It was one of those exquisite fall days, starting out crisp and warm by noon, a day for an adventure. Charlie watched as I rooted around in the basement. He danced around my legs – he knew exactly how we would spend the day. The sun was throwing its first shadows across the driveway by the time I had packed lunch and we climbed into the cab of my old red Toyota. Dew was smoking off the shed and the first breeze puffed the dust when we startled a squirrel by the woodpile. I carefully moved my morning’s second cup of coffee from one hand to the other, trying not to slosh it all over. Charlie climbed through my feet and hopped up on the seat – he was ready. I sipped my coffee, enjoying the warming blow of engine heat, and wiped a clear spot on the windshield. I made a tight u-turn in the driveway and off we went, leaving a swirl of leaves that followed behind wishing us a good time.
We drove in comfortable silence, savoring the autumn scenery and anticipating the day. Charlie gave me his contented doggy smile and turned back to watch out the window. The colors across the hills graduated from shades of green to yellow gold. Larches high up on the hill were already turning. When I could see the lake off to the south I slowed the truck. Our turn off the highway was almost automatic. We come here a lot. It’s a bumpy mile or so, past a small community and a section of barbed wire fence not fencing anything anymore, down a rutted road. The creek is low now and dry grass rustles along the banks, cattail puffs float silently on the slow-moving water. Charlie headed off to chase grouse, the same ones he’s probably flushed a dozen times. I grabbed our basket and blanket and headed west through the trees, finding our path to the cabin hidden in the overgrowth of summer’s end.
I stumbled on the old Montana homestead by a lucky happenstance. I was trying to find a lake someone had told me about and I got lost. After turning around at the end of a dirt road I happened to glimpse the corner of a roof line beyond a row of young firs. Charlie and I poked around and found an old path, disguised with knee-high grass and weeds. The first thing we came to was an old barn. Charlie pounced on the grasshoppers that rattled out of our path. There were torn screens and coils of wire lying underfoot. A section of the barn’s roof had fallen in, leaving the entrance blocked with ribbons of lumber angling down from the loft. Remnants of other outbuildings were scattered across a wide, golden field. There was the shell of an old car, nothing left but a crumpled, rusted chassis. Pieces of equipment lay hiding in the grass – unrecognizable. Had it been a farm? A base camp for railroad workers? As we neared the main house, we found rusted buckets, broken boards, and the hinged part of an old gate. There was a small building just off the main house with most of the roof still intact, though thin and rotting with the sun shining zebra stripes through it onto the floor. Maybe this had been storage, maybe with a root cellar. The house itself was hard to picture whole. It had been two floors, the roof now resting at a slant on the ground floor, burying the porch on the south in a tangle of rotted boards. The staircase was still there, a twisted skeleton, gray and broken, reaching past remnants of the west wall to the sky. The north wall had leaned over and split, logs holding strong at one end, splayed out on the ground at the other, like fingers braced against a fall. Young firs and pines struggled up through the rubble along the east wall, and a huge larch was growing right in the middle of the house. Just one window frame remained intact. The river would have been visible when the house was new. I knew some woman had enjoyed the view because right outside this window was a bed of iris. Not wild blue iris, but creamy whites ones and bright yellows with bronzy-orange tongues. I tried to imagine her in the kitchen, going about her daily routine, maybe checking to see if the iris had bloomed yet some long ago spring. I admit I’ve dug a few of these iris and taken them home where they’ve multiplied and put on a lovely display each spring.
This day, before I’d even gotten the blanket down and our picnic set out, Charlie was in the ruins of the house. Did he come when I called? No! bad dog! I’ve never gone past the broken down walls into the house with its floor of debris, old shingles, and who knows what hidden dangers. Charlie was intent on something under a broken board, and I thought I could reach him by not actually stepping into the house. Okay, just one step and I had him! Then came the crash.
When the dust settled and I’d cleared my lungs with a good cough, I could see I’d fallen through the floor and into a cellar or some sort. Strange, it looked almost new, like it hadn’t been disturbed for a hundred years. Before my eyes even had a chance to adjust to the dimly lit space I heard sounds overhead. I hoped no more floor was going to crash down on us. There were intact stairs along the west wall so I carefully climbed up, testing each step before putting weight on it. Charlie bounded right up the stairs and out an open doorway. When I got to the top I thought maybe I’d hit my head or maybe had taken a nap before lunch and was dreaming. I stepped into a old-fashioned looking kitchen, complete with things I’d seen in antique stores, an old coffee grinder much like the one had sitting in my kitchen, a lovely old table with new-looking pieces of enamelware set out like company was expected. The human brain is quite amazing. Though everything in mine denied what was happening, in just nanoseconds I knew exactly what was going on. I had fallen into another time….