We are walking side by side and talking about what a real cowboy is
when the car passes us, slowing, two heads inside leaning in our direction,
eyeing the sight of us, I think, hiking girls from the East with all
the gear, two girls together, two girls alone. Anyone we’ve met
out here—the waitress, the hotel clerk, a honeymooning couple,
a curious ranger—has had something to say about it right away.
The car pulls to the side of the road
a ways up ahead, tires grating over the gravel; somehow you can hear
the silence of this place in noises like that. Abby and I keep walking,
thumbs hooked in our shoulder straps, feet slapping the road, blinking
and squinting up at the snowcapped peaks and the sky, that high, flashing
blue, like razor blades. And Abby keeps prattling, explaining how a
cowboy is a skinny kid with a darting Adam’s apple and soft cheeks
and pinkish, wet looking acne rising across his forehead from wearing
a sweaty hat all the time.
The car is older, black, a fierce pointed
look to it, like a stinging insect. It reminds me of other cars: cars
from high school owned by angular boys; the car with a broken windshield,
bits of glass like pale teeth scattered across the dusty seat, that
sat for years abandoned in the field behind my grandparents’ house.
Abby says her real cowboy’s got a dead mother. It was stomach
cancer, she tells me, that’s why the cowboy can’t stand
flowers or medicine. And he has an abusive father and a couple of curly-haired
twin sisters he’s always looked out for, and a piece of land.
Her voice is loud; she sounds brave and pleased.
The passenger door swings open and a
woman wearing a dress steps out. She shuts the door behind her and waits
for us, standing next to the car with her head propped to the side and
her hands on her hips. I remember from an intro psychology class, a
leaning head means interest. It’s an innocent-looking dress, like
a prairie woman who sweeps the floor all day, and I’m thinking
maybe she’ll ask us what we’re up to, how far from home
we are, and then we’ll be walking again, and I’ll ask Abby
what’s this cowboy’s name and how long has the mother been
dead, and feel my legs moving, hitting a rhythm, as she tells me.
“A ride,” Abby says. “It’s
a ride, Kate.” She hops in place.
“Why not?” Abby says. “My
feet hurt.” And something shivers up my calves, excitement and
fear and pleasure, because Abby is the kind of girl I have always wanted
to be friends with, my whole life, and here we are, and I will do whatever
she wants. At times, I’ve imagined her being cruel to me on a
playground, if we had known each other as children, and I feel like
I’ve tricked her into something and I have to go on tricking her,
making her believe somehow that I am pretty and lucky like her. This
morning, sitting at a picnic table, our hair wet from quick, cold showers,
she looked at me and said, “You don’t look like you. You
look like you have a brother named Sven.”
“Early, isn’t it?”
the woman shouts, even though she’s walked a little ways from
the car to meet us and now we stand close to her, close enough to see
that she’s no prairie woman, not the kind with a clean-swept cabin.
Her face is broad and blunt, colorless, the skin pitted, her hair pulled
back in a greasy ponytail. The dress she’s wearing is faded green
corduroy, and it fits her strangely, her stomach rising in a tight,
lopsided lump against the cloth, the hem crooked at her knees. There
are gray hairs stuck in clumps here and there across the dress, cat
“Early for what?” Abby says.
She crinkles up her nose in a curious bunny rabbit way she can do, and
she shows her front teeth just a little; it’s the look she’s
greeted people with all across the country, on the train on the way
out, men in starched Wrangler jeans, and old couples with their own
homemade chicken sandwiches in coolers waiting at their feet, and the
obese man behind the desk at the motel we found on the first night.
It gets people talking, it gets people thinking they know her, maybe,
or she’s someone they’ve known, or wanted to know, or missed.
It’s got something to do with those front teeth, I think, their
slight overlap, and the mole on her neck, and her brown hair in a braid,
sleek like a field hockey player, like a well-cared-for horse. I move
just off to the side, the way I do, waiting, watching, chewing at the
insides of my cheeks until I get a few shreds of skin I can twirl with
“We’re hiking the park,”
“Two girls hiking Glacier National
Park alone?” the woman asks. She starts laughing loudly with her
mouth hanging slippery and loose. “Didn’t you ever watch
America’s Most Wanted?” She picks a clump of fur
off her chest, flicks it into the dirt. “Did you ever notice,
at the end, whenever they find those guys, those rapers and killers
and lunatics, they always find them in Montana?”
