These photos available in A2 (4×5) and A7 (5×7) notecard sizes.
2011-2012: Nothing Happened
(Download as PDF: EOY letter 2012)
Nothing much has happened in the two years since I last wrote, other than poisoning myself, in the mountains, in the winter, in the dark. It was an accident, or maybe not.
I’d gone camping in January 2012 (I know, madness to begin with) along with a pair of Supposed Friends, snowshoeing into the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Cocooned in my tent, I used my tiny stove, which burns denatured alcohol, to cook split pea soup and hot cocoa. Green gruel, then brown gruel with flecks of green gruel in it. Mmm. By 7 pm, with nothing decent on TV, I was asleep.
And dreamt I was wandering in a clean and sunny cityscape, open and bright, deserted but for a group of people loitering in a plaza 50 yards away. Then, from a puff of smoke, like a 19th century charlatan, there materialized a redheaded man in a dark suit – clean shaven, trim, athletic – looking straight at me. I knew him, knew he must not see me, knew he had seen me. I ran, but in no time was caught. He plunged a syringe into the back of my right hand. Feeling an electric painful poison invading my body, I awoke with a scream.
Winter. Cold. Dark. Mouth parched. Need a drink. I reach for the water bottle and take a swig. And proceed to make a series of “animal noises” (my companions would later say). In my groggy terror, I’ve mistakenly grabbed my bottle of stove fuel – grain alcohol that has been intentionally poisoned in order to discourage hobos, vagrants, bums, and backpackers from drinking it.
I don’t know how much a lethal dose is, but I do know I’ll never snowshoe out of the mountains before the poison does it work. In nothing but my long underwear, I bolt out of the tent, spread my feet, bend over, and repeatedly stick my finger down my throat, retching green and brown gruel into the snow. Sometimes I can taste the denatured alcohol coming up.
A song comes into my head , one we used to sing in the old days, when I was young and new to Wallowa County. We would gather in someone’s cheap but drafty rental farmhouse with an ugly, cavernous Blaze King wood stove roaring, to drink beer, play music, and sing songs late into the night, while small, dirty children ran amok, eventually to crash on piles of coats in the corner.
The red-headed stranger from Blue Rock, Montana, Rode into town one day.
And under his knees was a ragin’ black stallion, And walkin’ behind was a bay.
The red-headed stranger had eyes like the thunder, And his lips, they were sad and tight.
His little lost love lay asleep on the hillside, And his heart was heavy as night.
Don’t cross him, don’t boss him, He’s wild in his sorrow, He’s ridin’ an’ hidin his pain.
Don’t fight him, don’t spite him, Just wait till tomorrow, Maybe he’ll ride on again.
But my redheaded stranger had not ridden on. No, he’d reached into this world and steered my hand to the wrong bottle, the bastard. How had I crossed him? Why did he want to kill me?
After twenty minutes, I am chilled and, I hope, emptied. No sound comes from my Supposed Friends in their tent. I imagine them on their backs in their sleeping bags, eyes staring into the dark, waiting to hear the muffled thump of my body hitting the snow. Thanks a lot, guys.
Back to bed I go. There’s nothing left to do but go to sleep and see if I wake up. In the morning, one eye is completely red. I’ve burst a blood vessel from the sustained effort of forced gagging. Either that, or the poison is doing its work. After a breakfast of thin oatmeal – tan gruel – we snowshoe up to Horseshoe Lake, walk across the frozen mile-long surface, staring at gray peaks creased with snow, and, a day later, return to town. I make a phone call. 1-800-222-1222. The guy at the Poison Control Center tells me a toxic dose of denatured alcohol is two ounces.
Dreams. In May of 2011, having re-upped with the Forest Service, I’m back in Hells Canyon. In my little yellow standard-issue Rite-in-the-Rain journal, I rite, “6 am. Been lying awake in the tent since 5. Dreamt of horses streaming through the woods, chased by distraught owners.”
August 2011, now up in the high country. Horse packing into the Eagle Cap to clean up some nasty camps, Boss puts me on Duster, a one-eyed roan. I’m not sure what this indicates about my standing. At times we lead the pack string off-trail, through steep-sloped timber and hanging meadows, to avoid deadfall. Duster stumbles on a sloping rock and falls to his front knees, pitching me onto his neck. I hang on. He plunges into a hole hidden by grass. I hang on. He’s constantly veering toward his good side. I’m enjoying the hell out of myself.
We camp in a meadow at the mouth of Trail Creek, putting up a lightweight electric fence. “The problem with these things,” Boss says, “is that the elk walk through them, and then there’s nothing to keep the stock in.” In the morning, the fence is down, and the horses and mules are gone. We start the search. I head for the thick timber on the far side of the meadow. And see our horses, streaming through the woods, coming back home. I have been here before.
Nothing at all happened between the end of field season in the fall of 2011, and the redheaded man’s attack in January 2012. No, I take it back. My housemate and I threw a Halloween Party, attended by the Devil With The Blue Dress On. Some people thought it was creepy, although I can’t imagine why.
And I finished the freakin’ sweat lodge, Gilligan.
By April 2012, I was back in the field, working alone in Hells Canyon until the rest of the crew came on in June. Close to finishing an inventory of all the “trails” on the Oregon side of the canyon, we make a final push. Of course, I volunteer to do the last low-elevation piece, even though it is now July. It’s a hot, brambly, snaky hell down there, and we have only three days to do a four-day job. (“Crucify me! Crucify me!”) As we bushwhack through five acres of poison ivy, teasel, and poison hemlock, my companion, a young woman on her first trip into Hells Canyon, declares, “Let’s get the hell out of this fucking shithole.”
So I did, taking a hiatus from rangering to go on a busman’s holiday: hiking the length of the Sierra Nevada range in California with my brother, Tork. We were joined for the first week by one “Kramer,” who lived up to his nickname, and for another week by my daughter, her friend, and Ashi the Stylin’ Pooch.
Along the way, Tork and I take a spontaneous side trip to Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. Our choices are to climb 2000′ up the sheer north face (I don’t think so), or to go up the “tourist” route on the back side. Even that is steep. So steep that, years ago, the Sierra Club installed steel posts with 3/4″ steel cable handrails. So what if some of the steel posts have popped out of their holes? That was in 1919, and you can’t expect anything to last forever.
On the cables, there’s a regular traffic jam. It reminds me of that other tourist route – the Hillary Step on Mount Everest. “Get the Italian team out of the way!” I shout. Tork and I are fit, used to exposure, and acclimated – Half Dome, at 8800 feet, is 2000 feet lower than the route we’ve been hiking. But many of our fellow tourists are exhausted and scared shitless. The aisle between the cables is not quite wide enough for two people, so Uppers and Downers are constantly squeezing by each other. Some people are frozen to the cables, blocking the way of others.
Something goes clattering down the nearly vertical granite, disappearing against the background of dark treetops 1000 feet below us. A sheath knife. A moment later, another object, bright and metallic, clatters down and disappears into a shallow crack right at my feet. A voice up above calls, “Don’t worry about it! It’s not important!” But it’s just right there, and I’m not going anywhere at the moment, just staring at the unlovely ass of the person in front of me, so I fish it out. It’s a police badge. No toy this, it’s well made of heavy gauge metal. I try to pass it up the line, but the person I hand it to says, “No thanks, we’re headed down.” So I pocket the badge, and figure I’ll find the owner when we top out.
Half an hour later, we’re there. The summit of Half Dome is like a big convex plateau, big enough to play a soccer game or two. A cluster of about 30 people are gathered near the highest point, doing dumb, illegal things like feeding the marmots and throwing objects off the face – the same face a pair of climbers are about to top out on. I walk toward the group, looking for the owner of the badge, holding it up and hailing them. “Special police?!” I holler. Thirty people freeze, turn as one, and practically reach for the sky.
