Magruder Ranger Station
Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Central Idaho
Summer of 2001
Gateposts can be stubborn. But I’ve learned a thing or two about working with impossibly-heavy things with only hand-tools, and one of those things is that nothing is impossible, including gateposts, and the way you do a gatepost is this:
You unbolt the gate from its broken post and then you lay the whole huge thing down on the ground with the new gatepost. Bolt the gate onto the new one. Then you lift the whole heavy thing up by your own buff self so the bottom end of the post slips into the two-foot hole you just dug the old gatepost out of. Then you fiddle around with it until you can latch the gate shut to the opposite post. Find a couple of bracing sticks to temporarily hold the gate still until you pour your cement. Mount your permanent bracing poles back onto the new gatepost and go do something else until the cement dries. After a day or so you come back to see if anybody’s messed with it. If they have then you’re simply screwed. But if they haven’t, you knock the temporary sticks off and the gate will now swing and latch for you admirably, or at least as though it were built that way. Ask anyone who’s inclined toward working with impossibly heavy objects in the backcountry, or any engineer. Working backwards is a reasonable way of dealing with intractable problems and is also a serviceable way of looking at the world in general. God was not an engineer. She merely created them, and only God, as any honest engineer or cowboy will tell you, is perfect.
Two bags of cement have been lying in the barn since last season’s fire crew was sent over the hill to fix this very post. The outfitter had been using the pasture without permission for a while, which was okay as long as he was respectful. But then he’d backed his horse trailer into the gatepost, broke it off at the ground and didn’t fix it. After that everyone was letting their stock in, including the sport riders, leaving nothing but dirt and horseshit for the Forest Service string that actually had work to do down here.
These mountains tried to burn themselves up in the summer of 2000, an unprecedented fire season the news dubbed “Firestorm 2000”, and isn’t the news a funny thing? It’s about stories to put us to sleep with false lullabies or to keep us awake with nightmares. No in-between narratives need apply. It’s about selling product, and the three biggest products in 2000 were that the Northern Rockies had burnt up with “Firestorm 2000” and it was all the environmentalists’ fault, that Global Warming was actually a mental disorder that could be traced to chemicals placed in our water supplies by communists and that George Bush really hadn’t stolen the election. You have to admit that, if nothing else, the news is consistent.
Hundreds of thousand of acres actually were profoundly affected by fire, in the populated Bitterroot Valley as well as down here in the wilderness, and a lot of it did burn hot. But what actually occurred can be explained more accurately in abstract concepts like ecology, which teaches us that while any given fire’s perimeter is measured in acres on the map by the sum total of its outer boundaries, the land within that perimeter is never completely charred. Lots of the land has either been burnt only in its understory, which actually cleans the place up, or is left untouched. Global Warming notwithstanding, this is called a mosaic pattern in the forest vernacular, and that’s how it looks. Almost like a giant jigsaw puzzle if you’re up at the lookout on top of Salmon Mountain, or in an airplane. Old fire scars merge into new ones, multi-aged canopy colors mingle like genetic codes, and it’s actually the most healthy thing for forests, and the most economical for taxpayers when you consider how expensive it would be to manually clean up the mess we’ve made of our mountains over the last century.
But never mind, says the news. Abstract concepts are not newsworthy and besides, it’s much more spangly to believe that the whole place burnt up because of environmentalists who may as well have burnt down Disneyland for all the bad press we got.
And what’s true to the nature of the news is also true to the natures of most fire crews, like the fire crew who was supposed to fix this gatepost last Fall and who panic-stashed their cement bags in the barn instead when all hell broke loose in the populated Bitterroot, where there was money to be made.
“Never mind!” they cried in the general direction of the gatepost and then raced back over Nez Perce Pass as fast as the gravel road allowed for their share of the overtime and hazard pay the Forest Service bribes its help with to put their life and lungs on the fireline. Chump change, really, when you think that you can make more money working full-time at McDonald’s. But don’t think about it, because fire’s exciting and adventure’s your real pay. That and winter beer money.
