The morning began like the one before; up early, throw on the hash, slog through the early risers and wipe down the kitchen before hitting the rack. Same thing, different day – hash browns, over-easy, bacon, toast. Throw a few grapes on the side. Again, and once more until it became a blur and all you did was turn potatoes, push down the bread, and slide the plates to the servers. Nothing creative, nothing new, same old thing day in and day out.
She used to ride horses, and had memories of riding a sweaty bareback through cool, shallow creeks and the shade of hanging willows, of coming to the perfect stopping point where she could let the horse have his head and she would lay back and close her eyes. She would listen to persistent flies and the sound of her horse pulling grass, the rhythmic grinding of each mouthful. She wondered if it needed to stop chewing to swallow, but could never tell. Slowly, she would doze, the horse stretching each hind leg before picking up a hoof to place it absentmindedly ahead of the other. Those summer days, those days of youth; hard to distinguish the difference.
Standing before the flames of the gas range, she mused on a particular camping trip into the Little Minam area of eastern Oregon. The group was large, made up of cousins, aunts and uncles, friends. Plenty of spare horses and numerous coolers, tents, and the plan to spend two weeks trekking into the mountains on horseback. She took for granted that she’d spend summers in the desert, never thought it odd to spend fall and winter in Alaska, and spent each year at her grandmother’s boarding house hanging homemade noodles to dry over the backs of chairs and pulled-out drawers, washing sheets, developing crushes on this or the other railroad worker who bunked in one of the several rented rooms of their boss’s home. The rules were strict: no guests of the opposite sex, and no women. Period. Only men were allowed to rent rooms, and the no-exceptions rule was firm. She wondered why her grandmother never considered that she was a woman in a house full of men, but swimming lessons or skating on the sidewalk sufficed when there was no answer to that question.
The camping trip was remarkable. The sun shone the entire time, and when they broke out above tree line high up in the mountains, the air was crisp despite the heat of the sun. Cougars and deer could be seen, a bear even, but the only time she was aware of the potential danger was in the evenings when the horses were hobbled and the men took turns checking on them during the night. She felt bad that her horse had to be shackled like that; surely she would not wander. Her uncle was a bandy little cowboy and brooked no argument when it came to the stock; his was the final word. He was her favorite, Uncle Bobo, a quick, bowlegged and sinewy man who’d spent a lifetime astride a horse, logging, working cattle, revered as the butcher with the best Little Black Book of Recipes in the butchering community. She though now how long ago it was that she and her friends could go into the butcher shop and ask for a piece of bologna sliced off the roll – just a hunk of mixed-up meats to chew on as they rode their bikes. She’d forgotten how different life had become since those days, and she was sure it would be hard to find another butcher shop like that one anymore. She looked at the pre-sliced bacon in her pan. Now it was even hard to find slab bacon anywhere – it all looked, tasted, cooked up the same. No wonder breakfast was the least-favorite meal of her day.
One afternoon the horses spooked. They’d been climbing, riding a steep side hill and came out on a cliff side just large enough for all the horses to gather and be comfortable. She didn’t see it, but suddenly the shout went up that Mary had gone off the cliff on her horse. It took several hours to get to her and haul her back up the mountain. The horse was okay, but she’d taken a pretty good tumble and had a deep gash to her thigh, serious enough to send a rider ahead to a dude ranch to call for a helicopter. Once the drama of the accident was over, the trip was subdued and she knew when they reached the ranch their plans to stay and camp had changed. Shoot, hadn’t her horse jumped a creek and landed on top of her, only boots and hat showing? She’d come out of it alright and managed to ride on. Mary had a Kotex tied to her leg, a thick thing sopping with blood from the wound. She remembered how concerned the women were, and the men had put together a litter to pull behind one of the horses that wasn’t spooky. She looked terrible, but the thought never occurred to her that it had been a life-threatening injury. It had, of course; she was just more focused on the trail ride than the dangers. In the end, days later, when all was well and Mary had been to the hospital to get stitches, she felt like grumbling about how the two weeks had been reduced to just more than half, but knew the other women would look at her sternly for such a complaint.
She lived for such summer adventures. Life in Alaska was, well, life in Alaska. She flew all over in floatplanes, spent hours spotting fish with her dad, or standing in the rain at the hangar on the wharf. She coveted the jump seat just behind the pilot, the thrill of diving under when the Goose landed. She seldom thought her life was different, it was just plain and ordinary to her. They had airplanes, they flew all the time, everywhere, and most of the people she knew did the same thing. Summers, however, were like going to paradise – sunshine, blistering hot sidewalks, outdoor pools, green football fields full of chick-chick-chicking sprinklers, and bike-riding. Winters meant school. Summers were magic.
Her sister commented once on her memories of childhood. “I don’t know where you grew up, but I didn’t think it was that great.” She would shrug and think to herself that it was probably because her sister was closer to her mom and so missed out on all the fun stuff like airplanes and camping and horses. Whatever. She’d had a good childhood, and it carried her through adulthood with an attitude of expectation, hope, and anticipation for whatever lay ahead. It got her through mornings like this.