Rocky Mountain Bound

     Mother and I stood in our suburban driveway waiting for Dad to silence the deep rumbling engine of the "Water Buffalo" motorcycle he'd borrowed from John, our neighbor. John's sixteen-year-old son, Wes, was pullign off his helmet and lifting off of his smaller street bike.

     The pair wore the gritty, ruddy faces of time and miles remnant of their journey back from the Colorado Rockies where they’d gone two weeks before in search of mountain frontier or what might be left of it.

     Hungry for clues that would communicate the story of what they might have found, I visually devoured Dad’s bike, his bedroll and saddlebags, the bugs on the windshield. The road-cobbled ensemble exuded a scent of acrid tailpipe, worn leather, sweet grass and wind. I stood breathing it in, awaiting the venerating truth to roll from Dad’s cracked lips.

     He was our questing hero who had gone in defiant search of a different reality — someplace far from the smoggy, crowded, cookie-cutter lifestyle we had come to quietly  begrudge for half a decade in the oil-boom south Texas metropolis that was 1979 Houston.

     “Well,” Dad grinned at Mother and me, his brown eyes dancing in the low angle of the afternoon sun, “how long will it take you two to pack?”

     For most people, such a statement would amuse and  inspire a light line of interested questioning.

     But, I knew Dad.

     The new, three-bedroom, two-bath house in Memorial Glen subdivision, complete with its azure-blue carpeting, white walls and chrome fixtures, was the fifth house I remembered living in since I was seven. Dad had a habit of rolling in and out of professions, few of which captivated his attention longer than a year or two and many of which he engaged in simultaneously.

     A mid-century renaissance man, I’d known Dad as an artist, welder, photographer, diver, cowboy and saddle-maker. He’d been a building contractor, candle-maker, jeweler, arts director, sporting goods salesman, street cop and federal investigator. Together, he and Mother had established and sold several businesses like a steak house, drive-in, and a diesel gas station. For the past year, he’d been an executive with the phone company. Extraordinarily capable, more than anything, Dad was easily bored and perpetually attuned to life’s next adventure.

     That glint in his eye. That grin. It was all I needed to see.

     Wordlessly, I ran into the house, upturned drawers out of my dresser and dumped their contents onto the bed. Soon, we’d be on an exciting new adventure, off to the mountains of Colorado.

     Events from a couple of weeks previous had set everything in motion when Dad walked in the front door on a Friday evening following a two-hour commute. Mother had come home an hour earlier. I’d been home since four, miserably hammering on long division and noun modifiers in between episodes of Bewitched and Gilligan’s Island.

     Mother had come home exhausted and frustrated, unable to buy gas for her car due to the fuel shortage. She shouted into my room on her way down the hall, “Tomorrow morning, you’ll need to get up at five, so we can get in line for gas. I’m packing a cooler, so we shouldn’t get thirsty like last time.”

     ‘Last time’ was three hours in ninety-four degree heat without anything to eat or drink. Unable to run the air conditioner because it gobbled gas, Mother and I had bickered like rats while waiting impatiently in a gas line extending for blocks. When we’d finally inched our way to the pumps, it was only to find the station had run out of gas twenty minutes earlier. A few days before, someone had been shot while waiting in a similar line. Probably brought on by bickering in a hot car.

     “But I’ll miss Looney Tunes!” I protested.

     Mother was in no mood to argue and snapped impatiently from down the hall, “I have to find that blue fabric for your school uniform, and getting to the mall means getting gas. You have to come with me because you have to try on shoes…” her voice trailed away as she presumably walked into the master bathroom or maybe the walk-in closet. As accounting manager of the southern division of the largest home builder in the country, she was at the back end of a long week of confrontations with her new supervisor.

     I heard Dad’s car drive up an hour later and I walked out of my bedroom to find Mother standing in a pair of cut-offs and a halter top, barefoot on the patio, pouring water onto the skirt belonging to her new pastel, polyester suit. It lie in a heap at her feet, and she stood over it with a watering can just as if she were watering one of the house plants.

     “How come you’re watering your skirt?” I asked

     She sighed, “The zipper broke.” Long pause. “I had to cut myself out of it.”

     “Oh…” I absorbed the scene. “So, why are you pouring water on it?”

     “I don’t know,” she sighed. “It just… it just seems like the thing to do.”

     “Dad’s home.”

     “Okay.”

     Dad walked in, gave me a kiss hello and walked out to greet Mother on the patio. He stood watching her a minute then put his arm around her shoulder and asked gently, “Whatcha doin’, hon?”

     Mother was now stepping lightly onto the skirt, watching the water squish between her toes and run off the edge of the concrete.

     “Drying my skirt.”

     “Huh...” Long pause. “Is there any dinner?”

     Mother looked at him. “I forgot to turn on the slow cooker. So, unless you want raw chicken and potatoes, no.”

     Dad looked at the skirt. “You okay?”

     “I’m just tired. It seems like no matter how hard we try to get ahead, we just get further and further behind. I’m just tired.”

     Dad drew Mother closer. Quietly, he gazed beyond our backyard into the swampy woods that would soon fall in the next phase of the subdivision she signed corporate checks to support.

     He looked up at the sky then back into the woods. “I was standing at my office window today when the V.P. came in and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was considering captivity. He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I told him to look out over the city, and I asked him what he saw. He said, ‘One-point-three million people who need phone service.’ I said, what’s out there is a world of possibilities. And every day, you, I and everyone else in this high rise live our lives in one of a thousand little gray boxes. We’re never out there. We live in a cage. Of course, he tried to convince me that being handed an executive position off the street with the phone company was the chance of a lifetime and I just needed to give it more time. But, I told him I won’t live in a cage, even if it’s one of my own making. So, I handed him my briefcase and walked out.”

     “You resigned?”

     “I chewed through the bars.”

     Mother studied Dad’s face, frantic flickers playing about her eyes.

     “Forget about dinner,” Dad hugged Mother close. “Let’s just go get a pizza.”

     Mother looked up. “Can’t. We can’t afford it.” 

