As we were driving to pick up the kids from my Ex’s house yesterday, Keoni commented that he always has a knot in his stomach at pick-up and drop-off times, wondering if the Ex (or his wife) will kick up a fuss of some sort. I get the same knot. And sure enough—yesterday we got another taste of pointless puerility.
We had reminded the kids to bring their sleeping bags because we’re planning a camping trip this week. They each have a nice down sleeping bag (I know this because I bought them, back when I was still married to their dad), and the arrangement is supposed to be that the kids can bring their own things back and forth between the households, regardless of which parent might have bought the items in question. The kids’ things are the KIDS’ things, and they’re supposed to be able to have their things with them.
However, instead of the down-filled sleeping bags, my Ex brought out a pair of old flannel bags that he and I had bought when we were college undergrads. They would be fine for a living-room slumber party, but in the Idaho mountains these weren’t warm enough when they were new—and that was almost twenty years ago. So I asked if the kids could please bring their warm sleeping bags, since we’re heading into the mountains.
“They’re in the trailer,” he answered evasively, clearly intending that retort to close the topic.
Can they please bring them?
“They’re in the trailer,” he repeated. (The tent-trailer in question was not ten feet from where I stood, and takes all of three minutes to open.)
Can they please bring them?
“They shouldn’t need—it’s July—they shouldn’t need them,” he blustered. (As if it hadn’t been a July-in-Idaho-mountains when HE got too cold in one of these same bags. They’ve served as picnic blankets ever since.)
In the mountains they might. Can they please bring their own sleeping bags?
(…reluctant pause…) “Okay… But I need to talk to you over here.” I followed him to the other side of the driveway, away from the kids, where he put on his most put-upon face and demanded to know: “How do I know they’re going to come back in any kind of decent condition?”
(Wait, what?? Seriously, where did that come from?)
What’s the productive thing to do at this point? He already said the kids can take their sleeping bags; but he wants me to have this “talk” with him first… If he truly had reason for concern, I don’t know what I could say that would reassure him. As it is, there’s no history or habit or past incident that would render this question applicable, or even explicable.
I learned a while back not to get diverted into pointless pissing matches with him, and I can’t imagine this “talk” fitting any other description. He still feels a need to take (or create) any opportunity to deprecate and disparage. Yes, I gave him a brand new High Horse to ride with my alcoholic relapse nineteen months ago, but he doesn’t seem to realize that his nag hasn’t had anything to feed on for a year and a half. (Maybe that’s why he’s grasping at straws? No, wait—horses eat hay.)
Bottom line? Never mind beating a dead horse—he’s still trying to ride it.
And I choose not to serve as his saddle any more. I chose not to engage in his inquisition about the imminent danger to the sleeping bags being released into my custody. If you’re not going to let the kids take their bags, say so and let me leave; if they can take their bags, let’s get them out so I can leave. I didn’t say that out loud, though; I just repeated myself… Can the kids please bring their sleeping bags?
Keoni stepped over to join us. The Ex told him to walk away. Keoni didn’t argue, but also didn’t move. I repeated my own question yet again.
How ridiculous does this get? Only one thing derailed the Ex from his desired discussion of the doubtlessly-doomed bags: namely, his stronger desire to deliver his diatribe to me alone. When Keoni declined to skedaddle, the Ex puffed up and tried again:
“Sir, you need to step away. This is between me and my wi— …me and my ex-wife.”
The almost-“wife” slip made me chuckle afterward (given that I’ve been Keoni’s wife for several years now, and that the Ex himself remarried just a few weeks ago), but at the time I just had one response: “I don’t have to talk to you alone.”
He did get the sleeping bags out of the trailer, for which I’m grateful—truly, I would have been worried about the kids keeping warm in those other bags. And I confess he did manage to strike a nerve as he grumbled while he got them out. He was complaining about Christian bringing his (expensive) ear protection for shooting, and both of them taking their (expensive) sleeping bags, and he said he’s “tired of buying all the expensive stuff because you won’t.” If he wanted to hit home with derision, that one did it—the difference between “won’t” versus “can’t” buy expensive things. As if I were blowing off the kids. And at the same time, frustration that he’d send them with inadequate equipment rather than focus on what’s best for them. And that he’d try to blame me for that (he’s worried I’d damage the sleeping bags? Oh please…) Why would he balk at letting the kids take their own (sufficiently warm) sleeping bags or their own ear protection?—it’s not as though I’M using his “expensive” stuff, so what’s the problem?
