The Last Hellacious Ride
Copyright 2005 by Desiré
Photo courtesy of Pexels.
Dave always carried his pistol when we went horseback riding. He'd grown up in Alaska and hunted. His gun was a tool and he respected it, until he turned it on himself and fired a load of gunshot into his head. Bang. No more Dave. No more rides on the tops of mountains, feeling like we had it all, like we were gods flying through the air on our skis and snowboards. Dave, he was the crash master. Absolutely spectacular-he’d catch big air without really meaning to, land on one ski, then the other, and summersault down, shedding poles, goggles, gloves, and his wife Patty would ski behind him, retrieving his gear and cussing him out.
Patty called me when elk season opened, asking me if I wanted to go with her and her mom Pat to bring some of Dave’s ashes up Grouse Mountain, in the Northern Idaho Panhandle. I would have waited for a nicer day. The weatherman promised an early winter and snow in the mountains, but Patty said if she didn’t do it right away she might not do it at all, so I told her I’d meet her first thing in the morning with my pinto mare Splash-of-Paint, oiled boots, and a rain slicker.
We got up early, loaded the horses and drove twelve miles up Grouse Creek to the turnout where the trail starts. We unloaded the horses, and began gearing ourselves up. Patty and Pat both donned yellow slickers, pants and coats, to protect them from the elements. I wrapped myself in a black Aussie coat, clipping the tails tight around my legs in an attempt to protect them from the wind and mushy rain, slipped a can of pepper spray into my right pocket, and buckled my helmet over wind blown hair. Patty wore Dave’s favorite fishing hat, brown felt softened by years of use, and pulled down low so the brim covered her eyes.
After we'd put our winter wear on, we hurriedly brushed the horses, slung and cinched saddles to wet backs, put bridles over fuzzy ears, and then found a tall rock to assist us in getting up into our saddles. The wild anticipation of getting on Splash and up the trail dissolved in my mouth like the taste of ashes, which Patty carried in her saddle bag-a bit of Dave’s ashes, distributed a pinch at a time over the areas he loved best-the top of Grouse Mountain, Alaska, McCall Lake, and Schweitzer.
I first saw Dave at a twelve-step meeting. He breathed invisibility, sneaking in late and sitting in the back corner of the room. His pale and gaunt face, sunken eyes, and shaking fingers signified the end days of an unsuccessful drinking career. He never volunteered to speak, and when called upon, he'd mumble "I'm Dave and I'm a drunk," looking at his hands, small and feminine except for the dirt and cuts, wringing them together as if trying to stop the shaking.
He'd stand in the circle at the end of the meeting, but never mouthed the words of the Lord's Prayer, and his brown work boots seemed to have a life of their own, tapping and shuffling to some inner music. As soon as the meeting ended, he'd slip out the back door as quietly as he entered the front, never looking at or talking to any of us. I didn't think he had a chance; he wasn't telling us anything.
Dave, Patty, and Pat took me trail riding and turned me on to a world I'd only read about in books but never breathed or tasted. I never understood why they asked me to go trail riding with them. I couldn’t load my horse or tie a knot. I held on to branches and got brushed off the backs of horses, let my horse boss me around, and sometimes let go of the lead line, setting horse free to run down the trail without me. I always wore a helmet, good thing, because I had one mandatory fall per trip.
They took me camping at Boulder Creek Meadow in Boundary County, Idaho.
We rode around trees, over bridges, through marshes, and up the ridges and cliffs of Boulder Mountain to fish at Divide Lake. I didn’t know how to follow a trail, and kept asking them which way?
Dave's brown goatee got a wild look to it when he hadn't shaved, and with his hunter's knife on his belt and riding boots he looked like a French fur trapper. He inhaled the last red ash of his cigarette, and carefully snubbed it out between his fingers, putting the extinguished butt in his pocket. He half smiled, making sure not to expose his front teeth, two brown and black stubs that he planned on replacing in the next two or three paychecks, and said, "Over there. See the line?"
"No, seriously Dave," I asked, "which way?"
His rolled his hazel brown eyes, elongated diamonds that Patty said turned green in the bedroom, clucked at his horse, and continued along a cliff with a narrow strip of a trail. On my left was the mountain going up at a 45-90 degree angle, and to my right was air and the edge of the world and a fall that would kill me. In the back of my mind my mom said, "Desire`, don’t get too close to the edge," and I smiled thinking, "look at me now Mom, I can fly." A bald eagle perched on a stunted tree near the top of the trail, cutting a silhouette into the azure sky; it spread its wings and took flight, swooping over us.