     “What do you mean we can’t afford it? We pull down a hundred-thirty thousand between us, and we can’t go out for a pizza?”

     “That’s what I mean. There’s the mortgage, insurance, car lease, credit cards, groceries — I mean, every paycheck is a string of payments going right back out the door.”

     “We can’t even afford a damn pizza?”

     “Nope. I can make us some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

     “Okay. Throw ‘em in a cooler, and we’ll drive up to Conroe. Watch the moon come up over the lake.”

     “We can’t do that either. No gas.”

     At around noon the next day, when Mother and I returned from filling the tank on her little yellow Celica, we found Dad in the garage tightening the rope on a bedroll fastened to the back of our neighbor’s motorcycle.

     “Whatcha doin’, hon?” Mother asked in a tone similar to Dad’s the night before. She shut the driver’s side door, and I grabbed the shopping bags out of the car as we walked into the garage.

     Dad pulled down on a knot and adjusted the pack he’d tied on top of the bedroll. “Wes and I are heading to Colorado. Nose around, see what we can find.”

     She paused, considering what he might mean, “What are you looking for?”

     Dad leaned over and gave Mother a peck. “Well, after I find the siphon to get some gas out of your tank… possibilities, darlin’, possibilities.”

     So, here we were two weeks later. Dad and Wes had returned, and I could hardly wait to hear what possibilities Dad had uncovered.

     During the animated conversation which ran late that evening around our coffee table strewn with kippers, garlic, mustard and saltines, Dad sketched a map to a place called Hardrock.

     “It’s up in the mountains,” he said, tapping the paper with his pencil. “Remote as hell. Wilderness.” He looked at Mother. “We need to get out of this city, get to know each other again. We never see each other anymore. Hardrock’s a damn sight better place to raise a family. You’ve got maybe a dozen year-round residents. Clean air. No traffic. No crime.” He arched an eyebrow in reference to law enforcement, his longest running career and the one which had kept Mother up nights worrying.

     “But, what about work?” Mother looked mildly concerned.

     “That’s the best part. There’s a little place up there called the Quartz Creek Inn. Martin, the real estate broker, is on the board of directors. He introduced me around and they offered me the job of general manager.” Dad popped a whole cracker, loaded with kippers and garlic into his mouth then grinned at Mother and I, his cheeks protruding comically.

     Despite her best efforts to hedge against his infectious enthusiasm, Mother grinned back. But only a little.

     “It’s a neat little place,” Dad continued, “only maybe an hour or so drive from Granite — that’s the little town down the mountain where Lisa will go to school.”

     “What’s in Granite?” Mother asked. “I mean, is there a grocery store?”

     “Oh, yeah,” Dad nodded. “It’s not the Woodglen Mall, but there’s a place you can get some grub.”

     “The mall isn’t exactly my favorite place. Last year, Lisa and I were almost run down by a herd of chunky chickens stampeding for discounted candy the day after Valentine’s.”

     “There you go. Too many people. And, let’s see, there’s a bank, a library, a ranch supply store — most everyone in the area is a rancher or a potato farmer. Or a coal miner… there’s a coal mine up in Bituminous just down the mountain from Hardrock. Let’s see, what else is in Granite? There’s a high school for Wes.”

     “Wes is coming too?” Mother and I asked together.

     Even before Dad’s work as the first juvenile officer in Oklahoma had made our home a safe haven, he and Mother were always extending our couch and kitchen table to someone in need of a place to stay. So, it wasn’t surprising that Wes would be coming with us into the mountains — only news. Wes had a happy home, but his Mother, Joannie, had become concerned for his habit of frequenting late night parking lots, running with a questionable crowd and tying up their phone line with a revolving roster of amorous teenage girls.

     “Yeah,” Dad nodded, “he’s coming, if Joannie can convince John to let him go. I think they’re working on that now. He’s got a year and a half left till graduation. He can help out up there until he heads to boot camp. Come home for a month or so next summer, maybe.”

     “So, tell me about this inn,” Mother shook a cigarette out of her pack and lit it, marking the transition to the middle stage of serious discussion between her and Dad. “How in the world can a dozen people generate enough business to keep the doors open?”

     “Summer tourism,” Dad brightened. “There’s a bunch of little lakes in the area, and, like I said, it’s surrounded by wilderness, so hunters come up in the fall. Folks come up and camp at the campground by Muskrat Lake or hike up to the old abandoned rock quarry. There’s a famous old generating station up there on the creek. They come up and take pictures when the aspens turn color. Oh, and there’s an old mansion up in Bituminous built by the town’s founder. That place is also famous, draws lots of folks. Plus, Hardrock’s only maybe an hour’s drive from Diamond Hills, a pretty renown celebrity hang-out, so folks from all over the world head there for ski season and drive back to Hardrock just to see what’s there.”

     “What is there?” Mother peered at the small dot representing Hardrock which Dad had drawn on the sketched map and labeled “End of the Road”.

     “Wilderness, baby, lots and lots of wilderness!”

     She looked up. “Is there a house for us to live in?”

     “What, you think I’m going to have you girls living in a tent up in the boonies?”

    “Well?”

     He rolled his eyes, “Yes, there’s a house.”

     “And? Is it nice?”

     “I don’t know, I didn’t go in. It looks okay, though. It’s got a nice little barn, shop-type thing attached.”

     “It figures you’d check that out.”

     “Yep,” Dad munched another cracker. “You’d have to walk thirty yards to work.”

     “How high is this place? What’s the altitude?” It was a loaded question, the answer to which could make or break the whole deal. Mother feared heights and detested mountain driving.

     “About eight-thousand feet, I think,” he answered nonchalantly, “but, listen, hon… I know you’re worried about snowy roads and all. We’ll just stock up on supplies in the summer and hole up over winter,” Dad winked at me and sipped his iced tea.

     He continued, “Just think, no more comptrollers. No more late nights at the office. No more working holidays and weekends, well, at least not in an office. We’ll bust ass four or five months out of the year during the summer tourist season,” he went on, enhancing his optimistic tone, “and then, come winter, you’ll be able to work on that recipe book you’ve always wanted to write. It’ll be fun, hon.”

