“America is hard to see.”
Mercury. On the morning we left Richard and Carolyn, buffalo steaks fell off the menu. It happened while I was brushing my teeth. The toothpaste made a sound it should’t have made, on the way into the sink.
I usually associate the onomatopoeia of ‘clunk’ with substances much harder than toothpaste and, in this particular instance, the laws of nature held. I opened my mouth and angled the light so as to illuminate the great hole where the clunk used to be. It was so dark it was like three feet into a wolf.
“Well, that’s the trip down the drain.” Said Robyn.
“There’s still huckleberry pie.” I said. “We’ll find a dentist in Idaho.” I looked over at Richard. He had that ‘you-should-go-before-something-else-breaks’ look.
Robyn and I fired up the wagon, and each other’s enthusiasm, and headed south to the Laurier crossing. But we were almost out of gas, and missed the last chance to fill up, before the frontier loomed up too large too soon.
Our eagerness jumped the red light at the border booth.
“You’re supposed to wait until it turns green.” Said the sunglasses. I looked around for bloodhounds.
“Purpose of your visit to the You-knighted States?” He asked. I almost shared my need for a dentist.
“Were searching for the American West.” I said. I watched a frown begin to form.
“I want to see Mon-taw-na.” Robyn added, in her Kiwi accent. The frown subsided.
“Y’all enjoy your visit.” He said.
“How far to the next gas station?” I asked.
“The Indians have a place about ten miles along.” He said, and waved us through.
Wow, I thought. Not a minute into the Wild West, and we were already on our way to meet our first Indians.
It wasn’t quite the cultural experience I had imagined. There was a flat metal sculpture of a band member in the landscaping, and the gas was definitely cheaper than what the cowboys would be offering elsewhere. We pulled up beside Tribal Trails pump No. 5, to a sign of unanticipated discrimination. Canadian credit cards please pay inside. I had to leave my card with the nice lady at the till. Robyn asked me what that was all about.
“Apparently we need a reservation.” I said. But almost everything else went as planned, except for a brief moment of hesitation I had, outside the washroom doors. It took me a minute to figure out if I was a sma?m?im or a sqel'ql'tmixw, until the pictures helped me understand that I was the one with the turkey tail.
“Is there anything else we can help you with today?” Asked the nice lady at the till. “We kill our own chickens.” We were good for dead chickens, and I thanked her for her concern.
“Have a nice trip, Mr. Winkler.” She said. And she was sincere. And I fell in love with Americans all over again. Unlike the ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude of Canadian service, I always had a feeling that, in the States, when they told you to have a nice day, they meant it as a benediction, and not an order.
The scenery got wonderful as well. Our wagon followed the grand curves of a primitive road, under pines and hanging moss, beside the slow rapids sparkle of the Kettle River. A black railway ribbon kept pace, strobe-like through the branches, on the left. The only road signs were divine and devotional. The key to Heaven is shaped like a cross.
The reason for this only became gradually apparent. Beyond the melons and antiques, every homestead was having an permanent impermanent yard sale, every highway was up for adoption, and every county shop would leave you guessing. We crossed the Columbia River, and a large bulldog on a water tank. If it’s grouchy, feed it. George Simpson hadn’t worried for no reason. The serene had turned to shabby, and depressing.
“Rough around the edges.” Robyn said. The Country Hills Rental Community had been vacated, the mini-storages had been maximized, the transience had become intransigent, the transients had become transitory, and the hole where my tooth used to be had become transcendental.
We entered Chewelah, A Place for all Seasons, and parked across from the park, next to the God fearing Brothers Auto Sales. Anyone who angers you conquers you.
“Hell of a way to sell an automobile.” I said. There was a lovely market set up in the park. It was an oasis, like Washington parks should be. We wandered around the stalls of garden vegetables and knickknacks, and over a bridge with a metal wagon wheel, painted green. On the other side was a verdigris bronze helmet, on a verdigris M-16, on a verdigris pair of boots. In memory of all veterans of all wars.
“Wilderness and war, and love and loss.” I said. “The Sacred Land. We’re on the right track.”
I drove the wagon onto the short cut Flowery Trail into the mountains, to Usk, through the pine beetle brown boneyard of the Colville National Forest, to Colville. This community supports our troops. Robyn asked me if I knew where I was going.
“Today I’m wingin’ it.” I said. “Tomorrow I know where we’re going.”
“Who gave you the day off?” She asked, as she would.
We came down off the eastern side of the mountains, across a small plain and river crossing, and through a small settlement to the other side. Kick ass America- Remember?
According to the map we had crossed into Idaho.
“No welcome?” Robyn asked.
“Maybe they don’t want us here.” I said. But then they gave us a sign. Welcome to Idaho.
“That’s it?” Asked Robyn. “Where are we headed anyway?”
“We’re going to the most beautiful town in America.” I said. “Two years ago both USA Today and Rand McNally named it the country’s ‘Most Beautiful Small Town.”
Our path drew an asymptote along Lake Pend Oreille, one of the nation’s deepest and the state’s largest, forty-three miles long, in a basin surrounded by the Selkirk, the Cabinet, and the Bitterroot ranges.
The wagon took a hard left across the railroad tracks and up in the hills just south of town.
“We must be staying up here.” Said Robyn.
“Yup.” I said, and swerved off the road, onto a driveway that curved around to a huge citadel, so confused by its many architectural influences, that Robyn let out her breath in a low whistle.
“Looks like they ran out of block.” She said. It was like a small stone village in Umbria, with Spanish ironwork and West Coast cedar post and beam, and Scottish castle and Austrian chalet and Tibetan monastery. Some of the drywall had escaped to the exterior. The front door was a carved masterpiece. I rang the gong. The carved masterpiece opened to a statuesque blonde of no less resplendence.
“Welcome to Talus Rock.” She said. “I’m Rebecca.” I bet she was. She motioned us inside, and inside gave nothing away to the outside. Open plan hardwood floor to copper ceiling windows, punctuated with old growth fir beams and creations in stained glass, river rock fireplaces with horseshoes and Moose antlers, and a loud echo of opulence and fuck-you money, that reverberated up and beyond the three-story curvilinear staircase.
“This is Elsa, my assistant.” Rebecca said, sweeping her hand open to another vision of long flowing black hair and doll’s eyes and estrogenic lips. The bimbosity pyrotechnics went highbeam. Rebecca showed us to our room, the ‘Rio,’ although the elk antler on the bedside table, the East Indian elephant painting over the bed, and the Transylvanian feel to the bathroom, suggested more Babel than Brazil. She asked if we had any questions.
“Whose your dentist?” I asked. She gave me a quizzical look.
“Seriously, Rebecca.” I said. “I need a dentist.” We returned downstairs and she found us three potential leads to explore, and a recommendation for dinner afterwards.
“You simply must go to 41 South.” She said. “I’ll make you reservations, for seven.”
And Robyn and I left, to see America’s most beautiful small town.