Laura, our oldest daughter, will begin studying neuroscience at Washington State University¹ in Pullman this fall just a few miles from where I grew up in northern Idaho, where much of my family still lives.
North Idaho is also where Laura was born, slipping into my hands, the first to touch her, in a small apartment bedroom eighteen years ago under the watchful eye of a midwife. In spite of knowing what to expect, I was struck with awe at seeing the tiny life emerge in front of me.
Our lives have followed a scenic route since then, sometimes on different paths, sometimes the same, schools big and small, here and there. Through it she has found interests, aptitudes and herself, graduating a large high school² with a perfect GPA, awards and honors.
As she travels the road to adulthood, I plan another scenic route. A long spring has left snow to linger in Idaho’s mountains, precluding plans I’d made earlier to follow dirt or gravel most of the way north to her college orientation. As with life, we improvise.
We set out under an azure sky across the temporarily green, but usually brown, Boise Foothills on Cartwright then Dry Creek Road to Highway 55. We enjoyed a lazy morning so it’s already lunch time when we descend the grade into Horseshoe Bend.
“I think there’s a Subway or something in the gas station on the other end of town,” I say to Laura. “Shall we stop?”
“Yeah, I think I remember that too,” she answers. “Sounds good.”
A rider on a V-Strom parks alongside after we’ve finished our sandwiches and are getting ready to leave. “Where ya headed?” he asks as we pull on our jackets and gloves.
“Up to Moscow for my daughter’s college orientation. How about you?”
“Just doing the local loop,” he answers, meaning up Highway 21, across the Banks Lowman Road and back to Boise on Highway 55. Or vice versa.
“Nice,” I say. “Beautiful day for it.”
I enjoy the implicit camaraderie of riders, though am curious of its substance. It must be more than owning a kind of vehicle. Do we see ourselves in the same way, perhaps a little defiant, at ease in the elements, frontiersmen without a frontier?
Laura and I exchange waves with oncoming riders as we follow the Payette River, roiled with spring run-off, up to Long Valley where we turn from the highway to circle the west side of Cascade Reservoir.¹ Blue that was above Boise has curdled grey.
“That road looks interesting,” I say of a jeep trail heading into the trees above the Payette River on our left. “Shall we try it?”
The smells of a wet forest—moldering autumn leaves, soil and sap—fill the air as we swing around and begin up the shadowy trail. Before I can click to the next gear, we’re stopped at a gate.
“Oh well.” Nothing ventured, nothing gained. We happily return to the road and speed on.
Dark windows make secret the occupants of an overbearing black pickup that stops to join our juxtaposition with Bambi at the side of the road. “That’s so cool,” Laura exclaims. “I’ve never seen one that small.”
We quietly watch a fawn struggle to its feet. A doe waits beyond but cannot compel. She paces nervously, anxious to dart for cover.
We leave the deer in peace and dance our way under leering skies through forests and across meadows, bending and bowing as the road requires. “This is a pretty ideal way to travel” I comment to Laura as we glide between wood pole fences.
Signs urge caution as the road suddenly sprouts driveways left, right and everywhere, a change of tempo. Something about these crowded cabin hamlets strikes me funny. We choose to live in tidy homes along straight streets but travel to ramshackle lodging on unkempt grounds to enjoy ourselves. What does it mean?
I am glad when, after some miles, the congestion, the unanswered question, is behind us, and forests again flow uninterrupted from lithic heights. We periodically pause to enjoy the snow-topped ridges above trees, above grass, above a plane of water. At one place we watch two bald eagles circle over a shore festooned with flowers, purple, yellow and white.
“That’s weird,” Laura remarks at old world lampposts, fanciful arches and clean pavement appearing abruptly after miles of dirt. In a moment we realize we’ve come upon the entrance to the storied Tamarack Resort.¹
From there we pass several state campgrounds along the edge of the reservoir then accelerate away from the water on straight gravel roads toward McCall and the highway. It’s nice to pick up the pace.
The probability of snow in the highlands keeps us to the highway along the Little Salmon River north from New Meadows. “Need to stop for anything?” I ask Laura as we enter Riggins.
Not an odd onomatopoeia, this Skookumchuck beside us, but Chinook jargon for strong water. Indeed, the narrow creek is frothing at its banks. We’ve turned from Highway 95 onto a gravel road that should lead us east across the mountains to the South Fork of the Clearwater River.
We follow the creek for some miles then begin switching back and forth to climb the ridge to our left. Verdant views are unveiled as we ascend higher and higher, stirring memories.
I am arrested by august mountains and meadows swirled round as we summit Banner Ridge. I’ve never been here but it is familiar. It is a spring day on the Palouse when I was ten, the stark mountains of northern Nevada, the family at Freezeout, and a rainy ridge above Riggins, where I sat alone thinking of places my dad enjoyed after he was gone.
