Central City looked like a John Ford western with brick storefronts and an opera house; all it lacked was horses. The main street was lined with T-shirt shops, Levi stores and quartz emporiums where Alex hoped to find a fossil. The last offered various types and sizes but only one was still open. Most specimens were small with the exception of a huge amethyst geode. He looked at granite, turquoise, and pyrite that looked like silver and decided on a piece of quartz veined with red as gift for Ivan that fit his temperament.
By the time Alex got back to the car and let Trip out to pee, it was too late to drive down and find cheap motels. He walked up the main street with gas lights and eventually found a two story Victorian fronted hotel with low winter rates, and when asked, they clerk said he would permit a dog when he saw Trip pleading with black wet eyes. When Alex parked the car Trip sniffed every corner of the building and took off. Alex feared he’d been done in by a cougar, but just as he thought of finding a phone to call the cops, Trip raced back and leapt into the pool. After toweling him down and eating two hot dogs from a Seven Eleven, Alex slipped into deep sleep.
At breakfast with paper doilies and plastic geraniums in the hotel’s cafe, he picked up the local free paper and saw an ad for a nudist hot springs. Excited by the possibility, he told Trip it would be their next stop, and the pooch wagged furiously. If Alex was happy Trip was happy, and both were happy with predictions of warmer weather funneling in from the Southwest. They followed directions on a narrow rutted road to a spa of small timber cabins surrounding a large log lodge. Four basins had been carved from granite and filled from steaming hot springs. The temperatures differed so one could move from warm to warmer and on to near scalding.
Alex and Trip settled in one of the cabins and after lunch hiked higher than Alex had ever been. Short of breath he had to pace himself, but Trip always ran ahead, circled back and ran out again. Back at the spa Alex stripped and worked his way up to the hottest tub. As he sank into the surphurous soup, his body slowly unwound. Deeply content he took several full breaths and fell back with limp arms and let the trip’s tedium dissolve.
Dinner required clothing, and two couples at his table shared several bottles of wine at a dinner of beef Stroganoff, local beans and potatoes with a thick apple pie and ice cream for dessert. Deep in conversation about yoga the group went out and ambled amongst scrub growth and towering pines with more wine. Not much of a drinker Alex was feeling lightheaded. When the others got into a heated argument about Scientology he bowed out.
Alex had noticed a trail leading away from the main basins when he arrived and decided to follow it. Fearing cougars, he put Trip in the cabin with a bowl of food and left the toilet seat up for water. The moon was nearly full, and the forest glowed like a black and white photograph on the trail with a slight grade before it climbed more steeply. Land leveled off at a basin with a natural hot spring and steam carried off by warm valley drafts. After testing, Alex took off his jacket and bent down to untie his hiking boots. Then he sat on a large stone, stretched his legs and pulled off thick socks and boots and stood with his hands inside the top of his pants. Gazing at the moon he arched his back, unbuttoned his jeans and let them fall to his feet; stark naked his destiny would depend on him.
Tiny pockets of air stuck to hair on his arms when Alex lowered himself into a pool with metallic springs bubbling from their source. He rested his head on a bed of moss as effervescence tucked around him.
“You found my pool,” a dark voice out of nowhere. Alex was startled and afraid. Speaking to darkness he muttered, “Just came up the trial. Sorry,” and started to get out.
“Stay.” The voice was calm but certain, and Alex complied.
“Relax.” Again, Alex complied. He felt vulnerable not knowing who was there, but the voice was strangely reassuring and he let himself float silently. When he turned, the man commanded. “Look to the sky.”
Alex fixed his gaze on the moon and eased his mind by remembering names of lunar landscapes. The voice again, “I sensed you were here because you know the power of the land.”
“In a way I do.” Alex didn’t recognize the voice and was uneasy being seen. He could have been one of the staff, but this voice did not match the voices of a mostly Asian staff he’d seen checking in.
The voice asked, “Are you willing to share a ritual of the land?” Alex didn’t know what to say. He was intrigued but too embarrassed to ask if he’d have time for a ritual before getting back to Trip. Not in control, his gut was a mess.