     Mother had grown silent which meant she was seriously mulling the possibilities… and possible consequences… of such a move. She was also probably considering how Dad might define ‘fun’.

     Dad leaned back on the couch, “There’s a café and a saloon and a few hotel rooms. We’ll build a trading post. We can do trail rides and jeep tours in the summer. We’ll find some folks to manage the café, saloon, and the trading post, and we’ll oversee the whole outfit. The place needs a little TLC, but there’s a lot of opportunity up there. It’s basically a resort, honey. Tourists love it. Martin says the place is overrun from May through September.” He paused again, knowing that financial security was, for my mother, a perennial garden which required constant planning and tending.

     I piped up, figuring my enthusiasm might win her over should Dad’s prove insufficient, “So, what’s the wilderness like?” I smiled, reflecting on Jeremiah Johnson, a favorite movie for both Dad and me.

     “Oh, man,” he sighed, “tall pines as far as you can see. Snow capped peaks on the mountains… Quartz Creek, cold and crystal clear, tumbling down the mountains through the woods right behind the inn. Wes even saw a white wolf up there one morning when we were getting water out of the creek.”

     “No way!” I was beside myself with his mere description.

     “Yep, and elk wander around right outside the living room windows.” He reached for Mother’s hand. “We can even stay open through hunting season to bring in a little extra cash if we need to. Honey, it’s not like it’s off someplace at the end of the world. And if things get tight, I can always find work in Bituminous or Granite.”

     Mother quietly listened, but her silence was about to make me hyperventilate. Good grief, I thought, what was she thinking? She hadn’t even been smoking her cigarette. It just rested in the ashtray wisping away in long tendrils of blue smoke. We had transitioned to the third and final stage.

     Dad’s pitch was over, and I waited to hear the verdict from the Chairwoman who remained silent an inordinate amount of time. I couldn’t swallow around the lump which had formed in my throat. Cripes, would she let us go? I contemplated my wretched fate should she decline.

I pictured the following Monday, returning to a school that corralled six-thousand students within its sterile concrete walls. Each weekday, I ran my trail to and from seventh grade classes and kept my head so full of rules associated with the management of such a hoard that real education was otherworldly. I craved the kind of freedom Dad spoke of, and regardless of its potential economic peril, it lured me with its promise of isolation, rugged wild terrain and unimagined adventure like a moth to flame.

     Mother, of course, was wiser having seen many a moth disintegrate from its own ambition. She had grown up on the post-depression side of a farm in north-eastern Oklahoma — the eldest and therefore surrogate mother to five younger sisters and two brothers. She had lived hard times enough to hear them coming like a freight train. Like her grandmother before her, who had single-handedly defended the family from a band of rustlers, Mother was four feet, eleven-and-a-half inches of fierce, Irish determination leveraged with a steeled measure of Cherokee resilience. And it was that mix of no-nonsense fortitude that had secured her the well-paid position of accounting manger at a time and in a profession dominated by men.

     Dad was proposing she not only leave the hard-fought familiar behind, but relocate to a place she had only known clouds to dwell. I knew it would only take a look from her, and it would all be over.

     She reached for her cigarette and inhaled deeply, her gaze never leaving the coffee table. Dad and I looked at one another as she slowly exhaled and absently examined the glowing ash before returning the cigarette to the ashtray.

     She turned and studied Dad with a look that suggested she was recounting the lyrics to a favorite Waylon Jennings song… something about not marrying a ramblin’ man or cowboy or some other thing pretty much along the lines of what she had already done.

     Then she spoke, “Thirty yards to work?”

     “Thirty yards.”

     She grinned, “Then let’s sell this house and get the show on the road.”

     I sprang instantly from the floor and galloped toward the front door, eager to tell Wes the news. I flung open the door and met him standing on the porch wearing his broad, signature grin.

     “We’re going!” I breathed.

     “Me too! Suitcase is already packed.”

     The cars were the first to go. Dad sold his suped-up Chrysler and settled Mother’s lease. The house went on the market and sold within two weeks for enough to pay off the credit cards, secure a vehicle suitable for mountain driving and fill up the gas tanks.

     By the time the thermometer nailed to the garage dipped to sixty-five, we were leading a caravan out of the west Texas hills with a red, ’71 Land Cruiser, Wes’ beat-up Plymouth Duster and a twenty-six foot moving van snaking into the distant mountains of Colorado, heading toward someplace called Hardrock. 

  

Please remember you can read a digital e-book from Amazon on a PC, MAC or other devices - just grab the app from Amazon and go! Amazon Kindle Reader App Thanks for visiting New Flight Books!

 
Hardrock: Crazy Jake's Fish Bomb by Lisa Bracken. Hand-drawn map through the Colorado Rockies from Denver to Hardrock 1979 Fictional, western humor
  

Dad's vague but sufficient notion of someplace called Hardrock, high in the Colorado Rockies

 
Hardrock: Crazy Jake's Fish Bomb by Lisa Bracken.
  

Town of Hardrock

 

Quartz Creek Inn

    The long, dark highway beckoned beyond Amarillo’s red sunrise, and even before we’d cleared the Texas state line my eyes were straining to be the first to glimpse the Rocky Mountains looming off the high plains the way Dad said they would.

    He’d said over the C.B., “You keep watching, and all of a sudden there they are — chiseled and deep blue, rising up to the sky, filling up the horizon.”

    Mother drove Wes’ “Green Rag”, as Dad referred to it, Wes drove the Land Cruiser which Dad had named “Big Red”, and Dad commanded the moving van which he not so fondly referred to as the “Gas Hog”.

    Black coffee, a Rand McNally Road Atlas of the United States and the dark expanse of an open road at two in the morning gripped me in a romantic embrace yet to abate.

    Linked by C.B. radios and a common destination, we crossed the plains headed west. And, suddenly, just like Dad had said, there they were.

    The Rockies loomed.

