Nick Eldridge lives alone in a tiny house on the bank of a trout stream in western Colorado.  While he enjoys material success as a nature writer, his memories are drawn back to his senior year of high school, to the girl Ceilidh O’Connor.

It’s been almost 30 years since Nick has last seen or heard from Ceilidh, but not a day’s gone by without her entering his mind. 

One day a blizzard strikes, screaming down from Canada.  A car has gone in the ditch on the highway a mile from Nick’s house, and out of the howling wind, a distant figure from the past comes to Nick’s door.


Saturday, October 10th

I awoke the next morning to the sound and smell of bacon and eggs cooking in my tiny kitchen, just around the corner.  I followed the smell around to the kitchen/dining room – such as it is, in my tiny place – to find Ceilidh, long hair tied back, wearing my ancient bathrobe, padding back and forth from the stove to the little table with bacon, scrambled eggs and toast.

“Well, good morning!” she chirped at me, smiling warmly.  I tingled right down to my toes.  Almost thirty years and more than a few gray hairs later, her smile still made me feel weak in the knees.  “Have you looked outside yet?”

I stole a glance at the window and saw a solid sheet of white.  The wind rattled the glass, and when I stopped to listen, I could hear the tin chimney from my little gas furnace rattling in the gale.

“I bet it’s ten below out,” I said.

“Almost twenty below,” Ceilidh confirmed, “according to your little indoor-outdoor thermometer in the bathroom.”

“I’ll have to go out and get some wood.  The living room gets cold fast if you let the fire go out.”

“Well, you can eat first.  Although, Mister Eldridge, as a doctor I should take you to task for your diet.  I didn’t see any dry cereals, no bran, just eggs and about four pounds of bacon in the fridge.  Do you eat this way every day?”

“Well, a lot of days,” I demurred, “but I work it off.  You don’t think I just sit here and write all day, do you?  I’ve got almost three hundred acres of land to take care of.”

“Well, all right.  I guess you do look pretty fit.”

We ate in silence, accompanied by the howling wind outside.  I don’t own a television, but I did dig out my weather radio and we listened for a while:

A Canadian cold front has stalled over the central mountains and the Western Slope.  Much of the area is experiencing winds of up to 60 mph, and whiteout conditions.  Today’s highs will range from an expected sixteen above in Grand Junction to twenty below in Aspen, Leadville, and Eagle.

Vail reports twenty-two inches of snow in the last twenty-four hours, Eagle twenty-five, Glenwood Springs twenty-four, Leadville twenty-five and Grand Junction nineteen.

Travel advisories remain in effect for most of western Colorado and Wyoming.  The storm system is expected to remain stalled for another twenty-four to forty-eight hours, bringing as much as an additional thirty-six inches of precipitation to the area.

Mountain residents are advised to remain at home.  Most state and county roads are impassible.  I-70 remains closed over Vail Pass until tomorrow.

“Well, I guess I won’t be back on the road today, will I?”  Ceilidh looked down at her plate.

“Are you complaining about the company?” I teased.

“No, not the company,” she laughed.  “I just wish we could have run into each other under better circumstances.  I mean, here I am, sitting here in your bathrobe, with my car buried in six feet of snow down the road and no way to even let anyone know I’m alive!”

“Speaking of your car, is there anything in there you need?” I asked.  “I’ve got to go out to get some firewood, so while I’m dressed up, I could just as easily walk down to your car.”

She shot me a wry look.  “Well, I’ve got most of what I need in my overnight bag, right here.  I may have to borrow a clean shirt if we’re snowed in another day, but other than that…”

“Ceilidh, I live up here, remember?  It might be three or four days before the highway gets cleared.”

Thirty minutes later I was dressed to go out in my felt-lined pacs, my old Swedish Army parka, an ancient pair of insulated ski pants I’d picked up someplace, and my heavy mittens.  “I’ll pile some firewood up right outside the door first,” I told Ceilidh, “And then I’ll take a hike down the road to your car.  I’ve got a good pair of snowshoes right outside.”

“Be careful, Nick.”

“Hey,” I told her, “It’s me!”

That bit of bravado was a little over the top, as became apparent the moment I stepped outside.  The wind was screaming in from the open ground across the highway.

The first real gust hit me right as I walked around the corner of the cabin towards the woodpile, snapping me sideways and tearing away my breath with a sharp pah.  I gasped a couple times, and forged on for the woodpile, which I could just make out as a lump of white surrounded by white, glimpsed through the howling white of driven snow.

I made at least a dozen trips, slogging back and forth with armloads of wood dug from under the drifting snow.  Each trip, my footprints had almost disappeared by the time I beat my path back to the house with another load.

