Where was I? Oh yes . . . . with the women who might have lived in the abandoned log cabins in this remote wilderness. I suppose they just survived. After all, where could they go, particularly if they had children?
And where could I go, when this exciting summer adventure lost some of its glimmer? Read on, dear reader, and you will find out my destination.
In some ways I think that the summer was a metaphor for my entire life: I want to try things, I want to have adventures, I am perennially curious, I become easily bored with routines. So, off I rush eager to excel at my newest passion (read: skiing, golf, yoga, tai chi, writing, painting, playing the piano—though not necessarily in that order). I put enormous amounts of time and energy into these various passions, only to burn out and decide that I would be much better at doing --- X. This summer was no different. Before we departed for camp in early July (the earliest when the camp site was completely free of snow), I spent many hours looking up recipes and copying them onto white index cards. I found this project very interesting, for a time at least. Remember this was pre-Internet, so I combed through my own limited library of cookbooks, looked at magazines, and even checked out books from the Salida library. (Poncha Springs was too small to have one.) I gave little thought for what kind of ingredients would be available—this is typical of my approach to life: full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. I also gave no thought to how inventive I would be at 5:30 in the morning, when my day’s work started.
Not only did I amass recipes for things like coq au vin, boeuf en daube, duchesse potatoes, corn fritters, chocolate puffs, etc., I even shopped for cooking equipment. I found two large metal coffee pots at the Salvation Army store in Canyon City (coffee was an essential for cold mountain mornings) as well as a giant soup pot and an old-fashioned waffle iron that went over a gas burner. I happily packed these items, along with (not enough) disposable diapers, warm clothing for all of us, and various books that I would finish that summer. I left out my two-volume Scott Moncrief translation of Proust, though—I was enough of a realist to know that I probably would not finish this project at field camp. I took Jane Austen, instead—talk about women’s lives removed from mine.
Well, as you have probably already guessed, it only took a matter of hours after I arrived at said camp for my balloon (becoming a gourmet chef) to deflate. During our first camp meeting, I decided I would ask campers what kinds of food they wanted me to prepare. The novice geologist liked chicken and vegetarian casseroles, one summer student wanted pate and Perrier water, the field technician would only eat beef, and Tony, another student, handed me his mother’s recipe for snickerdoodles—I am not kidding.
And then there was the shock of my first morning in the cook tent. After my trek down to Beaver Creek, I opened the flap to a dark, cold tent. I lit the stove first, then the Coleman lantern. After sweeping up the cats’ nocturnal kill of mice and chipmunks, I brought in drinking water from the plastic tanks next to the tent. Though I used water from the creek to boil for cooking, we did not dare drink the creek water, as there were many cows ranging in this area. Since the potable water came from a well ten miles away, I soon learned to hoard our supply. I boiled a large kettle of water and poured it into the top halves of my metal pots. After it percolated I poured it into insulated servers. Breakfast and lunch preparation went by in a blur; then it was time to think about dinner.
Days passed; overall and despite my constant fatigue, I thought I was doing well. But I had not reckoned with my boss, Bill. (Need I mention here that it is almost never a good ideasto work for one’s spouse???) I was not the only cook: two of the other wives filled in, as we went back to Poncha Springs every other week for a few days’ rest. Occasionally we were all in camp at the same time. Bill summoned the three of us together late one afternoon. I was sure he would compliment us on the wonderful meals. Nope: none of that positive reinforcement! He complained: we were not serving enough protein at breakfast. His crew spent long days hiking and carrying backpacks full of rocks up and down Fourteeners; this group had to be well fueled. He had made it clear from the start that we could spend as we needed for supplies: good food was essential to morale. Being the fair-minded person he was (and is), he did NOT say that I, in fact, always had protein at my breakfasts. Since I was married to him (at that moment, at least), he did not say that I had done a better job than the other two women.
I was furious. All this—and then a scolding? Needless to say I did not speak to him for days, but he probably did not notice. I don’t want to generalize about gender behaviors, but he has never picked up on people’s moods like I do. It is probably acculturated behavior, but women in general seem to have a better grasp of how others feel. He might have noticed the frosty glares I gave him every time I saw him that something was wrong—but on the other hand, probably not. He was tired, too.
So, that plus the wretched working conditions (I haven’t even talked about cleaning up in that cook tent!) pretty much ended my career as chef. I should note here that camp life was challenging for nearly everyone, except the children and dogs who continued to love it: our wine and beer account grew as the days in camp lengthened.
I still remember, though, that I had the best desert I have ever had in this primitive camp. In early August of that summer the other mom, Cinda, and I spent an afternoon picking raspberries by a beautiful and precipitous mountain stream, listening for the bears that also loved the berries. That evening she made a raspberry torte. I can still taste it.
Other things about this perfect summer came up short. I could almost here my mother saying, “I told you so,” but since there was no phone service at our campsite I could not call her. It was just as well. First, she didn’t need to hear about this, as she was grappling with her own issues; second, I was ashamed to admit that I had been wrong. I was not superwoman, after all. Surprise. . . .
