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.”
The discussion was conducted as we passed the first wine skein around.
“Look,” our fearless leader said, “we can spend all our nights in a campsite with the moms, pops, and the kiddies, or, just for tonight, we can really experience Yellowstone.”
Inez and I shared looks of trepidation. We were hours from civilization and it was getting chillier. I know the guys would have walked us back to Old Faithful right then and there if we asked, but I’m equally sure they would have tried to talk us out of it. My own primordial instincts must have kicked in, because suddenly the walk back, three hours, the last of which would be by flashlight, seemed more dangerous than staying put.
“We’ll build a big fire,” chimed in Dan, who immediately warmed to Cullen’s plan. There wasn’t much wood on the gritty thermal ground around us, but nearby stands of brimstone-stunted pine held promise.
As the fire grew, last sunglints winked in a maelstrom I stonily imagined was hugging Oregon’s coast. Impenetrable ebony blackness descended outside our fire circle. Our entire existence in the world became defined by that protean blaze, which cast shadows on faces framed by fours skulls sporting hippie-long hair, and one skull a swirling, unruly bristle. We broke into the second skein of wine. The fire, the nearby bathy warmth of the pool, and our own trail-hardy inner furnaces created a bubble of heat.
Dan recounted how he’d blown off his senior year at Salem High School, unable to make himself give a shit, and was currently paying the piper with his Chemeketa catch-up classes. He was a good kisser, had innate skills along those lines, but I confess to having had qualms about what life might be like as his old lady. He was very interested in a behind-the-counter job at his uncles auto parts store, and needed an Associate of Arts in business to apply.
“Some of those guys are making eight-fifty a month,” he crowed, with a wink in my direction. “And you get parts at a discount.”
“My mother has been a home nurse all her life,” said Inez. “I can remember her leaving me with my father to go out and work swing and graveyard in the homes of invalids.” Inez confessed she had felt her mother’s absence, but had come to appreciate the value of such work. “I’ve been accepted for an accredited internship at Oregon Health Sciences University next year,” she revealed, “so it’s goodbye Chemeketa for me.”
It was Cullen’s turn, and my sense was that he underplayed his aspirations, so as not to make Dan’s ambitions compare badly. He had nailed his Associate of Arts in the Environmental Studies program, and would pursue a Bachelor’s in environmental engineering at OSU.
“That’s where the future is, stewardship of the land,” he proclaimed.I listened, peevishly thinking that if he and Inez turned out to be more than “loving the one you’re with,” my Latina girlfriend had scored big time.
When my turn in the sharing circle came, I shared what Dan and Inez already knew, that I was weighing either paralegal work or office management. The sky so hopelessly black took on a red cast through the lenses of my blithered eyes; I was wasted. Dan leaned in attentively, and I pictured him coming home from the parts store each night, popping open a beer, turning on a ballgame.
Ryder had moved from the circle, and sat on a nearby boulder, cross-legged like a nerd abducted by Indians at birth. My guess is he knew it was his turn to say something. I looked up a little while later and he was methodically scraping the outer bark off his walking stick with a sharp wedge of rock, exposing the flesh-white inner membrane of the wood.
Cullen’s watch read 2:26 am. Only grunts and half-murmurs reminded us that some of us were still awake.
Dan rose, grabbed one of the flashlights, and walked outside the circle towards the stand of pine where we had gathered wood. After a time he returned, “Piss cold out there,” he said. Cullen took a turn, then Ryder, and each time the flashlight beam nicked off into the bloom of ink it seemed as if its carrier had fallen off the face of the earth.
Ryder threw more wood on the fire, and in the flare of light my eyes met Inez’s, female ESP, knowing it was our turn to go pee. The summer coldness was brutal, and I said to her, “I’d hate to see winter.” Seconds after leaving the fire and heading for the slope of trees the clothes we wore became as ineffective as silk. I shivered; no surprise if I came down with something. I was still thinking, calculating. Once we were alone I’d broach the subject of how things were going with Cullen. We picked our way back in through the slender columns, the scent of pine mingling with the traces of our wood smoke and the quinine of Murphy’s Pot. When we dropped our jeans the air hit my buttocks like a cleaver.
Our streams froze at the sound of something walking past us between the trees. The stealthy crackle was coming from the right, where the forest rose up around and behind Murphy’s Pot. Inez and I stood in pants-down terror, but we didn’t scream. Only half-hitching our jeans we broke for the firelight where the guys stood backlit in Murphy’s wavering steam.
