Before Bear Lodge, I’d never actually taken an Uber. Part of the reason was circumstantial – I’ve never been much of a traveler – but I’d also made a promise to Dr. Safar, my old colleague at the community college. Dr. Safar emigrated with his wife from Syria ten years ago after she accepted a cardiology residency at Mercy Hospital. He was an anthropologist in Syria but in Pittsburgh, for a time, he was a taxi-driver. “Cliché, I know,” he told me once during our smoke break. “But that’s what a lot of us did when we first arrived. And I’d do it again if I had to. The firm took care of me. You should always take a taxi, Kate, not one of those internet cars. Much better for the drivers.” He stopped driving a taxi when he and wife had saved enough to move across the river and eventually he became my office mate at Wallace Community College, sharing the sunless warren of desks reserved for adjunct instructors.
Despite his wife’s profession, Dr. Safar was an unapologetic smoker and we spent most afternoons together at an uncomfortable concrete picnic table between the faculty parking lot and the administration building, killing time. Because the college paid us by the course – and quite poorly at that – we resented spending the long stretches of time between our 8am classes and 3pm classes in our office and rotated between the picnic tables and our small cafeteria. Without a hint of irony, Dr. Safar suggested the time outdoors would be “good for our health, Kate, with the fresh air,” and, weather permitting, we stuck to our routine. He’s gone now. His wife jumped at the chance to take a senior surgical position in Canada after the election, and I guess I don’t blame her.
But on this trip, it appeared I wouldn’t have the luxury of loyalty to my friend. The Amtrak, it seemed, had deposited me in the middle of nowhere; a small spur at the base of Chapel Mountain in Virginia where the Modern Historical Association was holding its annual conference at the Bear Lodge. My hotel confirmation had come with instructions to summon an Uber – plentiful, by small-town standards, since the resort’s construction – or pay an additional $40 for pre-arranged shuttle service. I decided to take my chances on Uber. It was only 11 miles, after all, how much could they charge?
When the MHA announced its conference location last year, I was surprised the organization agreed to hold a meeting in Appalachia. But then I remembered the fire. Two years ago, a forest fire had devastated the south end of the mountain, destroying around half a dozen small hotels and an apartment complex. When the owners tried to rebuild, they discovered that a real estate investor had convinced the municipal authorities to mandate expensive fire-safety measures for all new construction. Even with insurance payouts, none of local business owners could afford to rebuild and the real estate investor purchased their land for quick sale. Out of the ashes rose Bear Lodge, a luxury resort facility set in the “the majesty of the Appalachian Mountains offering world-class accommodation and conference facilities for adventurous families and discerning travelers alike.” The story didn’t receive a lot of press attention – I only knew the details because my family hails from the other side of mountain.
I didn’t have the stamina to lodge a protest with the MHA and to be honest, I’m certain they wouldn’t have given a shit about my opinion. The MHA is all about keeping the field’s luminaries happy and in attendance, and judging by chatter on the internet about the generously negotiated hotel rates at four-star resort, the MHA called it right even though it’s still expensive as hell for the rest of us without the luxury of travel reimbursement.
And, to be honest, I didn’t even want to be at the conference. I had a job interview, you see – one of those awful cattle calls where you pay a grand for the privilege of a 20 minute slot with half of the search committee for a tenure-track job. I knew the odds were that I’d be nursing a huge credit card bill for the next year without a job to show for it, but I’d also been frustrated at the community college, especially after the Drs. Safar left.
Still, I couldn’t deny that the area was stunning. It made me homesick in all the right and worst ways. The town below, Jackson, was one of those ordinary paper mill towns on the decline you find throughout Appalachia, but the mountain above glowed with the last of fall’s colors. It didn’t seem fair that the area had turned into a playground for the rich, but it also wasn’t surprising. I knew from growing up over the mountain that the favorite economic revival strategy for the region over the last few years was tempting new businesses with huge tax breaks, and better a resort than a chemical plant, I suppose.
