This evening, a particular piece of kid-art caught my eye. We have their notes and drawings tacked up all over the place—on the walls, on the fridge—but when something is always there you sometimes stop seeing it.
That’s the case with this piece , carefully dated 8-2-11 (almost exactly a year ago) with sticker-letters spelling out the message: “Mom, I wish I could see you more often. Love, Elena Grace.” It’s accompanied by her drawing of all of us at the lake, and her note reminded me with a jolt that just a year ago (due to our 2010 alcoholic relapse) we were only seeing the kids for a day here and there, not even overnights.
What a long way we’ve come (thank you, God!) that we have them for a week at a time this summer, and on the Fridays when their dad picks them up, we know we’ll have them back the next Friday. Christian’s parting words on his way out the door to his dad’s truck this afternoon were: “I’ll call you. Post something!” Scary as it may sound, my eleven-year-old now subscribes to my blog, and has even read through all the archives. Well, you can bet he’ll keep me pretty honest. (By the age of three, the signature phrase of Mr. Fact-and-Detail was: “Actually, Mom…”)
An aside to my child: Remember, Buddy, that Mom wears a t-shirt that says “I make shit up,” and that first and foremost I’m a storyteller. Cut me a storyteller’s slack, yeah? Love you!
This week we used our time with the kiddos not only for chicken-house-building, but also for a camping foray into the Owyhee mountains to the old mining town of Silver City. I wrote about Silver City last summer for an Idaho travel magazine (“reprint” of the article here), and on that visit Keoni & I stayed in the Idaho Hotel, which has been in operation for one hundred fifty years… I know that sounds like a new building to my friends in Europe, but here in the American West that’s about as old as it gets.
As we pulled into town this week, the hotel owner, Roger, was out front of the hotel putting steaks on the grill. Keoni pulled the van up beside him and rolled down the window. “I don’t know if you remember us–we stayed here last summer…” Whether truthfully or politely, Roger said he did, and Keoni went on to add, “My wife wrote the article for Western Byways.” Whether or not he remembered us, he remembered the article—and evidently with pleasure. (I wonder, in retrospect, if it’s a bit unnerving to be told there’s an article being published about your place, and not to have an idea which of your recent guests might have been the snoop writer…)
We reiterated how much we’d enjoyed our stay last year (as if he hadn’t gathered as much from the article), told him we’d brought the kids up to camp (he peered into the back of the van and waved his barbecue tongs at them in cheerful greeting), and asked if there might be a possibility that he would unlock the drug store (which he also owns) at some point so the kids could have a look. He agreeably set a time for the next morning, and we headed on up the road.
We had intended to bypass the established campground just out of town and stake out a spot upstream, but the campground turned out to be entirely deserted, so we decided after all to claim a creekside spot there. Elena Grace gave Keoni a hand with the tent, and both kids disappeared up the banks of the creek.
I have to pause here and note that I’ve never in my adult life gone camping without being the person who packed for the trip. This was actually the first time Keoni and I have had the chance to camp together (thanks to the loan, from my parents, of two tents—including the awesome orange one that predates ME), and while I was frantically trying to finish up my writing Tuesday, he packed up the van for our adventure. It was a strange sensation for me to get into the vehicle without a single idea of what had been packed. He’s organized, OCD, and super-thorough (far more so than I would have been, in all truth), so I had no reason to worry. It was just an odd sensation. Yet another reminder that I’m with a man now who takes care of things.
And take care of things he did—the camp popped up around me in no time, and by the time the kids returned from their foray up the opposite mountainside, he had sausages on the grill and a fire ready for Christian’s flint-and-steel.
It’s one of the inescapable facts of camping—at least around here—that ninety-degree days flip in a flash into near-freezing nights. Not long after the sun disappeared behind the mountains, I was hurriedly trading my sweat-soaked t-shirt and shorts for jeans and layers of sweatshirts. (And yes, the kids both piped up that they were glad their dad let them take their warm sleeping bags.)
The marshmallows came out, of course, quickly followed by a perfectly full moon, rising from behind the mountainside the kids had so recently conquered. After several s’mores, Elena Grace climbed stickily into my lap and leaned back against me, gazing at the moon. “It’s just been shopping, you know,” she told me, matter-of factly.
Oh? Does the Moon have shopping bags?
“Mm-hmm.” She gazed some more. “It likes taking baths. And it always washes its hands after it goes to the bathroom. It likes people… and fish. Golden fish!”
I think I may have a Writer here. I’ll have to ask her what the Moon shops for…
Keoni and the kids were up early, and I emerged from the tent for a few cold minutes before I conceded that my writing-until-five-the-previous-morning had caught up with me. Gravity definitely felt like my enemy—smell of bacon and coffee notwithstanding—I needed some more sleep. On my second attempt at emerging, the air had warmed, the coffee was still waiting, and Keoni was cleaning up what turned out to be the worst “disaster” of our trip—the aerosol whipped cream (for pancakes & cocoa) had deployed inside the cooler. When that’s the worst mishap of a camping trip, you know that someone has packed well!