In their excitement the fire crew didn’t think about a good place to store the bags of cement, failed to pick a dry spot for the bags to stay put for the winter, which was how long they knew those bags were going to stay put. Fire crews are predictable in this way, and so it’s not surprising when I find the bags in a wet corner of the barn with their sides hardened and just enough good cement left in the middle of the bags to do a good enough job. We’re only trying to keep the outfitter’s stock out of the guard station’s pasture this season, and it’ll be good enough when I’m finished. I was sent over here to fix a gatepost, not to lay the foundation for a new tomorrow, which I’d prefer.
I’ve worked sporadically in the backcountry for the Forest Service for many seasons between treeplanting and unemployment, and opinions are a natural outcome of backbreaking drudgery combined with silence. Look at American frontier history for clues. It’s always the same, and to the occasional armed and angry hunter I’d run into on a lonely trail who would wonder aloud how I could stomach working for the same repressive government that framed Randy Weaver, I’d say, “Hell, I’m worth ten bucks an hour just for my opinions and I work my butt off besides. So can you please just pick up your cigarette butts anyways?” Actually I only said that once, but it sure felt good and left a durable memory. I wish I’d said it more often.
I’m just ripping open the first bag of cement with the tip of my fire shovel when the bass riff from a set of sub-woofers rolls down the mountain, pounding the solitude out of a wide square mile of silence. I feel its sassy bottom beating against my skin, jabbing at my heart and rattling my brain until I toss my shovel hard against the post, causing it to sway slightly out of its hard-fought kilter, and let’s admit right here that there can be no account written about the Wilderness movement, or at least the fight to get enough people to see the value of relatively-intact ecosystems, that would not be an understatement. It was all very heartbreaking and hard. Too hard, too heartbreaking, and the upper Selway country is no different. The Elk City road, the road that the car containing the blasting sub-woofers is driving down, is a case in point. It’s a little more than a hundred miles long and is really nothing but a long stretch of single-track dirt and gravel ribbon rolling through the heart of the Northern Rockies, the Land that the Nimiipuu[i] knew well and loved more, from western Montana and over into the South Fork of the Clearwater in Idaho, seventy miles to the west of where I’m working. It’s just a common logging road by today’s standards, but it rolls through the largest wild area left in the lower forty-eight states where today’s standards shouldn’t apply. The Elk City road is an artifact, left over from the time when the Wilderness Law stared the Timber Beast down in ’64. It had been scratched out by a CCC crew in the thirties, but the hopeful loggers wanted to turn it into their haul road for getting the cut out before the whole place was declared off-limits to them, which it finally was after years of heartbreak.
Compromise, I suppose, is the way of politics, but it’s a dirty word when it comes to what’s left of the Quiet World because the Elk City Road is now grandfathered into the Wilderness Law, and where in a New York bass player’s world is there any space allotted for congressionally-mandated boundaries on solitude? I, for instance, work for short pay back here and I count on doing that work in silence while I take my half an hour or however long it takes to get my gatepost to its right kilter. Silence is my real pay, and shouldn’t one be able to count on silence any time one can find it these days?
But now I’m going to be a victim to some guy’s obnoxious mating behavior usually associated with overcrowded cities. “Center Of The Universe approaching,” I mutter through clenched teeth in time to the bass riff. “Make way, make way.” These guys might as well be riding elephants. How on God’s Green Earth, I would like to know, can people be so clueless?
I should always be careful what I wish for when I invoke something with as warped a sense of humor as the Earth, because I’m about to find out.
The sub-woofer gets louder as it closes in, slows its progress just a bit at the intersection of the guard station with the Elk City Road about a quarter-mile uphill as his car turns into the long driveway. “Thump-thump-ba-bum-bum-thump!” Louder still as it passes the old ranger house that used to really be a ranger house through the Depression and up into the seventies when rustic appearances were more in line with reality, Now it is a guest rental booked online by DisneyCorp, but never mind.
An eighties-something Camaro appears around the bend. It bangs its red tail against an ancient rock in the dirt driveway and pulls into the turnaround next to the pasture entrance. A young man is inside, mid-twenties, sunglasses and no smile. He turns off his engine. Suddenly the woods scream back into their former silence. Pine tops around the pasture sway imperceptibly in what passes for confusion among their kind, and then relief if you can see it, because once again the Selway River gurgling fifty yards away and I remind myself for the thousandth time that although a tree’s innocence is always slightly damaged by this kind of nonsense, it’s never irreparable. That’s what I like about the mountains. They make you feel like you still have a chance.
