BETWEEN CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEARS in 2003, my wife,
younger son and I drove up to Buena Vista, Colorado,
for some snow skiing at Monarch with a group of friends.
We had a wonderful time at first, but after a couple of
days of skiing in the high mountain air, my rubberized,
out-of-shape legs were in knots and on fire. Each day,
driving to and from the ski resort along side the
beautiful Arkansas River, I began to detect its siren's
song, calling to me like a curvaceous lovelorn wench,
tickling my ears with her rippling-water call, "Come
fish me, Norm. Come fish me." It was torture to be that
close to water and not be able to fish it. Just pure
By Norm Cox
On the fourth morning there, I just couldn't
take it any more. Hopping out of bed and landing
on knotted-up, jelly-legs, I told the family that
it just ain't natural for Cajuns to ski on frozen
water, and that I needed some "river time." I said
it with all the gusto of Lil' Abner's Mammy Yokum,
"Ah has spoken!" hoping to deflect the certain ire
from the home general. Surprisingly, my grandiose
statement was met with, "Good! At least I won't have
to hear you whine anymore about being cold, or wet,
or sore, or..."
Fine, I thought. I can deal with that. Looks like
it's gonna be a good day after all. I dropped the
family off at Monarch, and high tailed it back into
Salida to buy some el cheap-o fishing gear and a
one-day license at the local Wal-Mart. A knowledgeable
furniture salesman and avid fisherman I happened to
encounter in town recommended a remote access point
for the river somewhere way out in the boonies near
an abandoned stone bridge. Great! The more secluded
and free of people the better. He sketched out some
rough directions and I was on my way.
I easily found the old stone bridge spanning a narrow
run of the river about 10 miles outside of town, between
Salida and Buena Vista. It was a couple of miles off
the main road, and not a single person or car anywhere
to be seen or heard. The picturesque river had a ledge
of ice around the edges, clear rippling water in the
center, sunshine, blue skies, and hopefully lots of
cooperative fish. Just imagining feeling a vibrating
tug on my line, I got that little tingling, fluttering
feeling in my chest in anxious anticipation of finally
being able to FISH!
I looked at my watch, and figured I had a couple
of hours of daylight before I needed to go retrieve
the family off the slopes. Perfect. I
got out of the Durango, smelled the crisp air, and
could hear nothing but the sound of water and a
gentle breeze coming across the hills. Man,
this was gonna be great! Just me and nature. No
crowds of obnoxious ski people in their cute little
aero-package outfits and reflective sunglasses. No
kids to gather around my snow-buried carcass and ask
"Hey mister, you ok?" No more lift "dudes" prodding
me to hurry up while wearing concrete ski boots and
2x4s strapped to my feet.
Unfortunately, there's also no one around to hear you scream.
I opened the back of Durango, and began unwrapping
the various fishing lures, hooks, bait, pliers, bobbers
and other paraphernalia in the Wal-Mart bag, placing
them in my jacket pockets. Just a few more minutes now,
and I'll finally be on the river. With my rod rigged,
and all my fishing accoutrements pocketed, I closed
the back of the car, doing one last mental inventory
to make sure I had everything. Pole? Check. Lures?
Check. Pliers? Check. Bait? Check. Keys? ch... Keys?....
Keys? Where's my keys? Doing a personal pat-down
on my pants and jacket, the keys obviously weren't on my
person. Hmmm, must've laid them down somewhere.
Sure enough, looking through the back glass of the
Durango, on the floor in plain sight among the
wrappers and Wal-Mart fishing slough, were my keys.
No big deal, I thought. Thank heavens I've got
electric door locks, and you can't lock the doors
until you press the button on the key ring. That's
why I was looking for the keys in the first place...
to lock the car before I wandered off to fish.
I lifted the latch on the hatch door, but it was
locked! That's weird, I thought. That shouldn't be
locked. Not to panic...yet. I walked
around to the driver's door. Locked also! Hey, this
shouldn't be locked either. Preparing to panic,
Sir. Around to the passenger door. Locked!
Rear passenger door. Locked! Request permission
to launch full scale panic attack, sir!
Oh, God, please... no! No! NOOOOOOOOO!!!! My wails
echoed off the distant hills, as my eyes went buggy,
my pulse quickened and my breathing became shallow.
Taking in only short, quick breaths as my mind began
to spin, I quickly realized the depth of do-do that
I was in. NOOOOOOoooo o o o!!!!!!!!!! But it was too
OK. What just happened? Think, Norman, you idiot!
I quickly took stock of the past few minutes, and
remember hearing a distinctive, yet familiar click
sometime during the gathering of my fishing gear.
