The Woods

When I lived in Boise, I was young. Young as an adult. I used to walk into the hills a lot. It was an open and grassy sage land. With gently rolling hills but very dry. These hills continued all the way up to the evergreen treeline and the mountains, but that was far beyond easy hiking distance. There was a creek running through the hills, surrounded by cottonwood trees as it flattened out near Boise. For about a year I shared a very small house with a guy named Jack. He roomed in the basement and I had a tiny bedroom on the ground floor. Our refrigerator became heavily coated with frost every couple of months. Some nights Jack would insist on playing pinochle in our small shared living room. As we played, he would tell me stories of his times in the War and his early days in Scranton, PA. He always spoke with a Lucky Strike hanging out of his mouth. And I watched as the smoke hung on the roof and slowly filled the room. He would tell me old stories about his time in Germany during the War. Some things about spying and cavorting with women. I can’t say I believed much of what he said or even understood it. His voice was so gravelly and hindered by his cigarette and lack of teeth, that it was hard to figure out what he was saying much of the time. Also he had what I considered an old fashioned conversational style. He would start out by saying something enigmatic, something that he knew you wouldn’t understand. Then that was supposed to draw you in, so you would ask questions and he would slowly explain what the hell he was talking about. Kind of a long slow playful style of conversation, which always gave him the upper-hand. I was nineteen at the time and still without any sexual experience, so I listened carefully when he spoke of women. He never went into great detail but I do remember him describing his very first sexual excitement, as a young child of maybe six, of a maid changing her clothes in front of him. That impression of her hairy “snatch” stayed with him throughout his life. He also used the expression “Eating at the crack of Dawn” as part of a repeated joke about a woman named Dawn.

I met Jack at the Deli I worked at on 10th St. across from the Idanha Hotel. Rena’s Delicatessen, it was named after the previous owner. Jack would come in after we had closed and clean up. Then the owner, Sandy would make him a ham sandwich, coffee and pay him five dollars. He had no teeth, so he needed a sandwich he could easily eat with his gums. It was always a ham and cheese sandwich. He used to hang out in Hanifan’s cigar store. An old man’s hang out where they fired up a pot bellied stove in the winter and look at magazines featuring naked young women. Another hang out was the Cactus Club, a seamy old bar that I never entered. I always imagined it as one of those places where people go to hide out from the daylight, drinking, smoking and talking about nothing. He was suspicious of some of the patrons there, I know, because he once showed me a very large pin he kept hidden in his hat, he always wore a hat. He said the pin was for the purpose of “letting the air out” of someone who might give him trouble. I doubted whether it could do damage to anyone. Jack was always trying to get me to go to the Sav-On Cafe, which he claimed had 5 cent coffee. So I went there one time with Sandy. We tasted the coffee which was indeed 5 cents, but closer to water really than coffee. The hashbrowns and eggs were the plainest and greasiest I’ve ever tasted. Jack was there, like I guess he was everyday and he was so happy to see us. He gave us introductions to his buddies there, like we were visiting celebrities.

Sandy was cheerful, with a wide open style of speaking. If she was thinking something she would probably say it. I think she felt a little uncomfortable at the Sav-On in the same way I did. There was a hint of slumming. But she greeted Jack’s friends as warmly as she did everyone.

I remember Jack’s funeral. Sandy and I were there, so were a few of Jack’s old veteran acquaintances. There was also a woman named Lila, a woman in her late twenties and exceedingly overweight. Sandy and I knew Lila because she would often come into Rena’s, not to buy anything , but to tell her tales of woe. Sandy was always a sympathetic ear. The funeral was a short folding of the flag and a bit of religious castings by an unknown minister. I don’t recall Jack being religious in the least, though he did have some odd ideas of how the world worked.