I felt glued to my saddle, and when we stopped for lunch, I swung down slowly, and stumbled when my feet hit the ground. Pat, she talked so softly I had to lean in to hear what she said, grinned, "If your butt hurts, your stirrups hang too long, if your knees ache, they fall too short, and if you hurt all over, they're just right."
My stirrups were perfect.
Logan, barely six, loved horses, and rode double with Grandma Pat or up behind Patty. He’d grab their hand and scramble up the side of the saddle, swing himself onto the horse's back, wrap his arms around the person in front of him, and sing out giddy-up in his rough and tumble boy voice. He’d drop off the horse in the same manner, and once on the ground he’d say hey, look at my dirty butt, shaking it so everyone would see and laugh.
At Divide Lake, Logan could hardly wait to fish, and after Dave finished eating, he got his tackle box and Logan's telescoping fishing pole, which zoomed in and out of its case so that it fit into a saddle bag. Dave clipped the reel into place, drew line from its mouth, and threaded it through the rings.
"Dad," Logan said loudly (he only had one volume-loud), "How come I can't put on the hook?"
Dave, dark hair ruffled by the wind, gave him a full smile, exposing his broken front teeth, "You can put the worm on. Look, watch me, you put the line through the hole, and then you gotta tie it off like this, see?"
The two of them walked to the other side of the lake, getting close to the water so they could cast out beyond the muck, bear grass, and lily pads shrinking the lake into a pond. Dave watched Logan carefully stick the point of the hook through the entire length of the worm, and once Logan had cast his line, Dave took his own pole out of its bag and began to assemble it.
The wind brushed the grass along the edges of the water, and white clouds moved gracefully around a sliver of moon. Logan, casting his line over and over, laughed as loud as he talked, and the lake-pond rippled with his voice, "Dad, I'm gonna catch the biggest fish, but I'll share it with you."
Logan’s older sisters, Gabby and Lizzy, didn’t like riding much. The girls’ mother, an addict, abandoned them when they still had diapers on, and Dave raised them by himself, until he met Patty. They call her mom, and after Dave died, she completed the paperwork to get legal custody of them.
Patty and I met at Northside Elementary, where our children, layered in ages, played soccer and basketball together. It surprised me when Dave showed up on the soccer pitch one day. I didn't recognize him because he had gained ten pounds, trimmed his beard, and cut his hair.
"This is my boyfriend, Dave," Patty, crystal blue eyes flaming merriment beneath rose tinted sun glasses, said, nodding her head at him. "Dave, this is Desire`."
Dave, aglow in the light of recovery, looked me in the eyes and said, "Hey Desire`, did they miss me at the meetings? I just got out of treatment at Port of Hope. Thirty-three days."
They'd show up on the field, carrying camp chairs in bags, which they set up on the sidelines. They sat next to each other through the games, calmly commenting on the different plays, or talking about work, hunting, and horses, while I jumped up and down, paced the sidelines, screamed and yelled at the kids. If I got too annoying, Dave, bottomless coffee cup in hand, would get up to smoke a cigarette, and Patty would say, "Desire`, I think ya need to sit down for awhile."
Gabby, a lovely long legged girl with a shy smile and surprising sapphire eyes beneath dark hair, usually played defense, running across the field or court with the grace of a deer leaping in a field. She went fishing with Dave the day before he took his life. Now he'll never get to meet her boyfriend, won’t take her deer hunting in the fall, and will miss her graduation from high school next year.
Lizzy, a stubborn beauty with blue eyes set above a radiant smile, aggressive and determined, played offense, receiving passes from her older sister and driving them to the scoreboard. She fought with her dad the day before he died, probably told him why should I have to do it or no, and he probably grumbled bitch, turned and walked out of her life. Dead men can’t come to banquets, so he didn't see her receive her letter in softball, will not watch her get her diploma, and can’t give her a hug for getting on the honor role.
Logan, heart shaped face like his mom, his dad's eyes mixed in dark blues, and hair streaked blondish brown, turned eight a month before Dave died. Dave had made him a bow, and they planned to take it hunting. I hope Logan remembers that, but suicide twists and tangles memories, painting them in four ugly shades of black: the what ifs, if onlys, guilt, and blame.
