American Sabbatical 027: 10/6/96

Missoula & Lochsa

10/6.. Missoula.

When I started to resurface after the episode at Papa-T’s, Peggy began to have an allergic reaction to Missoula (another smutchy town), and we waved on the way to bed. I hate to think what LA is going to do to us.

In Missoula we spent an evening with the locals in Cynthia’s back yard hearing the native gossip. Sounds a lot like Maine. In fact Montana feels very familiar after 23 years beyond the Piscataquis.. same pace, same open welcome in front of a guarded reserve, same observant curiosity, same smell of leaves in the fall, same pickups.. call it hinterland Americanish. Only the hills are bigger.

This year’s eco-controversy on the Montana ballot is a new water-quality law, which the green-hats say has been watered-down (higher ppb’s in some categories), while the mining industry (black hats) is crying local shutdowns and mega-ripple effects. Does this sound familiar to you Mainers scratching your heads over the clear-cutting ban? All we could say was “don’t drink the water,” and “what about the stink in the air?” The Montana papers have been full of op eds about the invasion of eco-tourists and carpetbagging developers, and how it’s all the sports fishing pressure that’s spreading whirling disease (a sort of mad fish disease). Even the wildlife is pissed. Reports of wildcats attacking hunters (reeking of elk rut), and bison goring tourists (Arpege) are frontpage news. These Montana rags are a joy. They are handsome and colorful, and the national news is NEVER the lead! A couple of inches here and there on clintondole and natanyahuarafat then back to bear maulings. (In Wyoming the big row was over a proposed law that bronco-riders wear helmets. Wimp-attack.)

The logging around Missoula is primarily for log home construction. The road we came in on was lined with cranes assembling kit houses, sort of BIW for Lincoln Logs. The wrinkle is that the logging (on fed lands, natch) is sub-contracted to migrant Hispanics who make their profit margins by selling their by-cut as firewood. So concerns about cutting practices are confused with class guilt. Maybe IP should borrow a page from DeCoster and import labor from Chiapas.

The suburban slopes in commuting range of these western burgs are dotted with the egofices of todays upper middlers. As in Maine, nobody is building modest housing, and condos are a glut on the market. Nobody moves to Montana to share a wall with anyone. Give me land, lots of land, with an endless driveway up.. And most of the building is log. We thought the log hotel at Yellowstone was impressive, but some of this cantilevered moderne is big as all outdoors.

The only other architectural excitement in the Montaine has been the hayArt. Out in the grassland prairie of the Dakotas and Wyoming each county seemed to have its own style of stacking, maybe by ordinance. In old fashioned bales, bigrolls, superbales, or loose, there would be blocks or rows or geometrical spacing or, grandest of all, pyramids. Sometimes old hayArts would have weathered down into gigantic versions of the ancient haystack, or Chicken Itza. But Montanans do hay in the grand manner. In Big Hole the lush crop is built into immense loose hay buildings, like thatched barns, and surrounded with split-rail fences to keep the beef away until the snow gets deep. They use great frame catapult things to compose the masterpieces, and the Big Hole Valley’s straw buildings create an Icelandic landscape for giants. (The Big Holers also take pride in their rail fences, and build towering old-style swinging rail gates where the heifers dare to tread.) Of course there’s always a joker. We saw a hay house with windows and doors and figures in same, and the legs-coming-out-of-the-bigroll motif has become cliched here (Maine ornamenteurs take note).

On Saturday we found the strength to visit the farmers’ market, because Peggy has been moaning “green?” for weeks. And it was good to see that college-town culture is keeping the 60s alive even out here by the Bitterroots. Barefoot Trustifarians and pierced leatherheads were busy hawking tie-dyed Buddhism and Times Square jewelry. There were also vegetables, I mean the edible kind. These places make you feel young again, don’t they? Or is that embarrassed self-recognition, not flashback? Isn’t it gratifying to realize our generation left a lasting cultural pattern in the historic medley? Groovy. We had to go “home” and lie down again.

10/7.. Lochsa.

