When Kenny left for school, Ren invited Mike to join him in the gunsmith shop, where they could continue visiting while he worked on a client’s firearms.
As the men rose to leave, I turned to Beulah and asked, "Would it be okay if I took a quick shower?"
"Please do, Helen!" Ren’s deep voice boomed from across the room. "Please do!" He laughed heartily at me as they exited, letting the screen door bang shut behind them.
"He’s just kidding, Helen." Beulah put a hand softly on my arm. "Don’t pay him any mind. You go right on ahead, now." She waved her arm toward the bathroom.
I smiled at her, acknowledging what she meant, then hurried to the camper for my own toiletries and towels.
Not wanting to create extra expenses for our hosts, I wasted no time in the shower. I wrapped my wet hair in a towel, wiped down the stall, and retreated to the camper with my bath supplies clutched to my chest. Surprisingly, my hair and towels dried in minutes due to the arid air on this side of the Rocky Mountains.
As it was my habit to brew a jar of tea every morning to pour over ice later in the day, I filled a pot with water and set it over a flame on our camper’s stove. I waited. And waited some more, finally spying tiny little bubbles starting to rise from the entire bottom of the pan as the water struggled to reach temperature. No gurgling, rolling boil like I was used to, but rather a million little balls of air spinning to the surface of the water to dance. I poured it over the tea bags in my Mason jar, expecting swirls of bronze flavor to infiltrate the piping hot liquid. They did not, but rather gently began to color my container of afternoon tea. I set the hot jar into the sink, deciding to return to Beulah’s kitchen and offer whatever help she would accept.
I rapped on the back door before stepping inside. "Is there something I can help you do?"
She turned her attention from the sink to me. "Oh, no. Thank you. I’m just making some tea for this afternoon, and then I’ll go help Ren in the shop. You can come too, and visit." She set a large glass pitcher of tea on the drain board, stirred in a cup of sugar and wiped her hands.
"I made tea just now, too," I remarked. "I would have come offered to help sooner, but it took a long time for the water to boil."
"Oh …" She turned and paused. "Of course it would, for you. Our elevation is higher than where you live. Water boils at a lower temperature the higher you are, but it takes longer to get there. Isn’t that confusing?" She laughed a little and headed for the back door, gesturing for me to follow her. "I have two gun stocks to finish oiling."
The day was spent peeking over their shoulders as our new friends did their work—Ren busy machining and bluing metal parts, and Beulah burnishing a newly milled wooden rifle stock with stain and oil-soaked rags competently held in her delicate hands. Thankfully, they kept regular meal times and let us contribute, so I didn’t have to worry about Mike not getting enough food to cover his insulin. From time to time I’d sneak away to the camper for a nap or to read. That evening, after enjoying more early-settler tales from Ren, they announced that tomorrow, Saturday, we’d all go into the nearby hills for a picnic lunch.
After a peaceful night’s sleep, a hearty breakfast and more visiting, we packed a cooler of food into an old Toyota Land Cruiser and headed for the hills. Ren soon turned off the county highway onto a dirt road to begin our ascent in his bare-bones vehicle with creature comforts few to none and rugged as the mountain goats whose territory we now invaded.
Up, up, up we went, bouncing hard on the narrow side seats in the back of the duty-worn cruiser as it stumbled over dips and bumps on its climb. I laughed, and grabbed a wide leather loop flailing above my head in an attempt to avoid being unexpectedly launched off the seat, while sporadic and uncontrollable giggles burst out of my mouth. Likewise for Mike, and I hoped the continued jarring on the hard metal side-seats wouldn’t bruise his skinny, fat-free tailbone. Kenny sat on the side seat opposite us, bouncing and laughing as well.
By the time Ren pulled up alongside a metal framed, canvas shelter and parked, we’d had quite enough of the tortuous ride and were happy to climb out of the vehicle onto solid ground. Our hosts pointed out peaks of the Rockies, by name, and drew our attention to a couple of snow-white mountain goats eyeing us from high on the hillside. Here and there little birds flitted back and forth among narrow leaved yuccas, pin cherry and scrub bushes. Beulah walked over to a large, five or six foot tall, cactus plant and I followed.
