It Was the Best of Times …




Chapter I: The Group Meets

Jess looked around the nearly empty 10 th floor dining room but didn't see any of the women she planned to meet there yet. They weren't an official group, but essentially were the Bielenberg University lesbian faculty club. They tried to get together for a group activity at the middle of every month. It was now mid-August and Summer Term had just ended. Many faculty members who had just spent 6 weeks teaching at the intensive pace required to fit a full term's worth of hours and material into the short session wanted to do nothing but leave on vacation, so Jess didn't expect a large turnout for this month's gathering.

She herself was going on a solo camping trip later in the week, planning a mix of recreation and work. She wanted to gather water and soil samples from two Western Slope areas to study which microorganisms were present, as well as determining what living conditions the water and soil offered them.

Jess wandered over to the western wall of the room and looked at the portrait of Frederick Bielenberg, whose combination of luck and shrewd business sense led to the fortune upon which the university bearing his name was founded. The picture showed a man of about 50 with mutton chop whiskers, wearing a high winged collar and an expression of self-satisfaction.

I guess he had a right to that, Jess thought. If I remember correctly, he emigrated from Germany with his parents as a small child, and worked with them placer mining during the '49 California Gold Rush. Then as a teenager out on his own he became a 'Fifty-Niner' with the Colorado Gold Rush, and was lucky enough to find a placer claim that made him a little money. But then he was smart enough to realize the real money lay in supplying other miners, and rather than chasing the next strike he parlayed his gold dust into the biggest dry goods supply house in Denver. And luckily for all of us working here, he bought social respectability by philanthropy, including endowing this university.

She gave a nod to the portrait then turned to the view out the windows. Late afternoon clouds had boiled over the Rocky Mountains, and sunlight fell down in streamers through gaps in the clouds. The green foothills backed up to the blue mountains, the highest of which still had snow visible on their peaks. Jess never tired of the variable lighting effects produced by the interplay of sun, mountains and clouds, and relaxed while enjoying the view.


Mandy entered the dining hall but didn't see anything that looked like a group of lesbian faculty meeting. She didn't know any of the group personally, as she had just joined the faculty that summer and had only seen the notice about the group in the faculty newsletter last week. She glanced at her watch and thought, Well; I am a few minutes early. I wonder if anyone else is here early? She started to stroll around the room to scan its occupants, stopping when her gaze fixed on the back of a tall black-haired woman looking out a large window. Short hair – check. Athletic shoes – check. T-shirt and blue jeans – check. Wallet in the back pocket of blue jeans – double check. Confident that she had found what she was looking for she approached the woman.


Jess was shaken out of her Zen-like absorption in the view when she heard a soft voice with a Southern accent next to her.

"That's incredible."

Jess smiled down at the cute blonde next to her. "I know. I always think that if someone painted a picture of the mountains looking like that everyone would think it looked about as fake as Albert Bierstadt's paintings of the Rockies always look."

Mandy looked up and thought, Yep – androgynous face, no makeup – triple check. Not that she needs it – those high cheekbones and blue eyes stand on their own. Aloud she said, "I'm looking for the lesbian faculty group – do you know if this is the right place?"

Jess nodded and held out her hand to shake. "I'm Jess Scott – I'm a biology prof. I don't think I've seen you in the group before?"

Mandy shook the proffered hand and replied, "And I'm Amanda Bailey - Mandy for short. I just finished my PhD in English and joined the faculty here."

Jess looked over as her name was called. "Ahh – here are some more of the group members." Seeing the predatory gleam in the eye of a curly-haired blonde looking at Mandy, she thought, including that jerk Heather. She's got to be one of those people who went into Psych because of her own issues.

In the end, seven of them sat at the table. Mandy looked on as Jess pointed to each in turn and introduced her. The oldest two, around 50, were Lori and Deb, who were German and History profs respectively, and who were a couple. The ones who looked closest in age to her own 26 were another couple, Jen and Amy. Their fields were Physics and Math. Heather looked as though she was about 35. Mandy thought Jess was probably about 30.