Cullen was standing with Dan beside him, Dan’s muscles on full alert. I went into Dan, Inez went to Cullen.
Yellow eyes appeared all around us. You couldn’t have counted them, because they moved, in pairs, from close by, and from distances that would seem to have been swallowed in darkness. Cullen raised his flashlight, which at that moment flickered. We saw the fur, the black-to-brown, the tawny-leather, the oxford brown collar of a massive bull elk.
“Where’s Ryder,” I said.
That’s when we heard the awful scrabbling noise. It was from the stand of pine above the geothermal cauldron. By the light of our dwindling fire we saw that an elk calf had lost its footing on a gravely slope. The creature was all hooves, kicking up broken lava bits, struggling through what looked like a macabre dance. In time-lapsed, drug-induced stupefaction we all watched as the calf tumbled irrevocably over the mist-slickened ledge, down and kersplash into the steaming water.
A millisecond later Ryder’s flat-top head appeared at the top of the slope. I saw the milk-white tip of his walking stick in the firelight. There was a terrible bleat from Murphy’s Pot, and we all looked and saw the spinning of the calf, quick and hopeless. The beast lost direction and headed into the center of the pool. More bleats, and a renewed thrashing. From up the slope Ryder picked his way down, his white face florid. Vapors rose and obscured his jeans and sweatshirt like a shower door, but I saw him circle the pot until his back was to us, and reach into the water with his tooth-colored staff. At that point it was clear to me that he was trying to assist the calf, push it toward a shallow, submerged plateau near the rim.
There was a sure-footed gallop behind us. Nothing like the spindly sidesteps of the calf, but intended, planted with resolve. We barely turned in time to avoid blunt trauma as the bull elk charged by, so close its hooves clattered yellow pebbles over my boots. Inez gave a startled yip; I heard Cullen yell, “Look out!” The elk ran headlong toward Ryder, who had just turned with his staff. A sickening second splash. Though our fire had died down after all the nature calls, I could see the big elk standing before an uprush of steam. The sound of splashing came from two distinct places now. I was struck by the fact that Ryder was silent in there.
Cullen and Dan ran toward the pool. The bull wheeled, but it seemed the fight had gone out of him. Dan yelled this ferocious yell I’d heard before on camping trips, as if some deep anger resided within him. It worked. The bull circled away and back out into the yellow-eyed night.
Inez and I ran to where Cullen and Dan were hunched down at the edge of the pool. Ryder had clambered up on to the narrow rock shelf he’d been trying to guide the calf to, and it took two tries for the guys to pull him out. Finally, his head and shoulders became a steaming torso and then two slicked and steaming legs. Even factoring my wine and pot-altered time sense, he couldn’t have been in the water for more than twenty seconds.
The calf, its eyes clouded with the dullness of impending death, circled once more in the scalding sink then sank with a feeble kick. The fire was nearly out. Dan had the presence of mind to throw our last gathered logs on. An awful trumpet roar sounded over the boiling landscape around us.
“That’s your bull,” said Cullen, as the four of us still able to stand looked out into a night that would remain silent and curtained black till dawn.
There was tenderness in Inez’s first words to Ryder. “Hey, how bad is it?”
Ryder’s voice was from someplace changed, disembodied. “I think I’m done for.”
We got him over and laid him near the fire. His face was beet red. Inez put her hand lightly on his elbow, and I took the other arm, which felt cold, his clothes rapidly cooling. When I looked down at his hand I saw that the skin was reddened and puckered like he’d been in the bath too long. It seemed obvious when Dan asked, “Are you in pain?” but Ryder answered. “Thirsty,” he said, his throat a fiery crimson.
My water flask lay where I’d left it, and I carefully brought it to Ryder’s mouth. He gulped, slowly, and I think it was only then that I realized he was incapacitated, that he would not be getting up. He lay back and sighed, and I felt terrible, we all did, when he simply said, “Fuck.”
Cullen said, “Dan and I are going to have to go for help.”
Huh?” I said instinctively. I didn’t want to be left out there. When Inez broke in saying, “I’ve got nursing skills. I should stay,” I knew it was the only logical choice. Cullen knew the way back to Old Faithful, and Inez could care for Ryder best. Cullen had been absently poking at the fire with a stick. He tossed it into the flames. “The guys go, the girls stay, my call.”
Ryder listened quietly, and I noticed he had begun to shiver. “Keep that fire going,” said Cullen. “We’ll take what’s left of the flashlight.”