Five weeks after starting, not having taken a shower once (although I did skinny dip in at least a dozen stunning alpine lakes), we arrive at the end of our journey at Twin Lakes Resort. Lost in a maze of beachcombers’ trails, we cannot find a bridge across our last creek. We’ve hiked and scrambled and climbed 300 miles through the rugged High Sierra, mostly off-trail, and we can’t find our way through a bunch of paths made by kids with plastic pails. The hell with it. We walk across the knee-deep estuary in socks and boots, find my truck in the parking lot, and prepare to leave. When I turn the key in the ignition, nothing happens.
(Download as PDF: EOY letter 2010)
Dear family and friends,
Last week Wallowa County was all blue and white and 0 degrees Fahrenheit. On my mid-day walks with squeaking snow underfoot, my mustache would freeze to my beard, and the tug of inch-long icicles trapping my mouth in a circle of hair-frost kept me from talking too much. For those of you who, like Mr. SS in Connecticut, think I do – talk too much – feel free to skip to the last page, where I have provided an Executive Summary.
I haven’t been in touch much. I sent no letter last year. I let emails at home molder in my inbox. I ignored messages from Facebook saying “You have 3 friend requests,” or “MB posted a comment on your wall.” I don’t even know, really, what my wall is. A fine pass to come to for one who made a living for 20 years in the computer trade.
I’ve been walking because I can’t run. I can’t run because I recently had hernia surgery, probably from dismantling 220 rock campfire rings in the mountains this summer. When I wasn’t wrestling rocks, I was gathering garbage. A fine pass to come to for one who was, not long before, an Executive Director.
You may recall that, in 2008, I spent the “summer” in the Canadian Rockies. Forty days of rain and snow, incessant bushwhacking, and all that. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done,” I said at the time. Well, sometime between that hike and May 2010, I changed my mind. During that time I was consumed by work in my new role at Fishtrap, a literary non-profit based here in Wallowa County but serving a regional Western audience. After working for five years as its Development (fundraising) Director, I’d been drafted to fill the founding Executive Director’s place when a year-long search came up empty-handed.
Fifteen diverse programs, 4,000 participants, and all of two and half employees to make it happen. It would have been impossible without the efforts of many board members, advisors, and volunteers, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. But working in the midst of so many people requires a generous store of qualities I seem to lack. I was unhappy in the crowded kitchen, and reluctantly resigned, leaving the organization in May 2010. It felt like the hardest thing I’d ever done.
March 2009: Fishtrap had been hosting dozens of events based on Jack London’s Call of the Wild. I thought a winter camping trip – something tangible – would be a good way to hook the local cast of JDs. Paul and Todd and I haul in nearly all the gear beforehand on the nearly flat 4-mile trail. Camp is a little village of canvas wall tents with wood stoves. The kids manage to turn the easy snowshoe hike into a 7-hour marathon, their smoke-riddled lungs and dysfunction-addled hearts slowing them to a crawl.
One 15-year-old girl, the most incorrigible of the lot, defiantly sits down in the snow about a half mile from our destination and announces she will go no further. The sun is setting. The others pass on by. I stand there and look at her, waiting, and say nothing. She’ll figure it out. She will either pick herself up and walk for another ten minutes, or she will stay here and die. She figures it out.
For the next two days, the kids help cook and clean, build snow forts and throw snowballs and sneak off into the dark spruce trees to smoke. The second night, we have a campfire and, while my hands slowly freeze, I read aloud to them. To Build A Fire. On the way out the next day, they joke and laugh and declare in voice and action their new-found strength. Afterward, they all agree: “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
At Enterprise Elementary School, Jacob, a seven-year-old with an open face and doe eyes, picks up an atlas. We look at a world map. “Do you know the continents?” I ask. “Yes.” He points to Alaska. “This is Enterprise.” We turn to a page that shows the Pacific Northwest. “This,” I point, “is Enterprise, and this,” I trace with pencil tip, “is the Columbia River. Have you ever been to Portland? You know the …” “Big lake!” he exclaims, eyes shining. I think about all those dams and Celilo Falls, once the richest salmon fishing grounds in the world, buried by 400,000 cubic yards of concrete. But I nod. “You’re right. That’s the Columbia River.” I feel like a liar.
Working at Fishtrap, surrounded by writers and writing, I found myself with little time to read for pleasure. Write I did – memos, proposals, grant narratives, correspondence – emails by the thousands and thousands. Perhaps all of those salmon that once crowded Celilo Falls have come back as emails, hatching, coursing downstream and upstream, spawning, dying. And, perhaps, to the degree emails spawn misunderstandings, as they can so easily do, that is our retribution for emptying the rivers.
May 2009: I join siblings in closing down the Florida home our parents had lived in for 20 years. We emptied the house, figured out what Dad would need in assisted living, and divvied up everything else among ourselves, the neighbors, and dozens of passersby attracted by the “Free Stuff” sign out on the main road. It got to be a game, betting on whether this or that piece of jetsam would be snatched up by a passing beachcomber. While some people sniffed and padded warily around the word “free” – what’s the catch? – others were generous with their thanks. After all was said and done, there wasn’t even a full pickup load to haul away. On the other hand, there was a 28-foot rental truck which it fell to me to drive 5,000 miles – up the East Coast, across the Midwest, finally to Washington, Oregon, and Idaho – dropping off furniture, refreshing old friendships, and breaking off only one massive tree limb along the way.
August 2009: Lacey, a former high school chum of my daughter’s, asks me to officiate at her wedding. “You can give without loving, but you can never love without giving,” said Victor Hugo. “The great acts of love are done by those who are habitually performing small acts of kindness.” I feel like Lacey’s uncle. Looking at the fine young groom, I think, You be sure to do better than I did.
Jody and David, friends of friends, ask me to officiate at their wedding at Edgefield, a former “poor house” and now brew-pub resort outside Portland. A guest of the two families, I have time to read for pleasure and highgrade blackberries from the enormous patch. “A journey is a person in itself,” said John Steinbeck. “No two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. A journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
Back home, at my third wedding in as many weeks, I am simply a guest. A slightly champagne-addled guest. The outdoor reception is perched on the edge of thousands of steep feet falling to Joseph Canyon. While the bride and groom, seated, are busy with this and that, I call out to the band, “How High the Moon!” They oblige, and we dance, Lauren and Sarah in her wheelchair and I, usurping the married couple’s right to the first dance, while a half moon rises against the sun-and-shadow-striped canyon walls across from us.
Somewhere there’s music / How faint the tune
Somewhere there’s heaven / How high the moon
There is no moon above / When love is far away too
Till it comes true / That you love me as I love you
Somewhere there’s music / It’s where you are
Somewhere there’s heaven / How near, how far
The darkest night would shine / If you would come to me soon
Until you will, how still my heart / How high the moon
September 2009: I come home to find my cedar Adirondack chairs swapped – gone – replaced by dirty and broken white plastic lawn chairs, and a flamingo in the tomato pot. A day later, the flamingo, noose around neck, black stars for eyes, is hanging from my neighbor Katie’s house.
With a group of Fishtrap writers, I float the Snake River in Hells Canyon for my first time. Evening. Steady steady brush by of river ripple, rasp of crickets, the querulous piping of a canyon wren. Behind the grinding beach strewn with broken shells, the ground rises in prickly pear and coarse bunchgrass sprays. Across the water, the dark rock wall of Suicide Point. Our river guide pulls out his hand drums and I my flute, and he and Laura and I play in counterpoint. After a while they stop, and I turn to face the wall across the water. Behind me bodies sprawled, curled, seated and nodding in pale moonlight. Shards of cold white light on the black noise of water over stone. I play simple melodies, breath transformed into a low and large canyon wren. I stop and listen to the river, its voice amplified by the sudden space I have created. It’s a trick of the ear, perhaps. Music opens the ears, so that the voice of the river can then pour into the opening so created.
