The first unmistakable sigtns of age ... bonfire on a sandbar on the River of No Return
Written: 11:06 pm April 4, 1991
Carter & I spent quite a bit of the month of March on the road. We started out on the train that Amtrak officially calls "The Pioneer", but the crew on the train actually calls "The Toy Train" because its only 4 cars long, including the dining car, riding in extremely deluxe pampered comfort from Seattle to Denver, Co. and then, after a brief stay in Boulder, we headed back westward, driving in Dave & Dixie Lewellin's modern, turbo-charged Volvo station-wagon, car-camping our way slowly west-by-northwestward, looking for steep slopes covered with powder snow to climb up and then ski down and for pristine hot-springs to soak in. These hedonistic pursuits are actually quite similar, in that they are difficult and ephemeral, inaccessible and ultimately chancy: you can invest a lot of time and effort locating and reaching these places and yet there is no guarantee that you will find what you need, when you get there, even if you have driven for hours on awful roads and hiked or climbed for miles. The line between a hot spring that is perfect and one that is too hot to sit down in is very subtle, and steep ski slopes covered with perfect wind-deposited powder snow are prone to collapse into disastrous avalanches whenever you add the weight of a skier or two to their inherently unstable snowpack.
On the other hand, soaking with friends in a steaming bubbling pool in the frozen wintery nite, leaning back on white granite boulders while you watch the moon rise and gradually illuminate the swirling steam, and then the rocks and finally watch in wonder as the moonlight turns the inky black pool clear and transforms the tiny droplets of water glistening on everyones' skin into sparkling silvery jewels. It is worth the risk: floating like salamanders in a clear, fast flowing hot stream with a white sandy bottom, surrounded by ponderosa pine trees and red-shooted willows, exhaultant in the morning sunlight is about as good as life gets, and carving tightly linked turns down a steep slope in knee-deep powder is probably as close to flight as most people can ever come.
I finished my second magazine article, a history and overview of the controversy surrounding a pair of hydroelectric dams on the Elwha River, west of Port Angeles, and handed it to my editor the afternoon of the day we left, and to celebrate, I left the laptop (the only computer in the house these days) at home. Instead of typing, I revisited cursive writing in a little reporter's spiral notebook. It's not a bad tool, actually, and I got into the discipline of recording a "snapshot" containing a few of the sparkliest details of our daily adventures as we drove along. Since I kept a running journal of the events around me whenever I was free to be a silent passenger, and Dixie kept a thorough time/place/distance log-book noting the time, date, odometer reading, and map-location of most of the places we stopped for gas or food or play, out of these two very different documents, I should have little difficulty putting together a fairly complete chronology.
Thus, if I can finagle the time to put it together, I have the basis of a fairly fresh story, ripe with detail, readily at hand, with little need to reconstruct it, and for the amount of effort invested, it should turn out to be the most complete record I've ever produced, and I will send you the account of this journey as soon as I get it typed up... In spite of the wealth of detail I captured, there is still a lot missing, because I spent a lot of the trip sitting in the back-seat reading, reading aloud in fact, narrating the geologist's story of the outstanding countryside that was dancing past our windows to my fellow travelers, of whom only Dixie can read in the car at all without succumbing to motion sickness, but I am so immune to it, and so badly wish I were a good reader, that I became the official "dedicated reader" and probably read over 100 pages out-loud. It got so obsessive that in almost every town we stopped at that could support a real bookstore, I'd drop $20 or $30 dollars on local guidebooks and geology books, and from the various and occasionally contradictory analysis they provided, I suspect we all came up with a pretty clear understanding of what was around us.
Before we left, Carter said that part of my job on this trip was to figure out what I was going to write about next, and I found two likely projects.
The first inspiration came while we were riding the Amtrak through the Columbia Gorge, when it became obvious that the train ride was incomplete. It both needed and deserved a top-quality "geological soundtrack" to help the passengers, myself included, understand what they were seeing out there on the other side of the windows.
"The Pioneer" runs down the Columbia Gorge, across the irrigated desert of Northeastern Oregon, through LaGrande, were buried under hundreds of feet of gravel in the bed of the Grande Rhonde, hides the center of the Columbia Basalt flows, where only 17 million years ago one of the largest meteorites ever to strike the earth tore a rent through the earth's crust, shattering it all the way to its molten core. The impact created tears and fissures many miles long that allowed vast flows of totally homogeneous white-hot basalt as thin as running water to pour out over the landscape at over 10,000 degrees. Single flows, some containing upwards of 100 cubic miles of material, flooding the country-side hundreds of feet deep and traveling at over 25 mph, covered as much as 20,000 square miles. Over the 3 million years it took this catastrophic, infected wound to heal, the leaking magma from the center of the planet covered 77,000 square miles with 90,000 cubic miles of basalt.
After dinner the train turned southeastward and began to climb up and over the ancient margin of the North American Continent, winding past the Seven Devils, ancient islands from far out in the South-Pacific, sea-floor volcanoes like Tahiti or the Hawaiian Islands of today, that docked against North America 25 million years ago. They were simply too big for the geological processes to swallow, sea-floor mountains of Himalayan proportions, so big that some of them got stuck in the subduction zone where the continent was spreading westward over the eastward-sliding ancient ocean floor, and then suddenly, the train cuts inland, climbing into the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, "basin and Range" fault-blocks of tilted, uplifted Dolomite, like the Alps, jagged slabs of grayish-brown limestone tipped upward like the teeth on a rip-saw, and sharpened like fangs by pleistocene glaciers. The days are too short in March: at the very peak of the journey's scenic intensity the train plunges into night-time and emerges at dawn just east of Salt Lake City. In the first 16 hours, it cuts a swath through some of the most exceptional scenery this side of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, and almost no-one on the train had ever heard the story the scenery told.
As we passed through the Cascade range just west of Hood River, the conductor came on the PA to tell everyone about how Tom Sellick (a popular TV star, I take it) had bought the little island in the Columbia River that we were passing, and seizing the initiative, I started explaining to people around me how the geology worked, how Glacial Lake Missoula, the largest ice-dammed freshwater lake in the history of the North American Continent had cut much of the present Columbia Gorge in the first 48 hours of the greatest flood yet discovered in the geological history of the planet. All this happened only 18 - 20,000 years ago, at the peak of the last ice-age, when the ice-dam that blocked the Clark Fork River in western Montana finally floated away and spilled over 500 cubic miles of water from Glacial Lake Missoula, a lake over 2000 feet deep that once covered over 3000 square miles, as if from a bucket, hurled out across the Columbia basalt flows and over the Palouse scablands of eastern Washington into the Columbia River's drainage and how for the 2 weeks it took it to drain, the Columbia River held over ten times as much water as all the rest of the rivers in the world at that time put together. I drew crowds limited only by the strength of my voice. So now I have to sell the idea to Amtrak, and learn enough to be able to write it... but what a delicious research project!
The other story that I stumbled on this trip is actually more my kind of project. The research is all books and telephone interviews, and newspaper clippings and intrigue, instead of the funner, outdoorsey stuff, no tromping around in the boonies with a hammer, a notebook and a hand-lens. It's probably a lot easier to sell though. I learned about it on a small ranch outside of Vernal, Utah, from Joe Jessup, a very interesting packer/outfitter we stayed with, who runs a horse-ranch inside the Ute Indian Reservation. He told me that all of the really big ski areas in Utah have been quietly cloud-seeding for over 10 years, to keep their ski slopes bathed in the white powder that people come there for. This practice has been robbing the land to the east of its rightful water, to the considerable detriment of its ability to produce food or even support life. We saw a few "paradigm-quality" signs of the change in climate these actions have already caused, a few miles north-east of his ranch, just a little farther up White Rocks Canyon, where several large irrigation reservoirs were standing in the hazy spring sunlight, completely empty at the peak of the snow-melt season, no water at all: only prairie grasses and sage brush growing on the bottom. The impacts of these activities are significant. The incidence of large forest fires is increasing, the salt-lakes in central Utah are rising, causing salt pollution problems in the irrigated farmlands, and ranchers east of the resorts want to sue over violations of their historical water rights to the rain and snow that no longer falls on their forests and fields. We're talking big problems, but big business too. Skiing is so big that Utah's license plates say "Ski Utah" on 'em, and the resorts are owned by rich people like Robert Redford, enviro-actor, and Robert Macnamara, former Secretary of State.
