I dug into my steak like a kid in a race to find a ten-dollar bill. Not so much because I was hungry, but because I was bored. My older sister Jacy and I had been sitting at a table in the otherwise empty café for nearly an hour with Back Trails’ newest client’s kids, Cullen and Amberlee Wheatley. Dad had suggested shortly after the Wheatleys had pulled in that Jacy and I take them to Cooke City for dinner since we were all about the same age.
“It’s not often you two get to hang around with other teen-agers in the middle of winter,” he’d said.
True enough. In the busy summer tourist season, teenagers came to Back Trails all the time with their parents or with their church youth group or a high school group to hike across the East Rosebud backpacking trail or to ride ATVs on the old mining roads behind town or to fish the high mountain lakes.
But it was February now, and while Dad’s outfitting business in the remote high mountains of south-central Montana attracted plenty of customers for winter camping and snowmobiling, they were mainly men traveling alone or with a couple of buddies. Occasionally we’d get a pair of newlyweds on the groom’s dream vacation, but Cooke Pass did not seem to be too high on very many “Family Friendly Winter Vacation Destinations” lists. Add to that the facts that most people who lived in Cooke Pass and nearby Cooke City lived there only during summer and that Jacy and I were home schooled, and it did work out to be a rare event for my sister and me to hang around with other kids our age.
Listening to Jacy and these particular other kids talk nonstop for the past forty-five minutes about so much airy nothing though, had just about convinced me that it was really no big loss.
Movies. Fashion. The weather in California.
Who really cared?
“Are you going to ask the blessing on the food, Dakota?” my sister asked me. Then she turned her attention back to Amberlee and Cullen. “My brother’s not real big on small talk.”
While Amberlee and Cullen stared at me, I thanked God for the food and asked Him to bless it. Then I glared at my sister. She didn’t have to apologize for me as if it were some kind of sin to not care about what colors are supposed to be “hot” next season.
“So what does your brother like to talk about?” Amberlee asked Jacy, looking at me the way a scientist might look at a piece of anomalous evidence.
“He’s a mountain man,” Cullen answered. “He likes to talk about hunting, fishing, bears, 4 x 4s, blizzards, and annoying know-it-all city people.”
I laughed. That did pretty much sum it up.
“Hunting is barbaric,” Amberlee said.
I didn’t comment. She was entitled to her opinion.
“Meat is meat.” My sister pointed the tip of her knife toward Amberlee’s steaming steak dinner. “It’s just a question of getting your own or buying the stuff from someone else who killed the animal.”
Amberlee moved her fork to poke at her salad.
“My father says this is a great place for snowmobiling,” Cullen put in after enjoying a couple bites of his steak. “You think our machines will do all right on these trails?”
Relieved that someone had finally chosen a subject worth talking about, I said, “Oh yeah. Your machines are the best they’re making right now.”
The Wheatleys had arrived in Cooke City in a shiny new SUV. After walking around it and making sure nobody was looking toward me, I’d gotten down on my side in the snow beside it to have a look underneath. Sure enough, it had everything. Skid plates. Heavy-duty axles. Big knobby lifted tires. After getting to my feet again and brushing the snow from my pants with my gloved hands, I’d walked back to the tarp-covered trailer they’d hauled up to get started on unloading their things.
I had to give the Wheatleys credit. Towing a trailer all the way through Yellowstone Park and up to Cooke City in the middle of winter was no small feat—not even for a shiny new SUV.
Since the Beartooth Highway was not plowed beyond the edge of Cooke City from the Park side during winter, Dad, Jacy, and I had driven snowmobiles over from Cooke Pass to meet the Wheatleys. They’d have to leave their outfit parked behind one of the gas stations in Cooke City during their stay with us, and we’d be getting around almost entirely by snowmobile. Jacy and I had ridden down on two of our smaller machines, and Dad had driven one of the bigger ones towing a sled to haul the Wheatleys’ things back up to our place for them. It had been my job to strap all the Wheatleys’ bags onto the sled—a duffle bag each for Cullen and his dad and an entire set of luggage for Amberlee, done in what was undoubtedly the most recent designer pattern available.
When I’d finished with the luggage and had made sure it was secure—since I’d be the one to have to retrieve it if it came loose and tumbled down the slope during the drive back—I’d gone back over to the Wheatleys’ trailer to take a good look at their snowmobiles.
Again, nothing but the best. They’d do more than “all right” up here. They’d easily beat any of our machines both in speed and in maneuverability.
“I imagine you know all the trails up here?”
I looked across the table at Cullen and nodded.
“And you probably know the good places to go off trail?”
“We don’t go off trail,” Jacy and I told him in unison.
He laughed and winked. “Of course not.”