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Elizabeth Inness-Brown Stephen

Stephen used to say that a white bird flying in the direction we were driving was a good omen. Even at the time it seemed an ironic way to sanctify our crossing the country at seventy miles an hour on a superhighway, but somehow when Stephen said it, it felt right. The car was a 1967 Volvo, a station wagon with no rust even though it was ten years old, and seemed older, with its leather door pouch for holding maps and simple, rounded instrument panel. We kept our money in the glove compartment, in a jewelry box bound with a rubber band; in the glove compartment also was a jar containing ginseng root, which Stephen thought would help keep us awake at night. There was no radio or air conditioning, and since we were traveling in a July heat wave, sometimes when I got out of the car my t-shirt was so wet that it hung down to my thighs. On the other hand, one bright dawn in Minnesota we passed a vast field of giant sunflowers, facing the sun like a throng of worshippers.

For me the trip was entirely a lark, of a kind I'd never gone off on before. I had no reason for going except to get out of the city and to be with Stephen, a friend's old friend I'd only met a few weeks before. I had sublet my apartment and borrowed a hundred dollars to put in the jewelry box, and packed up my camping gear, such as it was: Sierra cup, borrowed aluminum-frame pack, sleeping bag, poncho, boots, and an old package of moleskin somebody'd forgotten in my bathroom. The night before we left, it was so hot in New York that we had one of those famous black-outs that lead, as surely as war but maybe not as significantly, to a population boom. And the next morning our leaving seemed charmed, with no stoplights and little traffic to slow us down, at least as far as New Jersey.

Stephen had friends in Chicago, who were getting married, and some in Madison, Wisconsin, and from there he'd planned a trip that put us on the tourist trail: through South Dakota to the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills; then on to Yellowstone, the Tetons, and down to Colorado. I remember that first night, arriving finally in a Chicago suburb, twitchy from the coffee I'd drunk after the ginseng didn't work and Stephen almost fell asleep at the wheel. From the sauna of the car we went into someone's over-chilled basement and fell onto narrow twin beds, and it was the first night since we'd met that we didn't make love. In the morning we ascended the stairs like spectres and opened a door to the bright activity of wedding preparations, strange women asking us our names and offering plates of french toast.

I don't remember the wedding; I remember watching a display of midwestern lightning from the front yard of that house, and then transferring ourselves to an un-air-conditioned apartment in the city. On a tinny stereo there, I heard Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys for the first time; and I remember looking out the window at an Indian rubber plant on someone's balcony while we made love on the sofabed and Stephen gave me my first orgasm. Later, we walked down the street holding hands and talking wisely about how this euphoria of ours probably could not last. On another day I crashed a ten-speed bike, the first I'd ever ridden, during a ride along Lake Michigan--a fat man and I collided and I literally bounced off him. Afterwards, for lunch, I had the first and best Mexican food I've ever had: chicken flautas, refried beans, and yellow rice.

In Madison our hosts had a dog, huge with white fur, that shed a kind of animal snow in the corners of their apartment. The town lies between two lakes which would like to be one, and the night it finally rained--which everyone thought would end the heat wave--the streets flooded and Stephen showed me how to drive in high water, how not to stall or get the brakes wet. We saw an MG filled to its windows with murky water, but we didn't try to drive down that street ourselves. After the rain, it was hotter than ever. Two other things I remember: Stephen making guacamole with blue cheese, leaving the avocado pit in the bowl to keep the dip from discoloring and then bringing it, and chips, out onto a rickety, second-story back porch for us to eat; and a discussion we had about my dislike of and ineptitude for swimming, an area in which I compared badly to his ex-girlfriend Laura, whom he'd been with for three years in Colorado. She was skilled, it seemed, in many ways I was not.

After that we were on our own, until Boulder.

Somewhere I have a picture of myself on that second leg of the trip, standing in front of a yellowish Badlands rock formation in a man's undershirt and jeans. My hair's short, my shoulders tan and muscled, and there's something unfamiliar about my posture. I seem to be unaware of myself, casual, more assured than I feel now. Of course, I was posing for the camera, and for Stephen, who had a theory that most people's problems were rooted in a failure of their confidence. He would stand on the far bank of a rushing creek and yell this wisdom to me as I tried to get up the nerve to cross as he had, balanced on a single-log bridge. Half the time I ended up taking off my boots and socks, rolling up my pants, and wading, hoping that I wouldn't fall and drown, my 30-pound backpack holding me under. The times I did cross on the log, something powerful surged through me, like hope or electricity--probably then I looked as I do in the photograph, like a woman who drives a pick-up truck and digs her own ditches.

Stephen had never been to college, but he'd read a lot, and had ideas about everything, and mostly they were good. So on our week-long hike into the Yellowstone back country, we took lentils, rice, fermented bean curd, and baggies of dried fruits and nuts, instead of those expensive aluminum packets of freeze-dried stew. For dessert we had carob-and-honey bars and herbal teas. Our food took more time to cook, and to eat if it didn't need cooking, because it was chewy; but no matter how hungry we felt, it filled us up. One of the results of this diet was regularity; every morning before we set out, we each took a roll of toilet paper and, away from the campsite, dug holes and squatted like animals to shit. Often we'd be in sight of each other, but I got so used to not caring if I saw Stephen, or if he saw me, that it seemed unnatural later, when we came out, to close myself into a stall to use the toilet. Other things, too, would seem unnatural: shaving my legs and under my arms, for one; colognes and deodorants for another. We took one bottle of scentless, suds-less, biodegradable soap with us, which we used for dishes as well as hygiene. And yet I had none of my usual skin problems--no bumps, no rashes, no itching; whether it was the change of diet, the clean water, or simply staying longer in my natural oil, I don't know.

