Sunday, November 30, 2008

Western Legends #4

Water coursing across a large western state—heading north from its source in the harsh chill of the Sawtooth Mountains & thence winding westward thru a wilderness of moose & mountain goat & mule deer, & black bears & bighorn sheep & badger, & wolves & wolverine—forking both west & south in the midst of a wilderness—the “river of no return”—& the fabled middle fork cascading southward into wilds & the main branch flowing northwest toward the rafts & barrooms of Riggins & the long winding blacktop of US 95 as the highway flows north to Canada & south to Mexico—& crossing under the Time Bridge between the motor lodges of Riggins & the trailer houses of Lucille in the midst of beautiful chaparral hills & fruit stands & swooping 60-mile per hour corners, there splitting the state into two time zones—then following US 95 north past the expanse of White Bird Hill & into northern Idaho’s prairies leading to Grangeville— & curling west to its mouth at the Snake River, at Oregon’s watery fringe—

This is a mythic landscape, a mythic river: the Salmon, the “river of no return,” so called because the powerful current that draws whitewater rafters these days seemed impossible to turn back into up river—a river known by the name of the salmon, a fish that’s itself nearly legendary both in a good & bad sense of the word: in a bad sense, because
the species, stymied by dams on all the Columbia Basin rivers except the Salmon is swimming upstream into extinction—ancestral home to the Nez Perce & other Native American tribes, briefly named “Louis River” by the Corps of Discovery in honor of Merriweather Lewis—home to gold deposits as well as to Chinooks & Sockeyes & Steelheads—I only know a relatively small stretch of the Salmon River, tho it does hold a “mythic” place in my imagination; Eberle & I, usually in the company of other friends, have explored the River Road out of Riggins, crossing the bridge over the treacherous & flood-prone Little Salmon near its confluence with the Salmon itself (the Little Salmon caused widespread destruction in the 100-year-flood of January ’97, wiping out homes recklessly built in the canyon flood plain between New Meadows & Riggins)—

The River Road is as scenic a drive as I’ve ever been on—it’s also probably the most dangerous. A dirt road without a hint of guardrail, a sheer slope rising to the east in many places, & a very large & powerful river below a sheer slope to the west. It’s not a road for careless or hurried driving—in many locations the cars traveling north need to pull over so the cars traveling south (on the perilous river side) can creep by safely. Cars do go into the river every so often, with an assurance of tragic results….

A trip up the River Road checking out 19th century mining sites with a dipsomaniac Forest Service archeologist & Eberle & her old Idaho pal Roberta
was my first exposure to the real Idaho wilds, way back in October of 97; since, we’ve taken drives up the river in the blue-gray November mist, & outings on the beautiful white sand beaches in the spring; & of course I’ve watched the Salmon power its way northward parallel to US 95 as Eberle & I traveled into the lovely farmlands of Northern Idaho—all these images are part of the Salmon River’s mythos….

But none of these images, powerful & evocative as they may be, are the main story of the Salmon River to me, at least not as I’m writing this—because just as we can never step into the same Heraclitean river twice, we can’t ever imagine the same river twice—& most importantly, I con’t tell myself the same story about that river as my loved o
nes & friends tell…. & specifically, I know the story my wife Eberle tells herself about the Salmon is very different than the story I know—

I came to Idaho in my middle age—true, I came here with a passion for the western landscape, but my imagination regarding place was formed by close to 30 years in Vermont. There’s always something exotic to me in the vast & monumental western space compared sub-consciously with the enclosed horizons of New England. Eberle, however, has known Idaho since she was young, tho again, it was an imaginative contrast—in her case, with a
Frank Lloyd Wright house & an affluent upbringing in a Chicago suburb—in her case, these wild spaces have always offered some haven, & her dream has always been a cabin on the Salmon River—not the sort of majestic pseudo-rustic log palace with green tin roof that despoiled the wild in Idaho’s recent boom days, but a ramshackle folly she could build with her own hands, where she could commune in solitude with… the Divine? Her creative core? This is where it becomes her story, a story to which I have only a partial access, but which seems to include the hermits of Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert, the secret code of Beatrix Potter’s journal, Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own,” & Nell Shipman’s wild west independent artistry—

