Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Good Man in Idaho

Avery, Idaho is the sort of town where a dog can fall asleep on the Main Drag. Stuck some 40 miles up the St. Joe River from the nearest town of any size, with national forest all around. The railroad liked it and kept it going, even after the town was nearly destroyed in the great burn of 1909. Then the population boomed in the resurgence of the timber industry during the 1920s, growing to over a thousand. Then steadily getting whittled down to the present population: 57.

Still, there is a post office. But the postal service had a hard time finding anybody who would want to move up the St. Joe River rd, so they had to find someone there who would do the job. And they found Wade.

Originally from Kansas, he had now spent most of his life in the Idaho panhandle, having first come there to work with the Forest Service. But he gave that up when he realized every time he told them where the old growth was they cut it down.

I had been boiling my dinner on a fire ring on the banks of the St. Joe when Wade walked by, looking for western tanagers - a songbird lately come back from migration to Central America. We got to talking about birds, then about nature, then about ourselves, and realized we were living similar lives separated by several decades. Dark was coming on quick, so we made plans to meet for coffee in the morning.

It was a good thing I came to Avery. My impressions of Idaho had been mixed since the first coffee shop I came to in Post Falls asked me to leave as soon as I went up to the counter. Then in Coeur d'Alene a young woman tried for an hour and a half to save my soul after I gave some unsatisfactory answers to a few of her pressing questions. And finally in St. Marys, the last town of any size I would come to on my way to Montana, a nice older man had seen me sitting on a bench and started talking to me about his grandson who was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. He gave me five dollars to buy myself a drink. While I went to give him his change, the owner of the cafe called the cops on me to report me for panhandling. It felt I was living a fugitive life.

Wade gave me coffee for free the next day, since he is friends with the owner of the one coffee shop in town. Tho the town being small as it is, it would be hard to not be on good terms with someone.

Talking about places we had been and hoped to go, we ended the morning looking for morels - which after scouring the sides of the mountain for, I would find growing in his front yard. Then, since it was a Saturday and he had the mail to sort, I went thru the town library - of which he is librarian - and found a few books I thought he might like. Travels with Charlie. The Woman Warrior. Cold Mountain. The last one in particular I thought he might like since there is an entire chapter about a goatwoman.

Wade had told me about the goats that come out to sun themselves in the late afternoon on the northwest-facing slopes of the peaks. There is a place that he knows that faces opposite. He has been up there every time of day and in all kinds of weather. Summer, winter, snow, lightning, whether there are goats or no. He suggested that we grab supper at the bar and then go the six miles out of town to the place.

We were still talking about nothing much when the owner of the bar came in.

- He used to lead sheep up into the Bitterroots, said Wade.

- I'd like to hear about that.

The owner did start talking about it when questioned, but said, more-or-less, that 'it was a job.'

- We took them up into the hills and it would be about two weeks just to get them up to the pasture. Longer if the feeding was good along the way.

- They don't do it anymore?

- Forest Service says it's too damaging to have them up there. But they had some fellas do a study and they found them sheep didn't do a darn thing to hurt anything.

Sheepherding was something that paid money while allowing him to be outside. There was no great joy to it, it seemed. But Idaho is the wrong place to mention anything about ranching and land without talk of wolves coming up, which are pronounced without the 'L.' Making the singular rhyme with 'roof' and the plural with 'hooves.'

- The old timers worked damn hard to get rid of them wooves, and they did it for a reason. Then somebody had to go and bring in new ones. Ones not even from here. Foreign kind.

- I understand a similar thing happened with the first people.

My comment goes unheard. Probably for the best.

- From Canada, he spits. Bigger and meaner. And they don't eat what they kill.

Neither Wade nor I say much during this. I mention this to him later.

- I know when to be quiet about something, he replies.

More pragmatically, he has to live in the same town as this man, and 57 people does not allow for enemies.

We got on bicycles and went the 6 miles out of town. Every other mile on this trip from Seattle I have walked. But I cannot now say that I have walked the entire way across the country, since for 6 miles in Idaho I pedaled.

The hike up to the peak where Wade watches goats was unhurried but quick, and soon we could look across at the side of the valley opposite.

- That's Billy face, he says, indicating which slope with his arm. And on the other side of the arrete is Nanny Face. And that is Bordeaux Peak.

- Those the official names?

- I named them all.

He grins.

- You come up here a few times a week?

- Sometimes a few times a day, he says, then tells of a storm that roused him up here.

- One night lightning stuck down and I shot awake in bed, thinking, ' I never been up there in a thunderstorm.' So I drove out, hiking in the rain, and came up here. Suddenly I hear this great roaring rockslide and now think, 'Shoot. My truck is blocked in now. I'm going to have to walk the six miles back to town in the rain.' It was that slide over there in Skookum Creek.

