2010 - The Detour
“The L is silent, like in fish,” my mother was saying.
“What are you talking about?” I said trying not to sound annoyed. I wasn’t annoyed, but I have to pay close attention not to sound annoyed so that my mom won’t take my tone as annoyed, even though I’m not annoyed, which is annoying.
“Turn here,” she pointed.
She was riding shot gun and the rain drops had just begun. We were inside Minnesota somewhere. The wipers were intermittently smearing the windshield.
We were on our way to Montana and planning to spend two nights in hotels along the way. I hoped to write a book about my days in Gardiner. My plan was to return to the scene of the crime, so to speak, to refresh memories that wouldn’t stop teasing me and I’d convinced my mother who’d been in mourning for two years over the loss of my father, to help me with the project. On our trip out west we didn’t have an Irish setter in the back seat and we weren’t driving a little red convertible with a black rag and top listening to the Eagles. We were traveling in my mother’s midsized Pontiac. Her trunk was not loaded with camping equipment and a Betty Crocker Cook Book, but with clothes for every kind of weather, packed neatly in suitcases that came with handles and rollers for easy toting, a cooler stocked with beer and several hard Lemonade Drinks that came in beautiful pastel colors. We also had in our possession, charge cards, debit cards, cell phones, a Garmin, an Atlas, a map that was printed off Google with step by step directions to Chico Hot Springs Montana, which was where we’d be staying, including line number seven that read, drive seven hundred ninety miles west and turn left. Oh, and we had On Star, just in case we got lost.
Then of all things, which we’d never even considered while planning our voyage, there was a detour sign.
I turned the radio down for full concentration.
The wipers sped back and forth and the rain was now torrential. The green and white sign read, I-90 detour go this way
. I did. Follow 218
. I did. I-90 go this way
. I did. Follow 218
. I did.
“No! Turn here. Right here!” she was shrieking, pointing her finger at the on ramp.
“That’s not what the sign says,” I shrieked back.
“I don’t care what the sign says. If you go that way again we’re going to come out the exact same place we just did. I think this detour is a bunch of baloney.”
I had to do what she said so that she wouldn’t kill me. There was no time to signal to the car behind me, but I’m guessing that my going in another direction made his day. She was right. We were back on route, like nothing had ever happened. The detour had been misleading. “The Lady,” as we sarcastically called the voice of the Garmin, had settled down. “Continue 672 miles on I-90,” she said sweetly and the wipers began making lines on the windshield again as the rain slowed.
“The L is silent like in fish?” What in the hell were you talking about? Is that a
“Your grandpa used to say that. Of course he said it the right way.
“The “Pee” is silent like in fish.”
“Oh. I like that one. Write that one down.”
We drove detour free for the next two hundred and eighty five miles and made it to Sioux Falls South Dakota where Mom argued with ‘The Lady’ once again. “What in the Sam hill are you talking about?” she yelled at the little box and began shaking it. “You are so full of it.”
“Well this stupid thing keeps telling us to do the same thing over and over and that road isn’t taking us to the Ramada is it?”
I shuddered to think that this was only the beginning. Her lack of patience had me clinging to the steering wheel and biting my tongue. I’d wanted to go to Montana so badly. I’d thought the trip would be a good thing for her and I thought we would have so much fun. It had given both of us something to look forward to and to make plans for. We’d spent weeks discussing our route, what to bring and what a gas we would have. My husband, sister and brother in law had all helped with the preparations and it was almost as though she’d become a person again, the one that I’d been missing for two years. Well, she was a person again all right. She was a pissed off person, straight out of hell.
“There it is,” she shrieked. “Look, it’s over there. There must be an access road that this stupid lady can’t see.”
We turned into a convenience store and drove through the parking lot which came out on the little one way road next to the major one and arrived at the Ramada Inn.
