Fall 2007, Volume 24.1
Elizabeth Buechner Morris
Down, Down, Down Into the Valley of the Snake
Elizabeth Buechner Morris lives by the sea in Marblehead, Massachuttes. She is a long-distance sailor whose non-fiction often appears in the sailing press. Her short fiction has appeared in Janus and The Hurricane Review. She has just finished her first novel set during the California Gold Rush.
"We don’t know each other and never will!"
My God, things are getting worse, I thought, and tapped the on/off button. I put my cell phone down on the worn picnic table, her voice ringing in my ear.
The campground manager walked over, "Hello again. Staying another night?"
"No, moving on. I want to get to Homestead tonight, while the weather holds."
"You’re going across the Wallowas in one day?" He was used to campers in RV’s, SUV’s, pick-ups, but not bicycles. "Good luck!"
I’d already had a cup of coffee and granola, rolled up my sleeping bag and tent, extinguished the Kwik and set the cooled galvanized pail into a rucksack. The hardest part of every day was getting started, leaving a familiar campsite, setting out alone. Even when you’re biking with someone, you’re alone, pumping through the gears on an upgrade or relaxing on the down; but when you’re on your own, you’re as alone as you can be.
This day would be hard. The roads over the mountains were mostly paved, but narrow and used by logging trucks. There was no easy way east from Joseph to Boise. First things first: I had to get out of the campground, up the steep, rutted, sandy road that I’d slid down the day before. My front wheel had bucked into a hollow; my back wheel flipped into the air, and I airborne—a classic endo. I’d caught my weight on the heels of my hands, sparing my elbows, but this morning my abraded hands and knees were stiff, and my warm-up would be up that same damned killer road.
Billie, my wife, says I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, an example of how little she knows me. On a bike, I can pace myself, shift gears, keep track of traffic in front and behind, watch for pebbles and cracks, observe wildlife—yesterday I’d seen hawks, woodpeckers and a lone vulture—and still have space in my brain to agonize over Billie’s growing impatience with our life in Providence. Provincial Providence, she calls it. We go to the gym together, read the same authors; most couples aren’t this close. Providence doesn’t seem stodgy to me.
This time last year we’d come out west together, following the Wyoming section of the Oregon Trail, looking for clues from her great-great-grandfather’s diary. We didn’t find much, except the place names: Mormon Ferry, Emigrant Gap, and Willow Springs, all mentioned by him. Even so, our time together, camping, hiking, laughing and loving, was so fine, that we determined then to come out again this year and continue our search, this time starting in Portland and going east to Boise before flying home. What had happened between us since then caught me unawares, and here I was with my Eddy Merckx Elite mountain bike as sole companion, while Billie was back in Providence packing for her own adventure.
Billie’s ancestor came out here as a pioneer homesteader; we’d hoped to find his log cabin in the Hell’s Canyon wilderness. I was carrying a copy of his hand-drawn map, showing the river, feeder streams, various basalt cliffs and Indian trails. It had taken a week of hard biking to cross most of Oregon; I had ten days more to explore. "Go yourself, damn you," Billie had said when I refused to change my vacation plans. "If you learn anything, tell me. I want to know what you learn, Hank, if anything." This confrontational tone was something new. Usually we tackled stuff together, whether tying up the recycling or visiting her aunt in the nursing home.
I made it to Homestead, just before dark, stopping once by the side of a small lake for more granola and two apples, while watching a woodpecker bang its poor head against a hardwood again and again, sure in its birdy brain that there was a treat waiting for him after just one more peck. I stopped again for a chimichanga at Sonita’s at the mall outside of town. Other than that, I spent twelve hours on the bike.
There’s a rhythm to biking; I suspect it’s like riding long distance on a train. Whatever else goes on, the dependable two-beat is in the background: left foot, right foot; left foot, right foot. Sometimes a scatter shot of snare drums as a car goes by, often the timpani of heartbeat, as adrenaline rushes on a steep section. Then, for me, an imagined drum roll, as my brain clicks into its own gear: what should I do?
