Bird's eye view of a real place and a fictional story

In creating fiction a writer must know his or her setting, and I recently had the fortune to be invited for a flight in a small fixed wing airplane to tour the setting where my made up drama is unfolding.

Spanning three states, several mountain ranges and three well-known river systems, the Owyhee Plateau is big country, and stereotypically western country where ranches and old mining towns are scattered beneath big sweeps of denim-blue sky. The snows of the area’s high desert mountains have carved great gashes in the surrounding flat land, and oceans of sagebrush sweep as far as any person can see. With names like Bruneau, Jarbidge, Owyhee, Sheep Creek and Grasmere, it is a place very much captured in time. In many ways, from culture to politics to ecology, it’s a place that embodies the West.

And it is one of two central backdrops where my adventure is unfolding, a plot that brings together cowboys, forest rangers, Indians, Basque sheep herders and a long-unsolved mystery. Watch for this as-yet untitled novel in the coming year. The following excerpted scene takes place in Sheep Creek, pictured in the inset photo.

After about two miles traveling the rim of Mary’s Creek, Cade stopped to sip some water and drink in the view. He pulled a water bottle from his pack and sat on a flat slab of basalt. The canyon had grown from a small creek bed in a shallow valley into a deep crevice topped with hundred-foot cliff walls. It looked to be just under a thousand feet deep, and beyond to the south the Jarbidge Mountains jutted from the horizon. Jarbidge Peak was most prominent from Cade’s perch on the canyon rim, but behind it he knew were Mary’s River Peak, Cougar Peak and Matterhorn, the precipice where Miles Fourney left his last known mark on the world. The mountains were far enough away that they didn’t dominate the view. In fact, the only thing that dominated Cade’s visual sphere was the sky, which spanned from one horizon to the other. The mountains’ solid presence was a steadying force for Cade, but it was also a reminder of why he was there. He returned the water bottle to his pack and resumed his march as the sun slipped beneath the hills behind him. In another hour the sky would be black, and he’d need to be at Sheep Creek by then. He could navigate by headlamp if he needed to, but working into new country under artificial light was an adventure he hoped to avoid. He quickened his steps and relished the advancing cool of twilight.

When he arrived at a cliff high above the confluence of Mary’s Creek and Sheep Creek the sky had faded into purple-black, but the land was still cast in soft shades of gray. He gazed down a long slope of sagebrush to a dry delta of sand among willows at the confluence of the two creeks. As if on cue, he saw the flash of a match or camp stove flicker in the bushes and knew he had arrived at the right place. He located a notch in the canyon’s upper cliff and descended toward the willows where he began to make out a small, tidy camp. The spark he’d seen from the canyon rim was gone, and the willows were full of ink. He slowed and probed the space for watchful eyes, the sound of his heartbeat rising in the stillness.

“Hold it.” A feminine voice came from the willows.

Cade stopped and trained his eyes in the direction of the voice. Slender silhouettes of willow stems were all he could make out among the shadows.

“Are you Fey?” he called. “If I didn’t mess up earlier, I think you’re expecting me. I’m Cade, Cade Hale.”

Cade stood still for a little more than a minute and wondered if his hurried afternoon had produced a wrong turn somewhere. Then there was a rustling of brush, and a woman emerged with a rifle in her hands, its stock loose in her grip, its barrel drooping toward the sand.

“You never know when you’re this far out,” she said. “It’s late. Go set up yer camp while there’s still some light. Then we’ll get to talkin’.”

Basque woman's immigration offers peek into settling the West

Luciana Aboitiz Garatea is a 105-year-old woman whose story is emblematic of a generation of Americans whose paths converged at Ellis Island before influencing the cultural landscape of the Rocky Mountain West.

A Basque woman born in Lekeitio, Bizkaia, on March 3, 1905, Aboitiz Garatea lived in the Basque country until the age of 15. Like thousands of Basques who left the traditions and familiarity of their homeland, Aboitiz Garatea moved to the unfurling American West, where ranching, farming and mining were prying open a once-imposing frontier.

Aboitiz Garatea arrived in Idaho at 8 p.m. on September 6, 1920, and soon after began cleaning floors and ironing clothes at her aunt’s Star Boarding House. The story of her immigration to Idaho is memorialized as a central part of an exhibit called “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Basques.”

On display at Ellis Island from February through April 2010, the exhibit was returned to the Basque Museum & Cultural Center in Boise this summer for the once-every-five-years international Basque festival, Jaialdi, which concludes this week. The exhibit will become the museum’s featured display this September when it replaces an existing display on Basque whaling.

Between 1892 and 1924, an estimated 25 million immigrants passed through the Port of New York at Ellis Island, according to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. Many were the ancestors of today’s vibrant United States-based Basque community. Many were West-bound Basques.