Once in our room the insanity from the car vanished quickly and we gleefully snapped pictures of each other to mark the first night of our beloved trip, posing on the beds with a dozen pillows stacked behind us. Eventually we wandered downstairs to the restaurant where we ate some of the best Artichoke Dip in the world spread over a loaf of freshly baked French bread and had a drink to wash it down. The bartender wrote down the recipe for the dip on a card and gave it to me. She said it was her cousin’s restaurant and she could do whatever she wanted including giving away family secrets. That recipe is still in the little box on my kitchen counter. It is still their family secret.
Now as I look at the pictures we snapped in that hotel room they reveal the cowboy
boots that I was wearing. I’d purchased them a week before our excursion. They weren’t true cowboy boots but looked like they were as long as my jeans covered the fact that they stopped a few inches past my ankles.
When I’d lived in Montana during the seventies, I’d been intrigued with cowboy boots. Grown men and women walked around in them like it was normal, which it was, but it wasn’t normal in Wisconsin. Maybe on a Wisconsin farm, but I’d been a city girl.
I’d owned a pair in first grade and had paraded through the school halls in them as part of my Halloween costume. I didn’t take those boots off until after school, supper and trick or treating that night. Then I reluctantly removed them at bath time when I heard my Dad calling my name. He’d added bubbles to the water and I could hear Louisa and Tina already in there slapping their hands to ‘Miss Mary Mack.’ It had been difficult to take those boots off. For one thing I didn’t want to take them off and for another thing, I had to pull really hard on them and stretch my ankles out. I put them back on first thing the next morning but then Ket, who was a year and a half older than me and my idol, made fun of those boots at the breakfast table before drinking the orange colored milk out of his emptied bowl of Fruit Loops. I took them off and threw them in the back corner of my closet and put on my stupid saddle shoes like all the other days. I can still remember how those boots had smelled and the sound they’d made. They slipped a little so they’d scoffed.
When I bought the pair I was wearing at the age of fifty-three, I put them on in my car out in the parking lot of the store. I slipped them over my bare feet, kicking my sandals aside. I find it impossible to drive home with a new pair of shoes inside a box next to me. I hear people do it all the time. That is just crazy.
I noticed the gas needle was in the red zone as I turned onto the street. I was wearing a pair of dress pants since I’d gone shopping right after work and I’d left from the office. My pant legs were stuck inside those cowboy boots because everything stopped around the same area when my knees were bent and that’s where they’d landed while I was driving.
I set my foot on the pavement at the gas station and I saw how ridiculous this looked, so I quickly pulled the left pant leg over the top of the boot. That’s when I noticed that the price tag was sticking out the bottom of it.
I was pulling the other pant leg out of the other boot when I detected the guy next to me was looking at the price tag and at my feet. He didn’t’ say a word; nor did I. He looked up at the sky and topped off his tank.
My mom was a good sport about those boots. She acted as though I’d never worn anything else as I slipped them off and, as promised, she dutifully scribed the happenings of our first day in her spiral notebook before we turned out the lights.
The next morning the two of us set off with a couple of steaming cups of coffee and a whole wonderful day to make our way across South Dakota and into Wyoming. With any luck and no back talk from ‘The Lady’, maybe even into Montana.
It was powder blue skies and not the Eagles stuck in the cassette player this time, but, The Number One Lady Detective,
book on CD entertained us most of the day.
1976 – House made into a Hotel
Memories from that first day in Gardiner flooded my mind after CD number one of the book ended and the satellite radio went straight to the Jimmy Buffet station.
I’d gone to work my first shift after meeting the owner of the restaurant at lunch and smoking a joint with the guy with the pony tail.
The Bruce Springsteen looking man in the cowboy boots who hired me was named Beau. He took me to the shop across the street when I arrived in jeans at 4:00 P.M and I admitted that I didn’t have anything fancier to wear. I bought a sleeveless black corduroy dress with a square neckline which was sprinkled with yellow and red embroidered flowers. The shop owner’s name was Lacey and she was the same blonde woman that Jason and I’d noticed hitchhiking on our way down the mountain into Gardiner earlier in the day, the one with the long dress, bandana and sandals. Up close her eyes were such a light color of blue that you could almost see through them, making what already seemed like a dream seem even more like a dream.
