All good stories should start at the beginning. This particular story actually started about five months ago; back in June. I'd just graduated from college and was newly thrust upon the world as a neophyte geologist. Granted that this field isn't really in demand at the moment, but I felt that it had potential as the search for our dwindling supplies of energy continued.
I live in Colorado, specifically Boulder, and pretty much every weekend I head up into the mountains and, as the Australians say, go 'walkabout'. As often as not, I'd ask one of my friends to go along. Most of my male friends had given up on me, stating that taking long hikes up hills and down dales just isn't their bag. This left the distaff side of my friends. Little by little, they dropped out also until there was only one left. Her name was Nora.
We met in a rather unusual way at the Student Union cafeteria. I had just left the serving line and found a table when I noticed her for the first time. She was sliding a tray along and picking things from the various cold cabinets and shelves. She waited while the cashier totaled up her tray and then paid her. As she was lifting her tray, one kid swerved around another kid and wasn't paying attention. I saw what was about to happen but there was no way to warn her.
She spun around and the kid crashed square into her; cups, plates, utensils, and food went everywhere - mostly down to the floor. The kid, who was apparently in a hurry, tossed off a 'sorry' over his shoulder and disappeared through a swinging door. She looked down helplessly at the mess on the floor and knelt to pick up what she could. I left my table and stepped over to help. She looked up at me with grateful eyes.
"I wasn't close enough to get the license of that truck," I said.
She smiled, and then snickered. "It was a vanity plate: A-S-S-H-O-L." She spelled in response.
I started at her frank appraisal of the incident and then started chuckling myself. We cleaned up as much of the spill as we could and set the tray aside on a table.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. "I have quite a bit more than I need. You're welcome to share if you want. I'm Chet."
She looked at me again as I indicated my table. "Nora. Pleased to meet you, Chet." She stuck out her hand, but took it back immediately since it was covered with macaroni and cheese. "Sorry about that." She grabbed a handful of napkins and began cleaning her fingers as I guided her to a chair. She sat and put her elbows on the table.
I handed her the plate with my small piece of cake on it. "Split it with you?"
I went about adding some more food from my lunch plate and poured her half a glass of milk. "If you want more, I can go get it."
"No. This will do fine." She looked at me again with those blue eyes. "Thank you."
And that was how we met. Off and on then, throughout the summer we sort of dated. This means that we would name a place and a time, but if one or the other didn't make it, there were no bruised feelings whatsoever. We became very good friends as a result of this non-dating routine. Nora was a rugged individualist in every sense of the word. She kept herself in great shape with Yoga and other exercises, plus holding to a diet that balanced her caloric intake with her muscular output. In short, she loved to go hiking with me.
On one day trip I tried to express my feelings to her. I wanted to get a little more serious, but she didn't. Her attitude wasn't one of derision or anything like that. In fact, she actually kissed me - right on the lips. She also told me not to spoil things. This, I was sure, really meant that she didn't want to get serious with me. I gave up actively trying, but retained the hope that things might change in time.
I was encouraged a week later when she suddenly took my hand as we were sitting in my car. We had been to see a movie and just finished dinner. She'd seemed a bit pensive all through the meal and I asked her if there was some sort of problem.
"Not really, Chet. I've been thinking of what you said the other day. I may have acted a bit hasty when I answered you."
"Hasty? What do you mean, Nora?"
"I mean that I would really like to let us get closer, but I'm kind of afraid of that."
"Afraid? Of what? I've never know you to be afraid of anything."
"Well, I am. All my life I've been terrified of boys. My mother was really strict with me and my sister when we were very young. I wasn't even allowed to go out alone until I was fifteen. Before that, I had to bring my sister along with me."
I began to understand why she wouldn't want to commit to a relationship. She'd never really had a chance to have one before. "But, you're going out with me now, Nora."
She looked up at me. "No, not really. We are going out with each other, but not in the sense of a real, honest to goodness, date. We're just two friends who happen to do things together. I'm sorry, but for now that's the best I can do."