When we finally got up it was Monday. Cynthia and her two neat kids, Rhys and Lizzie, had nursed us back to health with home cooking and a house full of laughter, but Festiva was neighing in the driveway and Farther was calling. Our thought had been to make a Beeline for the coast and descend on all you outer fringers, but the immediate threat of Superhighway Syndrome was paralyzing to our convalescing selves. So we backdoored out of Missoula through Lolo.

Lolo Pass

And I’d been troubled by voices in the night again. This journey has been very much an outer odyssey. Concerned with modem strings and highway numbers, milespergallon and springwater, compass bearings and historic references. We’ve rarely honored a psychic sabbath, let ourselves be swallowed by silence, or held in trance. My daily rituals of silencing the inner dialogue have been abandoned. We have a constant outer dialogue.. and there’s this puter noise. Only when we stop and draw do we act out into The Other, and the stuff is so unsatisfying to look at that we are skimping that ritual, too. IT has grabbed us at times, to be sure. We are open to the holes in the landscape, but our ball is often rolling too fast to drop through. I can suppress my spiritual anxiety somewhat by arguing that we are mounding up piles of raw stuff for creative imagination to wallow in later, but the fact is we’ve let the Pragmatic American Spirit ride the lead horse. Of course this is the American story: don’t mind the light in the wood, ride on. But I’ve spent a long time learning how to see that light, and this quest was supposed to be seeking a shining in the hills, too.

So here we are, teetering on the top of America, about to rush downslope to old friends and family, and all that good peoplestuff, and I wanted to pause, inside, if not in fact. So we agreed not to hurry down the Interstate, at least. And we found the dream road down from the high country.

Along the dream road
We'd picked up Lewis and Clark’s trail around Dillon, without knowing it. My reading of the texts last year didn’t make the historic path very clear once L&C left the Missouri drainage. They, of course, were lost, too. Once we encountered the more detailed local maps, we rediscovered ourselves. So in the agonies of chicken-fried aftermath we’d staggered up their trail along the divide. We, too, had tasted the bitterroots.

The passage from the Atlantic headwaters to the final descents onto the Pacific slope were always the hardest miles for travelers: Lewis and Clark, mountain men, or the emigrants behind them. Those roads the most obscure and difficult. The forage, game, and water the most scarce. The time most fleeting. Winter at hand. At least the Indians had been helpful.. certainly the Nez Perce.

When we re-turned south in Missoula, we were tracing those first uncertain steps out of the shining mountains, through Lolo pass. (On their return L&C parted company at Lolo, seeking better roads, and pledging to rejoin along the Missouri. Lewis passed through Missoula en route to his fateful encounter with the Blackfeet, while Clark went back up the Bitterroot and over into Big Hole. Much later, after all the promises had been broken, Chief Joseph fled up the same trace.) With fewer hopes or fears we set off into Idaho through Lolo pass.

“Winding Road For Next 77 Miles” the sign said. Folks, this road may have killed the horses back then, but it is the most soul-lifting mountain country I’ve ever been in. Imaging driving one long twisting river valley; hemmed in by soaring peaks; black with towering spruce, fir and pine; sawtooth mountains rising jagged one behind another; and a river (as they say) running through it.. all day long. The landscape is so tilted that you swear at times the river is running uphill. The switchback curves sway a rhythm in your bones, and the triangular folds in the shadowed drapery of the hills keep lilting a tune. This is a road where you keep pressing your nose against the windshield to see the skyline.

Sawtooth Mountains

As soon as we crossed over into Idaho these indigo jays appeared along the road. Idaho bluebirds? Cobalt Ravens of the sky? They were the only life we saw down the entire Lochsa Valley, for it was the Lochsa River that dreamed us out of the sky country. Iridescent indigo birds of transformation, crested like a jay, and with his moves, but more solid-bodied, and fearless at the roadkills. The early travelers told of the hungers on this stretch, and it was the first place in the west where we weren’t confronted with wildlife. Just these magic birds. [Stellar’s Jay, first reported by Lewis in these same locals.]