I remain squatting next to the fencepost in an effort to avoid eye contact, fiddling with my level like I’m trying to true the post again before I pour the cement. This is honest enough because it’s exactly what I’m trying to do other than ignore this guy. Honesty’s important, I think, but it’s no use. The guy slowly unfolds himself out of his Camaro and walks stiff-legged over to me with what I take to be the fatalistic gait of someone who couldn’t have possibly known what he was getting into when he turned off the highway in Darby a couple hours back. With a car like that, how could he have? His running shoes squeak in a new-bought way as he squats opposite to the fencepost and without introduction asks in deeply accented English, “You know where is Horse Heaven?”
I’m stunned. I couldn’t have said it better myself. “Where you comin’ from, man?” I ask, not quite knowing how to buff this intrusion back to what I consider real, or at least real enough.
“Portland,” he admits. “My family there. My family here, too, pickin’ mushroom. They call. Tell me plenty of mushroom. They say come. They say camp at Horse Heaven.”
I’ve seen their camp, of course, laid out about fifteen miles up the Elk City Road from the guard station, high above the river, past Salmon Mountain. There’s a large group of Hmong folks with a school bus and eight to ten older compact cars and pickups on any given day. It lies about fifty miles into the wilderness. Lots of garbage accumulates along the Elk City Road, which would be okay with me if the garbage stayed within its congressionally mandated bounds. But it doesn’t and I’ve also seen their plastic buckets, their bungied backpack frames, their coolers stacked up and around the shady side of their school bus, and that’s the thing. Their camp is legal enough, but their activity isn’t. They’re picking morel mushrooms for money back in a protected roadless area, which is forbidden by the Law of Good Intent, which is where all good wilderness laws come from. I want to tell him that right away, or to simply tell him where the camp is and get him out of my sphere of annoyance. But I wrestle with my familiar, self-inflicted conundrum instead, that if I wanted easier work for more money, I wouldn’t be down here planting gateposts all by myself, would I? So I hold my tongue and let this guy squat in glorious silence a minute more while I think up a good response.
As everyone knows, rules are made for good reasons and for bad ones, and rules for wilderness follow this same trajectory. There are many bad wilderness rules. Good wilderness rules, however, are mostly made with little precedent and the best intentions to protect these last places from those who, for instance, make bad rules. So the good wilderness rules are, by definition, very good rules indeed, and so it is that there are some very, very good reasons for prohibiting commercial mushroom picking in wilderness areas.
One of which is this guy! Who does he think he is, coming down here clueless, from Portland of all places (another planet!!) disturbing my peace with his thumping pheromones and then further insulting my sanctuary by asking me how he can further degrade it? But I digress.
Anyone who’s inadvertently stumbled into a secluded marijuana patch understands how some people tend to get proprietary and downright testy when someone steps into what they consider “their” economic space. Whether or not it’s on your public lands matters not at all as long as they think they can get away with it. Unregulated greed is ugly when it comes to the Land. Ask any mountaintop that’s been removed, and that’s usually legal. So it follows that if you allow roving bands of commercial mushroom pickers who are fond of packing pocket pistols into hard-to-access mountainous public lands, you get an ego-driven Wild West show not necessarily compatible with what most folks expect within wilderness boundaries.
But every year’s summer months have always brought fire to the Northern Rockies, and now, as our globe heats up beyond redemption the fires are more numerous, hotter, bigger. They are, in two words, very exciting, the kind of thing newscasters in search of marketable human drama find irresistible, and Firestorm 2000 was no different. The media line that time was that this whole place was crispy-creamed by environmentalists and now there’s nothing left but zombie elk walking the river bottoms looking for hapless hunters to gore and--if you’re among of the hordes of pickers who flock to burnt-up public lands they heard about the summer before on the news--easy-to-sell morel mushrooms! And so, for a few months a year, these pickers practice a peculiar brand of post-modern paganism, resting upon the three pillars of morel mushroom mysticism. Ecology, economics and sex.