"That’s amazing," I remarked. "I’ve never seen a real cactus up close before."
"This is a Prickly Pear," she said, gesturing toward one of its flat, thick, spiny leaves. "You can make jelly from these." She laughed, then added, "but you have to be careful picking them."
We walked to the Toyota and I helped her carry food and supplies to the table under the shelter. Soon we were picnicking in the clean, cool air of the Colorado hills. We talked long of our differences and similarities—lifestyles, locales, dreams, hobbies and ambitions—and enjoyed viewing wildlife in the hills around us through Ren’s binoculars. When the sun started its spectacular show of colors deep in the western sky, Beulah began moving food containers from the table back to the Toyota. I gave her a hand.
Soon we were packed back into the old Land Cruiser and headed downhill. We bounced around inside as much, if not more, as during the climb. When we reached the county road, its packed-gravel surface glowed golden in the rays of the setting sun, showcasing our tire tracks from earlier in the day.
"Whoa!" I yelled as Ren rounded a corner and swerved to miss a humungous black and brown hairy tarantula right in the middle of our path. "What was that?"
Without a word, Ren slammed on the brakes, threw the gearshift into reverse, backed up about fifteen feet beyond the arachnid and stopped.
We piled out onto the road and slowly approached the creature, too cautious to get close. I focused the zoom lens of my thirty-five millimeter camera and snapped a shot. Then another.
"That’s not a spider," I insisted. "That’s an animal!"
We all laughed, then studied it for a few minutes before heading back to the house. Ren straddled the creature with care as he drove onward toward home.
I had difficulty getting to sleep that night, having learned that tarantulas and scorpions were indigenous to the area and typically nocturnal. I imagined them hiding in the dried grasses under our truck. Could they climb up and into our camper while we slept? Probably. I shuddered at the thought and tried counting sheep instead.
Morning brought no unwelcome visitors inside our camper. We were met with fresh biscuits, gravy and bacon in the Coopers’ kitchen.
Ren ate quickly. "We’ve got to get that order done today, so we can ship it tomorrow." He looked across the table at Beulah, then finished off his glass of iced tea and set it down.
"I know, darlin’." She smiled at him.
He hurried out to the gun shop with Mike hot on his heels.
I turned to Beulah. "How about letting me clean up the kitchen this morning, so you can get out to the shop?"
"Well." She paused, then went on, "Okay. Thank you."
"No problem." I cleared the table, scraped leftovers into the bucket for Miss America, their current hog, washed and dried the dishes, and filled the ice cube trays with water to freeze as I’d seen her do each morning.
I returned to the camper to read, so I wouldn’t get in their way in the gun shop. I figured Mike’s presence was disturbance enough, slowing down their customary efficiency with his questions, and that one more day of our company would be one day too much. I’d have to convince him it was time to move on—to see Colorado before going home.
I’d read a couple dozen pages into my book when the camper door opened and Mike stuck his head inside. "Beulah’s fixing lunch for us," he said, and started to close the door.
"Wait a minute!" I hollered.
He pulled the door back open and peeked in.
"Could you come inside for a minute?" I put down my book.
"What?" He stepped inside, and took a seat at the dinette.
"Well," I lowered my voice. "Ren and Beulah looked really tired last night, and I noticed a couple of awkward looks between them this morning. I think our visit is taking a toll on them, hampering their workflow, but they’re too polite to say anything. Maybe we need to get out from under their feet. What do you think?"
"Aw, jeez. I’m having such a good time." He rubbed his forehead.
"I know, Honey. But they need time to earn a living, too. And she insists on cooking and stuff for us—I really think we should leave tomorrow morning and have a look at Colorado before we run out of time."
"Yeah, I suppose so. Okay, let’s get in there for lunch, and we’ll tell them."
"And, please, let’s leave before breakfast tomorrow so Beulah won’t be doing a bunch of extra work because of us."
And so we did. I could see relief in their faces despite the pleasant appeals for us to stay a bit longer. I cleaned up the lunch dishes, so they could get back to work, then spent the afternoon in the camper, making ready for an orderly departure.
