Stan The Blackfoot
You can't walk away from your demons.
"It's the largest fresh body of water this side of the Mississippi," the Blackfoot told me.
It sounds like bullshit to me, but then again, I wasn't exactly in the mental state to be challenging anything about my geographic state. The brimmers had my memory fuzzy. How many had I taken that day? Six? Seven? Drowning in brimmers, I say to the swimmers. Did we really kill the Tin Cup before getting dinner? Mountain whisky is what Prescott called it, but they all taste like fire to me.
"Huh?" I said to the Blackfoot.
"Flathead lake. You said you knocked your head swimming there the other day and have seen a demon following you ever since. It is the largest fresh body of water this side of the Mississippi. Beautiful, inn't it, though. Surprised you went swimming, it's got to be freezing this time of year."
"Hah, yeah... But that's what the liquid fire was for," I said to my new acquaintance. We were standing outside the hotel vestibule bathed in cheap fluorescent. It's late in the night because I don't see any other lights on, just darkness resting upon the earth. I must have asked him for a cigarette, and I must have smoked a million because my mouth feels like a campfire. I can't remember his name (Steve? Stu? Something like that), but I recall him saying he’s a Blackfoot, and, for whatever reason, that's what's sticking with me. He's wearing a tattered denim jacket with heavy metal band pins and patches sewn poorly on. A black bandana covers his neck, but I can still see the tattoos poking up through them. His most prominent feature is a pair of snakebite piercings just below the lower lip; two metal spikes stick out like fangs. I wonder if he gets food stuck in there, I think about asking him but refrain. No need to be rude; he is sharing his smokes with me after all.
"You know you'll never leave here, right?"
"You will never leave here. Do you even know where you are?"
"Yes, I… Uh…" The Blackfoot looked at me with cutting eyes, challenging me to remember where I was. I felt like I was choking and my brain had been struck like a bell. Where was I again? Think about it, Jimmy. Think, think. You're on vacation. Okay. You wanted to go to Prague this year, but the damn Covid variant shut down the country and put the kibosh on that, so you and Mikek, and Prescott decided to go out west. Where west? Somewhere you haven't been before. Something about Mikek wanting to see all fifty states before turning thirty. Montana was on that list of states. We are in Kalispell, Montana, to visit Glacier National Park! Okay, it's all coming back. Drowning in brimmers, I say to the swimmers. "I am standing outside the Super 8 in Kalispell, Montana."
"Are you? If you say so. Oddly specific if you ask me." the Blackfoot says.
"What are you getting at? Why do you say I am never going to leave here."
"Because you've been marked, brother. Sta-au, that's the name of the demon that marked you, and there really ain’t no getting unmarked."
"Please tell me what you are talking about," I say to the Blackfoot, feeling like I am talking between breaths.
"Think about the story you just told me. Really think back on it. I know retelling a hellish story feels like hell, but I'll listen to it again. I need you to hear it this time, though. I don't think you paid attention. Too many 'brimmers' swimming in your head."
"I... I don't…."
"You say you know where you are, so tell me how you got here. Start at day one."
And so I concentrated back to two days ago: back to before the ATV and before the bear. My mind isn't ready to relive that yet. It needed to start at the beginning; Flathead lake ("The largest fresh body of water this side of the Mississippi." bullshit.), where my demon caught up with me for the first time.
The flight from O'Hare to Kalispell had been north of four hours. A long flight like that can really put a thirst on, so as soon as we got the rental car (white Jeep Wrangler, as stock as they come, but appropriate for the mountains), our first stop had been to a liquor store. Prescott was our whisky man, and he picked out a nice octagonal bottle with the dark brown liquid inside. Every bottle comes with a tin shot glass on the top, so Tin Cup is not just a clever name. "It's mountain whisky," Prescott would say with a forced country accent, "Ain't you ever seen the commercials?"
We were all kind of talking with forced accents upon arrival. Couldn't tell you why other than it was fun to do. It felt appropriate. Prescott, Mikek, and I were all in a good mood. We were finally taking a vacation with the "bros," and while, sure, it wasn't Prague, a trip to see some natural beauty of our country isn't an inadequate substitute.
Once we got to the hotel room, I guess that's where the drinking started. I had bought some beers at the liquor store to babysit while we tried to think of something to do the first day. We landed mid-afternoon, so it was too late to do any hiking and too early to really hit the town (not that Kalispell has much of a town to hit, but you know that already). While sitting at the desk chair I cracked my beer, but before I could take a sip, placed in front of me was a tin shot glass filled to the brim. "Oh, we doin' brimmers?" I ask in my forced accent.