This is why I don’t talk to him alone. This is why I need a little time for prayer-assisted emotional recalibration after I do have to talk with him. His muddied view of our simple and joyful life can temporarily sully my own view of it until I manage to shake off his disagreeable influence. So here I am recalibrating, and looking forward to the camping all of us are excited about.
When Christian called earlier in the week with questions about his packing-list for camping, I told him we’ll be heading up to Silver City, a mining ghost-town that Keoni & I visited last summer when I wrote the cover-story for a travel magazine. On that trip we stayed in the 150-year-old hotel, but this time we’ll be pitching tents… And not in the established campground nearby, but somewhere along the river—REAL Idaho camping, for the first time in the kids’ memory. They’ve been out regularly with their dad and his wife, but the trailer (with its heater, stove, and running water) disqualifies those travels from the Camping-category, in my [snobbish-outdoorswoman] opinion.
They’ll have a lot of new experiences mixed in with some old-and-familiar ones. Setting up a campsite with tents, digging a latrine, panning for gold below the old mines, starting a fire with flint and steel, cooking in the campfire coals, target-shooting with the Desert Eagle handgun, exploring the ghost town and its cemetery, bait-fishing (and fish-cleaning, and fish-frying over a campfire), working on carving our walking sticks, some hiking-exploring, campfire sing-along, some reading aloud from my favorite Idaho-outdoors-author Patrick McManus… And I’ll be interested to see the photojournalism-perspective of each of the kids, now that they’re taking pictures.
There, see? I just needed to realign my mind. And no, I wouldn’t trade our joyful, rich-in-experience life for the Ex’s agitated, rich-in-trinkets existence.
My “Radio Silence” over the last week is (I’m happy to say) the result of having been quite thoroughly engrossed in the activities of a first-week-of-summer-holidays with the kids… I started to write a few times, but never got as far as hitting “Publish,” so here it is, all at once…
Sat, June 2: Summer Holidays, and Synchronicity
On the list of things that make me feel old (for just a moment–and then I go back to just feeling like ME again)… We only have one grade-schooler left in the house, as of yesterday’s sixth-grade “graduation” ceremony for our son Christian. He’s now officially a Junior High Kid. And it’s now officially Summer Vacation!
In typical enthusiastic kid-fashion, the mugwumps have been trying to cram an entire summer’s worth of celebratory summer activities into the first 24 hours of freedom–we’re all having fun!
First project: Keoni is starting to grow kitchen herbs to use in his cooking, and he asked everyone in the family to paint one of his pots. Christian helped me carry one of our coffee tables onto the front porch, so we’ve established our summer craft-spot–which is already covered with paints, beads, spills from sand-art, and wood-shavings…
The wood-shavings are due to the fact that we gave each of them a pocket-knife to kick off the summer–both of them hand-me-downs with a history. Elena Grace has the Swiss Army Girl Scout knife, which my mother bought for me when we visited the international Girl Scout/Girl Guide center in Switzerland. And Keoni cleaned and sharpened a knife of his for Christian–rather a fancier model than mine, with more gadgets, and with inlaid polished wood panels along the handle.
We don’t have the budget to buy them new things very often, so I’m tickled by how much Christian loves this knife. It fits perfectly in his hand, he says, and its dents and scratches from previous use “just go to show that it’s not the kind of knife a person would throw away.” He often refers to himself and Keoni as “peas in a pod,” due to their similarities ranging from shared pack-rat tendencies to shared humor, and Christian’s uncanny ability to finish Keoni’s sentences. Particularly given how often he feels neglected by his own dad (Today’s comment: “Sometimes it feels like a lie when Dad says he loves me”), I’m grateful to see him bonding so strongly with Keoni. When Keoni hugged him goodbye before heading out to work today, Christian wouldn’t let him go! This from the kiddo who tends to be the most reserved of our seven…
Elena Grace is pleased by her knife as well, and has been wearing it clipped to her belt loop (as I used to when we went camping!) since we gave it to her. It’s her first pocket-knife, so she got the full safety-lesson before picking out a stick from our woodpile to try her hand at whittling. The point on that stick is positively scary, and she’s talking about trying her hand at spear-fishing in the lake by our house…
Today’s walk to the lake, however, was for swimming! And some play with Christian’s remote-control boat, which he bought last month with his yardwork-money… And yet another example of Synchronicity striking in our lives… But for this story I have to back up a bit.
