|Ever look closely at a map of Idaho? The state’s east and west borders each forms a face. Somehow Idaho, not Washington, inherits the western face and the eastern one belongs to Montana, not Idaho. More than 35 years ago I went to school in Missoula, where I used to say that I lived in the Eye of Montana. It’s been a long winding path from there to White Bird, but I find once again that I live in the eye of a state, the Eye of Idaho. I never thought that saying The Eye of Montana was very catchy, but The Eye of Idaho works. You might say White Bird is a speck in the Eye of Idaho, but that's where we've chosen to live. And we love it.|
|With a little embellishment, the story below chronicles how we left Portland, Oregon for White Bird, Idaho.
Or back to:
White Bird Chronicles
Letters from White Bird
LEAVING THE CITY
(for The Eye of Idaho)
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.
Trouble in Paradise
Idling at the only stoplight in one of the largest counties in the United States, I mentally rechecked my errand list: Groceries and videos, flu shot, chicken wire and lumber for the deck. What else? I did not want to make two 50-mile round trips to town in a single week. The light changed before I could finish my tally. When the car shifted gears so did my mind, and the checklist vaporized. My brain took off on its own, chasing answers to questions I had not even asked. Like some mystery-novel detective waking up after a knock on the head, I found myself thinking, Where am I? How the hell did I get here? The idle, undirected brain fleshes out bony questions.
Early on I had moved around a good deal and then settled in Portland, Oregon, where I spent 25 years and met this woman. Nice woman, nice place, good to be settled. I had been heard ranting that it would take dynamite to get me out of there. Now we were in the mountains of Idaho and I had momentarily lost my waypoints. Our path from settled city life to Podunk little Idahole-in-the-wall suddenly seemed a mystery. Solving it by the time I got home would require following the woman, not the money.
The woman and I are dead-on opposites. Years ago, when it was popular, we took one of those tests—the one that assigns four letters to describe the knobs on your personality, or temperament or something. People can take such things seriously. I once saw a vanity license plate proclaiming the owner’s outgoing temperament, ENTP. Perhaps he sought understanding from other drivers but I only understood that I shared all of his letters and not a single one belonging to the woman I had married. It occurred to me that only a bloody fool would try forging a life from such strife-promising raw material. Too late, did it anyway.
Together now for 20 years, Jane and I had trekked a tortuous and lovely path together, most recently pitching camp along Idaho’s Salmon River. Looking at our back trail it is hard to say which turn finally led us to White Bird. I blame it on a fight we had in Portland.
Our battles have structure—like stories, with beginning, middle and end. In the beginning is the blowup, the middle a time of silence, and the end…well, the end can justify the meanness. Fighting makes me lonely for awhile so I keep busy doing things of my own—work mostly. But it’s also a good time to catch up on movies loaded with sex and violence. Process those feelings in a healthy way.
Coming off a fight, my wife and I tiptoe back together. Only with caution do we abandon our battlements, high-stepping across minefields booby-trapped with hazardous topics. I wear down first. I figure it’s over and we should just fall into bed, but the specter of rejection holds me back. In the past my bad timing has perpetrated enough rematches that it works out better if I just wait. Let her make the overt move toward harmony.
This time it came from behind the newspaper. She said there was an African drum and dance group playing at the community center and did I think Matthew and Billy would want to go. I wondered about Jane’s plans but, considering our delicate truce and my talent for provocation, I didn’t ask. I just said, Sure, they’ll love it.
The boys were four and five, Matthew the younger and luckier. Matt’s mom and dad would tell him he could be whatever he wanted to be and then let him stumble around at it without fussing too much. When he was scared it was his own fear, not theirs. Billy didn’t have a dad. I knew his shadowy need and how it would stuff extra rocks in his growing-up backpack—weight enough to damp a boy’s skip and draw his eyes down.
