By Bill Grueskin
It’s a beautiful mountain morning, the summer of ’73. I’m 17 years old, and I’m driving up a steep, four-wheel-drive trail that’s barely wide enough for our Jeep Wagoneer. I can’t avoid the tree branches scraping the driver’s side, because veering more than a few inches to the right could send us off the edge, into a river gully a few thousand feet below.
We’re a mile or two into it when we come across a huge tree blocking our path. We edge out of the car. We can’t move the tree; it’s too goddamned heavy. So there’s only one thing to do: Put the Jeep in reverse and back all the way down the hill.
My pal gets out of the car to guide me (and perhaps also to make sure there’s at least one survivor). Inch by painstaking inch, I back the Jeep down. Part way, he shouts, “JEEZUS! STOP!! STOP!!!” I’ve nearly driven the right rear wheel off the edge.
I hit the brakes. The Jeep skids a bit and then stops.
I take some deep breaths and recover enough to resume the descent. I make it to the bottom. I’m covered with sweat. I’m shaking. I’m alive.
Over the decades, I’ve thought a lot about that rocky ride, and recounted it many times to friends and family. Now that I’ve turned 65, I’ve become newly curious about it, and also about that trip nearly 50 years ago, when two friends and I spent almost three weeks driving to and camping in the Canadian Rockies. It was the summer before college, a time for us to leave behind co-dependent girlfriends, $2-an-hour jobs and painful high-school memories.
A few weeks ago, I reached out to those two friends, and we met up on Zoom, the first time that we’ve seen each other as a group in nearly a half century. We dug up photos, pre-trip correspondence, and a couple of diaries.
In the process, I learned something new about that morning. Or I think I did.
I’ll get to that in a bit.
The idea for this adventure came from my father. It was early spring, I was finishing a rough three years at my riot-torn, busing-botched high school in Denver, and my original summer plans had gone awry. I was pissed. Dad’s solution? “Why don’t you and a couple friends take the Jeep and go to the mountains?”
He didn’t know what he’d ignited.
At the time, I was deeply involved in an organization called MoVFTY — the Missouri Valley Federation of Temple Youth. This group was a way for Reform Jewish parents, in places where there aren’t many Jews, to get their kids together. It included cities like St. Louis and Denver, but also Topeka and Joplin and Sioux City. For a lot of us who were uncertain about our Jewish identity or insecure about expressing it, MoVFTY was where we formed many of our closest friendships and, if we were lucky, our first romances.
My best MoVFTY friends were Steve Scudder from Omaha, and Rich Korry from Champaign, Illinois. We’d get together every few months at youth-group meetings somewhere in the Midwest (student-standby airfares were cheap), and write occasionally in between. Long-distance calls, at around 10 cents a minute, were a rare luxury.
When my dad suggested the trip, he figured we’d go into the nearby mountains — 100 miles away, max, for a week, max. But when I ran the idea by Steve and Rich, we came up with grander plans — a route that would take us from Colorado to the Oregon coast, then south to Yosemite, then Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, and back home. “I’ve already got my dad on my side, and with the right politics, I should get my mom (hopefully),” I wrote in April 1973. “Be nice to your parents.”
Other factors soon called for a different itinerary. I’d never been outside the U.S., so we started looking northward, to the Canadian Rockies. The deal was sealed when Rich did some research and sent us this nugget: “Drinking ages are the following: Wyoming 21, Montana 19, Alberta 18, British Columbia 19, Washington 21, Oregon 21.”
Alberta — which included Banff and Jasper national parks, along with its lenient alcohol laws — would be our destination. We figured we could spend no more than three weeks away, as our budgets were limited to around $150 to $200 each. And we’d camp out most nights; Rich had been an Eagle Scout, and Steve had done a lot of camping with his family, while I had little outdoors experience.
The pre-trip letters capture how little we knew about what we were getting into.
We thought we should be prepared for anything:
“It would be wise for us to have a lot of replacement parts for the Jeep. i.e. spare fan belts, two or more spare tires, a patch kit, a four-way lug wrench, fuses, light bulbs, jumper cables and any other equipment for repair and upkeep….In addition, we should bring along a shovel, chain and grab chain.”