I remember him saying after we watched the Carter/Reagan debate that he thought Carter was going to win because there were just so many more people who were having a hard time making ends meet than not. He assumed no one who was poor would vote for Reagan. I responded that a lot of people in Idaho maybe poor but in California it was much different. That was the year Frank Church lost to Steve Symms. Church was known for: The Wilderness Act, The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, The Sawtooth Wilderness, The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, and the Church Committee which made public some of the covert activities of the CIA. Steve Symms was an anti-government Republican who became fixated on privatizing the Postal Service.

Jack’s death took place over about a year’s time. He never actually said he had lung cancer but with his several-packs-a-day Lucky Strike habit and his bad hacking cough, it was the most likely assumption. For a short time he stayed with Sandy and me at her house on Eighth St. He was between places to live and in great pain from radiation therapy. One morning his back was hurting him terribly and he asked me to put some special ointment on his back, which was supposed to help somehow. His back was covered with several large dark growths, like huge moles. I wasn’t sure if this was part of the cancer or not, I didn’t ask. But they had the feeling of being contagious in some way. As much as I felt sympathy for the ordeal he was going through, I didn’t want to have to apply the ointment a second time. The following day he moved into a care facility which I assume the VA was paying for.

At the funeral, Lila claimed to be very distraught. She had been Jack’s lover at some point or so she claimed. I got the feeling this was an invention of hers to some degree, probably the being distraught part. Maybe she saw some financial advantage in being the only one really close to Jack at his funeral. I knew of no advantage. Jack was a lifetime loner without a penny to his name, no children and no family as far as I knew.

At the funeral there was a veteran friend of Jack’s with bright white hair, probably in his mid-sixties like Jack. He mentioned to me that he had hair the same color as mine at one time. My hair was a bright orange red at the time. But during the War (WWII) it had suddenly turned white. I mentioned something about the stress of war having that effect, but he didn’t agree. To him it was just one of those things that happened.

One day I decided to take a very long walk up into the hills around Boise. I thought maybe I could reach the tree-line. It was an alluring thought, to be able to walk around in the evergreen forest, there was no snow yet. If there was any I could see it from Boise and I had been up there skiing once at Bogus Basin. I started out from the house which I shared with Jack. It was just a half a block down from the Hollywood Market on 8th Street. I walked straight up 8th St. which I often did, I walked through that nice grove of Cottonwoods at the end of 8th St and I just kept on walking. 8Th St became a dirt road and kept on going up into the hills. The grove of Cottonwoods was right behind Camel’s Back Park. I often walked up into that grove just to help balance my thoughts get my priorities straight. I once startled a Great Horned Owl resting on a lower tree branch.

But on this day I kept walking up into the hills. I didn’t like following the wide dirt road so I mostly stuck to narrow paths which followed the contours of the hills. It was very dry having not rained for months. I brushed against the sage and the other arid loving plants. I’ve always loved that smell, it reminded me of when I was a kid, my dad would take me on hikes near Frenchman Dam in Northeastern California. We would walk through the sage looking for arrowheads, and usually found some. I kept my eyes open on this hike but there were no signs of Indians here. It was an overcast fall day with some blustery wind blowing. It was cold probably freezing at night. As I walked higher and higher into the hills my goal of reaching the tree-line did not seem realistic. Also as I was further and further away from town I avoided the road even more. I did not like the idea of some pick-up truck with a full rifle rack driving up behind me. It was probably a road used by people wanting a safe place to shoot their guns. I only saw one pickup truck on the road all day. Soon I noticed a tree growing in the distance.

I headed for that tree because it was such a rare thing amongst all of the sage. From a distance I could see that the base of the tree was a bit enlarged. As I got closer it almost looked as though a person was sitting down and leaning back against the tree. I told myself that it must be some kind of optical trick, it was very unlikely someone else would be hiking up here. But as I saw more and more detail it began to look more like a person not less. I stopped a safe distance away and just watched; there was no movement. I could see a head hanging forward and arms dangling loosely. It became clear to me that this person was dead. I did not look any closer but turned around right away heading back quickly, running when I could. If someone was up there killing people I wanted to get out of there.

