I lost a lot of friends during my recovery from physician-prescribed drugs. The whole thing was just too baffling for many. As I started to feel better more often, more reliably, I looked forward to rekindling certain relationships, only to lose some permanently, to death: my beloved 4th grade teacher, Ruth Jones, and our dear Neskowin friend, Julie Steiner. So this year, determined to avoid regrets, when my old roommate from Lewis & Clark College once again suggested we come hang with her and her husband at their log cabin in Wyoming, I finally said yes. I don't like the term "Bucket List." I don't want to think about dying or time limits. What I do believe in is the power of NOW. You can't go wrong by refusing to postpone indefinitely. So my husband and I booked a road trip around Yellowstone and the Tetons which would end with a relaxing few days at this cabin at the charmingly named Ten Sleep Creek in the Bighorn Mountains.
Cathy and I roomed together just one term our freshman year, but what a term the spring of 1970 turned out to be: Nixon announced we had already started bombing Cambodia, the Kent State massacre left four students dead and nine wounded, the astronauts of the Apollo 13 mission sweated out their aborted mission on the far side of the moon, somebody inaugurated the first ever Earth Day. And freshman Linda Welch boldly sat down opposite junior Herb Crew in the Lewis & Clark dining room, two people loners enough to show up for dinner without a gang of supportive roommates.
I thought this guy was the cutest thing I'd ever seen, and when his big brown eyes kept darting around in full-avoidance mode, I finally said, "Why won't you look at me?" And so began the lifelong conversation.
Cathy was there, in my life, for this. I probably acted out the whole encounter when I got back to the dorm room, the scene that would mark the beginning of The Story of the Love of My Life. It was Cathy who took the one and only picture of Herb and me together that spring. This was the Olden Days, remember. We were not all walking around with smart phones, documenting every waking minute.
By the end of that term, Cathy and I were both a mess. Accustomed to the wide open spaces of her home in Worland, Wyoming, the wet winter of the Pacific Northwest had depressed the hell out of her. In theory, our dorm windows framed a view of Mt. Hood, but that particularly miserable, rainy winter, we never saw it at all. Long distance wasn't working out with Cathy's high school boyfriend, and he was breaking up with her. She was beating it back to Laramie for the rest of her college years.
As for me, four years after my life altering encounter with a sewing needle I'd knelt on, that damaged knee, to my great alarm, suddenly swelled up. My summer job as a camp counselor was out of the question and in a month I'd be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Erroneously, as it turned out, but it did mark the beginning of a nasty period of repeated knee surgeries. I, too, bailed on Lewis & Clark, transferring to the University of Oregon.
I am ashamed to remember my attitude when Cathy used to reminisce about her family's cabin in Wyoming that spring. It wasn't even on a lake! How could somebody sit in the woods in a cabin that wasn't lakefront? My childhood wasn't luxurious by any means, but during the Depression, my grandfather had bought a funky cabin on the Oregon coast at Yachats where we had only to scamper down the sandy cut to be on the beach. Our camping trips were budget friendly, too, but I still remember my mother's stomach-churning anxiety as we towed the motor boat towards one of the mountain lakes we frequented. What if we didn't get a lakefront campsite? Second row back would not do!
I'm wondering if Cathy ever told me back in college that her cabin was on Ten Sleep Creek, so named, I've now learned, because it was ten days travel from Fort Laramie, Yellowstone, and the Indian Agency on the Stillwater River in Montana. It seems like I would have remembered such a charming name, but back then, I was still thinking I'd be an actress. I hadn't yet thought of writing as a career, and words and names didn't have the magic and power over me they would in the future.
So, forty-nine years after first hearing about this cabin, we were now booked to visit. I will confess to a slight trepidation when it was mentioned just before our boarding the plane for Billings, Montana, where we would rent a car, that this cabin was actually serviced by outhouse. And the shower was reportedly some sort of outdoor contraption. So we would be shifting from upscale hotel and cabin accommodations to a sort of "glam-camping."
But the minute we pulled up to Cathy's cabin, its peaceful, down-to-earth, authentic perfection was clear. No huge effort at being a good sport required. The porch faced out onto the meadow, snow peaks of the Bighorns in the distance. Ten Sleep Creek—really, you could call it a river—had enough clean mountain water rushing over rocks to deliver that blissful white noise clear across the meadow. The interior looked like something right out of one of my many "cabin-style" coffee table books. But Cathy had never looked at any such books and copied; her cabin had simply accumulated its décor since it was built in the 1920s. Photographers for the cabin porn books could have copied her.
I was surprised how fast I got used to the outhouse. The smell of the disinfectant took me right back to my days at Camp Kilowan when I was young. And the outdoor shower, after getting sweaty on a gorgeous hike, was absolutely delightful, probably the closest thing to the skinny dipping of my youth as I am ever likely to experience again.
Cathy and I sat around trading notes about being nineteen together, filling in the blanks of our stories for each other. I was surprised to learn her big beef at me—never expressed—is that I apparently made no effort whatsoever to decorate my side of the dorm room, forcing her to look at the blank wall. I had no idea. And it's weird, because now I'm kind of the queen of arranging paintings and décor around here.
We told the back stories of our families, something that held no interest for us our freshman year. Life, then, was so immediate, so ALL ABOUT US, that we could not have cared less what had gone on with somebody else's parents, much less their grandparents. Mostly we were trying to pretend we sprang fully formed onto the world's stage without family at all. Now, though, we told the stories and made the connections. One was that it seemed likely Cathy's mother would have known Herb's mother at Occidental College in California, since they were the same age, there at the same time. Hey, I wonder if Cathy's mom ever came over to Millie's dorm room and sat on the rosebud bedspread I just finished revamping.
Mostly Cathy and I marveled at how satisfactorally our lives had turned out, given the dramatics of that fateful spring term. For 45 years we've been married to these husbands of ours, the rare type who, at this age, are wistfully referred to as "lovely men." We each have three small, adorable grandchildren. Cathy always wanted to be a social worker, and that's what she did. Just after retiring last year, she was called upon to volunteer her skills in the shelters for the flooded out folks of Fremont, Nebraska, their hometown. I was terrified of becoming "just a housewife" that spring, having just read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. I've always felt that by writing and publishing my own books, I did, at the least, succeed in escaping what seemed to me then as a terrible fate.
After a morning of hiking or checking out nearby petroglyphs, Herb and I loved dozing on their porch, cooled by a pleasant, pine-scented breeze, lulled by the sound of Ten Sleep Creek and the soft, distant rumble of thunder over the Bighorns. I couldn't help but think of all that we had lived through to bring the four of us together in these blissful, precious moments. Herb and I talked about it, what a great thing they had here, what a good idea Cathy's father'd had in buying the place almost sixty years ago. They now have the fourth generation enjoying the place, carrying on traditions, babies taking baths in washtubs under the pines. They've held onto it all this time and now they're sharing it with us and what they're giving us, money cannot buy. You can pay a fortune for a chi-chi cabin someplace with indoor plumbing, but you cannot buy waking up in a bunkbed with your friend's husband starting the crackling fire that reminds you of being a kid at your own beach cabin. You cannot book a huge moose to go thundering by your cabin faster than you can grab a camera. You cannot buy a friend who remembers you at nineteen, when you were pretty crazy, and still has the kindness and bravery to say, "Hey, come hang at our cabin."
Thank you, Bill and Cathy. A five star rating for unforgettable Ten Sleep Creek.