Partway down the long slope we entered a grove of stupendous cedar trees. Some six-foot across at the butt and over 200 feet tall. Clustered together on a slope verging on the Lochsa, cool and otherworldly, they were the cathedral I’d been empty of. The DeVoto Memorial Grove, where Bernard DeVoto wanted his ashes scattered, now maintained by the parks service, they are as fitting a tribute to the Westering dream as I can imagine. And they made my cockles leap. We walked slowly through the grove, up and down the slope to the water. It WAS running downhill. And (yes) we hugged a tree or two. 1500-3000 years old, the signs said these columns were, and they put all my demons in the shade. The power places have opened in our path as we’ve needed them, and now we could come out of the hills with our spiritbags full.
But the Clearwater Mountains go on almost forever. I kept stopping, trying to frame the shot that would tell how these zigged slopes zag together into a musical tapestry, but it won’t record. It’s in the twist of your neck, and the tempo of the lightfall, or something. Even when you think the slope’s run out, and the waters will slow, the valley straighten, there’s another swing of slopes and jiggle of sky. O boy.


The Lochsa joins the Selway on the Nez Perce Reservation, and the rough water runs smooth over a near level bed, but we will tumble downhill for a long while to come. Not that the spectacle ends at the Selway. But the deep, high, leaping woods do. And the khaki hills come out to show their bones again. Golden grasses on the jumbled hills with the river snaking through. We slalomed the 70 miles to Lewiston with the big rigs breathing on our necks, and the wrinkled pelts of land shone across the water while we rode under the tall tree shade on the south bank.

The Selway
Lewiston gives you fair warning. Fires had scorched the hills black for 10 miles, and the plume of effluent air from the Potlach mill had our eyes watering before the city broke into view. (This is where the Lewis and Clark party were violently ill from eating too much Camas root after their long fast. The Resonance strikes again.) The shock of civilization couldn’t have been more vivid. Back in rushing autos and a maze of signs out of our soaring dreams, we immediately got lost. Pulled off the road to regroup, and got rousted by a hardfaced trooper with no sympathy for transients. “Move it or you’ll get metal up your ass.” Welcome to Washington. Might have guessed about a place called Lewiston.

We’d lost our road atlas, had no map of Washington, and were in a new time zone. A sign said “Hell’s Canyon National Wilderness”, and we tried to follow the arrows. The Selway flows into the storied Snake at Lewiston-Clarkston, and Hell’s Canyon of the Snake is the deepest chasm in North America. If it was just upstream, maybe we should stare into our deeps. In fifteen minutes we were ambling along a quite sideroad on the west bank of the Snake in rolling dry grassland. If there was a gorge here it would have to hurryup and get orogenic. We asked for directions. AH. Hells Canyon is 90 miles south! Too far for Festivites tonight.

But we weren’t about to try and sleep in charming Lewiston on the edge of respiratory collapse, hard by the roaring interstate. So we turned into the sunset and made for campgrounds cataloged in Free Camping. We went down the Snake.

And into grain-producing country. The edge of the Palouse. Barge-loading facilities on the river, wheatstraw hills and blackdirt, lush green intervales, and irrigated croplands. How the weary travelers must have reveled in the forage here. Your weary travelers crossed over the Snake into a State Campground dedicated to “Chief Timothy”, looking for a soft spot.

Barn on the Palouse

Timothy must be patron saint of the geese. The lush green irrigated lawns of the campground were hosting a Canada goose convention, and we’d forgotten our goose boots. Tired as we were, the thought of lying down on gooseshit was more than we could handle. We rode on into the sunset.

Smoky Sunset
Twenty more miles and there was a turnoff for a National Forest, but 12 miles down that trail we came into heavy plumes of smoke. The scene was phenomenal. We had risen up to the height of the plateau and had rolling vistas of grainlands, etched in ruddy light, with purple smoke trailing across it. We paused to admire this exaggerated Iowa running to far horizons, picked a bouquet of the most brilliant blue chicory I’d ever seen, and turned back to the long road. We lucked into a cozy motel half a mile farther along the pavement.

Sunset Palouse

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