Fall 2006, Volume 23.1
Ron McFarland earned his PhD at the University
of Illinois. He teaches literature and creative writing at the University of
Idaho. His books include The World of David Wagoner (1997), Understanding
James Welch (2000), Stranger in Town: New & Selected Poems (2000),
and Catching First Light: 30 Stories and Essays from Idaho (2001). His
short story, "Different
Words for Snow," won the Dr.
O. Marvin Lewis Award in 2000 from Weber Studies.
Read other work by Ron McFarland published in Weber Studies: Vol. 8.1 (fiction), Vol. 12.1 (poetry), Vol. 15.2 (poetry), Vol. 17.0 (essay), Vol. 17.1 (fiction), Vol. 19.3 (fiction), Vol. 22.2 (essay).
An April day in1980, perhaps a Monday, memorable for more than usual rain there on the Palouse and for the fact that Mark’s heretofore trusty ’68 Datsun gave up the ghost; that is, it threw a rod, and he clanked nine sloppy miles west to the nearest GM dealer, across the state line in Washington, where he bought a new Chevrolet Malibu station wagon. He felt that he had little choice in the matter: they needed a car, he did not believe in buying used cars, and this was what they could afford. He had other reasons, one of them being his father’s lifetime love affair with Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets, with anything American and preferably GM, or at least not Ford. Also, he was annoyed with the PL510’s sluggishness, particularly on the hills and mountains that roller-coaster the northern Idaho panhandle. Moreover, he had a six-months pregnant wife and two preschoolers on his hands, so he wanted a vehicle that would offer them some elbowroom. He visualized with smug satisfaction the gulf in the back seat that would separate the isthmus of Kerri, buckled behind her mother, from the bickering island of her brother Tommy, buckled behind him.
With the kids securely tethered Mark and Geri could turn up the radio, always tuned to the classical music channel on NPR, and spend a few days backtracking the route of Lewis & Clark through Idaho, from Lewiston, about 35 miles south at the confluence of the Clearwater and the Snake, southeastward to Lemhi Pass, about 350 miles distant. He congratulated himself on meticulously planning this adventure so they would enter the pass on the very day, August 21, Lewis & Clark entered it 175 years earlier. The junket had something to do with the fact that Mark’s last name was Lewis, although his genealogically adept father could trace no descent from the explorer. The best he could offer was a distant and distaff connection to Daniel Webster: "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable," Webster’s dread premonition in 1830 of the coming Civil War. He shared this bit of wisdom with his wife, but she appeared unmoved, lacking, he noted regretfully, a proper historical sensibility.
His expedition began innocently enough, perhaps with something of that naive joy with which the Corps of Discovery itself commenced. The family got up early, gobbled a hasty breakfast made only slightly irksome by Tommy’s fit over the fact that they’d run out of Fruit Loops, and set out for Lewiston. They planned to cross into Clarkston, Washington, because it seemed fitting that they recognize both adventurers: William Clark, described as a "geographical genius" by Bernard DeVoto, and the unfortunate Meriwether Lewis, a suicide, whose lonely monument Mark had visited once as a boy far out along the Natchez Trace.
"I hate the color of this car," Geri sang as they stowed the last bag.
"I know," Mark said patiently. "You mentioned that yesterday, the day before, and the day before that. You missed on Thursday, as I recall, but you were consistent the four succeeding days, which gets us to the day we bought it." The wagon was banana yellow (lemon yellow, Geri would maintain until her dying day), the only available unit on the lot—not their preference, of course. For an extra two hundred dollars the dealer slapped on some black side-strip molding, but except for that, it was a ruthlessly basic vehicle: no tape deck, no cruise control, no automatic transmission, no AC—the kind of unit a good Calvinist might be proud of owning.
"It’s hot," Kerri whined from the back. "This seat burns my legs." She began to whimper.
"Black plastic seats." Geri sighed. "Why?" She paused to let her husband’s folly sink in. "How much more would it have cost for air conditioning?"
Mark offered a random and improbable figure somewhere in the low thousands.
"Scots-Irish. I am a Scots-Irish-American, Ohio-Midwestern Calvinist, a Presbyterian of the old school of high frugality," he lectured. "‘Simplify, simplify.’ That’s Thoreau."
Geri sighed, having heard the citation of Thoreau on many occasions from her all-too-professorial husband. "AC would’ve been worth it," she complained. "Black plas-tic seats!" This was to become her mantra.