We headed back into town, where we met up with Roger and his strongly-wagging tail, which is incidentally attached to his dog Kodiak… He and a friend were doing some work on the drug store this week (I believe he intends to open it for regular public viewing once the restoration-work is farther along) and he ushered us in to have our look around. When he bought the drug store, some of its contents had been untouched for decades. There’s a cabinet of unopened medicines, the newest of which is from 1903… A full dentist’s office with all the tools where they were left… Typewriter and shipping boxes, embossed order-forms (dated 1914) for opium, lamps and bottles and all manner of things. It’s purely fascinating, truly.
I think what’s so fascinating to me about Silver City is that there’s so much history still there—and the few folks who still live there (though only a couple of them year-round, as it’s snowed in through most of the winter) are maintaining and restoring and keeping the history alive.
As Roger said to us, you can tell a Local in Silver City because they’ll go around with their noses to the ground after a rain, to see what artifacts might have washed to the surface. And indeed, when Keoni was digging around in the creek-bank by our campsite, seeking worms for Christian’s fishing, he uncovered rusted square-headed nails and even a rusted padlock embedded in the banks. The campground itself is situated where China-town stood, Roger told us, and it’s apparently quite common to find Chinese coins and opium bottles after a rain.
I confess to being a little bummed by the realization that I had a less-than-avid audience for the history-stuff in my kiddos. My own frame of reference is a childhood spent with a sister who was a History-Major-in-the-making by the age of six, and the two of us would easily have spent a full afternoon just in the cemetery, not to mention the rest of the town… But on the other hand, these two will happily entertain themselves for a couple hours with just a stream for entertainment, so I really can’t complain.
I almost did—complain, that is—when Elena Grace was throwing a temper-tantrum about her flip-flops being “wet and sandy” (of all things!) when she was trying to play in the stream… “I hate this place! I am NOT joking!” she shrieked, throwing one of her sandals on the ground. Can this seriously be MY kid, I was wondering… Until she finished her fit with this lament: “If I could just be barefoot!” Oh Lordy, she is REALLY my kid!
Sorry, sweetie—I misunderstood the nature of the problem. By all means, be barefoot. (She was, for most of the rest of the trip. And I’m remembering a week-long canoe trip around Lake Coeur d’Alene in northern Idaho in my teens—a week in which I didn’t once don any form of footwear…) Okay—so we need to work on the tantrum-part, but yeah. She’s mine.
After some down-time back at camp (despite the sleep-in, Mom needed another nap on a blanket in the shade), we poked our heads into the hotel again and asked Roger if he might have some horseshoes we could borrow—he did—and we walked down to the horseshoe pits in the town’s Memorial Park. Christian’s unique (but effective) style of horseshoes looks something like bowling, but his bouncing-and-rolling tosses land well. Keoni overthrew a couple into the creek beyond, and we ended the evening with new horseshoe-terms. In addition to “leaner” and “ringer” (Christian ended with TWO ringers on his last toss!), we now have “slider” and “creeker” (meaning one that lands in the creek)…
Back at “our” creekside, we had tied a couple of Elena Grace’s bright-pink socks to one of the tent-lines so we wouldn’t run into it—and we had the pleasure of a visit, during dinner, of a pair of hummingbirds determined to find food in them. Heaven help them if they manage to get sock-juice from those, was the general consensus around the campfire…
It has been a week of “firsts”… Our first opportunity to camp together, the kids’ first foray to Silver City… And the last “first” for the week: my first go with a loaded weapon. On our way down the mountain, we stopped at a spot Roger had recommended for target-shooting, and set up targets against a steep hillside. I confess I wasn’t prepared for the KICK of a 40-caliber handgun, but by my fourth clip I was taking out my targets consistently. And having fun. Look out, World!
Tricia Mitchell just posted a lovely blog about the castle in Heidelberg, Germany–accompanied by some of her own photos and memories of this castle over the years, and posing the question of whether her readers had memories to share. I wrote to her that although it’s been almost three decades since I’ve been there (and although I was only nine at the time) the details stick with me–like the memorable remains of the exploded powder-magazine tower.
Actually (here’s a bit of synchronicity), the inaugural entry in my 1984 European travel-diary was dated twenty-eight years ago today, as we headed across-country from Idaho to Chicago O’Hare, visiting family members along the way. Less than a week later we were flashing past the blue lights of the runway and out over the blackness of Lake Superior–hours past our usual bedtime–launching our first-ever off-the-continent adventure. My father the Planner detailed a six-month itinerary, looping and wandering through eighteen countries, some of which no longer exist on today’s maps. And our mother customized our rented bright green V.W. bus–which would serve as “home base” for half a year–with drawers under the seats, hanging-rods across the back, multi-pocket organizers hanging from the seats, and other “homey” touches.