So first of all, let’s be clear about that last thing. Morels are not an aphrodisiac, as some folks—mostly men-- really, really want them to be. And they don’t come from Heaven either, as their cost suggests. They’re just mushrooms. Their niche in the Northern Rockies is a hot mid-to-high elevation forest the Spring following a fire the year before. The burnt-over forest floor combined with the moisture from snowmelt and Spring rains creates the ideal bed for their fruiting body—the mushroom—to sprout and cast its spores, and they wait years for this semi-regular, natural occurrence. They typically come in thick enough after a fire that a local can collect enough to fill the space in her freezer where the elk she shot last fall used to be, which is their big plus. But they are tasty, too, and have become trendy at fashionable restaurants throughout the United States, Canada and elsewhere, which has turned it into a product, a “natural resource” free for the taking off of our public commons, the national forests. Much like beaver pelts in past centuries, their popularity has spiked their going price enough to encourage classic pioneer attitudes about “resources” located on public lands, such as greed, lawlessness and land abuse.
In addition to coming in thick after a fire, they’re also easily identifiable because they’re the only mushroom that looks like your brain, and on the strength of that alone it’s hard for the hordes who descend upon last year’s burns to mistake them for anything more poisonous than an intelligent sex toy. They pick them as fast as they find them and if they’re lucky they’ll make twenty to thirty dollars an hour stooping over all day long cutting mushrooms off at the stump, stashing them in a five-gallon buckets bungy-corded onto a pack frame and hauling them out to camp, where they’re dusted off and sold by the pound to the buyers who make the real money off your labor. To repeat, you may as well be working at McDonalds, but never mind.
You are free to do all this and more only if you’re willing to put up with hordes. They show up every Spring, after a big burn on forested public lands in the Rockies, sometimes thicker than the mushrooms they seek, from all parts of the country with all issues and attitudes represented. Most of them, I’ll admit, are only looking for an excuse to hang out in the woods, like myself. But like all hordes, there’s more than the occasional desperado who can’t find regular work, who packs heat instead of spores, and who has all those issues people who don’t have steady work are dealing with and maybe want you to deal with too if you bump into them out in a burn in what they consider ‘their” economic territory. Also, like the sum total of all human hordes, they feel free leaving their garbage wherever they figure God intended it to be left. Grrrr! Poetry and politics usually don’t mix, but Howard Zahniser[ii] pulled it off when he got Congress to agree to his definition of wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man (sic), where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. Where, I would ask, is this kind of drama in that poem?
A randy kinglet has been kissing out his mating call above us constantly, and other than the wishing of the river nearby that’s the only sound passing between us as I ponder the Universe, which reminds me of when I became intimate with the kinglet’s call. I followed one around a stand of bull pine shading the Buckhorn Cabins and RV Park in Zortman, Montana during a blizzard for over two hours with a pair of cheap binoculars, trying to match the bird with the call and with absolutely no expertise in the matter. Kinglets are ubiquitous in western forests, as is its kissing call, but I hadn’t made the personal connection between the two yet. More importantly, my choices for killing time in Zortman were limited. We were there to plant trees at the Pegasus gold mine in the Little Rockies when a spring storm laid us up for three days. The storm dumped two feet of snow on the rubble of what used to be Spirit Mountain, formerly one of the most prominent peaks in Eastern Montana. In fact, before its demise it was one of the only peaks in Eastern Montana. We’d been hired with a straight face by Pegasus Gold to “reclaim” the mountain corpse so that the giant gold company could get its reclamation bond back from the state. Anyone who’s planted trees knows that it’s often impossible to see the ground well enough to pick a suitable spot for your little seedlings to survive with two inches of snow on the ground, let alone two feet on top of soccer ball sized cobble. We couldn’t go home because home was four hundred miles to the west, in the Bitterroot Valley. This was in the late eighties and I remember the discussion of the crew revolving around climate change even back then, the consensus being that a few trees growing on the rubble that Spring would be better than none at all, and so our only moral option was to wait the storm out until the weather warmed and we could finish the job. Poor Spirit Mountain, but we stayed and waited to do the best we could, even though staying meant either entering into the comatose trance induced by endless cycles of HBO movies in those tiny log cabins that served as motel rooms, feeding quarters into the poker machine at the bar or catching up on your birding. I chose numb fingers over a numb mind, which says something about how I find myself in this current situation.