They started officially at Hell’s Gate State Park because that seemed as good a place as any to access the feelings of Lewis & Clark as they gazed on the confluence of the mighty Clearwater flowing from the east with the even mightier Snake churning north and west to its eventual collision with the Columbia in south-central Washington. After a day of running bad rapids, the Corps of Discovery arived at a large Southerly fork, Captain William Clark wrote on October 10th of 1805, which is the one we were on with the Snake or (Sho-Sho-ne) nation […] . Imediately in the point is an Indian Cabin & in the South fork a Small Island, we came to on the Stard. Although it was early autumn, Clark complained of their bad diet, having nothing but roots and dried fish to eate, except for those of the party who had developed a taste for the flesh of the dogs, Several of which we purchased of the natives for to add to our Store of fish and roots. Knowing their delight over such grotesqueries, Mark read the latter passage from his abridged edition of the journals to Kerri and Tommy.
"Gross!" they shouted delightedly, one of the few sentiments they would agree upon during the journey.
Geri noted sardonically the ominous nature of the park’s moniker and muttered, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."
Pretending not to have heard, Mark reentered the highway, but the gearshift lever on the floor suddenly pulled straight out of its rubber boot. For a few panicky seconds he felt like a cartoon character, a frustrated Elmer Fudd driving toward his confrontation with Bugs Bunny on opening day of wabbit season. Then he carefully lifted his foot from the gas, jammed the gearshift back into the boot, and popped the clutch, all in a single spasm that brought the Malibu lurching onto the pavement headed in the general direction of downtown Lewiston and the nearest GM dealership.
"You done the right thing!" the friendly service manager bellowed. His name was Seth according to the red embroidery over his shirt pocket. He looked to be part Indian, and Mark thought of how Clark described the Nez Perces or Pierced nose Indians as Stout likely men and handsom women, verry dressey in their way. The women, Clark noted, were more perticular than any other nation which I have passed in Screting the parts. Mark thought of asking the man about his tribe, but he checked himself, having made a rather embarrassing mistake a few months earlier with a graduate student who turned out to be a Chicano.
Mark allowed as how he had done the only thing he could do under the circumstances. He mentioned the warranty and the recent date of purchase. "Heck," said Seth, the friendly service manager, "them things’re just held in there by a piece of plastic. We just drill that sucker right out and run a steel bolt through ‘er." Mark opined as how the Mister Good Wrench folks at GM might have saved everyone a lot of grief by opting for steel in the first place. "That’s Detroit for you!" exclaimed Seth. He grinned broadly as if to say, the joke’s on us, ain’t it? He assured Mark it was all covered except for $50 and he would have them on their way within the hour. Being a cynical optimist philosophically, Mark guessed two hours, and the family left town in about three.
After a brief visit to the Nez Perce National Historical Park and museum at Spalding, as much to use the restrooms as to see the exhibits, they reached Lewis & Clark’s Canoe Camp near Orofino, thirty odd miles to the east of Lewiston, in time for a picnic lunch. It was hot by then (maney Indians visit us, reads Clark’s journal for the 27th of September, worm day). Mark showed the passage to his wife and repeated, "worm day." Geri said nothing, but took the paperback from his hands and fanned herself with it. The contemporary Lewises were soon visited by a swarm of yellow jackets who enjoyed their ham sandwiches more than they did (Mark could find no reference to yellow jackets or wasps in the L&C journals). The explorers began building canoes near this site on 27 September 1805, and they set out from camp on the 7th of October with Clark feeling verry unwell. Kerri was also feeling "unwell," as in "sick in my tummy," which diagnosis she proved by disgorging every morsel she had eaten of her sandwich. The yellow jackets assailed the partly digested ham and bread with remarkable alacrity. Capt. Lewis very Sick, reads Clark’s entry for 17th Septr., nearly all the men Sick. Perhaps the heat kept their hunting parties empty-handed, and the roots on which they were subsisting kept their bowels in an uproar. Tommy began to complain about his tummy, too, but it was impossible for Mark to tell whether his illness was genuine or "sympathetic" in nature.
Just before they set out from Canoe Camp, Geri detected a loose end on a piece of their precious body side-strip molding. Mark told her they’d stop in Hamilton, Montana, where he planned to spend the night, and slap on some Super Glue. Their more immediate destination was the famous site outside of Weippe, high above the Clearwater, where a band of Nez Perce saved the starving expedition on the 20th of September, a gesture of good will and humanity many of their descendants had cause to regret. "A few well-placed arrows, a couple of swings with a tomahawk—who knows?" Mark speculated for them all. "Probably it would only have purchased them a few more years of living in their own way."