My sister was six and I was nine when we set out, and our parents gave each of us a little Kodak camera, a bag full of 126 film, and a cloth-bound journal for the trip. One of the most interesting things, in looking back on the whole adventure, is the unique KID-perspective on our travels…
While the grownups took postcard-shots of cathedral towers, my sister gave us a running account of what was in the garbage cans we passed… We bought lace gloves at an outdoor market and donned them to pretend we were princesses when we explored castles…
When we stayed with dairy-farming friends near Stratford, we sneaked up and down the servant staircase in the century-old stone farmhouse, and took a whole roll of film posing my sister’s teddy bear, Tony, around the farmyard. When we stayed in an apartment converted from the basement servants’ quarters of a London townhouse, my sister came bolting out of the bathroom in excitement to tell us, “There’s a special bathtub just the right size for Tony!” Neither of us had yet been introduced to the concept of the bidet…
My mother has often said that if she ever wrote a book about the trip, its title would come from a now-family-famous quote from my sister… After months of encountering every imaginable method of flushing a toilet–from push-buttons and pull-chains to levers and foot pedals–my sister emerged from a Yugoslavian bathroom looking very self-satisfied, and announced, “I can flush in ANY language!“
When we descended into the underground areas of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, three of us didn’t think twice about the folding chairs set up for a recent ceremony. My sister, however, stopped in her tracks and cried out (to the amusement of every tour-group in the crypt), “There are DEAD people under this floor, and someone has gone and put CHAIRS on them!!”
Some of my parents’ friends wondered aloud what on earth would possess them to take such an extensive trip with such young children in tow, but we’re SO glad they did! (I think they are as well… At least, now that they’ve had a few decades to recover!) It’s a trip that couldn’t be duplicated by our adult-selves, even if we were to retrace our steps exactly–our imaginations ran rampant, and we found places-to-play everywhere.
We visited Anne Frank’s hidden attic in Amsterdam, and I began to read her diary that night, able to picture precisely the little suite of attic rooms. After Auschwitz, we talked late into the night about the horrors of the Holocaust. We read Classics of literature while visiting the locales where they were set. We visited tombs and birthplaces of historical figures, and sat in the bench of Anne Hathaway’s cottage where Shakespeare is said to have sat when courting her.
When our parents set aside half a day for the Louvre in Paris (thinking that’s all the art we’d be up for) we dragged THEM back for a second full day. We weren’t wild about the Impressionists, but we were fascinated by the rest. I bought a stack of postcards-of-paintings, tucked them into my sketch-kit, and tried to draw my own versions. (Though I do remember my mother suggesting I add underwear to some of the naked people I was drawing after dinner in a fancy French restaurant…)
And even in places where the “Ugly American” tourist-stereotype preceded us and affected local attitudes, our parents found that having young kids in tow often gained them a warmer reception. (I’m reminded of my son’s response when his second-grade teacher complimented his consistently kind manners: “She doesn’t realize that Manners aren’t optional when someone has you for a Mom.” OUR mom is like that too.) We learned to say “please” and “thank you” in the appropriate language for every border we crossed–and my dad also figured out how to say “Can you please suck the Diesel out of our bus?” in French…
We stayed with family friends in England, Scotland, West Germany, Poland, and Holland; we stayed in bed-and-breakfasts and pensiones and inns; we spent one week in a Tuscan villa, and we a camped in England’s Lake Country and in the Loire Valley of France (where we could hear the bells of the four cathedrals from the song our mom used to sing to us). The French campground also had peacocks wandering about–charming, no? Well, no—not charming when we discovered they roosted on the restrooms at night and screeched at anyone making a middle-of-the-night trip to the toilet…
I still marvel at my mother’s packing-job for this trip. She had sewed a mix-and-match wardrobe of red-white-and-blue for my sister and me (with matching outfits for our two dolls) and joked that if she lost one of us, she could point to the other and indicate “one just like that.” Failing that, she could use one of the dolls. She sent ahead caches of English-language books for us to pick up along the way, but other than the reading material, the four of us lived for six months out of five suitcases–one each for clothing, and the fifth with camping gear.
We each celebrated a birthday–I turned ten on Germany’s Rhine River, and my sister turned seven in Versaille, near Paris. We met up there for a double-celebration with our Great-Uncle Clarke, whose birthday the day after hers (he joked) made him a day younger. By this time my sister had gone through her own reading-material and started in on mine, so she surprised Uncle Clarke by inquiring, as they traversed a Paris street hand-in-hand, if this weren’t one of the locations in A Tale of Two Cities.
My sister lost five or six teeth during the trip, and the Tooth Fairy had to keep paying off in different currencies. We hiked in the Swiss Alps; we donned white coveralls and slid down wooden bannisters into a Polish salt mine where the miners had carved fantastical statues out of salt; we played “Queen of Idaho” in the extravagant Bavarian castles of “Crazy Ludwig”; we bought tulips at a Dutch flower auction; we rented paddle boats on a Hungarian lake; we hired a gondola in Venice (from a gondolier who said he couldn’t sing–so we sang Rounds to him instead); we made brass-rubbings of tombs; we collected charms for a memory-bracelet; we attended performances of yodelers and bagpipers and ethnic dancers; we rode trains and ferries and subways and carriages and double-decker buses; we went with a Dutch friend to be fitted for wooden shoes (not touristy, painted ones, but the type she wears in her garden); we tucked messages into a bottle for a Scottish friend of our dad’s to build into the tumbled-down bit of a 400-year-old dry stone wall he was re-assembling along his field. Maybe another farmer will find our notes a few centuries from now when the wall needs repair again.
