Missoula, Sunday, Aug. 11 – The good news: We are alive.
Oh, and it’s Max’s 6th birthday. In celebration of such we find ourselves at Ruby’s Inn and Convention Center in Missoula.
All he wanted for his birthday was a Superman lego set and a hotel room.
When I last deigned to post in this lonely journal too many days ago, we were in Denver looking for an honest mechanic.
A month and 2,200 miles later, we finally got new front brakes at Key Center Auto Repair in Key Center, Wash.
We did not hurtle down a mountain and exit this world in a metal fireball. I did not pick up a meth habit while visiting our house-in-foreclosure on the Key Peninsula.
I did not lose what’s left of my mind. I just descended into an epic, impenetrable funk.
So, hello out there. Becky is assembling Lex Luthor’s Kryptonite-powered robot as Max jumps out of his skin with enthusiasm.
I’m trying to find my way back.
Happy Birthday, Max. Good luck with those parents of yours.
Follows is a brief update on recent misadventures:
Saturday, August 10
Lost somewhere along U.S. 12 between Lewiston, Idaho, and Lolo, Montana. Goddamn I’m lost.
I am a zombie. Stuck in a dead man’s rut.
No telling when the breakout will come. Better come soon.
We are on our way home to Pennsylvania. We’ll be there soon. Not soon enough to please family and friends, but soon in any case.
We just left Lochsa Lodge, a log-built oasis of civilization near the headwaters of the wild, scenic and lonely Lochsa River. We left with a full tank, our latest run-out-of-gas freakout having reached a happy conclusion.
At half-tank, we noted a sign warning there’d be no fuel for 64 miles. An hour later and nothing but green on the map until you come down into Montana off the steep slopes of Lolo Pass, the needle hit E. The prospect of running out of gas made the brooding mountains above, cloaked in immense ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, appear all the more dark and portentous.
After five miles on empty, the placid family shell began to fray.
Just as it was about to bust wide open in an ugly round of accusation and recrimination, the Lochsa Lodge, a veritable metropolis in the middle of nowhere, appeared on the horizon. I was so giddy I filled up on $3.999-a-gallon gas. I was confused by the prehistoric-looking analog pumps. I intended to put six or seven gallons and squeezed in 14-plus.
A group of bikers kicked back on the front porch of the old log cabin store. I smiled at the nearest one. He did not smile. He stared.
Some adjectives conjured by this stare:
Maybe Jim Morrison was, as Philip Seymour Hoffman-as-Lester Bangs averred in “Almost Famous,” a drunken buffoon. Then again, the real Bangs rose to Morrison’s defense in the end. In any case, there’s no denying the streets, they rise up uneven and treacherous when you’re down.
Comic interlude: Speaking of “Almost Famous,” here’s Max, clad in Mowgli-the-man-cub briefs that we dyed orange half his life ago, reciting the aforementioned line:
Yes, I am in an antisocial funk. I never escape too far from the petrified kid who always sought the shelter of anonymity in the back reaches of classrooms. Fear of strangers is no kind of advantage for the would-be journalist. It is a hurdle that must be surmounted every day. Right now I’m failing on a daily basis.
Earlier in the day I squandered a couple hours in Orofino looking for Maniacs. Perhaps the greatest nickname of any high school anywhere. Better even than the Yuma Criminals.
I didn’t meet a single maniac, upper or lower case. All I saw was one more in an endless string of towns wasting away upon the shattered American landscape.
None of my malaise can be blamed upon Orofino.
We parked behind the Clearwater Memorial Public Library. I got out, leaving Becky and Max in the Behemoth.
The library was closed. Without a word to my family, I took off on a walk about town. I was a ghost trying to remain impervious to the blistering afternoon heat. Weather Underground says it peaked at 96 degrees. Felt every bit of that.
The Orofino Maniacs Class of 1973 partied at the local VFW post on the previous night. Now some guys were barbecuing out back. I might have chatted them up had I not been a prisoner of my own design.
Out front, a memorial plaque salutes Clearwater County veterans across the decades who have served the nation and defended the cause of “freedom.”
Thank the gods of punctuation for quotation marks and their misapplication. Perhaps they were intentional. Maybe some hard-bitten cynic, some long-bearded veteran of some foreign misadventure or other knew what he was doing when he wrote the inscription for that plaque.
It is all we fight for, all we believe in. It is the opiate of Americans everywhere.
Here in Orofino, where the namesake Orofino Creek empties into the Clearwater River, all was quiet on Saturday afternoon. Perhaps had we landed here a month hence, during the annual Clearwater County Fair and Lumberjack Days, we’d come away with a more hopeful feeling.