TRANSCRIPTION OF THE PEN & INK TRAVEL JOURNAL:
3/23/91, 10:30 pm. We are ensconced in our toasty goretex abode on the edge of a snowfield in the floodplain of the Blue River, just past Ute Pass Road, about 2 miles up Cataract Creek Road, off Utah's Hiway 9, which runs north over Rabbit-ears pass to Steamboat Springs. We are at the topend of a reservoir called the Big Thompson, a Bureau of Reclamation project. The snow is just like back home & the locals are scared silly about avalanches. We spent a day in boulder exploring Dave & Dixie's past. Got a hardcover copy of Galen Rowell's In the Throneroom of the mountain Gods, which has been out of print for years, & found a pair of skis for Andrea at Neptune Mountaineering, a sort of Mt. Constancey store. They have Ramer bindings & are yellow and only cost $80. They belong to Greg, the owner, who appears to be seloling all his toys to join an ashram, or somesuch. No skis for Dixie. We found Blue Toute Neige demos in 190, 200, & 205 lengths with Rivas on em for about $200/pair at Chickenhead Sports in Idaho Springs but didn't buy anything yet. Our first ski day was kind of a bust, in the front range, near Eldora. We got off to a late stary, after shipping a lot of extra stuff home by UPS to make more room in the car. We set off carrying our skis up the road, headed for the Brainard Lake trail. Off the road, the trees were too close together to ski safely and out of the trees, the trail was very fast and fairly dangerous with a breakable crust and patches of ice. There were a lot of cars at the trail head, everything from tubers and tourists in street-shoes to ice fishermen, and we could have camped there, but it was obvious that the quality of the snow was not going to get better, and so we headed off westward.
We camped out last nite in front of an old hardrock mine-shaft outside of the town of [Empire?Enterprise], on the first wide-spot turnout we came too, off a real cliff-hanger of a road, several hundred vertiginously vertical feet above the headlights of highway 40, a few miles west of Idaho Springs. It was our first real night out, and we probably waited a bit too long before we went looking for a campsite, cuz when we found ourselves a half-mile or so into a rapidly worsening snow-covered 1-lane road, we had very little in the way of a contingency plan, and ended up crapshooting in the dark. The backcountry ski routes of Colorado book we got at Neptune mountaineering in Boulder showed a trailhead fairly close to where we were, and we decided to go for it, figuring it was a safe bet that it would at least be plowed, off the highway and probably level.
The road got steeper and rougher and narrower and hairy and finally, scarey. It got down to a mere notch cut in a sheer rock cliff with hundreds of feet of exposure, only a foot or so wider than the car, and at the narrowest point, the roadbed itself was obviously collapsing. We had stuff piled all the way to the roof behind the backseat, so backing down what we'd already come up was a pretty awful prospect, at least comparable to proceeding. Dave stopped the car in a cleft in the rock, directly in front of the washout. I got out with my half-dead mini-maglite, and walked it, mostly scouting for a place wide enough to turn the car around. The narrow place was pretty bad. In fact, it was quite a bit worse than it looked in the car's headlights, because it was undercut. My wimpy flashlight couldn't tell how far, but it showed that the road bed had been built CCC-style, like a rock wall, and so I figured it was more stable than it would have been, had we been in the Olympics. The turnout was less than 100 yards ahead, and not withstanding a fairly large collection of broken glass, it was clearly big enough and level enough to camp in, and in the morning, the mineshaft was a great attractive nuisance. .
We lay around in the sun like beach-bacon, degenerates on vacation while Dave cooked pancakes on the Peak1, and then we hit the road, driving out hiway 70 toward the backside of Loveland Pass. We turned off the hiway at Dillon, and then turned right off the pass road at the keystone ski area, onto the 2 lane road to Montezuma, Which is such a weird town that most of the political posters say "RE-ERECT JOHN RAMER MARE" There is onlt 1 intersection in town, and there is a sani-kan there, and a turnout there to park in. You ski up a road a lot like the deer park road for about 2 miles to the snowed-in remains of a ghost-town in a setting beyond belief, surrounded for 360 degrees by awe-inspiring 14,000 foot peaks. The town is semi-occupied and quasi-refurbished. the mine and most of the buildings that used to be there are in ruins, crushed like bugs by the stupendous avalanches the valley concocts, but there is still one building intact, a very rustic lodge which appears to be the only place in the valley that all the avalanches since 1863 have missed, and on its veranda, a very hardcore backcountry guide named Rob runs a rustic eatery. He offers the usual fare: sandwiches, hot chocolate and coffee, but what he really serves is cookies and an outrageously delicious mug of hot cider with a lot of cinnamon, applesauce and orange pulp in it. He appears to be in his middle 30's and rumor has it he used to be a US olympic team downhill skier, with some medals to show for his efforts. He has cabins for rent, ranging from $5 to $55 a night depending on the luxury of the accommodations. Now he guides 55 mile cross-country epics, 30 day ski-trips and helicopter assisted skiing and mountain-biking adventures and for excitement, he runs an international high-altitude rescue service for agencies and people who crash their airplanes into 8000 meter mountains in Pakistan and other such foolishness. At the fork in the trail that lead to his lodge he had hung a cardboard sign that basically forbid people not equipped with avalanche beacons and shovels from proceeding up the valley. He lives directly in the line of fire of three monstrous avalanche tracks all winter and certainly has the expert's credentials and the local's inside knowledge, and he was seriously freaked out by the day's potential for catastrophic releases. Already that morning less than a mile up hill from his lodge, skiers had triggered a gigantic collapse over a hundred yards wide that had run for quite a distance and barely missed burying them, and he ordered us emphatically NOT to try skiing on the slopes to the north, especially the beautiful terrain above the ruins of the mine, because, as he pointed out "most of the snow from the day before was still hanging in the trees" and because the big air-temperature thermometer on his wall was sitting at 40 degrees. "At 42 degrees, he warned, the avalanches start to go off like clockwork, whether there are people skiing on them or not." Rarely does one get so much food for thought for the price of a mug of spicey cider...
We'd found a great glade above the trail on the way up to his place, sort of like the slope north of the Poma-lift run at Hurricane ridge, and we'd skied it in blissful ignorance of the danger it contained. It was covered with a perfect frosting of thick virgin powder, 2 or 3 feet deep, with no crust on it at all, wind deposited leftovers from a 2 day storm that had stopped about 30 hours before. Carter & I skinned up it and skied back down the steepest part of the slope, turning pretty tight down the fall line, and then I got out the camera and gave Dave my skis, cuz he had climbed up there on Carter's little 190cm no-wax Fischer 99's and they were simply not big enough to float him in powder that deep. The tree of them went back up, higher than I gone on the previous run, and then for his descent, Dave took off to the west in a broad traversing righthand sweep, and the slope under him made a gut-chilling rumble and threatened to come tumbling down. It got him pretty excited, sitting out there in the middle of an acre or two of rattlesnake deadly snow that obviously was getting ready to go for a ride, but wasn't saying where. It did not come down with him, but it prepared us to take Rob's warnings at least as seriously as he had given them. The pass above the Inn was seriously spooky. Snow had blown over the mountain & deposited thick sculptured slabs as much as 20 feet thick and hundreds of feet high in the past 3 days, and none of it had fallen down yet, except the big release at the head of the valley. THe sun was starting to pass behind the peaks to the west, and the trail was rapidly turning icy, so we turned around before we got to the area's famous ski-bowls. We'd been skinning uphill above 11,000 feet and sleeping above 9000 feet, but our energy was still pretty good, and we were going uphill as fast as the locals on the trail, although we stopped to rest more often.
