On All Sides Nowhere : Building a Life in Rural Idaho

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  • Copyright: 2002-08-15
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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When Bill Gruber left Philadelphia for graduate school in Idaho, he and his wife decided to experience true rural living. His longing for the solitude and natural beauty that Thoreau found on Walden Pond led him to buy an abandoned log cabin and its surrounding forty acres in Alder Creek, a town considered small even by Idaho standards. But farm living was far from the bucolic wonderland he expected: he now had to rise with the sun to finish strenuous chores, cope with the lack of modern conveniences, and shed his urban pretensions to become a real local. Despite the initial hardships, he came to realize that reality was far better than his wistful fantasies. Instead of solitude, he found a warm, welcoming community; instead of rural stolidity, he found intelligence and wisdom; instead of relaxation, he found satisfaction in working the land. What began as a two-year experiment became a seven-year love affair with a town he'll always consider home.

Author Biography

William Gruber is a professor of English at Emory University. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia, but spends his summers in Alder Creek, Idaho.

Table of Contents

Foreword xi
William Finnegan
Preface xiv
On All Sides Nowhere
Things That Came with the Place
The White Fir
Immigrants and Emigrants
Falling Trees
Hay for the Horses
Builders, Buildings, and Build-Ons
Backwoods Mechanics
Why They Shoot Bears in Alder Creek
At the Bend in the River Where the Cottonwoods Grow


[ 1 ] On All Sides NowhereIdaho first registered on my consciousness at the movies. In the summer of 1960 I was sixteen, and in the middle of August there was no place in suburban Pennsylvania to find air conditioning except in supermarkets or theaters. I could not spend summer days amid the cabbages and canned goods, and so to escape the heat I went with my friends as often as I could to the movies; one of the movies I sought out was an elegy for the waning days of modern civilization, On the Beach. To the filmgoing public in 1960, keenly aware that despite all the best intentions the cold war could suddenly turn hot, the movie was perfectly credible. It was set only a few years into the future; a calendar on the wall read, ominously, "1964." Nuclear war of undisclosed origins had killed everyone in the Northern Hemisphere, and now, as a lethal cloud of radiation spread slowly over the planet, one of the last surviving groups of humans clustered in Melbourne, Australia, to await the end. It was an intoxicating, almost carnivalesque, experience. Gregory Peck played the romantic lead opposite Ava Gardner, and at one point in the film, Peck, the taciturn commander of a nuclear submarine, tells Ava Gardner about his origins. In answer to her question about his childhood home, he replies with a single word that at the time seemed more homiletic than informative: "Idaho." Whose decision was it for Peck to claim Idaho for his birthplace? Of all the possible states the scriptwriter could have chosen, why that one? And it was a choice: for the record, Peck was born in La Jolla, California, and his character in Nevil Shute's novel from which the movie was adapted comes from Westport, Connecticut. Peck's "Idaho" drops like a stone into a well of unknown depth; it falls without trace, without echo. It is a piece, apparently, of purely gratuitous information. Why Idaho? The name resonates oddly with Melbourne and San Francisco, the environments of On the Beach. Those places set the mood of the film. To Americans in 1960, Melbourne was alien, exotic, and San Francisco brought to mind the glitz and romance of California. Set in that context, and set against the despairing hedonism of humans who number their remaining days according to the drifting global winds, "Idaho" seems dissonant. Its sound is stark, but as Peck speaks it, it sounds also moral and attractive. It seems to express Peck's loneliness, his longing for the simplicity of childhood and for the innocence of a world before the Bomb. None of the familiar mythic names of the American West, not Texas or Oregon or Colorado, would have the same aura of pure expressivity. My guess is that the name "Idaho" was chosen for its semantic emptiness. The name made sense because to most people "Idaho" meant nothing, and, meaning nothing, it could stand in for the infinite pathos of a world that would shortly cease to exist. Idaho was then, and in some ways still is, a geographic What You Will, and as a result the name "Idaho" becomes a kind of cultural Rorschach test for whoever happens to reflect on it.A road map of Idaho, if you focus on the narrow strip of land that sits atop the main bulge of the state, will show U.S. 95 extending upward from the town of Lewiston on the Snake River and running due north until it touches British Columbia. U.S. 95 is the only north south road in the state; for most of its five hundredodd miles, its major function is commercial. On it, apart from a few weeks in summer at