Heather looked around the table and announced, "I just wrapped up a graduate seminar on Post-modernism in Psychology."

Mandy offered, "I was able to teach the Summer Intro to English section. I was glad the Department was willing to let me start before the Fall Term – it was really nice to have some money coming in to cover those student loans."

Jess was amused to see Heather smirk condescendingly because Mandy had been teaching undergrads – and at an introductory level at that. She's one of those profs who think anything but graduate teaching is beneath them. Wonder what she'd say if I told her what I did this summer? Not that she'd ask – if ever there was anyone for whom 'it's all about me' was the perfect motto, it would be Heather.

She came out of her reverie to hear Heather say that she thought they should do something that weekend. "I can't – I'm going camping, leaving on Friday morning," Jess said.

"Where are you backpacking?" asked Heather.

"Nowhere – I'm car camping," said Jess, not surprised by the sniff of distain Heather gave to that revelation. And in the-world-according-to-Heather backpacking is the only respectable way to see the forests. I don't care – car camping can be a great way to see places too, and it's more suited to what I want to do on this trip anyway.

"Ohhh. I'd like to go camping," Mandy said, "but I don't know the area well enough yet to go out on my own."

"Well," said Heather, "do you have any camping experience?"

"Oh yes. I've done a lot of hiking and camping in the Appalachians."

Heather swung into overbearing mode. "Why don't we all go with Jess? I can leave on Friday morning so that works. Now, there are seven of us, so we'll need at least two vehicles."

Jess sat amazed as Heather continued to pontificate, as though Jess had actually agreed to have anyone go along with her. She opened her mouth to inform Heather in no uncertain terms that her camping trip was going to be solo, but glanced at Mandy first to see how she was taking this dysfunctional introduction to the group. Jess was caught by wistful green puppy dog eyes gazing back at her, then Mandy looked away and spoke.

"I don't suppose that Jess was planning on having company, so we might should think of something else to do this weekend."

"Nonsense," said Heather. "This is perfect."

To her own surprise, Jess didn't refute that, and by the time the group broke up the grand camping trip plans had been laid. Lori and Deb couldn't leave until Sunday morning, so they planned to drive themselves. Mandy had volunteered her vehicle, as she said it would easily hold five people and their gear.

Jess was mentally fuming as she left the building. My solo camping trip is now a group camping trip, and instead of driving myself, I'm riding with four other people, including Heather-the-jerk. At least since Heather-the-jerk offered to share her tent with Mandy I get to have a tent to myself. How did this spin out of control? Oh yeah – puppy dog eyes. And I don't even like puppy dogs.


Chapter II: The Blue Boat

Mandy had gotten directions to everyone's homes and had decided to pick Jess up first because it would be closest for her. She pulled up in the driveway of the house and went to the front door of the little bungalow.

Jess had been listening for a car and opened the door before Mandy had time to ring the bell. "Hey, right on time. Let me bring my stuff out." She grabbed her pack and locked the door behind her. She stopped in surprise when she saw Mandy's car. "Ummm. What is that? And what year is it? And what sort of gas mileage are we going to get?"

Mandy grinned, used to this reaction to her beloved car. "It's a 1964 Ford Galaxie 500. It gets about 25 miles to the gallon. It was built to get less than half that, but my younger brother Justin is a car geek and did things to the engine that improved the mileage. He put in modern seatbelts, too," Mandy said over her shoulder as she opened the trunk.

"Oh, good. It certainly is large. And square. And light blue." Jess got a grip and stopped talking before babbling anymore. She tossed her pack into the large trunk and moved to take her seat on the front passenger side, relieved to see that the seatbelt was indeed a modern shoulder-lap one. She looked over at Mandy just in time to see her sling her left arm around the top of the steering wheel in order to grip the gearshift protruding from the column and tug it a little to the left, while inserting the key in the ignition and turning it. The engine started smoothly. Mandy caught Jess' puzzled look as she turned slightly in her seat in order to look at the street before backing out of the driveway.