My favorite stop of the entire journey was Portofino, Italy, with its steep cobblestone streets, its colorful buildings lining the Mediterranean harbor, and the gorgeous two-masted sailboat at anchor among the fishing boats. We ordered our first “authentic” Italian pizza here, selecting the menu option that offered “Olive, Pepper, and Mushroom.” When it arrived, the pizza had one olive, one pepper-ring, and one mushroom. (And in reviewing the menu, we ruefully realized they hadn’t promised plurals…) “Portofino” was the first poem I ever got published.
We traveled behind the Iron Curtain, and watched at the border between the Germanies while Soviet soldiers spent hours removing absolutely everything out of our bus, reading my mother’s diary, and unwrapping our Christmas presents. At the Polish mine, a hard-used miner my grandfather’s age approached us, removed an enameled shield from his jacket, and pinned it onto mine. Our Polish friend translated his quiet, almost shy explanation: it was an award for saving a life in the mines, and he wanted me to have it because he liked my smile.
We had a National Geographic map of Europe with us, and every evening during those six months we would open it up to trace the day’s adventures with a highlighter. The more permanent paths, however, were being highlighted in our minds. We may have been raised in an Idaho potato-farming town of a just few hundred people, but our parents gave us the gift of understanding–early on–that we’re citizens of the World.
Last week a time-warp descended on the State Park beside our house. Overlaid on the invisible borders of the frisbee-golf course, an army encampment of Civil War soldiers and camp followers sprang up, authentic in every detail (except, perhaps, for the general lack of dirt and grime).
This group of history hobbyists pitches camp here every year to commemorate the Idaho Volunteers’ contribution to the Civil War. The Territory of Idaho sent volunteer soldiers in response to the U.S. call for troops, although most of them ended up guarding way stations along the Oregon Trail rather than facing off against Confederates.
Still, the Oregon Trail duty was no picnic; nor were the various “Indian wars” in which many of those troops became entangled. The Pioneer Cemetery and the Idaho State Veterans’ Cemetery–both in the foothills above Boise–hold row upon row of the Idaho Territory’s Civil War dead. But here they are today—alive and lively, dressed (and armed!) for time travel, and every one of them tickled to talk about their carefully collected “combat couture,” along with accessories from mess kits to musketry.
I walked over to the park and wandered through the time-warp with my camera, anticipating the humor of some anachronistic contrasts (Civil War soldier on a cell phone, maybe?), but discovered instead how devoted to detail these folks truly are.
The only out-of-place item I spotted all afternoon was the pair of neon-green earplugs worn by a teenage Private on the cannon crew. And the cannon-fodder itself, I guess–the gunnery officer described their cement-filled tennis balls as “the poor man’s cannonball.”
While the gunners fired volleys into the lake, the blacksmith banged away on horseshoes at his forge, the camp cook hovered over her cast-iron cookware, and the laundry tent was flanked by bright-red “union suit” long underwear jigging in the breeze…
I had assumed, for some reason, that the Civil War re-enactors would mostly be Old Guys, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that nearly half of them were teenagers–scrawny young men in Privates’ uniforms, awkwardly doffing their forage caps in deference to the grey-mustached officers, and some young ladies in hoop skirts and shawls making eyes at the uniformed young men. (No “acting” there, I’m pretty sure–some things don’t change over the centuries!) It was a pleasant surprise to find our future generation as interested in the past as their elders.
And then we had the distinguished and dignified President in attendance. President Lincoln, that is. Standing solemnly beside a pair of Union officers–with a sparsely-starred flag behind them–this gentleman had all the regal reserve of a still-photo of the Original…
Ah, trick question! Of course you wouldn’t bury an owl, because the Migratory Bird Act makes it illegal in the United States to be in possession of even an owl feather, let alone the entire dead bird. (Or three.) So of course this post is entirely a work of fiction. (Cough, cough.)
Last summer I was sent by an Idaho Travel magazine to an old mining town in Idaho’s Owyhee mountains (“Silver City, Idaho: A ‘Ghost Town’ that Never Gave Up the Ghost“). The Owyhees were named for a trio of native Hawai’ian trappers, working for the Hudson Bay Company, who disappeared in these mountains around 1820. For my husband Keoni, a native Hawai’ian himself, this bit of history put an intriguing spin on our trip.
Islanders use two words for giving directions: makai (toward the ocean) and mauka (toward the mountain), since pretty much anything on an island can be described within that frame of reference. When I asked him if that’s why his “uncles” might have lost their way, he replied in Pidgin, “Bruddahs wen’ mauka, wen’ mauka… Stay los’!” Joking that our trip might double as a search-and-rescue, we armed ourselves with an offeratory can of Spam, which these days is a favorite food in Hawai’i (you can order Spam & eggs at McDonald’s there).
He had another mission as well: looking for rounded rocks of pahoehoe lava (what we “here in America” would call vesicular basalt), which he plans use to line an imu, the traditional pit for roasting a whole pig. Our overnight bag and camera bag rode in the back seat, the car-trunk kept free for his boulder collection.