The guy is waiting patiently, which is a good sign, but I don’t feel as though he’s remarked the sacredness he’s interrupted. As he squats silently across from me I have no idea, really, what he’s thinking because I don’t ask. I look at his face instead for clues, but his face is hidden behind wraparound sunglasses so there are no clues. What I think I see are two kids in an inner-city fourplex with a young wife waiting for a money order in the downstairs mailbox. Refugee camps, maybe. War in tropical places for all I know, with handguns in the glovebox, yikes! How can I know without asking, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to do that!
I use my imagination instead, because I am like everyone else. Tiny brain, large imagination. And also, I hate my peace disturbed, more so down here in my sanctuary where I also find myself prone to impatience as much as any of the other human curses we must face and fight against every day if we want to evolve our species out of the hole we’ve created for its offspring. Finally, given the setting and context, his cheap sunglasses are boring, so I go for honesty, which is important.
“You know it’s illegal to pick mushrooms for money down here in the wilderness,” I tell him. “In. The. Wilderness.” I repeat. It’s not a question.
He takes his sunglasses off at this. Embarrassed, I look down into my posthole. He looks down also to see what I’m looking at and, seeing a hole, looks back up at me. “Tell me,” he asks, implacably urgent now. “What is this ‘wilderness’?”
Here’s something you may not know. When you devote your misspent working life to the woods, your guard is down when the big city shows up. You have irrational urges, to lock a door or at least to shut down any explanations for something as profound and dear to you as your wilderness. There’s not just a little bit of misanthropy involved. Why not? That’s why I’m down here getting bit up by mosquitoes and no-see-ums and planting a fencepost for short pay. I’d really like to know. Is there any common sense or simple sense of irony left in this obnoxious world we seem to prefer anymore? I tend to think not! “What’s wilderness?!” I think incredulously. Tell it to the marines, dude.
But then, right in the middle of this rare, quiet moment in a world getting smaller and noisier with every spin on its axis, I experience that flash of recognition, that illumination of fantasies that show a person under no uncertain terms that their fantasies about what the hell they think they’re doing with their lives are as sublime as they are untenable. Because really, this isn’t my wilderness at all. It’s really just the home of the Nimiipuu, who didn’t have a word for “wilderness”, and who were booted out of here by the same immigrant hordes who bombed this guy’s tribe off their mountains in Southeast Asia a mere century later. What would their answer be to this guy, I wonder. Worlds apart from mine, I’ll bet.
I fall back on my default position, then, on something I know for sure and something you probably know, too. That right now there are vertebrate species, particularly the wet-skinned amphibian type, who are becoming endangered and going extinct within these nominally-protected wilderness areas. Environmental degradation and its resultant resource conflicts know no bounds set by Congress or bought with foundation money, and just because it’s easy for those of us lucky enough to experience true quiet firsthand to understand the difference between silence and obnoxiousness, that doesn’t mean anything of lasting value if the planet and, by definition, we are not saved.
The point, of course, is simple math. Urban areas are where all environmental policies, all policies in fact, are ultimately made or broken. It can’t be otherwise in a true democracy, or even in an imploding one like ours. Cities are where the people are, the votes, and a vote’s a vote. If any definition is going to carry water in a situation like this it’s that true human-based democracy needs vast swaths of relatively intact ecosystems to survive, and Democracy is what is lacking in the Land. And one of those democratic votes is waiting patiently for my explanation of this word, “wilderness”!
Damn. The moment glows as rare as a gold nugget in a creek you stoop over to sip from twenty miles back, an opportunity as rare as anything else that never happens. This guy really, really doesn’t know, and he really wants to. I give him high marks for coming up with great one-liners, and it’s all I can do to keep from high-fiving him now. The only reason I don’t is because we’re strangers, and I don’t want to give him the wrong impression in case I’m the one who has to drive up to Horse Heaven and give his crew the news.