"Oh – I always forget to warn people who haven't been in my car before. The gearshift has to be in 'park' in order to start the car, but it's a little worn so I have to be sure to hold it just a bit to the left so that the interlock with the ignition lets me turn the key to start. Justin is looking for a replacement gearshift, but hasn't had any luck finding one yet. But the rest of the gears don't have any problems," Mandy assured Jess.


Chapter III: The Road Less Traveled

At least Jess' plans for where to go hadn't been overturned, so she directed Mandy to US 285 and soon they were traveling through the mountains on a highway that started as a four-lane divided highway but before long became a two-lane highway.

Jess had explained to the group that her trip had two parts. They would first stay at Snowblind Campground, lying just west of the Continental Divide, and just north of 11,312 foot Monarch Pass. They planned to spend Friday and Saturday nights there and then leave early Sunday morning to go to Gothic, north of Crested Butte. Since Gothic Campground was tiny, Jess didn't expect any sites to be open until people whose trips were at an end packed up and left on Sunday morning.

The drive to Snowblind should take almost four hours, as all of it was off the Interstates though on highways until close to the end of the drive. Jess found the time passing more pleasantly than she had expected, since Mandy took wide-eyed pleasure in the scenery and in what Jess, as the only Colorado native in the group, was able to explain about the area's history. About 1 ½ hours after leaving Denver they were in the middle of South Park and passing the town of Fairplay. Jess pointed to a sign for the South Park City Museum. "That's really interesting. They salvaged buildings from several old mining towns in the area and have set up a typical mining town street. They were able to find period items to furnish the stores and schoolhouse and so on, so you get a real look at what it would have been like in a town here well over 100 years ago."

"Oooh," Mandy said. "I'd love to visit it sometime!"


They took a quick break at a convenience store after another half-hour. The road had climbed out of South Park and over Trout Creek Pass and now they were in the Arkansas River valley, with the majestic Collegiate Range rising abruptly from the valley's west side. Heather volunteered to drive, but asked Mandy to sit in the passenger seat "in case she needed to ask any questions about the controls."

Jess rolled her eyes at Heather's obvious maneuvering but obediently climbed into the backseat with Jen and Amy when Mandy agreed to sit in front. The drive south along 285 towards Poncha Springs was geologically interesting but long. It was more than an hour before they were rolling into the outskirts of Poncha Springs, where they turned right to take US 50 up Monarch Pass. Mandy asked Heather to stop at a gas station so she could fill her tank.

"How much does this behemoth's tank hold?" asked Jess as she took the chance to stand while Mandy pumped the gas.

"It's about a 20 gallon tank. That would only have given a range of about 200 miles with the car's original mileage, but now I can go up to 500 miles on a tank of gas," Mandy explained. "I don't like to take chances, though, so I don't let it run low before I fill up again when I don't know for sure how far away the next gas station will be."

Jen took over driving with Amy sharing the front seat. Jess found Heather crowding into the middle of the back seat, leaving Jess and Mandy seats by the windows. Doubt she wants to sit next to me, or is that generous about sharing the view out the windows, Jess mused. I'm sure it's more she doesn't want me to sit next to Mandy – she wants to be able to monopolize her attention.

Shortly before they reached the summit of Monarch Pass they came to the turnoff to Old Monarch Pass. Jess directed Jen to turn onto the road, since it would come out on the back road they would take north to reach Snowblind. It wouldn't be a faster route, since the old pass road was unpaved and wound extensively, but it was a beautiful route to follow.

The road had ruts which were quite deep in places and Jen had to steer carefully to stay out of the ruts but avoid hitting rocks. As a result they were traveling slowly enough that they could roll the windows down and enjoy the crisp, pine- and sage-scented mountain air. They had just gone over the old pass summit when a resounding clank under the car was followed by a gushing sound. "Stop the car and turn it off!" Jess commanded.

As they all climbed out of the car after Jen did as Jess asked they could smell gasoline, and still hear the gushing sound. Jess bent over to peer under the car, then straightened with a sigh. "Well, there go 20 gallons of gasoline. A rock must have torn a gash in the gas tank."

"Shouldn't have let Jen drive," Heather said angrily.