Carter & I conspired to trash the little Nikon and my 24mm lens. There is a design defect in small body Nikons that makes it possible to insert the lens with the stop-down lever depressed. That error allows the diaphragm control arm from the lens to get hooked on the wrong side of the stop-down lever, which is "L" shaped. This situation is irreversible, unless you can get inside through the shutter opening to bend something. Un fortunately, this action is impossible, because the e result of the incorrect alignment is that the mirror is stuck halfway up and the shutter is half-tripped and won't open. Thoroughly ghastly situation.
Train travel is fairly relaxed, once you get over the cigarette smoke. They need to hire a systems analyst of some sort to look at the problem. In the lounge car, which is the primary social area on the train, and by far the best place to watch the world go by, they have confined all the smokers to the lower level of the 2-level car. This undoubtedly appeared to be reasonable to some politician, but any engineer could have told them that every time the doors at the ends of the car are both open it would create a vacuum and suck the smoke saturated air up into the non-smoking area.
The train from Seattle has only 4 cars. They call it the pioneer in the official stuff, but the crew affectionately calls it the toy train, and it appears to be something of a plum to work on it. Not withstanding the cigarette smoke, it is a ball and goes through some very outrageous scenery, especially in Idaho. It's like a big party all the way to Salt Lake City. they stuff you with food, ply you with wine, and it's full of interesting people. The "economy sleeper" compartment we rented is a little small, like 2 first-class airplane seats set face to face, across a small fold-out pocket table with a checkerboard top. The upper bunk folds down from the outside wall, like a pipe-cot, and the bedding is sheet blanket bed-rolls. It works fine to run the upper cot folded down all day, and it makes a great place to spread out your crud.
The lower seats recline independently, to two levels. If you fully recline both of them, they form a reasonably comfortable bed. If you recline one of them halfway and the other all the way, the form a chaise-lounge, and if both are halfway down, you can lean back in luxury and there is still enough room for your legs and feet in the space between the seats, if you don't want them up on the seat, next to your partner. There is a small closet, a pocket door and a window separating you from the corridor and several fooks on the walls. Not a bad packing job for a space that's actually smaller than 4 X 7 feet. The "Deluxe" or "Family" compartments are about 3 times as big, and only cost twice as much. They would be a great deal for 4 people, but are probably unnecessarily posh for 2.
Tomorrow we have to drive 280 miles to get to Vernal Utah & up into the Uinta Mountains where Dixie knows a cowboy banjo-picker who runs an outfitting business that takes fishermen, video-makers and wildlife photographers from the city deep into the wilderness. We are going to drive through Dinosaur National Monument on the way to Vernal. The Goretex tent is nice & warm, but writing by headlamp in the double sleepingbag is awkward: it needs an armhole, and an arm, to keep mine warm. We have seven days left, to cover over 1500 miles of road & probably will want to do at least 500 miles of side-trips, too. Next time we have to allow more time off, but still, I think it's gonna work OK. The hardest part so far has been the frustrating mixture of the promise of exquisite skiing snow and the threat of violent avalanches, which are reputed to be actually killing quite a few people this week. Snow, as we all know, is a crap-shoot. A dozen or so Coyotes are howling operatically all around us, but have seen no big quadrupeds yet. In spite of the current absence or invisibility of the place's normal residents, we have dubbed this campground ElkShit, in honor of the countless piles of the stuff that threaten our every footstep. Dave & Dixie are asleep in the car, Carter is asleep next to me. My candle goeth out: your humble scribe shall seek sleep in another weird place, across the river from hiway 9, where the nearly full moon has a gigantic aureole around it & outside the aureole, the stars are somewhat obscured by the ice-crystals in the air. Last nite at 10:30pm the sky was blood-red, like an Aurora Borealis the color of a highway flare, probably NASA's doing, but we were too busy putting up the tent to get it on film for you. Tonite we set up before dark, but still finished dinner by headlamp and candle-lantern, proving both that we can and we cannot learn very much from experience. Hope you are having twice as much fun as we are, assuming that you can handle it: it could be hazardous to your health.
Kremmling, Colorado was an empty barren cowboy town with wide streets and handpainted signs. It looks like a place people come to commit suicide, or murder. The place we stopped for breakfast seemed to be the only show in town. It had a sign apologizing for the lack of a non-smoking area, and the waitress was the primary offender. This is real geezer country, with hard-rock on the radio in the kitchen and real indian art on the walls. Rabbit-ears pass had stupendous terrain: endless strings of gentle open glades connecting steep slopes covered by widely space trees, but we got there too early in the morning, and there was a godawful breakable crust on top of everything, and a thin gray cloudcover and 15mph wind that's keeping it from softening, so we're heading down to Steamboat, which I can already see from the pass is salthered with snow. As we get closer, I can see that it is also utterly infested with H-O trainset artificially sweetened cuteness, and now, as we hit the real stripmalls we are surrounded by intensely ugly large-scale development. We dropped some loot at the Skihaus. No skis, but we got some Riva cable-bindings for Dixie's skis and some interesting miscellany for Joe's stash, Rainey bindings and other toys, mostly avalanche related. There was a Schwinnn Paramount on display that had ridden over 100,000 miles and circumnavigated the planet, all set up to go around again. Very sophisticated, detailed out impeccably, all the way to the monopod integrated into the rear luggage carrier, the red anodized Sigg fuel bottle caved in artfully to allow tire clearance, and the Melita Coffee filter. There were pictures of the bike in central Asia, set up with a tripod outrigger and a third wheel that allowed it to travel on railroad tracks, and pictures of it riding in other equally improbable terrain. It's a complex but very nice store, located in a new ugly mall on the east-side of town, with 4 different cash registers each located in semi-autonomous but interconnected commercial zones that sold everything from gas, wine and fast-food to skis, Patagonia and VauDe clothes, high-end mountain bikes and other decadent toys for grownup kids. Once I was inside, it was easy to forget how recently we had been in the mountains, but the second we walked outside, it was as grotesque as SOuthCenter or Bellevue. Downtown Steamboat looks at least as bad as Lahaina, Hawaii. The place is an unmitigated disaster: an even mix of tour-mite panderers, tee-shirt emporiums, fast-food fillups and computer stores with punny names, superimposed, with all the subtlety of a modern refinery tank-farm on a sleepy old cowboy town. I started to go on a feeding frenzy, running into any store that said "Ski-Sale" & finally had to get rescued, it was pretty bad, actually.
But we're OK again, on cruise-control for Dinosaur. 10 or 15 miles outside of town we passed a stupendously ugly coal-fired electric plant, with its own railroad running from the Sun Coal Company. It seems to support the town of Hayden, where the only business that looks thriving is the local CAT dealer, which has a lot full of big yellow ore-haulers and seam rippers. US 40 now means cows and horses and "forsale: 575 acres" signs. We've run Tim's Disney Girls tape all the way through now, backing it up to replay things now and then, from before Rabbit-ears all the way to Craig. Now we're starting "Fusion in a Bottle", which fits right in with the National Guard Armory and the first hitchhikers we've seen since Blackhawk. Passed a drive-through liquorstore called "The Booze Shop". The guy in Blackhawk had a sign almost like a sandwich board that said "need money for food and gas" on one part and "only the wicked pretend they do not see" on the other. Assuming we were exempt from picking up hitchhikers, because our car was so obviously full, I'd waved and smiled at him like a simpering idiot, before I'd read his sign. Craig has an even bigger, uglier coalfired generator than Hayden and the landscape is becoming positively wind-scoured: nothing taller than a tumbleweed except the shade-trees planted around some of the older farmhouses. Most folks live in trailers and double-wides right next to the highway. This is getting pretty fucking Bleak! If it were not all hacked to bits with fences and driveways, the rolling tumbleweed landscape would probably not feel nearly so harsh, but the creeks are unnaturally muddy. Only the antelopes really look right at home. Cowboy riding through knee-deep mud, rounding up a renegade steer, the snow has almost all melted so the chewed-off fields look really soggy and inhospitable.
The U-shaped valley we are driving down looks like the work of a much bigger river, one sending stupendous volumes of glacial meltdown into Utah. The side-channels are steep and deep, cutting through thin layers of mudstone and conglomerated sandstone, all uniformly yellow-gray like the deer running between the fence and the hiway. 315 acres dry river bottom for sale, an oil company burned to the ground, hey, look: see how they dike their fields and flood em to raise cow-food around Maybell, which is an hour east of Dinosaur. Wonder where thre water comes from these days...
