As for our room, it was every bit as fantastic as we were assured. We entered to the sound of classical music playing on a stereo, a ready-made wood fire waiting to be lit in the fireplace, and a view looking out to an endless winter snowscape every bit as pillowy as the down-clad bedding. The four and one-half hour drive went smoothly with clear roads over both mountain passes, yet we were anxious to commence with the relaxing. Armed with a couple bottles of pinot noir, a favorite single malt, some books and a backgammon board, we embraced the lack of a television in the room and set about putting the stress of the preceding weeks behind us. Back home in Snoqualmie I'm neck-deep in one of the most frustrating and difficult projects I've been a part of in years and Kristin, well, she just got laid off two weeks prior. But here at Sun Mountain Lodge, none of that mattered. All we had to remember was that our couples massage was scheduled for three o'clock on Friday and we had a dinner reservation for seven on Christmas day. It would be four days of blissful relaxation.
We settled into a pair of leather armchairs near one of the two massive fireplaces in the lobby, just feet from a towering two-story artificial Christmas tree, to do some reading while the local Cascadia Choral group filled the room with a harmonious hour of Christmas carols. Kristin sat working her way through one of my favorites, "The River of Doubt" by Candice Millard, while I read Colin Thubron's "Shadow of the Silk Road." The choir was explaining the finer points of miming along to the reindeer song as I came upon the following passage:
"For several hours my mouth had been filling with pain, and now I was seized by nausea. In the train's mirror I saw a swollen, discoloured face. Its two halves might belong to different people, one cheek so inflated that its eye was closing. Beneath a wobbling tooth, the gum was inflamed by a livid abscess. I wondered with misgiving what dentist might work in the old Mongol town of Maragheh ahead of me, and regretted leaving behind the delicate hands of Persia."And then, after finding an Iranian dentist with whom he could not communicate...
"In the basement an old man worked an antique X-ray machine. On its photograph my tooth looked like a rotted mandrake, its roots coagulated. The dentist held this to the light, and murmured foreboding. Then he motioned me to his divan and chose his instruments. He gave no anaesthetic. Overhead a lamp shed a baleful pool. For two hours he drilled and dug and chiseled, first at one tooth, then at its neighbor, and I had no idea what he was doing. From time to time he realigned my head left or right by pulling my nose. He seemed to be grinding my skull with pumice stone. I mewed again that I wanted to keep my tooth, most my teeth, any teeth, but he only grinned uncomprehendingly, and went on excavating with the help of medieval-looking tongs and files, while I tried to recall what instruments my London dentist used."An hour later, sitting in the rustic Wolf Creek Bar & Grill, drinking our pints of Twisp River Brewery's seasonal ale, I told Kristin about that scene in the book. Kristin is well aware that my biggest fear regarding our trip around the world is not of our bikes being stolen or us getting mugged. Nor am I terribly concerned about being blackmailed by unscrupulous border police. I expect it. Rather, my single biggest fear is having to lay myself at the feet of a third world dentist. I have notoriously problematic teeth and only this month, after finally getting my two front teeth crowned, did I complete a three-year marathon of dental procedures involving multiple root canals and more crowns than I care to admit. Thubron ultimately survived his ordeal -- a four-hour root canal without anaesthetic -- but the thought of developing an oral emergency so far from the comforts of modern dentistry is enough to give me goosebumps.
I wasn't two bites into my prime rib sandwich when the first jolt of pain hit. It struck sharply at first as it pierced my gums then blunted itself against my upper jaw and spread to my eye socket. Sudden throbbing pain, the likes of which I had never experienced. I reached for my tooth, a bicuspid I had crowned just two years ago, and it gave no signs of moving. My touch neither intensified nor dampened the pain. Three minutes later, it was gone. As swiftly as it emerged, the spontaneous face-melting anguish vanished. All that was left were the beads of sweat that dotted my brow. The pain struck again, in the elevator on the way to the room, but I was able to quickly nullify it by splashing some whisky onto the guilty tooth. I washed a pair of Advil down with a finger of scotch and tried to enjoy my time with Kristin, but my mind was running wild with the fear of what may be. The level of my preoccupation was evident on the backgammon score sheet as Kristin, who had never before beaten me, had built an impressive lead of thirty to naught thanks to my absentminded use of the doubling cube.