"But there weren't any big rocks there," Jen protested.

Jess looked at the road just above the car and saw a rock that had been dislodged from its place in the center of the road. The gap left was broader at the front, tapering to a long and narrow end. Jess fit the rock back in the cavity and saw that the wider front portion also bulged up more than the tail. "It wasn't Jen's fault," she snapped at Heather, who was continuing to badger Jen about the mishap. "None of us could have avoided hitting that rock with the oil pan of the car, but it wouldn't have been a problem if the rock didn't have a long tail. The impact against the oil pan must have tilted the long, sharp tail of the rock right up into the gas tank so that it tore the gash. It was just plain bad luck, not bad driving."

Jen cast Jess a grateful look and Mandy chimed in as well, "I agree. Any of us would have had the same thing happen. But, here we are on the side of the mountain with no gas. Not to mention we just poured 20 gallons of gas onto the mountain – that can't be good for the environment."

"Oh, it's not too bad," Jess returned. "I mean, it's not ideal to do that, but it did land in the dirt roadway and UV light will break down the hydrocarbon compounds pretty quickly, so the ground isn't taking too big a hit."

"That's great," snapped Heather, "but how are we going to get off this mountain? I can't get any cell service."

"No," Jess said, "in this part of the country the cell coverage is mainly along the Interstates, so we won't be able to call from here. We'll need to ride the car as far as we can and then walk to Sargents. It's about six miles south of where the west end of Old Monarch Pass comes out."

"Ride the car? It's out of gas, genius!" Heather sniped at Jess.

"But before there was gas there was gravity," Jess pointed out through gritted teeth. "Fortunately, we're past the summit of the pass, so it's all downhill from here. If we put the car in neutral we can let gravity take us down the road."

"Well, gravity will get us moving," Mandy said, "but it has power steering and power brakes. Those won't work without the engine supplying the power."

Jess shrugged. "It won't be as easy as if the power were there, but the car still has brakes and steering – it'll just take some muscle to get them to do anything."

"I knew we brought you along for a reason," Mandy laughed. "I think you're the only one who will be able to muscle us down."

Jess looked at the others and had to agree: all of them were five or more inches shorter than she was. "Ok," she said. "Let's give it a whirl."

The heavy car did require all of Jess' concentration and strength to wrestle down the road, but at length they reached the valley below. Jess turned onto the road towards Sargents but because she had to slow the car to avoid sliding off the side of the road with the turn, their momentum only carried them a few yards beyond the junction. "Ok, then. Here we are. The closest place to go is the town of Sargents. There's a resort called Waunita Hot Springs over Black Sage Pass – that road going west there - and the Snowblind Campground is to our north, but both are further away."

Mandy quickly said, "I think Jess and I should go for help, and you three should stay with the car in case someone comes along one from one of the other directions but doesn't head towards Sargents."

Neither Jen and Amy nor Heather looked excited to be left in each other's company, but they were even less excited about the thought of the long walk, so they agreed with Mandy's plan. Jess and Mandy took daypacks from their gear in the trunk, making sure to take plenty of water, some snacks, and hats. Jess told Mandy to take a sweater and windbreaker as well, explaining that though the day was warm a storm could quickly drop the temperature. They set off, walking side by side.


After traveling only a couple of miles, a Jeep came towards them from Sargents. They waved it down and explained their situation, and the middle-aged couple agreed to turn around and take them into Sargents. They waved off thanks and offers of gas money when they dropped Jess and Mandy at the café in the tiny town, and turned and took off once more.

The café owner explained that the closest tow truck and repair shop would be in Gunnison, about 40 miles to the west. She let them use her phone and phone book and before long they had a tow truck heading their way. Since they would have at least a 45 minute wait they ordered coffee and pie and sat in a booth talking. "What do you suppose this tow bill is going to be?" Mandy asked.

"At least $100." Jess predicted. "Maybe even more."