Five treacherous switchbacks torque the road between Greer and the top of the grade, an eight- to ten-mile distance that easily feels like thirty miles in a non-air-conditioned Malibu in August with "black plas-tic seats." A couple of the switchbacks are labeled with signs indicating that large trucks, logging trucks mostly, own the rights to the entire roadway in order to negotiate those particular curves. Mark imagined the Malibu pitching over the edge into oblivion. Geri was kind enough to keep her eyes closed and her anxieties to herself.
Weippe (pronounced wee-ipe) consists mostly of two bars, the Lucky and the Antelope, a gas station that doubles as a general store, a small red brick elementary school, a café-cum-laundromat, and a lumber mill. A couple of miles outside town, just a few hundred yards from a dead and bloated white horse clustered with ravens, they located the site where Captain Clark and his company encountered the Nez Perce for the first time (20 September 1805), after proceeding through a Country ruged as usial, crossing Lolo Creek, and coming up to leavel pine Countrey, which he described as butifull. There the Corps of Discovery encountered a number of Indian lodges and three boys who hid from them until Clark offered Small pieces of ribin, the upshot of which was a dinner of buffalo meat, salmon berries, and roots. For the latter-day Lewises, the upshot of the visit was the departure of that loose piece of side-strip molding, which they retrieved on the gravel road near the town cemetery. By the time they would reach Hamilton, Montana, the molding would have mysteriously disappeared.
"Bad omen," Geri groaned. "We should just go back home right now."
"Bad omen? Hey, it depends on your point of view. Tough break for the horse, but good news for the birds!" Mark’s optimistic impulse was riding high in the saddle. "It’s like that old joke about bacon and eggs, ‘a day’s work for the chicken, but a whole lifetime for the…’"
"I didn’t mean the horse. I meant the body side-strip stuff."
"Yes," she said flatly, "that."
On September 14th the expedition entered the Lochsa River valley, leaving the Lolo Trail, which stayed with the ridge tops, a guide’s error, according to the footnotes to the Journals. It was near Powell Ranger Station, not far from where Lewis & Clark camped, that Mark stopped to take a family picture against the rushing river. Geri complained that they needed to make some time; Kerri and Tommy complained just to be complaining. The three snapshots he took that afternoon registered not a single smile out of nine opportunities. Geri insisted on taking at least one shot of her husband, who she was now calling "Captain." The photo preserved in the family archives depicts Mark standing with arms confidently folded across his chest, but without a head. His wife insists she snapped the camera with no malice aforethought. It was also at that spot near the roaring Lochsa that the small plastic "Malibu" insignia popped off the dashboard. Mark placed it on top of the dash, mentally consigning it to the Super Glue fate ordained for the side-strip molding, but it promptly slipped into some aperture on the dashboard, emerging about an hour later as a white blotch obscuring the odometer.
They were, however, considerably luckier than the Corps of Discovery that day, which Clark describes as cloudy in the Valies where it rained and hailed, while on the mountains Some Snow fell. Mark pointed out the great time they were making relative to Lewis & Clark, but no one seemed impressed. It took them almost a week to get from there to here, he observed.
"I gotta pee," Tommy said.
"We can stop right by the side of the road, and you can pee just like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark did!"
"I gotta pee, too," Kerri echoed.
"Well you can …"
"But I’m a gi-r-r-rl," Kerri wailed.
They made it to Lolo Hot Springs, a heavily touristified swimming pool, restaurant, motel, and gift shop, just in time for Kerri to relieve herself. Geri was also in extremis by that time. "Hey Captain, I’m a gi-r-r-rl, too," she snarled as she slammed the door of the Malibu, loosening the body side-strip molding on her side in the process. I tasted the water, wrote Clark, and found it hot & not bad tasted. He boasts of having shot four Pheasents of the Common Kind except the taile was black. The footnote to the journals indicates that these were spruce grouse, then unknown to science. In further examonation," Clark observes, I found this water nearly boiling hot at the places it Spouted from the rocks. Mark lost additional points on his way to Father-of-the-Year Award by refusing to stay for a family dip, determined as he was to reach the burg of Hamilton, Montana, in time to get a decent motel for the night.
As it happened, he made better than expected time and dropped by a garage while Geri and the kids tested the motel pool. There he learned that extracting the Malibu emblem from its roost in front of the odometer would be prohibitively expensive, as it would necessitate pulling the dashboard: not covered by the warranty, extended, which he had foolishly purchased, or otherwise.
