By Austin Baker
It only happened three weeks ago and I’ve been sober since. I remember it being a really nice day because I took my dog for a run and went shooting with some friends. Strange winter we were having, certainly not like last winter or the winter before that. During those winters, it stayed between negative ten and thirty for a month. It was also dreary out and always looked like it was going to snow. If it was that cold but there were some blue skies, at least it instilled some optimism. Bre prefers not to go with me when I take Huck running as the bumps and twists of the mountains make her car sick, and I don’t think my driving helps. I love it though. Huck is my dog, a three year old border collie that I got from a ranch I worked at when he was only a few months old. There are basically three major dirt roads close to town that divulge into smaller roads to drive that are less well-known or well-travelled. These smaller roads are favored by adrenaline junkies or people like me that like to push their rigs and test their driving abilities. Other than that, everything fun outside of town you have to drive forever to get to. I’m not made of money but I don’t mind paying for the gas to go drive, shoot, and run Huck.
Anyways, he’s a hard buddy to exhaust. Sometimes I have to drive twenty miles so he can run that equal distance behind my truck to be tired. I can’t understand why that would be fun for somebody, but he loves it. And since it was a perfectly good day for winter, there was no way I wasn’t taking him running. It was a Friday too! It was like in the sixties, which was great for January, and sunny, with just a few clouds in the sky. I couldn’t sit still in class thinking about how close the weekend was. No time seemed to have gone by every time I glanced at the clock when the teacher wasn’t looking. I can’t even remember what the lecture was about. The fun started after I took Huck running a casual ten miles down Sweetwater Road. It was drier than I thought, no mud to drive through. I love watching Huck’s ears flop up and down when he runs or his majestic coat blowing in the wind. He’s been around me driving through mud before. Now, he waits till I drive through it then he follows or he arcs out wide to avoid the spray I kick up. I made it back to town with him just as it was getting dark. It was one of those really orange and red sunsets that lingers in the sky for a while exploring all dynamics of the red and orange color spectrum, then, disappears completely.
So, it had been beautiful day and I remember every detail of it, even though I was really shell shocked in the moment. Shell-shocked in a different way than I was two years before when I was suspended in the air looking down through my windshield and seeing the ground pass before my eyes. The ground got closer and closer, floating right in front of me before the windshield cracked into a million shiny pieces. I was in the middle of nowhere that time too, and sober. Damn winter roads. It didn’t stop me from enjoying driving on them though. I was fortunate to have gotten through it with just a concussion. I couldn’t remember how old I was for two weeks.
This evening, I decided to celebrate the end of the work and academic week with my friends at the bar. Some of these friends were actual friends and some of them just drinking buddies that share in my misery or celebration. By share, I mean drink. They can make an excuse out of anything to take a shot, whether it was winning a pool game, losing a pool game, or using the bathroom. I tended to not drink as much as them, but I didn’t look down on them for their own, personal decisions. I know there is a difference between the two types of friends, because some of them stayed at the bar and waited my return when I got my truck stuck way up in the mountains last year; but some of them, three to be exact, got their trucks and chains and ropes and spent four hours pulling me and each other out. They only wanted a six pack of beer and some gas money for their chivalry. They succeeded in pulling me out of snow that came up to the hood of my truck. I can’t remember why I thought I could make it through that much snow. Most of my stories involve a car or truck in some regard. Sometimes when I want to be responsible, I hang out with friends that don’t drink.
