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Continued from Settling in

With the house remade, Yry began exploring our environs. Loading Joan, me, and a trunk full of gear into the car, she’d find some dusty old logging road. Minus air-conditioning, we traveled with windows open. Dust tornadoed inside as I sat in the backseat, growing progressively more ill with each hairpin turn. Mom’s compensation for the dust only further aggravated my churning stomach. She’d brake beside a patch of sagebrush to harvest a pungent branch which she placed atop the dashboard where the sun baked the oily sage smell. To stave off my nausea, I’d flop across the big, upholstered bench seat where dust stored from previous trips boiled out to mingle with new dust. If I could fall asleep until the car came to a stop, I avoided the otherwise inevitable shriek: “Stop, I’m gonna puke!”

The old logging roads had a way of leading to nowhere. Yry’d go for miles and miles with no clear idea of where she was going. Her Triple A road maps were worthless in the backcountry and I never saw her use a topo. The destination was not the goal. Mom sought the peace that comes from penetrating the landscape. I don’t think we ever got seriously lost. But I do remember incidents that involved backing the car a quarter-mile or more down a serpentine, two-rut path with rocky wall on one side and sheer drop off on the other side, either because an out-bound logging rig had stared us down, or the path before us simply petered out.

She’d bought a forest-green, canvass tent; two oversized, zip-together, down sleeping bags (also forest-green), which kept the three of us toasty warm; and a cast-iron frying pan that required a two-fisted approach. Pitching the tent was a black comedy, inducing screaming fits between mom and Joan. The tent never collapsed, but there were times when it leaned alarmingly windward. The tent smelled bad—not moldy but tenty. If you’ve ever smelled an old canvass tent, you know what I mean. It’s a musty, turpentiney smell that floods my mind with memories every time I catch of whiff of it.57CampingOne time mom forgot to bring matches. We had the fire all nicely constructed, and the only source of heat was the cigarette lighter in the car. Mom crinkled some newspaper and held the lighter to the edge of the paper, blowing gently to spark a small flame. But the lighter would cool before the spark was achieved. Or if she coaxed a small flame, it died between the car and the fire pit. I understood Jack London’s To Build a Fire on a personal level. We ate cold, canned green beans that night.

On another adventure, she remembered the matches but forgot the fire-starting paper. Having no paper other than dollar bills and books, the only choice was to gather dry pine needles, which surprisingly, didn’t want to catch a flame. Eventually Joan made a ball of dry grass and managed to produce a wobbly little fire.

On another camping trip, the privies in the campground were so dark and terrifying that I seized up every time I went to pee. After what must have been a full day of bashful bladder I began whining that I had to pee.

“Well, go to the outhouse you little nitwit.”

“But I can’t go.”

“Whatever do you mean, you can’t go? March yourself down there and pee.”

“But I can’t. It won’t come . . .”

Suspiciously, “Have you peed since we got here?”

“No Mother, I can’t. I try but I can’t.”

So she dragged me to the outhouse, opened the door, releasing a fetid blast of air, and ordered me to sit there till I peed. Terrified of falling through the hole into that menacing pile of dark stink below, where flies buzzed angrily I was crying and yelping all at the same time.

“You’re not going to fall through,” she said. “But you are going to get sick if you don’t get rid of the poisons in your system. You’ll get sick and I’ll have to haul everything back to the car and we’ll have to drive all the way back to Laramie and put you in the hospital. I may just leave you there for being such a silly ninny. I can’t afford hospital bills. Now, pee, damn it!”

By now, my urine had reached the boiling point. Every time I almost got a stream going, fire assaulted the tender skin down there and I shrieked and clutched once more. This battle went on for a long time—long enough that after I finally succeeded in letting loose a ferocious, blistering stream of yeasty urine, it was nearly as dark outside as it was inside that nasty old stinkhouse.

Looking back on this event, I wonder why she didn’t just have me squat and pee in the bushes. Of course, that was just as unappealing to me and still is, but surely it would have been an option. Maybe this was her way of forcing me to face my fears.

Mother, a single woman in charge of two children, was proactive. Though she disapproved of firearms, she owned one. I don’t remember the long tale of how the old blunderbuss made it into her hands. Nor do I know any details about the weapon, other than that it was a pistol which she kept hidden most of the time and, according to her, it was unreliable—in that it might or might not fire when the trigger was pulled. Or rather than firing, the barrel might explode. Why in the world would she lug around a menace like this? To fend off creeps. That’s why. But that old gun and its implications planted a seed of the macabre.

One night while we were snuggled into our sleeping cocoon, I had a violent dream in which a stranger sliced through our tent with a huge hunting knife. (Mom had one of those, too.) Dreams confuse the chain of events, but somehow the knife ended up in my mother’s hands and she sliced off the hand of the intruder; I woke with the stump of the man’s arm waving before my eyes. For the rest of that camping trip, I kept circling the tent to convince myself that there was no evidence of foul play.