Despite the circumstances the time flew as Mandy and Jess talked. Jess told Mandy about her summer teaching with the Bielenberg Science Institute. BSI was a 6 week summer program for high school students from across the state who had an interest in and aptitude for the sciences. Bielenberg professors from each of the physical sciences worked with the students, but Jess explained that since part of the program's goal was to help the students learn about how science is communicated, an English professor also participated to help the students learn how to do effective written and oral reporting of their summer's science projects. "I think I get the sweet deal, since as the biologist I get to take them out to play in various bodies of water. We visit a eutrophying pond, a mountain lake, a creek and so on in order to observe how the ecology of each waterway differs. We all crawl around in the water together – it's a blast and a great way to spend hot summer days."

Before they knew it the tow truck had arrived from Gunnison. They climbed in the cab next to the driver and directed him to the car. He hooked the tow to the front of the car and raised it. "You can't all fit in the cab, but two of you would fit, and two could ride in the backseat of the car. Not a good idea to have more weight than that though. One of you will need to ride on the back of the tow truck."

Heather jumped in to direct, "Ok, Mandy and I will ride in the cab, Jen and Amy can ride in the car and Jess will ride on the back of the truck."

Mandy frowned at Heather. "It's fine if Amy and Jen want to ride in the car, and you can ride in the cab. I'll keep Jess company on the back of the truck."

Heather looked sour at Mandy's counter-suggestion but muttered, "Fine, if that's what you want."

Jess and Mandy found perches on the platform behind the cab. "Well, it's not exactly the safest way to travel," Jess said wryly, but we've got good handholds and plenty of room to sit at least."

Once they reached the shop in Gunnison the car was placed on a lift. After examining the damage the mechanic came to talk with them. "I think we can weld the gash without a problem, but we'll have to let the tank sit overnight and through the morning to let the rest of the fumes escape, or it could blow up when the heat hits it. We'll take the tank off now so we can work on it tomorrow. It won't be done until late afternoon."

"Oh, well. I guess it'll be a motel for the night," Jess said.

"Err, you won't be able to find a motel room," the mechanic told them. We've got the Old West Fest going on in town this week, and everything's booked full. We could drop you at the KOA Kampground though, since you have your camping stuff with you."


Chapter IV: Old MacDonald Has a Farm

The shop was able to fit all of them into the extended-cab pickup they used to haul parts, though it was a tight squeeze. Luckily their gear could go into the back of the truck. The driver headed south and after about 15 minutes pulled up to the KOA and let them out. Amazingly, there was cell service when Jess checked her phone, so she and Mandy both gave their numbers to the driver. The shop would call them when the car was ready to go, and send the truck out to pick them up again.

They were assigned a spot by the proprietor and paid their fee. They got a map of the campground and walked over toward their site. They could see a fence not too far away and what looked like farm buildings. "Lovely view," Jess commented. "A KOA Kampground isn't exactly where I'd have chosen to camp, since they're actually meant for RVs rather than tent campers. But beggars can't be choosers I guess."

They were able to pitch their tents and cooked dinner over their propane stoves. As they worked they discussed how to get back on schedule after the glitch in their plans. They decided that they would eat supper in Gunnison the following evening and then drive to Crested Butte to spend the night. They would then have a short drive to Gothic Sunday morning.

With food in hand even Heather calmed down. The site had a picnic table, and restrooms with flush toilets, so all in all things weren't going too badly. The problems began as the sun set, however, when the wind shifted direction as the air cooled. Now the smell and sound from the nearby farm wafted over them.

"Ugh! What is that foul smell???" Heather grumbled loudly.

Though she was out of patience with the woman, Jess grudgingly had to admit to herself that Heather had a point this time. "It sounds – and smells – like a hog farm," she replied flatly. So much for things going kind of ok. This has been the worst vacation ever!


Chapter V: Why Reservations Are a Good Idea

The group did not have a good night, but at least the wind shifted direction again in the morning. Otherwise it was just a hot, boring day. They were thrilled when the shop called to let them know the work was done and the truck would be out to get them shortly. By the time they had taken care of the bill, gotten the car reloaded, filled the gas tank up, eaten dinner and crept through the heavy traffic from the Old West Fest in order to reach the edge of town, it was already 8 pm. They were tired from the night before already but knew they only had about an hour's drive to reach Crested Butte and beds. They headed down the highway.