I stacked a pile six feet wide at the base by about four feet tall before I decided that it was enough.  At least the overhanging roof of my porch would keep the wood reasonably free of snow.  My snowshoes were stashed in the rafters of that overhang, so I retrieved them and lashed the old willow and rawhide frames to my boots.

Ceilidh’s car was three or four hundred yards down the highway.  I figured I could trace the driveway the hundred yards to the highway, and then follow the highway south to the car.  It worked, after a fashion – I strayed into the ditch twice from my own driveway.  The highway was a little better, kept blown clear by the wind for a stretch in front of my property.  I floundered through two big drifts, though, the snow so powdery that even my snowshoes didn’t help all that much.  It seemed like a year before I found Ceilidh’s car, a brand-new blue Lexus, nose-down in the steep ditch near where a tiny creek passed under the road.

Her big suitcase was in the trunk, right where she said it was.  I got the trunk open without too much trouble and manhandled the big case out.  Another ordeal – I had to get back up to the highway.  I only fell twice and managed to fill my ski pants halfway up with snow, but at least carrying the big suitcase back up the highway and driveway to my house sufficed to work up a sweat.

Ceilidh was waiting in the house when I fell through the door.  She looked anxious.  I imagine I looked exhausted – I was.  And I hike ‘fourteeners’ all summer long, just for fun.  I’m in great shape for a man of forty-six.

“It’s worse than I thought,” I told her.  “The highway is sure in bad shape.”  I shucked off my boots, parka, and ski pants.  My jeans were covered with melting snow that dripped on the rug.

“Are you all right?” she demanded.  “Here, I’ve got some hot tea waiting for you – you don’t have any coffee.”

“No coffee, I never touch the stuff,” I gasped.  A long gulp of the hot lapsang souchong lit a fire inside me.  “You know what?  I’m going to take a hot shower.  Do you mind?”

“Not at all,” she answered, laying a hand on my arm.  “You shouldn’t have gone out there, but thank you for bringing my case in.”  She dimpled.  “Now I won’t have to drag around in one of your shirts, anyway.”

“Or my bathrobe,” I added, and headed off for the bathroom.

A long, hot shower restored me.  At least the gas was still on!  I hopped into the bedroom, put on an old pair of sweatpants, a heavy sweatshirt with a bull elk on the front, and a thick pair of fleece boot socks.  A thought hit me, and I grabbed a second pair of the heavy socks and headed for the living room.

Ceilidh had changed as well.  She was standing in front of my tiny stereo stand, glancing over my music collection, dressed again in jeans and a black t-shirt.

“You’ve got quite a collection.”

“I don’t have a TV, but I do like to have music, especially when I’m snowed in.”  I picked up a CD.  “Remember this one?”

She laughed.  “I remember you playing it in that horrible old Chevy of yours!”

I handed her the socks, noticing her bare feet.  “Here.  My floor gets pretty cold.  There’s just concrete under the carpet pad.”

She put the socks on hopping on one foot at a time, giggling a bit as she almost lost her balance.  I caught her arm to steady her, and I could have sworn she blushed a little.  She picked up another CD from the rack.

“Oh, Bob Dylan!”

“Yeah, I got into his music in college.  Boulder’s kind of an odd place,” I explained.  “I guess you’d say it’s kind of eclectic.”

I put an album on to play, and we sat on the couch again.

“So how did you end up writing your Owen Bradley books, Nick?  I remembered you were going off to learn to be a newspaper journalist – it’s all you talked about.”

“It’s a long story.”

“We would seem to have plenty of time, Nick,” Ceilidh answered, gesturing towards the window.  A particularly nasty gust of wind rattled the pane.

“Good point,” I had to admit.

“So, give,” she said.  “Tell me your long story.”

I told her.  While Stevie Nicks sang “Gypsy” in the background, I told her about my five years at Boulder.  I told her about running out of money and joining the National Guard to pay for school.  I told her about my six months in the Persian Gulf, and how I wandered from place to place for five years or so after my return.  I told her about the job as a reporter with the Baltimore Sun that only lasted three months before I was laid off.  I told her about driving through Prairie Ridge once – only the one time, to visit my mother’s grave in the little cemetery north of town.  I told her about my year in Denver, living in a crummy apartment on Capitol Hill, tending bar in a lower downtown watering hole while I tried to find a job with one of the city newspapers.

About three albums and a big plate of sandwiches later I got to the point where I took up backpacking one summer, hoping to get some fresh air and exercise.

