It’s Still Wilderness Without The Crowds

Okay.  Time to post, no matter what.  I’m being distracted by travel, spring gardening, a writing project, a new hobby, the intense gurgling coming from our dog’s stomach, lint on my pajamas, insecurity…you name it.  I published a post last week, left it up for about four hours, then took it private again because of my old friend, the obsession about Will it offend somebody?  I can handle obsessing about the quality of my writing, I’ve got some protocols in place to keep that one on leash.  But my fear of offending some unsuspecting, trusting reader out there is a lot more savage and last week it leapt out of nowhere and just mauled me.

Which makes it about two weeks without a post, so this…my friends…is gonna be it.  (And probably safe and bland as well.)  Here we go.

We escaped to the Sawtooth mountains again last weekend for some long, gruelling snowshoes through the shitty conditions that always exist up there in April.  It was like seasonal dawn…a transition between stable states.  It wasn’t exactly winter anymore but not full spring yet either.  There was a lot of major snowpack melting down at the rate of a foot a day with all the resulting soft snow and slush, puddles and rivulets, marsh and mud.

This is what it looked like on the first day:

And this is what it looked like two days later:

Who knew snow could melt that fast?  We were amazed.

The great thing about that much mess though, is that nobody else wants to be up there.  The snow is worthless for snowmobiling or cross country skiing, and the area is still too wet and cold for the hikers, backpackers, and river-runners that turn up in droves during summer.  Hunters can’t hunt, ranchers can’t graze their cows yet, and no one can drive off the pavement and not get stuck in the mud, no matter how good their four-wheel drive is.

Actually, I take that back…the Fishing People were already in the valley, which surprised me.  They’re apparently even crazier than we are when it comes to non-deterrence from muddy, boot-sucking conditions and we saw a few of their camping caravans set up in places where the river bends up near the highway.  I wondered at it considering that the Salmon River is swollen, turbulent, and loud with all the snowmelt right now.  I’m not expert but are those really decent fishing conditions?  Or were the Fishing People just fed up with winter and willing to pretend for a while…just to tide them over until the fish really do show up?

Perhaps they were just practicing becoming one with the river.  I’ve heard that’s a big part of fishing, too.

In any case, we had the entire mesa to ourselves, although a neighboring, palatial home owned by a rich doctor from Wisconsin had left a light on again…which drives me absolutely nuts.  I mean, a security light?  Really?  Like…what?  Robbers are going to strap on their snowshoes and trudge two miles uphill to carry off their big screen TV in a backpack?

I really struggle with things like this.

There’s an interesting dynamic going on in the valley where the family cabin has sat for decades.  The Stanley Valley (webcam link) is a relatively poor region mainly populated by ranchers, forest service employees, and a few scrappy souls who eke a living out of the brief but intense summer recreational tourist trade.

It also lies one easy mountain pass away from the extraordinarily wealthy town of Sun Valley, part-time home to Hollywood celebrities, a smattering of billionaires, and an internationally reknowned ski resort.  Over the last decade or so, a lot of that money started pouring over the hill into the Stanley valley, mainly in the form of real estate purchases and second homes/mansions.  This has driven local property values way up creating a serious problem for the less financially-fortunate natives watching their property taxes climb into the rarified air of pretty-much-unaffordable.

With this as our backdrop, now imagine a large mesa perched about halfway down the  valley where the humble family cabin sat in relative isolation for decades.  It served as home base for the hubster’s mother, one of the first nurse practitioners in the state of Idaho who founded and then ran the small, rural medical clinic in Stanley for twenty-five years.  She was a tough old bird even when she was young, on call 24/7, snowmobiling up and down the hill in an area known for some of the most frigid winters in the continental U.S., hiking the two miles up and down in the mud season when neither car nor snowmobile would work, and deeply beloved by those in the region who wouldn’t have had easy access to medical care otherwise.

Fast forward a few years and now multi-million dollar homes have cropped up all around the cabin, making for some interesting neighborhood dynamics.  Don’t get me wrong, everyone who owns up there is united in their deep and abiding love for the entire valley.  We’re all drawn to the place for the beauty of the mountain wilderness, and every neighbor I’ve met is generous, willing to help, and friendly.

But there are natural differences, too, created by the politics of money, the politics of natives versus second-homers, and the politics of environmental concerns versus property and commercial development.

As I’ve watched the building take place over the years it’s gradually sunk in how strange it is…that these days we human beings love our wilderness so much it makes us want to build our homes and communities right in the middle of it, which then, of course, makes it not really wilderness anymore.  We want to be near wild animals so much that we build on the land they need to survive, or we long for the pristine woodland glade so much that we blast a road through the rest of the virgin forest to get there.

It seems so irrational and yet so deeply human, too, to love something so much that we’ll actually harm it to have it.  Like small children hugging a puppy to death, our deep, instinctual need for the beauty, silence, and healing of true wilderness is leading us to damage and even destroy it when that’s the last thing in the world we want to do.

I don’t know what the answer is.  And I have to be careful, too.  Clearly, where the Stanley Valley is concerned, any lofty observations I make about human encroachment are laced with a built-in conflict of interest.  I remember once hearing my eldest brother, a successful real-estate developer around the Pacific Rim, make some acid remarks about how often the first people to move into an area then cite environmental protection as a reason to keep everyone else out.   There’s a lot of truth in that and I feel the sting of it here.  It’s very easy for me, with legacy access, to point fingers at the newbies who only want to do the same thing that we did, only first.

So these days I just try and go up when it still feels most like wilderness to me; i.e. when nobody else is around.  When the silence is still deep enough to catch the faint sound of the river rising up from the valley below, or when the night is still dark enough to see the stars twinkling and shooting outside the window as I lie there in bed for hours staring, unable to go to sleep for the wonder of it all.

That’s why the hubster and I both actually love the shitty April conditions, and why it’s totally worth it for us, hauling a forty pound pack on our backs, uphill, in the dark, through slushy snow and mud to get there.  Just because nobody else is nuts enough to do it.

Except for those Fishing People, but that’s okay.  They’ll never leave the river.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

One response

  1. Dia…
    I love how you paint pictures with your words…I got to go back up to the Sawtooths and White Cloud mountains again…by your story. For a few minutes…I was not at work trying to get a chance to read your blog post…

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