I let things drop right then. We still met from time to time, and I never brought up the subject again. I buried myself in my field work and didn't specifically invite her along on any more of my trips into the mountains.
In July, I bought (along with a local bank) a four-wheel drive truck. It wasn't big, but it did have a more powerful six-cylinder engine and, as an extra attraction, had a manual five-speed shift. This meant that if I included both high and low range, I had ten forward, and two backward, gears to mess with. I had to wait another month before I could add a four-ton winch on the front bumper. I'd never used one before so I asked around and found that there was actually a school set up that taught how to ride the high country and use the proper tools for it.
Two weekends later, and two hundred dollars poorer, I felt confident that I could go pretty much anywhere I wanted to go and, most importantly, get out of anything I could get in to. The rule of thumb at the school was 'don't get into anything you don't think you can get back out of'. The summer waned and moved closer to fall. The leaves turned and I spent a week up in the high country taking pictures of the quaking aspens in their fiery fall splendor. Nora finally went with me on this trip so she could take pictures also. After our previous frank discussion we were the model of propriety.
I didn't attempt any fooling around. I sensed that if I'd tried that, she would leave altogether. She was her own person and, although she'd told me on several occasions that she liked me, never moved beyond that point. For my part, I was happy to have her along. She was bubbly, funny, and always knew when to stop talking and just stand and look at scenery. She and I were within a month of being the same age. Perhaps this is why we got along so well.
October moved into November and the days got colder. I'd received permission from the parents of one of my friends to use their little cabin in the mountains as a base camp for my explorations. I'd always maintained that somewhere up in the area I liked to haunt there was something of value to be found. During my years at school I'd managed to build up a pretty good set of tools and other items to do soil testing and mineral identification. It was going to be one of my last trips into the high country for the year.
I dared to ask Nora if she wanted to go. At first, she balked at making a two-week trip owing to other social events in her life. Over two of our non-dates, she finally relented and said she'd go with me. We made plans to share everything - cooking, cleaning, and all the other chores attendant with cabin living. I forewarned her that it was primitive and that even cell phone reception was very spotty; we would have to walk about a half mile across the hillside to even try to get a signal. She seemed okay with that and would take her phone anyway.
We sat at my kitchen table and made lists of all we would have to bring along. It was a pretty comprehensive list and would certainly go far towards filling the topper on the back of the truck. I decided to add a couple of firearms to the mix. She asked me why, and I told her that I needed to sight in my rifle again because I'd knocked the scope out of alignment. The pistol was just for plinking.
The big day arrived. I carefully loaded the truck so I could leave room for her stuff. I even added a large metal tub sort of thing that held four, five-gallon plastic jerricans of fuel. Fully gassed up, the truck could go around five-hundred miles on its two tanks. If they got used up, I'd be able to use the plastic ones for refueling. No problem there. I had a twenty foot logging chain, wheel chains, and a huge bumper jack. The spare was suspended under the bed of the truck so, in order to give me a little more ground clearance, I stood it vertically along the side of the topper. After a look around to make sure I hadn't missed anything, I fired the truck up, swung by Nora's house, and knocked on the door. "Yoo hoo, Nora. You ready?" I called.
I heard her voice from way at the back of the house. "Yeah! Come on in."
She was sitting in her kitchen surrounded by all sorts of camping gear. I began estimating how much room I had left when she interrupted my train of thought. "Not all of this is going, if that's what you're thinking."
Relief must have shown on my face because she smiled up at me. I responded with my 'who, me?' grin. "Never thought that. What are you taking? I can start carrying it out."
"That, that, this, that, and those." She pointed it all out to me. I gathered it up and lugged it out to the truck. It was a tight fit, but I got it all in. She appeared in a moment carrying a knapsack that looked heavy.
"What's in there?" I asked.
"Books. I want to catch up on my reading. I'm not going to be hiking all over the place like you are. I like the solitude."