In the cool, crisp air of early morning, we left amid handshakes and hugs, vowing to visit our new-found friends again in the future.
Ren pointed the way to Phantom Canyon, west of their place, where a primitive road would lead us to Victor and Cripple Creek. "It’ll be an interesting drive for you," he said.
A short distance away from the Coopers’, we decided to take a detour into Cańon City and visit Royal Gorge, home of one of the world’s highest suspension bridges. Mike was particularly interested to see it, given his background as a road-design draftsman and now a road-construction inspector, which included bridge work. We approached the renowned landmark from the east, quite impressed by its tall, silver-colored erector-set-type towers, visible for some distance before we arrived, their oversize-cables anchored underground at a point far beyond the length of the bridge.
We stopped as directed by an orange-vested workman. He collected a five dollar bill and held onto the window frame of our truck until the car ahead of us had exited the bridge deck. "No more than ten miles an hour, Sir," he said, "and no stopping or exiting your vehicle whatsoever. Enjoy your ride." He gave us a go-ahead nod and we moved forward, the only vehicle allowed, for the moment, on this precarious structure.
A traffic sign on the railing reinforced the "10 MPH" limit and the planks beneath our tires complained, definitely loose, possibly in need of repair, as we inched along. My apprehension grew as we left the canyon’s rim, revealing a substantial drop to the Arkansas River, which appeared now as a thin, dark, serpentine line far below us. On the railing in the middle of our ride was another traffic sign: "NO FISHING FROM BRIDGE." We burst into laughter at the ridiculousness of it.
I let out a sigh of relief as we drove off the last plank and onto solid ground, thankful that our crossing was without mishap. Mike parked the truck, and while I took tourist-type photos, he studied the engineering of the bridge itself. We made a quick stop at the gift shop where we learned that the bridge was 956 feet above the river, a quarter of a mile long and, after this season, would be closed for rebuilding and re-securing the cables. Thereafter, it would be open to foot traffic only. Somehow we felt privileged that we were among the last tourists to actually drive over that bridge.
Retracing our morning route from the Coopers’, we followed Ren’s directions to Phantom Canyon Road. Scribbled below its name on a small, hand-lettered sign we read: "Primitive road—Not maintained" and "No campers, trailers or passenger cars beyond this point."
Mike read the sign aloud, turned to me and said, "We should be okay. Our camper isn’t tall or top-heavy like standard ones." It sounded more like a request for agreement than a statement of fact.
"You’re probably right," I said. "Might be smart to turn on the four-wheel-drive right now, being we have no knowledge of what’s ahead."
"Good idea." He got out of the truck and turned the front wheel hubs, then climbed back in and we ventured forth.
As Ren had predicted, it was an interesting drive, crammed with sections of dirt and gravel roads cut deeply with ruts apparently forged during spring runoffs, large slabs of rough rock, dry creek beds, wooden bridges built in angular sections, rough-cut canyon walls that our truck must navigate without scraping the sides. On occasion I would exit the truck and hurry ahead to peek around a corner and see see if any oncoming traffic was headed our way. Red rock cliffs, golden-leaved aspen trees, canyon walls and open range landscaped our route, with no logic to its formation. It was as if the canyon embraced us for one moment then disappeared altogether the next—a phantom canyon indeed. We took a rest about half-way along the route, parking off to the side of the road to raise the camper and enjoy a quiet lunch.
We met only two other vehicles, both pickup trucks, as we rocked-and-rolled our way along like a small boat on lumpy water. At last the bumps evened out and the road became graveled and graded. A cluster of small buildings appeared on the hillside far ahead of us and as we rounded the last curve before reaching them, a small wooden sign read "Victor." We had made it through Phantom Canyon to the renowned "Gold Country" of Colorado!
"Want to stop?" Mike asked, driving slowly past the aged houses of town.
"No." I raised my camera and removed the lens cap. "I’ll take some pictures from here. Look at it all—run-down old buildings with run-down old men sitting in front of them on run-down old boardwalks." I snapped a shot. "And over there … stop a minute …" I raised the telephoto lens and zoomed in on an old man sitting on an old wooden chair on the broken board walkway. "It’s like we traveled back in time. How perfect!"
