“Call my cell if you need anything,” Em joked to her husband during one of many sleepless nights on their king-sized mattress. Designer sheets: final chapter in a marital saga spun once upon a cozy time, on a lofty college bunk. Single bed togetherness had trudged a 40-year journey, bargain twin sheets to 1200 thread count. Twelve rooms. Six televisions. One monumental bed. Over-sized loneliness.
Em, family therapist, claims successful marriage is a railroad track. A bride and groom start sideways on a single rail, she says, holding hands in support; they teeter, advancing precariously together. And then, one partner steps across to a separate rail. Balance. Each partner then walks a rail, gazing toward a horizon where two lines will merge. They still hold hands, each comfortable on a solitary track.
She thinks of her own marriage, the two rails listing a fraction of an inch apart each year. Soon she and Franklin will no longer touch fingers. Em calculates the rails will eventually drift apart, never to come together again. Total derailment is not out of the question. But for now, Em and Franklin’s lives are sterile and secure. Separate.
Franklin had developed the habit of “watching total strangers pretend to do stuff,” Em’s definition of TV. In response, she’d retreat to the bedroom with a book. But Em longed to feel a cascade of water pummel her face, to stalk elephants and loons, to dance wildly for no reason. Shed the skin of her life – job, house, her marriage to Franklin– everything she’d strived for. Swap it for something else.
On her drive to work, Em spots a decrepit 1950s trailer in a pasture. She stops to inquire. A peeling farmhouse door opens to a flannel-shirted guy.
“Want to sell your old trailer?” Em asks, not sure she wants it.
Inside, a pan sizzles. A woman looks up, a ragged smile upon her lips. “Yes, damn it. We’ll never use it. Sell the pile of crap,” she barks.
“A hundred and fifty?” Just like that, Em owns the pile of crap, someone else’s broken dream.
Flannel Man deposits the blemished canned ham thing on Em’s driveway. Em kneels and peels. Soon, vinyl squares checker the scarred floor. Piles of debris fly out the pocked tin door; she slaps leftover turquoise and orange paint on cabinet doors. Franklin gives the trailer a wide berth. Em soldiers on.
When a trailer (or a marriage) is ramshackle, minuscule improvements are profound. A crib mattress (dragged down attic stairs) replaces a mousy cushion. A foam cylinder with pillow cases adds breadth. Bright quilts enhance little more than a cot. Em wonders if two adults can tolerate infant space. Two aging humans who might not like one another very much, two bodies accustomed to 76-inch width.
Once “cleaned,” the trailer ceiling is dry and splintered. Layers of oily filth from the gas stove had held veneer in place through the decades; now it crumbles down. Over dinner, Em speaks of her failed project. Franklin looks past Em to a victorious big-screen double play.
A 1950s gas heater and stove are non-functional, so Em embraces alternative energy, electrifying her camper with toaster oven, water boiler, hot plate (doubling as heater) and a light bulb on a string. When not near a plug-in, she says, charcoal and a flashlight might do. The ceiling remains a puzzle.
“Maybe we could cover the ceiling with the old tin,” Franklin offers one day. Em, surprised, glances up from turquoise paint.
Together, they scrape, measure, and bend, man-handle sharp tin scavenged from a yard sale years ago. Franklin rivets it in place. Dead mouse and disinfectant odors linger.
Purely for practice, Em and Franklin haul the 13-foot rig to a campground, and Franklin brags he can turn off the kitchen light, brew a pot of coffee and sweep the floor, all from his tiny berth. “Using only the toes of your right foot,” Em adds.
Spooned on their son’s old baby bed, the couple finally sleeps, exhausted from shifting and redesigning the bends in their bodies, the cracks of marital strain. Together at last, after all these years, thinks Em, (uncertain for how long).
“We should try a bigger trip,” Franklin suggests. They both arrange sabbaticals.
Em wonders if breathtaking scenery might heal her. And if the two of them can survive a rustic pilgrimage, perhaps the marriage can thrive. If not, well, it would remove her from it or it from her, like a gauze bandage pulled fast from an infected wound. Em figures this is Franklin’s final effort as well, though he never speaks of it.
