UP HIGH by Peter Nolan Smith

The afternoon sun hovered over the distant mountains to the West. I checked the clock over the Inferno Lounge’s bar. The hands of the old time instrument said 10:24. I pointed to it and the bartender said, “It’s been broke for years. The regulars like it that way.”
I held out my hand to the gap between the sun and the shining peaks and judged that there were two hours left of sunlight.

AK tapped my shoulder.

“What’s up?”

“It’s time to go.” AK whispered in my ear.

Sterling, Colorado had one bar and the Inferno Lounge was crowded with hard-faced farmers in dirty overalls. Their bodies sat with a weariness from hard labor. Johnny Cash’s version of SUNDAY MORNING COMING DOWN was on the jukebox. None of the male clientele looked like they went to church.

My friend repeated, “It’s time to go.”

“You have a point.” I signaled the bartender for the check. “I’ll pay the bill, you go find Pam.”

“You leaving so soon?” Buck was happy to see us go. The Inferno Lounge’s supply of trouble easily met demand after his more ornery customers got deep in their drink.

“We’re trying to reach the Rockies before nightfall.” I dropped a $20 on the bar.

“Best take 14 to Fort Collins, then head to Big Thompson Canyon. Try staying at the Big Bear Lodge.

The owner’s wife cooks up good eating.” Buck made change and then said, “There are no police are on this road, so you should reach the Frontline in about ninety minutes. Better get your girl quick or else Billy Bob will kidnap her to his farm.”

“Will he be a problem?” I straightened up on the stool.

“He won’t make a fuss. Billy Bob’s a good boy unlike some of these fellas.” The bartender nodded to the nearest table.

Three middle-aged ranchers at the corner table glared us, as if we had rustled their cattle. Our hair was longer than their two women friends. This was Nixon country and his supporters blamed dirty hippies for Watergate.

“Thanks for the information and the beer.”

I left a $2 tip and walked out of the bar trailed by the ranchers’ muttered insults.

“Where’s Pam?” I asked AK, as we crossed the parking lot to our station wagon more than ready to hit the road.

“Over there.” He pointed to a crapped-out Chevy pick-up.

The two people inside the truck were sitting very close. The view of the Rockies was a better show than a drive-in movie. Their heads were turned to each other.

“I think she might have lost track of time.”

“Same as the clock in the Inferno Lounge.” 10:24 was a good time day or night. I looked back at the bar.

Several men stood in the window watching our departure with an unhealthy interest.

I handed the Torino’s keys to AK.

“Start the car and blow the horn. If that doesn’t get her attention, then I’ll go over and knock on the window.”

AK sat at the wheel and started the station wagon and its V8 throbbed with 386 cubic inches of Detroit power. He blew the horn once, waited a few seconds, then blew it twice. The pick-up’s passenger door opened for Pam and the blonde slipped out of the truck, arranging her clothing on the walk to our drive-away car.

The faces in the bar window followed her every step. Girls like Pam came around once a generation in small towns like Sterling.

Billy Bob emerged from the Chevy, buttoning his shirt, and ran up to the station wagon.

“Pam, are you leaving just like that?”

“We want to make the Rockies tonight.” She motioned for me to open the back door of the Torino.

“I wish you didn’t have to go.”

It hadn’t taken long for Billy Bob to fall hard for the nursing student, but every man who had seen the blonde on this trip had succumbed to her, including AK.

“In some ways neither do I.” Pam kissed him on the cheek and sat in the station wagon.

I shut the door, then got in the back seat.

“Write me.” The young cowboy hastily scribbled an address on a piece of paper, which he passed through the open window.

“I’ll try.” Pam took it in her hand.

“I really like you.” Billy Bob stood like he was expecting Pam to get out of the car.

“You ready?” AK asked from behind the wheel.

“Yes.” The blonde nursing student was flushed red from a make-out session with the lanky teenager and lowered her head to keep from seeing the cowboy’s sad face.

AK stepped on the gas.

Billy Bob waved good-bye.

I waved to him and settled into the seat. I had drank five beers on an empty stomach at the Inferno Lounge and felt as comfortable as yolk running from a cracked egg.

“Sorry, I disappeared.” She was embarrassed by her brief escapade.

“Nothing to be sorry about. We’re on the road and don’t have to be who we are or who you will be once you get to the coast.”

“Billy Bob asked me to stay with him and for a little while I stopped being me and became Billy Bob’s girlfriend, thinking we’d marry, have kids, and get old looking at those mountains.”

