The Wind River Story
By: Steve Carr
Other than a name on his wrinkled map, Dan knew nothing about Thermopolis, except what the driver of the Chevy pick-up who dropped him there had told him. "It has hot springs. It's what draws the tourists."
The driver had said little else, preferring to spend his time singing along to the Golden Oldies blaring on the radio. When he pulled over at the northern end of Thermopolis, he said "This is it." He didn't just mean it was the beginning of Thermopolis, but also that it was the end of the ride. Dan got out of the car, retrieved his backpack from the truck bed, and thanked the driver, before adjusting the shoulder straps and continuing on foot in the same direction.
It was one of those rules of hitchhiking. You didn't ask why a driver picked you up, or why they decided to dump you alongside the road, still heading the same direction you wanted to go. It was their vehicle and their rules; you just played along, unless, of course, the situation called for a quick escape from a crazy driver. This one had been nice enough, although a bit too intense, mostly non-verbal, and apparently a bit hard of hearing.
Entering Thermopolis on foot had its advantages. Dan had hoped to get a glimpse of the springs, but the closest he came was a billboard pointing in their direction. It was mid-day and a haze hung over all of Thermopolis, subduing all color, and making the high humidity feel more smothering than it might on a clear day.
By the time he reached the diner near the mouth of the canyon, Dan was hungry, thirsty and dirty. The soothing and cleansing results of the bath he had taken in the cold stream in the Big Horns the day before, had worn off and a dinerwith a good menu and a bathroom with a working sinkwas exactly what he needed.
Entering the diner, the first thing he noticed was that the few customers seated at the tables and the two waitresses waiting on them were elderly, or near it. The little bell above the door tinkled rather loudly, and they all turned and looked at Dan as he entered. He found an empty table at the window looking out onto the street, undid his backpack, and placed it on the floor beside his chair. He sat down and opened the menu, scanning the sandwiches section.
One of the waitresses, her white hair swirling about her head like soft vanilla ice cream and dressed in a pale pink uniform, came up to his table. She stood looking at him for a moment before saying anything.
"You a movie star?" she asked.
"No," Dan answered, "why do you ask that?"
"I thought maybe they were making a movie nearby. They do that sometimes, make movies here, those Hollywood people, and you look like a movie star."
"Thank you," he said, blushing.
"It wasn't a compliment," the waitress said brusquely. She took her order pad out of a pocket in her apron and pulled a small pencil from her behind her ear. "What'll you have?"
Dan ordered a roast beef sandwich with potato salad, a large Coke and a piece of blackberry pie. As the waitress walked away, he looked for the restroom. Seeing the men's sign on a door near the back of the diner, he shoved his backpack under the table and headed for it.
It was glaringly white; everything in it was painted a brilliant white and smelled as sterile as it looked. Dan wanted to lock the door, but it had no lock so he took his chances. He stood at the small sink and removed his shirt, placing it on a small radiator before pumping some hand soap onto a paper towel and running it under the water. He raised his left arm and wiped his underarm; he was about to do the same with his right one, when the door opened and an elderly man came in, wearing a red flannel shirt, jeans, cowboy boots, and a white Stetson. The old man stopped briefly when he saw Dan, then went to the urinal and unzipped his pants. Dan continued soaping his right underarm.
"Don't let them catch you doing that in here," the man said as he peed into the urinal.
Surprised that he was being spoken to, Dan hesitated for a moment before replying. "Is there a law against cleaning up in a restroom?"
"Not a law," the old man said, "just frowned on. People around here are peculiar about those kinds of things. As the saying goes, forewarned is forearmed."
"Thanks for letting me know," Dan said, wiping the soap from his underarm and tossing the wet paper towel in the small trash basket. As Dan put his shirt on, the old man stood at the urinal looking at him, and was still watching him as he walked out of the restroom.
The food, including the piece of pie and the coke, was on his table when Dan returned. He sat down, bit into the sandwich, and washed it down with some Coke. He became lost in thought and didn't realize the old man from the restroom was now standing by the table, quietly watching him. The man sneezed. Dan looked up from his plate of food, saying automatically "Bless you."
"I got a place you can clean up at," the old man said. "And a place to sleep."
