5/2/16

Dear Robert,

I trust you had a safe drive back to Salem and were rewarded with a warm welcome home. How are you feeling today? I woke up a little sore, mostly in the back and shoulders, but a half hour in the hot tub and a couple of aspirin put that right. Surprisingly, my arms and legs feel fine. When I flex my muscles they feel like cords, but no aches or cramps.

I pray I didn’t wreck you with the long, heavy haul in and out of camp. Not many people would have done that, let alone endured it without complaint. You are a true friend. I always enjoy spending time with you and can’t think of anyone I rather waste away a couple of days in the woods with.

I’m not a slow study, and I can learn from my mistakes, but sometimes it takes a reminder. Hauling that travois was certainly a reminder! That would have been a tough pull for a couple of young bucks let alone a pair of sixty-year-old men! We are never going to haul a load like that to go camping again! I just hope you don’t rephrase that to “I’m never going camping with that dumb SOB again!”

I guess we paid a pretty heavy price for my pig headedness. If I had abandoned the tipi idea when I realized I wouldn’t have the motorcycle to haul the gear in, we would have spent a lot more time lazing about camp instead of humping gear up and down that hill. The dome tent, and a little less stuff and we could have done it with back packs in one trip. Maybe two if we remembered the beer. Set up would have been a fraction of the time too, and I wouldn’t have pranged the truck on that snag.  Oh well.

Amy was pretty good about me smashing up the front fender of our new truck. I will need to contact the insurance company and go get it fixed but there shouldn’t be any more pain or drama about it.

All in all, I still had a marvelous time. I hope you did as well.

Hi to Sandy.

Much love,

Vernon

May 12, 2016

Well, how kind.

I missed this in the cue so am just now getting to it.  I have engaged an attorney and you will soon be held responsible for all my psychiatric bills due to mental cruelty, along with the treatment of my corns.

Never worry; you are and always have been the other half of my imagination.  I can’t think of anyone who parallels my mental instabilities more than you do.  Wandering aimlessly around the woods with you is one of my favorite things and I’m always glad to get the opportunity to go laze around in the brush; why, the years melt away like fog and there we are, loafing along some deer trail talking about anything and everything, just like we did when we were a couple of youngsters.  Besides, shared suffering always results in stronger friendships…after the proper amount of time has passed to allow the cramps and shortness of breath to become mighty deeds in the mind of the memoirists.

Anyway, thanks again for the trip, and I feel pretty bad about the fender.

Amy’s a peach; give her a smooch on the cheek and get her another glass of wine.

Love,

RB

 

Travails With Travois

Robert and I have been friends since we were kids. We met in church camp, many years ago. We’ve partied together, hitchhiked together, been roommates, fought over girls and attended each other’s weddings.

We are old men now, something we only realize getting out of bed in the morning or bending over to tie our shoes. Our poor eyesight allows us to look into the mirror each morning and see a handsome devil staring back, graying hair, baggy eyes and crows-feet, leathery skin and wattle notwithstanding.

It must have been my failing memory that allowed me to concoct the scheme I had in mind. Rob must suffer the same shortcoming to have agreed to it. The place I planned to camp at was on a little stream at the bottom of a draw, a half mile down an abandoned road. Almost no one ever goes there. The road is passable only by foot or ATV. Normally, it would be a simple matter to load our gear onto my sidecar and ride the motorcycle in, but my clutch was in pieces and the bike was a lawn ornament until the parts came in.

No problem! It’s just a half a mile in. We can drive the truck up to the near end of the road, cut some poles, lash up a couple of travois and drag our gear in! I already have some tipi poles stashed there, so we just need to haul the canvas cover and our gear. It should be easy and take no time at all.

At this point either one of us could have said: “No. That doesn’t sound like the best idea you have ever had” or “O.K. But let’s take the nylon dome tent instead of the heavy, canvas tipi, and maybe we could leave the cast iron skillet, the cots and the steel kitchen box at home.”

But that’s not what happened. Robert arrived at my house around two o’clock Friday afternoon, about the same time I got home from work. I hadn’t packed, but I had a list. I started loading my truck, carefully checking items off as I packed. It took longer than I had anticipated. Feeling the day slipping away from me, I set the list aside and was soon tossing in stuff pell-mell. Eventually, when the truck looked full, I decided we had enough and it was time to go.