It is likely my mood
Nothing was happening on Johnson Avenue, the main drag which runs parallel to the river and perpendicular to Michigan Avenue. The Clearwater Club and Rex theater were quiet. Krystal Café was closed. So was Homestead Lounge. The only business that looked robust was the Helgeson Hotel at the corner of Johnson and Michigan. Across the streets, a phalanx of newly installed Pella windows signaled the coming of upscale lofts.
I stopped at the Sunset Mart at the corner of Michigan and Wisconsin, across from the brown-brick county courthouse. A sign on the window said Orofino was the home of the Maniacs. I was looking for Maniacs paraphernalia. I found none.
My mouth was glued shut. All I see are aliens. I cannot bring myself to talk. I haven’t talked to a stranger, really talked to a stranger, since Ron Schneider in Cody, Nebraska.
Better snap out of it soon. Terrible time to slip into an antisocial funk. Terrible time.
Friday, August 9
We’re stuck in standstill traffic along U.S. 12, somewhere west of Walla Walla, absorbing a wall of 95-degree heat.
Not that we have much choice. It’s a furnace out here. Feels like we’re perched on the vanguard of the climate apocalypse.
We are extras in the opening scene of a dystopian movie.
There’s not much else to say on the subject. After three weeks in the relative comfort on the west side of the Cascades, we left Mount Rainier a humbled family last night.
We left on Washington 410, which brought us out of the mountains and dumped us into the steaming basin of hell. We found a wonderful taco truck, Los Primos by name, and holed up at a Yakima Walmart.
We got dinner there last night and breakfast this morning. All for $9.
Now we broil in the sweltering, festering, lock-down cauldron of eastern Washington. We’re behind a Honda Civic, a Toyota Tundra and a silver semi truck. As west-bound vehicles pass to my left, I search faces for signs of mockery.
We drink in their toxic fumes.
And it’s goddamn hot. Did I mention that?
We’ll never get out of Washington alive.
We are ringed by by the squat, yellow-green hills of the Columbia Basin. It is a golden goddamn sea, heaving and pitching and rolling with wheat as far as the eye can see.
And now we move. My brow is an oily slick of perspiration.
At least we’re moving. I check my armpits in the visor mirror. Soaked through. Sweet.
Yesterday this time we were melting down in the subalpine splendor of Sunrise.
Now we’re simply melting, 29 miles from Walla Walla.
Yesterday broadleaf lupine, scarlet paintbrush and Cascade aster.
Today sagebrush and sweat.
I’m going to get this narrative back and harness its volatile energy.
We’ve been in Washington more than three weeks now.
We arrived on Wednesday, July 17. As we made our approach to the Cascade Mountains, we were met with signs alerting us to an inconvenient reality: Snoqualmie Pass would be shut down while work crews blasted away at overhanging rock.
We pulled off at Cle Elum and drove the three miles to Roslyn, aka Northwest Exposure territory. We slept peacefully after sliding innocuously into a spot in front of an abandoned house at the south end of 1st Street.
We had coffee at Roslyn Cafe in the morning. I met a guy on the street. Can’t remember his name or his story. I remember he told me to check out the ethnic cemeteries on the edge of town. Twenty-six of them, I think he said.
I need to shake off the stupor and get out there among the people.
But I’m not. We pass through Touchet and Lowden.
We keep passing when I know we should be stopping and talking.
But I’m feeble right now.
I wonder: Are we in the Palouse? On the Palouse? Guess that’s the local choice of preposition.
I feel like the trip got away from me. One minute we were in Cody, Neb., riding about the sandhills with Ron Schneider. Next we were in Wyoming, watching the minutes and hours slip into the the great vacuum of time.
I had a real narrative going. It’s not too late to get it back. Hopefully.
In Roslyn, in the immediate aftermath of our exploration of mining history around Philipsburg, Mont., we stumbled onto more mining lore. Had no idea about the rich coal veins here. The Northern Pacific Coal Company, subsidiary of Northern Pacific Railway, lured men from all over Europe to pull the money out of these hills.
After breakfast, we hiked the coal mining heritage trail. We passed the site of Mine No. 4, which blew up on May 10, 1892, killing 45 miners. Worst mining disaster in state history.
We wandered the trail for about 3.5 miles. Having unwittingly joined it in midstream, we figured it for a 4-mile loop. Just when we thought we were closing in on the finish, we stumbled out onto the streets of Cle Elum.
We had reached the terminus of a one-way trail. The heat was pouring down on us, and Max was fading. Quickly. We were in trouble.
I looked up and saw the office of the local chamber of commerce a few steps ahead. What the hell? It must be air-conditioned.
We wandered in. We must have been a pathetic sight.