He points to another, smaller valley, one not on the road.

- That slide dammed the creek and made a little pond. Trout the length of my finger grew there. But the pond only lasted a summer.

We sat up there for a bit less than an hour, looking for goats, tho only one ever came out, and it too far away to tell whether it was a nanny or a billy. When it got awful close to dark, he showed me a good place to camp, where the cedars would keep me dry if it rained, but I might run afoul of a woodrat if I were careless. Before we say goodnight, I shake his hand. He might be the last person I meet in Idaho. I thank him for sharing the peak with me.

- I figured you'd get it. I show it to people who I think will understand.

- If ever you had a place like it yourself, you understand when someone else does, I say.

We say our goodnights, and he goes his way thru the cedars. I stay awake for awhile with my back to a tree, just thinking.

The next day, I continued up the St. Joe River Rd. Twenty four miles past the cedar campground, I was on top of eight feet of pack snow, looking down at the tracks of two wolves. Each track was the length from my wrist to the second digits of my fingers. I had spread my hands over each set, as tho to measure warmth from a bed of ember and so judge how long I had been in trailing. The melting showed they had passed the day before, so I was no likely to see them. But as their path was not at variance with my own, I followed the prints over the snow, and so came into Montana.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

One Year On: A Recommitment

Outside the town of Pescadero, California is St. Anthony's Cemetery. Though by the sound of it Catholic, and with plenty of Spanish names carved into granite, there appears no current affiliation besides the one great one: living may visit, dead may stay.

I enjoy old cemeteries for the reason that I may wander without having to inquire of the inhabitants. This particular plot - rising on a hill with open fields to all sides - was very nice at sunset, when the air would almost visibly change temperature and the roar of the ocean would come in from miles away. Or when the wind blew off the Pacific and stirred the grass like the steps of a young girl. And off to one slope, where the view is not as spacious, an old blue gum eucalyptus sheds bark and broken branches over a strangle of myrtle.

Something about old trees. Something reverent for having survived thru the quiet of centuries on light and leaves. Even when the diet of ages changed, and the years did not eat with the seasons but fed on fossils and built of themselves a century muscled of iron, the eucalyptus lay down each summer a layer of wood. This is a patience I will never learn.

A buzzing comes from the tree. From a crack where a fire scored the side that faces east, honeybees have settled into a hive. It is twilight now, and tho it will soon be too dark for any strays to return, many come into and leave and trace little arcs over the spreading dew. Cross-legged, back to the tree, I settle myself and face east with the bees.

A current of wings and little golden bodies catch the light. Some curious scouts descend, landing on my shirt, my glasses, my face. I have no allergy and - not being a flower - need not fear being overmuch attended. The few inspecting workers fly off, toting home the packs of nectar and pollen - I'm no threat - and the stream of bees goes on.

Who was it who sat beneath a tree? Siddhartha? St. Francis? They knew what they were doing even when they did not know why they chose the seat. Then the earth was parchment whereupon the divine scrawled messages in a hand more legible. Sometimes missives writ large across skies with punctuations of comets and footnotes lightning. But far greater by signs small and significant. It may still be so. The rain still falls. The wind still blows. The grass stalk still bends.

The nebula of bees pulsates around hill, tree, stones, and me. So busy and so necessary, tiles in a shifting mosaic, shaped and shaping the earth as it grinds out life at the mill wheel of the sun. Not looking at hills and bees and tree - not looking only - I marvel. I behold what I have set myself before. Here I seek the communiques that others saw plainly in centuries previous, seated on a raw nerve of earth.

However things must have been different then, the print larger perhaps. I do not see what they saw, but I can see as they saw. Even without sense enough to know what I sought, I knew to come to this place to think it, and the answer - which I had already suspected - became plain. I would take my own adventure - on foot - across the continent. No motors. Just my feet.

Many admirable people had done the same, and for many great causes. And sometimes, they have changed history, rejecting the stories written for them with chapters they have authored, for themselves and nations. For myself, I had no such desire. There was nothing I could preach, much less I could even profess. I would speak but moreso listen. I would step over every beetle in my path and sweep away the ashes of every fire lit. I would raise no awareness other than my own, as I wandered from hillside to mountain to lake to shore, connecting those wells of buzzing, electric nature. Mine was Diogenes' errand, roaming the hills with my lantern. I make no honey. I have no sting.

Two weeks later, I had breakfast with friends in town, shouldered my pack, and started out down Stage Road, past St. Anthony's Cemetery. North to the Olympic Peninsula, then east to the Atlantic. Goodbye bees.

Then I could draw a path, but could not walk it. Now, a year on, I have reversed, and can walk but no longer tell. Still, eastward I go.

~Missoula, Montana