That winter, it seemed like a river was pouring into the great hall of the Odd Fellows building. The nearly flat roof had sprung massive leaks, which we captured with tarps and buckets and tubs and garbage cans and a submersible pump which disgorged a dirt-and-tannin-stained fluid into the sink. One night I pulled guard duty. In between bailing, I lay awake on a cushion in a side room filled to overflowing with carved oaken thrones and dust-rimmed renderings of forgotten politicians, accompanied by the music of a thousand drips and the strips of streetlights piercing the long and tattered drapes.
In the spring of 2010, I visited my daughter Angela, a graduate student in San Rafael. Because poet Gary Snyder would be coming to Summer Fishtrap, and because I subscribe to walking as meditation and medication, I set out to circumambulate Mt. Tamalpais, following the route that Snyder and others pioneered in 1965. I got off to a late start, my walk was brisk and hardly meditative, and I wondered if that is how I have gone through life, always thinking, “I’ll get it right next time.”
May 2010: I left Fishtrap, but not before fulfilling a personal commitment to an old friend – to edit and compile the essays she’d written about Mary, a wiry ranch woman who, until she passed away in 2007 at nearly 90, had lived a frontier lifestyle in the Imnaha River canyon. How frontier? They did just about everything on horseback. Grew all their own food. Had no electricity until 1965. When Mary’s uncle bought the first car seen down in those parts, a Model T, he drove it into his shed, hollered “Whoa!” and continued on through the back wall and straight into the Imnaha River. Mary preserved these stories in a collection of “five year diaries,” with 20 lines on a page, four lines for each of five years. She kept 12 of those diaries: 60 years worth. Hence the book’s title: Four Lines a Day. It was a fine feeling to help bring a project to fruition.
In June of 1980, I’d arrived in Wallowa County with an understanding that I would be working for the US Forest Service as a backcountry ranger in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. It was not to be. Impressed instead for office work, I left after two years. Now, 30 years later, I was being offered, for real, a job as a backcountry ranger. No email, no complicated interpersonal office dynamics, plenty of exercise and fresh air. How could I refuse an opportunity to complete the circle?
Some people seem to think wilderness rangers wander around weaving wildflower chains and writing poetry. This wilderness ranger was a glorified garbageman. My job was to find campsites, record their exact GPS locations and the extent of “resource damage,” clean up any garbage, dismantle structures, and remove campfire rings, at least the illegal or redundant or stupid ones. I was also to educate visitors about no-trace camping and perform trail maintenance. In the course of three months, I found 466 campsites with 622 fire rings.
Statutory Wilderness is supposed to be “an area of undeveloped land … retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation … with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” That is why places like The Palace, a corrugated tin shed I found, stuffed with old tarps and motor oil jugs and baling twine and broken styrofoam coolers, are an abomination.
First hitch: Working in Hells Canyon, I pull 76 ticks off me in four hours. I lose a tent stake in the cheatgrass and medusahead. It’s accompanied me for 40 years and 5,000 miles, and the loss pains me.
Hitch #2: I stop by historic Red’s Horse Ranch, an inholding where Hollywood stars used to fly in and party with their concubines. A caretaker tells me, with religious certainty backed up by numerous indicators including the life and death of George Burns, that the world as we know it will come to an end in 2015. I half believe him. It would spare me the trouble of figuring out what I’m going to do with myself when the field season comes to an end.
I am required to carry a two-way radio and check in twice a day. One afternoon I can’t raise Dispatch despite the fact that I can see the Point Prominence repeater off to the north. A co-worker, who is a couple of ridges over inspecting trail work, cuts in. “Bombaci, this is Brown. How long have you been out?” “This is day eight,” I reply. “Then you don’t know this,” he says. “Last Sunday the Forest Service office burned to the ground.”
Brown is a guy who can look you straight in the eye and drawl a tall tale without telltales, no touching his nose or looking away or letting his mouth creep up into a grin. I stand there in my wet boots and sweat-stained uniform, staring at the radio, wondering. Surely radio protocol forbids screwing around on the airwaves. Can Brown possibly be risking the wrath of Dispatch just to jerk my chain? This can’t be true. It was true.
Hitch #4: Six of us work together to move an ancient cast iron air compressor on wheels. Used in an old mining operation in Norway Basin, it looks like a 1920s vintage tractor, only much heavier. The thing weighs at least a ton, and we need to move it out of the wilderness. It takes us all day, using block and tackle and mechanical advantage and all of our strength, to move it 200 yards. I name her Mabel the (Im)mobile Compressor.
I like to name things. Sometime early in the summer I started naming the most egregiously trashed campsites. It started with “Aqua Slag,” where some misbegotten cretins had burned a large polypropylene tarp in their campfire, leaving behind an alien crust melted to the rocks. This practice, I was to learn, was common.
The garbage and destruction was staggering in its wantonness: Firepits full of twisted masses of melted glass and beer cans (Keystone Lite the wilderness swill of choice), oxidized wads of aluminum foil, tin cans and oozing batteries stuffed into stream banks, trees garroted with steel baling wire or impaled by nails and spikes big enough to go in one of your ears and out the other. Moldy canvas tents, sodden camo jackets, rotten cowboy boots, bent tent poles, broken camp chairs, abandoned sleeping bags, electric fence tape, tin stove pipes, rusted-out sheepherder stoves, orange and blue and yellow baling twine, frying pans, coolers, horseshoes, shovel blades, cans of white gas and lighter fluid, propane canisters, rebar, angle iron, galvanized tubs. Tent stakes, which I commandeered.Usually the names would come to me as I stooped over fire pits, picking out the inevitable aluminum foil: Camp Cholera, The Pigsty, Dirty Little Secret, Camp Catastrophe, Tin Can Massacre, Three Stooges, Monkey Camp, Three Ring Circus, Open Sewer, Deadfall Camp, Highline Orgy, The Big Nasty, Utter Ursa Disaster, Minam River Canteen & Grill, Camp Desecration, Shit City.
After moving Mabel, the others left, but I continued up into the wilderness. In a high and achingly beautiful basin, I found a camp. Picket Madness. I filled my trash bag, folded it into the tarp they’d covered the firewood with, put the whole bundle on the seat of their commode (no squatting for this crew), tied it all up with baling twine, and lifted it onto my head. I set off down the mountainside, through false hellebore and delphinium and lupine glowing green and purple in the late afternoon sun, cumulus clouds occasionally throwing me into shadow as I walked, crowned with a commode, back to the mines of Norway Basin.
Two weeks later, after spending seven hours at the Not OK Corral, cleaning up its hundreds of rusted tin cans and whiskey bottles and D-cell batteries and enough melted glass to start a bottling plant, and dismantling two corrals cobbled from cut trees and baling wire, I move on at sunset. I am exhausted, but determined not to spend the night in that dismal place. I find a faint path marked with pink surveyor’s flagging, leading into dark timber. I move upriver in the dusk, pulling the flagging as I go. Sure enough, another camp. Second Little Pig’s Tinkertoy Village. They’ve left a hammer behind. As darkness falls, I use it to dismantle the wooden structures, starting a bonfire with the 2-bys and 6-bys and plywood. In the morning, I take the hammer, Mjöllnir the Crusher, with me..