The nicest room in the lodge with a king sized bed of feathers, and I couldn't sleep a wink. I had ravaged the first-aid kit I keep with my snowshoeing gear and swallowed nearly a dozen Advil that night. I tossed. I turned. I was up and out of bed every fifteen minutes, padding around the room in fleece-covered feet, one hand clutching a glass of painkilling single malt while the other cradled my fracturing face. The flickering remnants of our bedroom fire cast a haunted silhouette of my pathetic form onto the wall above my sleeping beauty.
Daybreak comes late this time of year in northern Washington and gift shop owners rise even later. We begged our way into the locked hotel shop to buy some more Advil then set about finding a dentist. Not only was it a Friday, the national day of rest for dentists, but it was Christmas Eve. I hated the thought of calling a dentist I never met on his day off and I despised even more the thought of being the stereotypical city slicker who couldn't handle a toothache on his vacation to the country. I knew I wasn't being that guy, that this was a serious matter, but I hate to put people out. I finally decided it was better to make that call on Friday and try to coax a prescription or two out of him than to wait for Christmas morning and beg for a surgery. The woman working the front desk gave me the number of two dentists: there was the local guy her family sees and a clinic in nearby Twisp called Sawtooth Dental Care. I applaud the latter dentist's commitment to celebrating the local mountain range, but would recommend a correspondence course in marketing. I went with the first option.
True to his wife's word, Dr. Harrop called me back as soon as he returned from the grocer and gave me directions to his practice in Winthrop, the tiny old-west town just eight miles back along the snow-covered road winding down off Sun Mountain. As if Winthrop, population 1,916 as of the 2000 census, wasn't already one of my favorite places in the United States, Dr. Harrop's friendly demeanor and hospitality is just the sort of thing that makes people leave it all behind and move to the Methow Valley (just as he did several years ago). He met us outside his practice in trail sneakers, nylon running pants, and a fleece pullover and quickly ushered Kristin and I inside with a smile and a don't-mention-it wave of his hand as I thanked him for agreeing to see me on his day off. The office lacked the high-tech wizardry of my dentist's practice in Seattle, but made up for it with a warm, cozy atmosphere resembling a quaint mountain cabin. While waiting for the x-ray to develop, we got to talking about our shared love of the area and compared notes on nearby trails with him educating me on the wonders of the nearby Maple Pass loop and me encouraging him to bring along his mountain bike the next time he heads up to Angel's Staircase.
Sadly, my chattiness waned when the x-ray showed that an abscess was developing and that I would need a root canal as soon as possible. This word, abscess, means nothing to me other than misery, the exact opposite of the bliss we were supposed to be experiencing on this trip. I can't even recall ever hearing the word prior to reading about Thubron's experience with one the prior night. Dr. Harrop gave me a prescription for some vicodin and an antibiotic that would reduce the inflammation and put an end to the pain, but there was a catch. The antibiotics wouldn't really kick in for at least 24 hours and the pain was likely to get much worse before it got any better. Kristin and I thanked him and raced off, prescriptions in hand, in hopes of reaching the pharmacist in the next town before they closed up shop for the holiday weekend. We made it in time, but they were nearly out of the prescribed antibiotic. I would have to drive to the next closest pharmacist, forty miles and a steep mountain pass away, to fill the prescription. That was not an option. A couple phone calls later and Kristin and I were on our way back to Dr. Harrop's office to collect his remaining stash of the abscess-fighting wonder drug.