I glance around, catching at once the
pines, dense, endless, and the snow-streaked mountains, and the woman’s
pale forehead, and the sun glinting off the roof of the car, and the
empty ribbon of road almost glittering in this kind of white light I
can’t get used to; it’s a kind of clear you can’t
look away from but that also makes it harder to see.
A man with thick, blue-black hair leans his head out the window. “Offer
them a ride,” he says. Until now, I’d thought it was a woman,
the long hair, and I’d thought, two women, you can get in a car
with two women. He’s wearing giant, mirrored sunglasses, gold
rims, from another decade, like the car.
“What exactly is it you think I’m
doing?” the woman shouts, turning to the car, her voice going
Abby looks at me, chin tucked over her
shoulder, and I shrug and take a small step back, and Abby sticks her
tongue out at me.
The woman looks down at her feet, chuckling,
a wet sound. She’s wearing black hightop Reeboks without socks
and something about the dress and her bare legs popping out and the
big shoes makes her look like a puppet. She points her sneakered toe
and makes a careful half-circle in the dirt, and then she looks up at
us, an inquiring smile slanting across her face.
“Girls, girls, girls,” she
says. “You do know about the grizzlies? Some awful things I could
tell you. You know if you have your period those bears’ll sniff
you right out? Bears crave blood, you know. Intoxication. Addicts for
it. You know there was a girl out here last year died that way? Poor
thing died screaming, ‘My muff! My muff!’” Her voice
goes high and hysterical. She raises her arms and flaps her hands at
the sides of her face. “My muff,” she says again.
Abby giggles, her hand cupped to her
mouth, and I laugh with her, and the woman laughs; the three of us are
laughing in the cold sun on the side of the road while the man sits
in the car with his sunglasses on, until the woman takes a breath and
says, “Sure. Sure. But bears are no joke. No joke. Four, five-inch
claws. Rip your chest clean open.”
“Everybody keeps telling us about
the bears,” Abby says. Before we left, Abby’s Uncle Ray
sent her an envelope with nothing in it but a yellow Post-it that said
“Grrr,” and pictures cut out of National Geographic:
grizzlies on their hind legs sniffing the wind, muzzles bristling; flipping
silvery trout out of a river; on boulders pawing at pink flesh. And
men on the train enjoyed giving us advice over Heinekens in the bar
car, leaning in close, flashing saliva and fillings. Make noise while
you walk—talk, blow a whistle, shake a Coke can full of pebbles.
Avoid mama bears. Bears have a method of flaying the victim and storing
the body under a rock or an old log for a snack later. Wear cayenne
pepper spray in a holster on your hip, bear spray, but never spray into
the wind. And a gun will do you no good against the already slow-beating
heart of a bear. Even if you get a good shot the bastard’ll still
have time to maul you, then wander off to die. As a last resort, drop
into the fetal position. And never go to sleep wearing fruity perfume
or lip-gloss or with chocolate on your face.
Yesterday we hiked three miles into bear
territory, the path dim and quiet with pine, shouting back and forth
the entire time, singing when we ran out of talking, and at night we
put all our food in the steel box they have at every site, and we cleaned
our faces with just cold water in the restroom, rubbing our fingers
hard across our lips, and we changed out of the clothes that smelled
of smoke from the beans we had cooked, and put those in the steel box
too, and then we both lay in the tent listening for rustling, for the
snap of branches, for sniffing, for the growl that is supposed to sound
like a hog snorting.
The woman gazes off down the road, her
mouth slack, thick, white spittle hanging at the corners of her lips.
Then, quietly, calmly, she says, “I know it. Nobody shuts up about
the bears. But save your feet, you know?” She jerks her head at
the car. “Lester and I can give you a ride. Get in the car and
take a ride.”
“We can take a ride down the road,”
Abby says, her voice a bright chirping, only agreement, and without
looking at me she swings her pack off her back and then she is climbing
into the car, folding herself in, and I follow her, groping forward,
awkward, suddenly hot in my chest and in my cheeks, entering that small,
dark space. With the click of the door I think of the half-circle the
woman’s toe drew in the dirt like something I’m supposed
to remember, a signal, a marker, and I sniff and Abby smiles at me and
gives my shoulder a shove.
The man peels out onto the road, empty
except for us. All the guidebooks say early June is when no one is here.