On his native turf, however, he would never remove volcanic rock without making a return offering to the volcano goddess Pele–traditionally a cairn of rocks with fresh fruit or flowers or a bottle of liquor. It’s a custom he takes seriously, although with his own touch of humor–there have probably been some hikers in the Owyhees who are still puzzled about the Spam-can-topped cairn they ran across…
It’s not the only cultural custom he still practices, some of them adjusted with a modern twist. He was taught not to sweep after dark (because it brings bad spirits into the house)–so he only vacuums during daylight hours. If something gets spilled or broken at night, it stays put until morning when he’s willing to get out the vacuum. Same thing with whistling in the house–not after dark. He doesn’t shake hands when he greets someone he knows, or even meets someone new–he embraces them, with an intake of breath as the “exchange of breath” that’s part of the cultural greeting. The word aloha literally means “exchange of breath.”
Another interesting linguistic side-note… The Hawai’ian word haole is used now to refer to white people, but it literally means “without breath.” (And no, it’s not a compliment.) When the Islanders attempted to welcome newly arrived missionaries with their traditional greeting–the embrace and exchange of breath–the prudish new arrivals recoiled from the nearly-naked natives and refused to hug… So the Hawai’ians assumed they had no breath to exchange.
Another cultural element about which he feels strongly is the ‘aumakua, or guardian spirit in animal form. His family’s ‘aumakua is Mano, the shark, and several of his tattoos include Mano as a symbol of protection. The King of Hearts card (often called the “suicide king” because of the dagger he’s holding to his head) is eclipsed by a fiercely protective white shark–his guardian against any return to that dark place where suicide seemed the only out. A traditional Maori tribal representation of a hammerhead is swimming up the side of his neck, a design gifted to him from a Tongan family who used to eat regularly at our Hawai’ian restaurant. He added this one after talking with his grandfather in a dream–Tutu Pa suggested he put Mano on his neck rather than put a rope around it ever again.
I wrote in an earlier post about Owls crossing my path until I recognized them as my own ‘aumakua (or totem, or whatever Irish word would better fit my own heritage–owls are totems in Celtic culture too). Interestingly enough, my sister responded to that post by emailing that she’s been developing an affinity for owls over the last year as well. I don’t believe in coincidence.
On this particular road-trip, as we were returning from the Owyhees with a trunk full of volcanic rocks, we passed a large white owl, dead in the middle of the road. It didn’t look as though it had been hit or run over–just dead on the center line.
As we drove for another moment in silence, I was just feeling all kinds of wrong about leaving that owl dead in the road. Like dragging an American flag on the ground or stepping on a consecrated communion wafer, rolled into one. Keoni was watching me, and without a word, he swung the car around in a U-turn and headed back. Without a word, I grinned at him in relief.
I thought he would pull over so I could run out for it, but instead he slowed in the empty highway, opened the driver-side door, and lofted the owl onto my sandaled feet. Its feathers were warm from the sun. When we got to a pull-out, we carefully tucked it among the pahoehoe rocks in the trunk and nosed the car back in the direction of home. Not five minutes later, we passed another untouched dead owl, this time on the side of the road. And within another five minutes, another owl.
So we arrived home with not one, but three white owls in our trunk. Arranging an appropriate owl-burial took priority over the other unpacking, so Keoni dug a hole in our garden and we solemnly interred our owls. With an offeratory Spam sandwich (extra mayo) and a cup of soda (liquor would be more traditional–but we’re both recovering alcoholics) and some quiet words of respect.
I see public buildings with plastic owls on top to “guard” against pigeons. Well, the guardians of our home are the three white owls in our garden. Or perhaps now it’s a guarden.
[Published in the Sep 2011 issue of Western Byways magazine. I submitted this story today for a travel writing contest–in the “Off the Beaten Path” category–so I thought I’d trot it out here as well.]
Perched in the Owyhee Mountains at the center of 250 once-active gold mines, Silver City is often referred to as a ghost town–but that’s not a description I recommend using within hearing of its residents. A determined handful, many of them descendants of original owners, still call the place home–though only a few of them year-round. In fact, the town, though dwindled from its boom population of 2500, has never died–which is perhaps why it escapes the touristy feel of abandoned ghost towns, filled with husks of buildings and apparent set-piece props left over from history. This town is still a live place–a place holding to a different way of living than most of us are accustomed to–and that in itself makes it worth a visit.
The road to Silver City remains impassable from November to June (those who dig in there during the winter make supply-runs by snow-machine), but for a summer trip by car it’s a mere 65 miles from Boise, roughly two hours’ drive-time with the rougher roads in the mountains.
Let me take a moment here to differentiate between drive-time and travel-time… If you get into your vehicle in Boise and diligently follow the directions to Silver City, you’ll be there in a little under two hours. That’s drive-time. My husband and I, however, both suffered from previous experiences as road-trip hostages (get-in-the-car-we’re-not-stopping-till-you-have-to-pee-and-maybe-not-then)–so we prefer to Stop along the way. We stop a LOT. We turn the car around to investigate whatever eye-catcher we just passed, we pick up rocks, we hike up hillsides, sit on tractors, chat with people, take pictures, nose our way down side roads, find things to eat… All in all, from the time we fuel up at our local Maverick (“Adventure’s first stop!”) until we pull into Silver City’s main road, we’ll probably spend seven or eight hours on inquisitive adventuring. That’s travel-time. We enjoy experiencing the places we travel. Best done, perhaps, on a motorcycle, with nothing between us and the road–but since we’re between bikes (my optimistic way of saying we don’t have one), a clunker car with windows rolled down serves perfectly well.