the height of the vacation season, wheat and wood chips move south to the granaries in Moscow or the pulp mills in Lewiston, logs by the tens of thousands head north to the lake towns of Coeur d'Alene, Post Falls, and Sandpoint. On that map, halfway between Moscow and Coeur d'Alene, several miles above a couple of minuscule settlements designated, echoically, Desmet and Tensed, a thin blue line splits off from U.S. 95 and runs due east for twenty miles until it dead- ends in Idaho 5 coming north from St. Maries. Nothing much shows on that road big enough to be named; it starts from nowhere, goes to noplace. Travelers on it turn their backs on the rolling grainlands of eastern Washington and head toward a low wall of mountains, smooth, rounded, thick with timber. The change in topography is instantaneous. In less than two miles they're in the foothills of the Bitterroots, the westernmost range of the Rocky Mountains, scarcely seventy-five miles from the Montana border. Once over the first row of hills, the road descends again and presses deeper into those foothills for fifteen miles or so, following alongside the Benewah Creek and through the Benewah Valley. Houses and landmarks on that road are few. It's a gravel road, in theory at least, but for much of its length it's better described as a dirt road backed up with whatever rocks nature or the Benewah County road crew found time to strew there. "I lived here better than twenty years," the owner of Benewah Motors, Wally Krassalt, once told me as we made our way from town out toward my place to diagnose my ailing Land Rover, "and I never once saw the Benewah Road in good shape." Much of the time the road follows alongside the Benewah Creek, running slightly above the creek through draws filled with alder and aspen or traversing occasional flatlands and pockets of deep forest. You drive along the road with no real sense of progress. It's hard to mark the miles: there are no towns to encounter, no height toward which to aspire, just a succession of curves and glimpses of fields and pockets of forest so similar that they are valueless as landmarks. If you pursue the Benewah Road almost to its terminus at State 5, you come upon a Dumpster, angle-parked on a turnout on the downhill side of the road, positioned so that as you discard your trash you can look out and down at a postcard view of the southernmost end of a chain of glacial lakes that stretch from St. Maries north almost to Canada. On most days the Dumpster overflows with abandoned household goods, broken bedsteads and electrical components, scraps of carpet, Sheetrock, and lumber, random tools or parts of tools, bald and shredded tires, and pieces of cars. At one time some local wag took a can of bright orange paint and sprayed "Benewah Shop-n-Save" on the side of the Dumpster. Like all good humor, it had one foot in reality; my neighbors and I checked that Dumpster regularly, like a lottery ticket. Long before you encounter the Dumpster, though, if you are headed east from U.S. 95, you pass a spot marked on your map as "Benewah." Maps denote "Benewah" with a small blue circle, as if to promise travelers a settlement of some kind or other situated about midway along the road, but the maps promise more than ever existed. Even in the heyday of north Idaho logging and homesteading, there never was a town named Benewah. The place is recognizable as a civic location only because of two buildings, an abandoned one-room school, painted, the time I first saw it, bright pink, and a swaybacked frame structure with a faded sign, "Benewah General Store," and because of a smaller dirt road that dead-ends at the Benewah Road just east of the schoolhouse. Less than a hundred yards along that lesser road a sign cautions you that there should be "No Heavy Hauling When Surface Is Soft." In one instant, if you read it attentively, that sign tells you much about the local climate and economy as well as the politics and favorite pastimes of the people who live there. The sign, like every other sign the county erected along that road, is riddled with small holes; it's an instance either of vandalism or of "bullet art," depending on your point of view. As you pass by the sign, the road begins to climb out of the valley and heads into the timber. Now you're on the road to Alder Creek.We bought forty acres of land, about the smallest amount of land available then by way of rural subdivision. Our forty acres were a quarter part of the 160 acres that had once belonged to a family named Deja. In the early decades of the twentieth century the place was the headquarters for a local logging crew, and then, the timber gone and the land valueless to the company that owned it, the land passed as a second-generation homestead to Deja. Our place contained Deja's house, a log cabin about twenty by thirty feet with green cardboard interior walls and two antiquated but functioning wood stoves, a ruinous and older cabin that had been built in 1915 as a bunkhouse for a crew of loggers, and a lovely and graceful barn with the top half of its roof missing. Around the house were two, maybe three acres of meadow and pasture dotted with huge stumps left from the