27 years and it still hits like an abrupt force when I catch them between trees and street lights, above the rise of the bench. Like the moment you jump into a cold body of water. To tell the truth, I am defenseless: compelled to stop and touch my eyes to as much of that land, strange and captivating as it is.
I drive east. Downtown rises up and the foothills behind. Or from the Chinden ridge, like a fence line distant and to the north. I should watch the road but if I look away from the hills they might be lost, so I grab for them, left to right to left to right again like reading words over and over.
I see them again from my driveway. They are gold or peach-colored in the sunset, visible in a brief, quiet moment to the northeast filling the space between the neighbors’ tall evergreen trees.
My house is not rich enough to live further up the bench, on ground higher and substantial as to afford more views of the hills. Even so.
Regardless of elevation, human eyes are not equipped to handle a constant audience with the foothills. Like children grown in the dark and then exposed suddenly to sunlight, our eyes are weak and amazed by the strange brilliance. It should be enough to know that they are there and you will see them again, you will see them again soon.
I know I would burn if those moments went on too long, but living things have a nature of wanting more of what kills them. The sun, the flame, the foothills.
My home is a frozen, desolate high desert. Blistered and radiant.
My home is a cool blue shadowland on one slope and the stunning white heat of the sun on the other.
Snow and ice layer the winter months. Sweat hangs on the summer, blessed from time to time by hot, dry winds. Blue flowers grow in the spring.
In December, inversion traps clouds between the sickle of mountains. In August, smoke hazes in from burning pines, hemlock. The same dry wind crosses bluffs and plateaus, snatching the smoke up into its apron then casting it down into the bowl of the valley. (The smoke makes all sun and all light orange in the morning and at dusk, and daylight gray in between.)
The Owyhees birth great sage brushes, rooted in dusty sand and hard clay. Miles all gray-green colored, cut by dark rivers and black lava rock. Canyons with boiling water and small, brownish ground critters. I’ve seen a coyote on a fence as often as I’ve seen one on its feet.
It is full of secrets, the desert. No matter which direction or number of miles, each journey is new and revealing.
My home is in the scalding water born of some magic or science beneath the crust of the earth that springs up, clear and hot, and meets a cold line along side of a river. There are many flies, but they are a small noise. The canyon walls are protective. They guard your voice and thoughts and the sacred water.
My home is farmland forged at the distant end of dirt roads, deeply rutted from spring rains, where life is coaxed out of the clay soil. Cattle and grasses and root vegetables. There are signs of life in the built fences and occasional machinery. But I remember now that every time I drove here with my father, we never saw another living soul.
Nothing is more still than how the desert breathes before a summer storm.
My home is the lonely wilderness.
Here trees are the alpha and the omega, everywhere and all the time. They harbor unforgiving ravines and rivers that carve deep and slender paths through rock mountains, bubbling hot springs, creeks and great, granite boulders.
There are those that know something about the danger and solitude of the wildness in this country.
Maybe there is something in our DNA, formed without our implicit consent and dictated by ancient biology. It is a strange tribe and breed of person that feels the pull to go alone into the mountains. To face and be in the vastness and the closeness, to invite the loneliness. Heavy and nothing all at once. Perhaps that string of DNA bounds us close together, so that when we pass each other on the mountain we also pass back and forth a kind of knowing.
There are those that will go when the lonely wilderness calls.
In 2016, Idaho had the 8th highest suicide rate in the country, 57% above the national average.
There are those that will go when the wilderness calls and they will not return, and the truth of their stories will never be known. I won’t draw conclusions for you but it’s an illustration of my home that begs consideration.
In Idaho, there are 4.8 million acres of wilderness, ranking third in the country. Folks get lost in it. They walk into forests and mountains and find every one of those 4.8 million acres, but nobody finds them.
How do you assign a statistic to those people who are never found? (In the writing of this essay, I conducted research to identify a number or estimate of people missing in the Idaho wilderness; I could not find any statistics. Perhaps it is too vague, or perhaps it is because we don’t really know the depth of those who are lost.)
In 2014, Lucius Robbi left Horseshoe Bend to return to the University of Montana and was not seen alive again. August that year we anxiously followed the story in the news from the safety of our city, keeping respectable distance from any tree or ravine. After some days, with the assistance of a helicopter, a search party found Robbi’s vehicle at the bottom of a 60-foot embankment five miles from Stanley, deep in the Sawtooth national forest.
And another: DeOrr Kunz, the toddler that went missing on a family camping trip in 2015. It’s a morbid favorite, discussed at length and argued over, placed at the center of podcasts and news stories. It remains one of many cold cases and one of many instances where a human went missing in the wilderness.
Patrick Lusk and Jason Gritten intended to canoe across the Salmon near Riggins in 2015. It was May, and the river took them. It’s one thing to be lost in a city, or even in the desert — while vast, it has an openness. Tragedy catches easily on every obstacle in mountain terrain. Gritten was found near fifteen miles down the Salmon river. Two weeks after the men were reported missing, they found Patrick. He was my sister’s cousin by marriage.
Four names that could, truly, be any four names. I do not know how many in total are gone, or when to start counting, or who they are. I know that more join them every year.
The question is whether you are the person who craves the emptiness, knows deeply the promises of danger and peace but also fulfillment of some unspoken need. The person who hears her when she calls and goes to her, finds a satisfaction and becomes, willingly, part of those 4.8 million acres. Or are you the person who is crushed beneath the weight of the emptiness, who can go into the wilderness but cannot find your way or the strength to go back out again.
“Best of all he loved the fall. The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods floating on the trout streams and above the hills. The high blue windless sky . . . Now he will be part of them forever.” — Ernest Hemingway
My home is people and also the absence of people. It is me, where ever I go in this place or outside of it.
Sagebrush grows dry in my brain cavity. Sometimes I find a fragrant leaf tucked behind my ear. Spring water runs in my veins and I taste the minerals and the rocks inside my cheeks. Pine needles settle at the bottoms of my feet. I smell the thick, moist smoke of them burning in the cold morning.