We wanted to be frugal:
“A fishing license costs $5. When we want to go fish, get one license and let that person fish for our dinner. Or switch off every hour or so.”
We wanted to be adventurous:
“The idea of parking and tramping in the woods for a few miles to camp appeals to me. I could care less about campgrounds with Winnebagos. Think, for the rest of your life you will be using flush toilets, so what’s the big excitement over being able to see your shit swirl and twirl down the hole using precious water. Going in the woods is not as bad as it sounds.”
This was also when the U.S. was in the middle of a gasoline shortage. I knew it well, because I was working that summer in a gas station, seeing my shifts cut short when we ran out of fuel, or telling customers that no, they couldn’t take gasoline home in mayonnaise jars. Our Jeep got around 10 to 12 miles per gallon, so our maximum distance between refuels would be around 200 miles.
And it was the summer between high school and college. After the trip, we’d be attending college many miles from home: Steve was headed to Massachusetts, while Rich and I were California-bound. We would be leaving our girlfriends and our families, and so for this trip, along with the sleeping bags and canteens, we would bring lots of emotional baggage.
Then, there were our parents. I’ve often wondered why they let us go and what they were thinking when we took off from home, unreachable and untraceable in a place where we had no friends or family. When I recently asked my pals if their parents were worried, Rich remembers it this way: “I’m sure if we had gone into any kind of detail about what we were going to do, they would not have approved.” Steve recalls that, as one of six kids in his family, his parents’ main concern was financial. “They didn’t care about the trip. They just didn’t want to contribute to it. Any money I was going to bring, I had to figure out where it was going to come from.”
Steve and Rich took buses to Denver, and we spent a couple of days gearing up. It was clear that a plan to bring additional spare tires, gas cans or other backup equipment wouldn’t fly. One reason was the tent. It was a huge canvas contraption that Steve had schlepped from Omaha. By the time we stuffed it into the Jeep, along with backpacks, sleeping bags, air mattresses, fishing poles, a cooler and a stove, there was barely room for the three of us. Steve’s initial diary entry captured the moment:
I’m worried that I might be the only one on this trip with any common sense about camping. While shopping, both Rich and Bill were being unwise about quantities. Also, last night, if I hadn’t been there, the car would have been packed incorrectly. I’m afraid that none of us are really ready for the kind of camping we may be in for. But at this point, there’s nothing any of us can do.
The first day was a harbinger. Just an hour from Denver, the gas cap flew off. As we headed to a campsite in Flaming Gorge, Wyo., I drove the Jeep into a mud pit, which required 45 minutes of shoveling, plus six flat rocks and the tire jack. We tried to fish in the reservoir, but tangled our lines and lost our hooks. As we settled in that night, the tent zipper broke, ushering in a cloud of dust and bugs. “We dug up a couple of safety pins” to splice the zipper, I wrote, “and with this wind, it works like shit.”
But that next day was also a harbinger. We awoke to a brilliant sunrise at the reservoir. “I had the terrible urge, seeing how beautiful the lake was, to go swimming,” Steve wrote. “I did, and it felt fabulous.” On our way back to the highway, six white-tailed deer leapt alongside the Jeep. We camped that night in Teton Canyon, on the western, less-populated side of the mountain range, surrounded by rustling pines and a gurgling stream. As we were eating our hot dogs and beans, an attractive older woman strolled by, saw my cowboy hat, and yelled, “Cowboys are dynamite!” Before I went to sleep, I wrote, “Today was a fine day. The weather was gorgeous, the scenery was magnificent, and the friendship is superb. I think I’m getting better.”
The next days would be a mix of triumphs and setbacks, all the result of our youth, our tendentiousness, and our resilience. We snagged a permit to camp five miles deep in the backcountry of Glacier National Park, but gave up when we didn’t get to the trail until the late afternoon — so we wound up at Apgar Campground, surrounded by dozens of humming RVs and whiny kids. Every time we drove through a town, we tried to get our tent zipper fixed, and every time, the shopkeepers shook their heads in a mix of sympathy and disdain.