This is when it is cold and pristine and there are no crowds and you
can see the place how it’s meant to be seen. The car has a pressing,
stale smell to it, like old, burnt things, shoes and mattress springs
and tires. We sit with our packs wedged between our legs. My neck starts
to ache. There’s junk everywhere: a quilt, a place mat, a gun,
a fork with the prongs crusted in pale brown food, a bundle of T-shirts,
an umbrella, a flip-flop, a hot pink plastic daisy. Like clues. Like
one of those brain games in high school, make an invention from the
following items. You are stuck on an island with only the following
objects. I nudge Abby, make a motion at these things, but she only smiles
at them. I study the gun. It’s the first time I’ve seen
an actual gun, I realize. It’s the hunting kind, a triangle of
wood to prop to the shoulder, an old black trigger, the pioneer kind,
not the kind people get killed with, the small, cold, black or silver
ones that get put in people’s mouths. I press my thigh to Abby’s.
“We’ve been on the road for
a while,” the woman says. “When you’re on the road
you carry everything you own with you. And add to that everything you
pick up along the way. Right, Lester? We’re collectors. We collect
The man nods his head thoughtfully, chin
up and down in the light through the windshield, neck long, sinewy.
White V-neck shirt, jeans. Thin hips. I try to piece together their
lives. Cans of food, a cheap hotel room now and again. The T-shirts
are his, she washes them when she can, rubbing at them, her hands in
a river, knuckles red under the water, once in a while they hit a Laundromat,
the quilt, everything they own in for a wash, a cigarette outside, waiting,
maybe a restaurant, lemon meringue pie for a treat, he drives, mostly
they skirt the towns, hunt and fish.
“Where are you guys from?”
Abby says, like we’re meeting over drinks somewhere. That smile
again, an eager milk drinker.
The woman turns in her seat to look at
us, her face bobbing between the two headrests. She stares for a minute,
wide-set gray eyes, and it occurs to me that she isn’t looking
at us, she’s looking at the road behind us, looking at no one
following us. I think of movies, memorized license plate numbers, signs
held to windows, Help Us, fingers scuttling for door handles, bodies
tumbling to the road. Slowly, the woman says, “From here. From
there. Neither of us is from the same place. I had a trailer once in
Ohio. And kids, had those once too.” She laughs her damp laugh.
“Remember Ohio, Lester? Lester found me in Ohio.”
“We’re from New Hampshire,”
Abby says. “Abby and Kate. It’s so beautiful out here.”
She makes a motion, sweeping her arm around the back seat.
“Hi,” I say, and I move my
hand like I’m waving at a baby.
“Call me Sandy,” the woman
says. “As in Sandra or Alexandra or Cassandra. Or Andrew for that
matter. Take your pick of the litter. Which one can’t be confirmed
without ID. Me and Lester here both lost our IDs back in Canada, which
is not far away. Whole other country, but not far away.”
“Canada is empty,” Lester
announces, his head shooting forward as though he is addressing the
windshield. Then he moves a hand off the steering wheel, and lifting
his hips, he draws a joint from his pocket, fits it to his lips, and
hits the cigarette lighter all in one fluid motion. His fingers are
long and clean, soft looking, like they’ve been soaking in something.
“Abby,” I mutter. She gives
my shoulder three pats.
“That’s two things to know
about Lester,” Sandy says. “One is he’s quiet. Preserves
his words. Understands that there are modes of communication other than
talking. Two is he likes to smoke. Frees his inhibitions. I’m
sure you girls have seen the stuff before. Everybody knows what college
girls are up to nowadays. Drugs and sex on campus.”
“That’s totally cool,”
“Right, totally cool,” Sandy
says, slow and smooth and mocking. “Totally.”
Lester lifts his graceful chin as he
inhales. He gives that hair of his a shake. Lustrous, I’d actually
call it, good enough for a shampoo commercial. I think he might be an
Indian and I feel guilty about it. The air turns thick-sweet with smoke.
“We believe in a lot of things
not everybody believes in,” Sandy says.
“Destiny routes, the powers beyond, star guidance.”
Abby keeps nodding slowly. “I’m
into that stuff,” she says.
Sandy bobs her head, her lips pursed.
“Of course you are.”
She turns away and opens the glove compartment,
roots through some papers and plastic bags and then takes out a square-shaped
piece of purple metal, the size of a drugstore novel. “See this?”
she says, holding it up for us. “I got it from a magazine. A healing
plate. Doubt whatever you want, but it works. Pulls the healing energy
of the universe into you.”
“Wow,” Abby says. “It’s
kind of pretty.”
Sandy turns the plate in her hands and
it glints in the light, sparkly. It reminds me of roller skates with
fancy wheels, banana seats on bikes.