As I ran back home and after reaching my home I began to question what I saw. I began to wish I had walked up closer and gotten a better look. Was there some sort of shape on the tree that was playing tricks on me? Being only 19 years old I guess I didn’t have the sense to call the police immediately. I felt like I had to decide in my own head whether I really saw a dead body up there are not. I didn’t sleep well that night and when I went into work at Rena’s, Sandy talk me into to calling the police right away. I didn’t call 911 but the regular police number. An officer came down right away to see me and drove me up into the hills where I had been hiking. It was completely different feeling approaching the lone tree along with the officer in his cruiser. Yesterday’s fear was gone. We parked above the tree and walked downhill together. There was clearly a dead body leaning back against the tree holding a gun in one hand. It looked like a young man. I didn’t get a really good look and I didn’t want a really good look. Though I did notice that it looked like he had shot himself in the head.

The officer called in some investigators and drove me back home, thanking me for not using 911 when calling it in because the news would have been all over it. The next day two investigators called me in for questioning. I didn’t have a car, so Sandy drove me there, she also stayed with me while they asked me some questions. She was upset and didn’t think they should be be treating me with any suspicion. I, perhaps a bit naively figured they just wondered why I waited until the next day to report the body and was confident I could explain it to them. They asked if I knew anything about a pet cat that was buried nearby or if I knew the dead person. I told them I didn’t and explained my delay in reporting was due to my own self doubt and they clearly believed me.

I didn’t hear another thing about it after that day. I didn’t own a TV but apparently it made the local news for at least one broadcast. But the sadness of it returned to me often. The young man, just a couple years older than I was, deciding to end his life. The dreariness of that day; the lifeless grasses and dusty green sage everywhere, the cold darkness of it and the initial realization of the dead body with the head hanging forward. I never hiked up that same path again.

I got a job there at Rena’s because Kevin was leaving and going back to Kelso- Washington. The sign in Avocado green read Rena’s 10th St. Delicatessen. Kevin and I lived in the same house turned into apartments on Bannock St. It was my first place living on my own. It was also my first job ever. I helped get things ready for lunch and when the customers started arriving I took their food out to them and sometimes took the orders and their money. Menu items like avocado and turkey sandwiches, quiche, and fritatta were newly fashionable for the time. And the deli display was filled with each days offerings rather than any real “deli” items. Inside it was papered in “W” magazine pages. It was a light airy little lunch spot tucked inside a grim unmaintained building. It was built around Sandy and her personality. She arrived early each morning preparing the soup and the fritatta or quiche. She was also the greeter and people handler. Though her decisions tended to be driven by her current state of mind rather than any long term planning. It was a refreshing approach.

The clientèle was made up of; the openly gay, the liberal, the Jewish (even though it wasn’t really a deli), and filled out with the average downtown worker. It was not a typical segment of the Boise population. Sandy had an enormous capacity for empathy, along with an enduring naiveté. This was very appealing to this clientèle. The hairdressers would bring their complaints of daily interactions, the transplanted New Yorkers would tell grim tales of why they left, and the political activists would talk about their latest projects. Sandy would take it all in with a wide-eyed excitement.

For me it was all something very real. The protective suburban cocoon was finally stripped off. The pretend work I did at school, preparing me for further years of more pretend work was finally over. These were real people coming through the door wanting some real food- and a little companionship. Sure, Boise was not a large city with a fully urbane population- the hipsters, the nightclub scene, the smartly dressed, the down and out, the ghetto, the dives, the strip clubs. Boise had its little pockets of urbanity but mostly it was a city out of the 1950’s TV. You had to buy your hard liquor out of a special state run store, though beer and wine was available at super markets. The drug scene was mostly just Big Al’s Red Eye Hut which sold “paraphernalia” (marijuana smoking smoking supplies), nearly everyday he called Sandy wanting a ham sandwich with extra ham on a bagel. There were a couple of nightclubs, the largest one was in the same building cluster as the Gem Building. I thought of it as the “Hotel Manitou” because that was the sign on the side said. It was actually called “The Bouquet Bar”. I walked by and saw people entering it one night, thinking it seemed like a pretty rough crowd. I remember Sandy being impressed when Bad Finger played there, I also remember Arlo Guthrie playing there.