But really, messes in the “wilderness” aren’t worth crying about. There are strokes and cancer and dementia for that. In recent years, my parents’ generation has been passing away. Uncle Vic, Aunt Mildred, Uncle Joe, Aunt Hazel, Uncle Jerome, Aunt Josephine, Uncle Sal, Aunt Marie, my mother … Living on the west coast, I’ve seen little of my extended family over the past decades, nor made it to any of their funerals. But I remember them, sometimes in dreams: I walk around the back of a building and enter an open Mediterranean space of pale green stucco – Uncle Jerome and Aunt Jenny’s house? Here are, it seems, all my relatives, working on the place. I am happy and walk up to Aunt Marie. She is vibrant and healthy. I hold her and we start dancing. She feels light as gossamer in my arms. We dance past her brother, my Uncle Vic …
Still, joy. Neighbor Katie got married, which brought old friends to town: Gilligan and Rubi and their two girls, Emelina and Alexandra. They dragged me up Rubi’s namesake, Ruby Peak, which the girls christened “Mommy Peak.” They left me with a freezer full of homemade pupusas (corn tortillas stuffed with squash or cheese or beans). We laughed a lot, and cooked five kinds of waffles and pancakes with Doug and Jodi and their clan.
Early September, and the mountains are cold. The camp sports terribly hacked trees and 250 feet of 3/8″ steel cable strung all over the place as hitching lines for horses. I’m just about to burn the picnic table when three horsemen come by. I’ve known the oldest for years. No matter. He sees the uniform, he sees red. He has nothing but contempt for the agency I work for, and, by extension, me. We’re nothing but a bunch of lazy, incompetent bureaucrats. He becomes nearly apoplectic before turning away in disgust and leading his horse down the mountain. I’ve been working like a dog from dawn to dark for the past three months, eating my dinner in the dark more often than not. I turn back to my task. The fire is ready.
My last hitch. I’m partnered up with Dan, an expert horse wrangler who teaches me patiently as we ride the Minam country, loading up our five pack horses and mules with garbage I have cached over the summer. I learn knots which hold well but untie easily. I learn how to load and unload the pack animals, how to take care of them first and ourselves last. I learn to know each horse and mule as an individual: my riding horse Sonny, with 25 years of bad habits from being ridden by many different greenhorns like me; Sally, the little mule with an autistic habit of rocking back and forth on her two front feet; Kate, a lovely 30-year-old lady of a mule, steady and true; Punky, a dark, shaggy, massive wild mustang mix; and the Black Mule who, warns Dan, “can and will stomp any critter that pisses her off.” I learn how to stay in the saddle when slow and stolid Sonny spooks at the shadow of a log and pulls an in-the-air 180. It’s easy. You hang on.
On our last full day in the wilderness, we ride nearly 3,000 feet down into the big hole of the Minam, work our way upriver, cleaning up caches as we go, and climb back up to the ridge, a 25 mile day. At opposite ends of the pack train we ride the Skyline Trail in the waning light of a red sunset. On our right the high peaks of the Wallowas fade to purple, to our left the distant lights of Baker City and La Grande seem to give birth to the Milky Way and a thousand thousand stars. Riding alone and silent in darkness, just warm enough in fleece and leather gloves, knees tender, walking the horses down the last steep hill back to camp, pasturing them, eating in the dark under the stars, lying down to sleep near the dull stomping of hooves, remembering the shooting stars above us while we rode those last few miles up on the skyline, trusting the animals to follow a trail we could not see.
So I got a hernia. It was worth it.
Back in 2004, a Scottish couple visited Wallowa County and hiked in Hells Canyon. They passed my tent, but we didn’t meet until a few days later at the Bookloft. I invited them to stay at my house, and, although brief acquaintances often die over time, Tom and Becs and I stayed in touch. In 2010, back they came to Wallowa County, twice, with two fabulously feral kids, Freya the Storm Goddess and Kai the Snow Leopard, in tow.
Becs wants to meet others in her line of work, so I invite a friend, Nils, over for dinner. He and Becs, with the rest of us looking on, talk about work and family. They realize they both have parents of mixed nationalities: their mothers are American, his father Norwegian and hers Scottish. Isn’t that funny? His father and her mother, it turns out, were both in Scotland at the same time, more than 50 years ago. What a coincidence! Her mother, says Becs, once told her that she’d dated a Norwegian ski instructor. Nils laughs. His father, he says, was once a ski instructor. How weird is that? “She told me his name,” says Becs. “Leif.” Nils looks at Becs and replies, “My father’s name is Leif.” A text message confirms the connection, and the two are back in touch. I kid you not. Life is hard, beautiful, and mysterious.
The Boyds stayed with me for several weeks. We ate “porridge,” we sat around campfires, we read Rikki Tikki Tavi and Just So Stories and pretended to be snow leopards and cheetahs and had birthday parties and rescued little animals from under the couch cushions and chased each other until the Mossy Old Troll collapsed in a heap.
The day before hernia surgery, I joined my cronies at the one and only Chinese restaurant in Wallowa County. My fortune cookie said, “Look forward to great fortune and a new lease on life!” I went under the knife as calm as could be. Later, convalescing at home, I puttered around, cleaning house. In the bottom of a box full of maps, I found the missing tent stake. Guess I’ll have another go.
With affection and all the best to you and yours,
Journal, June 12, 2002:
(Cache Creek, evening) Burned patches, with brilliant green and yellow ground cover, as we descend on crazy steep roads through the breaks of the Snake River, crossing Cold Spring Creek and Cache Creek. Russell’s 4×4 pickup noses through crowding green thorny branches. Massive patches of Scotch thistle eight feet tall, blackberries and wild rose in bloom.
“Wheelbarrow Annie,” Russell tells me, “did everything with a wheelbarrow.” I try to picture this as we pull into the yard by the little house. Wild turkeys scratch in the yard.
The cabin at Cache Creek. A little house surrounded by locust trees, stone root cellar tucked into the hillside. Fig, plum, and cherry trees in the yard. Swarms of gnats silhouetted against a soft peach sky. Sound of stream tumbling to the river; birdsong, birdchirp. I eat some cherries.
Squeaking of many bats tucked out of sight under the eaves of the corrugated metal roof. The turkeys, with their six or eight young, majestically, farcically silhouetted against the skyline as dusk approaches. Bats flinging themselves in ones, twos, fours, down off the roofline in the gathering darkness. The cacophony under the roof dims, then ceases, as all of the dozens of bats join the flying feast in the gloaming.
We stand in the warm evening, talking. Soft sound of big river, the Snake, gliding by at 18,000 cfs. It’s surprising, the same way a large animal – a startled horse – can surprise you, moving fast.
Journal, June 13, 2002:
(Cache Creek, morning) A doe and two fawns, still spotted, and frisky like calves. Canada geese and their goslings. The river glints in sun just coming over hills to the east as I leave Cache Creek cabin.
I set out on weedily overgrown doubletrack. Bird song and morning cricket buzz. I’m surprised how cautiously alert I feel. No 2″x6″ white paint blazes, the prospect of poison ivy, ticks, rattlesnakes, lots of sticky prickly thistles and burrs which will make a mockery of my gaiters and shorts. Already heat waves on the grass. Barren slopes rising, one side in sun, the opposite bank in shadow. Four-petaled fragrant white flowers.
At the confluence of Garden and Spencer creeks, 18″ wide, I decide to stock up on water. Down a steep little bank into a spot in the thicket, use walking stick to beat five foot tall waterloving plants off to the side, step into the gravel streambed, careful not to step on the snail, reach up into leaf covered rocky spillway to get good angle. I drink one quart standing right there, and get two more to carry.
See the tail ends of two snakes, my eyes travelling quickly to the tip looking for rattles. Nope. A third snake reveals itself by the path of waving grass as it flees my footsteps. Wild rose in bloom all around, and prickly pear. Chukar rasp an alarm and glide downslope on concave wings. Iridescent green beetles, heavy abdomens hanging low beneath their hummingbird-like wing flutter.
A cloudless day, eighties at least in midday. I hole up under a low, multi-trunked, gnarly tree, branches so low I have to take my pack off and scootch under them into the shade. A wren is singing somewhere in the brush in the drainage bottom a few yards away.