It took me all morning to fashion an answer to Billie’s angry remark on the phone. I knew, and I wished that she knew, that not knowing each other was good. Just as exploring new ways of making love improved our sex life, hearing her tell an old story with a new punch line or meeting another of her imaginary childhood fantasy friends while walking together in the woods made our life better. Only last month I’d been as astounded and enthralled as our five-year old nephew when Billie had recited verse after verse of one of A. A. Milne’s poems for him.
Hadn’t we poked fun at the fogies eating dinner in a restaurant with no conversation between them? Hadn’t we decided we’d never be like them? Wasn’t not knowing each other one of the keys to staying interesting and interested forever? How could she think not knowing was bad?
It took me all afternoon to convince myself not to call her right away, to let both of us cool down. It took until 7 p.m. to get to the campground at Homestead and to realize that my lacerated right knee had oozed through its bandage, and that I had exactly enough energy left to set up my tent and fall asleep.
Something woke me around 3 a.m. There wasn’t even the murmur of a breeze in the lodgepole pines, not a rustle in the underbrush, but I’d slept off my physical exhaustion. Something quiet and internal had awoken me, like the lightest touch of counterpoint entering a melody.
During the past week I’d had a lot of time to think about what I’d miss if Billie and I were apart for a year. I’d made a mental list. I would miss frequent sex, companionship, someone to plan my weekends—not to mention my wardrobe, a second source of income to bolster my life style. I’d miss my quickening heartbeat when I opened our apartment door after a day’s work, the noontime phone calls that always ended with a kiss, and the smooth daily transitions between our memories, stories, and routines. But if I went with her to Paris on her loony-tunes search for artistic enlightment, I’d have to quit my job at Chaffee, lose my standing in the rugby league, and find someone to take my place as assistant coach of the Otters Little League team. Lying in my tent, I added to the list. I’d miss frequent contact with her family who had become my family too. I’d miss her friends too. Clair and Ruby, her studio mates; her nutty gang from college who used our couch for everything from business hotel accommodations to assignations; and, of course, Larry in the Basement, who would never speak to us again if Billie and I left him out of our plans.
I dozed until 5:30 when the sun filtered through the trees—early, with the summer solstice just two weeks past—and by 6:30, having not seen a single person, I left the campsite, working out the kinks in my sore muscles by the time I turned north onto the Hell’s Canyon Scenic Byway.
When I was a kid, addicted to daydreaming, I’d read about Hell’s Canyon and the Valley of the Snake River in National Geographic. I’d added it to my wish list of places to visit, that list crowded with places and adventures, enough for two lifetimes. Now I crested a last foothill of the Wallowas and started a long descent, past silvering streams brilliant in the morning light filtered through the stands of long-needle ponderosas. The tangy, smoky smell of juniper berries, warmed by the sun, accompanied my glide until the bike and I got down far enough for the shrubbery to turn feathery and red-orange, leaves stirred by the lightest breeze. At Milepost 41—measured from where, I wondered—I stopped and soaked up the view before me. In the distance the sparsely wooded mountains gave way to red soil and rocky cliffs. Close by, a startled ptarmigan dashed behind a bush. "Look," I cried, and instinctively pointed at it, a gesture lost in the immensity of the Snake Valley. My back shivered with sweat and something else, and I thought of Billie. "Made you look!" she’d say after pointing at something over my shoulder, something not there, never there. "Made you look, made you look, now you hafta kiss me!" she’d singsong. And we’d laugh and tussle and kiss. I fell for it every time. "Look," I’d cried out, and she wasn’t there, only the view down the two-lane highway was there, down the faded yellow median line, down, down, down into the Valley of the Snake.
If it hadn’t been downhill, I don’t think I could have made it, so overwhelming was my sense of Billie and recognition of true loneliness. How could I stand twelve months apart from her, if I couldn’t even stand two weeks? I let gravity take me, let the breeze cool me off. At the bottom was the river, dark, deep blue-black. Getting nearer, I could hear it, a basso profundo, as millions of gallons moved against the river’s banks. I remembered the low chords of the organ, giving voice to grief, which began the sad funeral service we had attended a month earlier with Larry in the Basement, for his parents, killed together in a senseless accident.
