Summer Stories: ‘Road’s End’ by Alexis Smith

Novelist Alexis Smith, author of “Glaciers” and “Marrow Island,” lives in Spokane. (Courtesy photo)
“Road’s End” by Alexis Smith (Molly Quinn/The Spokesman-Review)

Two days before the bike tour, a group text from Ruth: She was so sorry, but she was spread too thin – had really hoped she could rally – but needed some self-care this weekend. They understood, didn’t they? Then a flurry of response from the other women. Jen felt terrible, but she had just been about to ask if they could reschedule for the same reason – had so been looking forward – but was worn out by the world, needed to recharge. Ditto, Dana.

Maggie rolled her eyes at her phone. Typical middle-class, white women: They go to one protest, post photos on social media for a day, then they need a week to recover. She was so irritated she didn’t respond for 10 minutes. Of course, she was a middle-class, white woman, too, so she spent that 10 minutes vacillating between judging her friends for their flakiness and judging herself for not making it to the protest.

Totally get it! Do what you gotta do, ladies, she typed back. Will send pics from the road! xo. Hating herself as she hit send.

The bike tour had been Cass’ idea, not Maggie’s, but in the weeks leading up to it, she found herself ticking off the days. She needed this trip. Camping by rivers, drinking by firelight under the stars after long, arduous days on scenic byways. She was a 42-year-old, childless (by choice, but in the eyes of others it hardly mattered) English teacher whose divorce was barely a year ago. A third of their lives together, and he was gone. Now Maggie felt like a distant relation to herself, an ancestor in an old photograph whose features she had inherited but whose mind and spirit were lost to history.

By Friday morning, only Maggie and Cass had not bailed. They met early, at Cass’ parents’ orchard outside Kettle Falls. Since it was just the two of them, they modified their plan: they would share a tent, so there would be less gear to carry, lightening Maggie’s panniers significantly, briefly calming her fears that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with Cass, who did these tours all the time.

Another worry: Maggie and Cass had never spent time alone together. They had always been with the group of their mutual friends, where the women fell into regular pairings. Cass was usually with Barb, who shared her interest in fishing. Maggie was usually with Dana or Ruth, whom she had known for years. But tracing the route on the map one last time, Maggie realized she was inclined to trust Cass. She was the kind of person who could change a flat tire without looking at a manual, and make a campfire by rubbing two sticks together. She was tall and sturdy, with the kind of swagger that some athletic women have, but she was thoughtful and reserved. Maggie appreciated people who listened more than they talked, though in their company, she sometimes found herself in the midst of meandering stories she wished she had never started. She hoped she wouldn’t be too much for Cass.

Once on the road, steadily moving her legs, with the wind and her own labored breath in her ears, there was no conversation. Her mind was quiet, her body working intensely to find a rhythm. For awhile, she struggled, losing and gaining distance behind Cass, who glanced behind every so often, measuring Maggie’s progress. Eventually until they fell into a comfortable pace together.

Maggie eased into her body’s movements, and she started to take in more of the environment: the variegated clouds and strata of tree line, the towering rock walls and undulating grasses; the quilted expanse of landscape, unframed by car windows. Her lungs filled with the tender air along the water. By midday, as they ascended Sherman Pass, she was sweating through sunscreen and Lycra, breathing heavily, but evenly. She could almost forget the burning in her legs, if she concentrated on the fact that she had made it this far, up the 5,575 feet of elevation, with only the power of her body. Her heart, she reminded herself, was mostly muscle, not so different from the quadriceps or the hamstrings, and it would pump on because some part of her told it to.

Republic was quaint; they spent the evening drinking beer at the brewery, relaxing on old couches, listening to an impromptu four-string band. The evening ended with a “Wagon Wheel” singalong and a walking their bikes back to the city park where cyclists camped for free. Maggie’s legs felt like tree stumps, her pace impossibly slow. Cass noticed her awkward gait and chuckled.

“What?” Maggie asked. “Does it look as weird as it feels?”

“Nah,” Cass said. “I’m sure it feels worse than it looks.”

Back at the tent, Cass let Maggie strip and get into her sleeping bag. It wasn’t the smallest two-person tent she had ever been in, but she was in more intimate proximity to Cass in that moment than she had been with anyone in some time. And since she rarely let the opportunity for awkward comments pass, she said, “I’ve never slept in a tent with anyone but my ex-husband.”

Instead of laughing it off, or giving her a puzzled look, Cass nodded, climbed into her sleeping bag, and said, “Me, too. Unless you count my dogs.”

“How long since your divorce,” Maggie asked.

“Oh, man,” Cass sighed, thinking. “I guess seven years? I’ve stopped counting.”

“That must be nice, not counting anymore.”

“The dogs helped,” Cass laughed.

“Maybe I should get a dog,” Maggie said.

