UKArchive ID: 35953harry
Originally published on December 11, 2015 in Fiction
A short story about tour bus that went the wrong way.
It was just past three in the afternoon and the tour guide’s voice droned on like a lullaby rather than an explanation of the passing scene. The forty seven passengers were barely awake, the men anyway. They stared out the windows of the bus at the passing miracles – each one more impressive than the one before – yet curiously, all the same.
They had been up since six-thirty this morning, eaten heavily at lunch, (courtesy of Boomerang Tours) and the majority of them had not had a bowel movement since they landed in Denver three days ago. Jacki Bundy had a window seat, alert as a bird on a bough. She stared attentively through the blue tinted window listening to the tour guide’s every word. She held her brochure open to the page describing the vehicular tunnel through the Going to the Sun Highway, while her husband, Gordon, sat next to her trying vainly to digest the extra large cheeseburger and two dark lagers he had wolfed down two hours ago. He glanced at his wife, shook his head slowly and closed his eyes.
The tour guide decided to take a breather. He realized very few tourists were interested in the scenery this hour of the afternoon. One mountain looked the same as another, and it was far better to turn on the tape recorder which explained the view outside better than he could.
Jacki Bundy was attentive however, regardless of who was talking – she had fallen in love with Glacier National Park and she wasn’t going to miss a thing.
“Where are we?” Gordon asked.
“What do you mean, where are we? We’re in Glacier National Park. Gordon, Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?”
“It’s a picture, that’s for sure.”
“Can you imagine what it must have been like for the pilgrims .... “
“Yes, them too, I mean when there were no roads and Indians around every bend.”
“Imagine what it must have been like for the Indians.”
Jacki chewed on that for a while, then she nodded her head as though she had dutifully considered the effect of the pioneers on the Indians. “Jerry was talking about that this morning, just as we were going through Logan Pass.”
“Our guide, Jerry. Jerry Ward. He was talking about Indians – the Sioux I think. There was this chief, Spotted Tail, and the government did all it could to get him out of this part of the country when gold was discovered.”
“I must have missed that. Asleep I guess.”
They rode in silence over the immaculately paved roads that wound their way through the passes, cutbacks and brightly lit tunnels blasted through solid rock. Most of the men were dozing, but the women kept watch at the windows and occasionally a feminine voice could be heard exclaiming, “Oh look! There’s a bear.” or “There’s a buffalo.” Every time Gordon raised his head to see, it would turn out to be a tree stump or a unique alignment of shrubbery that in some receptive minds might be misconstrued as a bear or a buffalo.
They burst out of the tunnel into glaring sunlight and even though Gordon’s eyes were closed the glare of the sky at that altitude hurt his eyes. He was about to shift in his seat when the driver called out, “Watch it! Hang on!”
There was a crash up front and the windshield broke into a network of brilliant white, web-like lines. Jacki screamed and it seemed all the other women screamed in harmony with her. The bus veered to the left, crossed the road and bounced to a rough stop in a small grassy area.
Jerry Ward, the guide had been riding in a small jump seat behind the driver picked himself off the floor. The driver’s eyes were bulged out from shock when he turned to see if the passengers were all right, and in a thin tremulous voice said, “Sorry folks, I think we killed a buffalo ... everybody okay?”
Jacki Bundy, thinking that possibly the accident was part of the tour, expected an explanation immediately. Her husband, however was wedged in a fetal position on the floor between his seat and the back of the one in front of him. When he extricated himself he looked out the window and couldn’t believe his eyes. “Jesus,” he said. “We’re at the edge of a cliff!”
The sight made him dizzy. It wasn’t quite a cliff, but in all truth it was a precarious position at the edge of a steep decline. The ground sloped down from the bus abruptly. He turned to Jacki and said, “We’ve got to get the hell out of this bus!”
“My bag, the cameras ...” Jacki rummaged in the overhead but everything had skidded up to the front of the bus.
Gordon was suddenly pushing her up the aisle ... “Get out. Keep moving ... we’ve got to get out of this damn bus!”
The driver finally realized the bus was at a precarious tilt, and he, too, began shouting for people to get off the bus. Gordon was one of the first off and he noticed the step was nearly four feet off the ground. He and another man began catching people as they jumped. The last man off was the driver, still bug-eyed with confusion and fear. The bus, now lighter by thirty people began to slide down the hill. Everyone watched it in amazement, until it stopped - held in check by a huge boulder.
“Maybe it’ll stay there,” the driver said.
As if to prove him wrong, the bus rolled over the boulder with a grinding sound of bending metal and the crash of breaking glass. It began to roll over and over with increasing speed. The noise faded until it could be heard no more; Gordon estimated it was a good 200 yards down the mountainside.
“Did everyone get out?” Gordon shouted. The tour guide stared at him dumbly. It was obvious to Gordon that he must have a concussion ... he seemed more helpless than the passengers. The bus driver was alert but shaken, he had wrapped both arms around himself and was looking back at the buffalo lying dead in the road.
“We can’t just stand here,” Gordon shouted loudly enough for everyone to hear. “Has anyone got their cell phone with them?”
He turned to Jacki ... she shook her head ... “It’s on the bus,” she mumbled. No one had a cell phone, they were all with the bus at the bottom of the ravine.
“What’s going on with the sky?“ One of the men pointed to the west, black clouds were piling up on each other and assuming the shape of an anvil. Below them, closer to the ground, dark and ominous clouds rapidly approached them.
Gordon walked over to the guide. “What do we do now, Ward? We’re standing out here in the road with a dead buffalo and there’s a hell of storm brewing.” Ward was in no shape to make decisions. His two months study course at Glacier National Park was focussed on its beauties and natural history, it never contemplated a bus accident on a rarely travelled road. Come to think of it, he couldn't remember anyone ever telling him that it rained here in July. Besides his head hurt and he couldn't really concentrate on the turn of events.