When we owned our Hawai’ian BBQ restaurant, there were four couples from Hawai’i who “discovered” us in the first couple weeks, and who became close friends: Joe & Adele, Tedi & Larry, Wally & Esther, and Jeff & Val.
Joe worked for Honolulu Police Department the same time as Keoni’s dad, so we put him on the phone with Dad the first time we met–they’d worked different divisions, but had a lot of cop-friends in common. Tedi’s maiden name was Ka’anapu, the same as Keoni’s mom, so we put her on the phone with Mom the first time we met, and they puzzled through the family tree until they found the connection–yes, they’re related. Wally is Portuguese-Hawai’ian, and his cousin makes Portuguese sausage from their great-grandpa’s recipe (a Hawai’ian favorite, and the same type Keoni grew up with); we added their sausage to our menu, so Wally & Esther would sometimes show up with sausage in the morning and we’d all have breakfast together before the restaurant opened. Jeff crafts wakeboards, and gave us one (autographed with thanks for the food & Aloha) which took a place of honor on the restaurant wall. We have stories and memories with each of these couples, but haven’t been seeing them in the year and a half since our restaurant-days. Until the last two weeks.
Our phone numbers have changed (my cell used to be the restaurant’s number) but Joe decided to track us down a couple weeks ago, used his cop-connections to find our new phone number and gave us a call to see how things are going. He stopped by the house and we shared Tahitian Lanai banana bread and hugs and “talked story.” The very same day that we got Joe’s call, we ran into Tedi & Larry, shopping for the materials to make leis for graduating grandchildren. A couple days later Jeff pinged Keoni on Facebook to ask if he could cook for Val’s graduation-celebration. Her party was today, so Keoni was up at four this morning, cooking. By the time I woke up (thanks to kids climbing into bed with me, followed by Keoni with a very welcome cup of coffee) the house smelled amazing. It smelled like our restaurant.
We took all three kids to help with set-up (though when they discovered their services weren’t needed, the younger two accepted Val’s invitation to use the backyard trampoline), and Keoni sang a traditional Hawai’ian song for Val before we had to head out so he could get to work.
The kids and I packed our beach bags and ambled down the short stretch of country road toward the State Park and the lake, when Wally and Esther pulled up alongside us, waving like crazy. Turns out–as if to complete the quatrifecta (is that a word?) of reconnecting with these friends–they too had decided this week to track us down, tried our old numbers (they’re not Facebookers), driven around our neighborhood (they knew we lived right by the Park, but Keoni had already left with the KANAGRL license plates that would usually mark out our home), and decided as a last resort to inquire at the Park if I were still working there. They were pulling away from the Park-entrance, deciding they might be out of luck finding us, when Wally realized he’d just passed red hair and a dragon tattoo walking along the roadside, and turned the car around…
To put this timing into perspective, I haven’t walked to the Park since my last day of work there in September, and it only takes us about four minutes to walk that stretch of road–so the fact that we were ON that stretch of road while they were there specifically seeking us is nothing short of Pure Synchronicity. My favorite kind of story. :) I’ve had a warm glow all day–all these reconnections with old friends!
Mon, June 4: Super-Powers
With Keoni off work today and the weather hot and sunny, the family (minus 16-year-old Kapena, at his first day of Football Camp) spent the day at the beach! Though it’s easily within walking distance, we also have the gift (from my parents) of an unlimited State-Parks-pass stuck to our windshield, so we happily loaded folding chairs, snacks and picnic, inflatable inner-tube (bought on sale after last summer) and other “beachables” into the car. We stopped momentarily to chat with Lareen (with whom I worked last summer) in the entrance booth–noting that this was the third consecutive day she’d seen us, she wondered if this would be a daily meeting. “That’s the plan,” we all grinned–Family Time is precisely why I’m not in that entrance-booth this summer, as voted unanimously by the three kids…
Here’s a moment that any parent will recognize… When a pair of siblings, usually squabbly purely out of habit, have a moment of instantaneous and wordless communication with one another and they’re suddenly “in league”… You’ve seen it, right? It was one of those moments today, when Keoni decided to try out the inner-tube… Christian and Elena Grace had one of those connecting-moments, and with matching shrieks of maniacal laughter, the pair of them started to tow him across the small lake to “maroon” him on its island. (Pirates of the Caribbean has thoroughly pervaded their consciousness, as evidenced by Christian barking at someone on the beach, “Oy! No littering, you Scabrous Dog!” I swear I’m not making that up.)
