Music to a Boy’s Ears

I’m eight years old and hiking up to Anaroid Lake with Mom and Jean and some of the Jardees. It’s the first time we’ve gone on a long hike even though we’ve been coming to Wallowa for a few years, my family and the Jardees, spending every Memorial Day Weekend here and sometimes a few days in summer too. Last year we took the guided horseback ride up this same trail, and that was a lot of fun, but we’ve never used our own legs like the Indians had to do before they had horses.

Billy is the Jardee closest to my age. He’s a year older than me. And we’re pretty good friends. Sometimes we go down to the Golden Grain and order Cherry Cokes and put them on the Jardee tab. The Jardees are a big Catholic family — five kids — and Billy’s dad is the doctor in town. (We all call him Doc. Even Sally, his wife, calls him Doc.) So they have a tab at the Golden Grain. Any Jardee kid can go in and order a Cherry Coke or an ice cream cone or onion rings — anytime! — and put it on their tab. Sometimes Billy orders coffee, too. He’s the only kid I know that drinks coffee. But it’s always too hot, so he asks the waitress (in her pink uniform and halo of hairspray and small-town cigarette sensuality) for an ice cube. Then he complains the coffee is too cold.

It’s Saturday and we got up early to go on this hike. Dad and Doc stayed behind, sleeping off their hangovers after drinking too much at the Wallowa Lake Lodge last night. The rest of us, Mom and Sally and us kids, got up while the air was still chilly and the grass cool and wet outside our cabin. I put on my favorite red sweatshirt, the one that’s getting a bit frayed in the elbows. Now it’s warming up, though, and we’ve been hiking for about an hour. I’m getting hot, so I take off my sweatshirt and tie it around my waist. I’m in the lead, with Billy on my heels. We’ve left our mothers and sisters far behind, although I look back and see Mary Ellen, one of Billy’s sisters, rounding the corner of the last switchback just as we disappear up the next one.

“Hey you guys,” she calls to us. “Mom says to wait up. You’re too far ahead of everyone.”

Billy slackens his pace behind me. “Come on,” I whisper urgently, gesturing onward and upward with a gesture of the whole arm intended to bring Billy along. “Let’s get a little further ahead and hide and scare the hell out of them when they get here.”

Billy grins his assent and hurries his pace to an uphill trot.

“What’s that?” He calls breathlessly back down the trail. “Sorry, we can’t hear you.”

And up the trail we chug, rounding the corners of one, two, three, four switchbacks before we find a big fallen log suitable for hiding. We bound up on the log and roll over it like Special Forces soldiers on a mission, sprawling into the ferns and grass on the opposite side, sucking air and stifling our exhalations of laughter.
Then we wait.

A grasshopper riffles into the air right over our heads and I feel my body lurch, for a split-second thinking: Rattle Snake.

“Don’t pee in your pants,” Billy says out of the side of his mouth, in that ironic nine-year-old-coffee-drinker way of his.

“Okay, shhh,” I whisper, changing the subject. “Here comes Mary Ellen.” I peek over the top of the log and see Mary Ellen frowning and red-faced. She stops and looks back down the trail, then up the trail right past our log, weighing whether she should try to catch up with us or wait up for the others. She swats a mosquito on the back of her neck and lets out an exasperated sigh. Then she turns and looks right at our log. I duck fast and hold my breath. Billy scrunches his head down, turtle-like, between his shoulders, eyebrows cocked, eyes straining upward.

“Crap,” we hear Mary Ellen say to herself as she approaches. This is the nearest to cussing I’ve ever heard her get. And I take from her tone of voice that – yes! – she is completely unaware of our presence.

She sits down on the log! Bill and I eye each other with wide-eyed and sinister glee. “She sat down on the log!” my eyes say. “This is a gift from the gods,” Billy’s eyes reply, almost tearing up in gratitude. I glance up and see Mary Ellen scratching at the mosquito bite on the back of her neck.

A number of scares and torments pass through my mind. We could tickle her ear with a fern leaf to simulate a spider looking for a cool place to siesta. Or we could growl like hungry grizzly bears. Or we could jump up and roar like mountain lions. I look at Billy and he makes a gesture like a big cat bearing its claws, which confirms our plan of action.

We jump up, roaring with all our might, and Mary Ellen screams, obligingly, at the top of her lungs. It is music to a boy’s ears — and the start of a good day in the woods.


  1. Hangover? Yes–the only part of the story that I can verify.
    The Silverback

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