The road is so straight you can see ahead for 15 miles and count the tops of at least 8 of these enormous rolling ripples, five hundred foot deep wrinkles on the face of the land. The road climbs and falls and climbs again, all the while losing a little altitude on each successive rise. It feels like we are driving across the bottom of an ancient inland sea, gradually corrugated by some relentless westward pressure into these endless rolling northwest-southeast mounds, sparsely sprinkled with sagebrush which keeps the silt from moving around too much, except where the roads cut through, exposing the silt of deltas, and the cobbles of ancient riverbeds. The rock is so soft and unconsolidated the highway can hardly hold itself together. the pavement is breaking into panels. On the right, we have a big yellow-green eagle flying right alongside us, disturbed from its roadkill. This is almost immediately followed by a fair sized herd of deer right along-side the road: Oh, I see, they are heralding the entrance to DeerLodge, and the first Juniper forest. Steeper valleys and open slopes covered with shrubby trees amid the sage. Splattered Jack Rabbits... "Fusion in a Bottle's" music is too abrasive or this subtle landscape. The clouds' rough gray stripes and ragged white borders play a very calm counterpoint to the terrestrial landscape, the gray green plants and the yellow gray rock... 'Scuse me while I shoot the sky... the terrestrial ecology is dominated by 5 plants mostly, 2 sages, 2 grasses, and the Junipers. Dixie knows that 2 of them, Russian thistle and Cheat-grass, were invaders: escapees from the pioneers. Hard to image the place with 2 less plants, so I wonder what we lost.
There is a very red strata in the cliffs to the north: about 500 feet and probably millions of years above us. Gotta get us some roadside geology books! Seems like were cutting into a big anticline: everything seems tilted up toward the southwest, but I keep getting confused by what I'm seeing. The Rangerette at the visitor shop at Park HQ set us skedaddling up to the Quarry where they are digging the dinosaurs out of a huge rock wall, to buy our geology books before they close the cash register at 4:30pm. After 200 miles of waiting for the perfect place to get a picture of the neon-yellow (mormon tea) and red-orange-black (tamarisk-willow) shrubs against the snow, that grow in such picturesque arrays along the meanders of the river banks in Colorado, we're now solidly into an entirely new planet now, uplifted red and yellow sandstones, covered with sage and Juniper.
We spent two nites at the J/L ranch, sleeping upstairs in the new barn Joe Jessup built this fall, above his horses. The first nite there was a scared 6 week old puppy in a small cage downstairs that barked and whined for hours. Joe & Linda had picked it up on the road, where someone had dumped it to sink or swim. Next morning 2 Ute Indians came by in a blue Jeep and picked up the dog, and on our way out next day, we saw it, still in its cage in front of their house in town. Joe is not really a rancher, he's a packer, an outfitter. He takes people on horseback into a 57,000 acre roadless area in the Uintas, a rugged east-west mountainrange in northeastern Utah. His ranch is one of the few private inholdings inside the Ute Indian Reservation. He owns 40 acres so far, and leases 80 acres more on the failed cattle ranches that are adjacent to his land. A lot of his place got burned in 1989, when a forest fire tore through the landscape. The fire ran in a great circle and burned up 16,000 acres of Junipers, which now look like ghosts, barkless black and white frames, stark against the gray of the winter sky. Joe has 16 horse and keeps 2 of them shod all year round. Linda has her own horse, a fancy thoroughbred she used to steeple-chase all over the country. She and Joe got together last year when she came west for a pack-trip and decided to stay.
The Rangerette at Dinosaur had given us a backroad shortcut to take in to Vernal, that turned out to be exactly the same length as the highway and twice as slow, and because it joins the highway north-west of town, we actually missed the town itself on our first try. Vernal Utah (the name is a contraction of words Venal and Vermin) is a mormon town, surrounded by reservations. Most of the reservations belong to oil companies, who have dug up millions of acres searching for fertilizer and energy. Their workers power the local economy, and the uncertainty of this economy gives the town a real frontier feel. In a town half the size of Port Angeles, there are at least 4 pawnshops. Our first stop was the first 7-11 we came to, in a little stripmall near the highschool. We stopped to use the payphone and find out how to get to the J/L ranch. Next door to the 7-11, we found "the Beauty Asylum & nail Co." an establishment ranking right up there with "Uneeda Boutique" and the "Curl-up and Dye".
There was an old rusty Pontiac at the gas pump occupied by 2 unsavory characters, oilfield types, who immediately took notice of Carter and Dixie, and when Carter finished gassing the Volvo and moved it over by the phone, they pulled up next door. To attract Carter's attention, one of them noisily hawked and spat up a huge wad of phlegm and tobacco juice, which flew out his open window and almost onto her driver's side door. Sort of a rustic visiting card, I figure. I had set up the F3 and the tripod, to get a picture of the Beauty Asylum sign, and it was taking its time exposing the film. Of course, it was actually completely dark out by then, and the sign was not illuminated, so certain things, like the physics and chemistry of modern photographic materials, have to be accepted or forgiven. From the 7-11 we headed back to town, in search of dinner. We drove the entire length of the main drag, comparing the various marquees and facades, looking for a dining experience worth writing home about, served up in a social context liberal enough that we could reasonably expect to live through it, because you have to live through the experience before you can write about it. In Vernal, this latter requirement seemed to present us with some difficulties, but after driving past the chinese-american mexican pizzaria twice, Dixie and I agreed that the 7-11 chuckwagon ranch cafe looked like it had been there for long enough to count as an authentic slice of Vernal life, and besides, I liked their neon. From out back in the parking lot my guess had been that the place was at least 35 years old, but I was way off: the place has been gathering hand-painted signs and credibility since 1935! It predates the 7-11 fast-food franchise business by something like 50 years, and even after all the bar-b-que sauce they've spilled on the floor over the past 56 years, it's still too tough to roll over and relinquish its name. Inside, we found an archetypal wild-west nostalgia festival: chairs covered in brown and white "cowhide" textured naugahyde, a wall-size monument valley majestic wagon-train mural, and of course, Operation Desert Storm. We ordered a complex palette of "mixed Carrion and whistle berries" but I think the pie escaped us somehow.
There were two signs in the place that were beyond merely memorable. The first was in the hallway between the kitchen and the dining room. It laboriously explained that smoke was an inevitable and unfortunate by-product of smoking cigarettes, the same way that piss was an inevitable by-product of drinking pepsi, and so if someone really wanted to smoke cigarettes in a public place he oughta be prepared to have other people standing on stools and pissing on him. In 7-11 Cafe's dank and dingy men's room there is a 3' X 4' piece of whiteboard, with a sign carefully painted on the top part of it that reads: "shithouse writers' sign in:" and in the many years it has been there, generations of semi-literate people have written, scribbled, scratched and carved some of the most scandalous things imaginable about one another. Dave found it first, and sent me in to get a photo. It was too dark to get a good picture, so I should have transcribed it, but even so, our vocabulary will never be the same. In the corner, in a clear area near the top of the sign-in, someone had written, "Billy Braddock is a real Butt-Nuggett". In context, it was almost more than we could handle, a whole new level of crypto-cultural compression, and for the next few days, the temptation to re-adjust the letters on reader boards, especially the ones at lumber yards and small high-school football stadiums and public auditoriums, was virtually irresistible. Imagine however, what the locals would actually do to you if some of the kids who actually give a shit about their letter-jackets caught up with you before you were finished changing "wolverines" to "butt-nuggets" as in "FRI 3-29 ARCO RIM-RIDERS vs. HAMILTON BUTT-NUGGETTS" or on a real-estate office: "Butt-Nugget with 4.5 acres $13,500". It's a fate almost too dark to conceive.