Because we hadn’t planned our agenda very closely, we were constantly making decisions on the spot. So, that meant that we often bickered with each other, but it also meant we also had the freedom to jump into Montana’s Flathead Lake for a swim, or to gorge on the local cherries — lucious, and on sale at roadside stands for $1 a bag.
And when it came time to cross into Canada, we could take an unconventional route, from Waterton Lakes on the Montana border, to Banff, via more than 150 miles of the bone-jarring, all-gravel Kananaskis Road. We’d heard it was beautiful, but nothing prepared us for what was in store — towering peaks, and an endless horizon of green forest. I’d lived in Colorado since I was 2, but wrote that it “was absolutely the most gorgeous scenery I have ever seen. We’d stop the car, take a few pictures, drive for two minutes and find an even more gorgeous scene.” Steve wrote of “snow-capped mountains, acres and acres of pine trees that carpeted every valley and mountainside, and clear blue lakes.”
We arrived in Banff a few days later to refuel and restock. We took advantage of Canada’s friendly relations with Cuba (Havana cigars, which weren’t available in the U.S.), Alberta’s drinking age (bourbon and whiskey-sour mix, purchased legally), and Banff’s well-supplied pharmacies (laxatives, despite our early zeal for outdoor bowel movements). Dinner was rough that night, because we started on the whiskey a little too quickly. “Making stew when you’re drunk is difficult,” I wrote. “We didn’t cook it enough — and it was bad.” Steve called it “the worst beef stew I’ve ever tasted.”
The next few days were a blur of breathtaking scenery over a grueling pace. When we weren’t camping out, we would drive up to 400 miles a day, as we tried to pack in as much territory as possible while also making sure we didn’t run out of money for the trip or patience for each other. Every single thing was a group decision — where to go, what to eat, when to wake up, how long to stay put. There were no adults to guide us, and there was no backing out. We were both stuck and blessed with each other.
We found several ways to smooth things over, particularly the kind of weird releases of energy to which teen-age boys are prone. Steve explained one night exceptionally well:
After cleaning up, we had one of our rock throwing fiascoes. We broke the bourbon bottle, the Mateus bottle and the whiskey-sour mix bottle. It was really fun and a good release of frustrations. From there we went to trying to knock a roll of toilet paper off of a rock from 40 feet away. Then, Bill and I began playing like we were track stars and used tent poles as javelins. We really enjoyed just letting loose for the first time in many days, and I know that I felt relaxed after all of that. We got ready for bed and talked for 2 hours. We discussed everything from youth group to baseball.”
We anthropomorphized our car, which we called “the Jewish Jeep” for reasons that are still unclear. She took a beating. She got stuck in Wyoming mud and Utah sand; her radiator hose burst in Colorado; she nearly collided with a sign in Idaho while I was looking at the altimeter instead of the road; and she barely avoided flattening a farmer’s dog that was yapping at her wheels after the guy gave Rich incomprehensible directions. The greatest indignity came when we hit a pothole too hard and cracked the top of the fuel tank. From then on, we could fill it only three-fourths of the way, or gasoline would overflow, so our driving range dropped to 150 miles between service-station stops.
We barely survived our own cooking. In Canada, we bought some ground beef and packed it in the cooler with ice. But the ice did what ice does in a hot car in August, and we didn’t get around to cooking the meat until a few nights later in Idaho. “It smelled and looked pretty bad,” I wrote; Steve noted that it was “really pale… so we threw away some of it,” which makes me wonder now why we thought the rest of it was OK. “One by one we became sick,” Steve wrote. “None of us threw up but it came close. Those hamburgers got to us after all.” The next morning, we recovered by drinking Tang and powdered milk.
There were more close calls, especially as we became more eager to get home. We pulled into a National Forest campground in Idaho one evening, and after we’d set up the tent and made dinner, we met another camper, who warned us, “Watch out for the bees in the morning.” This was a problem, since Steve was allergic to bee stings, but we were too tired or too cocky to do anything about it. We woke up early the next morning to what sounded like a thousand electric razors. “It was like a Steven King movie,” Rich remembers, wondering if “we were going to die, or were going to wind up living in the tent for the next three days.” We scrambled out, shoved everything into the Jeep and hightailed it to a bee-free valley a mile away.