Over Keoni’s own laughing objections that they couldn’t maroon him without at least a pistol and a single shot, I heard Elena Grace taunting him teasingly, “Where’s your kitchen NOW?”–which only goes to show that she has correctly identified the source of his Super-Powers… The Kitchen!
Wednesday, June 6: Symphony and Stones
This evening’s thunder-and-wind storm didn’t arrive in time to break our consecutive string of days-with-lake-visits, at least for Christian and myself. While Keoni took Elena Grace to Karate class (where she did not, at least today, cause any boys to cry), and while Kapena was finishing up Day Three of Football Camp, Christian and I walked once again to the lake. Too chilly today to tempt Mom into the water, but I sat with my writing-notebook and iPod and watched him–or his feet, rather, given his apparent interest in the lake-bottom today…
I’ve been corresponding this week with a Boise composer who is working up a program with the Idaho Dance Theater, and looking for poetry by Idaho women (preferably about Idaho and its rivers) for use with a vocalist as part of the current project. He had come across my earlier mention in this blog of an anthology of Idaho women poets and contacted me to see if I knew where it could be found. Sadly, the only place I’ve seen it in recent years is on my own shelf, so I offered him the loan, and listed some other anthologies and Idaho writers that might bear looking into. I used to teach an “Idaho Writers” lit course–so in my enthusiasm, it grew into rather an extensive list… He also kindly stated that he’d be interested to look at some of my work if I turned up anything that might fit the theme.
So I was watching my swimmer in this Idaho lake, and musing on my children’s Idaho roots (I was the first in my family to be born in Idaho, but they’re sixth-generation Idahoans through their paternal grandmother) and I ended up with pages’ worth of poetry… I’m still letting it simmer in my beach-bag (I usually find it’s a good idea to leave new poetry alone for a few days after it first hits the page) but I’m still mulling over an odd bit of synchronicity. Maybe it’s because I’d just finished Mrs. Dalloway and still had Virginia Woolf on my mind, but whatever the reason, my mind kept wanting to add a pocketful of stones to my son as I wrote about him. Not in the same morbid fashion as Mrs. Woolf, and I couldn’t figure out why the thought was so persistent, but it worked into what I was writing and I let it stay… An hour later when I beckoned his blue-lipped form out of the lake, he emerged, emptied his swim-trunks of a whole pile of rocks, and announced happily, “I’m collecting stones!” Hm.
The wind-storm began to kick up as he and I walked home, so we arrived (rather breathlessly) at our front porch–he with his swim-goggles donned against the wind, and his beach towel streaming behind like a Superhero’s cape.
Fri, June 8: Sewage Moat
Rain and wind continued through yesterday and necessitated a break from the lake… But I’ve always enjoyed a stormy day when I can stay cozily curled up with a book–AND a couple cuddly other readers…
We woke this morning to find ourselves possessed of a landscaping feature that’s not common in this neck of the woods… A Moat. Unfortunately, it has a strong smell of sewage, and appears to be connected with our septic system. (This is one of those days when I say a prayer of thanks that we’re renting!) Of course, sometimes the difficulty with renting is getting any action from a landlord, especially in our case where the actual landlord lives in Arizona, the delegated manager lives a couple towns away, and the on-site fix-it-guy (our favorite neighbor Bill, with whom we’re collaborating on a vegetable garden) isn’t empowered to make any decisions that involve spending money.
We’ve already run into trouble with this septic–as the weather warmed up in late April and the potty-smell around our place went from occasionally-noticeable to overwhelming, we called the manager to say the septic probably needed to be pumped. (A side note for those of you across the Big Water: “potty” here in the States means toilet, rather than crazy–I have to mention this after the hilarity of a British buddy some years back when I expressed delight that my newly-trained toddler was “going potty”…)
Four (smelly!) weeks later, a guy finally came to pump out the tank. Said he used to do the rounds here twice a year, but hadn’t been called in for almost three. Three years, that is. Come to find out, the pump was broken, water was flowing into the tank even though nothing was running in our house, and the grass around the tank, he told us, was “saturated” with… Ew.