first time that particular piece of land had ever lost trees to human hands. Most of them were burned black, evidence of someone's vain attempt to turn cut-over timberland into pasture. The rest of our place, officially 37.5 acres according to the tax records, was woodland. Forty acres is a big place to someone used to measuring his horizons in terms of city blocks, although I soon understood that a square of land one-quarter mile on a side was much too insignificant to register against the immensity of the American West. Translated into its legal description, our forty acres seemed downright puny: we owned merely the northeast quarter of the northeast quarter of Section 32, Township 45 North, Range 3 West, Boise Meridian. That legal description reflects the surveyor's grid that was laid down over the western half of the country when it was opened for development. Homesteads were designated as one quarter of a section, or 160 acresmore than large enough to make a living if the land was fertile and the growing season long, but in northern Idaho too small to do much other than to cut the timber and sell out. The real winners in the development of much of the American West were not the homesteaders but the railroads, which, in exchange for their efforts and expenses at laying track, were granted alternating sections of land along their rights of way. A mile of track, 640 acres of land: it made for estates the size of which would have put a dukedom to shame, and it made the railroads rich. Even in the 1970s, when the railroads nationally were losing money by carloads, the Burlington Northern compensated for its losses by selling timber from its vast holdings. Before Deja owned it, our place had been the site of a logging camp. The original bunkhouse was situated by the road, and we found rusty sections of rail and rail spikes in the grass by the barn, the remnants of a small logging railroad that had been built down the draw of our creek to where it debouched into a bigger stream that fed the main fork of Alder Creek. To the north across the road lay two of the three remaining forties from the Deja place, owned then by absentees, and about a mile to the east was the Brede ranch house, unoccupied except during the summer grazing season and fall roundup. Beyond us to the south was a large, lightly timbered meadow, almost a savannah, and beyond that lay a mile or more of dense forest that ended at the Alder Creek Loop Road. Our closest neighbors lived along that road: Ed and Jean Strobel, Jim Yearout, Bud and Bertha Yearout, and "Cotton" and Peggy Stanridge. With the exception of the Strobels, they had all lived in Alder Creek for decades. The first days on our farm were full of emptiness; I had never known such quiet, and with the stillness came many unexpected discoveries. Sitting high atop the barn roof one afternoon I heard for the first time the rush of air over a crow's wings as it flew by overhead. Mornings in the cold, still air you could sometimes pick up traces of conversation spoken nearly half a mile away at the Brede ranch, and later in the winter I often stood on the porch simply to listen to the falling snow. It fell with a hiss, the lightness of which buoyed the spirits like a sleeping child's breath. Our place hardly resembled Laura Ingalls Wilder's "little house in the big woods." On three sides of our land lay the open rangeland of the Brede ranch, and on the remaining northern side meandered the county road. So we could not think of ourselves as living on the edge of a forest, much less a wilderness. But still it gave us pleasure to contemplate owning a woods big enough to get lost in for a short time, if only you remembered not to walk too long in a straight line, and big enough too to support its own wildlife population. We had our own resident deer, coyotes, grouse, and beavers. In the meadows wildflowers grew in great profusion: dandelions, lupine, and wild roses in May; ox-eye daisies, Indian paintbrush, and mustard in summer; and Canada thistles in late August, on those days when you felt the first chill of fall in the morning air. And we had mushrooms. One of our entertainments in April and early May was to hunt wild mushrooms, mainly morels. One day, not long after we were living in our cabin, Nancy came across several women with baskets tramping through the woods. They were members of the Spokane Mushroom Club, they said, and they had hunted morels on this land for years. Despite her assurances that they were still welcome to hunt our land, we never saw them again. But their visit was the inspiration for our own interest in hunting mushrooms, and each year during the early spring there was nothing more important to us than gathering morels. Part of the reason we hunted mushrooms was economic; we were always looking for ways to stretch our budget. But the economic value of twenty pounds of morel mushroomsa good annual harvestwas insignificant in relation to the social value of the hunt. Hunting mushrooms and talking about hunting mushrooms were communal enterprises for us and for our neighbors, almost a cult; the sociability of the activity increased its satisfaction. Nancy became the expert, and she