We took the long way up, because the road is better. Even so it was only twenty-five minutes before we were parked at the junction, a scant half-mile from camp.

Setting to work as soon as we were parked, I felled four small trees from a dense stand of firs and Rob stripped them of their boughs. I lashed two of them together at the tips, spreading the butts out to form an inverted “V”. Robert did the same with the other pair. We lashed cross pieces about 5 feet up from the butts and wove a basket from vine maple branches to make the platform for our cargo. This process took a lot longer to complete than it does to describe.

I was dismayed by how much the travois weighed even before we loaded them. The poles were only three inches in diameter, but the wood was green and full of sap. I picked up my backpack, filled with bedding and camp gear, and placed the tipi cover, the liner, an axe and the saw on my travois. Lifting the poles, I struggled to pull it forward. Rob loaded more camping gear onto the second travois and we lurched down the trail. It was a difficult journey.

At first Rob and I joked about how tough the old mountain men were compared to us. It wasn’t long before we stopped joking, saving our wind for pulling our loads across the rough ground. Every step was a deliberate effort.  My travois slid over the rocks and downed trees, but every so often the cross pieces would catch on something and jerk me to a halt. Behind me, Robert grunted and labored, working every bit as hard with his own load. I think I heard him swearing: “Fucking Bridger. Fucking Meeks. Fucking Lewis and God Damned Clark.”

We were tuckered out by the time we reached the campsite. Our hands were blistered and covered with pitch. We were drenched with sweat. The rest of our gear was still in the truck back up at the top of the hill. Setting down our loads and agreeing wordlessly that the travois were too damn heavy we turned around and hiked back to the truck to see what we could pack in on our backs.

We decided to do without some of the gear. Leaving some of the water, the heavy, cast iron skillet and our cots behind, we stuffed the rest of our things in our backpacks. Rob carried a cooler and a water jug in his hands. The big, steel kitchen box had our cooking kit and provisions. I tied a rope to the handle and dragged it behind me, all the way into camp. It hung up on every rock and stick in the road, plowing a furrow between the ruts and pushing a pile of accumulated debris ahead of it.

The sun had set by the time we got the tipi up. Rob gathered firewood while I tried to pound in the tent pegs by the failing light. After the third time I whacked my hand with the blunt end of the axe head I gave it up. I decided I wanted the cots and the skillet, so, leaving Rob to start a fire, I headed back up the hill one last time.

It was dark enough I couldn’t quite see the logs across the road or the overhanging branches which brushed across my face and knocked my hat askew, yet there was still enough light I didn’t really need the flashlight I carried, so, for the most part, I left it off. I was anxious to get this over with so I could finish setting up camp and relax.

The walk was easier without a load, but I was worn out by my previous trips and stopped a couple of times to rest. When I paused I could hear the noises of the woods at night: branches rubbing, trees creaking. Somewhere a grouse drummed briefly before flying clumsily through the trees. I knew it was silly, but I couldn’t help thinking about the mountain lion I had seen last year, in broad daylight, crossing the other end of this same road. I didn’t tarry long.

It took me just over a quarter of an hour to reach the truck. I still heard noises. I grabbed the cots and pulled my daypack out of the back of the truck, wedging another water jug and the skillet down inside. I decided the machete would be a useful tool to have (what was that noise?) and grabbed it, too. I was fully encumbered when I set off back down the hill. I had the cots tucked under my left arm, a pack on my back and the flashlight and machete in my right hand. Unseen branches tugged at my hat and my glasses slipped down my nose. Every few steps I stopped to adjust my hat and push my glasses up using the back of my hand, all the while being careful not to part my hair with the machete.

About halfway back to camp a low hanging branch snatched my hat right off my head. When I reached for it I discovered my glasses were gone, too. I set down the cots and flicked on the flashlight. I was standing in a tangle of fir boughs left when some previous traveler had made an ineffectual attempt to clear some windfall from the road. My hat lay at my feet, atop some branches, but my glasses were nowhere to be found. I shone the light around but saw nothing but green, cut branches. Shining the light in front of me I took a careful step back up the hill, then another and then one more. I turned around and swept the light back towards where I’d found my hat, hoping to catch a reflection from this new angle. There they were – perched on top of one of the cots. They must have snagged the handle when they fell off my face.