    At first, the range stretched long and jagged across the horizon. Then the crescent of rugged mountain peaks grew and grew until they filled the windshield. Before I could examine the details of each magnificent contour, we were rolling over the foothills.

    The air had become dry, cool and crisp. Easing through low passes, the mountains gradually closed in behind us, wrapped around us and finally engulfed us in their high, rocky, spruce-clad slopes.

    Periodically, we’d stop at a scenic overlook to reaffirm our grand pursuit and pry Mother’s grip from the steering wheel so she might better enjoy the view from under the dash.

     Mother’s anxiety over roads which seemed to rise rapidly, disappear suddenly around hairpin turns or top pinnacles that dropped into gaping space culminated in an eventful episode as our caravan approached the top of the Continental Divide.

     Mother had begun the trip singing giddily along with me and Jimmy Buffet on the 8-track, but, as we rose in altitude from the broad four-lane and switched to a winding two-lane highway at three-thousand feet, her enthusiastic vocals were gradually displaced with demure, tentative humming.

    By the time we reached seven-thousand feet, her humming had grown much livelier.

    Finally, we ascended the paved route to one of the loftiest domes on the Divide, the top of which was newly bore through with twin tubes known as the Eisenhower Tunnels. Here, her loud humming was finally displaced altogether with unusual, sporadic outbursts of decidedly non-melodic grunting.

     A light snow was swirling about the snow-packed roads, and soft, four-foot mounds of fluffy, white drift lined either side of the pass. I pointed out the loveliness of the scenery to Mother who seemed intent on spoiling my enjoyment by now grunting continually and wrenching the wheel toward her in a manner which caused the 8-track to skip. Curious about this behavior, I sought advice from Dad.

     Me on the C.B.: “Break one-nine. Dad, Dad? Come in, over.”

     Dad on C.B.: “Yeah? Over.”

     Me on C.B.: “Something’s wrong with Mom. Over.”

     Dad on C.B.: “What do you mean? Do we need to pull over?”

     Mother (trying to wrestle C.B. from me): “NO, NO, NO!”

     Me, regaining C.B. control while scuffling with Mother over the steering wheel: “Mom doesn’t want to pull over. She says there’s no shoulder. But, I think we should stop or something, she’s breathing weird.”

     Dad on C.B.: “Okay, look, you’re going to have to talk her through this. Keep your voice calm and reassure her that everything is okay. All she needs to do is keep the wheel steady and keep going slow. Got that? Over.”

     Me on CB: “Okay, I’ll give it a try. Over.”

     I thought it was odd that Dad had begun to refer to Mother as though she were not present and privy to the conversation. I was, however, unaware that it had once taken Dad three hours to talk Mother — six months pregnant — down out of a hundred-foot observation tower. It had been the episode that triggered her fear of heights and likely had something to do with her reluctance to appreciate sweeping vistas from an eagle’s vantage point.

     Here she and I were together again, this time eleven-thousand feet up.

     “But, Mother,” I soothed, ignorant of the tower episode, “this is beautiful! You’re missing out on all the snow. And look at that creek way down there… man, does it look tiny!”

     “grunt… grunt… grunt…”

     I later learned this type of response to be a self-soothing mechanism which, when employed by persons possessed of desperate and loosely organized thoughts, should not at all be discouraged. Considering the alternative.

    Dad’s words echoed in my head as I recalled him briefing Mother and I on winter, mountain driving. We three sat in Wes’ car which was parked in his parents’ Houston driveway. It had been a sunny eighty-five degrees, and there she sat in her cut-offs and Birkenstock sandals with a happy smile and twinkling eyes. Lightly, her hands rested on Wes’ steering wheel. Seeming to easily contemplate slick roads, steep climbs and perilous drops, she responded calmly to Dad’s gentle coaching.

    “First of all, go slow in snowy and icy conditions and allow plenty of room between you and the next driver. You don’t want to brake or accelerate suddenly, or you could spin out.” Dad instructed. “Just gently pump your brakes. And don’t ride your brakes. If you do, you could burn them out. Okay, try it. Try pumping your brakes, nice and easy.”

    Mother tapped the brakes, pumping them lightly. She looked over at Dad who offered positive encouragement.

    “Okay, good,” he continued, “and don’t turn your wheel too sharp, you could spin out. Just ease into it. If you lose front-end control, just let off the gas and gently rewind your steering. If you panic and over-correct, you could really spin out. Never hit the brakes in that situation, okay? Okay. Try that.”

    Mother gently realigned the steering wheel, and Dad offered a scenario, “Okay, now you’re driving along, and the road looks fine, nice and clear then, bam, you hit a patch of black ice. Remember that? That’s the ice you can’t see, because it blends in with the asphalt. But it’s slick, and you want to be ready for it. Okay, black ice. This time your back end starts to spin out and drifts a little to the right, what do you do?”

    Mother let off the gas, eased the wheel to the right and started to hit the brakes.

    “Good job on the gas and steering. Just gently steer into the direction of a rear spin, but remember,” Dad corrected, “no  hard brakes on ice. Just ease into the spin until you regain traction, and if you get in a bind, try to aim for a snowbank. Let’s try it again, black ice, left spin… what do you do?”

    We spent several hours over the next four days perfecting our techniques on dry concrete, even driving to the Woodglen Mall under imagined extreme winter conditions. This didn’t go over well with other Texans, who, among the most impatient drivers in the country, were accustomed to whizzing through a parking lot at eighty miles an hour while hunting a parking spot in front of Lord & Taylor.

    On the plus side, their hysterical gestures and disgruntled expressions probably immeasurably aided Mother’s ability to concentrate.

    Now, however, near the top of the Great Divide, Mother’s carefree manner had vanished. With only the top of her head peeking out from beneath a billowing, down parka, Mother clutched the steering wheel with her hands at eleven and one. Lifting three inches off the seat and craning over the dash, her wide eyes frantically swept the road ahead.

    Unsure, it seemed, of what to do with her braking foot, she periodically stomped at the floorboard. Reluctant to steer too far left or right, her response was to yank the wheel toward her.