I snapped a few more frames as we moved out of Victor and on to Cripple Creek, which appeared as Victor had, with clusters of little buildings on a faraway hillside. Just another historic mining town, but after an hour’s exploration of it, with its split-level street, friendly locals, quaint stores and gift shops, including the famous Brass Ass, awesome eateries, a candy company, mountain vistas, cool fresh air, and a narrow gauge railroad bringing loads of tourists, we were in love.
"Wouldn’t it be neat to live here," I mentioned when we were back in the truck on the way out of town. "We could open the Cripple Creek Hard Rock Cookie Company" and sell sweets to tourists.
"Yep. I’d love to live here."
I daydreamed the rest of that day on our way to Divide, Buena Vista, Salida, and Gunnison, where we took another side trip toward Crested Butte to find Lost Lake Campground, a US Forest Service facility.
We settled into a nice spot next to the lake that afternoon. I dug out my acrylic paints and set up on the picnic table to capture the scene. It was a lovely setting, and we two the only campers in it.
At sundown it became noticeably cold, so we fired up the propane furnace, which warmed our quarters comfortably. Sleep came easily that night, however interrupted by the sound of paper tearing in the quiet darkness of pre-dawn.
I poked my elbow into Mike’s side. "Hear that?"
"What?" he asked, half awake.
"Listen!" I was quiet. The paper ripped and tore again.
"Yep." Mike answered. "Sounds like a mouse."
"Great. Now we’ll have to get that out of here."
"Go back to sleep. We’ll have to wait for daylight."
"I don’t think I can sleep, knowing there’s a mouse in here."
"He won’t hurt you. He’s just wants a little something to eat."
Before I could think up a rational response, Mike was asleep again. I tried, but spent the rest of the early hours listening to the noises coming from inside our kitchen cabinets.
When morning came, we couldn’t find the mouse anywhere. I hoped he’d left the camper the same way he got in. While Mike took his insulin and fed the dog, I rewashed the dishes and pans needed for breakfast, and fixed sausage, eggs and toast—having discarded two slices of bread where our overnight guest had chewed through the wrapper and taken a few bites.
After breakfast, I cleaned up the cooking area and shut off the propane while Mike warmed up the truck engine and emptied and stowed our gray-water container. By eight o’clock, the camper was ready for travel and we headed back to Gunnison, where we found a coin-operated laundry and washed and dried some clothes. A radio blared over the hum of machines, announcing, "Gunnison, Colorado, held the record low temperature for the US last night, recording a mercury reading of 19.2 degrees Fahrenheit."
We nodded at each other in acknowledgement, then gathered up our laundry and headed west out of town.
Next we stopped at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, an enormously long and deep canyon so named because of its extremely steep walls, not easily penetrated by sunlight. That keeps them in shadow, which makes them appear black.
From there we traveled on to Montrose and Grand Junction, where we decided to make camp in early afternoon on a plateau atop the Colorado National Monument—thirty-two square miles of red-rock monoliths and steep canyon walls, with a view from the top to infinity.
Unlike most of the Forest Service campgrounds, where we were the lone campers on-site, this park was bustling with other RVers in everything from pup tents to forty-foot motorhomes with tow-cars or boats on behind. We visited briefly with a few of them on our late afternoon walk. We also noticed a couple of scorpions and several small lizards that camouflaged nicely to the rock beneath them. Mike assured me they would not crawl into our camper at night. A rabbit dashed in front of us as we returned to our rig before sundown. I fixed dinner. Afterwards, we watched the local news on our small television set which sat on the countertop across from the dinette, next to a small square hole that housed one of four metal support rods that raised, lowered and held the telescoping camper-top in place.
Suddenly I saw a little brown head with round ears rise out of the hole and look around. It was so cute, much like a loveable Walt Disney® character. Not wanting to scare it away, I held still and whispered, "Mike! Pssssst!"
He ignored me, glued to the news while munching on Cheeze-It crackers.
"Mike!" I tried again, louder, moving my eyes back and forth, back and forth, from Mike to the mouse, as if my line of sight could command his attention.
No acknowledgment. Evidently he couldn’t hear my whispers over the crunch of his crackers.