Later, entering the valley of Jim Creek, I nearly step on a grouse with at least eight very young chicks, the size of my thumb. Willy nilly they scatter, the mother making a half-hearted broken wing display. So I stop and watch these little darlings rush about, until the only one left, having run eight or ten feet, sits frozen in the trail. I approach, and it keeps its pose until I nearly step on it, whereupon it bolts.
(Cook Creek, evening) Camped at the confluence of Downey and Cook creeks, a breezy spot. Darkness is bringing a downdraft from the mountains, cool. By now I am happy to have my legs under the warmth of the sleeping bag.
Earlier, while walking the road approaching Downey Creek, a pair of red-tailed hawks scolded me fiercely. Cheatgrass the color of ripened wheat. The Big Abdomen Beetles are partial to lupine.
Journal, June 14, 2002:
(Cook Creek, morning) A delightful breeze. I see two cow elk with a calf on the lovely grassy hillside above me. They stop and regard me, move a little further. One of the cows nudges the calf and they move on. As I start out, I am startled by a snake lying across the trail – only it turns out to be an empty skin.
(Cherry Creek) The clouds have moved on. It’s going to be hot again. Lots of yarrow everywhere. Rose bushes scratch my legs. Patches of light purple vetch quite lovely, getting worked by bumblebees. Coming around the bend into Cherry Creek, I saw a marsh hawk, with the distinctive white band at the base of its tail, carrying a small snake – then drop it. The hawk circled about, but didn’t go down after the snake.
Gorgeous violet-green swallows here. Bright white band on top at the base of the tail, white belly, green back. They make great sharp turns and twists, and are unafraid to fly close by me. Behind all else, the steady cricket chirp. I douse my head and soak my feet in the creek. Tank up, then pack four quarts out.
(Mountain Sheep Creek divide) Hot and sweaty, despite some overcast which has kept it cooler than yesterday. I saw another hawk carrying a snake off. This bird didn’t drop its dinner. Working on quart #2. Chalk Creek was dry as a bone.
Climbing up out of Mountain Sheep drainage, I was walking through knee high grass, and saw a place to angle up, cross a shallow defile, and gain the last ridge. I stepped into the defile and – rattle! – I felt adrenalin rush through my system like electricity. My sweat-soaked shirt seemed to tingle. After a moment, a 16″ rattler crossed the path.
My legs are dark with dirt. Dozens of tiny, fine, narrow maroon strands of grass are glued to my legs by sweat. Innumerable scratches from wild rose and the occasional thistle. Socks saturated with cheatgrass awns.
(Knight Creek, evening) Sweet music to my ears to hear running water here. A good camp spot.
Surprised a mama chukar – reddish beak, orange legs, rusty on neck and upper back, prominent black stripes through eyes – and a dozen or more chicks, old enough to fly. One or two flew a little ways down the hill. Mama, clucking rapidly, led the rest off into the grasses. Then one chick flew a good 100 feet down the hillside. Panic! Mom flew about half that far, splitting the distance, clucking frantically – and the brood followed. All but two or three more, who eventually lit out down the hill after the still waiting mama. I wonder if she keeps count. “OK, sound off …”
Also saw a beautiful mountain bluebird with a bright blue head and cape, body slightly darker blue. That was in one of the endless number of dry ravines I crossed today.
After a long day of hiking, I cook while watching the sun set on the hills across the Snake, my own valley in shadow. An assortment of birds make every kind of call and song – chirps, squawks, chortles, whistles, mews, croaks, cackles.
A crescent moon is following the sun. I realize with a start that I will still be out here when it is full.
Journal, June 15, 2002:
(Knight Creek, morning) Fire has been all over this country. Burned trunks are everywhere. Even solitary trees are burned, where the grass fires caught their lower limbs and climbed from there.
I am tented fortuitously beneath a tree which affords morning shade, so I am seduced into a lazy morning, enjoying the breeze which blows upslope in the morning. Reading, I hear a bark which comes from the sunny slope just downhill from me. The bark comes again and again – deep, piercing, resonant, cavernous. It is a cow elk. No, two, no, three. Hmm. I’m being scolded, or #2 and #3 are being warned, or I’m being sounded out. Mourning doves and other birds carry on. More barks. They want to get up canyon, but are nervous about me.
With that timeless patience only animals have, they move, slowly, sometimes one at a time, sometimes together, often just a step or two before stopping again, stare at me head on, ears flared. They are 200 feet away. They can’t smell me. For 15 minutes they slowly work their way 100 yards up canyon until they are directly across from me, but seem reluctant to go farther. Is it because their choices are to follow the edge of their slope, which would bring them closer to me, or to go around the corner, which would take them from my sight – but, more important to them, take me from their sight? The two followers turn and face down valley, and the leader follows suit. They move 50 feet in that direction, then stop. The leader turns back up valley. And there they stand, watching me write.
(Eureka Creek, midday) Fresh cowpies, a trashed out cabin, and rusted hulks of twisted metal scattered about lend a sordid atmosphere to this otherwise lovely drainage. That and the crows – which, although present in other places, seem to own this derelict spot. There are cottonwoods here. The air is scented with mock orange.
(Eureka Bar) My shade dried up at the cabin, so I headed downstream towards the Snake and a dip in the river. Trail down Eureka Creek was rife with poison ivy. In a couple of places it was so thick I had to abandon the trail and strike up the hillside for 100 yards or so. Even the breeze is warm here at Eureka Bar.
What have I learned so far? Never, ever walk around in boots without gaiters, because pulling barbed cheatgrass awns out of socks, boot linings, boot laces … is the worst. Don’t try to hike in the middle of the day. Intermittent streams on the map mean “probably dry.”
Threw on my boots without socks or gaiters and went to get water. Across the burning, barren desert of Eureka Bar, past the lonely signpost, past a solitary dark green plant wih pretty orange five-petaled blossoms so unreal-looking that I inspected it to make sure it wasn’t some kind of bizarre joke– an artifical flower someone planted here as a tribute to fecundity.
Dipped my water bottle eight times into Eureka Creek, dark water flowing over olive green fleshy polyp-like growths on the rocks. Filled my two-gallon bag, and the bottle itself. Gathered my stuff together, set up temporary camp in the paltry shade of a withered scrub oak to wait out the 100 degree heat of midday. Walked into the Snake, for a second time, wearing shirt, shorts, boots and gaiters.
(Toomey Gulch, evening) Hiked up the Imnaha River in the relative cool of evening to camp here at the mouth of Toomey Gulch. I feel enervated even though I spent most of the day resting in the shade. I knew when I decided to go along the Imnaha River that I might have a problem on my hands, because this trail has, in many places, been blasted out of sheer cliff. My choices, confronted with thickets of poison ivy, were to climb the cliff, swim in the river now running at full bore with snowmelt, or dive into the poison ivy. Dive I did.
Journal, June 16, 2002:
(Toomey Gulch, morning) Got up with a head full of dreams, packed, and left without eating, while sun had not yet torched the canyon walls. Sound of the Imnaha in both ears, left ear facing the river, right ear facing the cliff’s echo. Slow dance with poison ivy, turning hips to swing feet past these very healthy plants. Tunnels of Japanese knotweed.
(Cow Creek) Paul and I are headed high, where a cool breeze will be welcome. He found two unwelcome ticks on him a few minutes ago. Back at the Cow Creek bridge, where I rendezvoused with Paul, there was a fisherman, Dave. After 40 years of shoeing horses, he had to retire to save his back. Paul had brought my food resupply. Of course, I packed not enough of some stuff, and too much of others. As the Imnaha River at this point had flowed through miles of cattle-grazed ground and feedlots, I didn’t want to drink from it, so I traded Dave a fresh stick of butter for a couple of quarts of water. Everybody happy.