“I had pretty much given up on finding the reporting job by then,” I told her.  “My heart wasn’t in it anymore.  The city was too much of everything – too much crowding, too much noise, too much pollution.”  She nodded, eyes closed, as though she knew just what I meant.  “But when I got out into the mountains, it’s like everything came together for me, like I finally knew where I ought to be.  So, since I was spending more and more time up here, I moved.  I got an apartment in Eagle first of all and made a living tending bar there – a bartender can always find work – while I wrote my first book, Summer on Hardscrabble Mountain.  I was still in Eagle when I wrote Autumn in the Holy Cross, and when that book started selling, I had enough money to come out here.  This piece of land was for sale, so I picked it up and lived in a camper trailer one summer while I got the cabin built.  I’ve been here for eight years now.  I wrote Walking Winter Wildernesses and Spring in the Maroon Bells right there at that desk.”

I got up and went to my bookshelves, retrieving copies of all four books.  I dropped them on the couch next to Ceilidh.  “Here,” I smiled at her, “signed originals.  Those will tell my story better than I could tell you here.”

“Aren’t you lonely out here, Nick?”

“Me?” I tried to look astounded.  “Lonely?  No, not me.”

“Come on, Nick,” Ceilidh admonished me.  “I know you, we were best friends once, remember?”  She picked up one of the books and waggled it at me.  “You’re pouring everything of yourself into these books, and you aren’t even putting your own name on them.”  She stood up, leaning over me.  “You’ve built yourself into this little cabin, and nobody around here even knows what you do.  Everything about you is turned inwards!”

“It’s easier that way, Kaye.”

“Why?  Why is it easier to tell people whom you are anonymously, with the whole world, than to tell who you are with one person for real?  The Nick Eldridge I remember never had that problem!”

“I don’t know, Kaye!”  I was a little flustered by her response.  “Maybe it’s because the one person I was ever able to open up to walked out of my life thirty years ago, and never came back.  Maybe the Nick Eldridge you remember just never had that problem because that Nick Eldridge had a best friend he could always turn to.”

Ceilidh had walked over to stare into the fireplace, and now she turned to look at me.  Her eyes were red and brimming with tears.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “That wasn’t fair.”

“It’s OK,” she answered.  “I’m just a little concerned about you, Nick.  You’re out here all alone.  I had thought…  Well, I had thought you’d have found someone.”

I did, thirty years ago.

“Maybe we should change the subject,” I offered.

“Is that really how it’s been for you, Nick?”

“It’s not like that, Ceilidh.  I’ve got a great life up here.  I’m not tied to a job or an office.  I hike and backpack all summer, I live out here away from the city, and I make my living writing about things I love.  What more could I want?”

I could see that she wasn’t about to answer that one, so I dodged.  I’m such a coward, I thought to myself bitterly.

“Listen,” I said, “I’ve got a deck of cards around here someplace.  You still play peanuts?”

“Yes,” she smiled, wiping her eyes.  “Oh, it’s been years, but I think I still remember how to play peanuts.”

I rifled my desk looking for a deck of cards, all too aware that Ceilidh was looking over my shoulder at her senior picture framed next to my computer monitor.

“Here we are,” I said, producing a deck of cards.  “Would you believe I got these in Las Vegas?  I spent a week there while I was writing an article about the Desert Wildlife Range north of town.”  Giant hotel-casinos aren’t really my cup of tea.  That week had been a real eye-opener.

“I’ve never been there,” she answered.

“Vegas, or the Desert Wildlife Range?”

“Either one.  You know, I’ve only left Minnesota twice since I finished medical school?  I’ve taken one skiing trip to Vail, and one trip to St. Louis for a conference.  This trip was the first one I’ve ever taken alone.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve been around rather more than would suit me.  Iraq isn’t anything to write home about.”

“I don’t expect I’ll ever find out!”

We sat at my tiny kitchen table and played cards while the wind howled outside, and the snow drifted up.  I had to duck out twice for firewood, and the drifts were piling up across my drive.  “Good thing I went out to your car this morning,” I reported as I tossed some wood on the fire.  “Drive’s drifting shut now.”

“How do you get it cleared after a snow like this?”

“I’ve got a little old tractor with a loader blade on the front in that shed back of the house.  I can get out to the highway easy enough, but it doesn’t do any good to get out there until the road crews get the highway plowed.”

We kept on with the card game while the windows slowly grew dark, and the storm raged on.  Ceilidh took her turn to bring me up to date on what medical school was like, how her practice ran in an upscale area of St. Paul, a city I’d never visited, and how her two teenagers were a constant source of frustration.

“And what’s Ryan up to these days?” I finally asked.  She hadn’t mentioned him twice since she walked through my front door the day before.

“Lost in his career,” she told me.  “He’s a sales rep for a big pharmaceutical wholesaler in Minneapolis, he travels a lot.  Some weeks the only time I see him is when he drops off samples at my office.”  She smiled.  “This week he got stuck at home with the kids, though.”