    Realizing she now appeared to be having difficulty recalling Dad’s important instructions, I helpfully reminded her of Dad’s training.

    “Be careful not to accidently hit the brakes, or we could spin out and go over a cliff.”

    STOMP, “grunt… grunt…”

    “Remember what Dad said about hitting the brakes too quick.”

    STOMP, STOMP, STOMP

    “Or too much.”

    She yanked the wheel dramatically toward her.

    “Careful the steering. Remember how easy he said it was to over-correct and spin out?”

    YANK, “grunt… grunt…” YANK, YANK

     Quietly I sought a firmer grip on the door handle.

    Finally, we entered the tunnel and Mother seemed overcome by a sense of calm, perhaps reassured by the fact it were not technically possible to slip over the side while driving inside a cylinder.

    She slowed to a creeping pace, as if reluctant to exit the long portal. She fixed her gaze ahead then startled me by suddenly glancing my way and muttering, “S-s-see, we’re f-fine. We’re fine. I s-said we’d be fine, and now we’re f-fine.”

    Lightning quick she jammed her hand into her purse, wrenched out a pack of cigarettes, shook one out and tossed it to her mouth where she snapped it out of the air like a bass going after a black gnat. Clenching it in her trembling lips, she flipped her lighter out of the pack’s cellophane and spun the striker like a flywheel.

    Were we fine? Mother didn’t seem fine at all. And, now, I’d begun to wonder whether I was fine.

     Dad’s voice crackled over the C.B.: “Breaker one-nine, Lisa? What’s going on? How’s Mom? Over.”

     Silence.

     Dad on C.B.: “Lisa? What the hell is going on? Answer me. Over.”

     Me on C.B.: “grunt… grunt… grunt…”

     We slowly descended into valleys then rose again, winding through Vail Pass. For most of the morning, we curled our way along a state highway that seemed to squeeze us through narrow valley passages, each one little more than a path of erosion in the grander scheme and not much more improved for vehicular transport.

    Every route was flanked by a tiny, frigid-looking stream at the bottom of a cliff on one side and the sheer mammoth face of a raw-hewn mountain on the other.

    Around mid-afternoon, we finally turned onto County Road 211 which was to be part of our new address. We were now approaching the dot on Dad’s map.

    Hardrock.

    Seven slow miles later, the tight, dark fringe of towering blue spruce and clutches of bare-branched aspen yielded suddenly to a tiny haven nestled on a gently descending slope above Quartz Creek.

    The house and inn seemed to each possess an initial, nearly angelic quality… as if each building were sitting quietly reserved and festooned with improvements awaiting our perfectly timed arrival.

     Wes and I encouraged Mother to partake of the extraordinary setting. For such a petite woman, she was quite persistent, and it took some dexterous persuasion and leverage to first loosen her from the upholstery then dislodge her from the vehicle.

     Parallel to Quartz Creek, Dark Mountain rose several thousand feet almost immediately behind the inn. It was a mirror image of Absolution Mountain which loomed as high, several hundred yards in front. Down the road a couple of miles, at the southern end of Hardrock, rested the twin pinnacles of Kodiak Mountain and Pickanaxe Peak. Beyond that, endless wilderness. We were cradled at eight-thousand feet in the rugged, stony heights of fourteen-thousand foot giants.

    Within a few minutes, the inn revealed itself through my fog of euphoria.

    Did I use the word “improvements” in a preceding paragraph? I apologize for the misleading description. Improvement technically suggests some manner of betterment through the application of effort.

    The only evidence of such an effort was what appeared to be a gaping hole in the south end of the building, indicating a half-hearted attempt at leveling the 260-foot long, two-storied, lumpy-roofed structure languishing in the snow. Apparently, the bulldozer operator had been overcome by depression at gazing upon it and left with the improvement project incomplete.

    As we stood pondering the scene, a crest of snow slid from the roof of the inn into the interior of what must have once been a motel room.

     “This is utterly righteous!” Wes exclaimed as he loped off on lanky legs to explore more of the inn and its surroundings than his first trip had allowed.

     “Dad, this is so cool,” I said, in awe of the grandeur, the beauty, the exhilarating, enveloping sense of complete liberation. The air smelled exceptionally clean — a crisp, thin atmospheric cocktail of sunshine, chlorophyll and moldering pine forest floor. Pristine wilderness extended as far as you could imagine in all directions.

    It took Mother and Dad another ten minutes or so to expel the refinery-induced smog which had long occupied their lungs. At least that was to what I attributed their sudden lack of conversation.

    Judging by the signs affixed about its various entrances, the inn appeared  possessed of a saloon, a restaurant and ten motel rooms we later found to be inhabited by marmots and raccoons — notoriously non-compatible neighbors who nightly engaged in raucous competition for control of the remaining, rotting inventory left behind by the former management.

     Former management had, according to Dad, consisted of a continually propagating family of eleven who had subsisted through several winters by supplementing their income with a nearby sheepdog breeding facility.

     The doors of the inn swung back and forth, banging in the sporadically gusting October wind, dispossessed of their anchor and loudly announcing their lonely state of disregard.

    The main sign, chipped, faded and scrawled in large block letters reading, Quartz Creek Inn, sat perched atop the roof. Hanging from a single corner post, it creaked with every breeze like a snapped arthritic limb. Newspapers, aluminum cans and beer bottles lie wind-swept against dark, icy alcoves of the building which had been abandoned nearly two months. It was imminently depressing and silently begged its deliverance.

     Mother still had not uttered a word, and Dad and I exchanged nervous glances, both relieved that the house, at least, appeared in good condition.

     “It’ll just take a few weeks to get the inn lined out, hon. It just needs a little TLC. Let’s go look at the house…” Dad offered, leading Mother gently up the drive to the enormous windows which looked out upon the county road winding through Hardrock toward the snowy mountains beyond. “Just look at that view, honey!”

     More interested in the view on the inside than what threatened from beyond, Mother cupped her hands around her eyes and tentatively peered through one of the windows.

   Observing, with Mother, the interior of what would be our new home, I blurted out my first impression, “Holy cannoli, Dad, look at the snow! Part of the roof must be off the house. There’s snow all over the living room.” 