recruited our daughter Elaine as soon as she could walk; together they endured cold, rain, snow, and gloom as they made the rounds of their favorite, often secret glades. Some of the appeal of foraging in the woods was the experience, new for us, of being in tune with the natural world. Hunting mushrooms, you focused on the smallest of environmental details, the texture and color of scales on a fallen cone (these closely resembled young morels) or the contours of the forest duff (small mushrooms, especially young boletes, often lay partly hidden under a carpet of needles). And some of the attraction was distinctly sensual. Sure, the morel vaguely resembles a phallus, but this erotic shape wasn't really part of their emotional and intellectual appeal. Mushrooms have always been symbols of potent unconscious forces, forces as potentially dangerous as they are liberating, and so one of their charms comes from the knowledge that unlike, say, corn or asparagus, wild mushrooms are not entirely under human control. At times, hunting mushrooms be-came a mystical experience; as the author of one field guide puts it, hunting mushrooms is "not simply a matter of traipsing through the woods in winter. It is an art, a skill, a meditation, and a process."Driving across the country I still play the childhood game of looking for rare license plates. Of all the states, none appears more seldom than Idaho. I've seen plates from Alaska and even Hawaii more often than from Idaho; it's as if something about the environment breeds people who stay close to home. "There is no stranger destination," writes Marilynne Robinson, than Idaho, "nor odder origin." Each year people ask me where I spend the summer. I say "Idaho," and I can tell by the emptiness of their faces that my answer put them in a state of social uneasiness. To tell an easterner you're planning a trip to Idaho is to strain the rules of etiquette. There's never a comfortable response. It goes beyond mere puzzlement. Sometimes I can see them weighing what they know about me against what they have heard on television about separatist movements or Aryan Nation. Then, in an effort to fill the awkward silence, they ask whether I have relatives in northern Idaho, or they make a joke about potatoes. Other times they misconstrue Idaho for Iowa. This happens more often than you would think possible, and then they tell me about their cousin in Des Moines or the time they drove with their kids through the Midwest. Or sometimes they just look at me with a genial inquisitorial stare, the way you imagine Jane Goodall contemplating the behavior of a mountain ape. Even in an age when everybody is wired to everybody and everything else, Idaho remains elusive. The name itself is a trap for the unwary. "Idaho," according to widespread myth, comes from Native American dialect, "Ee-da-how." This means, I was taught as a child, "light on the mountain" or "the sun comes down the mountain." Truth is, that story, like the story about Eskimos having dozens of separate words for "snow," is fiction. The Inuit have no more than the usual number of words that occur in most Indo-European languages to refer to the different varieties of frozen precipitation, and "Idaho" doesn't approximate any known Native American word. It doesn't mean what we think it means. In fact, it probably doesn't mean anything at all. It's most likely a coined word, a polysyllabic assembly made up a long time ago by some unknown promoter who wanted a name that would sound romantic to a population who dreamed of striking it rich in the West. "Idaho" is to the states of America as "Hagen-Dazs" is to brands of ice cream. Both names are empty, meaningless sets of sounds invented to impress a gullible public. In this way it mimics the history of much of the West. When, in 1803, on the eve of the sale of the vast amount of land that was then called simply Louisiana, Napoleon was asked by his minister Talleyrand exactly what he should tell the Americans they were about to purchase, the emperor responded, "If an obscurity did not already exist, it would perhaps be good policy to put one there." Talleyrand obediently reported to the Americans that they should "construe it [Louisiana] in their own way."If Idaho is hard to fix in the mind, it's even harder to come to a clear opinion about it. Much of the popular press about Idaho isn't good. Dave Barry in his columns regularly makes fun of it, and in the minds of a hundred million Americans right now, Idaho is the place where Richard Butler located his national socialist church, and it's the place to which Mark Fuhrman retired after being disgraced during the trial of O. J. Simpson. My experience of north Idaho is different. What sets Idaho apart is not its atavism but its openness to change and to difference. If I had to sum up its ethos I would say this: it's a place where an amazing tolerance extends to every person. In Idaho, your background doesn't count for a whole lot; here you're liked or not depending on what you say and do starting from the time you arrive. Many times in the days when I had a beard I met with long- time residents of Benewah County who professed to dislike "hippies," which