Well, the pump got replaced, the tank got emptied, and here we are two weeks later with a full tank again, and a suspiciously smelly moat. We won’t be hosting any badminton tournaments till this gets sorted out!
By the time we unfolded ourselves from the motor-home’s fold-out bed this morning, the temperature had just pushed into double digits, and I felt intrepid enough to step outside and indulge in my Very Bad Habit… The foothills beyond the stretch of high-desert prairie were warming in the sunrise light, with a huge half-moon still aglow just above them. What a stunning backyard–and it’s the same “backyard” everyone has in Carey, Idaho, since the town was platted out in a string of lots lining the highway…
Vonnie, the eager organizer of the community’s revitalization committee, had our day mapped out for us–at least once we poured enough coffee and bacon into The Editor to get him upright and functional. (This is probably the number-one reason why my cooking-husband Keoni gets to join the magazine’s editorial staff on assignment…) First up: a puddle-jumper plane ride with local rancher Mike–a pilot skilled enough to cut his engine and drop down among a herd of elk without spooking them… (Whether his passengers were spooked by this maneuver… Well, we’ll leave that answer to your imagination.)
The massive lava flows of Craters of the Moon National Monument reach their blackened fingers out almost to the edge of town, and the narrow strip–only as wide as the wagons in places–between the lava fields and the foothills formed the trail which Pioneers took for the Goodale’s Cutoff route of the Oregon Trail. The Oregon Trail followed the trappers’ trails, which followed the Indians’ trails–and the stage routes followed, and railroads after that. Vonnie’s son, Dave, owns the ranch that used to be the stage stop, and just turned up some photographs of the homesteading family who lived there a century back. The dam (a WPA project of Roosevelt’s, back in the ’30s) is iced in, and the ice fishers are out in force today on the reservoir, which Mike says is eighteen inches thick in ice.
Keoni (who had been enjoying a good book and a cup of coffee in the heated motor-home) grilled sandwiches for everyone, and then we were off for our pickup-truck-tour of the Carey area in the company of 87-year-old Ray–who was born in Carey, schooled in its one-room schoolhouse with “six or seven” other kids, raises Appaloosa horses, and still ranches in the Pioneer Mountains just below his father’s original 1892 homestead.
He says he just lost two calves to wolves this year, a first for him, and mentions the wolf print he saw by his gate, using both hands to show its size. “What people don’t understand,” he goes on to say, “is that when a wolf takes a cow, that’s a cow that a rancher birthed and raised. He knows her–that cow had a personality.” Speaking to the controversial hot topic of wolf-conservationists-versus-ranchers, he adds, “Personally, I think if we were allowed to control them, we could live with ’em. But you won’t hear a lot of ranchers say that.”
Ray grew up running sheep for his father’s operation, and related a conversation between his father and another ranching friend a while back, after his dad bought an RV for retirement years. “I can’t understand why you bought that trailer,” his buddy said; “You spent your whole damn life hauling around a sheep camp, and now what you’ve got is an expensive sheep camp!”
Near the boundary to Craters of the Moon, we pulled over at an unmarked spot in the road and walked just half a minute to a thoroughly inviting natural hot spring, complete with a soaking family whose clothes were piled at the edge. No signage at all–but the locals know where to find it! Geothermal is a viable source of energy here, as close as we are to the volcanic activity of Craters of the Moon; even the new school building is running entirely on geothermal.
Our motor-home is plugged into Vonnie’s house, via an extension cord wending its way among the collection of old milk cans left over from her husband Paul’s years hauling milk for the dairy operations. Vonnie and Paul had invited us “next door” for dinner this evening. Vonnie teased that she’d begun to doubt Keoni’s existence, since she hadn’t yet met him–to which I replied that my son has an imaginary Dragon, and apparently I have an imaginary husband…
Like Ray, Paul was born and raised in Carey, and reminisced over dinner about the many things the young people used to do around here before the advent of television. The hunting, the fishing, the mountains, the ice skating–kids used to build huge bonfires out on the lake and skate all night. In the canyon Mike flew through this morning, a person could theoretically fill every hunting tag Idaho offers–and Paul echoes Ray’s observation that the duck hunting here is the best in the state.
