by Ray Fowler, MD
Copyright Jan 1, 1984

(Time in Space Home)

            Awhile back I took a bicycle trip out west, and many stories happened along the way. Most of the stories I tell are made up, or they draw from the flavors of experience to spin a tale of art and the heart. My traveling stories are told just the way that they happened.

            One day I pedaled out of Missoula, Montana over the Lolo Pass into Idaho. After about 80 miles in the hills, dragging 90 pounds of bicycle through 15 gears, my legs were real tired, and I was real hungry. The can of Dinty Moore didn't look so bad as I rubbed my bone weary sacroiliac and sat in my tent, 6000 feet up in the hills, in a National Park campground. I was heading tomorrow on down the Lolo Valley to White Bird, Idaho, and then on to White Bird Mountain.

            Across the campground drive was a silver station wagon hitched up to a tiny Airstream, and the trailer's windows were flung open. The aroma of roast beef teasingly wafted downwind to me as I turned to my can opener with a sigh.

            Out of the trailer door sprang the lined smile of an old woman, accompanied by her tiny frame. She beckoned me over. "I say, would you like very much to join us for supper?" asked the quite proper Englishwoman of 70-ish years. There was no other reply but to store Dinty Moore away for another day.

            So, in this old Airstream sat a bearded, sweat-streaked, sore-bottomed biker from Georgia with a pair of ladies, elderly in years, elegant in demeanor, and timeless in spirit. They'd left California to travel around the West in their tiny Airstream, from National Park to KOA campground, a final tour for two old friends from pre-war England who'd migrated to the West coast after V-J Day. At night, they'd sit buttoned up in the Airstream, reading the Hobbit aloud to one another. My heart was absolutely captured by these old women. Free from family bonds, they were studying the parks of the West, winding up back in California whenever they got there. In the meantime, Tolkien occupied their evenings.

            The food was gourmet cuisine to a starved cyclist who'd been living out of 7-11's for over two months and who'd eaten out of a can for the last week. I felt like a Southern boy who didn't know how to act right when they served me sliced beef in juice, mashed potatoes, peas, rolls, and tea, all sculptured out of the trailer's tiny kitchen. The feast passed with stories about hobbits, and the woman who'd invited me over told me of her delight with those strange little people with hairy feet. She especially loved the way that they would band in a circle and plunge their swords into the air, crying "EXCELSIOR!" as they marched off to adventure.

            As the evening wore down, and my lids began to droop, it became apparent that the ladies would be soon ready to turn to their book. We began to conclude a discussion of our families and their whereabouts.

            Catherine, the smaller of the two and the woman who'd first spoken to me, went on to tell about her daughter, Gloria, a forty-ish divorcee who'd kept her love for travel. She had moved from country to country until she'd ended up in the Congo, leading safaris into the wilds for elephant-hunting expeditions.

            One day, Gloria was on her day off, out from civilization some one hundred miles. From the best of Catherine's scanty information, a band of native pirates had stormed their compound, killing all members of the expedition. When Gloria was found about three days later, she was lying on the ground outside her tent, dead from a shotgun blast to her chest. This was the only information that the old woman received about her daughter's death, and no effective prosecution was ever pursued by that government, mainly because no one had any idea who did it.

            It was the saddest story I'd ever heard. After her tale ended, a long pause descended gently and lay among us for a few minutes while we singly pondered Catherine's personal tragedy. Then, presently, I rose to go, and as I reached for the trailer door, she added, "I just so hope that she didn't suffer long." The phrase was more a question posed to me, the doctor, than to the bearded drifter before her. There was more grief there than I could bear, so I mumbled some reply, excusing myself and wishing them over my shoulder a good night. That poor old woman whose only daughter had been murdered by warring natives occupied my somber reflections as I blew out my candle, fluffed up my down bag, and turned to my dreams.

            As was so often the case on my ride, I slept hard and motionless, and the sun peeked in the tent at me in what seemed merely a few moments after my lids tumbled shut. After a time a rap came tapping at my tent post, and when I looked out, there was that same old smile followed by that same old lady.

            "We'll have breakfast up in a minute!" she said merrily, and as if to agree with her, the frying bacon sent messages along the wind to remind me to be quick. Another warm meal soon lay before me, and I turned to the eggs and bacon with a will. Later, after the food and the coffee, I offered my thanks for their generosity and told them how kind and gentle I thought they were. Then, I made to take my leave of them.

            Catherine showed me to the door of the trailer. As I stepped out, she caught my arm gently to halt me for a moment. I turned to look back and found her clear eyes gripping mine firmly. "Dr. Fowler, you don't think she suffered long, do you?" she asked. I was so young then and had seen so few patients. Very nearly, I almost went through an elaborate discussion of penetrating chest trauma, shock, and survival statistics.

            But, then, perhaps it was the hand of God that moved me, or perhaps just a subconscious voice within me. Whatever it may have been, I said softly, "I'm sure that she felt no pain at all. Why, she most certainly just went right off to sleep."

            With this, I held her gaze in mine for another moment, silently, and then stepped away. The packing of my bicycle occupied me for a few minutes. Swinging my leg over the bar, I strapped my feet into the pedals and gave the first big push to start myself along.

            And, to this day, I recall so well what happened next. Pedaling away, I turned once more to look back at the tiny Airstream. Catherine was leaning out of the trailer door, her right arm flung high holding her kitchen spatula.

            As I rolled away down the valley, she cried, "EXCELSIOR!" And, with a last wave back to her, bending to my effort, I rode off into the morning.