“We hope that visitors will leave with the knowledge that the Basques are the oldest people on the Iberian Peninsula, that their language is unique in the world and that the Basque Country has maintained its history, but is also a very modern, progressive society,” said Diana Echeverria, a member of the board of directors of the Basque Museum, in an interview for eitb.com.

In her “Hidden in Plain Sight” exhibit video, Abotiz Garatea recalled with bright eyes and tack-sharp memory that she traveled first to Bilboa near the Bay of Biscay, then on to a port, where she waited for three days to complete paperwork before boarding a small ship, with good food, called The Gothland.

Abotiz Garatea spent less than a week traveling safe seas aboard The Gothland and arrived at Ellis Island, where she was surprised by the scale of the American immigration machine. “None of us had ever seen anything like it,” she said in the video. That was the first of 11 days during which they slept on stacked bunk beds in dorms “like chicken coops” and ate rationed food.

“Everybody was mixed together and scared, but they were just like we were. It was mandatory to enter through there (Ellis Island). We never left each others’ side, not ever.”

She said they were fed well and did not encounter other Basques. “We never even saw another Basque person. There were people from every nation,” she said. After 11 days of sleeping in “chicken coops” Aboitiz Garatea was processed and left New York via train for Boise.

“It took four more days,” she said. There was a small sink where they splashed water in their faces “like cats do” to bathe. And, for four days, they didn’t change clothes

“We slept. We slept … Four days. I spent four days like that. It had been one full month since I left to reach Boise. One month. Yea, and me … who had never left home before. It was tough.”

Upon arriving at her aunt’s house in Boise, Aboitiz Garatea remembers a Basque dinner followed the next morning by eggs and chorizos. “I was happy,” she laughed. “Incredibly happy.”

A little more than two years later, according to a printed display, Aboitiz Garatea married Esteban Garatea, and the couple gave birth to four children. Esteban Garatea worked in a sawmill until his untimely death, and Aboitiz Garatea raised her four children in Emmett, Idaho.

It wasn’t until 25 years later that Aboitiz Garatea achieved one of her proudest accomplishments, when she passed her tests for United States citizenship. She later bought the Plaza Hotel in Burns, Oregon, but more recently sold the hotel and returned to Boise.

“Oh, yes, for me it’s been the best,” she said of her immigration from the Basque Country to Idaho. “My aunt and I were the only ones to come from our family. My aunt made it to 100 and two months. Me, I’m 105. From the same family. And we were the only ones to come here from our family. America, America has been so good to me.”

Asked why she thinks she’s lived to a healthy 105, she was quick to answer: “I have a happy heart,” she said. “I am not sad.”

(c) Greg Stahl
_____________

While at Ellis Island the National Park Service estimates that “Hidden in Plain Sight” brought the story of Basque culture in the United States to more than 300,000 people. For  information on viewing the exhibit in Boise visit the Basque Museum & Cultural Center.

Lookout: a season on top of the world

It was the summer of 1961, and Ron Dean was the sole human occupant of a postage-stamp-size mountaintop.

His jaw bearded, his clothes soiled, Dean learned to keep the previous night’s popcorn in his morning pockets as he went about the duties of maintaining a Forest Service fire lookout. Three times a week he’d walk down to a spring and fill a five-gallon bucket full of water, and on the way golden cress squirrels would keep him company. Squirrels, he learned, like popcorn.

“I always kept my pockets full of popcorn,” Dean remembered of his college-age summer job. “I ended up … by the end of the season I had seven or eight squirrels. I could go off and say: ‘OK, I have some popcorn,’ and they’d come up from all angles.”

He eventually came to name the little rodents. Jim. Daisy. Tom. John. To the untrained eye a squirrel is a squirrel. For a man living atop 9,988-foot Lookout Mountain at the northern edge of the White Cloud Mountains from June 28 to September 13, their subtle differences in appearance and personality became plain.

“I always felt I had company, but it was lonely,” he said. “It did lack people.” Company came in the form of late-night radio traffic with men and women at the summits of other Idaho lookouts, but the mountaintop’s wild creatures, more than anything, were Dean’s companions. Especially the squirrels.

“They got so they would wake me up every morning at six o’clock. They’d just roam around the lookout until I got a pancake or something fixed up. Then I’d let them out the door.”

Dean arrived at the summit of Lookout Mountain with two months of supplies. There was grease for cooking, popcorn for popping and rainwater for bathing. The lookout had hardwood floors and an iron wood-burning stove. A stack of western novels awaited, and not a word remained unread.