"What did they say, Captain?" asked the ever-inquisitive Geri.
"No problem," Mark stonewalled. "I’ll take care of it when we get back home."
The next day would bring them to Lost Trail Pass, 7014 feet, where Lewis and Clark crossed into what is now Idaho, on or about the third of September 1805. There is considerable dispute as to the exact location of the Lewis & Clark expedition at this point, just where they cut in and out of Idaho, but Mark did not bother the family with the quibbles, instead regaling them with Lewis & Clark’s comments on the terrain and weather. So Steep that the horses Could Screcly keep from Slipping down, Several Sliped & Injured themselves verry much. Clark also recorded the great misfortune, in having our Thmometer broken by accident that day. Finally, he reported, Snow about 2 inches deep when it began to rain which termonated in a Sleet. Predictably, where the new Lewises were standing, the heat was intense and the radiator hissed menacingly. A month after they returned home the thermostat would go the way of Lewis & Clark’s thermometer, but for the time being, they were saved from the disaster of boiling over atop a very dry mountainside.
Turning off the ignition, Mark ignored the radiator and inhaled a deep breath of clean mountain air. His tenderfoot lungs expanded with paternal pride. He tousled Kerri’s hair, then Tommy’s. "Dad," they said, giggling. When he reached toward Geri’s somewhat frazzled locks, however, she growled, "Don’t touch me!" He decided to content himself with giving the Malibu’s hood an affectionate slap the way Meriwether might have stroked his favorite mount.
They were now only seventy or so miles from their goal: Lemhi Pass, 7373 feet up a winding dirt and gravel road, where Lewis & Clark crossed the Continental Divide. And here it was, the 21st of August, as planned, and here they were cruising south of the scenic town of Salmon, having parted with the River of No Return in order to amble down State Route 28 along the Lemhi River, past the birthplace of Sacajawea, the Shoshone Indian woman whose work as guide and translator for Lewis & Clark was to prove invaluable. Stopping at a historical sign, Mark reached into his pocket and fished out a pair of Sacajawea medallions, he had been storing for just this occasion, shiny brass that looked like gold. He handed one to Kerri and one to Tommy. "Gold," he said.
"Some people pronounce it sa-ka-ga-we-a and others say it should be sa-ka-ja-we-a," he said. The children seemed unimpressed. They wanted to see the Indians. Their father began to explain something of the reservation system to them, but their interest quickly ebbed.
"Tommy put his gold in his mouth."
"Moooom, Tommy called me a liar."
"Geri," Mark said.
"Shore nuff, Captain." She fixed her husband with a thin-lipped grin. "They aren’t really gold at all, honey. They’re just brass."
At Tendoy they took the dirt and gravel road east toward the pass. This morning was very cold, Lewis wrote of 21 August 1805: the ice ¼ of an inch thick on the water which stood in the vessels exposed to the air. some wet deerskins that had been spread on the grass last evening are stiffly frozen. The ink freizes in my pen. Most of the entries that day, from both Lewis and Clark, pertain to the Indians in the area: some of the dressey young men orniment the tops of their mockersons with the skins of polecats and trale the tail of that animal on the ground at their heels as they walk.
"What’s a polecat," Tommy wanted to know.
"It’s the same as a skunk, stupid," Kerri obliged.
"I am not stupid!"
"Kerri," their mother admonished with a sigh, "stop calling your brother stupid. You know better than to use that word."
"Am not a baby."
"You’re a polecat."
Mark could hear Tommy land a swat across Kerri’s bare leg.
"Tommy hit me-e-e!" Her protest faded into a wail.
"I await your order, Captain." Geri smirked.
"Stand at ease," and then, angrily, "all of you stand at ease!"
The Shoshone, according to Clark, were excessive pore, but they were, unlike the pair of savages from the Malibu tribe in the back seat, mild in their disposition. If his sense of the etymology of "Malibu" was correct, Mark told his wife later, the word derives from the Uto-Aztecan for "dysfunctional."
"When are we going home?"
"I wanna go home now."
"If you behave, we can stop for ice cream when we get back to Salmon," Mark declared in his most conciliatory tone of voice. He could sense the incipient mutiny, the worst possible fate to befall the expedition: insubordination from his second-in-command, and now this from the ranks. "Just look at this view!" he announced.