Beau thought Lacey should lend me a dress but Lacey’s body language said otherwise, and really, that would have been gross, so I put ten dollars down on a thirty dollar purchase. That dress ended up being my K-Bar Cafe uniform and it was the only dress I ever owned in Montana.
There was no time for new job jitters. I had tables to wait on and drink orders to fill. There was a passage into the bar next to the cafe where I stood with a tray to pick up alcoholic orders.
The legal drinking age was eighteen in Wisconsin in the seventies, so at nineteen, I’d been in my share of bars, especially when you consider that it wasn’t that hard to get into them at seventeen, particularly at Tillie’s, where the nearly one hundred year old owner just asked you to write your name down on a piece of paper if you forgot to bring your I.D. But I’d never been in a cowboy bar.
It was dimly lit and lined with silhouettes of cowboy hats and cigarette smoke that curled up to a high ceiling. Country and Western music blared out of a big old juke box instead of Cream or Yes or The Who, and although gambling wasn’t legal, I don’t think you could get away with playing a game of pool without placing a bet.
My feet hurt and my pockets were bulging with tips when Jason strutted into the cafe a little before eleven o‘clock. He ordered a coke and waited for me to finish my shift.
“Hey, Jason, are y’all still interested in that cooking job?” Beau twanged when he saw him.
“Sure,” Jason answered without blinking.
“Be here at 6:30 tomorrow morning and Mikey says she’ll show you the ropes.”
The moon was high and bright and the air was cold when Jason and I stepped outside. I could see the snow glimmering on Electric Peak as I got into the TR-6. Belle was in her spot, wagging her tail frantically. I hated to even ask where we were going so I decided to let them surprise me.
Jason drove across the bridge that stretches over The Yellowstone River in Gardiner. We passed the Jardine road sign on the right side and several houses on the left. The car slowed about a half a mile away from the restaurant and it turned left into a motel parking lot. I figured as much, but that was okay. There would be a bed to flop on and I was beat.
“Home sweet home,” Jason said turning the key off, pulling it out of the ignition and tossing it on the floorboards.
When I got out of the car I could hear the rushing river. I went to peer over a steep embankment passing a little brown cabin between the motel and the river on my way.
“This is our place,” he said from behind me pointing at the cabin.
I turned around and noted the direction of his finger.
“Yeah, do you want to see it or are you just going to stand there at the bank all night?”
I ran at him and jumped into his arms catching him off guard and we both landed on the ground. He dragged me across the threshold into a tiny room.
Sitting on a table with four chairs around it which was in both the living room and the kitchen under the window, was a bottle of champagne. Jason shot the cork across the room and it ricocheted from wall to wall to wall. We began to dance in a circle, all three of us, Jason, Belle and me.
We drank from that bottle of champagne and scrubbed grease from the olive green stove top, until we polished them both off and then we climbed into our sleeping bags that were thrown haphazardly on top of the double bed taking up most of the bedroom. There was a beat up old dresser in the corner and a hint of a closet with three warped wire hangers. A bathroom built for one was off the bedroom with a small window in the wall positioned so that if you looked up you could see Electric Peak and if you looked down you could see the Yellowstone River. It was the best.
“Do you love me Millie?”
“I love you Jason.”
“Forever and ever?”
“Forever and ever.”
“Even after forever and ever?”
“Even after forever and ever.”
I woke the next morning to find Jason already gone and I decided to go to the K-Bar Cafe for breakfast. On the way there I gazed at the dense fog covering the tips of the mountains all the way down to the rolling hills. I heard a strange mix of sounds as I strolled across the bridge that stretches over the Yellowstone River. There was an occasional car and a yipping dog in the distance, but otherwise the pattering of my feet on the sidewalk and the robust river rushing below me was all I could hear.
Some people are book smart. Then there are those who are born with an ability to instantly pick up things through mere observation. Jason was that kind of smart. He cooked like he’d graduated from Chef School by the time I reached the restaurant that morning. I ordered two eggs over easy, medium rye toast and crispy hash browns. The eggs were over easy, the rye toast was medium and the hash browns were crispy. Yep, Jason, that was my Jason. I should never have doubted him.