Now it is the place my daughter and I stand at the trailing edge of her childhood.
“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
“You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
Road follows ridge a few miles before entering the forest of filtered light that alternates grey and yellow with passing clouds. I follow a whim to drive off the road onto faint tracks up a hill of flowers. The bike bounces and growls until we stop under an old pine tree.
Laura and I walk together a short distance for a clear view past the few trees. Rocks alternately faced and fractured form steps in time, palisades on the far side of the canyon before us, like rings of a great tree marking mega-annum from antiquity. Our lives seem so small in comparison.
“I always love seeing Indian Paintbrush,” I say of the flowers around our feet as we stroll back from the view.
“Me too,” answers Laura. There are many other flowers whose names I don’t know.
Shadows grow deeper as we continue through the woods. We are starting to see snow along the road’s margins. “Getting kind of chilly,” I notice.
“See, you should have put on your liner,” Laura suggests. Or maybe chides (as daughters do). She put on her own liner earlier.
“No, no,” I answer, “I’m warm.” Which is true enough since I’ve turned on the heated grips.
The roads are a little different from the GPS map but with a few recalculations we continue heading in the right direction. And then a little surprise, a highway. Or at least nicely striped asphalt on the Grangeville-Salmon Road.
Soon a second surprise: snow not just in shadows but across the whole road. It’s funny that a veritable highway should end up being the road that’s impassable. And sad if it spells the end to our adventure. I don’t know of any alternatives.
I have been lured many times into fighting through snow only to be forced back to where I began, exhausted. What should we do? I think for a moment. “Laura, do you mind hopping off while I try to ride through this?”
“Not at all,” she answers enthusiastically. Is she excited by the challenge, as I am, or just glad to stretch her legs?
The pig tries to wallow a time or two but I manage to stay upright. Laura gets back on. “Sorry about that,” I tell her. I always feel bad when I ask a passenger to walk. “I’m just worried there could be ice under the snow.”
There are a few more long patches of snow but where it isn’t covered, the road is quite fun, like getting to ride after the zombie apocalypse. Look mom, no cars, no laws!
We stop to look at the gravel road that should cut over to Highway 14 along the South Fork of the Clearwater, our route. Now that’s too much snow. The happy feeling fades a bit when I realize we’ll have to loop up to Grangeville and then back down to the river, a considerable detour.
We have settled into an impatient pace on the pavement when the bike lurches dramatically. I know immediately what has happened. Laura’s heavy bag has swung down from its high perch. I brake hard for the side of the road.
“Can you fit your stuff in this?” I had asked Laura the night before, handing her a single dry bag.
“Sure,” she answered in a tone that also said, “whatever, dad.”
When I lifted the bag this morning it seemed to weigh 75 pounds. “What do you have in here, a bunch of books?” I asked, joking. When I saw it was books—so typically Laura—I asserted my vestigial dad-authority to have a few removed.
It is still a heavy bag but to be fair to Laura, I know few ladies who could pack for four days of public interaction in that space.
I glance over the bike at the side of the road. It looks fine. Laura’s bag is intact but a few of her things peek through small holes. We’ll have to find out later how her laptop fared.
A little rearranging, a solid yank on the straps and we’re off again. We skirt the eastern edge of Grangeville and head on highway toward Kooskia. At Orofino we will leave the highway and river to cut across the prairie to Kendrick. Before trekking across the countryside, we take the Bruce’s Eddy access road for a quick view of Dworshak Dam.
It is an impressive structure even if counter-productive as some believe.
There have always been more politicians than suitable dam sites. Building the highest straight axis gravity dam in the Western Hemisphere, on a river with a mean flow of 5,000 cubic feet per second, at a cost of $312 million, in the name of flood-control, is the second-funniest joke in Idaho. The funniest joke is inside the visitor center: a government sign entreats, ‘help protect this delicate environment for future generations.’
The North Fork of the Clearwater was an exceptional river with a preeminent run of steelhead trout, and the drainage contained thousands of elk and white-tail deer. The Army Corps of Engineers proceeded to destroy the river, habitat, and fish; then acquired 5,000 acres for elk management and spent $21 million to build the largest steelhead hatchery in the world, maintaining at a cost of $1 million dollars a year what nature had provided for nothing.¹
The road out of the canyon curves sharply through trees that offer glimpses of the river below, valleys and forests beyond. We occasionally slow for a few extra moments to savor spectacular views but the arrival of dusk and already eight hours of riding propel us onward.
The long day has drained whatever profundity we had. We just stand quietly a moment as the scent of lilacs fills golden air.