November 23, 2022
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. Here’s a story about my most unusual Thanksgiving, one spent in the deep woods of northern Idaho. Enjoy . . .
A Walk on the Wild Side
At the age of twenty-four, and just starting out on my own in 1978, I lived in a little cabin in the north Idaho woods—two miles from the nearest all-weather road, and twenty miles from the closest small town. I considered it the adventure of a lifetime, living off the land (mostly) with my golden retriever, Dingo. The cabin had no electricity, no running water—we lived the life of the proverbial poor church-mouse, but we were having too much fun to care.
That fall, my neighbors Donna and Brian, who lived a half mile down the trail, invited me to share Thanksgiving dinner with their family. Tickled to be invited anywhere, I baked a loaf of bread to share with them.
It had snowed most of the day, but by 4 p.m. the clouds cleared. I tucked the sourdough loaf under my arm, called Dingo, and we started down the trail. My well-worn Red Wing leather boots squeaked on the new snow.
In November, it gets dark early that far north. The sun had already set, but the twilight provided plenty of light to help me on my way. I slipped a little flashlight into my coat pocket for the trip home. Dingo pranced ahead of me, rolling in the fresh powder and urging me to hurry.
Soon I could see my neighbors’ kerosene lamps flickering through their front window. Brian and their five-year-old son welcomed me at the door. Stepping over their Heinz-57 dog and several younger children, I found Donna in the kitchen, her long, dark hair pulled behind her head and tied with a strip of gingham fabric. She pulled a nicely browned turkey out of the wood stove’s oven, and I helped her with the finishing touches.
I often marveled at how she survived, even thrived, living in primitive conditions with her carpenter husband and their four kids—three of them in cloth diapers. They had no plumbing. They hauled water from town or the creek a mile down the hill, but in the winter they had the luxury of melting the usually-plentiful snow.
That didn’t work out too well for them one time the previous winter. Donna told me she’d gone outside, filled a bucket with snow and set it on the wood stove to melt. Not long afterwards, smelling something really rotten, she first sniffed the kids. They were okay, so she sniffed the dog. That wasn’t it either. Finally, she found the source—the bucket of melting snow on the stove. She looked inside and gagged.
“I should have been more careful about where I got that snow,” she said. “I’d scooped up a pile of doggy doo with it!” After telling me that tale, she assured me that today’s water came from a safe source.
The turkey and trimmings were scrumptious, and a couple of hours later I reluctantly whistled up Dingo and we headed for home—both of us waddling, with full bellies and contented hearts. I didn’t even take the little flashlight out of my pocket. The sky had completely cleared and a brilliant, not-quite-full moon made the path easy enough to see. The moonlight, reflecting off the new snow, took my breath away. Beautiful, clear, and cold, the night remained utterly silent except for the crunch of my boots and the swish-swish of Dingo’s paws on the trail in front of me.
We hadn’t gone far before I got the uneasy feeling that we were being watched. I stopped, putting a hand on Dingo to stop him, too. I pulled out the flashlight and switched it on, but the cold had drained the batteries and the beam shone only dimly. I didn’t see anything on the trail, or in the shadowy forest on either side of us.
Abruptly, Dingo put his nose in the air and growled, and then he started trembling.
“What is it, boy?” I asked. “Let’s keep going—we aren’t that far from home.”
I began walking again, faster than before. Without warning, Dingo took off running for the cabin at top speed. So much for my guard dog.
I started trotting; sensing that whatever was out there easily kept pace with me. I continued to look on both sides and behind me, but saw nothing. I broke into a full run the last fifty yards, and took the porch stairs two at a time. Dingo sat on the top step, waiting for me, wagging his tail.
“Thanks for protecting me, buddy,” I said.
A final look into the moonlit yard failed to convince me that we were alone. I locked the door.
Morning dawned sunny and bright, and things didn’t look at all scary outside. Dingo and I retraced our route from the night before. I thought it odd, though, that Dingo didn’t run ahead like usual; he stayed several paces behind me.
I saw my footprints—where I had run, where I’d trotted, and where I’d walked. I saw Dingo’s tracks close to and sometimes beneath my own. And then I saw a third set of impressions in the snow, at the edge of the woods by the trail. They were the biggest mountain lion tracks I’d ever seen. It had followed us all the way to the clearing by my cabin.
(Photo by Saa R on Unsplash)