The rest of the hike back to camp was uneventful. Rob had a fire going in the tipi. I could see it as I approached, flickering and glowing orange, like a paper candle lantern in the woods. We set up our bunks and a couple of folding chairs inside the lodge. I pulled the skillet from my daypack and Robert started cooking up some brats for our dinner. That’s when I discovered we had forgotten the beer! Fortunately, Robert had some gin and I’d brought a hip flask of scotch, so all was not lost. The fire crackled merrily as we ate. We passed the flask back and forth between bites. Above, through the smoke hole, we could see at least a million stars sparkling in the narrow slice of indigo sky the opening in the canvas revealed to us.

The next morning, I awoke before Robert, with the cold morning air in my nostrils and a full bladder. I pulled on my trousers and camp slippers and stumbled outside to relieve myself. It was light out, but the sun hadn’t made it down into our valley yet. About fifty feet in from where the tipi sat was a large rock and a rickety table lashed together with twine and small sticks. I took my camp chair over there, and placing some twigs and small branches against the rock, got a fire going.

Overhead I could see the prevailing west wind was whipping a few clouds across the blue, blue sky at a brisk pace. Down here, in our canyon, the breeze was mild and blowing in the opposite direction, the cold air following the stream down the canyon.

I stoked the fire with cottonwood branches and some pieces of wild cherry and set a pot of water on two of the larger sticks. The rock served as a windbreak, chimney and heat sink. In no time the water boiled and I was relaxing in my camp chair with a hot cup of tea and a book, basking in the warmth of the fire reflected off the big rock.

By the time Robert rolled out the sun had run down the tips of the tipi poles to the top of the lodge, lighting up the white canvas against the bright green spring foliage which surrounded us. Rob stumbled through his morning ablutions, plunging his hands into the icy creek and splashing the cold water on his face. He toweled off, retrieved his chair and came over to the fire. I handed him a tin cup filled with hot tea. We sat there without speaking, staring at the dancing flames and listening to the birds chatter, waking up with the forest.

We’d hoped, no, we had planned, to find some mushrooms. I’d been making forays up this way the past couple of weeks and had found a number of choice, edible morels. In fact, last night, when we were setting up the tipi, I found a morel dead center, right where the fire pit would go. We took it as a good sign. We had planned our meals around the mushrooms we anticipated finding: scrambled eggs with morels, spaghetti and morels, asparagus fried with bacon, onions and morels. So after tea, Rob and I set off to look for the elusive, delectable fungi.

We ranged up both sides of the canyon. We retraced our steps, up past where we’d parked the truck and down to the burned out clear-cut on the ridge. We found four small morels and some old coyote scat filled with fur. We left the scat and took the mushrooms back to camp, where we cooked them with eggs and sausage for breakfast. We didn’t find any more the rest of the weekend.

Robert and I settled easily into the routine of camp. We had, over the course of forty years, done this before. We wandered in the woods, foraging or collecting firewood. Back at camp, we built up the fire, cooked, washed the dishes and lazed about, absorbing the beneficence of idling in the woods. We talked about everything and nothing. Sometimes we didn’t say a word for a long stretch, letting the wind in the trees, the birds and the stream companionably fill the lapse of conversation.

Most of Saturday afternoon we spent sitting in the sun. The breeze had stopped; the air was still. Somewhere in the canopy a bird trilled. We sipped gin and tonic out of red enameled tin cups, the bottle comfortably within reach on the table between us. Ten feet above us, midges swirled, their tiny, translucent wings reflecting the sun like a cloud of sparkling lights.

The afternoon wore on. The breeze resumed and it began to cool off. The swarm of midges followed the sun up the trees, staying in the warm thermal layer. We put on our jackets and stirred the fire. Robert began making spaghetti without mushrooms for our dinner, after which he enjoyed a smoke and we shared some scotch.

The knowledge we were at the bottom of the draw and would, at some point, need to lug all of our gear back up the hill, was never far from my mind. Several times over the weekend I had hiked back up to the truck with small loads of trash or gear we no longer needed. Robert was still snoring when I got up Sunday morning and packed my bedding and my cot up to the truck. I figured it would be one less load later on and I wanted to make some time for one more mushroom foray before we had to get serious about packing out.