We had agreed that Jackson Hole was going to be a "Motel" night, so that we could take showers, but merely deciding to stay in a motel does not necessarily make the problem of where to stay go away. Our ETA (estimated time of arrival) for Jackson's hole was about 8:00pm and beginning at about 4:30 in the afternoon, the prices on motel signs began to rise, from $17.00 w/HBO in ..... to closer to $45 as we got into the canyon, and by the time we hit [town], it was beginning to look like the sky was the limit. We had stopped at a great little cluster of new-looking log cabins about 5 miles south of town, that claimed reasonable rates and looked like the construction would be worth examining, but there was a back in 30 minutes sign on the managers office, and after waitng around til we got bored, we continued in to town, and called them at least 10 times over the next hour and a half, without raising a human on the other end of the phone. It was our intention to cook in the motel room, kitchenette or not, rather than suffer another astronomically expensive gastronomical insult, and so the sooner we got set up in a motelroom, the sooner we got to eat.
Things were really beginning to look dismal by this point. Carter and Dixie pumped quarters into the pair of public pay-phones in the middle of the mall next to the fudge emporium, trying to find a civilized place to spend the night, or lacking that, any place with indoor cooking facilities. In Bend Oregon, and even in Winthrop, in the Methow Valley, they have a central reservation number you can call that allows you to book a room the way you would book an airplane flight. Dave was getting into blood-sugar burn-out by about 8:45 when we got back in the car to drive out and cruise the strip. More or less in desperation, we stopped the car right in the middle of traffic and sat there idling while Carter & Dixie ran off to check out 2 motels, both located within a block and a half of the pointless public pay phones, two places that we hadn't seen mentioned in any of the tourist-oriented papers that litter the town. They were relatively cheap at $40 to $50 a nite, and right downtown. By the time we'd finally found a non-smoking room at the Antler Motel, right off the antler-encrusted square in beautiful downtown Jackson, it was almost too late: Dave was gone. He went off to look at the economy room and disappeared entirely. We looked all over the lot, without success, agreeing that we had clearly pushed things a little too far and now we'd actually lost Dave and weren't even having fun any more. We went back to the office, rented another room and waited for him to show up. What we should have done was gotten him some beer.
Jackson has a lot of expensive real estate, and the shops are generally chock-full of obscenely pricey trinkets, but at spring-break, Jackson is still a popular low-budget party town, and as a result, the downtown motels can get pretty badly hammered. You know the kind of place I'm talking about: you open the door, turn on the lights and nothing happens. The motel's hot-tub had initially appeared to be an attraction, but the more we thought about it, the more dangerous its waters began to appear. Many of the "economy" motel-rooms were packed with crazies, single males in wholesale quantities, pounding the telephones looking for action, and somehow the risk of emerging from the cabana that surrounded that pool with pizza-puke between your toes and an angry rash that stretches from your navel to your knees seemed to outweigh any of the proported relaxational benefits of boiling our tomatoes in hot chlorine...
Dining on Uncle Ben's Maggots and Erewhon's Refried Tapeworms
The bathroom had neither vent nor fan, and it seemed like a safe bet that cooking dinner on the toilet or the TV table would set off the smoke alarm, if not the building's fire alarm. We were right across the street from the fire-station, and based on the number of trucks that came blasting out of their garage, sirens screaming, it seemed like they already had an awful lot of business. On the other hand, we are all died-in-the-wool cheapskates, of one mind that there was NO WAY we were going to go to a restaurant in this town, and pay $15 or $20 apiece for a $4 meal, even though it was already obvious that serving this high-priced swill to tourists and washing their dishes afterwards was about the only industry supporting the local full-time powderhounds. Our room was #101, right next door to the Manager's office. When we were hanging around in there, reading the pamphlets for snowmobile tours and helicopter sightseeing adventures, signing in for the room and waiting for Dave to return from the 4th dimension, I'd noticed a microwave oven and it appeared to provide our sole opportunity for a meal... the only problem was access. Our cooking gear was all made of metal and was thus unsuited for use in microwave ovens. However, there was a medium-sized plastic ice-bucket in the dressing-room next to the bathroom door, and it looked big enough to hold our meal and small enough to fit in the manager's oven, so we dumped everything we had into it, and stirred it around. 2 packages of Ramen, a cup or two of rice, a can of chicken-soup, a couple of tablespoons of Pico-Pica, and anything else in the food-bin that looked promising. We had some oriental honey crackers and we must have found something else instant to eat, because by the time the car was unloaded and the food was in the pot, we were on the edge of happiness again. Actually it was a weird, heady kind of happiness, a 3-Stooges sort of manic goofiness that had us laughing so much that sometimes we could hardly breath, a party-til-you-puke ambiance that may have been inherited from the motel-room's previous inhabitants, some of whom had probably died laughing. The grains of Uncle Ben's instant precooked brown-rice were clearly not rice but freeze-dried maggots, the ramen was obviously refried tapeworms, the disease in the hot-tub was most likely Rhinosterus Tarantuloma... Someone had to carry the witches brew over to the microwave, and apparently the manager looked at it and almost lost her lunch, so our enthusiasm for a meal that only looked like what you get from a cat when you feed it worm capsules because it was in a see-through bowl was obviously contagious. To make matters worse, it had to go back twice, to get cooked all the way. Hey, looks aside, it was great food, as good as it gets, magic even, but you probably had to be there to believe it. I can assure you of one more thing: seldom in the history of mankind have 4 adults felt so much like 4 little kids.
Joe sent us to Turpin Meadows, a remote outpost on the Buffalo River, almost to Yellowstone. It was the first ranch he'd worked at when he came west from Indiana as a teenager, on his own, to become a cowboy. Turpin Meadows is at the very end of a 5 mile road that winds along the Buffalo, sort of paralleling HIway 26. We'd made reservations for a cabin for 4 from our motel room in Jackson Hole. We spent the day skiing at Teton Pass, which has the most easily accessible skiable powder in the entire Jackson area. Morning was sunny in town, but at the pass, there was mountain weather: a front was getting ready to come through from the west and gave us alternately hot sunshine that made us strip off layers of clothing and chilly blustery wind that froze our fingers. I skied my TUA's and gave Dave the GTS's. We got off to a slow start, but after homefries at the Bunnery, and another look at the 1990 demo skis that were for sale at the Teton Mountaineering ski-shop. The Ski-Touring Book's description of Teton Pass called it mostly intermediate to expert terrain and promised steep slopes, bottomless powder, endless runs, hardly any other skiers, and except on a few runs, little avalanche hazard: all the usual bullshit designed to lure you up a steep and miserable wind-blasted trail, under terrifying cornices, only to reach some crusty, tracked-out minefield covered with death-muffins. Boy were we surprised. After all the shitty snow we'd found in Utah and Colorado, we could hardly believe our eyes, and by the end of the day, we only wished we'd gotten there earlier in the morning. Next time we decide to go on a real ski trip, we will not fuck around: we will head straight for Jackson hole, and with any kind of luck, by then we will have found someplace to stay on the west side of the pass, so we don't even have to go into town at all. Some of the slopes seemed a little avalanche-scary at first, but people skied on 'em, and they didn't come down, so I expect that there is some serious recalibration of your sense of fear that has to be preformed in the course of "localization". Fluffy stuff was literally knee-deep on the steep north slopes, and feel a couple of time in the first hundred feet, but after I learned how to keep my tips up and initiate turns by raising my ski all the way to the surface before I shifted my weight onto it, I had the best run of my life and for the first time, I felt like I was moving freely in 3-D, without the usual anxieties or constraints, smoothly winding my way down a thousand foot slope. By late afternoon it was getting pretty heavy and a crust was beginning to form everywhere the sun had warmed the surface-snow above freezing, so the run back to the car was a pretty exciting crash & burn carnival. We went back to Jackson for a jolt of coffee and some groceries for dinner and finally got to Turpin Meadows a little after dark, right as dinner was being served, to find that our cabin had just one double bed, limited hot water, a Gideon Bible, a copy of the Amicus Journal and no cooking facilities.