From day to day, not much happened atop Lookout Mountain in the summer of ’61. Dean learned to use the Osborne Fire Finder to precisely describe a fire’s location, but only once did he call a fire in. During hot afternoons when fires were most likely to ignite he’d walk the lookout’s catwalk every 15 minutes and scan the nearby White Cloud, Sawtooth and Salmon River mountains for a solitary plume of smoke, the earliest sign of an impending conflagration. That summer there were usually none. The real adventures came from dealing with some of Mother Nature’s more obscure and colorful inventions.

“One morning my lookout started changing colors, and you couldn’t tell that my lookout had windows or was a white color,” he said. Upon further inspection, he discovered the little structure was pulsing from the rust-red glow of a million little flying carpenter ants that were stopping over during a migration. “My lookout was a stopping point. There wasn’t a fourth of an inch on that lookout you could see.”

Another morning a few monarch butterflies drifted on light winds from the valley and across the pale-orange light of the lookout at sunrise. By evening the butterflies numbered in the hundreds, and for two days monarch butterflies drifted past the lookout’s wavy glass windowpanes.

These were experiences that charged the young man’s soul, almost as much as the night lightning struck the ground wire atop the lookout.

“The concussion of that lightning strike literally threw me across the lookout and knocked me out,” Dean said. “I knew I’d been hit, and so I walked outside to see what had happened, and the top of my flagpole—the brass on it was melted, and it was burning on top. Every corner of my lookout was just sparking.”

It wasn’t always life and death atop Lookout Mountain. There were dramatic sunrises and theatrical sunsets. There were big buckets of collected rainwater Dean heated for baths. There was a .22 caliber rifle he used to shoot grouse for dinner. There were black bears and occasional cougars. There was the autumn rutt, when bull elk began to bugle and clack horns in the woods below.

“I chose that lookout job for more than one reason,” he said. “I hadn’t spent much time in Idaho, and I was very much intrigued by the high mountain country.”

On September 13, with seven inches of freshly fallen snow icing the rocky summit of Lookout Mountain, Dean loaded his pack, sealed the lookout’s windows and trudged back into the folded valleys of central Idaho.

“Oh, I was so glad to be back in civilization, but I hadn’t been back a week, and I was thinking about getting the job again the next year,” he said.

© Greg Stahl

_____________

The fire lookout at Lookout Mountain was decommissioned a few decades ago, but only a few years ago it was still open to visitors. A week after the above photos were shot I learned the lookout had been closed to the public. That was July 4, 2006. This year, however, the lookout underwent repairs and a new paint job and may be reopened. Call the Sawtooth National Recreation Area for details. For those interested, the summit of Lookout Mountain is a relatively short and mildly arduous five-mile hike from the Rough Creek Trailhead in the Salmon River corridor.

Gov. Andrus: 'As things change you've got to change with them'

“I’m a conservationist, and I acted on my belief that Idaho and Alaska offer the last, best chance to keep a chunk of the natural world intact. America’s frontiers aren’t always for the taming.” -Cecil D. Andrus [1]

Dawn is breaking on December 19, 2005, and I’m careening along a desolate strip of snow-swept highway on Southern Idaho’s Camas Prairie. The first hint of impending day has cracked the eastern horizon in the rear-view mirror as my headlights chase the ebbing night.

After passing through the farm town of Fairfield the towering ramparts of the Soldier Mountains become visible in the waxing pink of sunrise to the north. Thin blades of grass protrude from freshly fallen snow.

I consider how unique my early-morning journey to Boise must be to Western states, and to Idaho in particular. My experience isn’t vast, but I’m certain it shouldn’t be this easy for a practically unheard of reporter from a weekly newspaper to achieve an audience with a four-time Governor and former Secretary of the Interior. But Cecil Andrus was easily amenable when I talked briefly with him on the telephone two weeks ago.

“Keep in mind when you’re talking about this what Will Rogers said about the land,” Andrus had said. “They just aint making it anymore.”

Not making it anymore. Even so, the unfolding sweep of the Camas Prairie, like the preponderance of the state, seems vast and undeveloped. The prairie, named for camas roots harvested by the Bannock Indians, is largely privately owned, but it is big, wide-open country. To the untrained eye it seems there’s plenty of land to go around.

Snowy roads slow my progress, and I arrive late in the Treasure Valley, where Boise is coddled by tumbling foothills to the north and east. I find Andrus in his office at a political and financial consulting firm not far from the State Capitol where he spent most of his political career. He asks a receptionist to fetch me a cup of coffee, which she brings in a delicate-looking china cup on a saucer.

The office is tidy, Andrus’ appearance pressed, but his manicured tailoring belies his humble beginning in Idaho politics. “Cece,” as he’s known in the state, is a North Idaho timber man from Clearwater County and describes himself with typical self-deprecating humor as a “political accident.” But Andrus is Idaho’s only four-term governor, and his four years as Secretary of the Interior also make him the first Idahoan to serve in a presidential cabinet. He began his political career in 1960 when, at the age of 29, he became the youngest man ever elected to the Idaho State Senate. He was elected Governor in 1970 and was appointed to President Jimmy Carter’s cabinet in 1976. He founded and directs the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. The Andrus Center has organized major conferences on Western public lands and resource issues, and those conferences are where I first got a glimpse of the bald-headed man with whom I am now sitting eye to eye.