We found seats halfway back in the old school auditorium. It was an earthy looking crowd—maybe a heresy of Unitarians just back from a hike. When the drumming started, Matthew couldn’t sit still. He climbed down and started to beat on his chair but the dancers, leaping and swaying to the rhythms, soon recaptured his attention. Abandoning his drum, he sidestepped his way to the aisle to see around the big people in front of him. Billy, of course, climbed right up onto the empty seat-drum. Matthew spotted the invasion and hurried back to pull Billy off. He yelled, “Grampa, Billy’s on my drum!” Neighbors tried to shush him but the pounding cadence drowned them out. Drums, marimbas and reverberating walls relayed ancient messages my bones ached to answer. All around us heads, shoulders and legs conducted or syncopated the beat. Our strumming bodies drove the chill from the old concrete room and suffocated its lonely echoes.
Flowing uncertainly at first, and then with abandon, rivulets of children drained out of rows and down aisles to collect in a teeming tidepool below the stage. BY then the boys had forgotten their turf war. They sat together on the chair next to me, swinging their legs. I told them they could go down front if they wanted to see better. Matthew hopped off and skipped down to join in, but Billy held back. I whispered, “Billy, do you want to go down there with Matthew?” He shook his head. “You can if you want to.” When he shook his head again and wouldn’t look at me, my insides tightened up. I couldn’t hear the music for the old noise in my head.
I squirmed for awhile, feeling kind of outside myself and not sure what to do. Finally I reached over and picked up Billy, sat him on my lap. I wrapped my arms around him, squeezed him tight against me and held the squeeze—maybe ten or fifteen seconds, no more. He started to wiggle and I let him go. He slid right off and plodded down the aisle to sit by Matthew.
I was off in another world, watching the boys, so it startled me when Jane leaned into my shoulder and laid her head there. I felt her hair touching my neck. She, too, was looking at them but I didn’t need to see her face to know she was smiling—even which smile it was. It was that soft-as-mouse-fur smile, the one that finds me from around corners and across combat zones.
But he grew old
This knight so bold
And o'er his heart fell a shadow,
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.
Next morning we sat at the kitchen table reading the paper and not saying much, but definitely glowing. Well, that’s how it goes with us—kind of off and on but committed. We had felt committed to Portland, too. A once wonderful place, and still hitting the “Best Places to Be” lists, by 1996 it had lost a good deal of its small town attitude. The six car/house burglaries we had suffered over the previous few years hadn’t helped our own attitudes. Maybe it should have come as no surprise to me when Jane said, “You know, I’m getting real tired of all this traffic and crime. Maybe we should get out of here.”
Wait a minute, you just built this house two years ago. It was supposed to be our forever place.”
My wife is a general contractor. Once, when she worked for a developer, she managed the construction of 25 houses concurrently. On her own since then, she’s been happy building one or two a year. I don’t know how she navigates in that basically man’s world without taking on its macho character, but she does—and then spends her free time in a sewing trance that clothes her and our grandchildren. They seem like oddly disparate activities, but I think she might just be moving back and forth between one manner of building and another.
“I know this was supposed to be our forever house,” she answered, “but maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Seems like every time we take a drive in the country lately we look at property. Could be we’re ready for a change. How long can we afford to stay here, anyway? We could make good money selling the house and you can do your business anywhere there’s an airport."
Sure, I thought, if the business lasts. Maybe this whole thing would go away.
By my 60th birthday, two months later, I had been out of work for more than a week. From a similar experience at age 50, I knew what was in store for me. A lot of resume'-updating, phone calls and street pounding—none of it producing interviews. The current wisdom said, Young is cheap and cheap is good so hire young. I had been lucky at 50. I knew this would be more difficult. Just what I needed, another freaking growth experience. In spite of the harsh professional jolt, my milestone BIG SIX-OH hadn’t hit me as hard as it had some other guys I knew. Maybe because I still played competitive soccer. It felt like a kind of honor to be that old and that active—and only slightly short of an orgasm to beat the young bucks in our over-40 league. But that’s just ego stuff, and the sadistic gods of passage just scoff and ignore it. At life’s crossings they hammer us anyway, and I was about to get the hit. It came weeks after the birthday party, which bore unto me only fellowship and joy, with little hint of mortality beyond the coffin gift and Viagra sample. On that late July evening, I watched the edge of a shadow from the ridge behind our house climb the hill in front. Hypnotically, it darkened the low ground, spread up over the fence, then dimmed every tree above until, as the shade finally engulfed the diminishing triangle that was the top of the hill, my masochistic mind seized the metaphor: There I go. Just that fast. Night follows day and this ain’t no dress rehearsal. Holy shit. I didn’t sleep much that night.