     Mother made a weird sound, but at least it wasn’t a grunt.

     “That’s not snow!” Wes said, crunching along as he burst around the corner of the house.

     I heard Mother and Dad utter a long, collective sigh.

     “It’s dog hair! Ha! Can you believe that? Dog hair!” and, he was off again.

     It appeared we had located not only our new home, but also the sheepdog breeding facility.

     

The Hardrock Welcoming Committee - as it were...

     In a most calm and deliberate manner, much as one might expect of four flatlanders suddenly thrust into the frigid fingers of oxygen-starved outer space, the next three hours found us fairly charging up and down the ramp of the moving van, skirting one another like ants milling about the entrance of an anthill. Well, we moved more like slugs, but our minds and lungs believed we were charging.

     We lugged furniture and boxes into the house through the front door which opened into a country kitchen. It was nearing mid-afternoon, and our determined excavation of the truck had made little more than a dent in what amounted to a wheeled time capsule yet containing two-thirds the story of our lives recorded in artifact. 

    Dad, Mother and Wes had detained themselves within the grotto that defined the house, doubtless intrigued by some shocking new find. I paused to take in the grand scene before once again carting a load to what would be my new bedroom opposite Wes’ at the back of the long, narrow house.

    That’s when I thought I heard shuffling some distance behind me. The sound grew, and with my finely tuned receiver, I was sure I detected the unmistakable sound of heavy, rushing footfalls in the snow. A bear! A rampaging bear!

    Before I could choke out the words, a girl about my age tore around the side of the house, breathing in long rasps, “I think… I lost him… in the woods!”

     “Who?” I asked, searching her reddened face.

    She furiously brushed away her hair and scanned the nearby trees in a resolved, expert manner suggesting routine, “My brother!” Her breathing calmed quickly, “He’s got the gun again.”

     “Holy cripes!” I exclaimed.

     “He’s coming, I hear his bike!” she instinctively crouched and began scouting for a hide-out.

     “Here,” I said, “get in the truck! Hide behind that dresser!”

     Like a pro hurdler, she sailed over the ramp into the back of the truck and was out of sight.

     The beast bellowing and snorting hot on her trail was even more alarming than I had imagined. As her brother rounded the side of the house, he skidded his bicycle brakes on the packed snow and leaned back, resting one hand on a handle bar and a long, fat, steel tube across his thigh. He was short, stocky and looked to be about ten. Oblivious to our moving in, he scanned the area, eyeballing under the porch. 

     “You seen anyone hangin’ around here?” he growled, scowling darkly and squinting his right eye. Except for a swath of tortured scalp about three inches wide running across the top of his head and phasing out with random hairs at the crown, his beady eyes shone beneath a shock of longish hair matted to his pulsing, red face. I later learned both the swath and the squint were the combined result of an unfortunate accelerant accident with the homemade gun-like device he now gripped against his thigh. He viciously chewed a plug of tobacco and spat toward the tire of the truck.

     “No,” I said, unable to appear casual.

     “Huh,” he took a last look around, expertly flipped the tube over his left shoulder, lurched forward and pumped furiously down the road toward town.

     “Good grief!” I said, signaling to my new friend that the coast was clear. “That was your brother?”

     “Yeah, Mark. The jerk. I hate him. He’s always throwing knives around the house, and now he’s got this stupid potato gun the Peevil boys showed him how to build.”

    I was speechless. In our five year association, Wes and I had developed sophisticated means of aggravating one another to near madness, but this was a type of guerilla warfare I’d never seen among immediate family members.

     She continued, “I was coming down to see if the new managers had any kids. He saw me on the road and started after me. I took off through the woods, but he’s pretty good at jumping logs and stuff, even in the snow.” She stifled a giggle, “I call him Skidmark. He thinks it’s because he’s a hot shot on his bike.”

     Hee hee. The nickname seemed not only imaginative, but wildly appropriate.

     “You guys want some help moving in?” she offered.

     “Sure!” I said. “What’s your name?”

     “Al,” she replied. “Well, Alex — that’s actually my middle name. Everyone just calls me Al. What’s your name?”

     “Lisa. My middle name is Joe.”

     “Lead the way, Joe,” Al smiled and grabbed a box, nodding ahead of us.

     This couldn’t be better, I thought. We’d just arrived and already I had met a partner in crime and acquired an alias, not to mention a shared nemesis… Skidmark.

     It turned out Al was from a large family of siblings, many of whom had already left home. Her sister, Georgia, was sixteen and Al was next to the youngest. Miraculously, the entire beneficial selection of Hubert family genetic material appeared to have been bestowed upon Al, alone, leaving her younger brother in particular to clamor through life in what we could only hope were the throws of evolutionary progress, however unkind.

    Within days of our arrival, Al and I had claimed one another as best friends and worked covertly to successfully relocate her to my house two grocery bags at a time roped to the handlebars of our bikes and wholly unbeknownst to either of our sets of parents. 

     As Al and I stood staring at the thick layer of white dog hair which adhered spectacularly to the dark-green, deep-pile shag spanning the vast living room, Al looked up through the huge naked windows and noticed two people approaching the house. 

     “Who are they?” I asked, interested in their primitive, mountain folk appearance.

     She was a tall, slouching woman in her mid-thirties wearing a homemade muslin shirt and carrying a heavy coat over her arm. As she trudged along the drive, leather boots kicked away the hem of an ankle-length, woolen skirt. An exaggerated expression of happiness punctuated her plain, elongated face much like one might see on a mask portraying the theatrical arts. Her hair was pulled fiercely into a pony tail, but most shocking was her rejection of upper-body concealment which she flouted with free-wheeling abandon.

     Her escort was a smallish man, his long wavy locks loosely bound beneath a leather cowboy hat. He had a mellow, friendly face with optimistic eyes. Dressed in a flannel shirt, faded jeans and softly worn work boots, his most notable feature consisted of red suspenders emblazoned with large, bright-green marijuana leaves.