“We’ll take time, but your friends won’t miss you. Given their condition, I suspect they’ll be passed out by the time you get back.”
This man knew everything, but Alex couldn’t identify him.
“Are you willing?”
Reluctantly Alex whispered, “I am, if I can see you.”
“You will in time. Get out and lie down.” Alex found an animal skin had been laid behind him. He heard a match being struck; then smelled marijuana. It was gently blown in his face when he lay down shivering
“This is a land of great storms. The gods punish with intense heat and bitter cold, and the land must prove itself worthy. If the gods are satisfied they bestow beauty with mustard and cornflowers. If we fail, they give no rain for crops in the summer. Since earliest time they preserve sheer cliffs to protect us.”
Uncomfortable, Alex tried to establish a regular pattern of breathing. He noticed he was transfixed by the voice, but what it was saying had nothing to do with him.
“Drink this to calm you.” Alex was offered a sweet tea he sniffed and then sipped.
“You will reach the first level of understanding.” Alex felt warm rocks applied to his forehead. Minutes later they were replaced with larger warm stones pressed to the top of his chest where they rested. Heat flowed down his body and his back involuntarily arched; his nipples ached as they sought hot stones.
The warm rocks were replaced with stones icy cold. Alex tried to avoid them but they were held to his chest. The cold numbed his skin then slowly began to burn. He tried again to avoid them but couldn’t.
The voice charged him, “Be still. Tonight the stars are aligned for enlightenment. They will serve you if you believe in their power.”
Alex was draped with a blanket that smelled of grass. With his eyes closed Alex heard only the man’s broken breathing and pulling on the pipe before blowing smoke his way.
“The wind says you are searching” A long pause. “I see a young man that might be you or maybe a friend and water.” Another long pause. “Is there something you would like from the spirits?”
Alex began, “I’m heading to the west coast because my life is pretty dull, and I guess I’m looking for a new life with men like me because I’ve had it with being the person I’ve been. I thought college would shape me into someone greater, but I’m still the same person.” He knew he was babbling and stopped.
The voice asked, “Do you know yourself?”
Alex had trouble saying, “Not sure I do.”
“You cannot find people like you if you don’t know yourself.” Coyotes howled in the distance.
“I guess that’s what I searching for.”
The voice instructed, “Go back in time. Do you see anyone?”
Alex brushed his nipple and said nothing for several minutes. The man was silent. When an owl hooted Alex began slowly, “I think I was happy with my friend Ivan.”
The man’s response was ,”Don’t tell me what you’re thinking. If you limit yourself to your brain and you will never find yourself.”
Alex pleaded, “Can you help?”
“You can only help yourself. Think of you as that happy boy.”
Alex concentrated, and his body quivered; fire burned his side and wind passed through his body.
The man commanded, “Take a deep breath.” Alex felt he was sliding and reached out to stop, but his body hadn’t moved, and Alex’s mind was swirling like water spilling from broken rock. He was on the water; then he was the water. Suddenly everything went black.
Very quietly the man said, “Let stars know you’re here!”
Alex screamed, “Take me!” Shocked, he started to get up and collapsed, and as he struggled to sit he whispered, “I’m Alex.”
“I know that.”
Alex asked, “How do you know so much? Who are you?”
“I’m Abe from the kitchen.”
Alex asked, “How’d you get here?”
“I followed you.”
Alex sat up to say, “I mean here in the mountains.”
The man responded with, “I bummed around India after college and studied at an Ashram on the big island.”
“But why did you follow me?”
Another owl hooted and the man explained, “You found the place I meditate; it did not find you. “
“You must need something from the land.”
Alex hesitated. “Maybe.”
“Put your boots on and face the valley.”
When Alex put his boots on and stood gusts of air from the valley warmed him, but before he could turn around a bandana was placed over his eyes. Abe wrapped his arm around his shoulder and said. “You’re fine. I will take you only a short distance. Pay attention to where you step.”