The gray shades of grief will dissipate over time, peeling, cracking, and fading to a dull pulse. The blacks of suicide will follow Patty and the kid's like the wind, sometimes howling with rage and pain, sometimes quiet at the beginning of a new day, and sometimes in a soft breeze that will kick up a dust storm at the sound of a song, the sight of a bear, the smell of a horse, the feel of a hammer hitting a nail to board. Suicide, the hardest death for the living, lingers into the night, has no beginning and no end, and offers no solace.
It got dark too soon the day we saw the eagle, and when they told me we might end up sleeping out that night, I knew they weren’t joking. Dave pulled on his new jacket, a black Patagonia that Patty bought at work. He hated the yellow stripe that went down the sleeves, but Patty told him to get over it or she’d wear it. I was the only one with gloves and they bid on them; it got up to a hundred dollars, but they stayed on my hands. Rosie, Patty’s Russet Terrier, was not much in the way of warmth, and Chollo, large and furry, warm and cuddly, became the million-dollar dog.
After consulting her map, Pat found the "Shortcut Trail" to get back to camp quicker. It had no jack knife turns, and at every flat spot we stopped to rest the horses. Ryan, Pat’s Tennessee Walker that she had rescued and trained, had a low wither, and her saddle kept slipping forward, in spite of the crupper (a piece of leather that connected to the back of the saddle and loops under the horses tail), so she had to keep rearranging it.
Patty liked to play with words, and she laughed, "Pour old Rye-Pie-the-Pencil-Necked-Geek, got no withers but he sure is sweet. He eats too slow and he walks too fast, got to feed him first cuz the food won’t last."
We always sang on the trail. Pat, baseball cap covering short cropped hair, sang songs from "The Music Man" in her soft soprano voice.
Dave liked making up his own lyrics, and sang, "If you’re happy and you know it flap your ears," to the horses.
We got back to camp just in time to settle in with the night. What had taken us five hours to get up, took two hours to get down, and with aching bodies we unsaddled, brushed, watered, and fed the horses certified hay, eighty-five pound bales that Dave and Patty could handle, but that I could barely roll over.
Come haying time, Patty would get a crew together, and they’d buck the bales out of a field in Laclede, Idaho. I'd wear a bandana mask to keep the grass dust out of my nose and a backwards baseball cap to prevent my hair from getting in my face. I got the old lady job, driving the truck along beside the bales laid out in rows.
Dave, 145 pounds of sinewy lean muscle and dark from days in the sun, had chaps that he wore over shorts, and he threw hay into the truck like a pro. Patty had a fair complexion and sensitive skin, and wore long sleeved shirts, jeans, and a baseball cap. She'd stack the hay in the truck in a manner learned from years of experience. Together they’d put up over twenty ton a year, plus my three to four which they unloaded in my barn (I, slow and pathetic, just got in the way).
That night at Boulder Creek Meadow, Dave made a teepee of wood in the campfire, and lit it with his propane lighter. Pat set up the lantern and Patty brought out roasted venison smokies, which we cooked on sticks. Logan and I rummaged around the food box, locked up in case of bears, and found graham crackers, marshmallows, and Hershey's chocolate to make S'mores with.
We played cards to the sounds of a clapping fire. Pat helped Logan win hand after hand of "Pennies," a card game they taught me that night.
Exhaustion finally crept over us, and we curled up in our sleeping bags packed tight in the tent like a package of Oscar Myer wieners, zipping it up to shut out the cold and dampness of the night.
Patty called me the morning Dave died. “Desire`, I got some bad news,” she said in that flat voice of hers, the one that verges on the edge of hysteria, the one she holds back so no one can see she isn’t as tough as she pretends to be. “Dave’s dead.” I didn’t believe her. Dave was younger than me, and I had been on a ride with him two weeks ago and sure he was thin and sucking up air between puffs of a cigarette, coughing, but not dying.
“What?” was my brilliant response. “That’s not funny Patty.”
“No. He got drunk yesterday, and shot himself this morning. I wanted you to hear it from me. He’s dead.”
My husband Bobby relapsed after ten years of sobriety and died in a car accident, so I understood the uncontrollable feeling of becoming an instant widow. The world doesn’t stop or spin, it gets flushed down a power toilet, sucking you in with it, and suddenly, irrevocably, your life turns to hammered dog crap. Patty liked introducing me as Desire` the widow. People would say, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
Patty and I’d grin at each other, and I’d reply, “Sometimes it’s easier when they die.”
People would take a step back, as if I was contagious. But the fact of the matter was, Bobby had crossed the line too many times, and he couldn’t stop drinking. He would’ve hated taking us down with him.
