by Rich Mylar
A Christmas present from The CJ3B Page to our readers: another Jeep Story From the Northwest by Rich Mylar. There's also a page with More Photos of Rich's shack and Jeep. I hope everybody will take a few minutes out of the busy holiday season to enjoy this story, and I hope the new year will take us closer to peace on earth. -- Derek Redmond
It was the late fall of 1979 and I had taken my wife to the airport in Spokane. She kissed me on my lips in the terminal with her arms around my neck, and said sternly, "You take care of my cats and Joe, and don't do anything crazy with that chainsaw or the Jeep."
I reassured her everything would be just fine while she was gone. She was flying south to the ant farm to help her mother recover from a serious illness. We were planning to go back to Alaska in the spring, and had come down south to spend the winter.
I rolled out of Spokane in my truck, going north in the icy morning air for Newport, always a little faster than the law allows, and keeping a very sharp eye out for cops. I wanted to get back to the shack, and I now had a plan approved by my wife. I was going to clean out the house we rented, put some stuff in storage, and then move out to my shack that sat on 40 acres of mountain timberland we had bought a few years earlier.
It was a quarter mile from the county road in to the shack. The shack was not much to look at, that was for sure, maybe even an eyesore type of blight on the landscape. It was shelter, but it needed lots of work before it would be comfortable during the winter. It had a little tumble-down lean-to nailed to some trees, and I would put my 3B there to keep the snow and rain off. The man I bought this property from had built this shack with just three small windows; it was like a small black cave inside, even with a two-mantle Coleman latern burning. The wall boarding was some kind of black, insulating, composite tar board sheeting that sucked up light like a black hole does deep in the universe.
I do not understand how the former builder/owner stood it in that shack even one winter; it must have been terribly depressing. I do not claim to be a mental health expert, but some things should be obvious. My plan was to fire up my chainsaw, and put two big windows on the south facing side, and then install a heavy-duty wood stove. I also needed to cut a few truckloads of firewood and build onto the shack for firewood storage. Winter was coming and I was a little late by the standards of Pend Oreille County.
The former owner had left me a Christmas tree, complete with tinsel and cheap shiny glass bulbs. I am inclined to think that Christmas was the time he decided to drag up for warmer climes and find someone foolish enough to buy his shack on this heavily forested 40 acres. At least I wouldn't have to worry about putting up a Christmas tree that year; it was already there.
Ever since I was a kid, I wished I could spend a winter in a snowbound cabin in the mountains. I had no rent or power bill to pay, and the shower would not freeze because I didn't have one. I had it made here; a CJ-3B, a shack and a good dog who would last many years. What else can a man ask for in this life?
My wife does not like my shack; in fact, I think she hates this old, barely-surviving building with a passion, and has been trying to get me to tear it down for years and years. When we first bought our little forest she spent only one night in the shack and about froze to death, at least that is what she told me. I didn't think it was cold that night, by my standards anyway. But after that night, she never slept in the shack again, and when we go for Jeep rides, she always looks at the shack in a disgusted sort of way as we cruise by.
It took me a couple of days to put the windows on the south side; these windows were a massive improvement and changed everything for a much brighter outlook. I then started adding onto the shack. My NIC college friend Rizzo came up on the weekends and helped me build this monstrosity out of local materials we scavenged. Rizzo called this addition the "grand entry hall." I did not care, I thought it added some hardcore character to the shack; it looked cool, just like what was built around there in Pend Oreille County in the 1930's.
I have snooped around many dirt roads in my 3B, and seen lots of abandoned homesteads and many shacks, although none that I've seen was just like mine. I can only imagine how cold it must have been when one was snowbound for the winter at one of these little remote homestead shacks down some dusty, lonesome, single-lane road during the depression-era 1930's.
It was great fun exploring the logging roads around here at night in the Jeep, even with the top off in cold weather, and sometimes even a soft snow falling. The cold night air breathed pure and clean, and ice crystals formed in my moustache. My new Samoyed pup snow dog Joe loved the Jeep, and it became his rig from those nights on. We would cruise around in the dark with the Jeep's groaning gear case in low range as we crawled up the steep old mine road with headlights aimed up at the sky in the dark. This was on the 40 acres next to ours, which we bought later on.
I would go to town every two weeks or so when supplies ran low. Since I was now a taxpayer, I had applied for a library card and had received one. I can still recall reading Mark Twain's Roughing It by a yellow flickering kerosene lantern as the fire crackled and I sat close to the stove.
Some time after I got my firewood wood supply caught up, the temperature plunged when the skies cleared off; there came a cold front from the north that dropped in on the shack for a visit. I never did find out how cold it got down to, but I can say this: I had to roll the batteries around on the stove to warm them up before listening to the BBC news, or the radio would not work. I even went so far as to pull the batteries out of the 3B and truck and bring them inside so the Jeep and truck would start when I needed them. Inside the shack was not exactly a paradise by any means; the dog's water was freezing and it was in a bowl at the base of the stove.