I was definitely not glowing the next morning when Jane said from behind the Oregonian, "Hey, here's some interesting property for sale in Idaho. I think I'll call." It hadn’t gone away.
I didn’t care. My mean little epiphany had opened my heart to possibility, meaning anything sounded better than what I was facing. I was pissed off and scared, thinking about death and the money it would take to get there. I hadn’t really planned to start over at age 60. I had been making fair money the last few years but self-employment, at least the way I had practiced it, hadn’t offered much in the way of retirement benefits. The reasons for staying independent disappeared with my sense of failure, and I dove into resentment of all those government and corporation employees whose health and end-of-life were so well covered. It didn’t help.
At this point I couldn’t see how I might make as much income ever again. Which brought up that other thing: Except for the couple of years after starting the business, my income had exceeded my wife’s. I had never given much thought to the alternative, so why was I thinking about it now?
Jane hung up the phone. “White Bird. They said the property’s near there. Where’s the map?” I decided to go along with this until I knew where it was headed. Besides, I knew that in my current frame of mind, if I opened my mouth any utterance emitting therefrom would not be conducive to intimacy or my personal well being. We found White Bird on the Idaho map, and I found that if I mostly stuck with yes, uh huh, you bet and you’re right, I could proceed without losing any body parts. We talked about Idaho’s Salmon River country, how neither of us had ever been there, selling the house, moving, the distance involved and the previously unspoken possibilities of leaving children, grandchildren, friends, soccer, and everything else we knew—even work.
“What work?” she said.
That did it…
“For chrissake, Jane, that town has 150 people in it. Have you ever lived in a place that small? It would be like a fishbowl.” Then, always seeking the win-win, I demonstrated my basic tolerance, serenity and openness. I yelled, “Quit pulling my chain, it would be a goddamn disaster.” But she was on a roll and the fruit of my mood slipped right on by her.
“Come on, it’s a nice weekend for a drive. Let’s just go see what it looks like.”
And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow.
Shadow, said he,
Where can it be,
This land of Eldorado?
“Are you sure this isn’t one of those high-pressure sales deals?” Not that it mattered. We were already halfway through the Columbia River Gorge. Far out on the wide river, speeding in every direction, a hundred wildly colored, leaning triangles exploded whitecaps and streaked the water with frothy trails. “I don’t know,” she replied. “I just wanted to take a ride. Look at those wind surfers.” Why was I nervous about this trip?
We turned off I-5 at Pendleton, heading north, then east on US-12 at Walla Walla. The rolling Palouse Prairie, the West’s bread basket, always makes me think of greed. Every inch appears tilled and sowed, leaving to wild flora only the steepest slopes, those that defeat even the highest tech side-hill equipment. I couldn’t fathom how those slanted tracks could have been made there without the tractor/gang harrow or combine toppling into the drainage below. The expansive Palouse offers sufficient verdant beauty and, later, those amber waves of grain. Even the fall and winter stubble displays a geometric appeal. Yet, the otherwise bountiful vistas are almost fauna-free. A few hawks soar over the open land and occasional coyotes hurry on to the next horizon, answering some distant call, but that’s about it. The odd pheasant that does sail into those tracts of grain won’t likely survive the harvest—let alone bring off a brood. Deer and any other persistent wild critters haunt only the limited rough edges. What would it cost to leave a few more strips of cover, living paths for a different kind of bounty?
We entered Idaho at Lewiston, crossing the Snake River, followed the Clearwater a few miles, then turned south on US-95. I had been this far years before, on the way to Missoula, but from here on the country was new to me. I shouldn’t have mentioned it.
“Good. Now you can’t say, Been there, done that.” Ouch, I keep forgetting. She gets to experience her own new things.
Long highways finally deplete my reservoir of meaningful conversation. After it runs out I either stare out at passing scenes, with brain in neutral, or look like I’m doing that while I play with my mind. I was playing—with recent events—which soon led my thoughts back to our differences.