As the morning stretches Governor Andrus discusses the value of the wilder side of Idaho to its people and economy. He says the acreage of Congressionally designated wilderness areas and national parks more than doubled during his tenure as Secretary of the Interior. He talks about how his efforts with Senator James McClure to designate wilderness throughout Idaho—including the Boulder and White Cloud Mountains—in the mid-1980s stalled and how they’d had their “heads kicked off.” He says he supports Congressman Mike Simpson’s efforts to strike a chord of compromise in those mountains now.

Andrus is an avid angler and hunter and has a long history wheeling and dealing when it comes to public land and natural resources. The wild character of Idaho, he says, is something the state’s residents should treasure. It’s something the state can use to market itself. It’s one of the fundamental reasons why people who come to Idaho find it difficult to leave.

Wilderness “is a very important part of new industries and old industries,” he says. “We sell the image of Idaho, enjoy the great outdoors. That’s selling the wilderness concept, which creates industry. The New has overcome the Old, but there’s still room for both. That’s why it’s very important that we maintain the livestock industry, the agriculture industries, so that we have the stimulation of the economy so that people have jobs they can fill.”

Idaho is a state in a state of metamorphosis. Computer giants Micron and Hewlet Packard are headquartered in Boise. The resort communities of Sun Valley, McCall and Coer d’Alene are increasingly targeted by retiring corporate success stories from somewhere else. I know from living here, but I’ve read it in Andrus’ memoir as well:

“For example, the Idaho mining industry lost two thousand jobs between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. In the same period, however, the state gained eight thousand high-technology jobs . . . I watched from the capitol as the state grew by 15 percent in 1994, my last year as governor. During out-of-state jaunts during my first term as governor, I would be asked, ‘What’s the capital of Idaho? Des Moines?’ That mistake wasn’t being made in the 1990s. Where are these people arriving from? My daughter Tracy ran for mayor of Boise a couple of years back, and found California and New York to be the leading contributors of new Idahoans. I wasn’t surprised. Technology encourages them to come. The quality of life makes it impossible for them to leave.” [2]

A significant part of this quality of life is because Idaho is the wildest of the Lower 48.

Andrus says the wilderness bill of yesteryear may be turning into something of an antique. As successful efforts in Nevada and Oregon illustrate, the unilateral drawing of lines on maps to resolve significant wilderness disputes may no longer be a viable method of resolution to public land disputes. Congressman Simpson’s recent effort in particular is being used to legislate solutions to an array of political and social conundrums. In a sense, the legislation is being used to bridge the New West and Old West, to build consensus among people with wildly disparate points of view.

“In 1964 we were riding saddle horses, and now they’re riding snowmobiles and motorcycles,” Andrus says. “There are a whole lot of constituencies for the outdoors, and some of them leave tracks, and some of them don’t. I think the tenacity of both sides has increased over the years to where Simpson had no choice. He had to give Custer County and the boys over there something. He had to give the off-road vehicle people something. He made it possible to create a cohesive group that will make the bill passable.”

As recreational use of the mountains increases Andrus believes the wilderness characteristics of wild places will increasingly be eroded. New trails will be pioneered. Existing trails will be used by people on motorcycles and four-wheelers. Timber companies may achieve new toeholds in previously unlogged areas.

“If it isn’t resolved now I don’t think it ever will be,” he says.

In the case of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains Andrus says the time is now. He agrees that Congressman Simpson’s effort, called the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, is the last, best chance for wilderness protection for the rugged mountains that helped effect his political career.

“If it’s not resolved now it will continue to be adversely impacted by other uses that destroy the environmental qualities that contribute to a wilderness area,” he says. “The Congressman is playing his environmental card, and he’s playing it very well.”

And Andrus should know. Some thirty years ago he became the first Idaho Governor to be elected on an environmental platform, and some twenty years ago his co-authored effort to designate wilderness throughout Idaho, including the Boulder and White Cloud mountains, was thwarted before it got off the ground.

“It was Comp White Sr. who said, ‘You’ve got to go from where you’re at,’” Andrus says. “And that’s where we’re at. As things change you’ve got to change with them.”

© Greg Stahl

[1] Andrus, Cecil D. and Connelly, Joel. “Politics Western Style.” Sasquatch Books, 1998. P. 2.
[2] Id. Pp. 172-173.

