As the Crow Flies

“ULRO, SPOKE THE CROW” — Guy Davenport

And the crow called. Three long days and two nights out, on the road by three for a six o’clock Denver flight from Philadelphia, with everybody until almost Center City doing over 75. Who are they, who pull up close in muscle cars for an intimidating gawk and then cut away? What are they about between three and four on a hot summer morning? Murkily tinted side windows should be illegal, and so should license plates obscured by plastic covers or wide-bracket overlap.

Early morning affability inside the terminal, people purposeful, direct, cooperative as is usual in the predawn hours. A golden sunrise across the Philadelphia skyline on the takeoff climb, then late August thick fog in the Pennsylvania valleys between the timbered ridges of the Allegheny orogeny until Sunbury or so, before spotty cloud cover until the Denver throttle down.

What a gift to fly. For only less than a century have we had it, the ability to look out and down and see what no one has known this way before: valleys of the Alleghenies closed in late summer fog, symmetries of the Midwestern grid, the flat rise of the great interior plains, the Rockies.

Denver’s huge white peak-roofed airport, 737s taxiing out and gate-ward like tails-up insects to scale. The city not in sight, high open range, the West. After slicing the southwest corner of Wyoming on the Boise flight, fires below. Unburned hills and ridges, range, the orange fire line with black burn behind, dense gray smoke lifting high. Approaching Boise across steep riverine slopes, it looks self-contained, exactly as expected.

Four takeoffs and landings in 52 hours, with a day and two nights between in the Sawtooths at 6,500 feet. On the way up into the mountains a Swainson’s hawk, magnificent from below, the cream yellow of its underwing windows. Exactly like one in midsummer January, clear-sky deep in Provincia de Buenos Aires on the way to Tandil in the pampas half a dozen years ago. Buteo migration linkage of hemispheres, summer-winter, winter-summer, fall. They go back and forth twice a year, all the way, all day seeing what we see when we fly.

Off Lucky Peak Lake I talk with a state ranger about raptors, cheatgrass, climate change, the fires. He lost a cabin in central Washington in the Taylor Bridge fire this summer. Fast white rented Nissan Altima climbs out of the Boise River Valley into high, bare-hill grazing land toward Idaho City. In the Boise Basin gold rush during the Civil War were tens of thousands, now almost a ghost town with solid old brick buildings and a single café. Road stop grocery in town on Highway 21, a block of Oregon cheese, tortillas and fruit, and then head on up grade into the timber.

Transition in elevation goes from sage and cheatgrass to ponderosa, aspen and lodgepole pine. Three vast late-August fires south, west and north of the Sawtooths burning out the gray stands of lodgepole pine, and the dignity of massive rusty-orange ponderosa, the aspen and spruce. The Trinity Ridge fire north from Featherville, the Mustang Complex fire north of Stanley and west of the Salmon, the Halstead fire between the two.

Deeper into the mountains with wood smoke catching in my clothes, I smell it in my shirt when I sweep right forearm up across my septum as I drive. Over 100 miles out from Boise where Highway 21 loops toward Highway 75 and Stanley, the Salmon River Mountains are burning down off Pinyon and Twin peaks from 10,000 feet. A huge regional Stanley fire camp on Highway 21 under the smoke, crowded with Forest Service bayberry green stake beds and pickups, contractors’ semis and box trucks, complicated kitchen and mess tents, tired people shuffling around, crew trucks moving in and out, single little space-age fabric sleeping tents. Forest Service hotshots in the ‘60s had disposable paper sleeping bags out in the open, often we were fed old Army C-4 rations on fire line and “on line” meant just that.

Out of the car from Redfish Lake south of Stanley to hike up toward the Sawtooth snow basins. At least 50 peaks in the Sawtooths scrape 10,000 feet. Approaching 7,000 feet and hundreds of miles from anything except for the fire smoke, the skies in Stanley at the headwaters of the Salmon are as they were when the trappers worked this country almost two centuries ago.

Howard Terpning-genre wilderness mountainscapes with Redfish Lake way out below, “red” from the sockeyes that spawned there in great numbers as they still do in Adams Lake and Adams River in central British Columbia. Sockeyes once climbed in the millions toward the Stanley Basin, almost 900 miles from the Columbia to the Snake to the Salmon, until the Sunbeam Dam was built downstream from Stanley in 1913. Now the dam is breached and in 2010, 1,300 adults returned to Redfish Lake to spawn and die. Sockeye progeny and resident Kokanee salmon are here now for sure, because ospreys are in abundance at the north end of Redfish. I watch two off perch in my one predawn there, then as the sun came up a half a dozen more, and there were four or five coursing around the evening before.

Climbing through a belt of aspens, I hear the scream of a Clark’s nutcracker at the junction of the main trail on the ridge. A good omen for the rest of the climb, it glides away downslope in the open. On the way up out of Fishhook Creek, sage brush, an open belt of quaking aspens, thicker stands of lodgepole and ponderosa, and then onto the steep ridge trail where the two dominant pines continue with patches of Doug firs and Engelmann spruce, golden-mantled squirrels and chipmunks now and then. Toward Marshall Lake below Williams Peak, two other new birds, black rosy-finches down low and a feeding flock of mountain chickadees pushed in easily.

A long, pleasant climb watched by ravens, usually two. No other entities on the trail all day before meeting two friendly fast-movers in their early 20s working on a wilderness trail survey coming down off Williams Peak.

“You two from Stanley?”

“He is, I’m from Wisconsin. I’ll probably end up having to go back East.”