"Sounds like a plan to me. Put them in behind the seat." Which she did.
I ogled shamelessly as she bent over the front seat. Our last few non-dates had made me start to wonder if there was anything I could do to improve our relations; to take them to the next level. Looking now at her well-rounded shape in those tight ski pants brought those random thoughts to the forefront of my brain. She caught me looking and frowned ever so briefly. I turned away and fiddled with the keys in the ignition. I felt her eyes on me.
"Were you just checking me out?" She asked softly.
Now, there are many responses to the question. Some are fairly sophisticated and involve a high degree of skill in their application. The best way to handle it with Nora is to tell the absolute truth. "Of course I was. You look very nice in your ski outfit."
Definitely the right thing to say. She broke into a huge smile and smacked her lips at me in imitation of a kiss. "Thank you. I bought it special for the trip. I bought some other stuff too, but it's buried down in my duffle.
Now that pronouncement had me really wondering what was up but I didn't comment on it. "Ready to go? House locked up? Did you put the cat out?"
"You know I don't have a cat, Chet. But, yes, all the rest is done. Are we going to stop and get some extra food? I hear that somewhere over there," she gestured vaguely uphill to the west, "is a storm coming our way."
"I heard that also, but I don't think it'll get to us for a while. We might get some snow up there though. I have two sets of snowshoes in back."
"You really do? My goodness, you think of everything don't you?"
"I hope so anyway." I fired up the truck and we threaded our way out of town. "Did you tell anyone else where we were going?"
"Yup. Ginny knows, but not exactly where though. I told her we were headed towards Winter Park and then up the hill towards Rollins Pass. Was that right?"
"Yup. That's where we're headed. I told a couple of people also. I also told them not to worry if they didn't hear from me for a few days - maybe even a week if we don't get within cell phone range. You?"
"Not really. Maybe I'd better give her a call." She said, pulling her phone out and punching in the number. I concentrated on driving while she told Ginny not to worry if she went out of communications for a while. "Yes. Yes. I know." Pause. "Uh, huh. Of course, silly!" Another pause, longer this time. "Absolutely. I hope so too. Bye!" She hung up and smiled over at me. "Ginny says for us to 'be good'.
"Well, that can mean many things can't it?" I shot her a glance out of the corner of my eyes.
She thought a moment, and then said soberly, "Yeah, I guess it does."
We stopped in Golden to make a quick stop at a grocery store for perishables. I'd brought a foam cooler, but it wasn't very big. The cabin had what was called a food locker. It was a hinged cabinet on the outside wall that was not insulated. It was behind boards, but nothing else. In the cold mountain air, that was as good as a refrigerator. In winter, it could even freeze ice cubes. The boards were backed with strong stringers just in case a wandering critter decided it wanted to eat.
We were heavily laden so I just took it easy over Berthoud pass. We drifted downhill until we reached Winter Park. I topped off the fuel tank and we took a last minute potty break. Then we started up the mountain.
At first, the road was packed dirt with small, frozen, puddles here and there. We climbed rapidly about six or seven hundred feet following an old railroad grade. Actually, it was part of what was known locally as the Moffat Road. Trains used to come this way towards Winter Park over Rollins Pass from Rollinsville on the eastern slope. Now, all the tracks and ties were torn up and the Forest Service maintained the road. Snow began to fill the road where it had drifted with the steady wind.
"Is this going to be safe for us? I mean, I trust you completely, but will we be okay?"
I gave her a confident look. "Sure, Nora. No problem. Even if we hit snow, I can get through it."
"Okay." Just like that. The way she said it made me feel much better myself. I wasn't worried at all. I knew we'd reach the cabin just fine.
We came around a corner and I stopped. The road continued up the grade but there was a fence to our left with a locked gate across a side road. I unclipped my keychain from the ignition key and left the truck running. When I opened the door, we got hit with a blast of icy wind. She and I both shivered. "Wow! That's cold!" She said.