to them apparently meant anyone alien, young, and hairy. Yet in spite of the fact that I looked like the sort of person their televisions had taught them to be afraid of, I was always welcomed warmly into their houses. They talked to me, they sometimes fed me, and they always gave me their best advice. For the locals, hippies were always somebody other than the person they were talking to. In many ways, it's the place where time stopped, where you can find, as Montanans like to advertise about themselves, the last best place. But much of what is good about the state results not from its spectacular geography but from its emptiness. People are still relatively few in number in Idaho, and apart from Boise there's nothing that can claim the title "city." In 1990, the census counted barely half of the state's population as living in towns with populations greater than 2,500. Idaho is still isolated ranches and small towns, and with those towns and ranches comes a hunger for companionship and a belief that simple human contact is the pearl beyond price. I still remember the day in 1974 I received by mail a license plate for my truck. This was in the days before private citizens could choose to lower their plate numbers in inverse relationship to the size of their individual ego. The number on my plate was unbelievable: 67. That number was a constant reminder of the relative sparsity of humans in Idaho; all my neighbors had numbers like that. It made for an odd sight in parking lots and along side streets in St. Maries; the lineup of license plates made me think I'd stumbled onto a convention of big shots: 50 was parked next to 35 next to 122. And in a way I had: since then, the closest I've come to something like it is the row of cars at Emory University Hospital in the spaces reserved for hospital administrators and chiefs of surgery (although their cars are a little more upscale than you'd have seen parked in front of the IGA in St. Maries). Those memorable numbers were an affirmation of their owners" place in the order of things. And with that affirmation of identity came social responsibility. Here was a place where people could not escape their neighbors, and so could not escape themselves.Idaho remains stubbornly incomprehensible, all things to all people. In geography books and in popular literature, Idaho is potatoes, silver mining, and Sun Valley. It's one of the states that kids are most likely to stumble on in their geography bees. Its capital, Boise, is impossibly unmemorable because to a third-grade mind the name, a derivative of bois ("woods" in French), seems to be a mental dead end in a way that "Austin" or "Olympia" or "Tallahassee" is not. "All Boise names," writes Lalia Phipps Boone, "are transferred from the name given the river by French Canadian explorers and trappers for the great variety of trees growing along its banks. After traveling over many miles of arid land, they are said to have exclaimed, "Les bois, les bois! Voyez les bois."" What schoolchild would know, or, knowing, care about an etymology as happenstance as that? The state seems to have confused even the federal government. "For many years," writes Leonard J. Arrington in his massive History of Idaho, "the United States could not make up its mind about this large inland area." In a way, that's still true. Even on a map the state looks odd. Its shape is illogical, way too thin at the top and disproportionately fat at the bottom. It looks as if it's missing some pieces or ought all to belong to something else. In fact the land that now comprises Idaho did once belong to something else. "It was included," says Arrington, "in the British Northwest until 1820, when it became part of the Oregon Country. In 1848 it was recognized as a piece of Oregon Territory, and in 1853 the northern half was inserted in newly created Washington Territory. When Oregon became a state in 1859, the entire area and parts of western Wyoming and Montana were absorbed in Washington Territory. But in 1863, when the difficulties of transportation made it impossible to govern the region from Olympia, Idaho was declared a separate territory that included all of present-day Montana and nearly all of present-day Wyoming. Not until 1868 did Idaho Territory emerge with its present state boundaries." Look for stability and you find none. Over the course of eons the state has undergone changes in topography from mountaintop to ocean floor, and its climate has varied from the vulcanism of the Eocene period to the successive glaciations of the Ice Age. In between fire and ice, for a few million years, Idaho was tropical. And before its climate was tropical, it was literally coastal. For something like 700 million years, from the end of Precambrian time until about the middle of the Cretaceous period 100 million years ago, the western edge of Idaho was the coast. Westward from Idaho's shores 800 million years ago there stretched the open ocean. Except for the miracle of plate tectonics, Boise might be beachfront. But nothing is less secure than the earth we stand on, and for hundreds of millions of years during the late Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, the