We made dinner in our room again, but without the party-til-you-puke hilarity of the previous evening, due in large measure to the thousands of uphill feet we'd slogged in the thickening powder. I made an enormous batch of cauliflower and cheese, using the whisperlite on the front porch in case the management came by to check on us. They really were a surly and unpleasant bunch of characters. and we sure didn't match the rest of their clientel. The horses Joe used to work on have been replaced by a shiny new herd of Yamaha snowmobiles, and the cowboys have become domestics, riding motorized sleds that haul the customers' luggage from their cars to their cabins, and lighting the fires in the their fireplaces. In the office there was a newspaper article on the wall about the time Bob Dylan had stayed there, and played "dance music" with the geezers. Nobody in the picture looked like they were having a good time making music, so maybe its something in the water. At 9:00am the maid, a genuine tough cookie, came by and hammered on our door to see if the room was ready to "strip out" we were about halfway through breakfast and there had been snowmobilers racing around the yard about an hour already. On the other hand, when we arrived, there had been an enormous moose, grazing right in the middle of the driveway between the office end of the lodge and our cabin, and a trio of Canada geese flying over head. Looking down the Buffalo River Valley, the Grand Teton's looked as sharp and white as bears teeth.
I had purchased where to ski books in Boulder, and geology books at Dinosaur and at the surprisingly good bookstore in Jackson Hole, where Dixie had gotten a "where to find Hotsprings" book. All the roads into Yellowstone were solidly closed for the season, and 3 miles in at the Moran Gate, a semi-truck was mired in 3 feet of snow. He had ignored the "no commercial hauling in national park" sign as well as the "road closed until May 13th" signs, crashed boldly through the gate and gotten 3 miles in before he had lost the road and sunk in the un-plowed ocean of snow that had fallen since the road was closed 2 weeks ago. He had gotten ticketed for a variety of offenses, and had been digging his truck out, by hand, for several days. None of the wreckers were willing to get ticketed themselves for coming to his rescue. I'd called Carol from Jackson Hole to see where to camp in Yellowstone, but it was a 40 mile ski to get to Old Faithful or Shoshone Lake, and we were running out of time fast, so we all agreed that Teton Pass was probably the end of our skiing adventures on this trip.
Our new agenda item: Hotsprings
We drove back to town and west over Teton Pass and followed Highway 26 past Challis, heading towards a destination 2 miles east of Stanley, pushing daylite. I clumsily calculated the distance to our destination, chosen from Dixie's book: supposedly the unofficial Basin Creek (KEM) Campground was the only place in Idaho where you could park your car and camp along a river, right next to a 106 degree hotspring. Who could resist at least checking out a place like that?
We got there just at dusk, but found the short gravel road down to the campsites and steaming pool along the river impassible with snow and ice. It was just like finding a perfect ski-hill and not being able to use it because of the avalanche danger. We couldn't leave the car loaded with treasure and camp down by the pool. Minor despair loomed like a raincloud as we tromped back up to the car, no idea where we would spend the nite, and skunked on our long-awaited soak. We had passed quite a few usable campgrounds in the past hour or so, and even seen one that supposedly offered a fine soaking pool only 300 yards from the campsites, but I saw something ahead, around the next bend in the road, that fairly looked promising, and as we drove closer it began to resemble an official Forest Service campground, with its access road passable and 2 tentsites barely out of the snow, and that is what it turned out to be.
It even had its own hotspring behind campsite 4, although to get to it you either had to wade across the ice choked river or drive around to the other side. There were 2 people using the pool when we arrived, their Wagoneer was parked on the other side of the river, upslope from the pool, but instead of invading their privacy we simply began to set up our camp and prepare dinner.
The frustration continues:
We finished dinner a little after dark, as usual, and drove up the dirt road to the other side of the river and descended the steep scree and dirt slope to the pool the campground is based on. Normally you would probably just wade the river, its a tributary creek of the main river and is only about a foot deep and 4 feet wide, but the air temperature was about 20 degrees and there was over a foot of crusty rotten snow on the ground, so we drove around and climbed down to the big steaming pool, which was only about 14" deep and way too hot. According to the book, it pours out of the hillside at 137 degrees, which is hot enough to damage your skin, as well as your nerves, but it seemed like it was even hotter than that. You are supposed to be able to regulate the temperature of the pool by adjusting little dams that control the inflow of cold water from the creek and hot water from the hole in the hillside, but this late at nite, snowmelt in the mountains was longsince over and as a result the water in the pool was a lot deeper than in the river, so there was no easy way to add cold to the pools. Dixie had gotten cold feet, standing around in the soggy, snowy meadow in her jogging shoes while camp and dinner got made, so while she boiled some life back into her frozen feet, and Carter adjusted the inflow dam to create a super-hot pool to heat up our water bottles which could then be tossed into the bottom of our sleeping bag before we got undressed, to preheat our bed, Dave & I hauled blocks of snow the size of apple crates from a gravel-bar upstream, and tossed them into the steaming water, one after another, but block after block vanished like puffs of smoke, to no avail: the pool remained scaldingly hot. Eventually, we got cold, accepted defeat and climbed back to the car, and drove back up the road, stopping momentarily to toss the hot-water bottles into our sleeping bag. We passed by our original destination pool at KEM 'cuz there was now a white Subaru parked at the turnout that hadnt been there earlier, which implied that the pool was in use and it was sized for at most 6 people, and we continued up the hill toward Sunbeam, a 160 degree outfall above the road, that runs into culverts under the highway and out into the main river in half a dozen channels. We stumbled along the river bank in the dark until we found a steaming hot river that almost looked too wide to cross. It opened into a shallow but otherwise suitable-looking pool and we tromped around it, hopping from rock to rock, assessing its potential. It looked more like a rapid in a hot river than a soaking pool to me, but it was plenty big for all of us and it seemed like it was close to the right temperature and even had a rug on the bottom, between a number of rather large boulders. At the top of our pool, there was a veritable river of nearly boiling water cascading through a series of small pools, and at the other end, the Salmon River. We stumbled around in the darkness, teetering precariously on the loose rocks, until we found a dry place to park our clothes. In spite of its careful design, the main pool was actually less than 16 inches deep and the flow was so fast that the water had a tendency to stratify instead of mixing properly: the too hot current from the fires below was floating on top of the "icewater" leaking in from the Salmon River, past the rocks that serve as valves and through the carpet dam. The bottom of the pool was covered with fine sand, like at the beach. You could stick your fingers into it and wiggling them down for several inches, until you had to stop, because the sand quickly got way too hot to touch.
For a while the moon rose right along the ridge-line behind us, across the Salmon River, bathing the opposite hillside above the road with flat white light. Eventually the angle of the ridge and the trajectory of the moon diverged, and the moon light began to descend toward the pool, illuminating the steam that was pouring out of the pool as though from a witch's cauldron. Gusts of wind swirled currents of glowing vapor around like a million juggler's scarves, and finally the moon broke free from the shadowy ridge and filled the valley with a pale and wonderful light that turned the inky water in our pool caribbean clear. At first, we had messed around in the pool, trying to mix the hot and the cold, but everything we did seemed to make the shifting patterns more chaotic, and eventually we all learned to lie quietly, floating like flower petals, with our feet pointing into the hot current and our heads propped on the rocks, making subtle adjustments in temperature by controlling how deeply our bodies were immersed. In the moonlight, the larger droplets glistened on our exposed skin like jewels.
Invaders in the night...
Now that we were properly veiled in swirls of mist, studded with ephemeral diamonds and generally bathed in purest moonlight, it was clearly time to set up the camera and get the place on film. On the other hand, it felt like it was about 14 degrees out there, and somehow it was very difficult to force myself to get out. I was sort of casually imagining ways to dry my hands off enough to handle the camera when suddenly a dark car pulled into the turnout barely 40 yards above us, and leaving its engine idling, turned off its headlites. A door opened and someone got out, we heard a low voice, but could not make out the content of his speech. The magical spell had been utterly broken: Dave speculated aloud that we might be getting our car robbed and suddenly it was time to leave. We had been invaded. We bolted from the pool and struggled with our clothes. Pulling lifa long underwear onto soggy-wet skin is a very slow process, and getting our clothes on seemed to be taking a lot longer than we felt appropriate, given the uncertainty of the situation, and the apparent vulnerability of the Volvo.