Do lives intersect like roads or flow together like riv
ers? Perhaps, as quantum physics teaches, they do both simultaneously, or either, depending on your perspective. Perhaps the courses taken by our life & the life of even our dearest companions pursue various courses in relation to each other—tangential, parallel, intersecting, unified, divergent—& even the most contrary can occur with virtual simultaneity—Eberle’s dream of a Salmon River cabin—solitude in a life stripped to its basics—one bowl, one pot for cooking—my own working class roots placing a value on comfort & a certain amount of materialism—& Vermont in my experience was rustic, not wild—the real wilderness, the stretches on the Middle Fork where Eberle & her family hiked & camped with pack llamas in tow are alien to me….

Sometimes, contemplating Eberle’s story of the Salmon River, I wonder if I’m capable of this type of dream about a landscape—Vermont, with its rocky streams & steely winter sky & frozen ponds & nature poems left far behind in the rearview mirror—Virginia, with its endless nights filled with insects & the fragrance of flowering trees & the obsessions of sestinas: a dream floating away in a blue haze of cigarettes smoked years ago—San Francisco’s painted Victorians & afternoon walks on tree-lined streets & late night strolls thr
u lights & bustle & poetry echoing between the sidewalk & a moon suspended over the Bay—Idaho, with its looming mountains & guinea hens racing across the lawn & its small-town rodeos & a banjo frailed on the porch—how can I add this all up to equal the coherence of Eberle’s Salmon River story, a story she forsook freely for my sake—

The river—a life—never stepping twice into the same water—


  1. Hi John, I enjoyed your post on the Salmon River very much. You have a wrting style that reminds me of a few different authors I can't seem to put my finger on (Emily Dickinson comes readily to mind because of all your dashes, in a good way).
    I was wondering if you had ever heard of the Cable Car Hot Springs (also known as the French Creek Hot Springs). They are located near Riggins close to where French Creek empties into the Salmon River. My husband and I are interested in visiting the hot springs this month, but one must cross the river to do so. We are from northern Idaho and have never been to Riggins before, is there a bridge that you know of that will get us somewhat close to the hot springs? Or a bridge at all; you mentioned one in your post somewhere in Riggins, does this bridge actually cross the Salmon River?
    If you wouldn't mind getting back to me I would really appreciate it.

    Write On,


  2. Hi Britt: There is a bridge over the Salmon River at Riggins. I'll check with Eberle about the hot springs you mentioned--she knows the area better than I do--& will get back to you on that tomorrow.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Hi, this is Eberle. I know the hot springs you're talking about, and you do have to cross the river to get to them (this is after crossing the river on the main bridge in Riggins-- the cable car hot springs is up the river road quite a ways after you cross the main bridge.) Last I knew, however, the cable car originally used to get to the hot springs had been physically removed. Unless you have a jet boat, I don't know of any way to cross the river at this point.

    I actually crossed the Salmon on this cable car some 15 (?) years ago with a woman whose family lived in a cabin at French Creek. The cablecar was already condemned, but still there and it was an incredible ride--WAY above the water that is wide and quite rough at this spot! (My husband has persuaded me to stop doing things like this-- only a couple of months ago I was at an abandoned grain silo and just before I decided to start climbing the little ladder to the top, his voice came into my head: DANGER. DON'T DO THIS.)

    The Salmon River is incredibly beautiful and worth visiting, but be careful-- the road is narrow and the river is way more powerful than it looks. The Forest Service might be able to give you more up-to-date information.

    And hi to our neightbors up north!

  4. John (and Eberle), thank you, thank you, thank you! I can't believe how fast you got back to me. With the info you provided, I think it best we don't try to get to those hot springs (we'd rather not die fording the river) ;) I think we might try the Stanley Hot Springs instead, they are a bit closer to our neck of the woods.
    Thank you again for being so kind and helpful.

    Happy Holidays,



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