“What happened,” I finally asked her, knowing that “I’m sorry” wouldn’t help.
“He spent the night up the hill in his new truck. I came out this morning to check on him. There were Pabst beer cans and dirty cigarette butts all outside the door.
(Why not one of the new beers he had never tried, why not whiskey or vodka, why didn’t he go to meetings anymore, why didn’t he call me)?
Desire`, I didn't even recognize him. He didn't have his teeth in, and his face was all twisted up. He looked deranged, and screamed and yelled till he was hoarse. Said I spent all his money in New York. Ya know, I saved up my money from work, and I asked the psycho-anti-social-bastard to come with me."
"I know Patty," I tried not to sob, "He wouldn't go."
"He was spitting out hate. Said I was a bad parent and a a bitch. I'm raising his girls. Their god damn crack-ho mother doesn't do crap for them. She doesn't call or write or pay child support. Ya think she's gonna care that they don't have anybody now?
He wouldn't shut up so I turned around and started walking back down the hill. Ya know what? When I heard the shot I thought he was firing at me. I ran down the hill, and called the police as soon as my cell phone got in range."
"Patty," I sobbed, "He told me you were the best thing that ever happened to him. He had tears of happiness when you married him. He loved you Patty." We both cried, "Sometimes it's easier when they die," even when more then anything, and in no matter what condition, we wished our husbands had lived.
The trail to Grouse Mountain looked like it had been confettied with bits of gold, burgundy, red and brown crepe paper. Trees to the right and left of the trail swayed like elephant trunks, momentarily protecting us from the bitter wind. When we approached Grouse Creek, the barrier of trunks disappeared. My red polar fleece gator, washed too many times and rough to skin, refused to stay up, leaving my nose and chin open to the raw brittle air. I clucked at Splash, signaling her to speed up, and when we trotted up next to Patty I shouted, "I hope Dave knows I wouldn’t do this for anybody else."
She turned, and smiling sadly said, "Makes me glad he’s dead. Otherwise he’d have me out here hunting with him."
Dave loved to hunt, and one year he killed a bear. The bear rug, a trophy of their team work, their lives together, wild, ugly, beautiful, and dead, hangs in the living room of the trailer Patty set up after Dave died. Dave, a master carpenter, never completed the house he and Patty were building on their property. He barely got started; in fact, Patty completed more in one summer then the two of them had completed in three years. She also finished the roof on the barn, built a round coral and fences, and put in a well and septic tank. The foundation of the unfinished house, exposed to open air, crumbles, just like their dreams.
Grouse Creek flowed like a river and sounded as loud as a freight train when we brought Dave up the mountain. Splash forged her way to the other side, sniffing and striking at the water as she went.
Once past the creek, the trail spins itself up the mountain. As the mountain turned, we moved in and out of the wind. My toes threatened to loose touch with reality, and I curled them to keep them tingling; my knee brace felt like an ice tentacle around my leg, and my fingers burned cold beneath snowboard gloves. Out of the wind the wet hung on us like a dark cave, and in the wind the rain turned into horizontal snow as we ascended beyond the snow line into slushy gray and heavy white sky.
Amy neighed at Floyd as we passed the tree that Dave had cut out of the trail that spring. Usually, the trail gets cleared of winter debris before we start riding, but we began early because Dave wanted to put five hundred miles on his horse in preparation for riding the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a 1.5 million acre reserve in Montana. We could not get over or around the tree, so Dave had gotten off Floyd and used his folding saw to cut it out of the way.
In the mess of mourning, Patty couldn’t find Dave’s saw, and in an uncustomary act of decision making, I went to the Army Surplus store and bought myself the nicest one, it came in a black pouch with an extra blade, the blade has razor sharp teeth that cut through branches, trees, and fingers with little effort on my part, and clipped it to my saddle. I lost it on my first trip out, and went back the next day, following Splash’s tracks, and to my surprise, found it, reattached it securely, and rode home.
Patty didn’t ride much the summer after Dave’s death, and I explored the state lands above Marijuana Knob, a fifteen-minute ride from my house, on my own. I noticed little things now, game trails, deer, bear, moose and elk sign and tracks, and began developing my own way to the top of what I called "Splash Mountain" (I named it after my faithful Pinto mare). I’d dismount and tie Splash to a tree and move or saw obstacles we couldn’t get around, and trained Splash to stand still so I could clip off branches while seated in my saddle.