Throughout the trip, we managed not to kill ourselves or each other, though our inconsistent planning bedeviled us even at the end, as I got Rich and Steve to the Greyhound terminal just five minutes before their bus was scheduled to leave. We said quick goodbyes, and wrote to each other a few times afterward. Rich and I went to college together, and lost touch until now. Steve and I have stayed friends, visiting each other every year or two.
If you’ve read this far, you’ll notice something is missing from my recounting of the trip. That harrowing, reverse-gear drive down the narrow gravel trail? What’s with that?
As I’ve told that story over the years, I’ve always wondered exactly where and when it happened. I reached out to Steve, who had saved his trip diary. He didn’t write a word about it. I dug through more than 20 boxes in our basement before I retrieved my diary — and found no mention of it. I contacted Rich, and set up a Zoom call with him and Steve earlier this month. We had a great time reminiscing about the trip and catching each other up on our lives since. But that drive on the steep Jeep trail? Neither of them could remember it, though they both acknowledge that the moment could be lost in the fogs of time.
I still recall it — vividly. But as I strain to remember details, I’ve become less certain.
First, I can’t remember who was with me. I seem to recall that only one of my buddies was in the Jeep that morning, but I don’t know if it was Rich or Steve.
More troubling, the incident — at least the one I remember — isn’t in my diary.
The closest anecdote I can find occurred early one morning in Jasper National Park, when Steve slept in while Rich and I got up at 5:30 to go fishing on the Sunwapta River. As usual, we caught nothing (though we did see a coyote). My narrative continues with this:
Rich and I were pretty disappointed, so on the way back, we decided to take what looked like a Jeep trail. It had all these big, deep gullies, and dead trees lying across the road. We went up about a mile and then had to turn back. On the way back, I forgot to slow down and hit a ditch that practically turned us right over. Our heads hit the ceiling of the Jeep and everything in the car bounced up to eye level. Then the engine shut off. I thought, oh, there could be a problem. But with a few soothing remarks and some gentle coaxing, I restarted the engine.
That’s scary, especially given that I had gotten my driver’s license just a year before. But it’s not the same story.
So maybe I’ve taken that incident and, in the intervening years, changed some details?
Or maybe it happened at some other point during the trip, and I didn’t write about it? That seems odd. My diary includes fulsome accounts of constipation, homesickness, mosquito swarms and dirty laundry. Why would I omit this? Were the details too traumatic? Was I just too tired that night to recount it?
Or maybe this incident happened, but not during this trip? Our family did a lot of four-wheel-drive treks in Colorado. I asked my brother, as well as a college friend who visited us in the Rockies a few times. Neither remembers this, but they did enjoy giving me a hard time about it.
Or maybe it’s what Salvador Dali meant when he said, “The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: It is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant.”
I’ve been a journalist my entire career, so this gnaws at me. I like to stick to the facts, especially when they can be confirmed with contemporaneous notes or other evidence — which is why it was so important to retrieve our diaries and letters. But this anecdote lacks the confirmation I’ve spent decades demanding from myself, my reporters and my students.
I’ve decided that I’ll keep telling that story about the Jeep trail, but from now on, I’ll add the caveat that I don’t know exactly when it happened, or who was with me, or if I’m completely full of it.
A few weeks after we returned home, in late August 1973, I wrote to Steve and Rich, and ended with this line: “I’m sorting my thoughts out even now about the trip. I’ll never forget it. More importantly, I know I’ll always cherish this memory.” That’s still true, for the memories I’m sure of, and for the one that I can’t quite nail down.
—Bill Grueskin is a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. His career includes overseeing strike-prone typesetters in Rome, starting a weekly newspaper on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas, running the city desk at the Miami Herald, and serving as a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal. He still loves the mountains, and insists his hamburgers be cooked medium-well.