Nostalgic discomfort is like time travel, Em thinks. September first the couple drives west to a time with no room service, no television. Em is a hardy pioneer. She saws a frozen pizza in half and toaster oven-izes it in shifts. By the time the first half is eaten, a second half is ready. The couple embarks on a “P” diet: pizza, peanut butter and pinot. Perfect. One night Franklin craves his favorite cookie, and Em introduces an “O.” A late night science experiment proves to Franklin that Oreos will not combust in a campfire.
The silver caravan eases its way cross-country toward Yellowstone. Em imagines a purple-peach sunset, a full moon slung over a rocky mountainscape.
Yellowstone, the granddaddy of parks, disappoints. “Campgrounds these days are just parking lots for mansions on wheels,” complains Em. Her trailer is dwarfed amid RV giants, modern swoosh designs on mammoth RVs the only views she gets.
“They’re giant toasters,” says Franklin. He’s longing for big screen magic, thinks Em. Undeterred, she seeks scenery.
The two hike from their parking lot in search of nature. At Old Faithful, they sip a mellow red from a brown paper bag. Minutes become hours. Like National Geographic photographers at a watering hole, they observe human animals free from their cages. Bison step alarmingly close; the beasts shed their beards, and Franklin drapes his face.
At sunset, they tiptoe their way to the campground restroom for icy showers, returning to their tiny, quilted bed. One night the women’s latrine overflows, and Franklin smuggles Em into the men’s side where they squelch giggles behind a plastic curtain. Afterwards, they shimmy into their berth and relax to a bug-owl symphony. “I think I still smell mouse,” says Em, but Franklin is asleep.
One night, a cooler stowed beneath the tow bar tempts a bear, Yogi’s midnight snack tipping their trailer from its jack. The house-on-wheels traverses a slant and rolls into an RV across the lane, popping its inhabitants out of their toaster. Accusations disrupt Van Gogh’s starry night.
Em and Franklin haul out of Yellowstone next morning, vowing to score a peaceful view, possibly a motel room, a restaurant meal and a fresh plan.
A new itinerary presents itself just outside Yellowstone’s south entrance when they notice their silver bedroom fishtailing like a shiny lure. Franklin maneuvers the lopsided minnow to the shoulder, just as a rear tire loses its resolve to remain circular. The two pour a morning wine, crawl into their baby bed and fall fast asleep.
Sharp knuckles at the door startle them awake. “You can’t park here,” explains a ranger. He endures Franklin’s story of unpreparedness.
“You won’t be able to get anyone here until Monday morning.” The ranger pauses. He imagines his grandparents losing their marbles, searching the wilderness for them, senile enough to be without a spare tire or cell phone. He helps Em and Franklin muscle their rig a safer distance off-road. As the men secure the jack, Em finally spins to her breathtaking view.
“Don’t worry. I’ll call the tire guy. He’ll be here Monday morning.” The ranger’s car fades into the distance, just as a rusty Taurus rattles into view. The powdery words “J_st Marr_ed” sift off the back window. The Taurus parks ahead; young newlyweds emerge. Muddy tears streak the girl’s face, her sexy outfit wrinkled, armpits stained with sweat.
“Dude. Where did you find your old hippie-rig?” asks the groom. Em regales the couple with her story of vintage camper renovation; the bride and groom mourn their car trouble and ruined honeymoon. The kids are married four days to Em and Franklin’s 40 years. The ‘til-death-do-us-part’ idea is sketchy, thinks Em.
“Are you hiking in?” asks Dude.
“I already told you, I’m too tired,” whines Bride. Wet eyes flash at her shiny-new husband.
“Hiking in– to where?” Franklin wonders.
“Pole Cat Springs. There’s supposed to be a trail here – we could soak in the hot springs. Wouldn’t that be awesome, Hon?” Dude grins and reaches for Bride; she slaps him away. “You guys should go with us.” He opens his billfold and extracts a crumpled paper, a map to the springs. Franklin leans in to see.
“Why can’t we just get a room with a hot tub?” Bride swabs her nose with a sleeve.