Traffic came to a standstill after they had been traveling for only 15 minutes. No one stopped alongside them knew what the holdup was for sure, but they all suspected that an accident was blocking the narrow two lane highway. The group debated what to do, but in the end realized they didn't have much choice: they already knew what kind of accommodations were behind them in Gunnison, and there was no other town near it that would make turning around a good option. They grimly waited for traffic to start moving again. Finally, at about 9:30 pm the traffic slowly began to creep forward. Amy yawned and said, "Is there anyplace to stop before Crested Butte? At this rate it'll be midnight before we get there."

Jess was driving again with Mandy beside her. Mandy pulled out a flashlight from the glove compartment and unfolded the Colorado map. It took her a while to find her bearings, but she was able to report shortly that it looked as though the town of Thompson should be only a few miles ahead. It took another half-hour to reach the sign pointing to the town, and Jess took the turn with relief. It seemed to be a very small town – they didn't see any lights on except for the motel sign. Only one room was available, since other people had obviously had the same idea as they did, but it did have two double beds. "That's ok," Jess grunted. "I'll sleep on the floor with my pad and sleeping bag."

The clerk took them along a dimly lit path and opened the room for them. The room too was dimly lit and smelled moldy but it was still an improvement on the previous night's odor, so no one but Heather complained. They took turns stumbling tiredly in and out of the bathroom and finally settled to sleep. Jess heard Mandy muttering and then suddenly Mandy was up and digging out her own pad and bag. The room was so small that Jess already took up most of the room at the foot of the beds, but Mandy fitted herself into the remaining space. "What's going on?" Jess whispered to her.

Mandy whispered back, "That bed sags in the middle, and I am not going to snuggle up to Miss Congeniality all night."

Jess stifled a laugh then whispered back, "Well, I can totally understand that. But we're past the worst of it, and once you see Gothic you'll agree that as bad as this has been, it's all worth it."


Jess was jolted out of sleep by a hideously loud metallic rumble and whistle outside the room. It took her groggy mind a moment to realize that it sounded like a train was running through the room. She fastened bleary eyes on her watch, which showed 2 am, while her mind slowly mulled over whether this could be the famous tornado-sounding-like-a-train. She decided not, since no one had ever mentioned that tornados had whistles as well as rumbles, so she lay back down with her fingers in her ears. After a few minutes the sound dropped off, so she removed her fingers. Heather's swearing met her ears then, so she resignedly stuck her fingers back in them.


When they opened the door in the morning it became obvious why it sounded like a train was passing by at 2 am: the tracks lay on a slight rise only about ten feet from the door. The dim lighting had ensured they were invisible the night before. The group wearily shuffled off in search of breakfast. Jess was only slightly surprised to hear from the clerk that there wasn't anyplace to eat before they got to Crested Butte.


Chapter VI: It's All Worth It

Despite two bad nights in a row, most of the group felt better after reaching Crested Butte and getting a hot, tasty breakfast with lots of hot coffee. Mandy thought Heather probably wouldn't agree that it was a beautiful day, but she was thrilled by the scenery they were passing through. Jess was driving again so Mandy sat in front and had a wonderful view. The road north from Crested Butte was dirt so travel wasn't fast, but after about eight miles they came to a cluster of buildings, including some obviously deserted, obviously old buildings with false fronts.

Jess explained, "Gothic was first settled in 1879 by miners and boomed for about ten years, with miners making claims all through the area here. They weren't big deposits, though, so the town died back as quickly as it grew up."

The road left the meadow the town stood in and entered a narrow lush valley with a steep U-profile. Jess told Mandy that showed that the valley had been carved out by a glacier during the last ice age, and added that the valley was unusually lush for a mountain valley, because rainstorms frequently dumped moisture into it. Mandy was mesmerized by the beauty of the valley, with every turn of the road showing another sight: a high, thin waterfall pouring down the side of the valley on one side, an impossibly red mountain peak rising beyond the other side, stands of Aspen trees interspersed with pines on both sides.

