For the first time since picking up the flowers off my leg, my surroundings caught my attention. A giant meadow behind the lodge reached nearly a mile back to the trees. The plateau near the pass, where the elevation changed the scenery slightly, the richness of the flora, especially the variety of wildflowers, continued to accompany us.
When he circled the truck and opened my door, he noticed my change of expression and attention. “Have you been here before?”
“No, this is my first time in the forest.”
“I didn’t realize that.” Maybe he meant at the Creek Lodge, but I think my answer sufficed. “Do you feel like eating?”
“Maybe a little.” Mostly I wanted and needed to break away from our discussion and maybe sitting somewhere besides the truck might help. I laid the thoughtful blossoms on the truck seat, careful not to place them in direct sunlight, but brought one with me. They wouldn’t last long and I wanted to press them into a book before they withered.
Inside the lodge, a woman behind a counter assisted guests accompanied by a wide range of assorted luggage, but he continued past the clutter into the next room. A high ceiling raised up over a sparse arrangement of tables and benches. Those near the edges included high-backed chairs, while accommodations towards the center comfortably sat dozens in a long length of family-style seating. He proceeded past the vacant hostess stand, the glass carousel of desserts, and pulled out a chair for me near the glass pane offering us a southern exposure where the sunlight felt warm and soothing. A low sign in the bottom of the window read, ‘Pie Fixes Everything.’ He notice me reading it and jumped ahead.
“It’s not entirely true,” he admitted. “It doesn’t fix everything, but it helps.”
“Hey, Sweetie!” A loud country accent bellowed from across the restaurant and a middle-aged waitress scurried over to our table. He stood up and wrapped his arms around her as she reached us, and the gesture blew my mind. The idea that he would ever hug another person was absolutely impossible if I did not witness it with my own eyes.
“Hello, Grace,” he said after they released one another. “How are you?”
“I am simply wonderful, and even better now that I get to serve you.” Her genuine happiness contrasted him completely and it surprised me to see them interact so closely.
“Grace, I’d like you to meet Natalie. She works in the Forest Service office down in town. She’s new, so I am giving her a tour of the mountains.” Really? Is that what this weekend is? While not entirely true, it was the first I heard him give any indication as to what this weekend entailed.
“Nice to meet you, honey.” She was one of those down-home, cheerfully gregarious kind of people – quite nearly his opposite – that belonged in the diner of a small lodge. She turned away and continued her conversation with him, “So I missed you last week. I heard you stopped by.”
“Yes, how are you feeling?”
“Oh, I’m fine. You know how these summer colds blow in and out. They knock you off your feet and a week later, your still hackin’ and coughin’ but the worst of it’s already long gone.” She changed the subject. “So what can I get for you two today?”
We didn’t even have menus, so I wondered if he requested a usual order. Clearly this was not his first time at the Creek Lodge. “For starters, I would like a beer, whatever you’ve got cold and imported. And later we’re definitely going to need some pie.”
She nodded as if she understood something secretive about the pie. “And you sweetie?”
“Umm, I’ll have the same. And do you happen to have a menu?”
“Oh, yes, honey, I’ll bring one around in a bit. I just had to stop and see my favorite mountain man.” He smiled at her and she wandered off to the kitchen.
I wasn’t sure what to ask about their friendly exchange other than commenting that she seemed nice, and that sounded lame even before I could say it, so I just remained quiet.
“Grace’s brother and I served a couple tours together in Iraq.” He answered the obvious question I did not bother to ask.
“Oh,” I nodded. I sometimes forgot that he was a vet, and when reminded, I considered that there was so much about him that remained a mystery, despite all we discussed in the past twenty-four hours. In fact, Grace was the first person with whom I saw him interact who opened herself up and embraced him. In fact, I hadn’t seen him interact with just about anyone, only Bonnie in the office and the hikers on the trail, no one to provide insight about his friendships and his life beyond what I saw. There was so much I wanted to know, though, but I doubted I would ever get to crack that nut. I decided now was not necessarily the time to ask about Iraq, but I decided to at least hint at it.
“I’d like to know about him, too, someday.” I still held the flower in my hand, and I finally set it down when I saw Grace coming with our drinks, and a menu.
“Here you go, Sweetie.”
“Thanks, Grace.” She set down the menu in front of me, and scurried off again, even though the restaurant was mostly empty. I wondered why she didn’t bring him a menu.
“Do you need to look at this?” I offered it to him.
“No, I know what I want.” There were four pages of standard American fare. Suddenly, it all sounded delicious. The only thing I knew I didn’t want was fish.
“It’s all good.”
“What are you having?”
“A burger. They have one with bacon and white cheddar cheese that is good.”
“That sounds good. I’ll have the same thing, but no bacon.”
“You don’t like bacon?” He asked, nearly aghast, or at least by his standards. I unloaded one of the most painful ordeals in my life, and the bacon gets this kind of reaction? I wasn’t upset, but rather amused.
“Oh, no, I love bacon. But I like it really crunchy, just south of burnt, and most places cook it so it’s too chewy, so I just omit it rather than be teased by it.”
He appeared relieved, a bit dramatic for bacon, but finally something mundane and easy to discuss.
“Do you mind ordering for me? I’m going to step to the ladies’ room for a few minutes.”
“Oh, and if they have it, can you ask for pepper jack cheese. I’m still a southwestern girl at heart.”
I took a drink of my beer, which could not have been more cold and refreshing, and then excused myself to the lobby in search of the restrooms.