They Left The Skull

While I was eating lunch yesterday, Kathy, an agent from our car insurance company called to update the credit card they have on file. Instead of telling her I was in the middle of enjoying a bowl of hot soup and she should call back later, I put down my spoon and said, “Sure, let me go find it.”

The silence on the phone, broken only by the sound of my breathing as I climbed the stairs to my office, was so awkward, I felt compelled to fill it with small talk. “Amica has been our insurance company for like, forever,” I said.

“Yes. And we truly appreciate your business, Ms. Kusel,” Kathy replied cheerily.

As I unzipped my purse and reached for my wallet I added, “You guys really came through for us when we were robbed during our honeymoon,” as if needing to justify why I’d not shopped around for a better rate.

I could almost hear Kathy sit up in her seat. “You were robbed on your honeymoon?”

“Yeah, it was a nightmare, but I don’t want to bore you.” By now I had the card in my hand, and a slagheap of memories beginning to smother my hippocampus. 

“You will definitely not bore me. I want to know what happened,” Kathy prodded, far less interested now in the 16 digits than in my personal tragedy. I pictured her working in her home office, her window looking out at the play structure in the backyard, a cold cup of coffee on her desk. Days long spent discussing dents and scratches; chipped windshields, and towing services. Perhaps my story would offer her a distraction; a small break from the business of due diligence.

I sat down on the yellow couch, tossed the card onto my desk and told her that because I married a school teacher and because I didn’t have a “real” job, we spent the entire summer after our wedding traveling through the wilds of the western US and Canada. We put over 5,000 miles on our Honda Civic hatchback. It was an unforgettable adventure…

Until it wasn’t.

I figured she wouldn’t care about the other, better parts of the trip so I left those out.  For instance, I didn’t describe for her that night in Idaho, where we’d camped in an empty campground, only to be woken up just before dawn by the scary sound of an obviously sick man snorting outside our tent. We cautiously opened the flap and there, 20 feet away, a gigantic moose was noisily making its way across the shallow pond, the pale pink sun reflecting off its wet flanks. I’d grabbed my new red-covered journal, clean and white and empty, and wrote a poem, titling it “The Moose.” It was to be the first of many dozens of poems and stories I’d fill that journal with.

I didn’t tell her about our weeks spent in Glacier National Park, first at an overcrowded campground where we hunkered under a giant tarp playing gin rummy and drinking hot chocolate while an incessant rain fell. When it finally ceased, we’d backpacked miles and miles of the park’s wondrous trails. Wherever we stopped to make camp, we made sure to take the park’s rules seriously: we hung all our food, toothpaste—anything that could attract bears—from tall poles. We only pitched our tent at designated spots. We only cooked in designated cooking areas. There had already been more than 1,000 grizzly sightings that season and we were so afraid of accidentally startling a hungry mama bear that we tied bells to our packs and carried large canisters of red-pepper spray as we hiked. I didn’t tell her about the three guys from New Jersey who packed in their fishing poles and who, after catching five iridescent trout from the lake and cooking them in a pan with nothing more than a slab of butter and a splash from last night’s flat Budweiser, shared their breakfast with us. And how, even now, I cannot remember ever tasting anything so delicious.

Or about our time in Yellowstone when, after my new husband dunked his naked body in a warm spring, he emerged covered in tiny red worms.

Or about getting charged by a mountain goat, its enormous ringed horns missing me by a few inches as it raced by.

I didn’t bother telling her that our visit to Banff National Park was nothing short of awful—the campground was jam-packed with loud, partying park workers who found it terrifically fun to slingshot rocks at passing elk.

If I had more time, or I knew her better, I would have wanted to tell her about the delectable cheese sandwich we shared after hiking 4.5 miles to the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House above Lake Louise.

And about finding the mountain sheep skull in the Gros Ventre Wilderness outside of Jackson Hole, and tying it to Victor’s backpack so we could keep it forever.

And about having to hike to higher and higher elevations in Wyoming’s Wind River Valley in a futile attempt to escape the swarms of mosquitos. Even at 12,000 feet, they found us. I had my period then and whenever I squatted to relieve myself, well…I’ll let your imagination do what it will with that. 

I didn’t tell her that my brother-in-law and his dog joined us for a five-day trip to Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area—the final portion of our epic six-week honeymoon. I didn’t admit that even though I’d grown a wee bit tired of the smell of Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint soap, and eating dried rice noodles with dehydrated vegetables, and squeezing out the air from my Therm-a-Rest pad, and burying my poo and hiking in dirty socks, I was still super excited for our ONE LAST TREK.

I didn’t tell her that while I stood in the trailhead parking lot, stuffing my backpack for the last time, my lower back (long ago injured when I flew out the door of a moving car) started to ache. Just enough so that I thought it would be wise to keep the pack as light as possible.