     “It’s Willy and Gert. They’re pretty nice,” Al mused, shooting me a sideways glance. “Potheads.”

     Holy cannoli, I thought. We had an insider.

     Since our front door was still standing open, Willy knocked on the door frame and peered tentatively inside the house.

    Dad was busy loading green aspen logs into the fireplace, intending to de-stinkify the house over then next three days by flushing it with smoke while we found relative refuge in the inn. Mother was on the phone, haggling with the electric company to turn on the power but enjoying limited results given the eight-hundred dollar balance the previous managers had left unresolved. Wes was fighting off an avalanche in the back of the moving van.

     I met our neighbors at the threshold with Al beside me. 

     “Hi Al,” Willy paused, “are you guys the new managers?” He smiled and nodded toward Mother as she banged the receiver several times on the kitchen table.

     “Dad?” I yelled into the living room.

     “Just a minute,” he yelled back, “I’ve got to get this damn grate out of this fireplace. I don’t think anyone’s ever cleaned this piece of…” — CRASH — “Son of a ...”

    “We have company!” I shouted.

     Dad stormed into the kitchen covered in grey soot which dignified his riotous, Comanche-French, black hair and accentuated his flashing eyes. Fine ash puffed around him each time he stomped a foot or swung his arms. He was upon Willy and Gert before they had a chance to dismount the porch or release Gert’s skirt which had snagged a nail as she vaulted over the railing.

     “CAN,” Dad cleared his throat loudly, “I help you?” Evidenced by his restraint, all those executive management training seminars were paying off.

     “Um, yes… I’m Willy, and this is my wife, Gertrude… er, Gert. We live up the road a piece, and, uh,” he seemed distracted by Dad’s appearance and exhibited difficulty concentrating on his speech let alone meeting Dad’s wild stare, “well, we, uh… thought maybe we could, um, you know, run the café for you.” Willy released a shuddering sigh of obvious relief.

     I whispered to Al from our vantage point near the hall, “Hey, that’s great!”

    “Yeah,” Al remarked, “but they think you guys are rich Texans. The whole town does. Just wait till they start talking about money.” She gave me a look like she knew how the whole scene was going to play out.

     Dad introduced himself, “I’m Ike. This is my wife, Jessie.” He gestured toward Mother and brushed a torrent of ash from his right sleeve. “Do you know anything about the restaurant business?”

     “Oh yeah!” Willy’s eyes brightened. “Gert ran a little café back in Idaho. We owned a little silkscreen shop, too, but Gert mainly managed the café. We’ve got the menu worked out and everything. We figured we’d call it the Pan Handle. We’ll show you what we’ve got planned if you want to sit down and talk about it.” Willy beamed, boldly snapping his suspenders then looking immediately concerned for having done so.

     “What do you need a month, salary-wise?” Dad asked, raising his voice over the periodic banging of the receiver and Mother’s loud, quavering voice.

     “Well, we were thinking in the three or four-thousand range,” Willy nodded affirmatively.

     “Uh huh… how about forty-percent gross. You take care of stock. We take care of utilities, printing and advertising.” It wasn’t exactly a question, but Dad awaited a reply nonetheless.

     Willy and Gert looked at one another, calculating their response in a split-second, as only long-married couples can do, “We’ll take it! When can we start?”

    “When you hang the open sign in the window.”

     Dad and Willy vigorously shook hands, cementing the deal between Dad’s sooty ash and Willy’s sweaty palms.

     Al and I watched Willy and Gert hurry down the road, scarcely making thirty yards before Willy stopped and frantically mined his pocket. The pair paused and exchanged something then were off again at a markedly slower pace, their arms around one another, slight wisps of smoke escaping over their heads.

     Mother sat at the kitchen table which was comprised of a varnished pine picnic table with bench seats. Holding her head in her hands and puffing furiously on the cigarette clammed tightly in her lips, she stared out the window at the moving van.

    Dad dropped down opposite her and poured another cup of coffee from the old, green Stanley vacuum bottle he’d used on a hundred stake-outs. “What’s the deal on the electric?” he asked.

     “They’re going to turn it on. We’ll have to get them verbal authorization from the board that they’ll get payment then they’ll send a guy up.”

    “Good,” Dad nodded.

    Mother appeared irritated, “By the way… I don’t think we have private phone service up here. I think we’ve got a party line.” She was referring to the practice of providing several rural households shared phone service. Unfortunately, shared lines meant unintentionally shared conversations across an entire neighborhood.

    “How do you know we’ve got a party line?”

    “Because, when I was arguing with the electric company, I heard a click then someone else talking. Then I heard dialing. Then everything got quiet except for on my end. After I finished, I said ‘bye’ and waited a minute. I heard two phones hang up,” she sighed and tapped the ash off her cigarette. “A party line. Isn’t that just wonderful?”

    “Well, we’ll just have to be careful. Could be exciting…” Dad grinned, exaggerating his wide-eyed effect, “depending on who lives up here. Gossip makes the world go ‘round for some folks, don’t-cha know.”

    Mother rolled her eyes, “I could do with a little less excitement.”

    “Okay, here’s some good news. We’ve already got a manager for the café.” 

     “Really?” Mother asked, disbelieving.

     “Yep. Listen, don’t worry. I’ve been thinking…” Dad reached over and took Mother’s hand, “we’ll tear out what’s left of the motel rooms down on the south end and turn them into a trading post. We can outfit it with a few groceries, film, pop, ice-cream in the summer… I’ll put in a woodstove and a little place to sit and have coffee.”

    Mother listened, appearing to see beyond the moving van which blocked our view of the inn from the kitchen window.

    “We’ll turn the other four motel rooms on the north end of the boardwalk into a couple of apartments, that way we’ll have a steady income stream. That will still leave us four motel rooms upstairs to rent out. We’ll get the café open — let Willy and Gert run that. We’ll get the saloon open, and I’ll bartend until we can find a manager. We’ll have the basics rolling within a month, and the rest we can work on through the winter. Everything will be ready before next summer’s tourist season. It’ll have an old western ambiance. What do you think?” he winked at her, borrowing a long drag from the stubby cigarette butt left on the scrounged aluminum can sufficing as an ash tray.