“Right now I have a toothache.
Nothing like a toothache to put you on the edge,” Sandy announces
like an infomercial. “But this’ll suck the pain right out.”
She nestles down into her seat with the
purple plate pressed to her cheek. I look over at Abby, but she just
sits back, roams her eyes lazily over the car like she’s looking
around for some other fun tidbit to discuss with Sandy: tarot cards,
cooking on the road. Sunlight filters in through the smoke, thick and
drifting, golden and filled with slow dust motes. I watch the park slide
away, the trees, and the alpine flowers that bloom in snow, the towering
rocks, wet with runoff, the curves where the land drops suddenly away
from the road, the places I meant to spend hours seeing, gone instantly.
We drive past a glacial lake with one speck of an island rising in the
middle, on the island one pine. I recognize it, I’ve seen it in
a picture before, it’s a famous island. The guidebooks are always
talking about the glacial lakes, their depth and cold, the ancient movements
that formed them, the turquoise color, something about sediment sifting
down, the perfect reflection of the land in the still water.
“Look,” I say to Abby. I
hold my finger to the window.
“Nice,” Abby says.
“See something you like?”
Sandy says. “Pretty as a picture.”
Sandy puts her hand on Lester’s
thigh, rubs up and down. The sound of her skin against his jeans is
menacing, a scurrying sound, like a small animal in the bushes. It makes
my stomach turn and I burp up a bit of breakfast, Snickers bars and
Tang and instant oatmeal, joking about eating bear bait, swishing afterward
with a mini-bottle of Scope, spitting onto the charred logs from our
fire. I press my face to the window, hard to the cold glass, press to
feel the ridge of my cheekbone, press and look to see more, to see the
distance here, to see everything.
After a while there is an open stretch
of meadow and Lester flicks his wrist and the car leaves the road and
we are hurtling across the grass toward more forest, more mountains,
and I think we are going to be dead girls with our mouths hanging open
in the grass, and then I wish I knew Abby was imagining this too, could
see herself with her throat slit. It is embarrassing to be girls killed
hitchhiking. I see a perky anchorwoman standing out here later, new
hiking gear on, her foot propped up on log, telling the story of us,
interviewing the clerk at the hotel we stayed at that first night, he’ll
move his pudgy hands across his desk as he remembers us, vaguely, vacantly,
and I think about my father, how he has always liked girls having adventures,
how I knew he was impressed by Abby, by her being my friend, with her
long legs and the color in her cheeks that makes her seem on the verge
of something, always. My father took us out for pastrami sandwiches
the day we left; the three of us sat at a big wooden table, chewing
and smiling at each other.
“This isn’t going anywhere,”
“Coyotes,” the woman says.
“Lester here is going after a coyote now. Lester likes to skin
Lester speeds up, leaning forward. The
grass thwaps against the wheels. When
the road is out of sight he slows and drives the car in three wide circles,
and then comes to a stop.
“Okey-dokey,” Sandy says.
“We drop you here.” She opens her door, steps out, and pushes
her seat down for us. We stumble into the grass, back into the day,
dragging our packs with us.
“Anything to show your appreciation?”
she says. “A thank you for the ride? Let’s have a look inside
your packs here. Come bearing gifts?”
“What gifts?” Abby says.
While Lester waits in the car Sandy opens
our packs and riffles through our clothes, unfolding them and holding
them up against herself, smoothing them to her body. She comments that
we’re all three about the same size, even though we aren’t.
Abby and I stand in the brilliant light, smelling exhaust. She will
take our things, she will tease us, I think, and then Lester will climb
out of the car and reach his long arm into the back seat and grab the
“What are you doing?” Abby
“Shopping,” Sandy says. “Shop
till you drop.”
“You’re taking it?”
Abby says. She sounds annoyed. She is talking to Sandy the way she sometimes
talks to me and I wonder if she still can’t understand that something
terrible is happening to her.
“Maybe she won’t take all
of it,” I mumble, and Abby snorts, a thread of snot flecking out
of one of her nostrils.
Sandy makes a pile of our best things,
our sweaters and fleece jackets and turtlenecks and hats, our clean
T-shirts, six pairs of wool socks, Abby’s purple, lightweight
shorts. I’ve had the sweater she takes for years, a gray pullover,
the elbows and the neck sag, I like to sleep in it. She holds up a pair
of my long underwear and gives them a shake. They dance in the air and
look absurdly small. She tosses aside the guidebook.