I like a change of scene. I’ll go out of my way to return by a different route, especially in familiar areas. I like surprises of all kinds, new things, variety. Except in women, at least over the last 18 years of our agreed upon exclusivity. I get no acknowledgment for that, however. Whenever I go for points based on fidelity all I hear is, “So? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?”
Jane usually likes predictability and a stable routine. Same old places to eat, same brands to buy, same routes to destinations, same ways of doing things. So what was this 450-mile expedition all about? Thinking about uprooting every aspect of your life seemed to lack a certain stability, even for me. It seemed a glaring departure from my sense of Jane’s sense of routine. Eventually, however, it occurred to me that this might not be such a departure. I recalled her coming off the wall with other out-of-character travel ideas. Like, “While you’re gone I’m driving to Minneapolis to see my folks. You’ll be back from your trip in time, so why not fly to Billings? I’ll pick you up there and we’ll come back through Yellowstone.” I did, she did and we had a great time.
Or, “Let’s go to Inuvik.”
“Where the hell is Inuvik?”
“Northwest Territory, above the Arctic Circle. It’s in that book I’m reading. Look here on the map, you can actually drive there. Wouldn’t that be something?”
My brain is wired to scan for problems (usual interpretation: “You are so negative.”), so I really lined up the troubles hanging from this flight of fancy. Could be the only thing that saved us from driving to Inuvik was moving to Idaho.
I was starting to feel better. I always feel better in beautiful country. Within thirty miles of leaving the Clearwater River we would climb 3,000 feet following the timbered canyon of Lapwai Creek. A dash-dot line on the canyon wall above us drew my attention. As we climbed closer I made out a broken trail of tall curving railroad trestles that spanned the side canyons, with blasted V’s and tunnel mouths marking shortcuts through intervening ridges. Girded by criss-crossing creosote-treated timbers, the trestles used to support long trains braking cautiously down the grade, holding back strings of log- and grain-laden cars bound for Lewiston. Now the timber was mostly gone and grain moved by truck. Sometimes you see this picturesque trestle scene in a western movie.
We topped out onto an expansive black-soil plateau bounded by unseen canyons and far off hazy green slopes. This was Camas Prairie, the isolated eastern-most remnant of the great Columbia River basalt flow. The dark prairie soil that had formed over the most recent layer of lava had provisioned many peoples over 10,000 years or more. Nez Perce horsemen and women gatherers had made their living here until 125 years ago. Camas root, the prairie namesake, had been a staple for them. After 25 years of serious abuse by whites, and when their reservation was cut to ten percent of its treaty size after settlers discovered gold up the Clearwater, the stage was set for some local mayhem by a handful of resentful warriors. The first retaliation by the whites backfired. The Indians soundly whipped their sneak-attackers’ butts at the 1877 Battle of White Bird, then lit out on horseback and afoot, for they knew what was coming. Joseph, White Bird, Looking Glass and their bands almost made it to safety in Canada, after being pursued almost 1,200-miles by way of what is now Yellowstone Park. Historians still wonder how, at the beginning of their flight, the Nez Perce safely crossed the raging Snake and Salmon Rivers several times during its June flood—with women, children and possessions—to elude the army for 3-1/2 months. But the heroic escape ended poorly. I thought about the casino we had driven by half an hour earlier. Some paybacks are a long time coming.
The countryside rolled along with us as we passed timeworn settlements of Winchester, Craigmont, Ferdinand, Fenn, and Grangeville, home to that single stop light in all of Idaho County. Lacking other flourishes, every community on the prairie sported at least one beacon grain elevator. Beyond obvious function, it was not clear to me whether the towering sentinels pronounced their town’s current economic mainstay or stood watch for a desperately needed new one. If the quiet little communities sought anonymity, the concrete monoliths gave them away.
The travel book we had purchased expanded our imaginings. It told of the winter-drab prairie blooming into a vivid color palette. Broad pastures of blue camas would set off the squint-producing yellow canola plantings. A surprise late snow could sharpen the contrast even more. Before extensive tilling, the entire prairie had appeared as a lake when the camas bloomed full in May. Now, the dog days of August tinted the undulating landscape with golden stubble of wheat and canola, accented by black fallow patches.