I left Huck in the truck that evening. I called up a buddy and met him at the bar after he got off work to play pool, listen to good music, and drink a few cold ones. I had already been out to run Huck and shoot my new .40 cal. So, I should’ve just gone home and hit the sack early or rented a comedy, but I guess I was restless. The bar is called the Knotty Pine and was filled with like-minded cowboys that were never looking to cause trouble. Just enjoy each other’s company and drink with friends. It’s definitely not a college bar, but it was my kind of place. A lot of the inside was made of rustic looking wood. You could faintly smell smoke from cigarettes. The smell still lingered there even though the indoor smoking law changed years ago. Worn pool sticks with chipped ends lined the wall in one of the side rooms of the bar. Blue chalk marked the places on the pool tables from years of people breaking up the pool balls. This was the place I wanted to come after work to unwind. I had some great conversation with the buddy that met me there for a couple hours. He worked at a gun shop so we talked a lot about guns and Chris Kyle, the guy the made American Sniper after. I gave him some crap about his curly hair. Then, we parted ways and I went to pick up Bre to take her to dinner.
Bre is my soul mate. She is my best friend and my girlfriend. She has shorter brunette hair and darker tan skin given to her by her Native American genes. I like her cause she’s smart and she isn’t afraid to voice her opinions. She stands up for what she believes in even if it’s in opposition to my own beliefs. She makes that very apparent sometimes. Too apparent. We get in more arguments than I’d like to because we both have strong opinions, but we’ve been together two years now and are slowly figuring things out as we go. She and I have a great balance of knowing quite a bit about each other, but we still learn interesting and unique things about the other on a regular basis. There are still new stories to be told and listened to. We mutually decided to eat at Mac’s that night. She didn’t finish all her ribs and even with my help, still had left-overs. I had left-overs too; shrimp pesto pizza. I had a great IPA draft beer on tap with dinner that came from the local brewery. I went back to the Knotty Pine, my bar of choice by far, to socialize after dinner and left my wallet at home with her, only taking ten dollars out of it to go back out. It was dark, and had cooled off significantly. I spotted a close acquaintance of mine named Nate and I joined him in the corner where he talked about his feelings for a mutual friend of ours. He must’ve just gotten off work because his worn, red flannel was untucked and his pants had dirt all over them. He was a few years older than me, and taller, which most people are. I was jealous of his full, Grizzly Adams beard. He was an honest guy and a hard worker. I wondered what he thought of me. He had a dry sense of sarcasm that I always appreciated. He was easy to talk to, especially when it came to talking about diesel trucks. Nate has strong opinions when it comes to trucks. I played some classic country to pass the time. I loved when ‘Sunrise’ by Ryan Bingham finally played.
I didn’t want to kill too much time, time that I could’ve been using to catch up on sleep from the week, but I wasn’t quite ready to call it a night. I didn’t want to come home drunk either and if I continued hanging out in the bar that might’ve happened. Maybe it was how I was raised, but I felt guilty and shameful drinking more than three or four beers. It felt like a sin that I knew I shouldn’t commit, but sometimes I did it anyway. My dog doesn’t judge me but I judge me. I had worked ahead and didn’t have too much homework to do tomorrow. I played a few close games of pool with Nate; those games where you battle to hit the eight ball in at the end, but it seems to be the hardest ball to hit in. Like it has a magnet and the holes have magnets too, but the ones that repel each other. I never play incredibly competitively and never let a game get too frustrating. Pool should never come between friends. It was around twelve when I left the Knotty. Bre was probably waiting for me at the house with open arms this entire time. I should probably get back to her I thought but, I still had energy I needed to get rid of.
I knew nobody would be down Ten Mile or further up on the right once you turn on Argenta and head towards Kelly Reservoir further away from everyone and everything way up in the mountains. It’ s usually a half hour to forty minute drive up there. Argenta is the definition of a one horse town. They don’t even have a bar which every town in Montana with more than ten houses usually has. It reminds me of a cult. I left the bar and climbed into my truck. Huck looked at me with happy, excited eyes and his ears perked up, tail wagging. “Where we going?” his expression seemed to say. I let my truck warm up a bit after she cranked to life. It’s a 2013 four door silver Nissan Frontier. I love it. As soon as I came around the corner where the W walk started, I hit gravel and turned off my traction control. I could feel the back end of the truck slip out a bit due to the end’s lightness, my oversized tires, and the traction control being off. I loved it, this is what I wanted. I could see gravel and that tan, gray dust flying in my taillights and liked the fact that this road didn’t have a speed limit. It is such a release. I passed Hershey’s ranch where the speed limit changed to twenty five. No worries, I could slow down for a bit. I usually slowed down through Hershey’s property anyways because there is this dog that always comes out of nowhere barking and running right next to the tires. Makes me nervous.