And with that hesitation I let my opportunity slip away. “That’s a good one, man,” I say instead with a grin. He grins back and the connection is made, which is what l like about down here. Connections are easy when you have to make them. There are fewer distractions.
The kinglet above us continues his high song. Spirit Mountain is dead, he tells me, which I know. It got a flat top from Pegasus Gold, who split the country when the price of gold dipped below the price of honesty for Canadian mining companies. In place of Spirit Mountain they left a gigantic, stepped pyramid of blasted cliff and cobble that looks to all the world like a sacrificial alter to a God with a very sick sense of humor indeed.
This kind of God can be best defined by one of His high priests, a road engineer that I had the luck to meet and converse with at the Zortman mine. In the fall of 1989, he was tasked by the company with showing our hippy crew around the planting sites on our first reclamation project. When we came to the giant pyramid, we let out a collective gasp, which, to his credit, he noticed. He was in the middle of explaining the importance of knowing where the blind spot was for the dinosaur-sized haul trucks whose tires were bigger than our crummy. He gave us exactly one moment of respectful silence.
“Well,” he finally said matter-of-factly. “It was an old mountain, anyway,” and without skipping another beat he went on to explain how it was company policy to wear our hardhats at all times on their premises in case a dinosaur-sized truck happened to crush our crummy. He lived in the little highline town of Malta where good jobs with benefits were as rare as the buffalo in Malta are now who were the only ones who ever made a real living there. He was probably making twenty dollars an hour at the time, with benefits, which was pretty good wages for back then. But now his job’s long gone and the cost of the toxic pit where a mountain used to be has boomeranged back to the People, where the mining company knew it would go. But the kinglet still sings there in the scrubby bull pine, where we planted them long ago in the rubble of what was Spirit Mountain. How the neo-greens would sing the praises of that happy serendipity, except for the simple fact that neo-greens don’t know how to speak Kinglet any more than I do. Maybe she’s saying that the earth will definitely abide, no matter what you wise-guys (Homo sapiens) decide to do or not to do with the mess you made. It’s just you wise guys who may not.
I may have let my opportunity pass, but I’m not ready to give up. “Wilderness,” I begin, puffing my explanation up as large as possible and then… alas! Clichés ambush me despite my best precautions against them. “…Is a state of mind.” The hot air steams out of my mouth before I can cork it. We just can’t seem to help ourselves, can we?
“You mean,” his brow furrowing, clearly trying to do his part to keep his end of the conversation up until he gets the information he wants. “Like Idaho? Montana? Which state is Horse Heaven?”
So much for my crippled sense of cultural relativism. “It’s where you can’t pick mushrooms for money,” I clarify, my explanation deflated back down to mere misanthropy. “It’s illegal. And you can’t throw your trash around here either, y’know?”
I could fit this whole wilderness thing into the simplest quip if I wanted to, the one that the gutted Wilderness Society lawyers stole and still use today, “In wildness,” I could quote Thoreau, “is the salvation of the world.” That recipe has lost none of its power in spite of decades of misuse, which speaks volumes about its durability. Good old Thoreau, and I’ll admit his is just one of many, many recipes for saving our planet. But it’s about good as the next one, and maybe better than most. Can I ever hope to convince this guy that my wilderness is holy because it’s been declared so by an unholy political system, which is the definition of a miracle? Maybe I don’t have to. What’s it matter who calls what what, as long as you understand how rare chances are these days, and how a relatively unspoiled country can make you feel like you still have one. I give it one more tepid, yet honest, try.
“If we let you guys make the big mushroom money down here…in the wilderness…we might as well let the logging trucks roll over the mountain, too, and then where would we be?”
“I think Idaho,” he answers, smiling. “Def’nitely Idaho.” His palms turn up, he rocks back on his heels and squints at the treetops as though reaching into the depths of his own cultural memory, which is not mine yet. “What logging trucks, anyways?” he asks.
“The ones you don’t see down here!” I snap before I realize that my well-honed cynicism is not only misplaced but worse, misunderstood and, worst of all, unappreciated.