I’d tried to scope out the area online before arriving – as a smoker, I’d felt an urgent need to stake out the closest corner shop since I was sure the Bear Lodge’s luxury provisions probably wouldn’t stretch to Marlboros – and there didn’t seem much between Jackson and the resort at the top of the mountain. The only other sign of civilization on Google maps seemed to be a modest sized trailer park, Mountain Side, about three miles from the resort. The trailer park wouldn’t be any use for me but it still made me smile that the real estate investors hadn’t managed to drive off all the locals.
Off the train, I dug my phone out of my bag to use the Uber app I’d downloaded before leaving and I figured I’d get a lung-full of nicotine to go along with the paper mill fumes that had settled over Jackson. I put my details in the app, lit up, and was only half way through my cigarette when my phone vibrated to let me know my driver, Sarah, was waiting for me in the parking lot. Sure enough, when I walked out front, there was an old but immaculate Toyota running in the lot with a small black decal on the window and a middle-aged woman waving at me from behind the wheel. She popped the trunk for my luggage from inside the car and hopped out to greet me.
“Kate, right – for Bear Lodge? I’m Sarah. Let me help you with that bag, honey and listen, I don’t mind waiting if you want to hit the restroom before we go. People think it’s a quick trip up the mountain but we go slowly on these roads and I haven’t had a run yet where I ain’t got stuck behind of a delivery truck heading for the lodge. It’ll probably take us 20 minutes but don’t worry, honey, you only pay for the mileage and it’s a pretty, pretty drive.”
I told her I was ready to go.
“Then hop in, hop in sweetie – and sit in the front if you don’t mind. The heater don’t work too well in the back seat. The cold don’t bother me but I’ve got it nice and warm for you.”
I have to admit, I was impressed with my first Uber trip. Sarah radiated maternal warmth, and her accent took me right back to childhood. She fussed over me like a grandmother – “are you warm enough, sweetie? It’s gets a lot colder up the mountain!” – and I drank it up, basking in the last bit of kindness I’d get for the next few days.
“Have you taken many folks up the mountain for the conference?” I asked as we circled back through the parking lot, slipping into my old accent. My stab at small-talk was a weak attempt to probe my driver for what she wouldn’t know was gossip. The MHA had made the decision this year to organize interviews for the day before the conference, an alternation to normal scheduling presented as a benevolent touch to get potentially distressing business over before the conference began. In reality, the reorganization was nothing more than an attempt by the MHA to boost conference attendance on opening day when sessions were notoriously poorly attended. I knew that if Sarah had taken anyone up the mountain it was likely to be by competition, and I was curious about the turn out.
“What conference is that, sweetie?” she answered. “You know, I clean rooms up at the lodge – it’s my full time job – but I don’t remembering hearing about a conference. Although, with the way those folks work us, we wouldn’t know anything unless they wrote it on a pillow case.”
“Oh, it’s a history conference. I have a job interview tomorrow and I’m really dreading it. I can’t even afford this stupid trip in the first place…” To my horror, I found myself unloading on this poor stranger, my voice cracking with emotion. It took me a second to compose myself before I could offer an apology. “I’m sorry, Sarah. I’m just in a bad mood. There’s no reason for you to know about the conference.” I couldn’t explain why I’d been so selfish, but something about Sarah reminded me one of my mother’s friends – one of those nice ladies who’d given me rides after school and asked me about my day when my mom was working the night shift.
“Honey, don’t you worry about that,” she said. “I know a little bit about what you’re going through. Listen, that lodge? I work there 40 hours a week, sometimes 50, and on my days off I’m 8 or 9 hours in my car up and down the mountain,” she laughed, and reached over the pat my hand.
“What I mean is, I know a lot about what it’s like to work hard for something better and not get it. Before the fire, there were a lot of us girls –“ she giggled as she said girls, then paused for correction, “—there were a lot of us women who did rooms for the local hotels. Top of the Mountain, Ogle’s, you know. It was hard work but we felt like we was doing for family and got paid well too. And the owners gave us our dinner and if the roads were bad they’d let us bunk up in an empty room.” The some of the warmth left her voice.