“Living someplace like this isn’t the worst thing in the world.” AK was a child of the suburbs like Pam and me, but we had abandoned our hometowns for adopted cities. Losing that allegiance to the country was a desire for many young people in 1974.

“No, it’d be just fine.”

Pam gazed over her shoulder.

The Inferno Lounge was drifting into the prairie.

“You could always stay.” AK slowed down a little.

“No, one day I’d feel like Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ and I’d click my heels to get back to Washington or New York or some big city, but it was a nice dream.” She tossed Billy Bob’s address out the window and her hand tapped the dashboard. “Could you step on it before I change my mind?”

AK gave the engine more gas and three seconds later he was driving over the speed limit for the first time on this trip.

“The bartender said there were no cops on this road.” I repeated Buck’s information.

“I hope he’s right about that.”

AK had an immaculately clean driving record, but the New Yorker was holding pot and possession of marijuana was a felony in almost every state in the Union. Neither of us had any intention of spending our summer in jail.

“This road cuts through farms and ranches.” The map showed no towns between Sterling and Fort Collins. “We got another hour of sunlight and seventy miles till we hit the Rockies.”

“What are you saying?”

“More gas. Faster, faster.” I said, stealing the line from Russ Meyer’s sexploitation film FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL KILL, however the girls in that movie wouldn’t have been seen dead with hippies in a station wagon.

“I second the motion.” Pam wanted to put distance between Billy Bob and her.

AK acted on our vote and the Torino sped down the road at 90.

14 hugged the prairie’s rising elevation. The passing fields were fuzzy with spring wheat and the frosted teeth of the Frontline loomed larger with each minute. We were coming to the end of the Great Plains.

Pam hadn’t spoken a word for miles and stared out the window without any focus.
A man should never ask a woman what she’s thinking, but I didn’t have to be a mind reader to divine the blonde’s thoughts.

“Stop beating up yourself about Billy Bob. It was Cinderella’s last dance.”

“Hopefully not the last.” Pam was amused by the fairy tale comparison. “And that dance was more like a wrestling match than a waltz.”

“Okay, not the last, but I won’t say anything about this to anyone. Not Jackie or Harry.” I had little chance of running into her roommate or boyfriend. Jackie had left me for her high school sweetheart and Harry was interning in Mendocino.

“Me neither.” AK was glad to be rid of another rival for Pam’s attention. Bob. “Two days ago we left Boston and now we’re almost a mile high. By night time we’ll be even higher.”

“Wait until tomorrow.” I checked the map. “The passes through the Rockies top out at 9,000 feet.”

“I’ve never been that high.” Pam was excited by the prospect of high altitudes. “Is it hard to breathe?”

“I don’t know. The highest I’ve ever been was the top of Mount Washington and that was when I was a little boy. My father drove our station wagon up the toll road to the summit. The engine whined like it was going to die. At the top the wind rocked the car. I thought I was going to get blown off the top. The Abenaki Indians called the mountain Agiocochook.”

“What’s that mean? Home of the Big Spirit?”

“Mount Washington is 6000 feet high. The Rockies are much higher.” AK glanced over to Pam to make sure she was listening to him. “The way you feel atop the continent is called Rocky Mountain High.”

“I love that song.”

Pam sang the opening verses.

AK and I joined her for the chorus.

“Colorado Rocky Mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
The shadow from the starlight
Is softer than a lullaby
Rocky Mountain high
Rocky Mountain high.”

Pam knew all the words to John Denver’s hit.

I didn’t mention that his real name was Henry John Deutschendorf.

She already disapproved of my unnatural disdain for the Beatles.

AK then sang John Denver’s COUNTRY ROAD.

When he muttered through the second verse, the two of them broke into laughter. They spoke with eager anticipation about the mountains and I enjoyed my beer buzz with the smells of the earth, wheat, and the road poured in Ford’s open windows.

According to ON THE ROAD Jack Kerouac had traveled by bus down from Cheyenne to Denver. His friend Dean Moriarty wasn’t there, but he connected with like spirits for wild revels. I didn’t know anyone in the Mile-High City and asked AK, “Don’t you have any friends in Boulder?”

“Dorothy was the only one and we’re meeting her in San Diego.”

“San Diego.” I didn’t know any songs about that city and dreamed about the mountains, deserts, cities, and towns between here and there. It was a new world.

We reached Fort Collins at sunset and gassed up the Torino. AK drove up through narrow defiles of the Big Thompson Creek. Steep forests climbed to towering mountains whose shadows formed an uneven crown beneath a darkening sky crowded with stars.

