In late summer of 1971, a group of me and some of my friends from Chemeketa Community College took a hastily-planned road trip to Yellowstone National Park. Except for Cullen, our trail leader, who I'd just met by way of my boyfriend Dan, these were people I was thrown together with as our tumultuous experiences of high school in the late sixties came to an end. None were destined to become lasting friends and, under normal circumstances, their memory would have been distinctly blurred around the edges by now. When I think back it's as if I'm holding powder-dry and forgotten newspaper clipping found pressed with an autumn rose in a book no one will ever read again.
Boyfriend Dan, who'd rescued me from being just another nonentity on the sprawling suburban campus, had long blond hair, nice shoulders, and a ski-jump Nordic nose. He always wore a smile because he was almost always buzzed. As we all jumped in Cullen Cargill's hand-me-down Ford station wagon, destiny, nor Dan, were foremost on my mind. I had just met the hottest, handsomest dude I'd ever known.
It was Cullen who convinced Dan of the wisdom of "getting out of Dodge with some chicks" right before we all showed up for our sophomore year in this third-tier institution of higher learning. I'd been flinging with Dan since I met him in the student center just days before spring break of the previous year. I had gone off with him to Lake Louise in Alberta with one coat, a few scarves, and hardly a nickel to my name. So why wouldn't I go with him now, and even provide a friend to round out the party? Inez, was all for it. She spoke broken English, drove this ridiculous Ford Fiesta, and was headed for a career in nursing, poor as her parents. I suspected my new gal-pal might be an anchor baby.
We'd all meet up at Cullen's duplex, pile into his station wagon, and then blow town early with the rat-race suckers. Soon after laying eyes on Cullen, I knew that keeping my attraction under wraps and keeping the peace on this field trip was going to be challenging. He was that awesome. A year ahead of the rest of us, it was a big year in terms of acquiring hotness. He came over and asked me if I could sleep ok in the four-man tent strapped to the roof of the wagon.
"You're talking to an Oregon girl," I replied.
Just as the station wagon was packed and Cullen went to lock his front door, the phone inside the house rang. He came out the house with a troubled, fuck-all expression on his face. He had been prevailed upon by his mother to invite somebody named cousin Ryder on the Yellowstone trip.
"Really?" said Dan. "Just say no. We've got a full complement here."
"It's not that easy," Cullen answered, and I couldn't help but smile at the mock-seriousness of their conversation. It was obvious this Ryder was going to put a major crimp in what were some considerably ambitious plans.
"He's been having some problems," Cullen said. "It'll be ok, just let me handle him"
We picked Ryder up at his mother's east side cottage, and I realized just how valid our male escorts' reservations were. Ryder screamed dweeb as no one I'd met ever screamed it before. High-water khakis, a flat-top hair cut, and a Brownie automatic camera strapped around the scraggliest right shoulder I'd ever seen. Dan threw up a gentle high-five to his cousin, nodded to his poor mother standing at the living room window, then set him up in the rear-facing tailgate seat of the wagon. The strong odor of what I recognized as my father's Vitalis hair oil wafted from the back seat.
Once out of Salem and on the open road, Cullen started to endear beyond his physical hunkiness. He was headed to Oregon State University for his Environmental Sciences degree, and morphed seamlessly into the role of field guide, authoritatively explaining how massive pads of asphalt covered in oily motor vehicle grime was wreaking havoc on Central Valley streams and rivers.
Inez was loaded for bear, in a foxy halter-top embroidered with a Pueblo Indian designs, her bronze-ebony hair tied back and up. She could see the merchandise as well as I could, and it immediately bothered me that she sat in front next to Cullen while I sat in back with a sprawling, already-stoned Dan. I liked Inez's self-deprecating humor, but there was a cagey resolve about her not usually apparent in kids who end up in junior college. One way or another she was going to succeed.
Rounding out the company was Ryder; condemned to sitting facing backwards as we chewed over the arid miles out of Lewiston. His hair seemed genetically fouled up, with waves and swirls in the close-cropped buzz cut every-which-way like rough-mown thatch. His belly was just wider than his narrow chest, and his ears stuck out. The crack or two he tried to make went unheeded, and he turned back to a receding landscape of just-harvested farmland.
First night we sneaked along the aggregate concrete walkway at the Twin Falls Econo-Lodge, hiding our number to avoid paying for two rooms. The dark-paneled single-bed room had a TV, but we'd have to keep it low, and keep our voices low too. Inez and I got the queen, and the guys sprawled in bedrolls on the floor. There were guy noises in the night. I wondered at the hanky-panky that might have transpired if Ryder wasn't there. I couldn't sleep, and it seemed as if Inez had a bad dream.