“Those people at Bear Lodge? They act like they’re doing us a favor by letting us work there for $8 an hour. Honey, those managers? They don’t even let us go into rooms scheduled for check out unless they peek inside them first. They say it’s to do inventory but we all know it’s so they can take our tips. Greediest people alive if you ask me. I heard they’s going to start a shuttle and charge people $40 to go up the mountain. Do you believe that? At least I won’t be put out of my driving work – can’t see a lot of people paying that much unless they’re bringing up a bunch of youngins.”
“Oh, they’re already doing that,” I replied, happy to change the conversation, which was making us both upset. “But I’m glad it isn’t hurting your business.”
“Well that sure got that together quick,” Sarah said. “I’ll ask May about it next time I’m at the lodge. Nothing gets past her.”
“Is that Mountain Side?” I asked Sarah as we cruised past what looked the entrance of a trailer park. “Sure is,” Sarah answered. “Lot of girls, I mean women, who work up the mountain live there – five, six to a trailer. Some of the women live in Jackson like me but it’s hard to get up the mountain in the winter when the roads ice. Course, they salt ‘em better now because of the resort, and there ain’t nobody up there at all in the winter, but if an ice comes early it’s a nightmare and you’d best believe the management don’t take no excuses for missing a shift. Last year I’d’ve lost my job if I hadn’t been able to get one of the Mountain Side girls to cover my shifts.” She gave a hearty chuckle as she said girls, like she’d given up trying to make a good impression.
Sarah was right – the drive was gorgeous but ten minutes on the twisty mountain roads had made me slightly car sick. I didn’t have the heart to ask Sarah to turn down the heat so I closed my eyes for a moment. I had barely enough time for a deep breath when I felt Sarah slam on the breaks.
When I opened my eyes, I saw what Sarah had seen. A young woman, dressed entirely in white, standing in the middle of the road. She was unsteady on her feet – almost like a sleep walker – and when she noticed the car she made a half-hearted attempt to stick out a thumb, which almost knocked her off balance completely.
“Oh shit honey,” Sarah said, “Excuse my language, and excuse me for asking, but would you mind if we gave this poor thing a lift the rest of the way up the mountain? I’m not sure I recognize her but I recognize the uniform – she’s a cleaner, like me. If she’s walking up the mountain at this time of day it must mean she’s on a split shift. I hate ‘em, splits. Management makes us work ‘em we’ve just done a double, acts like it’s some kind of kindness to let us take the morning off. She looks exhausted.”
“It’s fine, really,” I answer, nervously imagining a delivery truck barreling down the mountain and taking all of us out with it.
“Thanks, I owe you,” Sarah said, giving her horn a couple of light taps to signal to the girl we were stopping. “I can’t refund your ride I don’t think – the system does all of that – but I’ll give you a code so you don’t have to pay for your ride back down the mountain.”
As she ambled down the road, Sarah and I glance at each other as if we were both wondering if the girl would even be able to open the backseat door. She looked so frail. Coming closer, I could see that she was wearing something that looked like surgical scrubs, gleaming white, and her complexion almost seemed to be the same shade.
Despite our worry, the girl managed to open the backseat door and slide to the middle of the Toyota’s seat.
“You going up the Lodge, hon?” Sarah asked, turning around. “Charles got you on doubles?” The girl didn’t respond, but her head bobbed down in something like a nod.
“Bless your heart, sweetie,” Sarah said, adjusting her mirror and pulling back on the road. “You don’t look well. But lord, how white your uniform is! How’d you manage that with those machines at Mountain Side? Joan, you know her? Came to work last week with dog hair on her uniform because some idiot had put a dog bed in the washer. I thought Charles was going to send her home but Nancy had a spare in her locker. Joan had to wash him at her momma’s house and give ‘em back because there was still dog hair all in the washer a week later.”