I figured that a direct and confrontational approach was the only realistic solution to the situation, so, clad in nothing but my headlite-hat and green capilene shirt, with a small towel wrapped around my waist, I marched barefoot up the frozen path, carrying a rock the size of a soft-ball behind my back. If our car really was being violated, I figured I could at least take out their windshield & make their car hard to drive and easy to identify. The "person" we had heard get out of the car turned out not to be a person at all. It was a dog, who stood in the shadow of the car and growled dangerously as I approached. The driver rolled down his window and assured me that his dog wouldn't bite me, thus establishing his own deterrent force to balance the threat posed by my small boulder. I walked up to his door and asked if they were waiting to use the hotspring we had been soaking in. The driver, who was a guy a little younger than me, said that they were, and asked if his rug was still there on the bottom, proving that at least he was a legitimate local, familiar with the pool as well as the parking lot. More or less satisfied with what I had learned and very much relieved about the character and intentions of our invaders, I returned to the pool to finish putting on my clothes.
It turned out that setting up the camera would not have posed much hardship, even though the air temperature around the pool could not have been much above 20 degrees, because even standing naked in the night, we were warm through and through, and the humidity was so low that we were dry in no time. I dispensed with both my socks and my Lifa and just slipped into my ski-boots and jeans. On the way back to the car, I talked to the spell-breakers again, who turned out to be a mid-30's guy and his very young (middle to late teens?) girl-friend. I told them we were headed west-by-northwest to Port Townsend Washington and asked them what other springs in the area we should visit on our way through. She just sat there, looking straight ahead, but he said that if we weren't going down to Boise or Sun Valley, there were two other places that were well worth the drive: Pine Flats and Warm Springs.
March 31, 1991 9:15am
We stopped to take a brief look at Bonneville, which before we realized how far behind we were running, had been our original campground destination for the night before, and used to be called Warm Springs until the Forest Service decided it was attracting too many hot-springs people, but once again, we found that we were too early in the season and the road to the campground was more or less impassible with ice and snow. The big-tired, high-clearance Ford pickup that tried to get in right ahead of us turned back within a quarter mile. So the females from our car took off on foot to recon the spring. Dixie's book said there were a lot of pools in there, all different temperatures, only a quarter mile past the campground, but it didn't bother to say how far it was from the paved road to the campground. I had only 1 or 2 shots left in the camera, so I dug around in the car and found the film bag, but in the course of burying the more conspicuous valuables and the ladies' purses under maps and other camouflage, and locking up the car, I totally forgot about the filmbag and left it sitting in the sunlight, in plain view on top of the car, when Dave & I set off in pursuit.
There was a small herd of boy scouts at the campground, marching around with their clumsy metal canteens, chaperoned by a fat old goat of a scout-master who was the only one of them in uniform. They had the standard marginal kakhi sleeping bags, mildewed canvas tents and other awkward, character-building gear that we had to suffer with 35 years ago, surplus-store "outdoor" equipment apparently designed expressly to keep kids from venturing too far from the campsite.
At the end of the campground, the road was barricaded to prevent drunken motor vehicles from attempting to drive all the way to the pools, with the inevitable wreckage, broken glass and other land-use conflicts that would accompany them, and a quarter mile farther up the trail we came to the smoking meadow, complete with the modest Forest Service contracted "changing room" promised in the Hotsrings Book. Its gently sloping flat area, where a number of hot-springs pour out of the ground, a 50 foot-wide grassy bench about 15 feet above the river, and for fifty yards or so, hot streams spill over the rocky cliffs, at irregular intervals, cascading down into a wide variety of carefully constructed collecting pools along the river. We walked along the river below the cliffs, testing several of these pools and eventually we found one pool that was, by any standard, utterly irresistible: the clear water, the white sandy bottom and the beautifully rounded white boulders. It was just a few yards past the intersection of a scalding hot-water stream and a diversion channel from the ice-cold creek, perfectly merging into a little canyon barely a yard wide that wound through the boulders, over two feet deep and flowing fast. We walked around this obvious paradise -a word which appears to be a sort of ancient acronym meaning approximately "right next to [god's] couch"- in a sort of daze, looking at most of the pools, knowing full well that we were nearly 1000 miles from home and that there was simply no time for play today and furthermore, that we'd left all our towels back at the car.
As we walked around the pools, we talked apologetically about how this trip was just a recon and about all the reasons we had to come back here someday and then suddenly, I don't know who started it, we were all taking off our clothes. It was obvious: this pool was undoubtedly the hotspring equivalent of the powder slopes we'd found on Teton Pass, and even if we got home too late for breakfast monday morning, we could not afford to miss this one. Within a minute, we were all panning for gold with our pubes, surrounded by towering pine trees and awakening willows and 102 degree water in the clear morning sunshine. Dave set up his little camera on a rock, and used the self-timer to record us, sitting all in a row, leaning back on a toasty boulder the size of a golfcart, our feet up toward the camera, immersed to our necks and probably grinning like bliss-ninnies in this entirely wonderful place.
Applied Solipsism: A lesson in Karma
On the walk in, we'd found a pair of big aluminum and steel turnbuckles lying in a rut in the ice. Several of the bigger ruts had stuff piled in them for traction; busted up pieces of wood and particle board, mostly. But there were these turnbuckles, lying together at the bottom of a deep rut, so we picked them up and i hung them on my belt. On the way out, Dave noticed they had initials painted on them, and I realized they were coded: LF meant "Left Front" as in the drivers side front corner of a camper on the back of a pickup truck, so we looked around the campground and sure enough, the only camper in the whole place was missing both its front tie-downs, so we hollered for a while and eventually a guy with black hair and a beard emerged from the back and I handed i'm over to him. I figured I was recharging my Karma & it seemed to work: the film-bag had all the Velvia and other stuff we'd shot on the entire trip in it, plus 6 or so rolls of EPP I hadn't shot yet. It was still sitting there on top of the care when we got back.
The little road connecting nothing to nowhere:
From Stanley, we took an unpaved shortcut through the canyon of the SouthFork of the Payette. Dixie was enthusiastic about it, but Dave was not convinced, and our maps didn't give us the tools to predict the time-saving potential. Since the alternative involved driving a winding road through a recent forest-fire all the way to Boise, and then driving north for an hour or two just to reach the other end of this road, I drove it. The gorge the river has cut is very steep & rugged & the river at the bottom looked emerald green. We could only go about 25mph because the road was torn to shreds by construction. Some major roadbuilder's welfare assistance program was pumping many tens or perhaps even hundreds of millions of dollars into upgrading an apparently adequate 20 mile long stretch of a road that clearly connects nothing to nowhere. It's not as though the place is too crowded for the old road: in half an afternoon of serious driving, we encountered a total of 4 other cars and a Harley. In mid-afternoon, after an hour dodging rocks and washboards and dust, in the middle of the most torn up road of the journey, we passed the supposedly exceptional Pine Flats Hotsprings, advertized by a great picture of a nymphette standing under an obviously hot-water waterfall advertises it in Dixie's book and it had received the "top-3" recommendation of our invader last night, knowing that because of the stop at Warm Springs and the unexpected rough road conditions we were by already several hours behind even our adjusted timetable and that stopping there would mean cooking dinner in the dark tonite or driving all nite tomorrow. When we finally got to McCall, about 5:15pm Saturday, I was ready for a break. So, without consulting anyone, I drove straight into the parking-lot at Gravity Sports and turned off the car, figuring I had at least a ghost of an excuse: we were out of essentials & we needed groceries. Groceries at a ski shop? Well, not exactly. What we clearly needed a local guide to tell us which supermarket to visit, and furthermore, it was quite likely to be the last skishop we'd get to stop at on the trip. It was an interesting store. I got a black powder-coated Voile shovel with a telescoping handle and Dave got Riva Cable bindings for the skis he has yet to buy. The best part of the store was Michael Busby, the guy who owns the place. He's an old buddy of Marc Rassmussen's with a voice from someplace very exotic, an old-timey music aficionado and an old-time psychedelic pioneer. This all came up AFTER Dixie'd bought a funny postcard, a cartoon showing skiers experiencing "impossible skiing conditions" on a series of card-table sized iceblock fragments at the bottom of a high mountain icefall, because it was such a perfect magnification of some of the problems we had faced in our quest for snow in Colorado, without realizing it was and AltaHouse card, from Port Townsend, published by the Rassmussens. We ended up talking for quite a while, about Gordon Wasson and the psychedelic mushroom conferences at Breitenbush and Burgdorf Hotsprings, about fiddle players he and Dave both knew, the local ski areas and snow conditions, his Stephenson tent, AND he even told us where to go to find food and Courvoisier, for our last supper on the journey. The supermarket he sent us to had some interesting stuff on the shelves, including bean-sprouts, soyasauce and ten pound sacks of apples coated with "food grade shellac" and in the check-out line, we stood behind a guy with a tee-shirt that proclaimed the virtues of "Loggers Stew" with the full recipe printed on the back. The long list of ingredients included politicians, environmentalists, snail darters and spotted owls but it noted that more than the specified number of environmentalists might have to be thrown into the pot "...because they tend to have so little taste."