* Governor Andrus granted this interview, printed here in part, to contribute to the research for a thus-far unpublished manuscript on the evolving politics of natural resources management in the West.

Rion Chama serves up wilderness New Mexico style

Silence hovers like rainforest humidity over the lower Rio Chama in the sandstone desert of northwest New Mexico. The river slows, its barely-audible currents lapping at shoreline grasses; and thousand-foot maroon cliffs take form against an impossibly blue sky.

The quiet of the lower Chama is both distant and distinct, with a quality easy to notice and impossible to define. For the couple miles the river lazily works past the Monastery of Christ in the Desert there’s a presence to this place that seems more than the sum of its parts.

Perhaps it’s the power of suggestion because the monastery certainly begs some kind of reverence, but even pious scholars who have visited Christ in the Desert acknowledge it is in large part the wild that fills their spiritual wells.

“This is one of the places where I go to pray, rest, walk, swim in the Rio Chama, ride horses, and reclaim my inner peace,” writes John Dear SJ in the National Catholic Reporter. [1] “The landscape never fails to astonish me. The red and yellow cliffs, the cottonwoods, the sagebrush, the stern mountains, the wandering hawks, the bright sun, the pressing silence and expansive solitude.”

Christ in the Desert is more than any one of these things; it is all of them. It is an outpost on the edge of the wild where, in the words of monk and author Tomas Merton, it “bears witness to the most fundamental and most permanent truths of life.” [2]

*        *        *        *

There’s a New Mexico state flag tattooed on Judd Mcroberts’ right shoulder. The red sun at the flag’s center, he explains, is from an ancient native people called the Zia. The rays emanating in four directions symbolize the seasons and the cycles of day and night, the four directions and, literally, the circular nature of life itself. [3]

We have only just met, but Mcroberts, an Albuquerque native, and I are bumping along a dirt road northwest of Española, New Mexico. We’re pulling away from a dirt parking lot called Big Eddy near the Rio Chama’s lower meanders and are returning the 60 or so highway miles to the ramparts of El Vado Dam, which manages the Rio Chama’s spring snowmelt throughout the northern New Mexico summer. For the next three days we will float this gentle desert river back to Big Eddy, where our group of mostly Durango, Colorado, boaters has left a few cars.

As our Chevy Blazer crawls out of Chavez Canyon, the second of two canyons we will float, the rust-colored cliff wall of Mesa de Los Viejos emerges, and the perfect blue of the New Mexico sky seems both liberating and suffocating — too perfect to be true but omnipresent and defiant at the same time. The day is still, the sagebrush green, wildflowers glowing from the predictable afternoon showers of the August monsoons.

“What do you think of New Mexico?” Mcroberts asks rhetorically while I nod my enthusiasm. “Just down the road, in Abiquiu, is where Georgia O’Keeffe did a lot of her painting. And past Abiquiu is Española, the Low Rider Capital of the World.” [4]

New Mexico is  rugged and beautiful, a state with cultural diversity to match its varying topography. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains give way to wind-swept deserts, and the state’s Native American cultures mingle with descendants from the area’s early Spanish occupation. New Mexico, Mcroberts proudly points out, is the United States’ oldest capital, and Santa Fe is its oldest capital city.

New Mexico is not renowned for its whitewater, but it boasts several diverse standouts. And with 1,500-foot canyon walls, dense stands of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, and class II rapids, the Rio Chama provides one of the best combinations of scenery, wilderness and easy multiple-day boating anywhere in the United States.

*        *        *        *

The Rio Chama is born high on the Continental Divide in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, but it matures as it slices into the colorful sedimentary layers of the Colorado Plateau in northwest New Mexico. It is the largest tributary of the Rio Grande in New Mexico and one of the only major rivers that’s both east of the Continental Divide and part of the Colorado Plateau, a huge geologic foundation that defines a region from Grand Junction, Colorado, to the Grand Canyon.

Below El Vado Dam, where the Rio Chama cuts through cliffs banded with yellow entrada sandstone and the orange-stains of the chinle formation, Congress has taken notice of the Chama’s outstanding beauty. The 50,300-acre Rio Chama Wilderness Area was designated in 1978, and in 1988 a 24.6-mile section upstream of Christ in the Desert monastery was protected as a Wild & Scenic river. [5]

Though much of the land bordering the Rio Chama is administered by the Santa Fe and Carson national forests, the Taos Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management regulates the 31-mile stretch of the Rio Chama from El Vado to the takeout at Big Eddy. The river’s 30 miles could probably be floated in a day, but that would miss the point. Floating the Rio Chama is about slowing down and tuning in to rhythmseasy to miss in a technologically-dependant age.

To protect the river and provide floaters more elbow room, the BLM began limiting the number of parties allowed to launch on the Rio Chama in 1990. Applications for the resulting lottery are due at the Taos Field Office of the BLM by January 31.