I needed Billie to remember Larry’s last name; I needed Billie to be my memory for so many things—names of movies, authors, married names of my own cousins. Yes, I missed her companionship, but it was more than that. We complemented each other. What did people say? The sum is greater than its parts. That was it with us.
I was in the Valley now, pedaling around hairpin turns, with the river just to my left. A small bridge took me over Kinney Creek, past mine tunnels, by rows of yellow daisies, quick to grow where road-graders had disturbed the natural forms. For a moment, the river was green, the sun reflecting off the copper dust floating on its surface. If Billie were with me, I’d take a picture here, I thought, her eyes are that same green. She wasn’t, and I didn’t. But that vivid color hit me like a stun gun and blew away my sense of helplessness, which until now had been like a paralysis, keeping me from considering all the options. I’d tried to keep Billie home; I’d attempted to negotiate a shorter trip. Now, though, I had the answer.
I could go back, up the mountains to Homestead where my cell phone would pick up a signal, or I could go forward 20 miles to Hell’s Canyon Dam where there might be a phone at the Visitors’ Center. Back I heard in my head like a sharp clarinet’s wail over the deep roar of the river. But forward was my boyhood adventure, not to mention the possible discovery of a homesteader’s cabin. I want to know what you learn, Hank.
Without breaking my rhythm, I turned the bike. Now the river was on my right and the bike was in a low gear. I stood up on the pedals like a kid, and headed for Homestead. I knew I couldn’t live without those copper green eyes sharing my view. I don’t know you. You don’t know me. I just know us. Left foot; right foot. Left foot; right foot.
I didn’t stop, just drank from my water bottle whenever there was a break from the steep mountain road and ate an energy bar on a rare down slope between hills. I got to Homestead by mid-afternoon, and stopped in the little park in the middle of town. There, under the tired gaze of a bronze rodeo cowboy, his sculpted spurs raking the horse’s sides, his hat about to go flying, I called my wife.
"Bon jour, mon amour," I said when she answered at the studio. She was silent. "I want to go to Paris with you. I want to be together. Your art is important to me; it’s important to us. Financial analysts are a dime a dozen, but artists! Artists are special, and you’re the best. You’re innovative and skillful. You’re risky. You’re going to be important."
"Hank, I can go alone."
"Yes, I know. And I can stay home and meet Larry in the Basement for a beer once in a while, and watch TV and get horny. And you can be in Paris, making new friends, finding a gym, making outrageous blunders in French."
"You could visit."
"Billie," I fought to keep the whine out of my voice, "we’re like ham and eggs; Astaire and Rogers. We’re better together. I have so much to learn about you. What makes you ticklish on one side only? We can make up new verses to Funiculì, funiculà. You can practice herbal remedies on me… and anything else, for that matter."
"What about the apartment?"
"Maybe one of your nutty college friends wants to sublet it. Who cares? I’m coming home as soon as I can find an airport; we’ll work out the details."
"I don’t know; I think it’s better that I do this by myself. We’ve been talking about it—arguing about it—for a year; now I’ve got this plan, and I’ve gotten myself psyched for it. How do I know that you won’t be a drag, wishing you were back in dull old Providence juggling retirement portfolios for the bluebloods? How do I know you’ll stay with me?"
I thought about how to tell her about the epiphany of the copper dust, the color of her eyes. "Trust me. I’ve been down into the Valley of the Snake, and I don’t want to go there again, at least not until we go together."
She was silent again for a long time.
"Honey," she said at last, "I don’t think I’ll ever understand you, I mean really know you… but I’ll have a hell of a time trying. Vite, vite, venez à la maison. Venez chez moi."
I laughed until I ached, and tapped the on/off button. The late afternoon sun picked up the Five Devils Mountains far away in the immensity of the land. I felt new energy and got back on the bike and headed south to Boise.