They pulled over at the summit of the pass, and he jumped out and gazed across miles of pine into the state of Montana. It was immediately apparent that the rest of the troops, including Lieutenant Geri, had no intention of leaving the station wagon. "Right now we’re smack in the middle of the Continental Divide," their leader called out. But this geographic gem made no impact whatsoever, particularly on Geri, who was getting motion-sick and headachy because of the winding road and the plume of dust raised in front of them by a logging truck. Mark returned his attention to the vista before him, took in a couple of breaths of good mountain air, and shouted a big Corps of Discovery whoop in honor of the intrepid explorers. His exuberance echoed among the pines, and for a few glorious moments he felt the whole expedition had been worth the effort, maugre the Malibu.
He jumped back into the wagon and flipped on the radio, but in this remoteness they got nothing but static. "Some radio," Geri muttered. To which sarcasm her husband responded by pushing open the vent on his side with perhaps a bit more vigor than necessary, at which the small, triangular glass popped out in his hand. It appeared to have been held in place by a sliver of metal thinner than a pencil. By pressing it into place and locking the catch, he was able to keep the thing in position, but its future as a functional window was over. He looked at his wife, who glowered in silent triumph. "No problem," Mark said weakly. "Probably covered by the warranty."
"Sure," she said dryly.
"Almost cer-tainly covered by the warranty," he stated defiantly.
"I’m ho-o-o-ot," Tommy whined from the backseat as they began to inch their way downhill.
"I’m ho-o-0-0-0-o-ot!" Kerri, great little competitor that she was, echoed with special emphasis about halfway through the vowel. "Open the win-dow!"
Her father assured her the windows were fully open.
"Open that little, teeny window by you."
Their lot in the back seat was all the worse because the rear windows would go down no more than 2.5 inches, a feature that suggested an overly zealous safety engineer somewhere at GM. Kerri began to whimper. She was a great little whimperer. Tommy began to whimper as well. He was a great little imitator.
Their father explained that the little, teeny window was no longer functional and it wouldn’t matter anyway. But Kerri was right. Those vents that one rarely sees on vehicles anymore act as scoops, bringing in fresh volumes of air along with butterflies, yellow jackets, and other assorted insect species. They have pretty universally been replaced by air conditioning, even in vehicles purchased by the more parsimonious Scots-Irish. Mark’s next vehicle would have AC, automatic transmission, cruise control, a tape deck, the works, but that was several more years down the road.
"Black plas-tic seats!" Geri hissed.
Incredibly, or perhaps simply because all that could go wrong had gone wrong, they made it back home without further problems with the now thoroughly disgraced Malibu wagon. But it had become such a vehicle as even a father could not love.
Lewis & Clark had been gone for 28 months when they reached St. Louis in September of 1806. The modern-day Lewises began to get red postcards from GM about 176 years after the Corps of Discovery returned from the great trek westward, trailing clouds of Manifest Destiny in their wake. By then the vehicle was paid off, but most of its maladies remained: the body side-strip molding was just a memory, and it turned out the vent was not covered by the warranty, and of course the Malibu insignia was to occlude the odometer forever. On the positive side of the ledger, the thermostat was covered by the warranty, as was the water pump when it died a few months later, and the gearshift remained firmly bolted in place. The red card informed Mark that a faulty bolt had been inserted at some critical place in the drive train, and as he understood the matter, the transmission or the drive shaft might decide to drop out at any moment. Of course he would not be billed for the work that needed to be done so "Urgently!"
By the time Mark received the red card, he had already decided to trade in this "sweet lemon" as his old psychology text called it (the opposite of the "sour grapes" mentality).
Lewis & Clark’s journals end in April of 1806 with the expedition at Willamette Falls, near Oregon City, a few miles south of present day Portland, but both Lewis and Clark wrote letters dated 23 September 1806, when they arrived at St. Louis. Their return trip was shorter and less arduous than their journey westward. While the Lewises had sojourned in their footsteps in the spirit of recreation and pure intellectual and historical curiosity, Meriwether Lewis’s letter to President Thomas Jefferson largely boosted the commercial potential of their momentous expedition: We view this passage across the Continent as affording immence advantages to the fur trade, but fear that the advantages which it offers as a communication for the productions of the Eeast Indies to the United States and thence to Europe will never be found equal on an extensive scale to that by way of the Cape of Good Hope; still we believe that many articles not bulky brittle nor of a very perishable nature may be conveyed to the United States by this rout with more facility and at less expence than by that at present practiced.
Mark read over the phrase "bulky brittle" several times, and he thought of it one afternoon when he spied the old Malibu pulled over to the curb at the corner of Third and Main, looking very "perishable," its hood raised in the motorist’s universal gesture of utter consternation.