Cullen bent down and promised Ryder that they would make record time on the trail. He looked up at the rest of us and said, “Maybe three hours back, then however long it takes them to get here.” He and Inez went off in the shadows, and I realized how they seemed already close, pairing, seeking shared strength. Dan took a turn by Ryder’s side, saying, “Hang in there, dude,” before giving me a clumsy hug. Both men trailed off into the mists.
Ryder was blind, he kept saying that. Looking at his eyes we had no reason to doubt it. In the time since we’d laid him down, his whites had gone to deep pink. He tried to sit up, as if by doing so could somehow change what had happened. But the bend at the waist wrenched a tortured sob from him. Inez said, “Just relax, help is on the way.” When he lay back down, she loosened his belt, and we saw that the outer layer of skin on his stomach was loose and folded in a clear, papery scale. We had exhausted the firewood, and the idea of failing light drove me, makeshift torch in hand, into the forest behind the cauldron. We had cleaned a lot of it out, no logs, but I found a few decent limbs. My tongue thick, I gathered enough in one arm to keep us out of the pitch black for another hour.
It came on Ryder suddenly, the inarticulate whimpers and moans. Inez whispered that his natural painkillers were wearing off. She wetted a handkerchief from her pack, and laid it across his forehead. The thin sheet seemed to calm him. The repose didn’t last though, and when he awoke it was finally as if he was wracked with an awful pain. For the next five minutes we sat helpless with our hands lightly resting on each of his arms. Then Inez perked up and said, “The skein!” The third was mostly full, and we’d forgotten it. In one of the ebbs in Ryder’s suffering she got him to take a little, then more. The truth is, she got him drunk as he lay there, administering a good gulp every five minutes or so. When he finally spoke again, he asked about the time.
His benumbing gave me the idea of getting him to talk, to imagine a future after this horrible night. He talked about his job as a shift manager at Kentucky Fried Chicken, how he’d been named employee of the month twice. He told us about childhood summer vacations, and that this was his fourth visit to Yellowstone. He began to cry. Inez and I didn’t fight our empathetic tears. After, he seemed almost peaceful, closed his eyes, and at one point actually chuckled and said, “My father would carry me out.”
The most lonesome sound, a night breeze, came down chilly over the treetops, breathing out the last of total darkness, stirring the sulfur ghosts. Ryder seemed unconscious, and Inez and I were silently thankful. We both took long droughts on the wine skein. As we huddled closer to a hearth now reduced to glowing charcoals, I wanted to ask Inez about Cullen, how far into each other she thought they were, but didn’t. I must have slept sitting up. When next I opened my eyes dawn was breaking around the edges of the Yellowstone caldera.
Suddenly Ryder sat up. He attempted to stand, and almost succeeded before Inez and I got him to lie back down. He did, and then he said, “Morning.”
“Help is coming,” Inez said.
Inez did a strange thing then. She bent over and lightly kissed him on the lips.
“I love you,” he said.
“We love you too,” she said.
We heard the rescue helicopter, pushing downdrafts at the mists of deep earth. Watched it land on a sulfur flat, thankful that we were no longer Ryder’s only hope. Our rescuers looked surprised to see us, in a way that made me think they saw surprising things here all the time. Within seconds they had him on intravenous pain killers. Inez and I hunched near his gurney on the ride back. I surveyed the caldera at dawn, imagined the catastrophe of eruption that Cullen had floated into our imaginations.
Cullen and Dan were waiting in the emergency care center at Old Faithful Inn. They ran out and we all hugged. There were other people who watched as they rolled Ryder in. I thought about the ranger who’d spit and cursed when Ryder tried to photograph the buffalo, shaking his head over crazy kids.
A big Chinook came for Ryder, in and out quick, on its way to a burn unit at Brigham Young University Medical Center. A Southwest Airlines jet, Portland to Salt Lake City, was already en route, flying Ryder’s parents and sister to a vigil that would last three days and two nights, and end in his death. A long drive I remember, back to Salem, mostly quiet, at times affectionate, the last time what was left of us would be together.
Dan and I foundered after the funeral. Cullen and Inez never really started up. By the start of the school year they were both gone, the guys, Cullen to OSU and Dan to Vietnam. I kept up a friendly correspondence with Inez for about a year, met her a few times over by Salem General Hospital for coffee, she met a guy, and I never heard from her again. That’s the way it was in the early seventies, some say it was still the sixties. That’s the way it always is.
I can’t say I’d recognize any of them on the street today. I’d recognize Ryder though; the tag-along Johnnie who died before he’d had a chance to find his place in the wilderness.