I turned around a stole a glance at the backseat when the girl didn’t answer. Sarah was right, the girl didn’t look well. Under-dressed for the weather, I could see dark circles under her eyes even with her head bowed. I expected to see her arms covered with goosebumps, hairs standing on end, but her skin was smooth – almost translucent. Her hair was fine and blond, pulled into a sloppy pony tail. Her lips were slightly cracked and had unhealthy purple tinge to them. Based on what I’d just heard about Charles, I couldn’t imagine him letting his staff wear purple-colored lipstick, but it frightened me to think she looked so naturally pale and bruised.
“Hi, I’m Kate,” I said, when I felt I’d been turned around too long just to steal a glimpse at our passenger. “Are you, ah, warm enough? Sarah was just saying the heater in the backseat doesn’t work.”
Her head rose, catching my gaze with watery, sad eyes. “I can’t feel the cold anymore,” she said softly. “I used to get so cold waking down the mountain, even in the summer time but I guess I got used to it.”
I tried to catch Sarah’s eye, but she was focused on the road. There was something not right with the girl, something that went beyond fatigue. A strange, damp smell, like wet leaves, had followed her into the car, setting my car sickness on edge. A glimpse of my own reflection in the side mirror confirmed I looked alarmingly wan – but as sickly as I looked, it was nothing compared to the girl in the back seat.
I was surprised to hear her continue from the backseat, “Adam told me to be careful walking down the road, ‘specially at night. Said the trucks would just run me down sooner than give me space. One almost hit me last once. I went into the ditch, and must have knocked myself out. When I woke up, I had such an awful grass stain on my uniform.” She absently rubbed knee as if remembering. “I didn’t think it would ever come out.”
I was ecstatic to see the entrance to the lodge appear appear. “Listen, Kate,” Sarah said, “I need to ask one more favor. Let me just drop her off real quick at the employee entrance round back. Hopefully someone will give her some coffee before she goes on her shift, and I don’t think I can bear to make her walk all the way around the building in this weather.”
“It’s no problem, really,” I said, as I dug in my purse for a tip.
The lodge itself was both ghastly but impressive. Rough-hewn pillars and rocking chairs decorated the entrance of what looked more like a Bass Pro Shop than a luxury resort. It made me angry to spend what little money to stay at this poor imitation of rustic charm, and learning how the resort treated its workers didn’t help.
Behind the lodge, I finally got a look at one of those infamous delivery trucks. We were force to wait a minute while a driver negotiating a dolly stacked with boxes down a delivery ramp. When we when we able to move forward, I caught the driver’s eye as he frantically pointed to our back seat. Stopping a moment later at the employee entrance, I understood his alarm. Sarah had been driving with her backseat door open, and it must have almost clipped the delivery trick. Our passenger was nowhere to be found.
“Well good grief,” Sarah said, hopping out of the car to shut the door. “I don’t see her anywhere. I’m sorry, sweetie. That was the rudest thing I’ve seen in ages and believe me, I’ll be having words with her the next time I see her.” She swung the car angrily around and headed back toward the guests entrance.
It only took a few minutes to drive back to the pillars and rip-off Cracker Barrel porches. “Thanks Sarah,” I said, handing her a five-dollar bill. “It’s been good to meet you.”
“Let me pop the trunk for you, hon,” she said, “and here, take this card. There’s a referral code on it for your next ride. Good chance I’ll be the one to take you back down the mountain and, if you’re staying on the 4th of 5th floors, we might run into each other before then. Good luck with your interview. I hope it works out for you and try to enjoy yourself.”
I said goodbye and took a few deep breaths before entering the resort. I wasn’t sure if the dread I felt was a memory of the frail and disoriented, but now missing, passenger or if I was getting nervous about my interview. When the hotel put me on the 2nd floor, I was secretly relieved. I didn’t mind running into Sarah again but I hated the thought of her cleaning my room, too.
As it turns out, I didn’t see Sarah again during my 2 day stay, and I didn’t see the mysterious passenger either. I spent most of my free time avoiding academics, walking around the resort’s man-made lake and splurging on room service I couldn’t afford. I had to hand it to the resort’s marketing – the mountains were magnificent. By the next month, most of the trees casting their burnished shadows on the mountain would be skeletal – didn’t Sarah say this place closed for a few months in the winter? Jesus, what happened to the staff?