The Big Bear Lodge was located about fifteen miles up the canyon. Its wooden cabins were scattered along the fast-running creek. We pulled up to the office and a man in his fifties stepped onto the porch. He looked in good shape. Living in the mountains required strength.

“Looking for a room?” His welcoming smile had yet to be tested by summer tourists.

“The bartender back at the Inferno Lounge suggested we stay here.” The new moon was bigger this high in the mountains.

“Buck comes here every fall for a long weekend hike. It was kind of him to suggest our place, so I’ll give you the big cabin for the price of the small one.” He motioned for us to follow him to a two-bedroom cabin ten feet from the rushing stream. “I’m sure you’d like to freshen up before dinner. Our specialty is fresh trout from the creek and apple pie for dessert. We also have beer and wine.”

“Sounds good to me.” I was more talking about the food.

“Then we’ll see you shortly.” He pointed out the small restaurant next to the office.

“I hosey first for the shower.” Pam hurried to the Torino and yanked out her bag. “I won’t take forever.”

AK and I sat with our bags on the cabin’s porch. The night spread across the canyon. He lit up a joint. Pam was singing in the bathroom. We couldn’t make out the song.

“She seems happy.”

“Me too.”

“Do you think that she actually would have stayed in Sterling?”

“Not a chance. We’re not made for this much openness.”

I had hiked a hundred miles in the White Mountains, but I was no mountain man.

“Pam’s pissed at her boyfriend. She’s been calling him at every stop and he hasn’t answered the phone once.”

“She’s probably thinking the worst.” AK looked over his shoulder and came out with what he wanted to say. “You think there’s any chance for me and her?”

“On this trip. Zero.” I had to tell him the truth. He was my friend. “Billy Bob was a fling. She has to speak with you for the rest of this trip, plus she knows you have a girlfriend. Sorry, but the odds are against you.”

“You’re probably right.” AK shrugged off the disappointment and sucked on the joint. “At least I have my weed.”

We smoked the joint to the roach.

Pam emerged from the cabin cleansed by the long shower. She was wearing a clean peasant skirt and blouse.

“I’m next and I won’t be long.” I was one of six children and our house had one bathroom. Long showers were a luxury for small families.

I entered the cabin and went to the bathroom. I stripped off my clothing and stood underneath the strong spray washing my hair and body with the complimentary soap.

Five minutes later I emerged from the cabin to find AK sitting by himself.

“Where’s Pam?” I hoped that AK hadn’t betrayed his feelings.

“She went to the office to make a call.” AK went inside the cabin. His shower lasted longer than mine. He had one sister.

Ten minutes later we joined Pam in the dining room. We ordered trout and a bottle of wine, which was a welcome change after this afternoon’s beer festival.

Dessert was a heavenly slice of apple pie. I ordered seconds.

AK and Pam returned to the cabin.

They sat on the porch and I drank a beer as a nightcap, hoping that my bet against AK was a miscalculation.

The black silhouettes of the Rockies loomed around the valley and the river roared with snowmelt.

“Nice spot?” The owner sat on the log railing.

His wife was closing the kitchen.

We were the only guests at the Big Bear Lodge.

The only sounds came from the river.

“There’s nothing back East like these mountains,” I said to the owner, as he handed over the change from the bill.

“Where are you from?”

“Boston.” Few people had heard of my suburban hometown on the South Shore.

“I’m from New Hampshire.” The thick-muscled owner declared with a reincarnated accent from the Granite State. “Manchester born and bred.”

“I drove past the Queen City many times on my way to the North Country. How’d you end up here?”

Somehow I recalled that Manchester’s motto was Labor Vincit, although labor’s triumph ended with the shutting down of the mills along the Merrimack River.

“After two tours in Korea I was hitchhiking home from the West Coast. There weren’t any interstates back then and I got dropped off a few miles up the road by some hunters. I walked to these cabins and stopped for the night. The cook was the boss’ daughter. We got along. He hired me as the assistant manager. She and I fell in love, then we had kids. I know it sounds a little wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am’, but I skipped more of the downs than the ups.”

The fifty year-old smiled at the woman in the kitchen, who waved to us. Her joyous eyes exposed that they had survived for better or worse with flying colors.

“I like happy endings.”

Every one of my romances had one, except the happy endings were for someone else.

“Who doesn’t?” The owner went to the beer cooler and pulled out two Coors.

“The name’s Ralph. Mind if I join you?”

“You have to be better company than me.”

“It’s tough shutting off that voice inside your head, but it’s not easy to hear yourself over the sound of the water,” Ralph suggested that we move to a picnic table next to the creek. I followed him across the lawn and we sat on a bench with the beers in our hand.