Maybe it was the vicodin working its magic or perhaps I was just buoyed by the relief of having actually gotten to see a dentist and received the drugs I so desperately hoped to get my hands on, but I was riding high. We sped back up to the lodge, donned our snowshoes, and hit the trails for a quick two mile hike. It was but a fraction of the route we planned, and quite a bit manicured for our liking, but the unobstructed views of snowclad peaks and fog-shrouded valleys more than made up for the lack of challenging terrain. As did our reward. Waiting for us back at the lodge was a super-indulgent appointment at the spa. Merry Christmas to us in the form of a bottle of champagne, a platter of delicious chocolate truffles, and his and hers 90-minute massages. We thought about cancelling the treatment on account of my dental problems, but washing another pill down with some bubbly left me pain-free all the way to dinner. And it's a good thing too, else we would have missed out on the best massage either of us had ever experienced.
The massages weren't the only gifts being given that night though; it was Christmas Eve after all. There was a building sense of excitement in the air as the night passed on. Though many of the guests were many years our senior, there were also a number of younger families staying in the lodge and in the cabins down by Patterson Lake. Having no children of our own, it was fun to see the anticipation in the faces of the younger kids as they wandered the halls in their pajamas, and we had to smile at overhearing more than one ask their parents how Santa will find them if they're not at home.
Though the abscess attacked with sporadic bouts of cringe-inducing ferocity during dinner, I had managed to endure its wrath and continue on. I soon realized that each bolt of pain would only last for a couple minutes, then life would return to normal. This was how it went throughout dinner, while we were exchanging the few gifts we got one another, and after as we laid by the fire. But this was merely the quiet before the storm. Perhaps sensing the building concentration of Clindamycin in my system, the abscess unleashed a last-ditch unrelenting sequence of assaults on my sanity and pain-tolerance that lasted through the night. The vicodin was useless in this war. Countless times, I would jolt from sleep and make my way to the bathroom where a pile of cotton swabs and a tube of Anbesol awaited me. Four times per day as directed? More like four times per hour, applied vigorously! I smeared the gel around my tooth and gums and welcomed the immediate, though short-lived reprieve it afforded. Back in bed, I fell asleep the second I hit the pillow only to be stirred awake sixteen, twelve, and sometimes just seven minutes later. More Anbesol. More vicodin. More whisky. Anything. I had never before felt a pain like this. I would happily trade away the abscess for another broken collar bone or crack in my femur. It was all I could do to not curl up in a sobbing heap on the floor of the bathroom.
Christmas morning brought no relief. Dashed were the plans to videochat with family on the east coast as I couldn't bring myself to search the lodge to find where the wifi signal was strongest. Breakfast wasn't much better. Once again we had the table by the window in the restaurant, but I was in too much pain to even order, let alone enjoy the view. I hated the thought of us not getting in the full day of snowshoeing as we planned and though Kristin could have gone without me, neither of us wanted that. Finally, I convinced myself that the pain came and went irregardless of whether I was lying on the couch or out hiking in the snow. So we added a small mirror, some cotton swabs, and more Anbesol to my pack and set out for a six mile trek through the snow.
This time we abandoned the well-traveled tracks atop the ridge and descended to Patterson Lake, then continued onto a seemingly forgotten track that wrapped around a nearby knob. There is no better stimulus for having long, private conversations with a loved one than snowshoeing. The utter stillness of the snow-draped forest combines with the majestic views of distant mountaintops to inspire the daydreamy talks we too often don't make time for in the course of our daily lives. Step by step we made our way over hills and across streams, over fallen logs and under snow-burdened branches. We paused in a clearing ringed with towering cedars to dig out the garland and ornaments in my pack to decorate a small evergreen poking up through the snow. The abscess was no match for the surrounding beauty of the land. We broke trail for four hours before finally cresting the ridgeline leading back to the warmth of our room.
The antibiotics finally began to win the battle and though I hesistated to go anywhere without the Anbesol (or a flask of whisky and pocketful of vicodin), we were able to enjoy a special dinner and our final night at Sun Mountain Lodge. And Kristin was able to get what she wanted most from the trip: a photo of her and Floyd.
And I finally got to enjoy a proper night's sleep in that luxurious bed. I'd worry about the pending root canal another day.