"Mike!" I called out loud. The mouse ducked down into the hole.
"What?" He gave a perturbed look my way.
"The mouse was coming out of the support-rod hole by the TV!"
"It was?" He raised his eyebrows.
"Yes! Right there." I pointed to the hole. How could he not have seen it?
We sat in silence for only a few minutes when the little brown head popped up again. This time Mike saw it. He reached over with a cracker and put it on the counter next to the hole. Soon the mouse came up again, grabbed the cracker and disappeared. Mike placed another cracker, a bit farther away from the hole. The mouse took it, too. Farther and farther away Mike put crackers, until the mouse came all the way out onto the counter. He grabbed at the mouse. It ran, quick as a wink, behind the faucet at the back of the sink where it suddenly paused. Mike grabbed the dishwashing detergent bottle and pressed the mouse to the counter with it. When he lifted the bottle, the mouse was stunned. He picked it up by the tail and tossed it out the door of the camper.
"Ohhhh." My empathy rose. "I wonder if he’ll survive …"
"Ha! He’s probably already been snatched up by some wild creature of the night. Don’t worry about him."
But I did, for a while. And, because I knew of Mike’s inherent fondness for little creatures, I understood that he wasn’t being merciless, he was merely trying to ease my sympathy for it. We would never know what became of that cute little mouse, but I fully understood that we couldn’t leave him inside the camper to gnaw away on electrical wires or rip out insulation, causing repair problems down the road. With mixed emotions I silently bid farewell to our temporary visitor.
The next morning we headed for home in earnest. North from Grand Junction to Rangely, then across Utah to Salt Lake City, through Idaho, Oregon, and back into Washington state.
I took particular note of the large, green highway signs that kept appearing along I-90, one after another, which read, "CAUTION - MOUNTAIN PASS," as we approached Snoqualmie.
Finally I had to ask "So, where is it?"
"Where’s what?" Mike asked in return.
"Where’s the mountain pass?"
"Oh, we’re way over that!"
I realized then that all the mountain passes we had driven in Colorado, anywhere from one mile to 12,126 feet in elevation, had conditioned me to expect more of a climb. At barely over 3,000 feet, Snoqualmie no longer impressed me, but the brilliant-crimson vine maple, fanning out within roadside ravines along the way, did. Colorado struck me as beautiful, but it couldn’t match the intense fall colors of Washington State.
By the time we reached Issaquah, rain was drizzling and morning traffic was heavy, kicking up road spray that further hampered visibility. We had the truck radio on, expecting local news, when I heard the newsman mention Royal Gorge, Colorado. Immediately I turned up the volume. "A young woman jumped from the Royal Gorge suspension bridge yesterday afternoon in an apparent suicide attempt, which was successful."
Nausea filled my stomach. Visions of looking over the railing into the canyon as we passed over that bridge flooded my mind. Neither of us said a word for the next few miles, until we reached the west end of Issaquah and faced crossing three lanes of traffic to the right in order to merge northbound onto I-405.
"I can’t see!" I heard fear in Mike’s voice. "I can’t see!"
"What do you mean? You can’t see?" I couldn’t see well either, because of the rain and road-spray.
"I can’t see out of my left eye!"
The truck veered to the right. A car horn blasted beside us.
I grabbed the steering wheel with my left hand and directed it back. "I’ll help you get over," I said. "Turn on the right-hand signal."
Between my pulling on the steering wheel and leaning over to peer out the right hand outside mirror, we cautiously made lane changes without incident, one by one, with my orders of slow down, ease right, a little more gas, signal again, okay, big curve onto 405. Now, signal right again, we’re going to pull onto the shoulder so we can change drivers.
We did, and I drove home from there with our conversation centered on Mike’s vision, or rather, the lack of it. We reasoned that a blood vessel must have burst in his eye—a sign of diabetic retinopathy, which would hopefully clear itself out in days or weeks. It had happened once before, to a lesser degree. "When we get home I’ll call the eye doctor and make an appointment," I said, and he agreed.
An hour and a half later, with four days of vacation to spare, we rolled into our Kenmore driveway through the dullness of a soggy day. Home never felt so good.