Camping out on the River of No Return:
Back at Gravity Sports, Michael had told us where he thought we ought to go to spend the last night of our journey, a place out of the mountains, out of the endless cold and damp of the winter, someplace where it was warm. It was way up the Salmon River Gorge about ten miles east of Riggins, which he pronounced "Reagan". Riggins, which makes its living off whitewater rafters, was still about 60 miles away and since it was way past 6 o'clock by the time we got out of the store, this pretty much guaranteed another night of setting up camp and cooking dinner after dark. The big map on his wall showed 2 campgrounds northside of the river, on Forest Service land, about 12 miles up the canyon, that would get pretty good morning sun, so we could get off to an early start. He also pointed out 2 sandbars only a few miles east of Riggins, located on private land but open for camping and fishing most of the year. The Salmon River Road is raw, a one lane unpaved washboard rockdodge, something of a whiteknuckle bear to drive in the dark. When another vehicle is coming your way, you each grab the first wide-spot you come to and wait to see who wants to be the one to pass on the outside. The first bar we came to was inhabited by a pair of big 5th wheel RV's. Had we known what was coming next, we probably would have camped there, but it looked pretty rocky from up on the road.
A couple of miles later, the road made a sweeping left-hander, around another enormous sandbar, and below us along the river we could see people silhouetted in their campfires, bonfires actually, and there was an odd looking TiPi made from a parachute with a fire burning inside it. Actually, it looked pretty good and we took the road down & bounced along the grapefruit-size cobbles of the sandspit until we reached an obviously well used camp in a stand of big old conifers, surrounded by fine sand real near the river, and stumbled out of the car figuring we'd found our home for the nite.
We emerged from the isolation of the Volvo to the cacophonous strains of Jimi Hendriz wailing electric guitar. "All along the Watchtower" was spewing from an enormous stereo in a pickup truck parked between flaring bonfires less than fifty yards away, at a level that would have suited a rock festival back in the gentler days of the late '60's. We all agreed: 20 years ago, that music would have been our call to communion, the defiant song of brotherhood in rebellion. Now, it was not at all clear what it meant. It was Saturday nite, and there was a raucous undertone of violence in the scene down the spit that was not at all inviting. A vision of faces blazing in the firelight and an amplified tension that we did not need at all. As we drove farther up the Canyon, the Sheriff passed us in his Blazer, obviously in a hurry. A few miles later we pulled over to let half a dozen pickup trucks thunder by, headed out of the canyon, and we accepted the implicit causality connecting the two events. In fact, the conclusion that the Sheriff had broken up an even wilder party up the road was inescapable. Which prompted an even deeper realization. Something had happened to us in the past 20 years. Somehow we had crossed some very real threshold in our lives, where the Sheriff, rousing out the wild & wooley party animals, was suddenly our ally & Jimi Hendrix was not. Food for thought?
The Last Supper:
Well, at least it was time for food. We had picked up the fixins for a mighty meal in McCall, and the appetite to demolish it in our long day on the road, so while Dixie & I set up the tents, Carter and Dave tore into the food prep. We had planned a "chinese-food" meal, a giant stir-fry made from sauteed garlic and beef and beansprouts and spinach, on the last of our Uncle Ben's instant brown-rice. While the rice was boiling, we filled almost every container we had with different kinds of chopped up food, and cooked i'm down one by one, by headlamplight on the Forest Service picnic table. We had used up the last little bit of Courvoisier in our camp-kitchen-kit back in Utah, in the hot chocolate that ended our meal back at Elkshit campground at the head of the big Thompson Reservoir. In the midst of all the chaos surrounding our leaving on this journey, we had screwed up our packing. We had not sent the irreplaceable "Cross-Country Ski Lodges of the West" book, and we had not checked out the orange camping kitchen at all before we shipped it off to Boulder. When we started to make dinner our first nite in the open we discovered it was almost out of most of the really essential ingredients, the magical potions that form the basis of our legendary outdoor meals: there was no extra-virgin Olive Oil, no Formerly known as Tamari, no more 100% pure Vermont maple syrup and no Single-Malt Scotch, Cognac or Brandy, which we normally carry in small quantities but use fairly religiously.
We had picked up a bottle of PicoPica a few days back, before Kremmling, and gotten some of Kikkoman's watered-down low-salt soya-sauce at the Logger's Stew store in McCall. It is truly miraculous what these little pour-spout bottles can do to a simple package of non-descript freeze-dried leftovers: you can turn stuff a rat wouldn't eat into bona-fide haute cuisine! The last of the Cognac had elevated the premixed Swiss-Miss chocolate sludge at Thompson to nearly Ambrosial proportions, and Dixie had picked up a whole bottle of the stuff at the State Liquor store in McCall. Now, in the course of preparing dinner, Dave & I had naturally gotten into tasting it, to make sure it was still in good shape after its harrowing journey up the whiteknuckle washboard from Riggins.
We had pretty much run out of everything by this point on the trip, especially the hot-chocolate to mix with it, but Dixie dug out the one box of Jello Instant Chocolate pudding left. For those who may have forgotten, Jello ICP (Instant Chocolate Pudding) is one of those things, like pemmican, or PowerBars, that travels and keeps very well... stuff that you can be sure will be there in an emergency 'cuz if it wasn't an emergency you sure as hell wouldn't be eating it. The stuff was probably made to be fed to your neighbors' children, who are already so addled from the OTHER things society has already fed them that they no longer have any idea what's good for them; they lust for machine-guns and motorcycles and all manner of mayhem, and they wouldn't read the list of ingredients. No one would; a complete listing would probably cover 6 sides of the box and half of the foil pouch inside it as well.
Of course, in your typical backwoods campground emergency, such as the one we were now confronting, it is MUCH too dark to read the fine print on the box. Modern polymer chemistry has created a product so sophisticated that it requires no cooking what-so-ever: the energy you impart to the hair-trigger, mouse-trap molecules by sweeping a fork through them is enough to cause the stuff to congeal into a formidable and convincing counterfiet of real home-made chocolate pudding! So we mixed the Jello ICP with the last of our milk, and began to stir. It began to thicken as if by magic, and so we were soon faced with the problem of dosage. I suggested that a quarter inch of Courvoisier ought to be enough, and so everyone dumped whatever they felt like a quarter inch of booze was into their bowls, on top of the sweet, thickening slime. This immediately brought up the inequitable problem created by relating dose-volume to the surface area of one's particular potion pan. This was resolved easily enough, by them what felt themselves to be under-afflicted, by simply increasing their dosage to better approximate the damage done to your faithful scribe, who was using the mixing bowl to eat from and had thus foolishly poured a quarter inch of Cognac into the medium-sized cooking-pot. Gawd, it was delicious! Hemingway to the contrary, the preceding shall stand as telling proof that at this level of neurological devastation, writing lucid prose is almost impossible.
Needless to say, there was very little headlamp reading lastnite, and we all slept the dreamless sleep of rocks and driftwood logs, except for Carter, who dreamed about ...