Even though I'd never before gone on a trip purely for the pleasure of it, I had dreamed about it--about beaches, restaurants, hotels, though, not hiking with no destination through woods and fields, seeing no one else for days, and nothing to tell you where you were except ambiguous trail signs--scraps of plastic, a dash of paint--and vague, almost incomprehensible topographical maps. We chose the trails we chose because of their descriptions in the guidebook: "vast meadows of wildflowers" and "open woods with clear walking"; or because the trail led to something we wanted to see, a lake or a particular view. The meadow trails were so infrequently used, and growth was so strong, that often they would not have been visible except for the colored flags stuck on posts, which sometimes had been knocked over by animals or storms, so that we had to guess which way to go. If you'd registered for the red trail, you had to follow it and by rights stay on it till you came to your campsite; this was to protect the back country from overuse.

Generally we followed the rules conscientiously, but one exhausted night--I had pulled a muscle in my calf, and we both had blisters--we cheated and stopped early, at a ranger's cabin that happened to be along our way. Since the windows had no locks, we could have slept inside, but something about that seemed wrong. So Stephen only climbed in to "borrow" two packets of instant hot chocolate, which was treat enough to make us feel decadent and pampered. During the night we scared ourselves, thinking that bears might come foraging, as they did at the more populous campgrounds below--we'd heard stories of them breaking ice chests in two--and so we dragged our bedding up onto the porch of the cabin to sleep. As always, we'd hung our food sack in a tree, tying one end of a rope to the bag and throwing the other over a branch to pull it up. In the morning, it was still there, but some animal had rummaged around the fire and found the empty cocoa packets, which it had clawed apart expertly.

Except for those times when we found ourselves in an area known for bears and so sang and clapped to announce our presence, Stephen and I talked in half-whispers, if at all. Each of us had a thick paperback book--mine was Dune and his Even Cowgirls Get the Blues--and we read a lot, switching for variety every couple of days. Setting up and breaking down camp became routine, requiring no discussion. Stephen kept a diary, which seemed all the listener he needed, and I took pictures. Physically I was entirely content: exhausted at night, refreshed in the morning, well-fed, and more than adequately stimulated by what I saw and experienced: a run across an open field during a thunderstorm, a sun-dried antler or the flattened grass of a moose bed, love-making in the orange tent, the changes in terrain, sky, and weather, or simply the novelty and challenge of being "outdoors," a word that lost meaning when there were no more doors to be outside of.

Sometimes I wanted to ask Stephen what he was thinking about; out there he seemed more distant, when I had thought isolation would bring us closer. But I always stopped short. There could be closeness without words, I knew, and from experience with other men, I imagined that he might see my questions as demands or indications of mistrust. So I kept quiet and trusted the small gestures, the fact of the trip, and tried to forget the past and future.

One day, a plane surprised us, buzzing overhead; not long after, we heard voices, other hikers coming toward us. Civilization. We stopped and Stephen talked to the hikers, his voice enthusiastic. The new hikers were a family, parents and two adolescent boys, going in just for the night, wearing sneakers and carrying light packs, obviously inexperienced. Stephen clearly liked seeing them and telling them about the trail they were taking, a short part of the longer trail we'd started out with. He even told them about the coyotes singing at dusk and dawn, on the ridge. By the time we got back to the car I was ready to plan our next hike, just to get us away from other people, but Stephen wanted to rest a few days, take a shower, eat in a restaurant, and sleep in the back of the car down among the "white man," as he called the tourists with their Winnebagos.

We did hike again, in the Wind River Range; but it wasn't the same. What did I expect? Nothing's ever the same the second time, never as good, even when it should be better. Afterwards we headed toward Boulder; I remember stopping in Rock Springs on the way, in a diner where all the music on the jukebox had Spanish titles, and we listened to an incredibly tall, thin, and weathered man, who prospected for a mining company, talk about collecting Indian arrowheads for his grandchildren. From there the world began to seem gradually more familiar, traffic and supermarkets and cars, until finally, one weekday afternoon, we arrived in Boulder. In the apartment where we'd be staying with friends of Stephen's, I caught sight of myself in an unexpected mirror. I'd lost weight and my hair had grown and I was tan and healthy-looking; I looked like someone else altogether. While I was standing there, the phone rang; Stephen answered it. It was Stephen's old girlfriend Laura calling, just as surprised at hearing his voice on the other end of the line as he was at hearing hers.

A week later I got a ride as far east as Ohio with a friend of a friend of Stephen's, an overweight woman who smoked and listened to the same eight-track tape all the way across Kansas. She only let me drive once, for a couple of hours, and talked nervously in a thin voice that I had to strain to hear, though I hardly wanted to. We got into one of those midwestern thunderstorms, waves of rain and lightning that followed us for most of the night. She said she couldn't afford a motel, and I didn't want to prolong the drive, so we didn't stop. I was afraid that she'd fall asleep at the wheel, and so all night I stayed awake by telling myself the story of my trip, and how Laura's news--that she was getting married to someone else--had somehow cost me Stephen, and how on our last night, lying on the porch in sleeping bags, Stephen had told me that because he loved me, he had to let me go. It was the first time anyone ever said that to me, and the last time it ever seemed right.

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