The two made their way to an alcove in a copse of scrub. Alex felt fire and stood to face it.
“Step back one step.” As Alex stepped back he felt a strip of chamois tied around his ankle, first the right, and then the left and both were secured so his legs were spread a bit. His left hand was taken and that wrist was tied with more chamois and stretched to a tree limb. Then his right hand was similarly trussed.
Uncomfortable with immobility, but transfixed by the voice, Alex tried to establish a regular pattern of breathing.
Abe explained, “In this ritual you will become the land and you will reach the first level of understanding. The land cannot avoid the storm.”
It felt like wind, just enough sensation on the hair on Alex’s back. Then stronger rhythmic stroking. A hand slid across his shoulder smoothing skin. Then a slap. Soundly. Another. First on his one shoulder, then the other. The frequency increased and continued, and Alex’s attempts at peace turned to urgency.
Then nothing. Only breeze on hot skin.
As Abe put his arms around him, Alex’s knees gave way, and Abe pulled him upright and instructed, “Imagine five years from now.” Silence. A distant coyote howled and branches smacked branches in pine harmony.
Alex pulled but the restraints held; when his body began vibrating he paced his breathing; but his stomach swelled, and his mind went blank.
Abe’s voice was stern but gentle when he said, “Be open to the land.”
More gentle slapping at a constant pace had a warm sensation spreading across Alex’s back like the rush of lifting heavy weights. His body was a vibrating surge of muscle neither standing nor moving but suspended in heat.
Alex whimpered when the slapping stopped, not from pain but its absence. He pulled against the chamois on his ankles to stabilize him and felt Abe’s tongue on his back absorbing what had been given.
Alex felt ties on his wrists being loosened. He was offered juice of a fruit but not a taste he recognized. He sipped. He hands were freed, and he was allowed to sit on the skin that had been drawn beneath him. He continued to face the fire and heard it crackle as wood was added.
His bandana was loosened, and gentle hands cupped his head. In shadows he saw a broad smile surrounded by a beard and teeth white as stars. Looking at each other without words, Alex smiled and concentrated on the peaceful eyes holding him.
Abe explained, “I cannot tell you what passed to you, but power has been given. Use it wisely. As they stood, Abe said, “If you wish, I’ll read your Tarot cards tomorrow.”
”Yes, please.” Alex looked up, and the moon was blessing them.
“I’ll come by in the morning,” Abe said and disappeared into the night.
At the cabin Trip was impatient and knocked Alex aside as he pushed past him to get out. Gone for some time the dog came back covered twigs and headed for the pool, and this time Alex joined him. As he dangled feet he said, “Mr. Dog, something strange just happened. I found a hot spring and a man named Abe who talked about spirits and searching like he knew me.” Trip looked up with questioning eyes. When Alex grabbed a ball and threw it the dog was gone in a splash. The dog had no idea what Alex had said but loved every minute of being toweled down in front the stove when they got back to the cabin.
Winter fog shrouded the grounds when Alex went to the lodge for breakfast. He got a plate and spooned a pile of scrambled eggs, picked up three sausages and a small sweet roll with his hand and put the plate on a table. As he mixed a cup of hot chocolate at the coffee station he looked through the crack between the doors to the kitchen to see if he could see Abe. He didn’t
want to be obvious much as needed to see Abe in daylight, so he continued stirring his chocolate. He ate breakfast and came back and took Trip for a walk. Trip made his usual circles stopping twice in front of Alex wagging his tail, his eyes pleading find something. Alex picked up a pine cone and threw it. Alex was amazed the dog carried the thorny thing in his soft jowls but he continued retrieving until it fell apart.
Alex and Trip had been back in the cabin long enough for Alex to think Abe wasn’t going to show when he knocked on the door and greeted Alex with a bear hug saying, “Thank you for last night.” Alex sat on the bed and Abe sat uncomfortably on the one chair in the room. Abe pulled a deck of Tarot cards from a canvas bag and moved to sit on the floor. He unwrapped and shuffled them randomly and put them in his lap of deerskin. He said, “Let me be honest. We can do a Tarot reading if you want, but it was an excuse to see you again.”