We’ve tossed our overnight bag in the back seat and we’re heading south from Nampa on Idaho 45–an open stretch of road bordered by farm-fields, some of them labeled (much to our amusement) with the names of their crops. I’m an Idaho-girl, born and bred, but my husband Keoni hails from Hawai’i, so I tease him that this is an educational trip–he knows sugar cane, but here we have sugar beets. As the highway slowly drops toward the plateaus lining the Snake River, we pass decorated ranch-gates, one of them topped by a metal silhouette of a cougar (he suggests that older, single women must work here), and a machinery workshop with a reader-board suggesting, “Honk if you love Jesus, text while driving if you want to see him soon.” We also spot several of the yellow-diamond caution signs featuring tractors, which put me in mind of the “Travel Bingo” game my sister and I played as kids. It was a scavenger hunt of sorts, setting us to look for items in an ascending hierarchy of difficulty. But the game must have been manufactured on the East Coast, because the easy level included things like a traffic clover-leaf (which we’d never laid eyes on), while the most difficult level included “covered wagon” and “outhouse”… Not a game designed for Idaho, where a “tractor crossing” sign is commonplace.
Hawks soar over the Snake River crossing at Walter’s Ferry, and we get out of the car to admire the geological stories evidenced in the volcanic mesas bounding the river, and in the smaller stones underfoot. Keoni enthuses over a rock that shows “at least five different events,” and turns up the blade of an old hay knife in the process. (We have a basket in the backseat which will gradually fill with his findings–he’s a delighted scavenger who sees treasure everywhere.) In the meantime, I borrow his hunting knife to dislodge a few dozen goatheads from the bottom of my shoes; I like my sandals without added traction, thank you.
Just past the river, we turn left onto Idaho 78, past Hemingway Butte (literary tribute, now a trailhead for desert dirt bikes), and call another halt at Melba’s Blue Canoe, a steakhouse-and-seafood house open Friday through Sunday. Painted boulders outline the gravel parking area with “petroglyphs” (hunters, animals, and of course paddlers) surrounding the blocky building with more merry petroglyph figures dancing against a cobalt-colored wall. The outside eating area–complete with family-style trestle tables, thatched shade, an outdoor grill and bar–puts me strangely in mind of the Florida Keys (I imagine Hemingway Butte moseying over for a taste of Key West), an impression compounded by a banner advertising the upcoming annual Crawdad Feed. I only need one glance at the menu: I’ll be having “Crawdads in a Canoe” (cheese-filled potato skins topped with seasoned tails).
The desert can seem deceptively empty–the Blue Canoe seems to stand all alone overlooking the river, but just a few minutes down the highway we’re pulling into Murphy, where we find the Owyhee County historical museum. It’s not a grandiose affair, but I’m a sucker for any bookstore with locally-authored histories, and there’s a certain romantic kitsch (if you discount the chicken-wire enclosure) to the yard full of rusted old-time farm implements. (The whetstones catch Keoni’s eye; I think he’d like to use one after I used his knife to dig around in my rubber sandal-soles.)
Once we leave Murphy behind, we won’t see another town until Silver City, so the Murphy General Store is a good stop to restock our drink cooler. Across the road, a single strip of asphalt comprises the Murphy Airport, where a large sign cautions against driving cars on the runway (an admonishment which brings to mind a similar sign at the airstrip in St. Andrews, Scotland–that one forbids driving golf balls on the runway)…
South of Murphy we turn off the state highway onto Ridge Road, which leads to a wonderfully-named network of rutted dirt roads (Ruby Junction, New York Summit, Old Stage Road, and of course Silver City Road). Gaining elevation, the landscape begins to jut out in stacked rock formations (some of which I can’t resist climbing up–and one of which challenges me to climb down its sheer backside on a retrieval operation after I discover my hiking-hat needs a chin-strap). Looking back across the Snake River plain, water-carved crevices wend downward; today’s backdrop to the river is a spread of distant smoke plumes, probably grass fires from last night’s lightning storm.
We haven’t gone too far up the mountain when we encounter another cautionary road sign, this one informing us that if we travel beyond this point, we are responsible for the cost of any search-and-rescue operation we might incur. They mean business; the sign cites the applicable section of Idaho code. A word here about vehicles–some guides insist that this road should only be attempted by four-wheel-drive, and indeed, a 4WD would do handily. Speaking for myself, though, I know Idaho roads and I know the limitations of my own vehicle, held together as it is in places with duct tape (classier than it sounds, I assure you–I found leopard-print duct tape at Target). I don’t mess around with the things that could get a person killed on a remote road (we have water, and granola bars, and a full tank of gas, and the array of tools we use regularly to coax the clunker back to action when it sulks), but from my perspective this isn’t a road that poses a threat–at least in summer.