“Don’t stay up late,” his wife shouted from the office. Her voice was an instrument of love. “I know how you New Englanders get when you run into your own.”

“I’ll be in bed before you know it.” Ralph smiled with contentment. ”I’m a lucky man.”

“Good place to end up with a good woman.” The Big Bear Lodge had a good grip on happiness. My parents were equally blessed by luck.

“Yeah, I see hundreds of young people coming up and down this road. Thousands of families taking their summer vacations. People on the move, but I’ve never thought about leaving here.” Ralph opened two beers. “It’s the mountains.”

He made them sound mystical.

“They are special.”

Even in the dark.

“I haven’t been back east in ten years. My wife hates to fly. How are the White Mountains looking these
years?”

New England was hard to get out of your blood.

“I camped beneath Mount Washington last June. The snow stayed in Tuckerman’s Ravine until July.

There’s more cars and motels then before, but once you’re on the trails, you’re in the wilderness.”

“Just like here.”

We spent the good part of an hour talking about autumn along Saco River, the logging bars in Berlin, skiing Wildcat in below-zero temperatures, playing pond hockey, and the meat balls subs served at the sandwich shop by the closed factories in Manchester.

In the second hour we veered onto sports. The Boston Bruins had lost the Stanley Cup to the Philadelphia Flyers earlier in the month. Neither of us was happy about that defeat, but the Celtics had beaten the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games to win the NBA championship.

“I didn’t think hippies liked sports.”

“We are who we are no matter how hard we try to be someone else.” I was my parents’ son. My hometown was Boston and I would be a Red Sox fan to my dying day.

“Now if only the Red Sox could win the World Series.” Ralph raised his eyes to admire the clearness of cosmos balanced by chaos of beer bottles at our feet.

“Some things aren’t meant to be.” The decades-old curse of Babe Ruth was stronger than the power of the universe.

“Time to call it a night. I have an early day every day.”

“Thanks for the beer.”

“Have a good night’s sleep.”

“It shouldn’t be a problem. This much clean air is a powerful sleeping pill.”

Ralph entered the office and the lights went out one by one.

I walked to the cabin, expecting my two companions to be asleep.

Pam was on the porch. A blanket was wrapped around her legs. The night was cool this high in the mountains.

“Are you okay?” I pulled up the collar of my leather jacket.

“I couldn’t sleep.” Pam played with a loose shank of hair. “I finally spoke with my boyfriend. Harry said that he loved me. This afternoon was wrong.”

“Nothing happened, did it?” Her going all the way shouldn’t have been possible in the front seat of a pick-up truck.

“No, but I wanted it too.”

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting it. In fact wanting it is normal.”

“Not for women. A man wants a virgin on his wedding night.”

The Pill had liberated women’s bodies. Losing the chains on their minds was more difficult to achieve.

“Is that what your boyfriend said?” I had met the intern twice. The lanky Harry was no Billy Bob.

“Yes, and also that any girl who gives up her virginity before marriage is a whore.”

“I think most men want a little of both.” I had never slept with a virgin.

“Not Harry. He hasn’t even masturbated.”

“Impossible.” I had learned self-abuse without an instruction book at the age of 12.

“He swears it’s true.”

“There’s nothing is wrong with you. Same as nothing was wrong with Jackie going back to her old boyfriend. People do what they want, even if that not what other people want. It’s called freedom of choice.”

I sat on the steps. The pines were tall on the other side of the creek. I liked it here.

“Do yourself a favor. Stop thinking you did something wrong. It was only kissing, and even if it was more, then that wasn’t wrong either. The birds and bees do it and so do we.”

“The birds and bees.” Pam laughed at their mention. “My mother tried to explain sex with the birds and bees. She didn’t have a clue. Why you think they use that allegory?”

“Because it makes no sense. That way you don’t know nothing, but what you learn yourself.” I held Pam’s hand and stood up on the porch. “C’mon, it’s time to sleep. We got a long day ahead of us.”

“Thanks for listening.” Her kiss on my cheek was as tender as a mother’s good-bye.

“It’s what I’m here for sometimes.” I couldn’t have asked for anything better this far from home and watched Pam enter the bedroom. AK was in the other. I spread a blanket on the couch and opened the window. The air was fragrant with fallen pine needles.

I opened ON THE ROAD. Kerouac was on his way into the mountains with friends from Denver. I was already there. The book dropped on my chest.

Several seconds later I fell asleep.

It had been a long day.

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