The conference unfolded exactly as conferences past. I interviewed well but left certain I wouldn’t be offered a campus visit – and networking was a nightmare once people spotted my community college affiliation on my name badge. Catching up with an old graduate school friend, usually the saving grace for these awful trips, just put me in a worse mood this time. Mary-Kate was full of gossip about an old classmate of ours who’d just landed an incredibly cushy fellowship, the same classmate who made half of her dissertation committee quit in protest because her work was so bad. Rumors were swirling she’d been having an affair with a married professor, who bought her silence with a fellowship after she threatened to expose him to his wife. Normally I love lurid academic gossip but on this trip I just took it as further confirmation that no one gets anywhere in our field without someone powerful pulling some strings.
I also did what I promised myself I wouldn’t do – check my credit card balance after one too many drinks. The trip was going to cost me slightly more than I earned for teaching an entire course, and I’d be lucky if I had 3 on the books in the spring. I also saw that Sarah hadn’t charged me for my ride after all. It wouldn’t have been much, and I had flashes of worry throughout my trip that she’d get in trouble with the service. I went to toss the referral card but I’d already lost it, I guess.
I was eager to check out on my last day. I slapped twenty bucks beside the TV and hauled ass out of my room, but catching sight of a housekeeper in the hallway made me remember something Sarah said, and I ducked back inside the room to grab the money.
In the hallway, I jogged over to the housekeeper before she went into her next room. “Excuse me, I said, were you the person who cleaned my room yesterday – 205?”
The housekeeper looked nervous. “Ah yes, that was me. I’m sorry – did I do something wrong?”
“Oh not at all. But do you know Sarah, cleans rooms on the 4th and 5th floors? She told me that y’all have a problem with your tips going missing and I just wanted to hand you this myself.”
Relief washed over her face. “Yes m’am. I don’t know any Sarah – I just started working here 2 months ago – but she is correct about the tips. Thank you.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” I asked. “You know, is there a comment card or something I can fill out that would help you out with your managers?”
“That’s nice of you to ask, but we ain’t got no comment cards here and I can’t think of anything that would help us out with these managers. There’s a waiting list to work here. Management knows it don’t have to do right by us because if we don’t like it someone else is out there waiting to take our place.”
“A waiting list – even for housekeeping jobs?” I knew the moment the words left my mouth I’d put my foot it in. “What I meant is – I heard the pay was terrible.”
“Well, it is but in a place like this some pay is better than no pay I guess because everyone is hurting for work. The only reason I’m working here is because some woman got herself killed going home on the mountain road. One minute I was watching the police out my window and the next thing I knew, the phone in my trailer was ringing with someone asking did I want to interview for a housekeeping vacancy up here. Aw hon, you’ve gone white as a sheet. Listen, I didn’t mean to get all morbid. Thanks, you know, for looking out for me. If you’re driving down the mountain watch out for those trucks – they think they own the road.”
I mumbled my thanks and grabbed the nearest elevator. I was suddenly feeling hot and claustrophobic. I couldn’t get the image of that sickly hitch-hiker swaying back and forth in the road out of my mind. What had she said – she’d woken up in a ditch after a truck forced her off the road? It felt like it took me ten years to make my way down the stairwell. When the elevator opened I realized I’d taken the one meant for staff. I found myself in a corridor that lead to a laundry room and a small break room lined with lockers. I could see a fire door, marked EXIT, just inside the break room. I pushed the door open and took gulping breaths of clean air.
I found myself outside the employee entrance, where Sarah and I had stopped to drop off our mysterious passenger two days ago. The air was quiet and still. From the corner of my eye, I saw a small concrete picnic table at the edge of the employee parking lot. I walked over to it, weeping. I thought of Dr. Safar all the people who scheme and plot for better things sitting around uncomfortable tables like this. I took a seat facing the woods and fished my cigarettes out of my bag. I figured that Sarah or whoever has driving that day wouldn’t begrudge picking me up at the staff entrance since most of the drivers seemed to work at the lodge.
