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 pulling 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 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.”
“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?”
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?”
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.