Next morning the big junction to Salt Lake City swept past untaken before the Econo-Lodge coffee wore off. Soon the Teton Range appeared to the northeast. After long miles through managed forests we rolled up on a 7-Eleven parking lot in the city of West Yellowstone, Montana. The first thing I noticed as we headed in for cigarettes, beer, and whatever else we thought we could subsist on, was something different about the heated air, the way it clawed drily at the skin of my face and neck. Yet with a tinge of coolness that suggested Yellowstone would be a very cold cold when it came to that. Stocked up and ready for real wilderness, we found the pine canyons and golden soil of the road to the West Entrance.
"Can we get a campsite?" Dan asked the ranger at the park service gate, who handed over brochures and a map, a bemused expression under his wide-brimmed hat. "There are sites available at Yellowstone Lake, you'll be in B-876, just follow the map." Inez, certainly the most cash-strapped among us, graciously insisted on paying our vehicle entry fee, five dollars.
The yellow soil gave off gold light as the sun faltered and shadows grew. Rounding a turn, we saw something brown and huge at the edge of a clearing under dappling light. At first we thought grizzly, but as Cullen slowed and pulled onto the shoulder we saw that it was a bison. We sat and stared at the lone beast, the shaggy hump and yellowed prongs flaring from his massive black skull. He was facing west, and two black eyes refracted sunlight from across the clearing. With a bang that startled all of us, Ryder dropped the tailgate and was headed down the highway embankment.
"Dude, where the hell are you going?" Cullen yelled.
We climbed out of the station wagon and stood dumbfounded, as Cullen's nerdy cousin crept down out into the meadow, wielding his camera in photographic stalking mode. He crouched in the tall grass, creeping ever closer to the ear-twitching bull. It was growing darker, and I knew from childhood visits to the park with my family that darkness happens fast in Yellowstone's late summer. Ryder moved toward the solitary beast, and seemed to consider the situation before raising the camera to his eye. I could almost hear the click of the Brownie.
Headlights washed over our vantage point, turning the sunlit orbs of the bison's eyes from gold to red. A green ranger truck had pulled up. The grab of the emergency brake shook the truck's frame. A ranger, younger than the one at the tollbooth, same big hat, big flashlight like a blackjack, jumped out of the cab and slammed his door.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he called out.
Cullen faced the ranger, "He's my cousin, we didn't tell him to go down there."
"He's trying to get a picture of the buffalo," said Dan.
The ranger spat, "Jesus," and shined his powerful flashlight into the dark clearing. Ryder crouched in the rustling grass, looking back into the light, his own eyes gone reddish and feral. The ranger waved his beam while beckoning furiously with his free arm. We watched Ryder retrace his steps, and I knew enough about bison to know that had this bison charged Ryder never would have made it back to the embankment. He came up in the glare of headlights like a kid lost long enough to become a ghost.
"One of the stupidest stunts I've ever seen," growled the ranger. We all felt Ryder's hot embarrassment.
"That there's a rogue male. They like to be left alone."
The truck squawked, an officious woman's voice. The ranger spat again, and left to answer the call. We must have looked like we were in shock because when he came back he moderated his tone.
"I pick up the pieces of four or five kids like you every summer." He looked back out at the darkness where the buffalo had almost disappeared against the black tree line. "Read the material that was given you when you entered the park. This is not a playground." His radio squawked again, and he left.
Cullen had a few private words with Ryder, and it was deathly quiet in the Ford. Every glaring vehicle we passed seemed to have its bestial counterpart, more bison, back in the forest, or right out on the park highway. A flat bed of needles and still-warm fit pit made our designated campsite, a stone's throw from black and oceanic Lake Yellowstone.
While Dan and Cullen set up the tent, Ryder obediently gathered firewood by flashlight from an upslope nearby. Inez and I got a fire going, whereupon we sizzled two packages of hot dogs and slathered them with mustard. Time came for the ceremonial uncorking of the red wine, and serial lighting of Dan's potent spliffs. After two hours of hushed partying, Cullen told Ryder to fold down the back seat and bed down in the back of the station wagon. I can tell you that the two couples were chaste that night in the tent, two girls in the middle, Dan with a hard-on, Cullen, a quiet sleeper, I wondered if Inez gave him a hard-on too.
Dan's physique was as perfect as a guy's can get, but I wasn't too young and fancy-free not to wonder about his future. He was at Chemeketa to get his GED.
"Imagine if the thermal forces we're sitting on right now decided to blow," said Cullen, as we tidied our camp and prepared for kayak excursion on the lake.
"If I have to die young," quipped Dan, lighting his first bomber, "I'd just as soon go out with a bang."
We rented kayaks and followed the rental guy's direction to an eagle's nests in the shoreline trees of Yellowstone Lake. When Cullen's kayak came alongside mine in a cove of lake grass, I threw him a dreamy look that wouldn't have been good for Dan to see. My hard-body boyfriend talked the sixties talk, but had a mean territorial stripe from his unprogressive upbringing in the Salem suburbs.
Meanwhile, Inez and Cullen were hitting it off and that was bumming me out. They did
have a class with the same lit professor in common, and both annoyingly claimed Atticus Finch as their favorite literary character. Around the campfire that second night, I watched them gravitate. When Inez needed to walk to the camp restrooms, I rose to accompany her, but she winked in the firelight. Cullen handed his mostly-done roasted marshmallow to Ryder and led her off into the darkened campground. When they came back, they had that look, you know, like something was beginning between them.