Gordon gave up on Ward and walked over to the side of the road and looked down the steep wall of the ravine. The bus could barely be seen in the upper fringe of the treeline. It would take ropes and winches – maybe a crane to get it back on the road. His Nikon F3 was on that bus, so were his shoes. He just noticed that he was standing at the side of the road in his socks.
The bus could wait. What was more troubling was the approaching storm. The guide had drifted off to sleep – probably a concussion, and the driver didn't seem to know much about the countryside. Gordon walked over to the driver, who was trying to revive the guide. "Do you know much about thunderstorms up here," he asked?
"This is my first time on the Glacier route. Don't know much about thunderstorms in the mountains – haven't seen one. I hear they can be pretty bad." They stood together for a moment. "I can get in a lot of trouble for this," the driver went on. "Should'a stayed with Empire."
"Who's Empire?" "It's a truckin' company. 18 wheelers from San Diego to the mid-west. Six lane roads all the way. You'd never catch a rig goin' through these parts."
"You mean we're stranded?"
"Til the next bus comes along – three hours at least. They may quit if they see a storm brewin' – could be God knows how long."
Gordon walked away, leaving the driver standing at the edge of the road and looking down the slope – the bus had worked its way into the trees and could no longer be seen. Jacki was sitting on a rock talking to one of the passengers, a woman traveling alone. They both looked up at him. "Any news," Jacki asked him. Gordon was about to answer but a dull subterranean rumble, more felt than heard became audible. Jacki looked at him nervously; "What was that?"
"I think it's thunder. It echoes around the mountains. Once it starts it doesn't stop."
To the east, beyond the ridge of Logan Pass a hundred miles from them, maybe more, lightning was striking the eastern slopes of the Rockies – they couldn't see it, but they could hear the deep subterranean rumble of it. "I don't see the lightning," she said.
"You will, Look at those clouds building up in the east – look at the color!"
"I've never seen clouds that color." They were a greenish black. Jet black at the bottom and turning to green at the top. They were moving fast in their direction. "I can see the lightning now," she said.
With the lightning came the thunder – closer this time. Along with the thunder came black clouds blotting out the sun. A cold wind picked up and heavy beads of hail buffeted the bedraggled passengers. There was nowhere to hide, no cover – Gordon covered Jacki's head with arms and bent to absorb the pelting hail. It bounced and shattered on the road as if it were glass. He caught a glimpse of her frightened face and realized she was trying to say something, but her voice could not be heard above the roar of the storm. He tried to keep her flat on the ground, thinking they would be less of a target for the lightning. When it seemed to Gordon the storm would never end, the rain and hail stopped abruptly.
While the flashes of lightning were still blindingly bright, the thunder was less intense and seemed to be moving away. He raised his head and looked about him for the others. They lay in huddled heaps, like bags of wet wash in the road.
He looked down at Jacki and smiled nervously, "I think – maybe – just maybe we've weathered it, old girl."
"I'm freezing. What was that anyway?"
"I think we were inside a thunderstorm; we're lucky to be alive I guess."
Jacki raised her head and looked her. "Look," she said. "There's sunlight down in the valley." She turned her head and looked at the passengers huddled in the road. Some were stirring. Some were not. "Hold me, Gordon ... I'm freezing."
"Get up, Jacki. Stand up. Get moving ... get the circulation going." He helped her to her feet. "Let's see how the others are."
They were in poor shape, and as Gordon and Jacki passed among them, the bedraggled passengers stared up at them with blank shell-shocked eyes as though they had been through a battle field. Worst off were the single women, huddled alone in their fear with no one to comfort them.
“Will we get through this?” Jacki asked. “We’ll make it, love. They must be expecting us up ahead.” He look down at her and saw the terror in her face. “If it’s any consolation we’re too high up for mountain lions.”
There was nothing to do but wait. One by one the passengers gathered together in a circle, their bodies touching, trying to protect each other from the cold. They sat with their arms around each other, touching each other for warmth. They spoke of where they came from and how pleasant life was back home. They spoke of their children and their children’s children. They did not speak of the mountain or the storm or the cold – and now that it was night, they did not speak of the hunting sounds of animals – the sounds of cat and coyote. They did not listen. But they heard them all the same.
They had no idea of the time, and, as the cold seeped in consciousness slipped away. They were unprepared for what happened to them, barely human now. In less than a day they had changed from pampered, overfed vacationers to children in the wilderness.
Finally, at the darkness moment, Gordon mentioned a sliver of light in the east. Another thought he heard a distant vehicle far below. The sound of hunting animals suddenly ceased, a truck was clearly heard grinding its way up the mountain and they saw headlights on the pass below. One by one they helped each other stand and slowly they felt life returning to their bruised and battered bodies. The ordeal was over but the memory of the mountain would color their lives forever.
Archived comments for God's Country
Gee on 11-12-2015
I liked the way a very bored Gordon took charge of the situation here. I enjoyed the progression of the story and the way it changed them. A very scary situation skilfully explored.
franciman on 11-12-2015
I loved the story. Descriptive and nail-biting. I just felt the end was something of an anti-climax. It felt more like an afterthought, if you see what I mean? I thought the two main characters were developed throughout the piece though and made it all very believable.
Mikeverdi on 12-12-2015
Loved the idea,you described it well. Having been left behind by a boat once I got the helplessness of their situation. I agree that the ending was a little weak on this one Harry.
Harry on 12-12-2015
Sorry about that soft ending but that's the way it actually turned out. Aside from the tour guide's concussion there were no more serious injuries ... the sudden realization that a tour bus was no match for the mountain was the lesson the vacationers took home with them.