We quickly learn to roll up the windows when a vehicle approaches from the other direction, in order to avoid choking on clouds of dust, and we validate our long-standing joke that our car’s color should be called “Idaho Dirt;” now completely caked with dry dust, it hasn’t changed color by a shade. The driver of a pilot car coming downhill rolls down her window to let us know how many trucks we can expect behind her (from the Silver Falcon Mine–the only remaining mine in operation), and goes on her way with a cheery wave. Game trails weave through the sagebrush on either side, as well as fun-and-games-trails posted for ATVers. We stop at a bridge to watch some modern-day gold-panners at work (using Tupperware!) where the streambed literally glitters with flakes of micah and reflected sunlight.
I called yesterday to see about a room at the Idaho Hotel, but we don’t actually know where we’re headed when we pass the sign welcoming us to Silver City and instructing us to report in with the watchman. Happily, it’s not difficult to find anything in Silver City, so a moment later we’re parking in front of the flag-bedecked white porch of the old hotel. The hotel opened in 1863, with additional sections added over the next few decades. Its tidy three-story clapboard front contrasts starkly with its backside view–dark weathered wood teetering five stories (built on a hill, the street-level front entrance opens onto a middle floor) with a crazed roofline of cobbled-together converging ridges. Pushing open the front door, we wander through a large wood-paneled foyer crowded with relics of earlier days and into an even larger dining-room-and-bar. There, framed by the heavy saloon mirror behind him, we find Roger, who owns and operates the hotel and “lives under the stairs” (not quite like Harry Potter).
Roger finds our reservation jotted in a notebook and steps over his dog Kodiak to show us upstairs to our room. The hotel is unapologetically old–not “decorated in period decor,” but furnished with pieces that have served here for a century and a half. It has boasted indoor plumbing (pumped-in spring water) since 1868; the shared bathroom down the hall now features the pump-flush toilet I’m accustomed to using on sailboats, and there’s a separate shower-room with guest towels folded on the shelves. No room key–unlike the enclosed and self-contained units we expect in modern motels, this hotel retains the feel of a European inn, where we are simply guests of the house.
We probably have half an hour left before the sun drops behind the mountain (the “first sunset,” Roger calls it, followed by several hours of ambient pre-dusk without direct sunlight), so we decide to stroll the streets around the hotel. Our Lady of Tears Catholic Church, a striking white in the low-angle light, perches on a rocky outcrop above us, closed until Father Gerald returns for its next monthly Mass. Just below it stands the schoolhouse, complete with bell, a notice on its door for the next meeting of the town’s planning & zoning committee. Orange-framed “no trespassing” signs on cabins and cottages serve as a reminder to daytrippers that these are not movie-set pieces, but people’s homes. Despite the neon notes and scattered ATVs (preferred in-town transport for residents navigating near-vertical streets), we note and appreciate the utter absence of power lines and phone lines.
When we return to the dining room, it has gained a few patrons–a couple from Oregon (staying in the room next to ours), a fellow stopping in for a drink after building a shed across the street, and a local EMT, who also drives the town’s brush-fire truck when campfires get out of hand at the campground up the hill. He enjoys wines but says he doesn’t know how to pick them, so he entrusts that job to Roger’s wife when she visits wineries for the hotel, and he stops here in the evenings to enjoy a glass of whatever she’s picked for him. Roger reappears with our hamburgers (plain fare, but tasty enough) and joins the conversation, which centers on the upcoming meeting of the town planning committee. He’s having trouble getting approval for his proposed paint job, and bemoans the difficulties of matching paint that’s 120 years old.
An hour later we excuse ourselves and climb the steep stairs to plunk ourselves down on the cushioned bench of the second-floor balcony, overlooking the main street and the steep mountainside opposite. Roger told us to watch for the deer that come down the mountain after dusk (particularly a cocky rascal of a four-point buck who doesn’t seem afraid of anyone), but unfortunately for us, wildlife don’t do “command performances,” and we don’t catch a glimpse of them.
The full moon, on the other hand, holds to its schedule and appears in all its solemn brilliance above the mountain several hours later. Silver City under the moon is more of a ghost town–not in the sense of seeming eerie or abandoned, but because its character of 150 years ago seems now to spring to the forefront. The mountain by moonlight is not a negligible bit of scenery, but a very solid presence, the stars undimmed by street lamps or any hint of electric light. The year 2011 and even the shadow-lumps which (before sunset) were cars and ATVs now take on the role of “ghost,” while Silver City itself, old and largely unchanged, stands revealed. Each cabin, rising from its clump of woods up the mountainside, endures serenely, having held its ground here for a century and a half. It’s the people and their trappings (motorized or otherwise) who are the transient ghosts here. People have built this, and maintained it, lived in it, loved it, restored it–but the place itself has a strength of its own.
We wake early, to the chill of a mountain morning where nothing in the world sounds better than a hot cup of coffee, so we bundle into our sweatshirts and venture into the dining room to see if anyone is stirring. Sure enough, the Oregon guest is building a fire in the wood stove, and Roger has just started the coffee perking.
Although Silver City was among the earliest towns in Idaho to benefit from electricity (via Swan Falls Dam), its only power sources since the 1940s have been generators or kerosene or (in the case of the hotel) solar power, so the guest rooms here are outfitted with a single-bulb electric light each. Last night when we settled down to read in bed, I teased Keoni that he (with his paperback book) was at a disadvantage with regard to lighting. I travel with iPad (all-in-one maps, navigator, notebook, recorder, backup camera, and of course a few novels), conveniently backlit for reading in dim light–but he retorted (noting the absence of electrical outlets) that at least his book wouldn’t need to be recharged in the morning. Touche!