I didn’t tell her that this last-second decision to jettison my Nikon camera, an extra pair of socks and my journal would come to haunt me for a lifetime. (Not the socks part.)

I didn’t tell her that after five hard, cold but blissful days spent exploring the stunning glacial lakes and enchanting alpine meadows of Faith, Hope and Charity, we’d packed up early and started hiking back to the car. Or about when we came to a spot where the trail wound widely around to the east, my brother-in-law and his brother decided it would be quicker to cut across a steep snow field. And about how I’d balked; said I wanted to stay on the trail where I could follow the footprints made by others.

“Okay,” my spouse anew had said, “We’ll meet you where the trail picks up again.”

I’d watched as they began to slide down the hill, the dog leaping up and over snowdrifts, before I continued on. I’d walked about fifteen minutes before reaching an area that was so packed down by snow and ice that footprints were impossible to detect. I’d momentarily panicked but kept moving until I found myself in a forested area completely devoid of all human disturbance. No broken branches. No tracks. No path either, for that matter.

I was 8.5 miles from the car—ostensibly an unsafe place to get lost.

It was then that I flashed on what Victor—the man who never should have let a woman with a very bad sense of direction hike alone—always said: “If you ever get separated from your group, you should go back to the place you were last together.”

I didn’t tell her how relieved I was when I found my way back to that very spot overlooking the snowfield. How I’d anxiously waited for what seemed like an hour in the silence, the wind, the snow, the sun, hoping that one of the men or possibly the dog would realize I was not where I was supposed to be and also turn around. How I’d cried with joy (and anger) when I heard voices coming towards me on the trail. How Victor hugged me close and apologized and promised he’d never ever leave me again.

So, what did I tell Kathy, the agent from Amica? I told her that when we’d finally arrived at the parking lot, many exhausting hours later, we found that our cars had been attacked by what might have been an angry sledgehammer. The windshield, driver’s side and passenger windows of our Honda Civic—the golden chariot that had in turn been our home, our nuptial bed, our kitchen and dining room, our closet and our shelter from the storm—were shattered to smithereens. Sharp shards stuck out from the frames like broken teeth. (Only the driver’s-side window of my brother-in-law’s truck received the same damning punishment.)

For a few seconds I wasn’t able to breathe, I was so shocked. Then, as I moved ever closer to the car and saw the vast emptiness within, I broke down.

They. Took. Everything.

Except the skull. They left the skull. 

“We had to drive ten miles with the car like that,” I said to Kathy, recalling how I’d held a shirt over my face to keep the dust from the dirt road and the glass from the busted windows from blowing into my eyes. Victor wore his sunglasses, but kept getting nicked by flying debris.

We drove to the nearest town of Sisters and checked into the first cheap motel we saw because we needed to call the police (this was pre-iPhones, my friends). The policeman took our information, but warned us that this was a common occurrence in the area. “Meth heads,” the officer admitted.

“And then we called Amica.”

“I’m so sorry that happened to you,” Kathy said, obviously glad I was finally getting to the part that had any relevance to her.

“I was crying hysterically and I remember the agent was incredibly sympathetic. She sent a glass repair service to the motel and fixed our cars. And you reimbursed us for some of our things, like the camera and camping stove and our clothes.” 

Kathy sighed. “I’m so glad we were there for you.”

“Yup,” I stated a little too brusquely. I suddenly wanted to end the conversation and get on with my day. I didn’t want to get all nostalgic; sad that my daughter would never see pictures of her young parents on top of snow-peaked mountains, sun-beaten, strong, and newly in love. I didn’t wish to dwell on the many pages of intimate words I’d scribbled in that red-covered journal. Stolen thoughts that have long since turned to dust.

I reminded myself that nothing truly tragic happened to us that day. I didn’t end up  lost in the woods, frozen to death. Our Honda, with its shiny new windows, delivered us safely and soundly back home to Seattle. All that was really taken from us that day was stuff.  Some of it we were able to replace. Some of it we’ll just have to remember.

“I’m gonna read you the card now, okay?” I said, reaching toward my desk.

“Sure,” Kathy replied. “Ready when you are.”





25 thoughts on “They Left The Skull

  1. As always dearest Lisa, you leave me wanting more. I am so grateful to be catapulted into your world and reminded of my own adventures from long ago. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How romantic, a honeymoon skull!!! I love this story, I feel like you just told me over a warm bowl of soup. Truly memorable and if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this soooo much! Didn’t want it to end. More! More please! Sounds like an amazing honeymoon, Lisa (far more interesting than my non-existent honeymoon…) You may have lost the journal and the camera, but clearly, your memories are fully in tact! (Did I say *MORE* yet?…)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow what a story. Seriously what an intense honeymoon too. The places you’ve seen and the peoples you have met. Incredible. Thanks for sharing. I really enjoy these stories and the way you write makes me feel like I’m there. ❤


    Liked by 1 person

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