It was the summer of 1958. We were going on the mountain with my older sister, Pat, the breezy, confident, army-jeep-driving-schoolteacher. She was taking our group of six--we were twelve and thirteen years old—Holly, my cousin, AnnAlee, LaRee, Julie, Pam—my best friend and me on the mountain so we could have a camping experience and adventures. With Pat, there were always adventures—she could make building a sandwich an adventure.
That summer morning we climbed in her jeep and hung on--it was important when driving with Pat that you hung on. She had the top of the jeep off—she always had the top off—and the windshield down. She used to drive from Las Vegas for long week-ends and would drive the whole way, summer and part of the winter with the top down. Every truck driver along the way knew of her. She honked at waved at each one. She had a whole fleet of truck-driving men watching out for her.
That summer morning we drove away in a roar of exhaust fumes, I imagine our mothers held their breath and hoped for the best.
Once we were on top of the mountain my wacky sister showed us one of the advantages of owning an army jeep and drove us right into trouble.
“The great thing about driving a jeep,” she yelled, over the roar of the engine, “is that you don’t have to stick to the roads. Ta doot, ta doot,” she called in her musical, magic way as she deliberately drove off the road through a large valley, dotted with sagebrush. She weaved in and around the sagebrush. Looking over her shoulder she called to us hanger-on’ers, “Isn’t this fun?” And then she drove on top of a rock. The jeep had enough momentum to get halfway. It was like a green teeter-totter with one laughing driver and six terrified girls, teetering. We scrambled off before it tottered.
“Oops! Look what we did.” She turned the motor off.
We stood around the jeep with our hands in our pockets.
“What do we do now?” someone asked in a quivering little voice.
“Well,” Pat said, ignoring her. “Isn’t that something?” She didn’t seem to be concerned in any way. She actually laughed. Again. Or maybe it was just a continuing laugh. She laughed her whole life.
I didn’t laugh. I was frightened. I knew we were doomed, all alone on the mountain and it was my breezy, irresponsible, laughing sister’s fault.
We hadn’t seen anyone else all day. How long before someone would send help, I wondered. Would we be nothing but bleached bones by then? I had seen my share of Westerns and bleached bones played a big part in the lives of people who were stranded.
Pat walked around the jeep, pushing on it a bit here and there, saying things like, “Well, we’re really stuck, that’s for sure.”
She smiled. When she smiled she could charm ornery mountain lions and she charmed me. She put her arm around me and I forgave her for her recklessness. I forgave her for the breeziness and for the laughter. If I had to die on the mountain at least I would be with someone who was fun and interesting. How awful it would be to become bleached bones with a grumpy person.
“There’s just one thing to do,” she said. “We’ll pray, shall we? Then everything will be all right.”
So we gathered around and folded our arms and prayed. I don’t remember who offered the prayer. It was probably Pat but whoever it was had barely said, “Amen,” when we looked up to see a miracle coming up the draw, a sheepherder, leading a horse. A Border Collie was trotting by his side.
“Got yourself in a bit of a spot, have ya’?” he said when he got closer. He was laughing a little bit too. What was the matter with all these grownups and the laughter?
He seemed about as worried as Pat, which was not at all. The two of them talked for a couple of minutes about stuff that didn't matter one little bit in the world, like the weather, nothing important like how we were going to get rescued.
I thought he should get on his horse and gallop away to bring help. He should have yelled encouraging words like, “It won’t be long now,” over his shoulder as he disappeared in a cloud of sagebrush pollen. He should have waved his Stetson and maybe even a lariat. "I'll leave my trusty dog, Lassie here to keep you safe," he should have called. Instead he ambled, in a bowlegged way around the jeep, pushing it here and there.
“Yup. Ya did a really fine job of it.”
They both laughed. One of the girls gave a vague little laugh. I thought of her as a traitor, this was serious business. There should be no laughter.
He uncoiled a rope from his saddle and tied it to the jeep. He wound it around his saddle horn and in a quiet voice said something to his horse. The horse slowly backed up pulling the rope tight. The sheepherder made a little clicking noise out of the side of his mouth and the horse walked backwards again. The jeep made a horrible screeching noise and bounced off the rock.
The sheepherder knelt down, looked under the jeep and pronounced it fit. He and Pat shook hands, he patted her on the back.
“Well, have yerself a good time with those here girls. Maybe I’ll see you around later. Gotta check on my sheep, so I’ll be a goin’.” He led his horse up the draw and out of sight. We never saw him again and we never saw as much as one sheep on the mountain either. I watched. I watched for a sheepherder wagon. I watched for even one glimpse of white woolliness. There wasn't any. Being the fanciful person I was I wondered if he were an angel or maybe one of the "ancient ones" that come from some kind of a time warp to help stranded fools. Maybe he was John, from the Bible or one of the three Nephites, from the Book of Mormon. He was probably just a sheepherder but to me he was magical.
As soon as he was out of sight we piled back into the jeep and away we went, at speeds the same as before, if not worse, and with the same amount of carefree attitude. Pat sang at the top of her lungs, waved her arms in the air, pointing out things of interest to us. We laughed and pretended indifference at the excessive speed. I glanced at each girl. We all had had white knuckles and clenched teeth with forced smiles so I wasn't alone with my fear.
Pat didn't notice. Life was good for Pat. It was to be enjoyed, full throttle. Life was always good, wherever she was, whatever the circumstance.
An important thing happened to me that day on the mountain, besides being terrified. I learned to believe in the power of prayer. But there was a difference between my belief and Pat’s. She believed too but she knew that help was coming. She asked. Help would come. It was as simple as that. From that day on, I have believed too but she lived her whole life knowing.
My sister has been gone about fifteen years now. She died of sepsis, about seven or eight weeks after receiving a kidney transplant. She was/is the most fascinating person I have ever known and I miss her so much it hurts. She never felt sorry for herself. She never complained that she was the one to have kidney failure. She took what life gave her and squeezed every drop of fun out of it. She is my hero.