Guilt squeezes the space around Em’s heart; she should be on the bride’s side. Forty years ago she had been on her own less-than-perfect honeymoon, her groom choosing TV over her. “We’d love to hike with you. We’re stuck here anyway. I’ll get a backpack.” Em grabs towels and cushions two bottles of wine in a pair of socks. The couples set out.
By the time they locate the squiggly pencil line labeled “Grassy Lake Road,” the sun is low and west. Blushing Bride is flush with anger. When she slips and twists an ankle, the men support her between them. They cajole her to walk a few yards on her own.
When she slips into a marshy puddle, Bride drops and wails. Mud covers her left foot up to the ankle.
“Mud means water, so we must be close,” says Em. She reaches into her pack. Bride watches as Em slips socks from wine bottles. “Here, dry your feet. We’ll have some wine at Polecat,” she adds with a wink.
Within minutes, Em sees steam, and the bride (now giddy) spies the hot spring. The four take turns disrobing behind a curtain of marshes; discretely, they slither into the simmering pool. All except Dude who struts his stuff to the edge and perches upon a flat rock.
Em is enveloped in some kind of sacrament: baptism or communion, she doesn’t know. Perhaps it’s crystal air on flushed faces meeting steamy water on eager nerve endings. The wine.
Em proclaims a toast: “To fresh starts!” Each couple grasps a bottle. Clink. Drink. Switch. They settle into a rhythm, bottles rotating couple to couple with each salute.
“To new babies,” toasts the bride, eying her naked man.
“To adult children with jobs and their own bank accounts,” adds Franklin.
“To this place, this moment,” says Dude.
And as they toast, a bison couple beds down in weeds beyond the steam. Nature unfolds and reveals itself until sunset chills the air. When a giant bull moose appears, the four, buck naked and mute, slip out of the water. Dry clothes meet wet bodies.
Bride’s ankle miraculously healed, a full moon illuminates their silent pilgrimage back. The four hug awkwardly, and the Taurus pulls away as Em and Franklin climb into their cozy can. Em ponders the mysterious immersion, a tangible rebirth of something intangible.
That September sabbatical, Em and Franklin suffer close quarters at the edge of boundless life. They make peace and a little love, sample morsels of a wild world with no clocks. They ease their silver cocoon back into the drive on October 1, buy a slip of land on a nearby stream and park the old camper there.
Weekends, Em and Franklin slip away to the trailer. They descend to the water with kayaks and a bottle of red. As they silently paddle the Cedar, a crane lifts from a log ahead and soars easily above the stream. The bird lands on a sandbar, twists its long neck to gaze back at them. Beckoning.
—Kristi Paxton splits her time between Iowa woodlands and Southern waters, where in winter she might be somewhere in a 43-foot trawler. She has written numerous features for University of Northern Iowa and regional newspapers. She shares life with her husband Denny and wire-fox terrier Smalls, snatching precious time with grown kids and a first grandchild whenever she can. While in Iowa, Paxton substitute teaches all grades and subjects in Cedar Falls Community Schools. For fun, she cooks, hikes, swims and kayaks. She enjoys yoga, coffee and taking Smalls on long paddle board rides. Currently, she is exploring the short story and penning a memoir about life aboard Pax Terrapin, a saga that takes a new slant since Hurricane Ian destroyed the beloved hippie boat in September 2022.
KRISTI PAXTON ON “POLECAT SPRINGS”
“Four decades ago– when we were young – my husband and I cross-country skied in to Polecat Springs with friends. The memory of this remarkable place eventually (accidentally?) became the center of a story I’ve toyed with since 2012.
Two decades ago, I found myself restoring a 1950s mess of a “canned ham” travel trailer, so there is that.
Em and Franklin are roughly my age now, so I understand the life they live, the questions they have, the longings they feel. Taking them on a journey to an accidental destination – Polecat Springs – gave me a chance to revisit the place myself, to see my older self meet my younger as Em sees her younger self in the bride.
I hope my story challenges the reader to explore the power of nature, of compromise, of restoration and renewal, the idea that the unplanned destination often harbors a grand secret. I thank The Writer editors who took time to read Polecat Springs and allowed me to share my creative process.”