Jacky Fausset, our angel du jour, took one look at Max and reached for the refrigerator. She handed us each a cold bottle of water.
We chatted for a few minutes before she offered us a ride back to Roslyn. We had little choice but to submit to her generosity.
Max was on the verge of heat stroke.
These people, I swear. Always surprising us with their limitless humanity.
Back in Roslyn, we checked out the cemeteries. They really came in droves, from all over Europe, to risk their necks in the mines. Slovenia and Serbia. Lithuania and Italy. Croatia and Poland. Ireland and Scotland. And more.
Then we paid a visit to Swiftwater Cellars winery outside town, which is built atop the No. 9 mine. Odd juxtaposition of old-fashioned, blue-collar struggle and new-fangled, white-collar leisure. More about all this later.
Back to the present and the boiling tunnel known as U.S. 12. We pull off at Pomeroy. Follow signs to the Blue Mountain RV Park. When we get there, we are impressed by its thoroughgoing creepiness.
Blue Mountain RV Park exudes the spirit of David Lynch.
No signs indicating the nightly fee. No directions at all.
The few inhabitants who seem to live here are best described as long-term temporary. We poke around for a half hour. Becky checks the electrical boxes on quite a few sites. All but one contains working beehives.
There is a big, old Tomcat lurking about, but no humans.
Nobody. Feels like somebody’s watching, though.
We go back into town and stop at a convenience store. I ask the young man in charge if he knows anything about Pomeroy’s curious RV park.
Not much. Says he came here 12 years ago from Snohomish on the state’s west side.
I ask if he experienced culture shock.
“It’s the kind of place, if you’re pulled over, your parents know about it when you get home,” he says.
I bid him adieu, and we continued west, into the night, searching for a breath of cool air.
Thursday, August 8
More than a month lost.
Thirty-nine days dumped into the maw of eternity.
Yesterday at Mount Rainier National Park, Max secured junior ranger badge No. 22.
It was, by any definition, ugly.
Max, who had been a superhiker in the Olympics only days before, hit a wall. The fallout was spectacular.
How ugly did it get?
Here’s an indication:
Take that, low-life paparazzi scum!
If I live long enough, he might kill me for posting that video.
Where has it all gone? Have I let the previous month slip into the crevasse of memory? I hope not.
Yes, yes. The debacle at Mount Rainier. It all fell apart in a wash of reality-TV pathos. Or was it bathos?
Max the superhiker, the junior ranger extraordinaire, the guy who had ate up a total of 14 miles, more than a few of them rigorous, over two days in Olympic National Park, became a little kid again.
The whole thing took an alarming descent, a horrifying tumble toward reality-TV dysfunction.
It started innocently enough. We arrived at Sunrise early, well before the visitors center opened for business. The previous afternoon, we left wonderful Joe and Katie Stark, 176 years on earth between the two of them, and left the old stomping grounds for good.
By the time we hit the exurban sprawl of Bonney Lake, night had fallen. We got through Bonney Lake, bypassed Buckley and skirted Enumclaw along 410 east.
At Max’s insistence, Becky repaired to the rear of the camper.
I was left to ponder my own ridiculousness. On either side of the road, the forest rose with an implacable silence. Immense Douglas firs and western red cedars shrouded the lonesome highway and pressed against my soul.
We had finally begun the final trip, the last trip home.
The darkness outside illuminated the darkness within.
Perhaps I had too much time to think. Think about where it’s all headed. Think about how I’d let the journal slip into blackness. Most of all, think about what the hell is wrong with me.
It all is verging on slipping away. It always does.
My life, a shambles of incompletion. This was going to be different. When we left Treasure Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast back in April, I knew it was different. We had completed a book proposal. Four chapters and two interested agents.
One hundred days later, there was nothing.
The answer wasn’t long in coming.
My mind reels back to late May and Pea Ridge National Military Park in western Arkansas. In a fit of parental frustration, I punted Max’s junior ranger booklet across a row of cannons. I thought that we’d found bottom then.
I was wrong.
We had completed a 2-plus mile hike around humble Shadow Lake with little incident. Yet Becky was already frustrated with Max’s lack of focus, his unbridled insouciance.
I volunteered to help him with his junior ranger booklet while she went to fill up our empty water jugs. I was going to show her how it’s done. I would offer her an object lesson in patient parenting.
The gods still howl with laughter. It is all derisive, to be sure.
Fifteen minutes later, possessed by a Neanderthal fury, I seized Max’s lap desk and hurled it from the back of the Behemoth to the front.
How does such a thing happen? I’m a rational, easy-going man. I’m 50-fucking years old. I know better.
I thought I did.