Hemingway used to come over here all the time to bird-hunt, he offers casually. And then: “I was working over in Ketchum the day he shot himself. That was a bad thing–got that clinic diagnosis, went home and put that shotgun in his mouth right at the house. Never would have expected that of him–he was always so macho. But then again, he wasn’t what he used to be. He’d come down to the Stagecoach [bar], and you could barely see him over the steering wheel. Not the Hemingway he used to be.” The iconic literary legend who has always been a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out in my mind… pops into three dimensions hearing someone who knew the man speak so casually and warmly about him…
Keoni and I excused ourselves back to the motor-home after coffee (he needed to put his new knee up for a rest, and I have some writing to get done)–although we couldn’t get away without first answering Vonnie’s request for some of the stories behind our tattoos… Tomorrow the “tour bus” moves on to Arco, the first town in the world to be run on nuclear power. I wonder if they have a glowing hook-up for the motor-home?
Imagine, for a moment, a musician who’d been named to the list of “100 Greatest Living American Songwriters” before the age of thirty, whose albums are laden with lyrical language and layers of literary and intellectual references… And imagine that same musician writing two hundred pages of fiction with all the lyrical allure of his song-smithing. That’s exactly what we have with Josh Ritter’s first novel, Bright’s Passage.
Henry Bright comes home from World War I with an angel in tow. An argumentative angel, who takes up residence in his horse and meddles in Henry’s life. I’d suggest that the best way to read this book is simply to let the story and the language flow. You could inflict your own analysis on it by worrying about the “whys” of what’s going on–maybe a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to explain away that absurd angel–but doing so would only distract from the experience of the story itself.
Bright’s life is artfully interwoven in three braided strands throughout the book… His passage from his isolated mountain home after burying his young wife, journeying with a newborn son (and a goat, and the persnickety horse-angel), trudging toward a town and “feeding the child with his trigger finger dipped in the goat’s milk”… His experiences in the trenches of France, where the angel first attached itself to him… And his memories of childhood in a mountain mining community–memories of his mother, who raised him alone after the mines crushed his father, and of the girl Rachel who would (briefly) become his wife when he returned from the war.
A reader determined to dissect might decide Bright is a damaged and delusional man who imagined that bossy angel into his horse. I’m actually inclined to think Bright himself is perfectly sound–although his angel could certainly benefit from some time on the therapy couch. Whatever conclusions you draw as you read, they’ll be yours to keep; Josh doesn’t contaminate his story-telling (or insult his readers) with explanations.
I just looked up Josh’s own comments about the book on Amazon, and was disgruntled to find the exact phrase I’d just written, about the angel who “takes up residence in Henry’s horse.” Dangit, now I’ll have to edit so people don’t think I was cribbing. Or… I’ll leave it as is, and have a laugh. We did have the same English teachers, after all… Josh was a few years behind me in school, and one of my memories (brought to mind by Henry Bright’s recollection of a childhood Christmas program in which he played the donkey and Rachel the angel) is of junior-high Josh dressed as Joseph, across our church’s prop-manger from my little sister in a blue veil.
Our hometown of Moscow Idaho is the kind of small town where folks showed up spontaneously when the locally owned BookPeople moved to a new location across the street; Main Street shut down for the length of a summer evening while a bucket-brigade of volunteers passed books across the street from hand to hand until the move was compete. Which is probably why my favorite publicity shot of Josh is this one of him singing in front of our own BookPeople store.
I can honestly claim, though, that the hometown connection played no part in my first fascination with Josh’s music. I was fooling around on iTunes a few years ago, whimsically searching for songs with “Idaho” in the title–and fell in love with his, making no connection at the time between the name on the album and the kid from my sister’s class. I downloaded the song–and everything else of his that I could find–and the very next morning when I started up my car it kicked the radio to life in the middle of this same song, which Josh was performing live on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” Crazy synchronicity, I was thinking, when my cell phone rang and my mom asked if I remembered Josh Ritter from our church… Oh. That Josh Ritter. (I’d just thought the name was familiar because… well, because CDs are made by famous people. Bright one, I am.)
If you’re not familiar with his music, check out “Kathleen” or “Good Man.” I’ve posted “Idaho” below because… well, because it’s Idaho.
A person who wants light fluffy lyrics would probably find Josh’s philosophical lines frustrating–and the same might go for his novel. For the reader or listener who doesn’t object to thinking, however, Josh’s writing–whether song-lyrics or novel–is an absolute treasure of the mind. This a book I would happily read just for the language–he’s truly a word-wizard.
[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…