When Splash and I completed the trail to the top of our mountain, I begged Patty to come and ride it with me. She rode Dave's horse Floyd in a defiant act against his death. A grimace of determination lined her face, and she rode the whole way without her old smile, laughs, or songs. A neighbor and a few of her uninvited drunken friends came along, adding an ironic twist to the journey. I never rode with the drunks again.
The last buds of the poisonous spotted nap weed had flowered, creating a field of purple waving weeds, mixed with the few remaining pedals of daisies, fading in the sun. Sifted yellow grass poked through the flowers, tempting Splash to eat on the trail.
Horse eating turkeys hid in the cedar trees near the pond, making Splash jump. A flock of geese took flight from the water, blurring the colors of sky and water together in their dance. Baby ducks followed their screaming mother into the tall reeds, and a moose took a cool bath amidst the lilies.
The farmer’s donkey, lonely in his field, decided he should follow us, and we galloped our horses to ditch him. A dead cow, reeking and rotting in the sun, scared one of the drunk's horses, and they had to get off and walk it around the carcass.
At the top of Splash Mountain we could see the farmer’s fields, shaved yellow hair with brown bumps of acne erupting on it. The ski runs on the backside of Schweitzer Mountain, where we played in the winter, looked like scars, and my barn looked like a hotel on a Monopoly board. We stopped to rest the horses, and Patty and I had trail mix, while the uninvited guests drank a couple of beers.
On the way home, a brown bear ran in front of us, and Patty said, "Desire`, you’re too dangerous for a gun, but I think you need to get yourself some pepper spray. I’m not too worried about the bucking bears or loose moose, but the wild devil dogs and pot growing gangsters up around the knob kind of scare me. You’re full of surprises, this is a nice trail."
The snow continued to fall like ashes as we rode up Grouse Mountain. Beneath the thin layer of snow lived the rocky trail, and Splash's front shoe, possibly loose, clanked with every step. It took us three hours to reach the fork in the road, and the sign that pointed out directions had icicles hanging off of it. We headed the horse’s right towards Lunch Peak, where we used to dismount and tie our horses to trees, Dave patiently showing me the same knot over and over. "Here’s how Desire`, under, over, through, pull, and do it again. See?"
Dave’s Arab mix horse, Pink Floyd, thought it funny to untie himself and eat the grass or beg for pieces of licorice that Pat always carried in her saddlebag. Splash loved Floyd, and whenever she rode behind him she went into heat, squealing and getting sassy with the other mares. She’d jig to ride behind or beside him, and I’d hold her back to give Patty and whatever horse she was tuning-up a chance to ride next to Dave. On these days, it would be all quiet on their front, whatever jibing they did to each other was in fun, a practiced art for them, and they’d hold hands, side by side on their horses.
But on the day we scattered Dave’s ashes to the wind, there was no jigging or jibing, no laughing, no singing, and no holding of hands. In fact, no one talked, and the quiet was worse than the weather.
At God Rock, which we named ourselves because it looked like it had been split down the middle by lightning, we stopped, and unanimously agreed that we could go no further. The wind hurled snow the color of ash at and around us. Two inches had already collected, steam billowed from our horses’ nostrils, and a cruel wetness seeped through our clothes.
Patty dismounted, and gave Floyd’s reins to her mom to prevent him from turning around and running back down the trail to the horse trailer without Patty. She took off her gloves to untie the saddlebag and get out the container with Dave’s remains. A melted Levi jeans button, the only pants Dave would wear, had been found in the ashes, and Patty planned to keep this small remnant. She opened the grey box, and poured some of the chunks of ash into her left hand.
The wind howled, and I wanted to add a scream of rage and despair to its death song, but I couldn't gulp up enough air between my tears. A finger of wind blew Dave’s hat off Patty’s head, setting her pale yellow hair free from the French braid that snaked down her back. Its fine strands danced momentarily with Dave’s ashes as they took flight for his last hellacious ride.
We talked on the way back, griped about our numb fingers and damp bodies. We'd completed our mission, letting Dave go to the cold Idaho winter air, and cried our tears. Even the horses’ moods changed. None of them balked at the creek or dawdled on the trail. We rode down below the snow line, into the wet wind and shadowy trees, and finally, to the turn out where the trailers waited.
I live in Sandpoint, Idaho, with my 17 year old daughter, DaNae, who is also a writer. I work part-time with mentally ill adults and attend NIC part-time.
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