"Oh, we doin' nuttin' but brimmers," Prescott said, and while still trying to figure out how we were going to fill our afternoon, three brimmers a piece had been consumed.
Before eventually settling on a place, I had asked the receptionist where the good spots were. She had rainbow hair and enough spacing between her teeth to floss with yarn. Her tag said her name was "Buteful." But she was sweet and really couldn't recommend Flathead lake enough. She said it was a "precious gem" this time of year and we were lucky to be hitting it before the weather started to drop and the cold came in like a lion. Sure, why not. It was only about a twenty-minute drive, and besides, it's not like we had started to really drink at that point.
The drinking really started in the car. I sat in the front seat, nursing my traveling beer, Mikek was driving (because his name was on the rental), and Prescott was in the rear pourin' brimmers. No, no. Before you go thinking we make a regular thing of this, we never drink and drive at home. Far too much to risk doing that. Plus, there are more than enough Ubers. But out here in Montana? Hell, I figure it's practically encouraged! This state has like, what, 1,000 people living here? So ten, twelve cops, tops? Even Buteful warned me of the decoy Five-O cars they'll put out on the highways. Yes, I am exaggerating a bit on the numbers, but the point is the risks were much lower than home, and it's not like Mikek was drinking (...).
When we got to the lake, it really was beautiful, or, you know, "Buteful." The massive lake is surrounded to the north and east by the snow-capped Rockies. Elephant-sized boulders crested the eastern shore, and the water was so clear you could probably see one hundred feet down. I wasn't planning on swimming, but when you're being called out by your best friends, well, I guess plans change. They stripped down to their underwear and jumped in--took the polar plunge. "My outie is turning into an innie," Mikek said through chattering teeth.
"Don't be such a pussy, dude! Do another brimmer and jump in! It's not that bad," Prescott was taunting me.
"I'm drowning in brimmers, I say to the swimmers!" I don't know. I get rhymey when I'm drunk. But as I said that, my drunk legs tripped on my clothes and I fell off the dock into frigid depths. I did not know that what I would see down there would haunt me the next two days.
I felt a terrible pain in the back of my head. Something hard had made contact with my skull, and even then, I was almost sure I'd have a concussion. When I opened my eyes, though, nothing made sense. I was freely suspended in the crystalline green water. No clear view of the lake floor. Only an endless void. I could not make out the surface either. Up or down made no difference to me. But the worst sensation I had was that I was not alone. Someone (or something) was in the water with me. Watching me. I could only catch glimpses through my periphery as if it didn't want me to get a full view of it. I needed to scream, but if I did, I'd suck in water and inevitably drown.
A slimy sensation struck across the back of my leg. At this point, whatever it was was unsatisfied with watching me and hungred for a taste. I had to get away; I started flailing towards what I thought was the surface: kicking my arms and legs as hard as I could for both propulsion and defense. I wasn't even sure if I was going the right way, but I had to move. I was swimming on nothing but instinct. Something finally did grab me and I exhaled an involuntary scream. But by that point, I was out of the water being dragged to shore by Prescott. He saw me fall in, hit my head on the rocks, and swam to save me.
We don't think I was concussed, but they made sure I didn't pass out for a few hours just the same. I didn't tell them what I saw either. What would have been the point? I wouldn't have believed me if I had heard it. It was the most terrifying thing I had ever seen (or didn't see), until the next day, that is.
"And what did you see the next day?" the Blackfoot asked.
"I... I'm getting there. I am trying to remember, but the spot where my head hit is starting to hurt again."
"Take your time. You must remember in order." He handed me another cigarette, and when I took it, I saw his whole arm was drenched.
"That night. You know, we were still having a good time despite my incident. We had gone to some local brewery, stopped by a liquor store for more Tin Cup because obviously, one night of brimmers wasn't gonna be enough. When we got back, that's actually when I met you for the first time. Right?"
"It is. And what did I say my name was?"
"Stan. Stan the Blackfoot. I remember now because I thought that when I tell people your name back home, they'll never believe I didn't make it up."
"But you won't get to tell people back home my name, will you?" Stan the Blackfoot reiterated.
"You keep saying that," I said with contempt.
"Please keep remembering your story. You're getting to the good parts."
At least the next day, we had more of a plan. Glacier National park was our main reason for going, after all. Did we do any research on what hikes to go? No. We didn't even look at the weather for the day. Let's just say T-shirts were not enough, so when we saw that there's a visitor center we obviously were going to have to make a stop.