For some reason I dismissed it as a normal car noise,
but nothing to be concerned about. Now, in the lowering
light of the Colorado wilderness, miles from anyone,
anywhere, or any means of communication, I realize
that maybe, just maybe I should have been concerned
about that insignificant little click back then. I
was certainly concerned NOW!
I stood there for just a moment, my mind abuzz as
I stared at the very securely locked,
not-quite-so-idiot-proof vehicle in front of me. I
could not begin to come to grips with the fact that
someone so educated, intelligent, organized, and
handsome could get themselves in such a precarious
predicament. It just wasn't happening! It must be a
bad dream that I would wake up from shortly. Surely
I'm not this stupid!
As the stark reality began to sink in and the
gravity of my situation came into focus, I took
a mental stock of my predicament. I had a cell
phone, but there was no available signal out
here in the wilds, so I couldn't call anyone. I
knew the way back to the main highway, but that
was miles away on foot. At best I had a couple
of hours of daylight. And no one on God's green
earth had any idea where I was, so no one would
know where to start looking for me if I didn't
show up at the Monarch ski area to pick up the
family. They were stranded on the mountain. I
was stranded in the woods. Yep, I surely was in
deep do-do without a snorkel and I didn't like
my options. I needed a plan. And quick. But first,
there was some unfinished business to take care of.
When I was a kid, I'd always heard my mom talk
about someone "throwing a conniption fit" whenever
something bad happened. She'd say things like, "Boy
howdy, ol' Cooter threw a conniption fit when she
found Newtsie out on the town with that bleached
floozy!" Given that sort of context, I figured it
was some wild-eyed, thrashing, fire-spewing,
hunchbacked, demon-possessed kind of funky-chicken
dance with lots of screaming. But, never actually
having seen anybody throw one, I really didn't have
the foggiest idea what one looked like. However, on
this day, inspired by my idiocy, I do believe I may
have performed a world class Cajun-watusi-conniption
right there on the icy banks of the beautiful Arkansas
River...all by my lonesome.
First, I threw my head back and roared several of
my best, deep-throated, "AAARRRGGGHHH!!!!" until
all the air in my lungs were exhausted and in danger
of collapsing, and the veins on my neck on the verge
of exploding. Then, bending forward at the waist, I
stomped and jumped and spun around, injun-style in
a couple of tight circles, teeth and fists clenched
tightly, mumbling some sort of growling gibberish.
At the end of the second spin cycle, and like a
finely-tuned discus thrower, I extended my arms
wide and flung my brand new Wal-Mart Dee-Lux
lightweight spin-cast trout combo rod and reel in
helicopter fashion about 50 yards down the road.
I paused to listen to its whoosh-whoosh, and watch
it bounce a couple of time before coming to rest
in some bushes, noting it's location in case I ever
came back to any semblance of sanity.
With both hands now free, I put a death-grip on the
sides of my gimme cap and tried unsuccessfully to
force my contorted head and face out through the top
of its canvas dome. In a moment the searing pain in
my crumpled, folded ears briefly brought me to my senses.
Undaunted and still committed to fully venting my
frustrations, I peeled the cap off and began beating
the truck with it as though it were on fire, with each
lick raising a little cloud of dust at the point of
impact. The last impassioned lick knocked the cap from
my grip and it slid across the hood to the other side
of the truck. Fully engulfed with the conniption spirit
now, I was easily persuaded that the hat was in some
way part of a vast right wing conspiracy to quench the
spirit and curtail my speaking in tongues. Like
that's gonna happen! I charged around the truck
and commenced my straight-jacketed river-dance, grinding
and stomping the helpless hat into a crumpled heap in the
loose road gravel.
Wheeling around for another banshee scream, my still
sore jelly-legs gave way on the gravel marbles and my
exhausted body crumbled into a dusty, panting heap.
The jarring impact with the hard ground put a major
frog in my gluteus maximus, and somehow exorcised the
frenetic spirit that had invaded my body. Lying flat
on my back in a perfect gravel angel position, I felt
my heart pump like a driving piston under my shirt. My
chest quickly rose and fell as I desperately gulped at
the thin mountain air. I laid there for what seemed an
eternity waiting for my red-lined body engine to return
to idle. I could smell the dust in the air around me and
taste its grit between my teeth. I also remember thinking
how pretty the clouds were.
In a few minutes the pounding in my head subsided
and my eyes were able to focus again. I rolled my
head to one side, making sure it was still attached,
and for the first time noticed just how many
cantaloupe-sized rocks there were just lying around.
Well, I thought, unless I get a better idea, I guess
I could use one of these rocks to break a window.
Option number one...a bad one, but an option nonetheless.