“I remember how he was in school,” I reflected.  “Hell of a guy – always driving, always focused.  A real type A personality, wasn’t he?”

“Oh, he still is.  Peanuts!” she shouted the last word, slamming a card down.

“You always were better at this than I was,” I grumped.  “Tell you what, why don’t you have a look through the books I gave you, and I’ll get us some supper?  It’s, what, six o’clock already.”

“That’s a change, having someone cook for me!”  Ceilidh laughed.  “Sure, I’d love that.  The summer book is the first one, right?”  I nodded and headed for the freezer.

Fortunately, I’m a quick rough cook.  Years of living alone have seen to that.  Forty-five minutes later I had a pair of elk tenderloin steaks broiled, a salad mixed, and some hot garlic bread and steamed vegetables ready.  Ceilidh poked her head around the corner from the living room as I was setting plates on the little table.

“Smells wonderful.”

“I’ve had lots of practice,” I explained.

We ate in silence for the most part, except for an account of the source of my elk steak – a big cow elk I’d brought out of the Flat Tops Wilderness the previous month, during the archery elk season.  “I’m a pretty fair hand with a bow.  I use a hand-made English longbow, there’s a guy I know in Michigan that makes them.  Keeps it interesting.”

Ceilidh insisted on cleaning up – “You cooked, it’s only fair.”  I brought in some more wood, stoked the fire up, and tuned in the weather radio again.

A Canadian storm front remains stalled over the central Rockies.  Severe winter weather has resulted in a Traveler’s Advisory being put in place until Sunday evening.  Vail, Rabbit Ears and Loveland Passes remain closed.

The weather front is expected to move to the east beginning Sunday afternoon.  The winter storm will be followed by a high-pressure system that should bring some sunshine and rising temperatures to the Western Slope by Monday morning.

“Looks like this will last most of tomorrow,” I called to her.

She walked into the living room, drying her hands on a towel.  “Then it lasts until tomorrow,” she said.  “And no, I’m not complaining about the company.”

There was a lot we needed to talk about that evening, and nothing else to do but talk.  We sat on the couch and talked about the old days, about Prairie Ridge.  All the funny memories, all the sad memories, everything we’d both half-forgotten.  It took a while for Ceilidh to get to the question I’d been expecting.

“So how come you never asked me out, Nick?”

“What do you mean?”  I dodged.  “We went out lots of times.  Sheesh, Kaye, we were together all the time.”

“You know what I mean,” she replied, very serious now.

“Would you have said yes?”

“Yes.”  She nodded.  “I would have.  That’s what I wanted all along.”

I didn’t need to know that now, Kaye, after all this time.  I felt the weight of my life’s biggest missed chance slamming down on me now, and I guess it showed.  Ceilidh leaned over and hugged me hard.

“I’m sorry, Nick, I shouldn’t have dredged that up.  I’ve just always wondered…”

“It’s hard to explain, Kaye.  How do you tell your best friend something like that?”

“Like what?”

“I guess I was afraid of losing what we had, the friendship.  I didn’t want to take a chance on losing my best friend in a messy break-up.  Do you know how often high school relationships crack up in a big mess?  I couldn’t take that chance.”

“You didn’t answer the question, Nick.  What couldn’t you tell me?”

“How crazy I was about you.  How I went weak in the knees every time you smiled at me.”  Or how I still do!  “How my heart raced when I walked in the school every day, knowing you’d be in the building waiting for me?”  Or how much I loved you? 

She was holding both my hands now.

“That’s what I was afraid to tell you, Kaye.”

“I wish you had, Nick.”

“Would it have made a difference, Kaye?  We both had our own directions to go in life.  We were just kids.  We didn’t know any better.”  And we do now?

“We already had our lives planned out.  You were going off to Iowa to pre-med, and I was going to Colorado.  That’s what we were going to do, and that’s what we did.  Nothing was going to change the plans we made.”

Reluctantly, it seemed, she let go of my hands.  My fingers tingled.

“You’re right, I shouldn’t have brought it up.  I guess I just needed some closure on that…  I’ve always wondered.”

“It’s best this way, Kaye,” I told her.  “We were best friends.  We still are friends now.”

“And, my old friend, I have to admit, I’m exhausted,” Ceilidh stretched her arms, yawning.  “Would you believe it’s ten-thirty?  Where has this day gone?”

“It’s been a day well spent,” I had to admit.  “What could be better than catching up with your best friend?”

I had to insist on Ceilidh taking my bed again, and once again I stretched myself out on the couch and lay down to stare at the ceiling again.

Unbidden, my mind wandered back to the young, dark-haired, green-eyed girl that had haunted my thoughts for the last twenty-eight years.  On some level I realized I was being handed a second chance of sorts.

But a second chance to do what?