One of Sandy’s friends, Paul Rio opened up a place called Desmond and Mollies’, more of a bar than a nightclub. He came into Rena’s a few times at first with a girlfriend; a belly dancer. And later with his girlfriend and another male friend and later again by himself. Apparently, his male friend had stolen his girlfriend’s heart. Paul threw me out of Desmond and Mollie’s once. My friend Kevin talked me into going there when I was about 4 months shy of 19 (the legal drinking age in Boise). Kevin ordered a beer but I ordered nothing, it was only a few minutes before he came over and asked for my ID. I also remember him coming into Rena’s once talking about the Rolling Stones concert he was going to in Portland or Seattle. I mentioned that my brother had been to one of their recent concerts and his response was something like “who hasn’t”.

There was section of town that was more rundown and neglected than the rest, on the “other side of the railroad tracks”. And there were a few black families, but very few who lived in that area. But I walked down there all the time and never felt unsafe. Small pockets of rundown buildings- and along with it cheap rent could be had anywhere in Boise. By the University, near the Capitol Building, on the “other side of the (unused) tracks”, and even some places in “The North End”. But the Downtown well-to-do would have a house along Warm Spring Blvd (heated with thermal energy since the 19th century) or along Harrison Blvd (which was the street that headed out of town toward Bogus Basin). There were some very impressive Victorians which lined those streets and still very well kept.

It was actually a good place for an eighteen-year-old to strike out on his own and a good learning kind of place. And this is where I first learned how people interact with each other on a daily basis in the real world. People were not so isolated from each other as they were in the suburbs so you had to pass each other walking down the street, at a downtown cafe, getting in your car, or walking to the corner market. These were all things I discovered I liked a great deal even though I never thought of myself as a social person. I’ve always hated parties and still do. I can never talk to people at parties, most people put on a kind of “party persona” and might give me a short word or two at then move on. At parties I’ve seen small groups of people carrying on long conversations with each other- I have never figured out what they’re talking about or how they find it enjoyable. I find parties to be just a big waste of time. Maybe you have to be drunk or stoned to understand parties. But I discovered something I really loved about just passing people and looking into their eyes while going about your daily business. Occasionally you would pass somebody you knew and strike up a short conversation but mostly it was just the experience of two people walking without being surrounded by the little protective isolation box, that is a car.

It was during a time when most cities’ urban cores had been either seriously neglected or large sections ripped out in order to prepare for “urban renewal”, and this was also true of Boise. But Boise still had a good cross section of people who lived and worked downtown, it wasn’t just for the down and out. I rented a room on Bannock St. near the old Eddy’s Bakery, where they made Boise’s version of Wonder Bread. But by then it was only a very large vacant building (nearly an entire city block) which exploded one day while I was working at Rena’s. Apparently there had been a gas leak and the entire building filled up with gas and then exploded, completely leveling the entire building. No one was hurt however.

I remember paying $80 a month for a small room in the basement. It was quick and easy to rent. The landlord, one of Boise’s Basques land owners (I later learned), gave me one or two forms. He asked about what kind of job I had. I lied and said I worked at Dairy Queen because I put an application in there.

The place seems kind of grim in retrospect. On the Second Floor, lived Nick the old Basque prize fighter who was about as out of it as someone could be. He just kind of wandered the streets all day living in his own world, probably drinking most of the time. I was never sure if he could speak or not because I never heard him say a word I could understand, he mostly just grumbled and moaned. A few months later I moved upstairs and lived across the hall from Nick. Once or twice I saw him exiting his room with the door open, the smell was an overwhelming mix of urine and drunken body odor. One time the landlord was hounding him about not paying the rent, he wondered what Nick had done with his monthly Social Security check. Nick’s toothless grunts sounded anguished and frightened.