Having finished my cathartic conniption business, I
slowly stood up, dusted myself off, picked up my tattered,
dirt-colored cap and smacked it across my leg. Time to
put on my thinking cap, even if it did look like dusty
road kill. And then, back in pseudo-control of my emotions
and sensibilities, I considered my options. I found it
ironic- even amusing-that in this "advanced" age of
technology, I had a cell phone, a digital camera, electric
door locks and such, and yet the most useful implement to
me at that very moment was a common river rock, ergonomically
fashioned by Ma Nature to fit perfectly in my hand and equally
adequate for opening my vehicle. Technology...Schmechnology.
In short order, I fashioned a plan. I would hike back
to the main highway, flag down a passing Samaritan,
hitch a ride back into Salida, call Monarch to let
the family know I'd be late, hire a tow-truck to take
me back to my vehicle, jimmy the door locks, pay him
lots of money to retrieve my keys, drive back to Monarch,
pick up the family, and catch holy hades from the wife
for doing something so incredibly dumb. Okey dokey then.
That sounds like a plan! And I set off towards the sunset.
In about an hour I reached the main highway. It is
a hilly two-lane blacktop with a 70mph speed limit
frequented mostly by locals who can probably drive
the road blindfolded. In fact, I think some of them
were. The first couple of vehicles that I tried to
flag down didn't seem to even notice me, swerving
slightly only at the last minute to keep from
hitting me. Each one actually sounded like they
intentionally sped up as they approached, creating
a wall of wind that brushed me back, blew my tattered
cap off and sent me scrambling into the ditch. They
acted like they'd never seen a fool wearing matching
Eddie Bauer clothes and a road kill cap in the middle
of nowhere before. It didn't look like this was going
to be such a good idea after all. So much for the
Pulling myself back onto the shoulder, I again set
off towards town. Worst case I'll be there by
morning... I shivered at the thought. In a
half-mile or so, off in the distance, maybe a
quarter-mile up the hill from the main highway I saw
a small cabin with a couple of cars in front. Yes!
People! New game plan. I'd go explain my sad
situation to them and ask to use their phone. Surely
they had a phone. Surely they'd have sympathy on my
plight. Surely they'd open their home to a total stranger.
In a few more precious daylight minutes I was making
my way up the driveway toward the small cabin. I could
tell someone was home, though I never actually saw anyone
there. Something about the way things looked-a door
slightly ajar, a flicker of light, recent tire tracks,
an animal on the porch. An animal? Or is that a
speckled hairy sofa? It was such a large,
disheveled lump, I couldn't really tell what it was.
And then it moved.
At the very same instant I was trying to determine
whether animal or sofa, the now-identified animal
also detected my presence. Every primal sense on
high alert, he spied the uninvited trespasser! A
territorial interloper! Fresh meat! And with one
erupting motion, this sofa-sized Cujo launched
himself off the porch toward me with a bellowing,
deep, guttural half-growl half-bark that made the
hairs on my neck stand at attention like prickly
pear cactus needles on Viagra. With each growl-bark
his jowls drooled with saliva and his teeth snapped
in intimidation. I froze in petrified fear, every
muscle tensed and immovable. My life flashed before
me, certain that my tenderized body was about to be
a nicely coiffed chew-toy for this ugly, speckled
wolf-bear-yeti-chupacabra porch beast. This is not
at all how I had planned to meet my Maker. Not at all.
When the gnarly beast was within a single bounding
leap from landing on my chest and separating my soul
from temple, a stern, gravelly voice from the porch
stopped the beast cold in his tracks. My wide
unblinking eyes darted from beast to porch and back,
still not seeing anyone, yet so very thankful for
the voice that halted the charge. The sofa-beast
held its established position in the center of the
driveway, its hackles raised down the center of broad
shoulders, and never taking dark and wary eyes off me.
After a stare-down that seemed like an eternity the
voice stepped out of the door of the cabin and onto
the crooked porch to eye the cause of all the commotion.
Upon finally seeing the source of the gravelly voice,
my first discomforting thought was how much he looked
like Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, on the day he was
arrested in a cabin in the woods...much...like...this
...one. Surely the Unabomber didn't have a twin
brother. The Hee-Haw song "If it weren't for bad
luck, I'd have no luck at all" came to mind. I
once again took mental stock of my tenuous predicament,
figuring that if I managed to survive the rest of the
day, I'd have one heck of a tale to tell around the fire
pit tonight. I was running out of daylight and this was
my last viable option. And so, with cautious, side-steps,
I slowly made my way around the huffing, drooling sofa-beast
toward Ted the Unabomber.
