and refreshed. At the start of a new journey one can’t predict what will be found, but one thing is for sure, I never imagined coming across a Motorway in an Idaho forest.