The third upstairs tenant played his music so loud I could barely sleep sometimes and there were loud banging noises coming from his room like he was punching the walls or something like that. When he moved out, the Landlord asked me if I heard anything, I told him I did. He said it looked like he had been throwing knifes at the door. In a house across the street I recall witnessing an argument between a girl from a window upstairs and what appeared to be her ex down below. He pulled out a gun and pointed it at her. I was getting ready to call the police when he walked away.

There were just two of us who lived in the basement. We shared our entrance through the back-door of the old house with a second ground floor tenant. She lived in the back half of the chopped-up old home, not quite as old as a Victorian. The main part of the ground floor (through the front door) was occupied by a pleasant retired man who was kind enough to let me and a few other rather transient tenants use his phone on occasion. There were three rooms on the second story and those tenants had to pass through this gentleman’s space to get to them. The retired man on the ground floor seemed to like me, he would strike up conversations with me as I passed through. We watched a couple football games together and the 1980 Gold Medal Olympic hockey match on his TV downstairs.

But that was still in the future, when I first arrived I was feeling pretty lonely. It was a few days before I met the other basement tenant. I tried knocking on the door to just say “Hi.” There was no answer, so I tried the other door we shared an entrance with; the ground floor door. There was still no answer so I knocked again before giving up. Later that night while I was sleeping, the landlord swung open my door and shined a flashlight in my face. It was hard to see with my eyes adjusting and the light shining in them. I was sleeping in a sleeping-bag because I had no sheets for the bed, also I was naked, because I find that more comfortable. He was standing there with another person. He told me that the young woman who lived on the ground floor was being threatened by someone who had been “pounding” on her door early that evening. I guessed it was the young woman standing there with him, because I heard him ask her if this was the guy who was pounding on her door. Apparently she said “no” because they soon left me alone, but a lot confused. Of course, I had “knocked” on her door not “pounded” and why did she say it wasn’t me? It was a mystery I never solved but it put a good scare into me. I heard she moved out soon afterward before we even crossed paths.

It was about the third day in my new basement room before I met Kevin, who had the second basement apartment. He was friendly in a carefree sort of way. He invited me into his room which was about half again as big as mine. He was listening to KBSU on the radio and burning incense. I learned he was from Kelso Washington and was a motorcycle racer. We sat together talking for maybe an hour or so. He told me that he liked to hitchhike up to Bogus Basin and go skiing on the weekends, he suggested I join him sometime. One of the main reasons I traveled to Boise was because it was so close to skiing, so I excitedly agreed to join him.

We became good friends Kevin and I, though we were very different personalities. He had an incredible chameleon-like ability to relate to all kinds of people, and a never ending energy for adventure. It wasn’t until a few years later that I read On The Road and saw that Kevin was the Neal Cassady-type; a rare mix of social genius and lover of danger. Sandy laughed when she recalled Kevin telling her that some kid from California had moved into the room next door, she had warned him to watch out for him (me).

One of the first things we did together was to try out a pair of old wooden cross country skis Kevin had found at a thrift store. One snowy day in Boise we hiked over to Camel’s Back Park and took turns trying to ski down the short slope, using just our everyday shoes. It was not a very successful experiment we both just came straight down and fell. The snow was only an inch or two deep and when we fell the snow mixed up with dirt. It was a fun day though.

A week or two later I stood out on Harrison Blvd one Saturday morning hitching a ride up to Bogus Basin with Kevin. We got a ride surprisingly fast even though Kevin carried his skis with him. It was a guy in a van who picked us up. Kevin gave him some money for gas but was sure to tell me that this was not how it was usually done. He was a great skier; much better than me. He pushed his speed to extreme and dangerous levels, at least as far as I was concerned. We sat on the chair lift together; him smoking, he said it helped keep him warm. He listened patiently when I told him it actually constricted your blood vessels and made you colder.

We went on a few other adventures together into the mountains. A couple cross-country skiing trips and a week long backpacking trip into the Sawtooth Wilderness. We drove about a 60 miles on a paved highway and another 60 on a washboard road to get to the trail-head. We had borrowed Sandy’s car, a green VW Rabbit, Kevin drove all the way. He discovered that if you drove fast enough you kind of glided smoothly over the heavily rutted road.