lithospheric plates that carried the floor of the Pacific Ocean and the entire North American continent drifted together. In time the floor and the continent collidedif an engagement that occurs at the speed of two inches a year can be called a collision. Every year brought land masses in the Pacific closer to the coastline. They came nearer by a mile or so every thirty-two thousand years, hurtling toward each other pell-mell, geologically speaking, until eventually west mashed east with a momentum of a quadrillion tons. It must have been a hell of a sight for whatever eyes were around to see it when the islands that are now the Okanogan Highlands docked in or around what was to become the city of Lewiston. That collision and others like it raised the Rocky Mountains, so that the state of Idaho now lies between those prodigious mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It's the first land you reach after struggling across the Continental Divide. You might think that the Americans spilling westward over the mountains would have followed the established pattern of frontier settlement, filling the country up from east to west, so that they would homestead first in Idaho, then in Washington, Oregon, and California. Not so: Idaho has the curious distinction of being the last of the contiguous American states to be visited by American explorers. Even though several states were more remote, Idaho was for some reason the last place the early discoverers got to see. Not until August 12, 1805, when Meriwether Lewis looked down and west from the Continental Divide at the summit of Lemhi Pass, was the land that was to become Idaho seen by Euro-American eyes. Lewis seems not to have been particularly impressed. His journal records his discovery of "immense ranges of high mountains still to the west of us with their tops partially covered in snow'at that point, what else was new?and, after reconnoitering the western slopes of the Divide for about three fourths of a mile, he turned around and went back. He and Clark subsequently crossed and recrossed Idaho on their way to and from the Pacific. Lewis and Clark's encounter with Idaho provided the type for a good part of the rest of the century of western settlement. Idaho was the place you went through on your way to someplace else. Your only ambition was to get through or over it. Between 1830 and 1850 thousands of white settlers traversed the southern part of the state on their way to Oregon and California, but only those who had the misfortune to die in Idaho stayed there. Except for the Jesuit mission a few miles west of Coeur d'Alene, the trading posts, Fort Hall and Fort Boise, and "a mountain man or two," writes Arrington, "no white settlers lived in Idaho for any length of time until 1855." In contrast to much of the rest of the West, which underwent extensive settlement and "development" in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Idaho retained its aboriginal cultures as the only real populations. Not until the discovery of gold during the 1860s did permanent settlers arrive in Idaho in significant numbers, and it was only because of the developing market for northwestern timber at the end of the century, when supplies from the great midwestern forests had begun to dwindle, that Idaho was considered a likely place to homestead. That history got a late start in Idaho turned out to be an unexpected piece of personal good fortune. What in most other places in the world counts as history still lies in Idaho in living memories. When Nancy and I moved to Alder Creek in 1972, we moved to one of the last regions of the United States where it was possible to talk to some of the men and women who had homesteaded it. The St. Maries telephone directory was so small you could comfortably fit it folded, no lessinto your hip pocket. And most of the names in that directory were the family names of the first Europeans to settle in that part of the country not quite a century ago. Little has changed since then. Even now you can talk to a handful of those first settlers. Among my friends then were some of those people, people who were alive in the first decade of the twentieth century, some of the first Europeans to walk Idaho land, breathe Idaho air, piss in Idaho snow. Sometimes in the summer I drive the gravel roads to what is left of the houses of the people I knew and pull to the side and sit for a while on the hood of the truck. Solitude and open spaces may be what we think we seek, but it is social life that nourishes us, helps us grow. "Contemplation of nature alone," says Henry Walter Bates, "is not sufficient to fill the human heart and mind." Nearly all of the people who were my friends and neighbors in the years I lived in Alder Creek are dead now or have moved away, but it is because of them that the seven years I lived in Idaho were half magical and yet more real than anything else I have ever seen or done.Copyright 2002 by William Gruber. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Excerpted from On All Sides Nowhere by William E. Gruber, William Gruber
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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