Over and over I begged Max to concentrate on his letters. I implored him to make an effort to render them all a similar size. Invariably his answer would be to scrawl an E that was twice as tall as the preceding letter.
Undaunted by my outburst, Max and I followed the lap desk up front. I sat in the driver’s seat. Max rode shotgun.
Inexorably, we kept at it, hounding each other into a fathomless spiral into familial absurdity.
I failed to restrain my temper. Again.
For the first time, I swore at him.
Real-live parental vulgarity.
It was impressive. Not in a good way.
At one point I told him to get the shit out of his ears.
I said that, too.
With the ineffable beauty of Mount Rainier as backdrop, we found new depths of grotesque.
It was the good, bad and ugly minus any sign of the good.
Somehow we finished the booklet.
Ashamed of my loutish outbursts, I apologized to Max. Still, I don’t think he took me quite seriously.
I don’t do disciplinarian well at all. He knows this.
If anything, I’m a joke to him.
We went into the visitors center and played happy family.
As Becky said: “Places everybody! Happy family.”
After Scott Coombs announced Max as Mount Rainier’s newest junior ranger, we hit the trail. We headed for Mount Fremont and the fire tower about three miles away. We ran into “meadow rover” Don Allen on the trail.
We’d run into Don earlier on the Shadow Lake trail, back when everything seemed ordinary and nothing seemed ominous. He’d deputized Max as an assistant and given him a “Don’t be a meadow stomper” button.
Don Allen must be about 75. Said he took the golden parachute out of Boeing in 1995. Got a real sweetheart deal, the kind you don’t hear about in corporate America anymore. Boeing added years to his service and years to his age. Made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Now he drives over from Renton a couple times a month and wanders the Sunrise area, making sure the flood of hikers, strollers and lingerers keep to the trails.
For brilliant meadows of broadleaf lupine, scarlet paintbrush, Cascade aster, subalpine buttercup, pasqueflower and more, he is overseer and protector.
He came to the Northwest from Wichita, Kan., where he began his career as an aircraft engineer. The B-1 bomber program occupied the final 20 years of his career.
With his wife, he’s traveled around the country in their RV. Said they’ve been everywhere but New England.
Anyway, Don Allen looked at Max and wasn’t sure. His words betrayed concern for Max’s ability to withstand the rigors of the Fremont trail.
I smiled smugly. This little miscreant had dominated the Olympics. Made it up the torturous switchbacks of Mount Storm King one day, then hiked from Hurricane Ridge to Klahhane Ridge and back the next. He’s a superhiker.
The tacit message: Don’t worry about our kid. He ain’t average.
Well, we learned.
Out on the trail, which follows the 35 million-year-old rocks along Sourdough Ridge, Max showed early signs of being out of the race.
We made it a little more than a mile and a half when it began to unravel for real. We left the Sourdough trail at the Frozen Lake junction and headed for the Fremont fire tower with Columbia Crest and Little Tahoma over our left shoulders. Max said he was done. Couldn’t do it.
I put him on my shoulders and sallied delicately over a bed of irregular, slippery flatrocks. As we approached the fire tower, I told him the Ritz crackers-and-Nutella snack was for hikers only. He hopped down and finished off in fine form.
The trouble, it seemed, was all in the past.
One the way back, I tortured Becky and Max with an attempt to get a nice family shot. They got bored. Then they got ahead of me as I goofed off and took a narcissistic series of self-portraits. The Mountain and Me.
All I could see was them walking side-by-side on the trail below me. I imagined she was soothing his angst over my boorish display in the Behemoth. Then I couldn’t see them at all.
I had no reason to suspect trouble. We were on the downhill portion of the trail. He eats up downhill stretches, running with an abandon that makes us cringe. Just the other day he’d described such sections as “kid-running paradise.”
I decided I better catch up and started jogging.
When I got in range, I was shocked to hear the unearthly wail coming from Max’s distorted mouth. It was as if he’d been inhabited by a legion of otherworldly demons, or at least a chorus of terrible toddlers.
Suffice it to say neither Becky nor I had a great day in parenting. A real red-letter day in the annal of the Wallingfords.
I put Max on my shoulders for the remaining two miles of the 6.3-mile loop. We were ambling up a service road to the when he unleashed a belch of foreboding.
‘Twas an ominous belch.
Next he craned his neck and vomited onto the rocky road beneath my feet. I couldn’t have blamed him if he let it pour down my neck.
But he didn’t. He’s a sweet boy. Really.
I let him down. He threw up several more times before melting into his mother’s arms for the final half mile.
And that is the sad, terrible story of our bad day at Mount Rainier.
We are past that now, I can only hope.