The battery in my camera was almost dead and I wanted to take a few more photos when we went out mushrooming later that morning, so I was sitting in the truck with it plugged into the charger when I heard a noise. This was a real noise; I wasn’t imagining things. It was right behind me. Startled, I turned, and found myself face to face with Robert; the rat-bastard had quietly packed up his bed and followed me up the hill. He scared the be-jeezus out of me!

We emptied our packs and hiked back down the hill, and then up the other side to give the morel hunting one last chance. Not far from camp we found fresh bear shit in the road. We worked our way up to the top of the ridge, through the manzanita and into a tall stand of old growth fir. It was warm and clear, the sky a perfect blue. We could see across the Hood River Valley to Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens in the distance.

The wild currant was blossoming, splashing bright scarlet against the forest green. Here and there a dogwood or a mock orange bloomed, white flowers floating among the darker fir trees. We found chocolate lilies and lady slippers, a few exploded stumps, ripped apart by bears searching for grubs and a single, dead vole in the middle of the trail, but no morels.

Too late for breakfast, I guess we had brunch when we got back down to the tipi. Slabs of cold roast pork with whole grain bread and fried asparagus, onions, bacon, and no morels, topped with grated parmesan. We washed it all down with hot tea.

We couldn’t put it off any longer. It was time to break camp and pack it all up to the truck. Rob helped me fold the tipi cover up on the lifting pole and lower it to the ground. I rolled it up and stuffed the cover in its bag while he packed up the kitchen. We leaned the poles against a tree and left them hidden in the woods, ready for the next campout.  I selected a couple of the lighter cured poles from the set for our travois, leaving the green poles we had cut Friday to replace them.

This time we only made one travois, and we worked together to pull it up the hill. Even so, it was all we could manage and we found ourselves stopping every fifty feet to rest. What was a fifteen-minute walk with a light pack became a three-hour ordeal, just for that one load. Our breath came in ragged gasps, leaving our throats raw. Our thighs burned and our lungs felt as if they would burst. The day before, as we wandered in the woods and lay about camp, the years had melted away and it felt as if we were kids again. Today, hauling that damned travois, our sixty years apiece were stacked on top of the load, making it that much heavier.

Finally, we hove into sight of the truck. It wasn’t close, but we could see it through the trees.

“Just drive it down here,” Robert wheezed.

I looked doubtfully at the overhanging branches and the fallen logs which crisscrossed the road in front of us.

“I can’t drive the truck through that mess,” I said. “We’ll have to clear it.”

Robert pulled the axe and the bucksaw from the loaded travois and we set to work. It took about a half an hour to clear enough debris from the road that I felt I could bring the truck closer. It was hard work but it wasn’t dragging the travois.

We made the road passable to a wide spot where I could turn around, about one-hundred and fifty feet from where we had left the travois. That sounds pretty close, but it was up a steep section and would still require three rest stops for us to make it that far. With some reluctance, I carefully backed the truck a little farther down the road. We were able to drag the travois the last fifty feet and soon had it unpacked and loaded in the truck.

Of course, we still had the rest of the gear to hump out in our backpacks. Robert started walking down the hill, while I pulled up to the wide spot so I could park the truck without blocking the road. Rob came back when he heard me swearing. I had only gone a couple of car-lengths when a fallen tree speared my truck. It took out the front fender and part of the bumper. The right front corner was crumpled and shards of broken plastic hung from the wheel.  Damn.

I pulled the broken pieces off and tossed them in the truck bed. There was nothing else to do so we shouldered our empty packs and went back to the campsite for another load. By this time, it was getting late. Not wanting to make another trip, we stuffed our packs to overflowing. We managed to get everything out, carrying in our arms what didn’t fit into the packs and taking turns dragging that heavy steel box behind us.

Exhausted, we tossed our loads in the truck and I managed to get back to the main road without hitting anything else. Just as we were leaving, a bear ran in front of us. I watched it retreat through the brush, a huge wall of black fur pushing through the vine maple. I guess I probably did hear something the other night.

I’m not a slow study, and I can learn from my mistakes, but sometimes it takes a reminder. Hauling that travois was certainly a reminder. Still, we had a marvelous time. I’m sitting in the library now, sipping tea in front of the fire. In an hour or so I will go to work. The tipi camp seems like ancient history and a lot farther away than four or five miles. I look forward to the next time, when we will drive all the way into camp and we won’t, by God, forget the beer!