*        *        *        *

Near the end of his life Thomas Merton visited Christ in the Desert on the banks of the Rio Chama two times. For Merton, “perhaps the greatest Christian mystic of the 20th century,” [6] the monastery and the Chama were one and the same, and it was one of the featured settings in his book, Woods, Shore Desert.

“While not blindly rejecting and negating the modern world, the monastery nevertheless retains a certain critical distance and perspective which are absolutely necessary as mass society becomes at once more totally organized and more mindlessly violent,” Merton wrote in May 1968 during his first visit to the Rio Chama.

According to Joel Weishaus, who edited Woods, Shore, Desert in Santa Fe, Merton’s two short stays at Christ in the Desert became part of the monastery’s (and canyon’s) legend and myth. Some monks apparently followed in Merton’s isolationist footsteps, and Weishaus wrote that his spirit came to infuse the landscape.

Weishaus, too, was smitten: “During my short stay there, I was bitten by a red ant. In retrospect at least, it was an exquisite pain, a love bite from indigenous inhabitants of that harsh, uncompromising, yet sacred, land.” [7]

  1. Dear, John. “Christ in the desert.” National Catholic Reporter. June 24, 2008.
  2. Weishaus, Joel. “Remembering Thomas Merton’s Woods, Shore, Desert.” Center for Digital Discourse and Culture. Virginia Tech. 2003.
  3. 50states.com
  4. Espanola Online
  5. Santa Fe National Forest
  6. Weishaus, Joel. “Remembering Thomas Merton’s Woods, Shore, Desert.” Center for Digital Discourse and Culture. Virginia Tech. 2003.
  7. Id.

For more reading on northern New Mexico, read this heartbreaking story, Land of Disenchantment, in High Country News. For more on the Monastery at Christ in the Desert, go to the monastery’s website at http://christdesert.org/.

Where salmon were

Gary Lane was wearing a bandanna over his bald head, and shades concealed his eyes. The Salmon River was pumping behind his back, where the swirl of the big eddy at Spring Bar upstream of the town of Riggins, Idaho, was swollen with the river’s 70,000 cubic feet per second currents.

“Welcome to the tenth annual salmon ceremony,” he announced to sixteen people gathered on the river’s sandy shore. “After the government dam removal hearings back in the early 2000s, a few of us were coming back from the meetings in Lewiston, and we decided we needed to do more to welcome the salmon home.”

Lane’s wooden dory was beached nearby. It had antlers fixed with dangling feathers that blew in the breeze above the boat’s stern. The boat bore the name of Lane’s fishing and whitewater rafting company: Wapiti, a Shawnee term that means white. It refers to the pale rump and tail of the American elk. Elk, he said, is a fitting symbol of the wild, and Lane has reverence for all things wild.

“It’s a magnificent animal. When you see a big old grand bull up close when he’s bugling, there’s not much else in nature that’s as thrilling except maybe a wolf howl or a caribou migration.”

Lane is a believer. He believes in the power of nature, that we’re all part of a greater natural whole. He believes in balance and sustainability over use, that the Earth will show people the power within themselves if they pause long enough to hear. But we’ve lost our way, he says, in a day and age of consumerism and instant gratification, and the decline of the Pacific Northwest’s once-abundant wild salmon is as strong an indication as any.

Lane was accompanied that drizzly May afternoon by Nez Perce tribal elder Horace Axtell who has helped conduct annual spring spiritual ceremonies on the Salmon River since 2000, when the federal government held public hearings about the prospect of tearing four dams out of the Snake River in Washington state to make way for migrating salmon. The Nez Perce, who famously befriended Lewis and Clark in 1805, and were later chased across the West by the Army (“I will fight no more forever,” Chief Joseph said in surrender, in 1877), are regional leaders in the effort to restore Idaho’s endangered wild salmon.

“We do this,” Lane said, “to let the salmon know that we appreciate their gift and to welcome them home.”

Spring Bar is about ten miles upstream of Riggins, a small western town where a significant portion of the local economy is based on recreational floating and sport fishing. An old mining town that succumbed to the industry’s boom-and-bust cycles, Riggins is at the confluence of the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers. In local parlance they’re simply called Big River and Little River, and they’re the beating heart of the town’s economy.

The people of Riggins know this, and they know salmon fishing is one of the chief reasons people travel there and spend money with any regularity. In 2001, an above average year for returns of hatchery-raised salmon and steelhead, $10.1 million was funneled through this town of 424 people, according to a study by a Boise economist. But that was one of the better years anybody can remember and was a small indication of what would be possible if the four dams on the lower Snake River were removed. The Salmon River, one of the Snake’s largest tributaries, was once the highway for untold millions of migrating salmon and steelhead, but it’s undergone a dramatic transformation. That transformation has happened since construction of the four dams 100 miles downstream.