I paid for my meal with some change and went across the street to make another payment on my dress from Lacey’s shop.
Later that afternoon when Jason finished his shift we hiked up into the foothills and sat down on the ground facing the little town of Gardiner. We split a bottle of wine and made out with the warm sun on our faces. I can still see, taste, smell and feel that moment. I had never felt such a complete sense of freedom or felt more in love. I was on the very top of the world at that exact moment. Not only had I stood in front of my refrigerator that morning with the door open for as long as I wanted to leave it open and had eaten a piece of bologna without two pieces of bread on either side of it while every light in our little brown cabin was turned on, all forbidden the first nineteen years of my life, I was sitting in the foot hills of the rocky mountains next to my husband looking at my new fairy tale home town. I knew that we were destined for great things.
It was only a matter of a few weeks before my sisters and their friend Peggy showed up in Gardiner. I’d mailed a post card home telling Tina and Louisa that I’d never seen so many good looking guys in one place in all my life and the mountains were spectacular. I wasn’t lying either. Beau and his two Texan business partners were just a few of those good looking guys, and the mountains, oh the mountains, they got into your very soul.
Louisa and Peggy had just graduated from high school and neither had any specific plans. They didn’t seem to be college bound at any rate. My littlest sister Tina was out of school for the summer of her senior year. They all appeared with suitcases in hand as they stepped off the Greyhound bus in front of the Sinclair Gas Station and then they all moved directly into our little brown cabin, taking over our living room which was also our kitchen.
That Greyhound Bus made a lot of stops in Gardiner that summer dropping off girls from Wisconsin as word spread about the good looking cowboys and the beautiful mountains through letters and collect phone calls. Bobbi and Kathy arrived next and they in turn sent for Gabrielle.
When Gabrielle stepped off the bus, she sat down on the curb and placed her full head of curly blonde hair between her eighteen year old knees, her suitcase at her feet, and she cried. She’d had a different image of Gardiner. She’d thought it was more than the insignificant pile of houses in a dusty little place at the North Entrance to Yellowstone Park. She’d been expecting a small city with glittering lights and dance clubs with majestic mountains as a back drop and of course crawling with good looking cowboys. She couldn’t see the surplus of handsome men parading around, just for her picking, from that spot, there on the curb. Yet she was the one who wanted to stay in the end.
According to Louisa, not all of those girls from Wisconsin moved in with Jason and me. She claims it was just she, Peggy and Tina.
I admit that my memories have been altered from the amount of time that has passed and the amount of pot that has been smoked, but I do know that it was one crowded little brown cabin and Louisa’s memories are just as altered as mine. If they didn’t all live with us it seemed like they did.
It was during that period early that summer that Cowboy Ned appeared. Louisa found him somewhere or he found her somewhere, I’m not really sure who found who or the location. He always wore a cowboy hat, a denim shirt under a brown corduroy vest and jeans with pointy knees underneath to match his pointed cowboy toes. His face was forever covered with a shadow of whiskers that looked to be a couple of days old considering his fair skin and light brown hair. He was tall, thin, gangly, dirty and somehow kind of cute.
“Y’all got anything to eat?” I heard him drawl one day as he sat on our ratty couch staring at our box of Cheerios on top of the undersized refrigerator that would have come up to his chest had he been standing.
He said he worked on a ranch outside of Gardiner. He looked as though he worked on a ranch outside of Gardiner, so we believed him. He was a whiskey drinking, tobacco chewing, dancing cowboy. That’s how I think he caught Louisa’s attention. It was the Two Step that stole her heart. His favorite song was “Fire on the mountain,” and he sang or hummed it most of the time. I can’t think of him today and not have that song come to mind.
Our little red TR-6 didn’t last long in Gardiner. Not all of its gears anyway. Fortunately the one that froze up was reverse.
Although Jason and I both worked at the K-Bar Cafe, we weren’t wealthy. We ate three meals a day, paid our rent on time and partied as much as we liked, but a new transmission? That was out of the question and there wasn’t a garage in Montana that would have worked on that foreign car if we’d asked. No one had a star shaped screw driver and no one was about to get one.