From the start sleep deprivation was a problem for Bill and me. Fifteen-month-old Daniel, who slept very well in his room at home, immediately went on strike. We had comfortable cots for the boys, low to the floor and padded with warm sleeping bags. On the first night we put them to bed, both crashed instantly, exhausted from running around the open field. Bill and I, too, were asleep in minutes. But around midnight Dan started in:
“Wah, Wah: I want my cwib!”
This wail continued on and off until 5:00AM, when it was time for me to get up to start the day’s chores. We tried various measures, including letting him sleep between us, but nothing worked.
Okay, after two weeks it was time for our trek back to Poncha. On the way I convinced Bill that he would have to dismantle said “cwib” and bring it back to the camp. That worked. Aha, sleep at last.
Nope. No sleep. Although Dan dozed peacefully through the night, secure behind those familiar bars, Bill started squirming: kicking, wriggling, moving a lot.
“Stop this!” I finally whispered. “I cannot sleep. Would you puleeze stop moving so much?”
“I am not wiggling,” he growled back in a low tone.
Before bed the next night I warned him, “Please try to hold still tonight!”
By the third night, we were really exhausted—beyond even being tired. Around 2AM Bill started again.
“Stop kicking me!” I yelled. “I am going to the truck to sleep.”
He sat upright and announced he had barely moved. As we stared at one another, we realized that the movement continued. Bill picked up the flashlight next to our cot and shone it on the bed. We saw rippling beneath the sleeping bag.
This nocturnal culprit was a chipmunk, who had managed to wiggle between the bag and our sheet. He must have been seeking the warmth. Marriage destroyer, that one. The next night we brought one of the cats to sleep in our shelter. That solved it—at least, it solved that problem.
In August, the weather turned. In July, a rainy day had meant a welcome break for almost of us. The crew stayed in camp sorting samples and drinking coffee, happy for a break, and I had people to talk too. The three preschoolers, though, proved difficult to entertain inside these small tents. Uncle Lyle played cards with anyone who had the time to sit with him, but the boys weren’t old enough for anything like that. The dogs just slept near the cook stove, glad to be warm, but the boys bounced and shouted and fought. Later in the summer, such days came all too often.
I clearly recall a four-day stretch of freezing rain and then snow, confined to our twelve by fourteen foot tent some hours, the cook tent full of grumblers the next hours. I can’t remember now what Bill said to me. It probably was nothing; by now we almost never spoke to one another aside from an occasional grumble or growl. We both suffered from every classical symptom of sleep deprivation, irritability and irrationality heading the list. Maybe the word “protein” came up—or perhaps even the remark that I was his paid employee?—I just don’t recall what the trigger was, but suddenly I found myself throwing his favorite pint and a half (just-the-right-size) thermos out of the book tent door, barely missing a summer student, and breaking it on a rock (granite schist??). I vaguely recall that I accompanied this dramatic action with an expletive or too, words related to where he could put said thermos and the entire camp, for that matter. Though Bill was distraught at the loss of the thermos, at least I hadn’t thrown out one of the children. (Certainly I might have thrown him out, but he is bigger than I am.)
“I am cooking the breakfast in the morning, and then I am driving you and the boys back to Poncha Springs.”
That was the last thing he said to me for weeks.
Sure enough, the next morning he got up at 5 a.m. I was relieved: angry, but relieved that my once-anticipated-and-looked-forward-to summer would end. Bill marched to the cook tent. I had laid out ingredients for corn fritters the night before, but Bill poured milk into the bowl and cooked pancakes. Whatever. Then he broke down the “cwib” while I threw our belongings into duffle bags. He loaded the three of us in the Bronco and stepped on the gas. I never looked back as we pulled away from the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness group campsite.
Five hours later, with only one stop for gas and the toilet, we arrived at our log home. Bill unloaded the crib and bags and threw them into the yard, while I quickly took the boys inside our never-looked-better house, complete with hot running water and indoor toilets. Our wonderful neighbor Jack remembered our dramatic re-entry for years: Bill driving in, throwing everything (including his family and dog) onto the lawn, and turning around without even a wave to head back up Poncha Pass for camp, arriving there late that same night.
Well, I guess there is no moral to this story, except that our marriage survived the summer. Fortunately both of us are exceptionally stubborn: I can’t think of another reason why we are still together—except of course that we love each other. When the camp closed in September, after record early snows, Bill and I left the boys with our sainted neighbor Karen and went to Aspen for the weekend. In search of decadence after a summer of bathing in Beaver Creek, I booked a luxury hotel with a sauna and a swim-up bar.
It was at least a decade before I remembered the good things about that summer: the friendships that we made, the remarkable beauty of the camp, the wildlife and flowers, the solitude, living without any links to the outside world other than the post office in Cowdrey. The grapevine has it that the Jackson County Forest Service dismantled our tent platforms years ago, but we could still go back and camp there. I have such strong memories, and I am hoping that a visit will recreate them all. I suspect it is one of the few places left where I have lived that has not changed. It is one thing that I want to do before I am dismantled.
P.S. To this day Bill buys steel thermoses.