Behind me, I heard the crunch of leaves. When I turned around to apologize for invading their space, I was shocked to see the hitchhiker walking towards me, looking to be in much better health.
The woman must have read something unpleasant in my face because she immediately threw her hands up in apology as she sat down next to me. “It’s you, from a few days ago. Listen, I’m sorry for bailing on you after y’all were nice enough to take me up the mountain. In my defense, I was feeling terrible and didn’t even know which way was up.”
She continued, lighting up her own cigarette, “Doctor has me on some strong painkillers for my knee – one of them trucks almost hit me walking home down Mountain Side and I busted up my leg something awful jumping out of the way. It just won’t heal right. All we get around here is painkillers and I don’t like to take ‘em while I’m working but when am I not working, you know? I hope I didn’t embarrass myself or make you too worried.”
We smoked in silence for a few minutes. I finished, and tossed my butt into a little flowerpot filled with sand. “It’s funny,” she said, “it must have just been the drugs but that driver looked exactly like one of our housekeepers that got killed about 2 months ago going home. I only knew her to say hello but she was one of the nicest people here. Not fair what happened to her. My stepdaddy is with the sheriff’s office down in Jackson and he said she must have fallen asleep at the wheel – got her little car wrapped around a tree. Found out she’d been working doubles all week.”
She stubbed out her own cigarette. “In a way, I guess it was lucky. I mean, that it was only her that died. She always had a few of the other housekeepers in her car – she hated to see anyone have to walk down the mountain – but she was alone the day she died. Must have been coming off a split shift. Anyway, thank you again for the ride and sorry if I spooked you. The cold weather does bad things to my leg. One of the girls covered for me while I got some rest and I’m feeling better now. Safe travels to you wherever you’re headed.”
I don’t remember requesting an Uber back down the mountain but I must have gone on automatic pilot because ten minutes later an old Jeep Cherokee pulled up with a small, black decal on the window. “Kate, doing to the train station?” the driver asked, “let me help you with your bag.”
The driver introduced himself as Tyler, and said he was just coming off the night shift at the lodge. “Between you and me, I’m beat,” he said, “I think I’ll let one of the only drivers have the fares today and get some sleep, but I’m happy to run you down the mountain since I’m going that way myself.”
The trip down the mountain was a blur. I mumbled my thanks at the Amtrak station and it felt like I didn’t breathe until the train was speeding past Jackson. An hour down the line, I checked my credit card and this time I was relieved at what I saw – Tyler had charged me $14 plus tip for the ride down the mountain.
I went back to work at the community college that Monday but I left at the end of the semester. I moved back home, to the other side of Chapel Mountain. I don’t teach anymore. I write history term papers for rich kids for one of those sites that brag they get professors to do the work. I’m not proud of it, but I’m earning double what I did for adjuncting. I haven’t been back to the lodge, even though it’s just an hour and a half from me. There’s a class action lawsuit against the owners, now, for wage-theft. It seems that the managers hadn’t paid anyone for overtime despite working some housekeepers and cooks fifty hours a week. The brother-in-law of one of the porters happened to be an employment lawyer and organized the suit on behalf of employees. In the meantime, some of the employees are on strike. I sent their GoFundMe my last check from the community college.
Sarah is named in the suit, incidentally, or at least her estate is. The lawyers are using her accident as evidence of the managers’ unscrupulous labor practices. Sarah had requested off the day she died citing extreme fatigue, but the managers told her that her position didn’t come with any sick days and wrote her up for even asking. A few good-intentioned politicians picked up on the story and are using it to challenge the state’s right-to-work laws but it doesn’t look like they’ll be successful.
I’m finding my way now but I went through a bad patch when I first moved home — almost ended up in the hospital after I drank too much one night and vomited my guts out. Fortunately, even shitfaced me remembered that writing essays for rich kids doesn’t come with health insurance and I didn’t call an ambulance. Woke up without the slightest hangover the next day, though, and promised myself I wouldn’t waste my second chance.
For some reason, though, I can’t bring myself to turn on the heater in my car, despite the plummeting temperatures. I guess I just don’t feel the cold anymore.