The car was small enough for me to push, which became my job every time we needed to back up, since I’d never learned to drive it because it was a four speed with a clutch. There are three things that I am afraid of and the third is driving with a clutch. I’d planned on learning how to but Jason had raised his voice at me in the middle of a busy intersection in Madison when I ground the gears and I couldn’t get it moving fast enough when the light changed. Then the car behind me laid on its horn. After that scene I put off the second lesson, until it wasn’t an issue anymore. Without reverse it was silly of me to even try, in my opinion. So Jason would sit in the driver’s seat while I pushed the convertible backward and then I’d jump in when it was cleared to go forward.
I’m not sure if that frozen gear was the reason that we left the car in Gardiner the day we went to Livingston for a romantic get-away, or if we just felt like hitchhiking. I remember being elated about the adventure. I was in love with Jason and with romance and it was going to be just the two of us on a date. We hadn’t been alone since my sisters had arrived and we were going to a big city away from the crowded little brown cabin. We were going out for dinner and maybe even going to take in a movie. Who knew? Life was whatever we were going to make of it.
Livingston is roughly fifty miles north of Gardiner. It’s a straight shot as far as a hitchhiker is concerned with only one road to contend with, highway 89 which weaves its way through Paradise Valley where Pray, Emigrant and Chico Hot Springs are located.
It was common to see hitchhikers in 1976 and we had no problem getting rides. We didn’t look dangerous. We were just a couple of all American kids with our thumbs out. We were dropped off in Livingston in less than an hour.
“Hey Millie, how about that place?” Jason said as we walked along a street in the charming mountain town.
“Over there, across the street, see it?”
“What is that?”
“It’s a hotel, I think.”
“It looks more like a house to me.”
“That’s because it’s a house made into a hotel.”
“How do you know that?”
“Look at the sign in that window.”
“What does it say? House made into hotel?”
“No it says VACANCY.”
“Oh my God, it is a house made into a hotel.”
An old woman answered the bell. She and her husband lived on the main floor and they rented out the upstairs by the night, week or month, I don’t know about by the hour. We checked into our bedroom and learned that if anyone else checked in we’d have to share the bathroom that was across the hall.
A few minutes later Jason and I skipped out the front door of the house made into a hotel and followed the sidewalk. I spotted a McDonalds and began salivating. You don’t know that you miss fast food until you see a McDonalds after not seeing one for a long time.
After devouring Big Macs we went window shopping hand in hand, up and down the blocks of stores. I could see our reflections in the glass window pane as we inspected a pair of downhill skis for sale. The mirror image showed off Jason’s legendary head of unruly hair and his medium athletic build and the top of my crown of long dark hair came just past his shoulder. I remember feeling the sun shining on our backs and Jason winking at me in the window.
We went into a smoke filled bar and took over the Foosball table. Jason excelled at Foosball and I wasn’t a bad goalie after having many lessons over three years of dating the guru, who’d spent far more time perfecting his Foosball skills than studying. Matter of fact he’d quit studying all together and had dropped out of school. He taught me how to follow the ball with both handles, always moving the guys together, just a slight bit off from each other. I surprised myself now and then when I blocked tough shots and I usually improved after a few beers. Jason had a shot that was so fast it was off the charts and people hung around the table with quarters lined up hoping to beat us. He was the guy to defeat and not many did unless of course I missed too many blocks in a row. We took on players in several taverns that night and drank tap beer as we competed. Then we wove our way back along the bumpy sidewalk to our house made into a hotel and found that the bathroom was all ours.
There was a small, very out dated, black and white TV in our room with a set of rabbit ear antennas with a piece of twisted tinfoil on each one, sitting on top of it. The last time I recalled watching a T.V. was the night we’d spent on the road in South Dakota in that dingy motel a couple of months earlier, surrounded by that blanket of darkness.
Johnny Carson blinked his eyes twice and stared directly at me and Jason. He made that shit eating grin he always did and romance and sex were forgotten as we curled up together to watch ‘The Tonight Show’ and fell asleep in bliss.