I was trapped between a fake fern and my new friend in a diner restroom in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

"I collect shoes like my husband collects guns," she said, pointing to her new house slippers as I eased my way toward the exit.

We were on our way back to Seattle when we stopped in Idaho for lunch at a diner that served breaded, deep-fried bacon. The trip began 10 days earlier in Seattle, continued on to Vancouver and across British Columbia to Big Fork, Montana, where we spent a week at a dude ranch.

I am always intrigued by the people I meet on the road and I was not disappointed on this trip. Take, for instance, the people at the ranch.

Nothing bonds a group of total strangers like riding a 1,000-pound horse through the Mission Range Mountains in Montana. Sure, those horses look cute and docile right up until you mount up and head for the hills.

We referred to each other by the horses we rode -- there was "the lady whose horse kept biting everyone," "the kid whose horse ran into the woods by itself (my 11-year-old)" and "the guy who couldn't stop his horse from eating stuff (my husband)."

Conversations at dinner went like this; we all ate together in a big dining hall. "Oh, you're the guy who couldn't stop his horse from eating," one lady said to my husband.

"That was me," he said.

"I rode that horse later," another guy said. "It wigged out after that 'lady whose horse kept biting everyone' bit mine and it was like 8 seconds from the movie 'Deliverance.'"

And if that wasn't enough to bond us, the next day added torrential rain, 45-degree temperatures, pancakes and some bear tracks to our morning ride to breakfast.

WE RODE UP the mountain for an hour with the horses' hooves slipping and sliding on the rocks lining the trail. Rain ran down their manes and off our legs. We huddled around a campfire eating our soggy pancakes while the cook pointed out the bear paw prints on the chuck wagon door.

He said the bear licked the grease trap clean -- I dropped the piece of bacon I was about to bite into -- and then tried to help himself to the rest of the supplies.

We remounted onto our now soaked saddles and began the soggy ride back to the ranch.

Dinner conversations that night went like this: "I think 'the kid whose horse ran off into the woods' might have found a shortcut. We should have followed her."

And even though we were almost 2,000 miles from Aurora, the connections were everywhere.

The couple in the cabin next to us -- the lady who rode the horse behind "the guy who couldn't get his horse to stop eating" -- lived in Four Seasons 40 years ago. She still remembers the horrendous Sea World traffic in the middle of summer and was surprised to hear about all of the new developments. They live in Chicago now.

The hiking guide at the ranch, who was originally from California, has an aunt, uncle and cousins who live in Aurora.

The connections continued as we made our way back to Seattle.

It was sometime during the eighth hour of our drive along the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon and up the Pacific coast back into Washington that we reached our too-much-togetherness breaking point. I was trying to find an interesting place to stop when my finger traced over Willie Keil Grave State Park on the map.

No one shared my excitement until I looked up some interesting facts about Willie (OK, they still didn't share my excitement).

WILLIE KEIL was 19 years old in 1855 when his father was packing up the wagon train to head to the Oregon Territory. Willie was really excited about the trip and his dad promised he could lead the wagon train.

Unfortunately, Willie died right before they left. His father, though, was a man of his word and decided his son was going to lead that wagon train no matter what. He found a lead-lined coffin, filled it with whiskey and laid Willie inside. The hearse led the wagon train across the country.

As the story goes, the Native Americans were not happy that more and more settlers were moving west. Many people were killed and Willie's dad was warned to turn back. It seems, though, that the Native Americans were fascinated by Willie and took a peek into the coffin before letting the wagon train continue on.

Willie was buried in Washington when the party arrived. It is written, though, that his dad found the misty, gray weather depressing. He moved south to Oregon and established, yes, you guessed it, the "Aurora" Colony.

Because no one wanted to stop at Willie Keil Grave State Park, I'm told Willie's grave can still be found off of Highway 6 near Menlo, Wash.

After two days of driving we found our final Aurora connection at the Seattle airport on the red-eye to Cleveland. One of my husband's former co-workers was flying back to Aurora with his fiancé -- they're Walden residents -- after visiting family in Seattle.

There you have it. No matter how far you go, you can't escape Aurora.

I wonder if the "lady whose horse kept biting everyone" ever made it back to Tennessee.

Email: sfellenstein@recordpub.com

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