“Look,” I say, settling my tack back to the worker bee within us. “Whether you guys get away with picking mushrooms up there or not, you’re not gonna make it to Horse Heaven in that rig.” I wave my gloved hand toward his red Camaro with the racing stripe across the top and the fin on the trunk for keeping the rear-end from sliding when you’re going a hundred miles an hour around a racetrack or a freeway. If he’s lucky he’ll be going fifteen miles an hour on the good stretches. “The road gets worse as you get up toward Salmon Mountain. And steep with lots of rocks and ruts. Then you gotta go a good ways past Salmon Mountain. You’ll bottom out and punch a hole in your gas tank or something. Especially the way you’re driving.” This, I think, is a gentle warning, a closure of sorts, because I’d really rather get back to thinking about simple things like my gatepost. “And I’ll bet you put Premium in that car, too,” I add for good measure. “You’re in the wilderness, man, is what I’m sayin’. That means you won’t make enough money picking mushrooms or doing anything in here to pay for the damage you do. Nobody does. That’s what wilderness means.”
I’m suddenly quite surprised and satisfied with this explanation, to which he lifts his eyes up over the treetops again and off to the west, where all he can possibly see are more tall trees because nothing else is visible from the guard station pasture. “So,” he says, his brow furrowed again, his smile gone. “You drive up this mountain you call Salmon. Go a way more. Then Horse Heaven.” It’s not a question.
“That’s right,” I say, finally enlightened. “You’ll be in the wilderness, in Horse Heaven, where you guys’ll find boatloads of mushrooms and make bucket loads of money because you’re not supposed to be back there doing that.”
He smile again, and I’ll just bet he used a GPS to get down here, not a map. He has no idea where he is heading other than on adventure and he’s not having any of my warnings.
And he’s right, of course. I can’t stop him, and I ought to know. If anyone can recognize that glow of boomtown mentality from a mile away, it’s me. I’ve suffered from the same disorder all my life. Look at American frontier history for clues. It’s always the same, just like in the old days when we set up a treeplanting camp on top of what was left of a mountain or some other ecological disaster. We didn’t always know exactly where we were, but we always knew that we were part of epic doings in an epic country, and so we fooled ourselves into our backbreaking work with the same high expectations of spangly financial success while at the same time reverting as fast as we could back to the campfire cultures of our ancestors, which is the real point of going to all the trouble in the first place. Priests, for example, are on about the same pay scale as your average treeplanter, trail dog or mushroom picker and just like priests, busting your ass in the woods for chump change is really more of a vocation than a job. All you really end up with is a deep personal satisfaction combined with a worldly dread when you look back at where you’ve been, that all hell’s about to break loose and you’re ready for it, which I believe is a good, honest perspective to have these days if you want to do anything about that hell other than to just put Jesus to sleep.
The guy’s sneakers squeak as he rises from his squat and walks back to his Camaro. The outfitter hasn’t had his stock in this year, and it’s too early for the sport riders, so there’s a flush of green starting to show as I look across the pasture toward the river. We’re just shy of the Solstice, the longest day of the year, which goes until ten at night at this latitude, and so the five o-clock sun has that magic summer angle to it that sets the new growth off into the exact hue of contemplative emerald that people go to all that trouble having lawns for, just the kind of afternoon you set your sights on in the hopes of hitting as many of them as possible. I consider this guy’s question with misanthropy’s opposite twin, solidarity, because there are only a few choices down here.
“Make sure you tell your buddies what I said,” I call after him. He gives me the finger-thumb grunge salute and grins wide this time.
“I be sure to tell them,” he says as he stoops into his rig. “What you said.” He slams the door and I can hear him chuckling. The rhythm starts almost immediately upon entry, and off he goes, the fin-crowned tail end dutifully banging on the ancient rock in the road once more for perfect cadence. This time I notice that he has a cast-iron frying pan set on the back shelf, which bangs against his racy curved rear window. That’ll cost him about three hundred bucks, I figure, but he’ll make it up to Horse Heaven come hell or high water, because he’s a child of pilgrims, just like me, and he’ll be successful enough in his purpose, which is my purpose, too.
There’s nothing simple about a gatepost.