Puffy cumulus clouds were building on the distant horizon, turning the background blue even bluer. If they towered we could get an afternoon thunderstorm. Off to our left grayer clouds obscured the Bitterroot Range as they moved along the line of mountains. They were scudding but I wouldn’t say it. That would have broken a promise. Every book I had read recently had delivered at least one incidence of “scudding” clouds. It’s a great visual word but I was tired of it. Maybe all those authors had gone to the same class, or grabbed for their Thesauruses at the same juncture. How do clouds move? They scud. The act of scudding. To scud. Scudding clouds, clouds scudding. Did they scuddeth in the Bible? The more I thought about it, the less the word really portrayed the movement of clouds anyway. More like balloons bounce-skidding along a horizontal surface. Now that was scudding. I would never use the word again. Boredom had set in, I could tell.
The final sixteen-mile stretch from Grangeville to White Bird treated us to an astonishing array of scenery. I wondered what it must have been like for the early settlers. They probably hadn’t appreciated the view as we did now. Subsistence living tends to shroud aesthetics. The twenty-minute drive would have been for them a grueling full day’s ride aboard horse or wagon.
We climbed out of the grainy fields and pastures of Camas Prairie. Halfway up a fir and pine-timbered grade, we pulled over to stretch and to relieve Gus, Jane’s scruffy Border terrier. Looking back over the panorama, we could see Tolo Lake, where Nez Perce had gathered for tribal ceremonies over the millennia. Beneath the old muck of the lake had recently been found the remains of Pleistocene prey—bones—several woolly mammoths, a species that had been hunted to extinction 6-8,000 years before. Now people fish for trout at Tolo Lake, and enjoy the abundant bird life.
In grand broad-brush style the full-horizon scene behind us celebrated the prairie’s beauty and bounty. Even so, Jane said she felt disappointed. Where was the rugged terrain they had told her about? The mountains? Not to worry, Janie. We continued up to the red-bouldered slot at highway pass, where, breaking suddenly over the top, a very different world burst out before us. The unexpected vista took our breaths away. We had to stop again, to take in the vast rugged maze of stream-carved canyon rangeland. From here the highway fell 2,700 feet in eight miles, in a gorgeous, steep, twisty descent to White Bird Junction. Only the truckers could think poorly of it.
Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,
The shade replied,
If you seek for Eldorado!”
Edgar Allen Poe
Our Seekers Reach White Bird
Passing over the 200-foot tall, inappropriately modern bridge spanning White Bird Creek, we turned off the highway and drove down into town. What a pissant little burg! We loved it immediately.
The more prominent town structures housed three bars and three churches. Interesting balance. If this was an activity contest it looked like the bars were winning. The main street, lined with towering black locusts, used to be a map-dot on US-95, the only real north-south highway in Idaho. To save travelers five miles of switch-backed driving, the new highway had by-passed White Bird in 1975. The abandonment had drawn little comment or attention and the town hadn’t changed much. There really wasn’t much to change.
Commercial buildings occupied the first block (implied by distance, not cross-street): General store, motel and the three bars which stood shoulder to shoulder but rarely acknowledged each others’ presence. Occasionally, a loyal patron of one bar would partake too much of its inventory and perpetrate an act of vandalism on a competitor—unprovable, even though everyone would know who had done it. Down the street a block or so, a post office, City hall/fire station and the three churches huddled together in moral protest. Past the commercial area for a few more blocks, houses and mobile homes were strewn along Main Street in various states of array and disarray. That was about it, except for the OOF hall. It’s really IOOF, as in International Order of Odd Fellows, but people spoke of the “OOF” hall.
Before our meeting with the land developer we ate lunch in Mac’s, one of the dark old saloons. As our eyes became accustomed to the smoky dimness, we could see an ancient bar supporting a couple of ancient cowboys. They appeared rooted to their stools which, we determined later, was pretty much the case. A cougar pelt and lines of deer, elk and moose heads and antlers adorned the walls of the eating area. On the wall across from the bar itself hung worn-out hats belonging to regulars, with tags naming each owner. Except for the poker machines and ATM along the back wall, it was a made-to-order Clint Eastwood set. We ate one of the huge Mac burgers, inquired as to the whereabouts of the land developer’s office, then walked down the street to it.