A wool watch cap and an M65 army field jacket was the usual mandatory evening attire in the shack, even with the fire going. I had bought a set of Carhart arctic-weight coveralls for my pyjamas, and used long handles for my base coat. For sleeping arrangements I had a twin bunk with an army mattress. Bedding was two down sleeping bags, one expedition bag and the other one a summer bag, plus wool army blankets. Immediately I had conflicts with the cats; Willy and Pockets wanted to move into the foot of my down bags. I loaned them my old M1949 army sleeping bag, and they had a two-cat nest. What a man must do for his wife.
I heard a moaning engine coming down the driveway one evening, but I could not see who it was until I saw the little Datsun pickup, and it was struggling along and snow was spinning off the rear wheels as it rolled up in front of the shack. It was my old pal Rizzo; he had driven up from Couer d'Alene again for the weekend. I had not seen any other humans for about two weeks at that time. His company would be most welcome around the evening fire.
Rizzo slammed the door shut on his truck with a hollow metal tin sound, saying, "I could not buy a job up here right now with a million bucks." The local economy had gone in the gunny bags, and Rizzo had lost his job at the sawmill. The one thing I've learned about sawmills is that they are prone to closure and industrial-size fires that usually burn them to the ground in short order. I knew Rizzo was somewhat depressed, by the quiet tone of his voice.
"Grab your gear and come in by the fire. You're in God's country now; he's the only one than can live out here without starvin' to death!" I barked in the evening cold twilight. I always had a bunk for Rizzo, and was always glad to see him and his dog arrive. Rizzo unrolled his sleeping bag on the army cot next to the woodpile by the fire.
"I brought a bottle of sipping whiskey and some venison steaks," Rizzo said as he sat down in the chair next to the stove. "Ya got any Buckhorn beer? Geez Rich, it still smells like rat piss in here."
"Yeah it's in the ice chest. I gotta keep it in there to keep it from freezing." Buckhorn beer was brewed from the best barley and finest hops in the northwest, and then watered down to Rizzo's satisfaction, at $3.99 for a full rack.
I scooted myself up closer to the crackling hot stove, and put my boots on the hearth and relaxed. The coffee aroma was rich, and the amount of whiskey was perfect. "I think the cats will force the rats to drag up; most of 'em have already split, but there is still a couple of 'em in the walls."
"Lets take your Jeep for a cruise; I'll dump the rest of the corn juice in the thermos and cap it off with mud." Rizzo liked a certain brand of whisky, made by George somebody, dumped in his coffee as I recall.
"Yeah that sounds good. But I don't think we can make it up the hill to the mine with no chains on, Rizzo."
"Let's go, I'll load up the refreshment jug while you put on the chains."
I lit the engine on the 3B and it cut back to a slow idle with a little bit of choke on. I pulled the tire chains out of the bucket and carefully laid them out in front of the front tires and moved the Jeep forward about a foot or so. I felt the icy cold steel sting my fingers as I pulled the chains up over the tread on the tire and locked the last closure shut. Rizzo came out of the shack saying, "Ya ready, Pa? Damn, it looks like it's snowin' again."
The dogs were loaded and my dog Joe had to give up his rightful spot to Rizzo. As I backed up out of the lean-to, I elbowed Rizzo, saying, "You don't love my shack anymore Ma, you love my Jeep more now." Rizzo and I would speak as Ma and Pa Kettle did to each other in the old B & W movies from the 1930's. We were starting to become hillbillies and loved it. Pend Oreille County only had one Sheriff's deputy on duty at night during that time; maybe that will give you an idea how large the population of the county was.
The Jeep's engine groaned all the way to the base of the hill in low range, with headlights glaring on the evergreen trees and then fading into darkness after we had passed. The Jeep sat idling at the base of the hill, with snow falling and swirling around the headlights. Joe stuck his cold wet nose into the back of my neck as I said, "I don't know Ma, it looks like pretty hairy goin' from here."
"Go for it, Pa," was Rizzo's reply. "The Jeep will make 'er."
I flipped on the backup lights and backed the Jeep up to build up some speed before we hit the base of the hill. The Jeep charged forward in second gear with a low range whining sound reverberating through the forest. We hit the base of the hill with three-quarters throttle applied, and the F4 engine began loading down as the chains dug and chewed their way to solid ground on the steep, snow-covered hillside. I knew if the front wheels broke traction we were finished; especially if the front wheels bounced, the chains would lose their clawing action. I could see chunks of snow and dirt flying off the front wheels in the roll bar lights as we passed the old silver mine, with the 3B moaning onward.