(Summit Ridge, mid-day) Paul and I are taking shelter from the sun under a lone pine just off Summit Ridge. He has no water left of his three quarts, I have but one. Damned little to last two guys five or six miles of walking to get to water. We can see the Wallowas, haze-dimmed, and the Findley Buttes sticking up like man-made domes off the Zumwalt Prairie. The weather is changing – a breeze, high overcast, cumulus to the south, a lightning strike five or so miles away. “Not a good place to be in a lightning storm,” says Paul. We don’t move, but do start telling lightning stories.
(Summit Ridge, evening) As the sky clouded up and we watched lightning to our south, we set out from our lone tree, walking the crest, Wallowas and Seven Devils both visible off in the haze, the wooded upper reaches of Cow Creek at our feet.
Came to this graceful saddle and couldn’t leave. First, Paul had to retrieve his walking stick, which he’d left up at the saddle crest. Then we almost set off down Little Deep Creek instead of the unnamed tributary to Deep Creek Ranch.
What we discovered by blithely heading down the trail we’d seen from the ridge was a nasty hunting camp with a corrugated tin shack labeled “Saloon,” some beat out horse areas, and a gigantic steel watering trough half full of water covered with a thick layer of green bubbly gelatinous slime. In the trough, its back floating just level with the slime, a path trailing behind it recording its struggle to swim out, was a dead mouse.
But fresh piped spring water fed the trough, and we were weary. So we stayed and it felt good. What a splendid choice we made to stay on Summit Ridge, the twin serrations of the divides between Cow, Lightning, and Horse creeks at our feet, patches of timber in the draws or scattered here and there on top, the rounded swells of grassy slopes and the sharp crenellations of the rims.
We cooked and ate, and I went up the hill to watch the band of orange beyond the drab clouds overhead. Found myself chuckling – always a good sign. It took four days for my head to get here, but I let out a “hay-o-ay” as I walked the broad, grassy ridgeline, grinning into an orange and magenta sunset. All at once, it was sprinkling on me, the sunset was shining warm gold, the nearly half moon was high in the west, pink phlox and purple lupine at my feet.
Journal, June 17, 2002:
(Deep Creek) Muted sunrise, cool enough to wear long johns. Leisurely breakfast with Paul, then we pack and move on to Fingerboard Saddle, where we part ways. Profuse wildflowers.
It seems like I may never get to Tryon Ranch, which will be the point at which I’m back on the bench. I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll be able to do the miles necessary to get to Freezeout by the 20th. I also don’t have any too much food.
Big ponderosa and lots of white fir in the West Fork of Deep Creek, plus one very curious doe. When we met, we spent some time shifting feet, cocking heads, changing stances, just checking each other out.
(Tryon Saddle) I’m at that stage in which a thousand thoughts fly through my head while I’m walking, and only a few are caught by my pencil when I stop to write.
Saw two cow elk up on the hillside below the saddle. They were chewing cud on the western slope, catching a little warmth on this cool day. While the first one and I saw each other at once, the second cow was a bit late, so I got to watch her proess of observation, recognition, and alarm. Farther up, very near the saddle, a blunt-tailed, uniformly taupe brown, shiny snake, wearing a finely woven diamond pattern, torpidly wove off the trail.
A few spatters of rain just before I reached the saddle. Uniformly low overcast. The crickets don’t care; they’re still chirping.
(Tryon Creek Ranch)
1 shake-sided, tin-roofed house, sloping downhill
1 front porch looking across the Snake River at Idaho
2 chrome-legged vinyl-upholstered kitchen chairs, ca. 1955
1 screen door repaired with split surveyor’s stakes
1 coarsely threaded pipe, 3″ long 2″ diameter
1 large ball peen hammer, which I could use but won’t carry
1 straw broom, well worn
12 Copenhagen chewing tobacco tin lids, slipped under shakes like medals
2 antlers and 3 bones wired to wall, commemorating Joseph High School ag class visits since 1998
1 electrical fuse box, lid open, containing no fuses and a bounty of mud wasp nests
5 rusty spikes, 6″ long
1 tin bucket in front yard, upside down
1 large steel keg horseshoe on wall
1 gas range
1 blue enamel teapot
1 baby bottle, nipple removed
1 blue glass jar
1 wood cookstove
1 back door, cut to match slant of house
2 wall-mounted gas lights
2 rectangular checkerboard tins with bucolic scenes painted on their bottoms, nailed to wall above sink
1 tin bucket on back walk, upside up
1 length of 1/2″ braided hemp rope
1 can Huberd’s Shoe Grease
1 writing desk
0 writing implements
1 rocking chair with orange vinyl faux flat reed weave upholstery
1 willow chair, which I could use but won’t carry
1 tin can, cover removed, with assortment of dried flowers, stalks, and bird feathers
1 bottle of Chateau St. Jean merlot, vintage1999, empty
Today I found myself talking to myself – a lot. I was saying out loud, “I’ve been talking to myself.” Ha! What is that? A Mobius statment, a meta-statement, a self-referential statement? Whatever the case, I think it means that therapy is happening. I should talk out loud more.
(Somers Creek, evening) Somers Ranch has no buildings, just an old corral. But it also has a bench covered in the same blue-green “sawgrass” as the bench at Tryon Creek. It’s a grass with a single long blade attached to the stem, with a definite nap – stroke towards the tip and it feels almost smooth; towards the base and it grabs at your fingers. I think it was planted. It’s very competitive – the fields contain very few other plants.
Hog Creek, Dry Creek, and the other defiles I crossed all conform (as does Somers Creek) to the same pattern as Cow Creek: a chasm-like gorge surrounded by gentler slopes. I’ve really enjoyed this section of the bench – just high enough to result in less poison ivy and a few more ponderosas and big cottonwoods. Tolerably cool today.
So I come back with my water, announce (out loud, of course) “tick check” – nothing. Take off right boot, then peel right sock, which causes a tick to flick into empty boot. Little SOB. I shake him out. Second one today. They’re much more debilitating mentally than snakes or poison ivy; ticks – or the possibility of their presence – cause one to constantly check for them, imagine them, feel them even when they’re not there. Ticks.
When I sat on the front porch at Tryon, I thought of the people who homesteaded in the canyon, and of the government coming in and saying, “We’re going to take this away from you.” I understand how those people could hate the government for chasing them down in this most out of the way place, and evicting them.
Journal, June 18, 2002:
(Robertson Ridge) Oh! Such bliss to get even a little sun. My feet have been swimming since 100 yards out of camp. The day looked non-commital after a night rain; a bit cool. I put on windpants to ward off chill and started out. Within a quarter mile the pants had gathered beads of moisture off the leaves of high chokecherry and wild rose wet from rain, and funneled the water straight into my socks. Off wind pants, wring socks out, on rain pants. My feet still ended up swimming because my non-waterproof gaiters acted that way. A cow elk on the next bulge watched me change, then disappeared. Two marsh hawks swooped close as I climbed.
Before I reached the top of the crest, it had started to rain, and the poncho came out. The rain came with some wind. Lightning and thunder, but off to the north, so I felt lucky. Then I realized the wind was blowing out of the north. The obscure gray curtain approached, and before long it was pouring. Rounding into McCarty Creek, I hear barking from up above. Six or seven elk, silhouetted against the cloud line, watch me like doyennes. They are not fumbling with rain gear.
It pours. I slog on until the trail peters out at a fence enclosure. I beat a tack downhill and find the trail again where it crosses the creek, but there is a lot of blowdown. I see, through the downpour, what looks like a trail up on the hillside, but no easy way to get to it through rose brambles. I find an unpleasant way, but the trail has turned into gumbo, a goo that sticks very well to my boot soles and creates a rocker action with every step.
