This story is by Susan Whipple and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Idaho had been freed from the stay-at-home orders and everyone was on the highway. Jason had reserved the Buck Park Cabin for four days of hiking with Meredith and Charlie in the Cuddy Mountains, to which they were heading in the midst of unusually heavy traffic.
“I had visions of being totally alone,” Meredith said with a sigh.
“I am sure we will be alone,” Jason responded, wondering why Meredith could always conjure up the most miserable experience before things even got started “The cabin isn’t the easiest place to get to. It is completely isolated. We still have another hour and a half once we get to Council. I wouldn’t get too upset yet.”
“I hope you’re right. I just want four days for Charlie to be able to run and not worry about other dogs and people,” she answered.
“Meredith, just try to relax.”
Jason reached over and turned the radio volume up ending all conversation.
“Hey Charlie,” Jason shouted over the radio. “Ready for some fun big guy!”
Charlie was a 75lb brindle Pitbull mix, often viewed with fear. His big blocky head and muscular body were outward manifestations of his strength, but his personality was a big cuddle bug. He was happy as long as he was within touching distance of his people.
Just outside of Council they looked for the forest road to Buck Park. The left turn put them on a single lane washboard road.
As the elevation rose, Aspens and farmland gave way to Ponderosa Pine and Hemlock trees. The fresh smell of pine filled the crisp clean air. Charlie looked out the window with his big pitty smile knowing that something good was coming.
The road narrowed and climbed. There was no way for two cars to pass on this road. It had become more and more rutted with potholes and areas still flooded from the snow melt-off. The big puddles gave no indication of how deep they might be so Jason drove slower and slower while the tension built up in his shoulders.
After an hour of bumping and rocking, the road opened up onto an alpine meadow bursting with wispy wildflowers in pale blues, soft pinks and bright yellows. Meredith gasped at the beauty as Jason gave a sigh of relief that they were off the narrow mountain road and Charlie, started his happy bark. Just ahead was a 1930’s single room cabin with porch, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Meredith got out and opened the car door for Charlie. He bounded out with a case of the zoomies, running through the fields at top speed, parting the grasses in his wake. It was full throttle happiness for Charlie. Jason smiled at the enjoyment Charlie gleamed from such simple pleasure. Maybe this trip would provide that simple pleasure between Jason and Meredith they had lost.
Jason unlocked the front, and only, door. Inside was a wood burning stove, a set of bunk beds, a futon, a pull down dining table and a shelf across the back wall. Rustic, bare and isolated. All the things they wanted; no cell service, no running water and no electricity. The sun was high in the luminescent blue sky with not a cloud to be seen. Perfect!
There were only a few hours of daylight left so they put on their hiking boots and began to explore. With Charlie in the lead they hiked to the vista about a mile away. In the distant North was a breath-taking view of the Seven Devils. The jagged granite peaks loomed like mountain gods over the lower peaks and valleys. Closer was the Snake River cutting a deep path through the canyon. From this viewpoint, it was clear why it was called Hell’s Canyon: the gash seemed to cut clear to the core of the earth. Charlie stood between them wagging his tail, making the distance between them seem less.
That night as they sat by the campfire in the cool mountain air, the stars lit up the sky. Billions and billions of twinkling lights put on a spectacular light show.
Meredith leaned over and kissed Jason on the cheek. “We are so lucky. Sorry about all my doomsday scenarios,” she whispered. Charlie stuck his head up and licked the other side of Jason’s face. Jason patted Charlie on his back.
The next morning, they woke up early, loaded their water and snacks and set out on Rush Creek Trail, an 8 mile hike through burned forest that was slowly coming back to life. Charlie raced ahead with Jason, then ran back to see if Meredith was on her way. Charlie was doing at least twice the mileage of Jason and Meredith. After about thirty minutes a blood-curdling yelp from Charlie pierced the quiet. Jason ran back and Meredith ran forward to see a black bear and Charlie rolling on the ground. Behind a rock was a small bear cub watching the entanglement.
Meredith screamed, Jason rang the bear bells and sprayed the mama bear. She turned and ran leaving Charlie in a pool of blood with deep gashes on his abdomen, chest and face. Charlie was still breathing and conscious but clearly needed immediate medical attention. Frantically Meredith dumped the contents of her backpack finding gauze, hydrogen peroxide and flexible bandaging material. She began to pour the peroxide into Charlie’s deepest wounds and bound him from head to tail with stretchy wrap while reassuring Charlie it was okay. Jason tied their anorak coats together making a stretcher upon which they slowly lifted Charlie. They jogged back to the cabin in tandem as quickly as possible trying not to bounce their precious cargo any more than necessary.
They arrived winded and near hysteria at the cabin placing Charlie in the back seat of the car. Jason told Meredith to pack their stuff while he drove Charlie to the vet in Council. He would come back for Meredith. Before she could object, Jason was behind the wheel and speeding through the meadow. The last thing he needed was Meredith’s hysteria.
Jason took the curves much too fast as he sped down the mountain road. The car jostled side to side causing Charlie to whine in pain. Rocks spun out from the tires and tumbled down the cliff.
“Hold on buddy,” Jason said to Charlie.
Jason believed that Charlie didn’t have an hour to get to the vet. The bandages were turning pink with continually oozing blood. Jason’s mind raced to worst case scenarios, Charlie dies in the back seat, the vet tells him there are no other options than euthanasia or the car careens off the road and kills them both. The last option seemed most likely right now.
The trip down the mountain seemed interminable to Jason. Each curve seemed further, not closer, to Council. He kept his eye on Charlie in the rear view mirror and listened for Charlie’s labored breathing. Attempting to reach Council as quickly as possible, Jason drove more and more aggressively.
After two more switchbacks the car became silent except for the rocks hitting the undercarriage. No longer was the sound of labored breathing or cries of pain coming from the back seat. Jason stopped. Charlie was perfectly still. His bandages were soaked, his gums blue and his nose dry.
Jason crawled into the back seat and placed Charlie’s head on his lap. He gently stroked Charlie’s big blockhead as his tears fell onto Charlie’s snout. Memories of the day Charlie was adopted flooded his thoughts. Charlie had been at the Bully Breed Rescue for a year and a half before Jason and Meredith brought him home. He had been found wandering the side of the highway, emaciated with a skin condition. He was timid and skittish and incredibly unattractive with his bare patches, but perfect for Jason and Meredith. They had to work together to earn Charlie’s trust. Soon he blossomed. He claimed the middle seat of the sofa as his own. From this viewpoint he could see all the activity of the house. Charlie never gave them time alone. They kissed and Charlie was in the middle, they went to bed and Charlie was in the middle. He was the one who made them a family. Until they adopted Charlie, Jason and Meredith seemed to spend long evenings straining to find conversation. Charlie filled the loneliness they felt with each other.
Jason carefully turned the car around heading back to the cabin. He drove slowly cherishing the alone time with Charlie. He began thinking that Meredith might be correct in expecting the worst to happen when they should be living in the moment.
Meredith was sitting on the porch when Jason arrived. She looked at his face. No words were exchanged. Meredith curled up on the ground and wailed. Jason reached over to hold her, but she pushed him away. He stood beside the car realizing this would be as close as they ever would be.