Glancing over my shoulder as I made my way towards
the porch, I make note that the sofa-beast has turned
to follow me. I decided it probably would not be prudent
to make any sudden moves. Slowly I raised my hand in
greeting to Ted and began my tale of woe with an humble
apology for disturbing him and his lovely "pet." I
explained that I was going fishing and that I had locked
my keys in my truck down at stone bridge and that my
family was at Monarch waiting for me and that...
I made a little squeak as I inhaled and swallowed
the rest of my sentence when I felt a warm, moist
breath on the back of my neck. Again, the hairs on
my neck rose to rigid attention, and a zillion goose
bumps stampeded their way up to the top of my scalp.
I wrenched my head around and locked eyeball-to-eyeball,
nose-to-muzzle with the sofa-beast. The sofa-beast was
walking upright on his hind legs behind me, his front
paws balancing his frame like a shadow-dancer. He was
a full six and a half feet tall, and easily able to
sniff the exposed skin behind my ears. Why are you
sniffing my ears, you mangy mongrel? I had always
heard that animals could smell fear, but figured "Parfum
de Stranded Coonazz" was probably a new aroma to him.
Why can't you just smell my rear end like other
dogs? I wouldn't like it any more, but at least I'd be
taller than you.
Again the voice on the porch rescued me from Godzilla's
love nuzzles, and the mutt returned to all fours.
Sensing I was neither edible nor a threat anymore,
sofa-beast lumbered back to his guard post on the
porch and assumed his large lump position. Relieved
to be of no further interest to the creature, I
continued my saga with Ted the Unabomber.
Taking his sweet time in sizing me up and the
believability of my story, Ted finally broke
his skeptical silence. "You parked down there
at stone bridge?"
"Yes", I answered.
"You got them 'lectric door locks?"
"Yes, I do."
A slight pause and then in an annoyed tone he said,
"Just a minute."
Ted disappeared into the back recesses of a nearby
shed. I could hear the metal noises coming from the
shed, surmising he was rummaging around looking for
something in particular. He emerged a couple of
moments later with a half-dozen well-used and
customized slim-jims of various sizes and shapes.
I looked at him, then at his collection of lock
picker's tools, then back at him. For a split second
not a word passed between us, but he must have sensed
the "Hey! Aren't those things illegal?" question rolling
around on the tip of my tongue. His cold stare told me
that if I wanted his help to get into my truck before
the spring thaw, I'd better not even think of hopping
on some moral high horse, and keep my uppity yap shut.
"Get in the car," he barked.
Yessiree, Mr. Ted the Unabomber. Lemme hold them
fine tools for you! Did you make these? Man, that's
some nice craftsmanship..." When in Rome, you
know. Besides, what're the odds of stumbling on the
Unabomber's twin with custom slim jims, and who knows
how to break into 'lectric cars in the middle of the
Colorado wilderness. As far as I was concerned, Mr. Ted
the Unabomber was just a scruffy angel God sent my way
after thumping me with a little ethical lesson. (I had
purchased a one-day fishing license, but it was only good
for the next day). And like the Bible says, we
should be nice to everyone "lest we entertain angels
unawares." And at this moment, I couldn't be happier
with my tainted angel and new best friend. We hopped
into his little blue car and left Son of Lucifer to
guard the front porch.
Mr. Ted drove me to my truck, and within 15 seconds
of surgical precision, popped the lock on my truck,
easy as plucking a daisy. I'd swear he'd done that
once or twice before, but I wasn't about to ask where
he might have learned this finely honed "skill." I
just grabbed my keys with a little tighter grip, and
tried to hand Ted a $20 bill for his trouble. He refused
it, saying it was too much, but thanked me for trying.
"Aw, my sister does stupid things like this all the time,"
he confided. I assumed he was just trying to make me feel
better by comparing me to his stupid sister, but the
remark deep-sixed the last crumbs of self-respect I
had left. He hopped back in his car and cast one last
parting glance at me that seemed to say, "You never
saw me, my tools or my dog. Got it?" And with a simple
nod of his head, he drove away. Thank you, Jesus!
Thinking I might like to keep that Wal-Mart Dee-Lux
spinning rod and reel after all, I retrieved it from
its resting place in the bushes along the road and
drove away. As the last fading daylight turned to dusk,
I pulled into the parking lot at the Monarch ski lodge.
The family was waiting on the steps, tired and chilly.
"You're late. We were beginning to worry." "Yeah, Dad,
what took you so long? We're, like, the last ones here!"
"Oh, I was having so much fun I just sorta lost track
of time," I answered, figuring I'd save my "Odyssey"
by Homer (Simpson) tale for a time much, much later.
"So, how was skiing today?" ~ Norm Cox
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