Riding in the Athletic department van with the OIT wrestling team, down icy Highway 97 as it wound along the eastern shore of Upper Klamath Lake. Heading south. On our way home. The lake was a flat frozen plane on the right, empty and lifeless but for wispy ghosts of powdered snow pushed across the surface by a brief, frigid pant of wind. Moonlight reflected off the ice... lifeless pallor. On the left, the dark black mass of steep lava rock ridges, rising up like the exposed backs of indifferent behemoths burrowed in the earth to escape the bitter, dry mid-winter air of the high desert.
Coach Garrett at the wheel, Dad in the front passenger seat, bullshitting back and forth. Eric and I were crowded in the back seats with the wrestlers. It was late... that lonely, ghostly time in the night, known only to late-night travelers, when all the world is asleep but for those lost souls still on the highway, driving through the darkness toward the promise of a warm, well-lit destination.
Coach Garrett had the heater going and it was warm and snug in the van. Too crowded to stretch out. I peered out ahead, past the shine of the van's headlights, past the powdered-snow snakes that skittered across the icy slick surface of the road, seeing the ember-red taillights of another vehicle in the distance --they seemed to peer back at me, like the eyes of a forest creature prowling beyond the reach of a campfire. Someone behind me snored softly. My eyelids grew heavy, my chin dropped toward my chest...
"You think they're alright?" Dad's voice. The van was stopped by the side of the highway. Coach Garrett hunched over the wheel, musing. He didn't say anything. Dad opened the passenger door and climbed out into the frigid air. He left the door open and stood at the top of the steep embankment, calling out into the darkness. "You okay down there?"
I wiped the sleep from my eyes and squinted out in the direction that Dad was calling. A car was overturned at the bottom of the embankment, its underbelly exposed to the cold stars above. I recognized the red taillights, still glowing in the darkness. Silence. Dad looked back in at Coach Garrett. "What do you think, Neil?" he asked. He took a half-step down the embankment toward the car, hesitated. We were all awake now. Everyone seemed to be holding his breath.
Then, a voice. "Yeah, we're here." The driver's side door of the upended car swung open. A dark figure rolled out onto the snow. A large man staggered to his feet. Behind him, a smaller figure appeared from within the blackness of the car.
"Jesus!" Dad breathed. He took a few more steps down the embankment, hand extended. The large man lurched forward, took Dad's hand and pulled himself up to stand beside the van. He tottered where he stood, for a moment. He seemed to be fighting to maintain balance. The light afforded by the van's interior showed him to have jet black hair that hung loosely halfway down his back. His skin was a red-brown. His face was round and heavy. A Klamath Indian. He looked to be in his thirties.
Behind him, Dad reached down and pulled up the smaller figure: a young woman in her late teens, also Klamath Indian, with her long black hair, her full cheeks, her wide, dark eyes. She was silent. Her cheeks glistened with tears.
"Are you alright?" Dad asked.
"I think so. Yeah," the man said. "But we're gonna need a ride, though." He chuckled.
"There's a truck stop back north about a mile," Coach Garrett said. "Climb in."
We made room, squeezing even tighter into the back seats of the van. Everyone was by that time fully awake. A palpable tension charged the air. Aside from the nervous relief of narrowly averted disaster, there was something else: the man and the young woman, whom we assumed to be his daughter, were Klamath Indians.
The Klamath tribe lived mostly on their reservation near Chiloquin and Fort Klamath. Having lived in the Klamath Basin for as long as I had, I knew well the suspicion and latent hostility that existed between the Klamaths and the non-Indian population. Everyone in Klamath Falls knew that it was best not to intermingle with the Klamath Indians. People said they were still savages, prone to drink and violence. It seemed that every month, a story appeared in the Herald and News reporting a drunken highway fatality.
Once we had the two new-comers seated, Dad got back in the van and slammed the door. Almost immediately, we were assailed by the sickly sweet stench of liquor. The man had been drinking. The fact was made all the more obvious as Dad engaged him in conversation.
"You from Chiloquin?" Dad asked.
"Bly," the fellow replied. "We was headin' back home."
"You're lucky," Dad said.
"Don't know about that," the man said, shaking his head.
Coach Garrett turned the van around and we headed back north. It was a short drive back to the truck stop, but it seemed to take forever. The Klamath man chattered the whole way, gesticulating with his hands, leaning forward, then rocking back, laughing loudly. The stink of booze was overwhelming. His daughter sat at his side. She was silent. Her tears ran freely.
We pulled into the parking lot of the truck stop. There were one or two eighteen-wheelers idling outside.
"They'll have a phone here," Dad said. Although he did his best to conceal it, I could hear relief in his voice. He jumped out and opened the sliding door of the van. The Klamath man and his daughter got out. The young woman set off toward the light of the truck stop, saying nothing. The man paused beside the van for a moment.
"Good luck," Dad said.
"Thanks," said the man. Then, he leaned back in toward the rest of us, pointed a finger and said in a tone of sincere gratitude, "You guys're tough as nails." We chuckled nervously.
In a moment we were back on Highway 97, heading south.
"He coulda killed his little daughter," Dad said, after a while.
Coach Garrett glanced at him from over the top of his wire-frame glasses. He made a face. "What the hell had he been drinking?"