This morning our biscuits & gravy take a while to appear, but placated by the hot mugs of coffee in hand, we take the time to browse the walls–a veritable library of historical photos, news clippings, and Silver City trivia. One loaded bookshelf hosts a collection of books (also for sale)–first-hand accounts of Silver City in its heyday–and reprinted copies of the Avalanche, a high-profile newsrag in its day, with offices just down the street.
We take a table by the window to eat breakfast, fascinated by the battalion of hummingbirds feeding a few inches away on the other side of the warped glass pane. And then the sun makes its appearance, infusing the room with a whole new character. The lace curtains glow cheerfully, the scarred wood gleams, the bottles behind the bar glint in a subdued rainbow–and we lean back to enjoy a third cup of coffee.
When I poke my head into the kitchen to ask Roger about settling our bill, I get sidetracked exclaiming over his magnificent cast-iron cook-stove (which probably weighs more than our car, and which I can’t imagine hauling up the mountain by wagon). He proudly clears it of home-made pies so I can photograph it, then (like a small boy with a secret) tells me mysteriously to meet him at the bottom of the stairs, and promptly disappears around a corner. I’m intrigued–he has been pleasant and accommodating, but not talkative, perhaps a little shy behind his tidy white beard–so we dutifully circle around to the staircase, brimming with curiosity. Roger pops out of a closed doorway like the White Rabbit, swings it wide, and ushers us into his parlor.
Any museum curator would be jealous, truly. And so would any storyteller–Roger is a regular raconteur now that he’s got the bit in his teeth. When people left Silver City, it was often because they didn’t have the funds to stay–and consequently didn’t have the resources to ship things back down the mountain–so most of the furnishings that have arrived in Silver City over the last 150 years have stayed here. This is the story of his elegant piano, and the intricately carved poker table (complete with a cash-slot in its green felt top, and a safe built-in underneath). He tells stories about the town’s characters, pulling out old photos from a pile on the sideboard, and shows us some treasures he’s added to the collection himself. “I’m an eBay addict,” he confesses, handing me a tiny silver spoon bearing an etched engraving of his hotel.
And the oddly-shaped horseshoes leaning against the hallway wall? “Snow cleats for the horses.”
Walking around town, we try to match the existing buildings with the period photos we saw in the hotel. Some still bear the signage of their last use (the meat market, the barber shop, the brewing vat, the Silver Slipper Saloon, the stone wall of the jail with its iron-barred window), but we haven’t figured out which might be the assay office, the Chinese laundry, the bath house… Many of these buildings still have original furnishings inside, and the drug store, it turns out, also belongs to Roger–he wonders if we’d like him to unlock it for us. With all respect to Father Gerald–is the Pope Catholic?
He bought the drug store contents-and-all, and it’s another museum-in-the-making. (“I’m a sucker for old things,” he grins. Pointing my thumb at Keoni, who has 20 years on me, I say “Me too.”) I’m astounded by what has been left behind here–a well-worn dentist’s chair, a prototype asthma inhaler, x-ray machine, a full array of medical instruments, a glass-front cabinet full of unopened medicines (“The newest one in there is 1903,” he tells me) wooden crates from Anheiser Busch and a Pacific Coast Tea Garden, glass bottles and kerosene lamps and advertising posters for McDonald Chocolate and Bromo-Seltzer (a sedative tonic removed from American markets in the 1900s due to its toxicity)…
We make one last stop at the cemetery, a poignant snapshot of Silver City’s life cycle. The number of marble headstones bear testament to the success of the mountain’s mines–and the number of denizens whose lives are measured in days or months bear witness to the hard realities of trying to survive here.
Always interested in a new road, we head out of town toward Jordan Valley rather than retracing our route to Murphy. Along the rutted road we spy occasional campers–not REI gearheads, but archers and gold-panners and ATVers with leather rifle-cases strapped behind. Slag heaps mar the mountain at intervals–avalanches of white rock against the dark volcanic reds and browns, as if the mountain had bled profusely down its side. Eventually the landscape opens up into wider panoramas–cattle and fields and farms with stone outbuildings. The town of Jordan Valley (named for Mike Jordan, the “trail-finder of the Owyhees”) dealt for decades in sheep, and its population of Basque sheepherders has left its mark on the community. The graceful stone Catholic Church was largely Basque-built, and you can still eat family-style at the Old Basque Inn.
The last leg of our drive could rival a day at the Farmer’s Market. Idaho 55 takes us by the Ste. Chapelle and Fujishin wineries, and farmers are selling sweet corn out of their front yards along the road. One hand-written sign advertises “Fresh Corn and Elotes,” so of course we stop to find out what elotes are. Corn-on-the-cob, as it turns out–boiled in the husk and served with salt, chili, butter, and seasoned sour cream. Fresh fruit stands abound along the roadside, and as the fragrance of mint fields wafts us toward town, we realize our picnic basket is fuller than when we left home. Which leaves us with just one question–where shall we go next? We have a lot of Idaho highway left to explore…