I took the right toward Argenta and got on it. I could feel my back end fish tail and soaked up the rush. I let off the gas to regain traction and then accelerated down the long straight away. 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, the miles per hour climbed with no sign of slowing. My adrenaline was racing. I was wired. I was grateful to have upgraded headlights to see a couple hundred yards in front of me, even with the high beams off. Though I had been driving fast and for roughly ten minutes, it didn’t seem like I had gotten very far. I was probably only twelve or so miles out of town. My truck urged me to go faster but I slowed, especially since I was nearing Argenta with a twenty five speed limit. It’s fifteen during the day when kids are playing. The straight away looked like it went on forever.
I was in my own world. Safe and happy. I saw a white rabbit and thought about taking a few shots at it but declined out of politeness because it was late and people were sleeping. No lights from houses were on around me though. I crossed the cattle guard into Argenta and thought about how the roads might be if I drove all the way up to Kelly to have a fire. Yeah, that sounded good. A bonfire next to Kelly, I think that’s what I would do. Marinade in some warmth and contentment. The sort of feelings you can only get from standing next to a fire you built yourself secluded up in the mountains on a cool night with no work to do tomorrow. You can still pick up a few radio stations up there too.
As I approached the end of town, I saw another car’s taillights turn on facing me. Fifty yards later, I noticed the car in my rear view turn around and saw the car’s headlights right behind my truck causing everything around me to disappear except the presence of the car itself. I slowed to pull over because I was going to see if they needed help or had another car stuck in the mountains that I might need to pull out. Then, the blue flashing lights came on; their intensity echoed by the surrounding trees. Time stood still, my heart stopped, but was pounding at the same time. My palms were sweating. I checked the rearview again, hoping this time I had only been imagining the police car. Nope, still there. A thought crossed my mind, do I run?
He was in a car and I had a truck with four wheel drive that I didn’t need to get out and lock the hubs to engage. His car would bottom out on rocks as soon as I turned down a side road. The roads just a quarter mile ahead of me had ice and snow. He wouldn’t be able to keep up. I also had a thorough knowledge of the roads and knew that my bigger off-road tires could get me to the old highway a ways down near Glen, or over the mountains to Birch Creek, or out down highway 278 near Badger Pass. Would having faith in a higher power allow me to do this? The seconds went by like eternities, frozen in this moment. My whole life flashed before my eyes, and as I contemplated my options, I knew many things were about to suddenly change; my goals, my desire to teach environmental science at Colorado College, and relationships with Bre, my other friends, and my parents. I couldn’t get pulled over now, too much was at stake. Would I still be able to teach if I was over the legal limit? Would I lose my license and have to go to jail? I didn’t even have my license on me cause I left my wallet at home. I was scared and nervous but I felt confident and somewhat in control. I think people would commit more crimes if they thought they could get away with them.
Before he got too close to the back of my truck, I knew I had to make a decision. It only took a split second, but the thoughts and the processing of outcomes in my mind felt like it took hours. Almost as if time was paused, just for me to weigh my options. The world stood still around me but my mind raced. Huck sensed my tension and climbed into the shotgun passenger seat. He seemed to already know what my mind made up before it translated the decision into actions. I pressed down on the accelerator hard, my hands already in position on the steering wheel to take the next tight turn easier. I’ve never felt so much adrenaline and my heart has never beat so fast. I was practically shaking from the intensity and excitement. I thought I should’ve been a Baja racer. The last thing I saw in my rearview was his lights, slowly fading behind me.