The trail, churned by mules, horses, and elk, is full of hoof-sized puddles. On the steep parts (there are many of them) their slipping hooves have created smooth streaks which afford little purchase. In other places, their prints have built up little mounds, like the downhill side of stock ponds. These little mounds stick up above the surrounding country and are therefore drier and offer little steps to me.
Because the trail is so scarce – often no more than some recent elk tracks in a slight depression, or a strip of different colored grass, or a slightly more gravelly path through the bunchgrass – I need to be very circumspect about whether a trail is The Trail. I find myself using horse manure as a trail marker. An elk path probably wouldn’t have any horse manure on it.
I crested a rise, and it was pouring. Pouring. So I found myself the best tree I could get to, and set up a camp underneath, rigging my poncho on the limbs, mixing some hummus (first too thin, then too thick), and just taking a Rain Timeout.
Because I had earlier come to a marked junction that said, “Pittsburg thisaway, Cougar Creek thataway,” and because I hadn’t taken my map out since that would mean removing my poncho and getting the pack wet, and because I hadn’t studied the map well enough before leaving camp, I had misplaced Cougar Creek, and therefore myself. It wasn’t until I sat and took a good look at the map that I discovered where I was: Pleasant Valley.
(Kneeland Place, afternoon) Boy am I one happy guy. One, this, this is a beautiful place. Two, the sun is totally out. Three, the sun came out in style, as a massive cloud system got pushed by the wind over the Devils. It was a stupendous sight, this towering mass of gray and white casting a dark shadow over the Idaho side of the canyon, while this side, this place, was bathed in sunlight. I danced in excitement at the beauty and power of the moment.
The sun is still very high. I’m amazed, but these midsummer days are long! My pickled feet are airing. Everything – poncho, gaiters, rainpants, waterbag, map bag, food bag, boots – airing.
(Two Corral, evening) Tonight, for the first time on this hike, I will zip up my sleeping bag. Took a while to get my feet warm, as I sat around camp for a while with no socks at all, then put on the “dry” pair, then finally got in the bag. They’ll be fine, but I think it’s going to be cold tonight. Saw my breath a moment ago. There’s still a lot of blue sky, despite the fact that big, lumbering clouds continue to roll across the canyon from the west. One thing about being in a canyon – you can’t see the weather coming.
Two Corral country is wide open and lovely, with great views of the Snake and the Devils, but monster clouds have kept their grip – a head lock – on the summits all afternoon.
In order to get to The Troughs tomorrow, I’m going to have to do a big day.
Big cumulus turning gold over the Devils. Yup, tonight’s going to be a zip-em-up night. I’m nervous about tomorrow. If the weather’s poor, it’s going to be tough. I suupose I don’t ave to go all the way to The Troughs, but that will almost certainly make me late for my midafternoon date with the Shephards at Freezeout Saddle. I’ve boxed myself in with a social engagement.
I see what looks like fresh snow in a couple of places on the ridge above Temperance Creek. Earlier this evening a big old gray droopy cloud hung over the edge of the rim over there, wth four tendrils lying down in the draws. The next thing I knew, that cloud had blown apart into a few harmless looking white clouds, but left the four fingers behind. Now those are gone too, but some white remains.
While often hard to find, usually faint, and poorly signed, the trail is at least fairly consistent in this regard and so can be delightful for one skilled in and prepared to use map reading skills. There were several places where I simply tacked cross country until I picked up the trail again.
(Midnight, thereabouts) Music playing in my head. Lots of stars, with a very bright one directly overhead. Cassiopeia obvious, but can’t see either dipper, probably because large masses of void – clouds – still hover over the landscape.
Journal, June 19, 2002:
(Two Corral) Breakfast in bed, watching the eastern sky lighten. Down below I hear a chukar hen clucking – perhaps at her kids. Long short short.
Last night, when planning for today, I told myself, “If it’s unequivocally fine, wear the dry socks and dry the wet ones. If it looks like another wet one, wear the wet socks and keep the dry ones dry.” This morning I’m wearing dry socks.
Saw a spruce grouse. They like to fly up into the lower branches of a tree just downslope, so they end up a little above my eye level, in easy slingshot range. And yesterday topping a rise I spied two turkeys eluding me by traversing backslope just above, silhouetted against the sky. Their motion, heads bobbing forward and back, made them look like tiptoe sneak thieves.
The benches here, at 4000 feet, and the benches below at 2800 feet or so, are different in that these have topsoil. The trails are little enough traveled that the soil is usually still in place, which means when it gets wet the trail gets very muddy, with few rocks or roots to act as stops. So walking becomes quite awkward, my feet skating around.
Contouring into Temperance Creek, I spotted a group of perhaps ten cow elk with three calves. Of course, they spotted me first. They nearly always do.
Heard a pileated woodpecker up by Salt Creek. What a tropical sound! The elk bark, I decided, has a squeeze toy quality to it. I barked back at the last group, and it caused a flurry of barking and momentary consternation. I saw two put their heads together and they figured I was an imposter, because they set out forthwith.
Climbing out of Temperance Creek, I’m doing long, slow switchbacks. I hear a high-low elk call. Sure enough, on the next hill, across the draw to my right, are thirty elk. They still saw me first.
(Sluice Creek) Dadgummit! Jest when yuh think yer close enuff ta The Troughs ta snare ‘em with yer lasso, up comes Sluice Crick. Son of a gun!
(The Troughs) Chuckling away, camped way out on a promontory. Not unlike the last group of elk I saw – about ten of them, way out on the nose of a point south of Rattlesnake Creek.
Got stopped in my tracks by a chukar hen who first jumped out of the grass near the trail and presented herself. I said “OK” and stepped off to the left side of the trail, opposite the side she had come from, thinking to give her chicks (dutifully silent and hidden) wide berth. But NO! The hen had other ideas. She squawked and launched herself in my path. I looked at her; she looked at me. There I was, stopped dead in my tracks by the fierceness of mother love. I stepped back on the path, which is apparently what she wanted me to do, and as I walked past, she flew into a tree.
Arrived at The Troughs, saw two figures sitting out on the edge of the timber, snuck up to the cabin to retrieve Trail Magic left for me by Stanlynn, Kate, Sharon, and Mary: Biscotti with white chocolate chips, rum cake, apples, chocolate bars, a New York Times crossword puzzle with the hardest word missing, a page of riddles, and a note that they met a solo woman hiker on a 10-day loop, three days ahead of me.
Filled bag with water, walked over to meet Megan and Shayna and let them know I was not a threat. After dinner, brought them biscotti and we visited around the campfire for an hour or two. Now to bed.
Gibbous moon bright in a clear sky. “It’s a brae bricht minlicht nicht!”
Journal, June 20, 2012:
(Two Burnt Trees) Morning thoughts:
Be instructed by fear and anger,
Do not be ruled by them,
As you are instructed, the less you will be ruled,
As you are ruled, the less you will be instructed.
Slept in and didn’t get started until the sun was a full hand high. Three bucks regarded me as I stood in the hot, bright sun. Two fled, bounding onto the far slope where they cast long shadows. The third stood and gazed at me for the longest time, out of curiosity or stupidity I do not know. I conversed with him until he, too, turned and bounded away.
(Summit Ridge) After Two Burnt Trees, I continued along the bench toward Freezeout. No elk or deer – too much human traffic, I bet, as the trail bears witness. For the first time on this trip human prints are the dominant impression in the mud.
As I rounded the bend into Big Creek, I spotted another hiker. Lo! It’s Paul – a different Paul – with his 25-year-old donkey, Brown Donkey. BD is packed in traditional fashion with a wooden packsaddle and canvas-wrapped bundles or “mannies.” He’s carrying about 60 pounds. Paul and I sit in the shade and visit for the better part of an hour, with him doing most of the talking.
