By the time we got to the room the night before, we were so hungry from our hike up and down from the hot springs that we quickly and silently inhaled a frozen pizza (Digiorno, not delivery), but we still awakened famished. We took turns showering and packing up the cars to the sound of motel residents hollering at each other about barking dogs and borrowed tools and the like, and then headed to the diner around the corner on Salmon’s main street.
I love greasy spoons. Give me a surly waitress serving up some bacon and eggs and hash browns and some corny quips posted on a wood paneled wall and I’m a happy woman. Include frequent coffee refills and the Terre Haute in me comes out and I’m ready to jump in a crick. Fortunately for Tarn, Jen, and Kenny, the coffee was slow in coming so they were saved from an embarrassing “Yeehaw!” from my side of the table. The punched copper awning above the counter and the bandana curtains added to a rugged western motif. Besides the slow coffee (and the watery blueberries – why I thought I’d get fresh fruit for a buck I’ll never know), we were a little put off when another patron smacked a fly swatter against the window. It’s not a good sign when diners either bring their own or know enough to ask for them.
We sauntered down the main street of Salmon. After stopping at Whiskey Willie’s so Jen could get a t-shirt, and the local candy store for a slice of huckleberry fudge, it was time to get back on the road.
Kenny and Tarn took the Jeep and Jen and I climbed into their truck. I was glad for the reprieve. Kenny’s not the most focused driver. A week into our road trip and I’d stopped gripping the side of the car and tensing up every time a turn, a car, a bird, or even a grasshopper approached, but I still couldn’t quite relax. Switching to Jen’s driving was like waking up to the soothing sounds of Brahms or Mozart versus being jarred awake by Pantera.
As I enjoyed the relative comfort of the air conditioning and shock absorbers, Jen and I conversed easily. After the night at the hot springs, we had a shared experience that eliminated any awkwardness that might be expected when two near strangers are thrown into a vehicle together.
On their way to Salmon Jen and Tarn had noticed a sign for Lake Como. Since Kenny’s last name is Cuomo we simply had to stop as we headed back to Missoula. We headed north on 93 and she and I shook our heads at the swerving, erratic movements in front of us, at the animated head-bobs and the flailing arms as the Jeep flirted with the shoulder and with oncoming traffic. I could laugh now – I was safe in a much bigger vehicle with a much more stable driver. We passed a sign for Lake Como Road and we wondered how long it would take them to notice it. A few yards down Kenny and Tarn did a U-turn and Jen and I smiled at each other.
“Boys are dumb.”
The lake was a few miles west. The water level was so low it created a long sloped bank of boulders and smaller pebbles below living evergreens, and here and there a dead tree stump stuck out of the ground, or lay on its side, its gnarled roots completely exposed. We ambled down a stretch of rough sand as butterflies flitted around us. A tiny frog jumped across our path. As we approached ducks escaped to the other side of the lake, leaving concentric rings in the water with their wing tips as they gained air. We left our shoes at the bank and made our way out to the middle of the lake on a sandbar that seemed to cut it in half. A trail of murky water from the mud we’d kicked up guided us back. As we left a couple was setting up with fishing gear, but they were the only people we saw.
On the way back to Missoula we stopped in Darby, Montana. For some reason, they knew I’d love the kitschy store on the main street. We poked through the socks with moose and elk on them and the boxer shorts with puns printed all over them. We blew a bugle and rang bells lined up on a leather strap.
The gallery section had glasses and dishware seemingly found from old mines, including an old Corningware bowl like the one passed down to me when I moved out from my parents. There were fox, bobcat, and wolf furs and furniture made out of leather and antlers. The most striking thing was a cleaned up version of the stove we’d seen in Grand Island, Nebraska’s reenactment settlement the week before!
We resumed our trip to Tarn and Jen’s house just off Rock Creek. Along the way she was the penultimate tourist guide. As we passed the former site of the Milltown Dam, she explained how millions of yards of toxic waste had been found at the base. They’re removing it to a town called Opportunity, which is also a home for nuclear waste. Once we turned down Rock Creek and passed the Rock Creek lodge I learned of the “Testicle Festival”. This annual party celebrating the Rocky Mountain Oyster turns into a drunken brawl and a bit of a hassle for the residents.
As we entered the valley she pointed out plumes of smoke from the range following the creek. The constant aroma of campfires sits in the valley, but this scent doesn’t evoke thoughts of s’mores and camptown races. As a tourist, it was disconcerting to see a fire truck at the entrance to their road and to know that just across the water a fire is still going, especially after seeing the acres of burned land from this year and years past.
We drove a little further and passed a run-down barn set behind a row of trees and Jen told a tragic story. Seven years ago the wife had died, leaving her husband and daughter $30,000. Last winter, during one of the coldest days of the season, the house burned down. When the husband went to access the money, he found that his daughter had given it to a local church. You’d think the church would pony up, right? Build the husband a new house? That would be the Christian thing to do. Except they kept the money and the husband is now living with his daughter, the same one, and drives back to Rock Creek to feed his dogs and take care of the chickens that provide eggs for the other residents.
Despite these tales of woe, the valley exudes a sense of peace, enough so that while preparing dinner I happily followed stereotypes with a grin and a shake of my head. Jen cut lettuce from her garden for our salads, we sliced onions and garlic and potatoes and seasoned the steaks that the guys cooked on the grill while drinking beer. After dinner, Jen and I washed and dried the dishes while the guys sat on the couch. Sheesh. A bite of huckleberry fudge and we were ready for bed. The next day Kenny and I were heading to Glacier National Park.