“I wish I could be more optimistic, but I think that’s part of the problem,” Lane said. “We have a conspiracy of optimism. We think we’re going to pull a magic rabbit out of the hat and figure it out with all our high technology. When you go to the city and you see all the people—telephones everywhere. They think they’re connected, but what are they connected to? They’re connected to another telephone somewhere, and the voice they hear on the other end, it’s not like you and me talking. You can smell each other, you can see the nuances in the facial expressions and things. That’s a connection. With all the technology—I guess it’s a nature deficit disorder.”

Lane has a vested interest in salmon and steelhead recovery; his livelihood depends on it. And while he appreciates the hatcheries that have helped sustain fishing opportunities in Riggins, what he wants are self-sustaining runs of wild fish. He wants natural systems to work on their own. He wants to do the right thing, to work toward harmony and sustainability over endless consumption. In riggings, that means removal of the four lower Snake River dams.

“I believe that in the long run, we’re going to have to change our world-view. We have the industrial world view and the natural economy.  One is fueled by fossil fuels and the accumulation of capital, and the other driven by the sun and the need to reproduce. One does everything with nature. The other gobbles it up to get what we think we need. Our whole country was founded on manifest destiny. God gave us the right to take it. We do the same thing with nature today. We really haven’t learned that much.”

As a kid growing up in Eugene and Portland on the east side of the Cascades Lane watched cowboy and Indian shows on his parents’ black and white TV. While his friends sympathized with the white-hatted cowboys, Lane found himself dreaming about what it would be like to wear deer skin or carry a bow and arrow. “Maybe it was the feathers and buckskin and natural stuff,” he said. “I was just inclined toward nature, I guess.”

If the seed for his affinity toward native cultures was planted as a boy, it was nurtured to maturity when he began working on rivers as a guide. His curiosity grew, and he immersed himself in the stories of the people who lived in Idaho’s canyons before Europeans arrived.

“The more I learned about their philosophy and their world view, it just made more sense,” he said. More than most people with white skin, Lane embraced Native American perspectives. He moved into a teepee that remained his home for thirty years. He often wears a loin cloth. He’s been known to don a coyote-skin headdress. But he is also the product of his upbringing. He graduated from Oregon State with a degree in fisheries biology and knows what he’s talking about when he’s talking about fish.

There are four species of salmon native to Idaho. Sockeye salmon were listed as endangered in 1991, chinook salmon in 1992 and steelhead in 1997. Coho salmon went extinct sometime in the 1980s, though nobody knows for sure when that actually happened. The last coho known to swim into Idaho passed lower Granite Dam, the most upstream of the dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, in 1986. Despite more than twenty years of federal salmon recovery efforts, lawsuits and grassroots campaigns geared toward raising awareness and removing unnecessary dams, the status quo remains. Idaho’s salmon are still very endangered.

This has economic ramifications for rural towns like Riggins, but it also affects the function of the raw ecosystem. For thousands of years, salmon have returned to Idaho with their bodies brim-full of nutrients gathered in the Ocean. After spawning, they die, rot and feed plants and animals nearby. For the region’s Native Americans, a cultural and spiritual well has been drastically diminished.

“Salmon are sacred,” said the late Elmer Crow, another member of the Nez Perce Tribe who worked as one of the tribe’s fisheries biologists. “To us, salmon pretty much is sacred because when everything was being created, when people was created, there was nothing to eat. Salmon is one of the ones who volunteered: ‘I will sacrifice myself so these people can be fed.’ The salmon has two purposes in life: one is to reproduce; one is to feed the people.”

Crow remembered the days of his childhood, when he watched his father fish the waters of Bear Valley and the Yankee Fork, both high-mountain streams, more than 900 miles from the wide, blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.

“There was salmon all over the place,” he said. “They were huge fish. Oh, how do you describe it?”

He paused.

“Black. You see a sandy bottom. You know it’s all sand, and when you walk up on it, you see very few patches of sand because there are so many salmon in there.”

On the bank of the Salmon River at Spring Bar there wasn’t a salmon to be seen. Even so, Lane climbed into his dory while Axtel, whose aging body wasn’t fit for water-borne adventure anymore, sat in a chair near the river’s edge. Lane rowed into the eddy with a string of rafts and dories following, and pulled on his ores, the muscles of his sinewy shoulders working the boat one smooth stroke at a time into the river’s surging current.

Powerful beats from Axtel’s drum drifted across the big eddy, and the river began to sweep the boats downstream. In this fashion they drifted with the river and then pulled back into the eddy, making three laps, each time pulling into the river’s stalwart flow, then drawing back into the gentler upstream swirls of the eddy while Axtel’s drum beat out a primal rhythm in thanks to the few salmon completing their life’s journeys, in thanks for the gifts they offered to the people. Three, Lane explained, is a sacred number for the Nez Perce.