Jess noticed her looking at the red peak and told her, "If you could fly over that, you'd find the Maroon Bells on the other side, which are peaks named for that red color. The ski town of Aspen is just beyond them too."

After a few miles they came to the turn into the campground, and were pleased to find that Lori and Deb were already there and had staked out two adjacent sites, giving them plenty of room to set up all four tents. Even Heather stopped her complaining and helped set the camp up. They cooked lunch, ate it and cleaned up after themselves. Even the stories they had to tell Lori and Deb about the disastrous start to the vacation seemed a little funny from the perspective of the comfortable camp and Jess felt herself relaxing.

"What does everybody want to do this afternoon?" asked Amy.

Mandy started to reply but paused when she heard a peal of thunder nearby and felt a drop of cold rain hit her nose. She heard Jess sigh.

"Well, for a start we'd better get the shelter up over the picnic table so we have a dry spot to sit until the storm passes," Jess told them.


Chapter VII: It's Still All Worth It?

Unfortunately, the storm did not seem to want to pass. It rained the remainder of that day, and through the night, and through the next morning. Everyone huddled under the shelter tarp. Heather returned to incessant whining.

Deb whispered to Jess and Mandy, "Tell me something. I gather she was doing this for the first two days of your trip too. Why haven't you already killed her? Lori and I would help you hide the body," she added.

Jess and Mandy snickered, and Mandy told Deb, "It's the curse of being a Southern lady. We're so used to odd and unpleasant characters that we forget to solve things that way."


Fortunately for Heather's life the rain lifted in the afternoon. Amy and Jen went for a hike. Jess and Mandy went with Lori and Deb up the road to the head of the valley. The road traveled beside a rushing creek and then began to climb on a bed dug into the side of the valley as it narrowed. The dirt was black because it had formed from a shale bed, while the creek bed was littered with white quartzite. At the head of the valley a small glacial morraine walled a lake off, from which the creek then flowed. "This is Emerald Lake," Jess told them.

"It really is green, isn't it, but not in an algae-choked way," Lori marveled. Jess felt vindicated in her choice of camping spots – even though she hadn't invited anyone along in the first place.

They hiked around the area, and Jess was able to collect some of the soil and water samples she'd originally planned her trip around. Late in the afternoon the rain began to fall again, and they returned to camp. Though rain continued to fall through the evening and into the night, the brief break in the weather had lifted everyone's spirits.

When they woke to continued rain again, however, and more of Heather's whining, everyone's nerves began to fray again.


Chapter VIII: The Escape

As on the previous day, the rain stopped soon after noon. Jess was coming out of her tent with her daypack, intending to take a hike and collect some more water and soil samples, when she heard a quiet "Pssst!" from behind her. When she turned she found Mandy lurking behind a tree. When Mandy saw Jess had seen her she put her finger to her lips and motioned for Jess to join her.

Jess raised an eyebrow but silently walked over and Mandy explained, "I saw Heather heading for our tent. I think she was going to ask me to take a hike with her. I grabbed my daypack and ran for it before she saw me, but then I saw you looked like you were going to take a hike. Could I come with you?"

Jess nodded and quietly told Mandy that she planned to hike up to an old cabin and mine site, following an old roadbed that started across the road from the campground. They snuck out of the camp and made it into the woods on the other side without being seen by Heather.

Once they were far enough from the campground to converse normally, Mandy pantomined wiping her brow and said, "Thanks – you saved my life, not to mention Heather's. I've had it with her. I'm really sorry we ruined your trip. I mean, I'm glad I came, but I know I'm only here because Heather pushed her way in, and maybe she wouldn't have done that if we'd all told her we shouldn't bother you."

Jess shrugged. "Well, she has been a royal pain in the neck, but I have enjoyed talking with you, so I'm not sorry you came along." They continued up the trail chatting comfortably with each other.