Just as the Jeep crested the top of the hill, I had to turn sharply to the right. We had made it once again to the top. I shut off the lights, and as we sat there in the dark with the engine making a ticking sound as it cooled off, Rizzo said, "Turn on the lights Pa; I need a reload on my corn jug." I flipped on the roll bar light switch and watched my pal pour two mugs of coffee that gave off vapors being slowly carried away by a weak breeze. As snowflakes landed around the mugs on the warm hood of the Jeep, they melted almost instantly.
"Any chance we can get up to the Coyote Trail tonight Pa? That sure is one hell of a view from up there."
"Nope, we can't go that way Ma; I promised my Miss Christine I would not do anything crazy."
Rizzo was referring to the old firebreak road that came down the mountain onto my place. This old firebreak spur to the Coyote Trail is very steep, rocky and very narrow, and now with a foot or so of snow it would be much more dangerous, even in daylight. Rizzo and I had walked up this old firebreak spur and cleaned most of the brush clear with a chain saw, and done a little road work with shovels. We did just enough so the 3B would squeak by. A bulldozer had punched this road in, probably some time in the 1930's or 40's, and now nature had almost turned it into a well-traveled deer trail.
We wandered all over in the Jeep back in those times. Up to the top of Saddle Mountain where there was a closed-up forest fire watchtower that would make one think they were on top of the world with a commanding view of the Canadian Rockies to the north.
We'd had enough fun for the evening, and drove back to the shack to get warmed up and reload the stove; it was time to turn in again. Another day was done for us and another chapter was beginning to close in our lives, but we did not know that at the time.
Rizzo liked to cook, and I burned the dishes each evening after supper. His early frosty morning specialty was fried venison, and eggs over greasy in thick, hot 90-weight bacon grease that belonged in a transfer case. I had been putting cat food out for the Steller's and camp robber jays every morning all winter long, but Rizzo thought it was the smell of his fine venison breakfast that attracted them.
We had a weasel that lived in the woodpile with us most of the winter, and we watched his coat change from brown to snowy white. Rizzo would cut off chunks of raw hot dog, throwing them to him and watching him wolf it down with vigor and then squeak for more.
I asked Rizzo, "What ya gonna do? Ya wanna drag up for Alaska with me in the spring and get a job?"
Rizzo shoved more wood in the firebox of the stove, saying, "I don't know, maybe. I was sort of thinking of heading back to Jersey."
I hated to see anyone who loved the rural mountain lifestyle as much as Rizzo did, return to the ant farm, but we all have to make a living. Myself, I would much rather set chokers on logs behind a D-8 the rest of my life, than go back to the ant farm.
As Christmas came closer, Rizzo flew back to his old hometown to be with his family, and I was all alone deep in the woods with only my dog Joe and the two cats for company. The days clicked by one after the other, and the only reason I knew Christmas Eve had arrived was that I had used the C.B. radio in my truck to find out what day it was. I turned on the radio in the truck and it hissed and crackled as I turned it to channel 19 and keyed the mike, "Breaker-breaker one nine, you got your ears on Hambone?" A man that I never had met usually had his C.B. radio on in the evenings, and we had talked a few times.
The radio came back with, "Yeah, go for it good buddy. Is that you out there Timber-Patch?"
"Roger that," I replied, "Can you tell me what the date is?"
Hambone shot back, "December 24th -- it's Christmas Eve, Timber-Patch."
I was rather shocked that I had almost let Christmas slip by without knowing about it. I spoke with Hambone for a few minutes and thanked him for the update, and went inside the shack to get warm and celebrate Christmas. I gave my dog a can of warmed up dog food and the cats got the same; after all, it was Christmas.
I sat by the flickering fire that cast dancing mesmerizing shadows on the walls, with my whiskey and coffee in hand, and thought back to the time when I was a small child spending Christmas up in the mountains at my grandparents' house. I gazed at the reflected orange fire light that twinkled off the cheap glass bulbs on my little brown dried-out Christmas tree over in the corner. I laughed, "Gramps, if you could only see me this Christmas."
Rizzo went back to the ant farm and I went north once again in the spring. It has been said that the best things in this life are free and I for one have to agree with that statement. I would like to think the shack was free, and all the wonderfully fond memories that came with it. Now you may understand why I will not tear the shack down as my wife has asked me to do.
Thanks to Rich for the story and photos, including this one of him with his camera and his wife Chris in 1980. -- Derek Redmond
See More Photos of Rich's Jeep, and the cutting of the big cedar Rich and Rizzo are posing with above.
Also on The CJ3B Page, see some other stories from Christmas past:
Return to the Index of Jeep Stories From the Northwest.
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