Lane said it’s important to welcome the few returning fish and to maintain a ten-year spiritual tradition. Most of all he said it’s important to let the world know that people still care about the salmon, one of the Northwest’s most iconic species on the brink of extinction.

“The Columbia River fishery is world-class,” he said. “There’s no other river on the planet that has salmon and steelhead like it—like it used to have anyway. It’s hard to believe that we’ve allowed something of that magnitude to go away.”

Lane’s is a life that has weaved through more than six decades in the Pacific Northwest, and he’s old enough to remember when salmon were more abundant. He caught his first salmon in northeast Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness as a boy and has been smitten with rivers and fish ever since.

“Fishing for salmon is still fun,” he said. “It’s not like those days, but it’s still fun. When a salmon takes a line . . . I mean your pole goes down, and you have a fight. They’re just a really healthy and strong fish. But (these days) you sometimes have to wait for a while before you get a bite.”

The salmon don’t return like they used to, but Lane is intent on welcoming the ones that do–and raising his voice on behalf of the effort to restore them.

“We still get to fish for some fish,” he said. “Who knows how much longer that will last.”

© Western Perspective Press

A tried and true westerner declines the label

A life-long westerner, Drew S. declines the label.

Wearing a beard on his chin and running shorts over his black long underwear, he sat nonchalantly at a table among the eclectic decorations at the Jolts and Juice Company coffee bar in Ontario, Oregon. His Sudoku puzzle nearly complete, he tipped an ear toward the unexpected question: What do you think makes you a westerner?

Curious, he tossed his Sudoku aside and settled into an hour-long conversation.

“I have almost never identified myself as anything other than myself,” he said. “I’m not a joiner of clubs. This is me, and I’m human just like you. We have everything in common except how we go about it.”

Drew grew up on a farm (“it had a farm-like field”) just outside of Rexburg, a town of 25,000 in eastern Idaho. It’s  high-desert, agrarian country, within a couple-hour drive of the Grand Tetons, and it has deep Mormon roots. Drew’s family fit the mold to some extent. They weren’t Mormon, but they raised what they ate and grew a great deal of what they ate as well. And Drew, unknowingly, grew to love the wide-open soul of the area’s abundant high desert.

“I identify myself as a country boy even though I haven’t lived like a country boy for 40 years now,” he said. “We didn’t have this connectedness all day. Now, I don’t have periods of time where I don’t bump into somebody. When we were kids, we’d hop on our bikes and be gone eight hours.”

One could say Drew’s childhood was stereotypically western. He grew up on a farm where the family grew most of its own food. He enjoyed independence and a wide-open-sky kind of freedom. He nurtured an unknowing and intense connection to the land. But he’s averse to the label of westerner and the assumptions that go with it. There are numerous people who live in Appalachia, for example, who could claim the same life experiences.

“I think it’s comparative,” he said. “I never considered myself a westerner until I met an easterner. For someone to come here and be amazed at everything that is or isn’t here: ‘Oh my gosh, these mountains are so astounding’ or ‘Gosh, I didn’t realize there are places where people don’t live.’ Those differences made me realize these are the kinds of places I want to be in.”

Make no mistake, this life-long westerner doesn’t bend to the whimsical notions of the West portrayed on the silver screen that most certainly shape at least part of the national consciousness of what a westerner is or should be.

“The West, the code of the West, the mystique, or mistake of the west—if you have the Disney view of it—you might be astounded to come out here and find Kmarts and everything else,” he said. “The sense of scale is the biggest thing for me. When I go to the East Coast, or Europe for that matter, I always notice the difference of being closed in.”

Still, Drew declined to crawl beneath the western umbrella. To embrace such a label, he said, would be to imply that he is a person worthy of being set apart from everybody else. He paraphrased from the widely publicized 2012 Wellesley High School commencement speech in which English teacher David McCullough, Jr. told a field of graduates: “Even if you’re one in a million on a planet of 6.8 billion, that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you … If everyone is special, that means no one is.”

“If there’s anything that ties human beings together, it’s a desire to be somebody special, but even if you could identify the why-I’m-a-such-and-such gene, people are still going to die of cancer,” Drew said. “What difference does it make how we define ourselves?”

That led to his thesis in retort of the question:  What makes a person a westerner?

“Maybe westerners identify themselves as westerners because it sets them apart from other people.”

Drew S. lives in Idaho Falls, Idaho. We enjoyed an hour-long conversation at a coffee shop in Ontario, Oregon on Dec. 15, 2013. Preferring relative anonymity, Drew declined to offer his last name or allow his photograph to be taken.