The trail ended at an old mine entrance, out of which a tiny stream flowed. A ramshakle cabin stood nearby, missing half its roof planks and with no chinking left between the logs of its walls. Jess busied herself taking samples from the streamlet, after explaining to Mandy that she thought the results might be interesting since mine outflow was usually quite acidic and often contaminated with a variety of heavy metals.

Mandy wandered into the cabin to look around. Jess was absorbed in her work and was startled when thunder rolled overhead. Mandy popped her head out of the cabin and both looked across the valley. Thick clouds swept rapidly towards them, driven by a chilling wind.


Chapter IX: Rainy Days Are Here Again

"Damn!" Jess said, trotting over to Mandy and gently pushing her back in the doorway. "That storm will be here in just a couple of minutes. We'll have to hole up in the cabin, such as it is. It's dangerous to be outdoors in a thunderstorm like this, but this cabin probably has stood here since 1885 at least and hasn't been hit by lightening yet. Let's hope today's not the day. It would be better if we could go down, but the trail will be slick and we'd risk falling if we tried to go down while it rains – not to mention we'd get soaked and risk hypothermia. Did you remember to bring your sweater and windbreaker?"

Mandy nodded as she reached in her pack for them and said, "I'm glad you warned me about this."

Jess nodded as she pulled on her own sweater and slipped the windbreaker on. "Yeah – it can be in the 80s and then the temperature plummets with a storm because of the altitude."

"Brrr. It's freezing even with my sweater on," complained Mandy as she shivered.

Jess nodded. "It's not actually freezing – probably it's in the upper 30s," she teased. She looked up at the roof. It was breaking up the rainfall some but a fine mist still drifted down. "Come on – let's go over by this wall. I think it's more protected there than anywhere else in the room." Once she and Mandy were by the wall Jess said, "Let's empty the packs on the floor here. Then we can sit on them to insulate the floor a little."


Chapter X: Staying Warm in a Storm

Worst frigging vacation ever ! Jess thought as she quickly demonstrated what she meant with her own pack. She patted the space between her legs when Mandy started to set her pack down beside Jess. "I'm not making a pass – but if you sit here it will be the best way for both of us to stay warm right now."

Mandy nodded and quickly put her pack down, then settled between Jess' bent up knees, pulling her own legs up to her chest. Jess wrapped long arms around her and pulled her closer, tucking Mandy's head under her chin.

"There, how's that?" Jess asked.

Mandy felt her shivering start to subside as Jess' body heat warmed her. "That's much better…. And I wouldn't mind, you know."

"Huh?" Jess asked in confusion.

"I wouldn't mind if you made a pass," Mandy clarified.

"Ahh, ok, really?" Jess stuttered out.

"But I understand if you don't want to …."

"No, no, I want to," Jess said hurriedly.

Mandy smiled to herself and said to Jess, "Well, I was beginning to wonder if my Southern charm had worn out or something. There Heather was making moves on me, and you just seemed to be indifferent."

"Well, no, but I wasn't sure whether you were interested in Heather's moves or not, and I didn't want to be pushy if you were interested in her," Jess justified herself.

"No, it's just Heather who gets to be pushy? And if you're going to insult me by implying that I would be interested in somebody like Heather, maybe I'll take it back about not minding."

"How 'bout if I just drop that line of explanation and tell you I'm an idiot?" Jess asked hopefully

"That I can work with."


Chapter XI: Epilogue

Jess and Mandy strolled hand in hand down the wooden sidewalks of the South Park City Museum. Mandy saw that some passersby would start to frown when they saw two women holding hands, only to give a start and hurry across the street when they looked up at Jess' face. Mandy peeked up after one man started to scurry and caught the tailend of a ferocious scowl on Jess' face. My hero! she thought, laughing when Jess glanced down at her and hastily exchanged the last bit of the scowl for a smile.

"How'd you get Lori and Deb to take everyone else back with them?" she asked. "Did it have anything to do with facial expressions?"

Jess pretended not to understand what Mandy was implying. "No. They're xeriscaping their yard. I will be spending the rest of my summer hauling sacks of rocks for them." She glanced down at their linked hands and smiled. "But it's worth it. This has been the best vacation ever!"


The End


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