There's one main road bisecting the park called Going-To-The-Sun Road. You enter on the east side, cut through the Rockies, and pop out on the west. To add that perfect touch of ominous to it, Stanley (Stan the Blackfoot) Kubrick filmed the opening scene to The Shining on that road. The visitor center we wanted was about mid-way Going-To-The-Sun.
So we got our "Glacier National Park" hoodies at the visitor center, and probably looked like the biggest dorks as they were all the same “subtle” shade of bright neon green. But what we most grossly underestimated was not the weather or knowledge of trails; it was the wildlife. Sure we talked about the potential to see moose, wolves, or bears, but it never seemed real to us. It'd be like seeing a monster in the movies; yea, it's there, but it's not gonna hurt me. So, we didn't buy the "highly recommended" $40.00 bear spray.
Some guy in denim even decided to butt in on this point by saying: “Don’t worry, bears mostly attack when they get startled, and with those hoodies you’re wearing, there’s no way one wouldn’t spot you from a mile out.” Prick. Like the guy who goes hiking in designer jeans is an authority on bears. I did happen to overhear him inquiring about trails with the park ranger, so without a better plan in mind, we decided to piggyback.
The park ranger suggested the Avalanche lake trailhead. Three miles uphill through the forest and at the top is a mountain lake fed by snowmelt waterfalls. I had done these kinds of hikes before, so I chalked it up to the hangover when my head began hurting. Naturally, we left the bottle of Tin Cup at home, so no brimmers, but that's what flasks are for. A little 'hair of the dog' got me through the start, but that spot on my head was not ceasing. Call it intuition, or a feeling, or Danny Torrence's "Shine," but I knew we were not alone in the woods. ...And I wasn’t talking about Levi Strauss in front of us either.
By the time we got to the top of the trail, exhaustion masked by adrenaline had hit us. The lake was breathtaking as advertised, and while I knew I wasn’t going to go swimming again, I did take my boots off to stick my feet in the water. It was so cold it hurt but, the thing is, that pain did nothing to subside my head. It was beating like a drum, and I couldn't shake the feeling that what I had seen in the water the day before was somehow here again. Is there a demon that lives in the lakes of this region? I swiveled my head, and I saw some horrible dark entity lurching on the shore. It appeared translucent like it was made of the same water I was suspended in yesterday. Standing eight feet tall, this thing did not move like a human nor fluid but instead took crooked steps forward like a glitching TV.
I turned my head again to call for Mikek and Prescott, but that movement caused another surging migraine through my skull. A dark green flashed before my eyes, and I thought the demon was on me, but it was just a hallucination. It must have been causing me to see things. I didn't spy Mikek or Prescott either. I have no idea where they went, and now I am alone with my demon.
Light may travel faster than sound, but that doesn't mean you won't hear the most horrible noise in your life before seeing what produced it. As I turned to flee from my demon, dashing for the dark maze of trees where there are at least coves to hide in, I heard a growl so piercing that my guts liquified. Was this my demon talking to me? Some ancient dialect so hideous and inhuman? No. What followed the growl was a scream: a very human scream of deep agony. I ran towards the source, thinking it was Mikek or Prescott but what I saw was the jean guy locked in the grizzly bear's jaw, face half removed like a mask, and guts spilling out.
Mikek and Prescott were standing there watching, just as dumbfounded as I was. Who knows how long that bear had been tracking us. Maybe it wasn't even following us; it could be that we stumbled upon it (must be a little under a mile out, huh Levi). That guy must have intercepted the bear on his return. I realized then that we, as humans, I mean, no longer had home-field advantage. We were on its turf; had to play by nature’s rules and nature is fucking metal. While the bear had its maw full we bolted the three miles back to the trailhead, and I had three horrible thoughts. First, if we had bought the bear spray, we might have been able to save that man. The second was that I wasn't so sure we would have. When you’re presented with an opportunity for escape, isn’t it best to take it? Which leads me to the third, most shameful, I was grateful; grateful it was him and not me.
"You don't have to be faster than the bear," Stan the Blackfoot started.
"Just faster than the guy next to you." I finished with tears in my eyes.
"And what did you do next?"
"We got back to the car and drove to the nearest ranger station. Told them what we could and got out of there. We weren't asked to stick around for questioning, so we just left for..." I'm drowning in brimmers, I say to the swimmers, "...left for the hotel and drank until we couldn't feel feelings anymore."
"You have one more day to get through."
"What did you say the name of my demon was again?" I asked Stan.
"And what does he want?"
"He wants to listen to your last day, and he wants to hear it again."
"Okay... I am starting to remember."