The next day saw two tire blow-outs – one for each of them – and several stops through the Okanogan Highlands. Then, showers and supper, finally, in Riverside at a bike touring campground. They were the only women there, with a half-dozen men who were making the route all the way from Anacortes to Colville. Most of them were older than Cass and Maggie, but that didn’t stop one of them from hitting on Maggie while they drank beers around a communal fire. When the men found out that the two women were sharing a tent, the tone changed. Voices deepened and the conversation took a turn for the fraternal. Maggie didn’t say anything about it, back in the tent, but Cass seemed as bemused as she did.

On the way to Winthrop the next day, they stopped early for lunch in a general store that also sold antiques and served sandwiches at a low counter along the window. Maggie put in their sandwich order and wandered around the antiques while Cass washed up in the restrooms around back. It seemed like a pleasant way of life, Maggie thought, selling outdoor gear and old whatnots and bottled drinks to people passing through. Maybe she could leave the city, disappear into a little town in the mountains, set up a farmstand in the summers with eggs and honey and cherries.

The sound of a motor cutting off and loud voices rattled her. Out the window, she saw Cass walking up the steps, two men behind her, one in his 20s, the other older, maybe the father or an uncle, they looked related. The men watched Cass, laughing. They all entered the store just as the owner called out their sandwich order.

“What’s that about?” Maggie asked.

“Who knows?” Cass shrugged, and tucked into the counter to eat with her back to the men.

They were buying chips and beer, talking loudly, but not impolitely, to the owners about the best fishing around. Maggie thought Cass might pipe up – she had told her about catching trout in the Kettle River, her mother’s favorite spot – but Cass just gave her a knowing look and chewed her egg salad. When the guys had gone around to the bathroom Maggie spoke up.

“Was that a ‘secret fishing spot’ thing – not saying anything to those guys?”

Cass took a swig of iced tea and shook her head.

“Not really, it’s more of a ‘don’t suffer jerks gladly’ thing.”

“Did they say something to you out there?” Maggie felt her cheeks flush, angry, suddenly protective of Cass.

To me? No … But don’t worry about it. I grew up in the country; I’ve been getting it my whole life.”

“Getting what?”

“I’ve always been a tomboy,” she shrugged, but smiled. She didn’t seem worried. She dusted the breadcrumbs from her hands. “Ready?”

Three miles down the road Maggie heard a truck’s engine building speed, rumbling up behind her. There was plenty of room on the shoulder and the lanes were wide. She had already shaken off the men at the store, but knew who it was when she heard a male voice jeering, “Lookout, dykes on bikes!” The younger guy was hanging out the window, arm raised, in some kind of salute, Maggie thought at first. She didn’t realize he was aiming at her until the beer can hit her front tire and she careened into the ditch, skidding to a stop on her side, bike on top of her.

As the dust settled, Cass appeared, shaking herself off, having dodged a second full, but open, beer can. Maggie wanted to scream, but she couldn’t find her breath. All she could do was spit the dirt from her mouth.

A good Samaritan called the state troopers, and let Maggie sit in his backseat while Cass dressed her scrapes and bruises. Maggie found herself crying in rage as she recounted the story to the trooper who finally arrived, a pale young man who seemed at sea under the big blue ship of his trooper’s hat. He seemed more interested in the potential DUI than the assault.

“Isn’t this a hate crime?” Maggie asked incredulously, telling herself not to get shrill.

“A hate crime, ma’am?” he said. “Um, are you a, um, a … protected minority, ma’am?”

“Are we lesbians?” she choked out. “Why does it matter? If they thought we were, and attacked us for it?”

He took illegible notes onto his pad and tried, Maggie believed, to put on an air of sincere concern.

“Ma’am,” the wind whistled through the grass beside them. “Can I give you a ride to town?”

The men were long gone, by then. Probably throwing empties and into the nearest body of water, angry at fish, angry at women, angry at the world.

Maggie wasn’t as hurt as she could’ve been, but there was a problem with her front wheel and brakes. Cass called her brother, who picked them up and took them back to his farm in Winthrop. Maggie watched the lush, golden landscape streak by, framed by the truck’s window.

They spent the rest of day hiking the countryside along the Methow, walking the cross-country trails, now littered with wildflowers and hemmed by the river and groves of aspen, which Cass called, with uncharacteristic whimsy, “the most companionable” of all the trees.

Maggie was glad that things hadn’t gone weird between them. Cass had begun to open up, about her rural childhood, her past relationships. And she listened to Maggie’s own stories, however they rambled. Sitting against the trunk of a tree with Cass, sweaty shoulders wedged into each other, sharing a warm bottle of cider, Maggie found she was almost grateful for those men and their incomprehensible rage.

Some roads just end, she thought, giving Cass a sidelong glance. And you find another way. For the first time in a long while, Maggie felt she was at the beginning of something.