Not certain about the meaning, or implication, of the old man's invitation, Dan bit into his sandwich again and swallowed before replying. Dan didn't consider himself homophobic, and at times felt almost ambiguous about his own sexual identity, but there, in that dinerin Thermopolis of all placesthe possibility he was being propositioned by another man caused him to lose the ability to respond with anything along the line of sanity. He said, jokingly, "If I did, I'd have to kill you."
From the reaction on the old man's face it was apparent he didn't take it as a joke, and stepping back very quickly from Dan's table, he collided with the waitress and they both fell against a standing coat rack; all three–man, waitress, coat rack–falling to the floor. The stunned reactions of the other diners gave Dan enough time to pull money from his shirt pocket and put it on the table, grab his backpack in one hand, the piece of pie off the plate in the other, and depart the diner unnoticed.
Dan quickly walked toward the mouth of the Wind River Canyon, and what looked like a scenic overlook. This spot allowed tourists to peer down at the Wind River, rushing far below, or down the canyon at the rocky cliffs. Railroad tracks ran along one side, and US 20 carried traffic going into and out of the canyon on the other. Along the way, Dan stuffed the entire piece of pie in his mouth, and while enjoying the sweet taste of blackberriesand enduring the tiny seeds getting caught in between his perfect teethhe put his backpack on, leaving the straps unbuckled.
He turned and stuck out his thumb at a safe spot near the overlook, hoping to get out of Thermopolis with greater speed then he had gone through it. It wasn't that anything as bad as the bee sting had happened, really. It was just the feeling he had, that something bad would happen.
On the other side of the river, a freight train was moving slowly down the tracks. Back in Spearfish, South Dakota, a friend had suggested to Dan that taking trains and riding boxcars all the way to San Francisco might be more fun, and safer, than thumbing across country; now watching the train, Dan wished he had done as his friend had suggested.
A car pulled up beside him, and a teenage girl with bright, curly, red hair stuck her head out. "We're going south just like you, if you want a ride, but you got to be okay with open windows, cause they don't roll up on this side."
Dan leaned down and peered into the car. With the teen girl was a woman of about forty, with long straight black hair parted down the middle, wearing large hoop earrings. The left side of her face was bruised purple and black, and her lower lip was slightly swollen.
"That's my mom," the girl said, nodding in the woman's direction. "She don't always look like that. She had an accident." The girl paused briefly. "You want a ride or not?"
Dan looked back over his shoulder at the train entering the canyon, then said, "Sure." He opened the back door, threw in his backpack and climbed in, settling back as the woman pulled onto the road, merging with the steady stream of southbound traffic.
"I'm Dan," he said, as the girl turned toward him in her seat.
"I'm Erica, and she's Lucy," the girl said, giving Dan the once-over from his dusty hiking boots to the top of his sandy brown hair. "You running from something?"
The question seemed an odd one but slightly funny. "No, why would you ask that?"
"Guys who hitchhike along this way always seem to be running from something. Mama says it's the nature of this canyon, that it draws men into it who are on the run from something." Erica placed her hand on her mother's shoulder. "Isn't that what you always say Mama?"
Lucy didn't answer, but kept her eyes on the road ahead, her cheek muscles visibly tightening and loosening beneath the purple bruise. She was gripping the steering wheel so tightly, the blue veins on the back of her hands stood out like lines on a map.
"Mama says it sucks men in one end, and spits them out at the other."
"I'm just kind of sightseeing on my way to California," Dan said. He wasn't certain, but suspected that what he was smelling on Erica's breath was alcohol of some sort, but in the rush of air and dust coming in through the open window, he doubted his sense of smell.
"What's that blue stuff on your upper lip?" Erica asked him, pointing with a bright pink polished nail.
Dan giggled, sounding more effeminate than he intended, then rubbed the back of his hand beneath his nose. "I had some blackberry pie, and didn't know I got it on me."
"Blackberry pie!" Erica and Lucy said in unison, and Erica suddenly reached into her waistband and pulled out the pistol, aiming it at Dan's face. "He give you that pie?" She snarled, baring her teeth.
"You know who. Him. He give you that pie?"
"I got it at a diner in Thermopolis," Dan said.
"Liar," Lucy screamed without turning around or taking her eyes off the road.
"Liar," Erica repeated.