Ryder said little and tended the fire, as if fire-keeper was his solemn recovery from the debacle with the buffalo. Attempting to draw him out, Cullen mentioned his cousin's aptitude for mechanical engineering, but Ryder would not elaborate, apparently fearing that revealing anything about himself would remind us how much we wish he'd stayed home.
That night in the tent, we were discreet, but I'm sure there were hard-ons, and climatic moments all around.
On the third day we did the tourist thing, spending the whole day at Old Faithful Lodge, watching the geyser spew again and again, seeing and being seen by families on one final camping trip of the season. Pooling our money in the sumptuous dining room, for the only sit-down restaurant dinner we could afford.
The third night Cullen changed-up the sleeping arrangements and I knew my raging crush would remain unrequited. Inez and Cullen went to sleep in the wagon leaving the awkward trio of Dan, Ryder and me to sleep in the tent. A few minutes after the last flashlight went off, Dan started pawing me and I whispered, "No, not with him here." A few seconds later I heard Ryder unzip his sleeping bag and leave the tent. Dan and I completed our usual fooling around. While drifting off, I heard Ryder outside, and knew he was tossing more logs on the fire by the orange light rising up the green tent walls.
A few campground cars starting up for early departures woke me at dawn. Ryder was not in his bedroll. Dan kissed me, his breath horrible, as mine must have been. We felt the sun hit the tent at about eight, fooled around until the interior grew warm. Outside we saw a healthy fire going, but Inez and Cullen were still fogging up the Ford windows, and Ryder was not around. When the station wagon passenger side door opened I saw that Inez had tried to fix her hair with a quick pin-up job, but her ravaged look was unmistakable. We nodded to each other with the look of women who have things to talk about, and while I got water on for coffee she distractedly rummaged in the ice chest.
"What's up?" Inez asked brightly when Ryder walked into camp, a pile of small sticks in his arms.
"A bear got in somebody's Volkswagen," he answered in the flattened tone he used to lower expectations. "Practically tore the door off."
Cullen said, "Shit, look at all that food we left on the table."
It was the first and only time I spoke with double-meaning on that trip, or to any of those people ever again. "Maybe we're all just a bit distracted."
Ryder broke the tension with the revelation that he'd been up all night. "If that bear had shown up, I'd have seen it."
Dan laughed spontaneously. "Oh yeah, and what the fuck would you have done?"
"We'd have had some warning," said Cullen. I guessed he was mad at himself for his lapse in environmental management.
Our restless energies gathered after scarfing some bacon strips and fire-warmed biscuits.
"There's a trailhead behind Old Faithful," Cullen briefed. "I say we make the hike up to Murphy's Pot."
We began stowing camp, preparing our day packs. Ryder shoveled and sifted until the fire was fully out.
Cullen steered the wagon slowly through, past a group of campers standing around the mauled Volkswagen. The door was torn off, and I could see smudgy-looking claw marks on the cream-colored cloth upholstery of the driver's seat.
"So our tent would be kind of like a napkin," quipped Inez.
"Or a tortilla," said Dan, his morning buzz in progress.
We'd just missed an Old Faithful eruption so decided to hang around forty minutes, buying shaved ice drinks at a kiosk. Suddenly the crowd cooed and the famous geyser began its spew. We had water, trail mix, and dried apricots in our various backpacks when we hit the Murphy's Pot trailhead, and three buckskin skeins of red wine. Bubbling cauldrons, smoking grasses, and perfect bowls of superheated gray mud percolated around us as we trekked our first mile. At times vapors enveloped the entire trail.
As one rotten-egg shroud lifted, I saw that Ryder had moved a considerable distance up the trail. He'd picked up a walking stick, a stout branch taller than he was. Another opaque swirl of gases, and when it cleared I saw that Inez had double-quicked up to walk alongside our tweeby fifth wheel. I imagined that Cullen, out of sensitivity, had asked her to do that, which made him all the more appealing. Cullen asking and Inez doing seemed to seal the deal, they were together.
We lunched at a blade of granite cut deep into a confluence of boulders whose hidden fissure sloughed up stews of sludge burnt dark as campfire marshmallows. The sky had clouded over, the day turned cooler. "Bear weather," said Cullen, passing on a toke from Dan's joint. They, being the so-called experts, always recommended that if attacked by a bear a person should just drop like a sack of corn and feign unconsciousness. Yeah right, I'd rather die punching, flailing, whatever it is you'd do. And there was always Dan, say what you want, he'd fight a bear if he had to.
Murphy's Pot was crystalline, and almost perfectly round. We all looked into it, depths grown pinkish and suggestive down in the crevasses. Behind our faces was a lowering sky with gray clouds like scales on a hibernating snake.
"Trip on this," said Cullen, "Let's spend the night."