When she finds Abby’s make-up bag
she makes a sound like purring and sits down in the grass with the bag
in her lap, unzipping it and pawing through it, her pale fingers and
wrists flashing in the sun as she grabs at soap and a tube of toothpaste
and nail clippers and floss and deodorant. She goes over her mouth with
Abby’s ChapStick, smiling, leaving her lips thickened and pasty,
a girl playing dress-up. She takes out a bottle of Neutrogena sunscreen,
inspects the label, frowning, and then squirts a white squiggle into
her palm and wipes it along her cheekbones and down her nose and across
her forehead, holding her face up to the sky, rubbing with her fingertips,
leaving a shine over her skin.
She takes the food, peanut butter, beef
jerky, cans of beans and boxes of macaroni and cheese and graham crackers
and Snickers bars and cans of beer from the dusty shelves in the store
in St. Mary’s. After inspection she decides to take our sleeping
bags and the collapsible pans, and a pair of tin cups, speckled blue
and white—all my father’s things, he went up into the crawl
space above the kitchen to find them for me and Abby—and I remember
it all from years ago, camping with him in the Smoky Mountains, the
hush of rain against the green walls of the tent, my father in a flannel
shirt cooking eggs, the snail shells we found scattered across the trails
as we hiked. Sandy takes our wallets of course, but out of obligation,
or maybe out of habit, it seems, more than interest. They are stored
in side-pockets, and she doesn’t miss a pocket, unzipping and
untying. My pack is old, red canvas, new leather strings strung through
the eyelets. I remember packing it all, squatting on the floor, rolling
the sleeping bags tight, counting out underwear.
She makes a few trips between us and
the car before she’s got all the stuff she wants, moving leisurely
through the long grass, bending and picking up a few things at a time,
carrying them held to her chest, tossing them onto the back seat. When
she’s done she gets in the car and swings the door shut. She says
something to Lester and they laugh, a tired, intimate laugh, the laugh
of shared labor, and then Sandy rolls the window down and leans her
head out. “Well,” she says, “thank you and pleased
to meet you and God bless America.”
Lester revs the engine and Sandy settles
back in her seat, and then they begin to circle us, Lester’s two
huge, clean hands on the wheel like limp fish. Abby and I stand close
together. The car will turn and run us down, maybe, I will hear the
thump of our bodies, chests, thighs, against the hood of the car, a
dull sound, and our hair and blood will fill our mouths. I hold my hands
clasped in front of me, politely waiting. Mostly, I’m tired, my
legs hurt behind my knees and I want to sit down. But there are rules
I’m following: to stand, to be still, to be quiet. What I can
do is follow the rules. No running, no back talking. Lester circles
us, each circle just a little faster, and closer, I think, closer each
time. My saliva tastes unfamiliar, like fingernails and glass, and the
wheels plow the grass down around us in a ring. He makes his circles
and I watch in pieces, sun, hair, wheel, metal, until light and sound
shift, and as though distracted the car lurches, but not at us, away,
and Abby makes a weird, short squeal, and the car is spinning away from
us, and they are leaving, and we are watching the small, black car careen
away across the meadow.
The car becomes a hum, the meadow returns
to its own clicks and whirs. It is hard to breathe. I don’t want
to look at Abby yet. I imagine Sandy moving on with our things. Maybe
a ways down the road they’ll pull into a campground and Lester
will wait outside the restroom with the car running while Sandy washes
herself with Abby’s soap and then brushes her hair with my hairbrush
in the dim mirror. I see her, chin pressed to chest, holding up the
hem of her dress, lathering up her crotch. I see her bare feet, her
bluish toes on the cement floor. I think of her smelling like Abby,
her wind-rough skin softening over time with face cream.
Abby sits down in the grass, her legs
splayed out in front of her. “God,” she says. Her breath
comes short and terse. “God,” she says again.
“See?” I say. My chest feels
tight and hard and small.
“See what?” Abby says.
I go around picking up our leftover things,
grabbing like I’m picking up somebody’s room, stuffing useless
odds and ends back into our packs. Abby lies back, stretches out, her
arms flung above her head. The wind pushes the grass in silvery waves,
and I remember a show I watched, a PBS thing about the wagon trains,
how the pioneers would get seasick, watching the grass move all day,
lurching through it. In the distance a wall of rock rises against the
sky, and you can see movement in it, dark lines like scars, where, I
imagine, something, ice, earth, ancient trees, once heaved against it,
wrenching and pulling. I think again how big it is out here, how wide,
and my eyes don’t know where or how to look.