"No, really. I got it at a diner. Why would someone give me blackberry pie way out here?"
Erica leaned over and whispered into Lucy's ear without taking the pistol from Dan's face.
Ahead the cars slowed, and Lucy slowed their car also. Dan glanced out the window, looking down at the dark green water flowing rapidly through the canyon, when something caught his eye. A large white bird, a seagull in flight headed southward. The sight of the seagull so surprised him that momentarily he forgot there was a pistol aimed at his head. The only thing he really knew about seagulls was that they were coastal birds; Seagulls didn't belong this far inland. He wanted to share his surprise at seeing it with someone, anyone, like a secret that had to be told, but when he turned back to face Erica, she still had the pistol pointed at him and was scowling.
"My step daddy was coming this way this morning. He drives an old Chevy pick-up. He gave you that blackberry pie, didn't he? It was some sort of pay-off to not tell us you had seen him, wasn't it?"
There were so many holes in the logic of the question, that Dan didn't know where to begin. His tongue found a blackberry seed between his molars, and working feverishly finally dislodged it. He turned his head and spat the seed out the window. Across the river, the freight train had partially come off the tracks, and several freight cars were on their sides on the rocky bank. The engine was partially submerged in the rushing water.
"Damn, Mama! Look at that," Erica said, seeing the train but keeping the pistol aimed at Dan.
Lucy had slowed the car to the snail's pace of all the other cars, onlookers to the unbelievable sight of a train partly on its side along the Wind River. "Nothing good ever comes from going into this canyon," she said.
About forty minutes later, with Erica still pointing her pistol at Dan's head, they came out of the south end of the canyon into an open vistathe Boysen Reservoir and a bright blue sky.
Dan had grown accustomed to the pistol. He didn't like it any more than before, but had become used to the idea that Erica got some perverse pleasure out of pointing it at him. As the hot breeze flowed in through the open windows, Dan looked out over the reservoir, and there they were, more seagulls, circling above the reservoir. The land all around seemed bereft of trees, or anything green for that matter; also absent was law enforcement. The cars, including the one he was in, exited the canyon and quickly increased to race car speeds, all the way toand throughthe small town of Shoshone. This was where Lucy stopped the car.
Lucy turned her bruised face toward Dan. "Get out."
"Gladly," Dan said picking up his backpack from the floorboard.
"No, leave that," Lucy said. "It's payment for that stolen blackberry pie you ate with that bastard, my husband."
"Everything I own is in this backpack," Dan protested.
"You heard Mama," Erica said, waving the pistol in his face. "Leave the backpack, or I swear to God, I will shoot you right here and now."
Dan opened the car door and stepped out onto a broken sidewalk, along what looked to be an abandoned brick building. The sun was glaring, and Dan squinted at Erica as she closed the car door.
He stood watching as Lucy did a u-turn and sped off northward, back toward the canyon and Thermopolis. He felt like crying, but the immaturity of doing that when it served no purpose kept him from it, so he kicked at the dirt on the sidewalk, and sat down. The brick wall behind him had been nicely painted with Native American graffitiyoung Indian boys around a campfire.
Dan felt lucky he still had the money in his wallet, but looking down the street of mostly abandoned buildings, he didn't see anywhere he could buy even basic supplies: toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, shampoo.
When the same man in the Chevy pick-up who had given him a ride earlier pulled to a stop in the middle of the street, Dan had the disturbing thought he had gone insane. He sprang to his feet.
"Hey, we meet again," the man said matter-of-factly.
"Your wife is looking for you!" Dan said angrily. "She thought I ate some of the pie you stole, and she took my backpack, and left me stranded here."
"She knows about the pie, huh?" The man pushed the ball cap back on his head and scratched his balding scalp. "She didn't say anything about me slapping her around a bit did she?"
"No. She was only mad about the pie."
"I sure hope by the time I get home, she's calmed down. Her and that daughter of hers are crazy, but sometimes living with them has its thrills." The man gave Dan a quick wave, turned up his radio, and as a Golden Oldie blared, he pulled away and headed back north to the canyon.
Dan looked up at the sky, just as a seagull flew over, casting its shadow on the street. With a heavy sigh, he stuck out his thumb, waiting for his next ride. He only wanted to get far away from the Wind River Canyon as fast as possible.