For most people, seeing a man get eaten alive would be a sobering experience, but the last thing we wanted was to be sober. Sobriety would bring our experience to reality, and I don't think we could handle that. We had bought another bottle of the Tin Cup on our way home, and if I am counting correctly, that makes three bottles in two days. "Stuff it down with some brown" is what Prescott would preach. We all agreed we needed distraction from our distraught discretions, and ATVing seemed like the reasonable choice. At the very least, if we encountered another bear, we'd stand a better chance of outrunning it.
RidgeRunners seemed reputable enough but what's funny is that these people give you zero driving tips. They don't even ask if you've driven an ATV before. "This is the gas, here is the brake," they give you a paper map of the trails and finally say "be back by 1:00 pm. I've got a fishing appointment I can't miss." I am not saying that they are responsible for what happened… oh God, what happened… But I am saying they could take a little more responsibility to suggest to their customers the dangers of cliff driving.
Prescott starts first. He's a bit timid on the main road while surrounded by traffic, but soon after getting on dirt trails, he finds his footing. We are not blasting through the tracks just yet, but we are definitely zipping. It's kind of funny, really. They give us a paper map from 1990 with highlighted trail lines and say, "find your way." The trails are all double track, but we honestly couldn't tell you if they were one way or not. We were sure driving on them like they were. But anyway, he's driving through mostly forested flat land at first, and when he gets to the first mountain ridges, he slows down. We stop to take some pictures, and that's when Mikek takes over on the descent.
Mikek has a feel for the vehicle now. He experienced what a newbie driver can do, but he wanted to put his own limits to the test. We commence back down the hill fast, faster than what ordinary people would be doing but certainly not breaking any records. Plus, he slows on the declined turns. It's only once we reach the flat ground again that he wants to test out our machine's drifting capability. We found a nice flat spot over a bridged river to drift on the gravel and take some videos. Maybe we irked an RV camper or two but fuck em.' They chose the spot next to the ATV trail.
When it was my turn, I didn't care about testing myself or finding the limits of the ATV... I just wanted to drive; I just wanted to not think about that man's face peeled back like a banana. We managed to find a new set of trails that led up to a peak beside Flathead lake. All dirt and rocks. All two tracks. It was simply a lake, cliff, track, and mountain; switchbacks the whole way up. Sure, I still felt the tinge of a headache, but I did my best to drown (drowning in the brimmers) it out with Motley Crue and Lynyrd Skynyrd over the speaker.
Of course, we took more pictures at the top. It was “buteful.” Endless blue sky only interrupted by jagged, knife-edged mountain ridges that bled into the luscious green forest, finalizing in a base layer of crystal clear water; it's the kind of view one has to earn. Coming down, though, as happens with all comedowns, is when I could no longer numb the pain in my head.
Whatever you called it, Sta-au was back. I could feel it. The hammering was familiar at that point, and I knew what to recognize. Bad things happen when I'm in its presence, so, fine, I'll outrun it. I drove down those hills fast. Faster down than I had gone up. It was easier since I didn't have gravity to fight. Prescott and Mikek were scared, I could tell. They were yelling at me to slow down, but they didn't know my demon was stalking us. Every switchback I made, the ATV would fishtail a little more. That was fine. The evils Sta-au brings are worse than what I could do.
I saw shadows behind the trees. Lurching figures which moved like bullish creatures in striking positions. The last turn I made… I… I saw it in the middle of the road. I saw massive fangs ready to consume us, and I lost control… The only memories I have left of Mikek and Prescott are inverted flashes of them bloody-faced and screaming. I couldn't tell you how many times we rolled before hitting the water (I’m drowning…). Mikek and Prescott must have passed out (or been dead) when we began sinking towards the depths. The last thing I remember was the yellow, menacing eyes in the deep green staring at me…
"And then what happened?" Stan the Blackfoot asked.
"And then uh… and then… I ended up here?"
"Exactly. And why is that?"
"Because I never left?" I answer. My head is ringing with pain. "I never left there."
"Flathead lake. I never left Flathead after I hit my head, did I?"
"No, you did not. The memories you have shared with me are of an existence that would have occurred had you left Flathead. The man consumed by a bear and your friends murdered by your recklessness is the consequence of your demons catching up with you. I spared you the actions by drowning you in Flathead, but I will not spare you the memory. That is mine to consume for an eternity." Sta-au proclaimed to me.
"Thank you?" I am not sure whether to be thankful or petrified. My demon is honest with me. It sounds like a blessing, but I feel cursed. The pain in my head is becoming unbearable, and I can't focus on anything else. Where am I again? "Flathead lake?" I ask the Blackfoot, bumming me a cigarette.
"It's the largest fresh body of water this side of the Mississippi," the Blackfoot told me.
It sounds like bullshit to me...