Lost on Cougar Mountain
“Just stay on this trail and I’ll be waiting in the truck at the end.” That’s all the directions my dad was going to give me. I was visiting my parents in Idaho with my daughter and I wanted to take her four wheeling, so my dad insisted on loading up his ATV and taking us to a trail near the edge of the Bitteroot Wilderness Area. After we got our gear unloaded, my dad rattled off his directions and just started to drive off. I grabbed the trucks door handle and held on. “Whoa! Wait a minute Magellan. That’s it?” My dad smiled his famous toothy grin. “What’s the matter?” I patted his arm. “Well, I have a few questions for you… like how long is this going to take us, what’s the trail like, and how will I recognize the place where we’re supposed to meet when I get there?” My dad waved me off. “It’ll take you at least a half hour, but I’ll be there a long time before that, so don’t worry about it. You can’t get lost.” And then as he drove away he yelled. “You might cross some logging roads, but just stay on the trail!”
My ten-year old daughter Megan and I had been riding four-wheelers for years, so she was already sitting on the ATV waiting as I watched the old boy drive off down the road. I mumbled a few choice words as I jumped onto the seat and hit the starter. “Where are we going?” said Megan as the engine fired up and she grabbed on to my belt loops. I breathed in the cool, pine scented, mid-morning mountain air and sighed. “I have no idea, Meg.” And off we went.
We had been rolling along through the dense forest of towering trees at a casual ten miles an hour for only about five minutes when we came to a road that crossed the trail. I stopped, checked the time and looked around. No truck. So, we kept going.
Fifteen minutes later, another road and another decision to make. The lack of actual directions was really eating at me. I rolled my eyes and fought to hold in my favorite curse word. “Are you friggin’ kidding me?” I turned around and looked back at Megan, who at ten was already smarter than me. “Am I missing something?” She was used to us wandering around in the woods on an ATV together so she just shrugged. “I don’t think so. Grandpa said he’d be waiting for us and we didn’t leave the trail.” Again, there on the other side of the road was the trail, this time marked by a sign with an arrow pointing straight up. “OK. Let’s keep going.”
The sun had burned off the morning mist and the air was becoming warm and dusty as we crossed the road and started onto the trail again. The terrain had also changed, the trail so steep now that we both had to lean forward, flat against the seat, to keep from rolling over backwards. As we slowly crawled higher and higher; the trail began to tack back and forth at 45 degrees to the general direction we were heading.
We’d been gone a total of forty minutes, when I started feeling really anxious. “This can’t be right!” I yelled to Megan over the roaring motor. “But we stayed on the trail!” She yelled back. Then, just after turning onto the next switchback, we reached the flat ground of the peak and came to a stop. “Oh come ON!” I yelled. There in front of us were three different trails and an old sign that read “Cougar Mountain”. Megan pointed at the sign and freaked. “Grandpa sent us to a place called Cougar Mountain?” Yeah, he did. But that’s not all. On the way to dropping us off near the actual “River of No Return” he had told us a story about a famous old country store and bar in the mountains where two mountain lions had casually sauntered in one evening and taken a couple of hunting dogs to go, while the drunken, horrified patrons watched.
I got off the four-wheeler and checked out the trails. The sun was really beating down on us now and it was down right hot. “Maybe we should go back.” Megan almost whispered as she looked around suspiciously. I took off my hat and wiped the sweat off my forehead as I got back on the still idling ATV. It had been working hard and smelled like hot oil and burning paint. “Well, the trails are well marked so let’s go a little ways down each one. We can always head back.” And off we went, with my silent, frowning daughter scanning the area around us like a fighter pilot.
Two of the trails quickly ended at beautiful scenic overlooks, but since both of us were more interested in not being eaten alive than in sightseeing, we quickly headed down the third trail. It was a steep descent down the other side of the mountain and since the trail was well used and we felt like cougar bait, we made good time, until we came to a densely vegetated cove at the foot of the next rise. We zig-zagged back and forth between trees for a while and then just after we popped out into a beautiful little meadow, we skidded to a stop. Right in front of us lay a large, freshly killed, half eaten deer which was sprawled across the trail. The four wheeler had stalled, so except for the ringing in our ears and the subtle ping, ping, ping that the engine was making as it shed its heat, it was strangely quiet. “OH NO!” Megan yelled as she buried her face in my back. As I stared at the carcass, the smell of fresh blood and gasoline found its way into my nose and I instinctively did a quick fight or flight risk assessment. Flight won. “Alright, time to go home.” I said a little too loudly as I hit the starter. Nothing happened. “Crap, it’s in gear!” I groaned as I started stomping on the gear shifter and rocking the ATV back and forth, trying to get it into neutral. Megan was yelling a muffled scream into my jacket. “It’s OK Meg. It’s OK!” I kept saying in my best dad voice. She turned her head and looked frantically back and forth along the tree line behind us. “Dad? We need to go. NOW!” A few more anxiety fueled, violent tugs on the handle bars and the transmission clicked, the green like came on and mercifully, the engine cranked. “OK!” I panted. “HOLD ON TIGHT!” I yelled as I jammed the scooter into first gear. My daughter was already welded to my back as I spun the four-wheeler around, showering the surrounding trees with rocks, and then tore back up the trail.
Visions of lions, cougars and cheetahs chasing down prey kept playing in my head as I drove the screaming ATV like a madman up and down the steep trails and between the huge trees. Past the overlooks and directly over the top of the Cougar Mountain sign. “We’ll go back to where we first started, because that’s where they will start looking for us when we come up missing.” I said to myself out loud.
On and on we rode, until we finally burst out onto the very first road that we had crossed just five minutes into our trip. There parked facing away from us, in the direction we had originally come from, was my dad’s damned truck. I could see his big, ham-hock of an elbow sticking out of the open window, and as we pulled alongside he casually turned and looked at me. He was eating a friggin’ sandwich! “How was your trip son?” I shut the overheated machine off. I was covered in dirt and I couldn’t feel my hands as I tried to shake some blood back into them. “Seriously? How was my trip?” I said as Megan and I both scowled at him. He leaned out the window with his sandwich, turned and looked back at the trail where we had come from. “What the hell were you doing up there?” I just shook my head and stared at him for a few seconds as he went on enjoying his picnic. “You know you give shit directions, right?” He smiled and glanced at me. “You weren’t worried were you?” My eyes got wide and I nodded sarcastically. “Yeah.” He looked back at his sandwich and finished it off. “Hmmpph! That’s funny. I wasn’t worried.” And before I could say something regretfully stupid, he quickly added. “You know what the hell you’re doing. Now load up; it’s Martini time!” I looked back at Megan who hadn’t said anything. She was smiling at me.
Boy, do I miss my dad.