“That’s nice of you.” Alex had had similar feelings, but Abe was older and far more mature than men he knew. He wanted him to be gay but was too freaked out when they met and couldn’t risk exposing himself if Abe was straight. He said, “I was wondering what it would be like to meet you in daylight.”
“First, I gotta be honest. You are a very attractive man, even though I don’t think you know that.”
Alex looked away, “I’m not.”
“With that out of the way I sensed your aura. It was strong.
“You are searching.” Fire crackled in the small Franklin stove.
“Yeah, I am. I think I said that.”
Abe rested his chin on his hands. “But you are searching for something specific.”
“I have to get away from being scared someone will find out.”
Abe’s eyes looked through him. “You’re afraid of yourself.”
Alex pushed aside hair on his forehead that made him look dorky and closed his eyes. In the safety of darkness Alex thought about what Abe said. Afraid of himself? Alex was afraid other people would find out he was homosexual.
Abe continued, “Alex, you aren’t alone. I went through the same thing. Everyone picked on me because I knitted sweaters.”
Alex thought it impossible that a man so sure of himself could have had any problems.
Abe said, “I think you are on the verge of coming out.”
Alex clenched his fist. “Ivan knows about me. I know I’m not normal.”
“I mean out to the rest of the world.”
“That’s a tall order. I can’t do it.” Alex laughed nervously.
“Yes you can. You’re a man not clay.”
Alex whispered, “A pretty scared man.”
Abe got up and sat on the bed, put his arm around Alex and told him, “Someday you’ll be walking down the street and realize you’re alive and no one cares.”
Alex rested his head on Abe’s shoulder. After a long silence, Abe said “Once I’ve taken care of dinner, can you meet me? Let’s soak in the pool and count stars.”
To keep occupied Alex hiked the rest of the day. He followed the path back to the spring and sat on a rock watching water curl up with bits of grass and insects caught in its loops. He saw buzzards circling a distant kill and a herd of elk grazing on upland grass. Alex knew he was changing but unwilling to grasps its enormity. Instead of thinking about it, he found things to throw for Trip who finally calmed down and dozed at his feet.
Back in the cabin he read more of Lawrence and liked the way he wrote intelligently about men’s love for other men. Sex had always been furtive, and while he had fun playing around with Ivan it was never something he felt good about, and what he loved felt dirty.
Alex lingered over dinner and walked to the kitchen excited. Abe was wiping down the counter. He asked, “Can I help?”
Abe said, “I’m done. You ready for moonlight?”
“I’d like that.”
Alex followed Abe through cool air to his room above the office with walls covered with hides, beaded icons and Abe’s sketches, and the room smelled of Abe, a sweet masculine scent Alex found comforting. He slowly stripped when Abe offered a robe and kissed him as he dropped his pants. They walked down the stone path to the hot tub barefoot. Alex eased his way to his thigh then sighed and leaned onto Abe. Trip watched wagging his tail, and after retrieving a new rubber ball umpteen times he shook himself off and curled up on top of the plastic over the hot water spout. Abe and Alex talked softly as they lingered shoulder deep. When Alex reached out to Abe’s hand he clenched it in return. They sat in water to their shoulders holding hands until both were nearly poached. Alex got out and pulled his robe around him to keep Abe from seeing him hard. In Abe’s overheated room they fell into each other’s arms. Their love making was immediate and gentle with kisses that lingered as they explored with their tongues. What warmed every corner of his being was not what Alex felt with boys. Alex felt wrapped in a cocoon when Abe lay on top and whispered he’d teach him the joy of being fucked. Abe knew him from the inside and his touch was electric.
They spent the following week in Alex’s small cabin or Abe’s even smaller room. When snow closed the passes they knew they’d be there for months and found a trailer big enough for the two of them and Trip and remained there throughout the winter. Alex used the time to study Abe’s healings as a free man.