     Al and I beamed at one another. Dad was such a visionary.

     “I think we’d better figure out how to get the dog hair out of the carpet and that weird smell out of the house. We can’t keep the doors open all winter.”

     “I’m working on that,” Dad said, scowling over his shoulder in the direction of the fireplace.

     Al nudged my ribs, “I am so glad you guys moved here!”

     “Me, too! Think you can spend the night?” I asked, hopefully.

     “Well,” she shrugged, “they haven’t come looking for me yet.”

     Wes lumbered through the front door with a box of books threatening to disembowel its self.

    KA-BOOOOM! A huge concussion rattled the windows, which left Wes standing in the doorway holding an empty box, buried up to his knees in encyclopedias.

    Shocked immobile mere seconds, everyone quickly scrambled over the heap to get outside and see what had happened. 

    Once outside, we looked collectively down the road toward town and the presumed direction of the sound.

     “What the hell was that?” Dad asked no one in particular.

    A few rocks and clattering gravel tumbled from the ridges of Dark Mountain and splashed into Quartz Creek, behind the inn.

     A cloud of debris and white smoke began rising about a quarter-mile away.

     Momentarily, what appeared to be a man came staggering toward us.

     We met him at the end of the drive. He was tall and thin, wearing a worn-out, smoldering denim jacket. He carried a cowboy hat which looked like an exhumed Civil War relic, the brim of which gave off a steady fog of smoke. A trick hip had him skittering oddly along, long filaments of red hair waving haltingly above his head. His look of shock was enhanced by comically expressive eyebrows, a long, scraggly mustache and a free-ranging gotee which he beat at with his hat when it flared. His eyes, wide and shadowed with fatigue, appeared kind and good natured.

     “I knew it had to be Jake,” Al said, shaking her head. “He’s always blowing something up.”

     Jake beat at his beard again, as if running a herd of cattle through it, then smoothed back his hair and replaced his hat, the edge of which had not yet burnt out. Staggering, he caught himself.

     “When’s the saloon going to be open?” he asked, eyeballing Dad and steadying his stance. “I need whiskey. Fast.”

     “It’s going to be a while, friend,” Dad said. “What’s the hurry?”

     “Well, first, to steady my nerves. Second, to keep the blaze goin’.”

     Al and I exchanged looks of jubilant expectation. Three hours in, and the adventure had already begun…

Hardrock: Crazy Jake's Fish Bomb by Lisa Bracken - Map of Hardrock

     Well, this is Hardrock, and from our vantage point up here on Dark Mountain (right about where Al and I built our luge run), we can see the whole town.


     Beginning on the left, you'll come to our place and just down the hill is the Quartz Creek Inn (well, the back side anyway). You can see the infamous 'coyote blind' balcony off the left hand side and Ty's bear-attacked horse trailer on the right near the corrals, tack shed and hitching post. In the middle of the back of the Inn is the rear entrance to the cafe', near Willy's tree.


     If you follow along Quartz Creek, you can see the ruins of the old stone finishing mill and the confluence of the Black Sand River. Usually creeks flow into rivers, but in the case of the Black Sand, it was discovered first so got tagged as a river. On up Broke Leg Trail, along the Black Sand you'll come to the abandoned Red Garter Quarry. Up that way is an old cabin - but more about that in book three.


     If you keep on walking up Quartz Creek past the confluence you'll see a rope foot bridge. And just past that is Peevil's. Let's not linger here...


     Okay, so now that we're looking back at the road heading into town, you can see just a little ways past the Inn and off to the left is a tiny cabin (wait till you hear who rented it in book two and what happened between him and Jake).

Then, a little further up the road and off to your left again is Crazy Jake's abandoned house -- well, I guess it's not abandoned if Jake's living there. Boris' old trailer is next door. Let's keep moving... Boris is unpredictable and Jake is probably eyeballing us from his outhouse. The streetlight is gone now, by the way. Over on the right is Willy and Gert's A-frame cabin.


     Behind Jake's is Elivra and Doorite's place. There's a story in book two about their pig pen out back. What a harrowing experience that was. I don't see the pig, but let's move on just in case...


     That little structure just before the bridge is an abandoned pop stand.


     Okay, now here's a cluster of houses... up on the hill to the left is Ray and Jill's place and then Sol and Dot's. And then there's the church. On the right hand side of the road is Enis' place (you can kind of see his peafowl pens beside his house). Further in the trees, near the lake is Milly Swampnettle's place. Down toward the river is Cleo and the Rat Man's and then further down by the river is Peevil's place again.


    So back on the main road... next, we come to Muskrat Lake. Up on the hill to the left is the creepy old Whittletake place. Cripes. Good thing it's not dark out. There's a story about this old mansion in book three.


     Next, there's a fork in the road. If you go right, you'll cross the little red bridge and be at Al's place (we call it that even though she's always at my house). If you go left, the Heelantoe Trail will take you up onto Pickanaxe Peak (where Pickanaxe Pete lives) and then to Kodiak. Kodiak Hud lives over on Kodiak Mountain back in Obsidian Basin. Pickanaxe Peak is the site of several interesting tales and adventures in book two!


     Hope you enjoyed the tour, see ya next chapter!

     Hey - you wanna read another chapter, like a real story, since you only kind of got the introduction?

     ...K... Click here to see the fiasco Al and I got into that led to me eventually and whole-heartedly adopting a raw-vegan lifestyle!

Reviews

“... Couldn't put it down. Left me wanting more. Lol a lot!” -- Harriet, Facebook

“I enjoyed spending time with this family as they learned to love their new lifestyle (and most of their neighbors.) There is truly never a dull moment in Hardrock.” -- Melki - Goodreads

“Haven't laughed this much in a long time. Nothing I didn't like about the book and hated for it to end.” -- Frank - Amazon

“Loved this book., was fun to read.” -- Rick - Facebook

Rated 5 out of 5 stars -- Richard - Goodreads