We parked at the trail-head and began hiking. It was rugged terrain with trees and streams blocking the trail, it looked like the trail hadn’t been maintained at all that year, very unlike Wilderness areas in California. I don’t recall seeing another hiker for that entire week. I few years later the Sawtooth Wilderness Area was were wolves were experimentally reintroduced into the wild. They successfully established a small pack there before they were reintroduced into places like Yellowstone. Kevin had decided to go on a “cleansing fast” that week and tried to convince me I should as well. I didn’t think it was a good idea on such a strenuous journey so I brought food along, though a little less than usual. I also brought a fishing pole along. After a couple days I began sharing my small amount of food with Kevin and I was able to catch a couple of fish. We both lost a lot of weight on that hike.

On one our last days hiking we camped near the base of a smallish mountain. The sun was low enough so it was already casting a shadow on our camp. Kevin wanted to hike to the top of that mountain before dark. I barely had the energy to set up camp and told him there was no way I was hiking to the top of that mountain. He didn’t give up easily, though he kept bringing it up until it was clearly too dark to attempt it.

We drove out on a different road then we came in on, but it was even more rutted and seemed to go on forever. It followed the contours of Arrowrock Reservoir for miles. Kevin drove even faster going back and maneuvered as though he was racing, passing other cars quickly and easily. When he saw another car coming the other direction he would put his hands on the top of the steering wheel and mime like he was steering directly into them. He was completely in his comfort zone. Sandy did have to get the shocks replaced on her Rabbit not too long afterwards.

The three of us; Kevin, myself and Sandy drove out to Kelso once to bring Kevin home after he had quit working at Rena’s. It was a long drive across Eastern Oregon and then up into Kelso which was not far from Portland. Sandy and Kevin shared the driving, I was still uncomfortable driving a stick shift. We passed Mt St. Helen’s on the way and looked over at it. It had been in the news lately because it was showing some signs of volcanic activity, earthquakes, puffs of ash, things like that. Kevin’s house was at the end of a steep road, under some tall trees. His father lived there alone while Kevin wasn’t living there. Kevin’s mother had died, I can’t remember how old he was when that happened but he was mostly raised by his father. His father was a meek gentle soul, rather short a lightly built. He worked as a land surveyor the same occupation as my grandfather. Very kind and welcoming. I thought he and Sandy might hit it off but I guess not. His house was very small. The front room had a large wallpaper mural of a scene from a Washington rain forest on the wall with lots of ferns. Something that was a real throw back to the 1970’s. Kevin showed us his trophies he had won, from motorcycle racing mostly. Some were piled in his room. But there were more in a large pile in the backyard. It was an impressive pile, I had never seen trophies displayed this way before.

Kevin seemed a little depressed after arriving. He spoke to his father with irritation in his voice and I could sense he bossed him around to some degree. It was a side I hadn’t seen in Kevin before. In my mind eyes he had always been the good-natured free-spirit. He seemed uncomfortable here and already wanting to get away. We went along to visit his grandmother who lived in town. She seemed a conservative woman who brought up the subject of the bible with Kevin while we were there and how he should be reading it everyday. It tried to square this with one of the stories Sandy had told me about Kevin in his younger days in Kelso. How he and his buddies would go to the bars drinking and picking up women. They had a competition to see how many different women they could have sex with over a given period of time. Of course Kevin won that competition.

Sandy and I said our goodbyes and drove back to Boise. Sandy drove the entire way. As we passed Mt. St Helen’s we saw a plume of ash puffing upward. It was only a few months later the whole side of the Mountain exploded in one giant plume. The melting snows sent a wave of water and trees downstream that flooded much of Kelso. Sandy and I got to know each other on that drive back. I soon began working at Rena’s, taking over Kevin’s job. Enough people asked where Kevin had gone to make me realize I was a poor substitute.

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