We talk of canyon country; of kitchen cabinets; of BD’s origins (Paul got him 17 years ago as part of the New Mexico burro give-away). Paul used to live in Clarkston, and has explored the roads that take one into Cottonwood Creek, Joseph Canyon, Heller Bar … We talk of hiking the length of rivers, then of canoeing and Alaska. Finally I get up and make ready to leave, for that is the only way I can break out of the monologue.
So we part. I’ve eaten and applied sunscreen while listening to Paul, and I continue into the roasted Saddle Creek drainage. It’s got very few live trees left standing. There are many spindles, blackened, amazingly upright as eaten away as they are by fire. It feels inhospitable and I feel badly for having lured Phil and Ann, my next resuppliers, to this scene of desolation for our rendezvous. It’s so harsh compared to some of the beautiful benches I’ve hiked.
I’m sitting in some precious shade, figuring out that I could meet P&A at Freezeout Saddle and we could hike up the ridge, when I hear voices. I’m too late, they’re already here. I pop up, say “Hello,” and surprise them. For an hour or two we sit in the shade, periodically moving to stay in the shadow of our lone ponderosa. What we do mostly is talk about birds, grasses, shrubs. I felt overwhelmed by the richness of their understanding, and amazed at the beauty of the birds brought to life with their binoculars.
P&A were gracious enough to agree to my Summit Ridge plan, despite having already descended 40 switchbacks into Saddle Creek, so we climbed (back, for them) to Freezeout Saddle, turned south, and made a dry camp on the ridge. Phil traipsed a ways to get water while Ann started dinner and I gathered wood and built a campfire.
Journal, June 21, 2002:
(Summit Ridge) Solstice. I’ve already slept in through a hand’s height of sun. Camped on top of Summit Ridge, where Phil, Ann and I enjoyed a breezy campfire last night with the Wallowas and sunset on one side and the Devils and moonrise on the other.
(Barton Heights, evening) After walking with something of a sense of loss or loneliness after my enjoyable time with P&A, I am now camped just below the last pinnacle at Barton Heights, where the wind blows steady through dark fir trees and I think I hear voices on the wind.
Earlier today, before we parted ways, P&A and I dayhiked out to Bear and Black mountains. It rained on us and lent a mystical air to the craggy peninsula. We saw below us three bighorn sheep. Then the sun came out and by the “exact” moment of the solstice – 1:49 pm by our reckoning – we lay on our backs in the sun, basking and soaking up primal solstice energy. We hunted around a bit and found Marks Cabin and a good spring, but all this in the middle of clearcut, burned, and grazed-out land. And the cows were right then and there, staring stupidly at us.
The country has really changed since Freezeout Saddle. Either because Summit Ridge is higher, or because there’s more precipitation here, the trees are much more heavily weighted to firs. No elk at all since The Troughs.
Prepared camp with a sense of foreboding. As I approached this place I imagined I would find here some holy grail, unravel some knot. But no – not yet. Now with darkness coming, I hear in the wind drums beating, drums so deep they vibrate my bones, but so deep they are as faint as the wind. And over the drums, I hear voices, chanting or wailing voices, Nez Perce voices in the wind. They once lived here and the salmon swam all the way up this river and out into the barrens of southern Idaho– and now, as I saw just before dark, looking down from this high place, there sits across the river a dam with cold bright lights and it makes a dead lake behind it.
Maybe this foreboding has to do with the fact that I have very little water here. Only half a quart to spend the night and in the morning climb back up to Summit Ridge.
Last night I dreamt I discovered a new room in my house. It was clean, bare, empty, not hidden at all, just unknown to me.
The wind, the wind.
Journal, June 22, 2002:
(Thirtytwo Point Creek) Feels good to be back on the bench, although the country here makes me feel more cautious. No less scarce in terms of water, with higher reaches of the canyon too steep to get up without major difficulty, high enough in elevation that open ponderosa forest is replaced by denser fir stands with a ninebark and ceanothus understory. Can’t see a trail, if there is any trail at all, across the draw, like I could at lower elevations. This trail is exceedingly faint.
Still, this is more enjoyable than the doghair thickets I bushwhacked through up above. It’s like a separate bench system from the one that terminates at Freezeout, and in between is high country that’s been roaded, logged, and grazed.
Got up this morning feeling the thirst. Mostly gray and overcast, a dull pink sunrise visible only through the cloud cover. Ate an apple, boiled my remaining two cups of water to make tea, and commenced walking back up to Summit Ridge. Parceled out tea meagerly. Started to get partly sunny as I approached the top. Tried Freezeout Creek first, found it running, drank a quart, carried a few back to my pack. Ate cold oatmeal.
Started walking the rim road. At Himmelwright Spring, which was marked by an old sign and a still-pungent cow skeleton, I found fields of huge, lush mule ears. Also found that Freezeout Creek, above where I drank from it, was scummy with cow pies.
So perhaps the “intestinal discomfort” I’ve had today is related to bad water.
I think the USFS should simply classify some of these trails as “primitive,” meaning they may be overgrown, may be difficult to distinguish from game trails, may be located differently than the map indicates, may have nearly indetectable tread, may lack signs, may fade in and out, may be obliterated by deadfall. This definition applies to many of the trails I have traveled over the past ten days. “May Be” trails.
(Buck Creek Divide) Whew! One tough climb up out of 32 Point. Feeling good – good and tired.
(Somewhere S of Squaw Creek, evening) Moon came up through a smattering of clouds. What a day! I put in 16 miles, the first three that dry, thirsty climb up from Barton Heights. I feel a little peaked, as if I got too much sun – but that doesn’t wash, because there wasn’t much sun today. I bet I’m running a temperature.
In the evening dusk at Barton Heights, I heard, then saw, a nighthawk hunting over the canyon rims, making an unmusical “breek” as it flew with a few long strokes alternating with several rapid beats. Actually, what I heard first was the air vibrating like a frog croak each time the nighthawk pulled up sharply from its frequent steep dives.
Also saw a big red-tailed hawk rise from the shady forest floor only 50 feet away as I passed by. And a chukar hen who did the “I’m wounded, chase me” routine to perfection.
Feeling ill, hit the hay.
Journal, June 23, 2002:
(Spring Creek) Huddled in the lee of a giant ponderosa, one of a splendid grove of thirty or so. Feel better today. No fever. A robin and another nighthawk woke me before sunrise with their calls. The day started out promising, but has become gray and spitting rain now and then.
Crossed paths with a group of cows that panicked, knocked down a fence, and trailed out in front of me. For a while I thought they would be coming with me all the way up to Summit Ridge and the 39 Road. I finally was able to skirt them when the country opened up. One old mottled cow with her calf brought up the rear, the only one not seeming panicked.
This grove of ponderosas is quite lovely, roughly circular in shape, and not at all trashed out.
(Home, evening) Walked bare chested, with poncho over my shoulders like a cape, through occasional rain showers, mostly clearing. Found myself on top of a hill looking at McGraw Creek and the big climb up its south fork.
Moseyed on down to the McGraw cabin, dilapidated and set deep in the creek bottom among locust trees. The rock in this area is interesting: grey, convoluted, pockmarked, twisted.
Climbed up out of the creek bottom, going slow, getting rained and sunned on at once, setting goals of only a few hundred feet at a time. Had to do just a little bit of nasty brush-busting to gain the summit, where I found the going surprisingly easy – woods were quite open. Found some old logging roads which put me right at the junction of the 39 Road and McGraw Lookout Road.
The 39 Road doesn’t have much traffic this time of year, so I started walking in the heat toward Ollokot Campground, sticking my thumb out at the occasional vehicle. Two miles later, a red Nissan stops. In the driver’s seat is my neighbor Chuck. And in the back is a cooler, and in the cooler is a beer, which goes down like water as he drives me to my front door.