“In the East, Wisconsin’s already almost West.”

“I hope I’m still hiking at 7,000 feet when I’m your age, and now you can go back East all rejuvenated from the Sawtooth Wilderness, right?”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“No?”

“No, you just keep on doing what you can do and that’s it.”

They move on ahead, start over the side almost immediately, and look back: “We’re taking a short cut to the ranger station.”

On the way out at the bottom, a rider along Fishhook Creek tells me what Marshall Lake looked like from the ridge. Thirtyish, looking great on a flaxen chestnut mare, beige Nevada hat, twill riding pants, roper boots, a tight white shirt, a jacket rolled behind the cantle, smooth saddle without fringes or conchos. Her mare nuzzles my head but pulls back when I turn knuckles to its muzzle so she sees immediately that I’m rusty around horses. Have never stayed in the West long enough to shake that tinge of the dude. We talk for a few minutes before she rides on toward where I’d just seen a family of three red-naped sapsuckers above the stream, and I head on down to the trailhead and drive to Stanley for some supper.

The francophone trappers who came up the Salmon into the Stanley Basin in the 1820s found the extensive flats of natural meadows where Valley Creek joins the Salmon apparently under spring plowing. Black and grizzly bears there in the hundreds were rooting and pawing up the soil for wild celery and the other spring tubers.

Two pack horses, ride one, and next day ride the other. Hauling Kentucky rifle with a curly maple stock and a name like Nevermiss or Sally-Sue, a flintlock pistol, powder horn, extra flint, hunting knife and scabbard, skinning knife and wet stone, deer hide cape and chaps, slouch hat, oilskins, Hudson Bay blanket or two, hard sole high-top moccasins, rope, frying pan, spyglass, mirror, salt, spoon. Their first language being French or English or Shoshone, tendency to talk to themselves, their horses and their long rifles.

In town under smoke from the two big fires to the north, columns rising like vertical cumulus, rose gray in the early evening sun, the biggest still pulsing as it builds. Wide Stanley streets unpaved except for Highway 21, unpainted plank-sided commercial buildings with mud porches and mudroom double entrances. Go in one of the three places to eat on Ace of Diamonds Street and it’s good.

Have a table facing four people who look like they either control clutches of timber sales or come to Stanley only now and then: a couple in their 70s, and a late-50ish man with a much younger wife, all four well turned-out. The old man, thick white hair, tired, pensive, looked not overly savvy and as though he’d done what he had done and that was it; his wife, white-haired and quiet.

The younger woman a younger wife, dyed hair, her husband edgy, the talker. A balding type that haunts me, an explainer, excuser, complainer, opportunist, justifier, probably a dangerous coward, a shaven face over a skull, cheeks, chin and jaw, high forehead, bald pate, hair brushed straight back along his temples. Unsure hazel eyes, raccooned and moving faster than his attention, trapped in what he is. My father’s face at the age of his suicide, Claude Simon’s face a Gallic version. Every time I see one of those, I study the face relieved that I am as I am, that not much of me is like that.

Out on Ace of Diamonds and around the corner to the car looking to the north at the fires’ smoke diminished in the evening cool, still a couple of hours of light. In Forest Service parlance the fires are lying down for the night. Drive north down the Salmon to Sunbeam, direction of the Bitterroots and Montana, the empty narrow valley of the vividly graveled ancient Salmon River hushed and stately in the quiet evening. Above the Sunbeam Hot Springs, four male mergansers in the dark shadow of the canyon finished with the day stand quietly on a gravel bar preening. On the way back up to the Stanley Basin, the dramatic glare of the evening sun in and out over the ridge lines, a big mule deer doe with those remarkable ears out of the thick bankside willow brush to drink, a second doe and twin fawns, their spots nearly gone, enter the river to their fetlocks and stand there in the dusk.

Almost 200 years past, the lakeside lodge populated with multi-kid Mormon families who have inherited the Idaho-Utah earth with the confidence of full entitlement. If it came to that, the same National Guard troops who control the August traffic into the big campaign fire zones right now would be out there on the mountain-state roads from California, Denver and Seattle blocking off some future Mad Max world impinging on Mormon family mountain state serenity. Push to shove, I’d rather be up here with them at 6,000 feet with warm clothes, plenty to read and reserve food in the car than most places in the world, until they began to turn on those outside the covenants.

Leave Redfish Lake two hours before sunup for the Boise airport, the moon down, Cassiopeia and the Andromeda spiral at the zenith, the windshield dew close to freezing. Two Forest Service pumpers moving out of the fire camp past Stanley, no other headlights for the next 60 miles on wild-country Highway 21. Full dawn by Kirkham Hot Springs down at 4,000 feet, then a good biscuit gravy breakfast at the café in Idaho City.

“That’s good you like the biscuits, I’m proud of those biscuits.” He’s young, wears a royal blue Boise State T-shirt, the two of them seem to be the youngest people in town. She doggedly runs a silex pot out to refill the gray-ponytailed regulars on the wood plank walk out front.

Out of the mountains down on the Boise River before the freeway, a turnout memorial for the Fort Hall to Fort Boise section of the Oregon Trail. There it’s a narrow wagon road trace through the blond windlestraw of dry late-summer cheatgrass, Bromus tectorm, that did not grow here when prairie schooners passed through. Walk a couple of hundred yards on the wagon trace of that 2,000-mile route from the wide Missouri to the valleys of Oregon hearing the wind in the sun, oxen groan and the prairie schooner creak.

All who passed on westward here. Simple, sobering, magnificent.

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