I grabbed my coat from behind my seat and slammed the door. Once I had the coat on, it wasn't so bad. The lock clicked open after I struggled with a frozen tumbler then I pulled the chain free and swing the gate open. Once I'd driven through, I got out and relocked the gate.
"Why'd you do that?" Nora asked. "Shouldn't we leave it open?"
"No. If we do, then someone coming up here might think its okay to follow us. From here on, it's a private road - narrow as hell. Two vehicles can't pass each other except at special places. Part of the road is even one-way."
"One way? What do you mean?"
"I mean that you have to go up and around the nose of a hill and through a small valley. When you come back, you have to go down a draw and up a different hill. That mostly because it runs along a big cliff. It'll be fun!" She looked apprehensive so I reached over and patted her leg. "No problem."
She nodded once, decisively. "I trust you, Chet. All the way."
We turned a corner and started up a north-facing part of the trail. Snow had drifted down into the cut and I began to kick out stones with my rear tires. I stopped and shifted into four-wheel. That cured the slippage. We continued climbing. The snow thinned a bit but there were still occasional drifts which we busted through.
"See that small rise over there?" I asked, pointing to our right.
"That's where we're headed. There's another trail that takes off down that canyon and up the side of the hill. The cabin is about halfway up."
She squinted into the afternoon sun. "It's beautiful over there. I'm glad I came. Thank you." She pulled out her cell phone and frowned. "No signal at all. Will it get better?"
"It might. No big deal anyway, Nora. We've covered our bases pretty well. They know where we are. Ted knows exactly - since it's his parent's cabin. Come on, relax!"
She smiled at me and nodded. The cell phone dropped back into her bag. "Done!"
I had to slow down to a crawl as we negotiated a frozen creek. Summer rains had cut down the banks quite a bit. It was almost a foot drop off the bank. I told her to hang on, shifted into low range, and we edged down. When we reached the bottom, all four wheels began slipping on the ice until the front ones hit a patch of sandy dirt and grabbed. The front end bounced up over the far bank and then I edged the rest up.
"You're good at that. I can see the lessons helped."
I nodded, concentrating on the snow-clogged road, trying to stay in the ruts. We entered a relatively clear area surrounded by blue spruce and I sped up a little. I would stay in low range until we reached the cabin I decided. The road seemed to end when we reached a meadow. I stopped and surveyed the opposite stand of trees.
"Is this it?" Nora asked, shading her eyes and looking out the windshield at the vast area of snow and ground cover grass.
"Nope. We go across in a straight line from here to … there!" I pointed at the small gap in the trees. I started across. We skidded a bit, threw up a bit of snow, and bounced a lot over small rocks, but we made it to another clear bit of road. After the stand of trees ahead, I knew that Nora might get nervous about the next stretch. I stopped once we left the trees. "We go down there."
"There!" She squeaked. "B-But there's no road at all."
"There is, but it's under the snow. No rocks anywhere. It's a small meadow and in the summer it's covered with wildflowers."
"Well, it isn't now!" She added unnecessarily.
I patted her knee again, shifted way down to first, low, and started down. We pitched over to about ten degrees and ground down the hill to the bottom. We didn't slip once. "We may have to winch back up that hill when we come out. I did once before."
"Is it dangerous?"
"Only if the cable breaks. It can whip back and crack a windshield. I've never heard of a cable breaking and this winch is set up for eight-thousand pounds dead weight."
"Oh! Don't put it that way!" She cried, bopping me on the shoulder. She tempered her fright with a tentative smile though.
We continued across the slope and through several frozen mud holes. In summer, they were about a foot deep. Both Ted and I loved to hit them at about ten miles an hour and splash mud all over our trucks. It was a badge of sorts that anyone who cruised the mountains wore. It was silly, but, then we guys were filled with testosterone and bullshit anyway.
Around the last bend and up a small incline we crawled until she spotted the cabin. "There it is! Isn't it?"