Saturday, August 20, 2022

Chapter 11: Brutally Perfect

Idaho Centennial Trail 2022

Crossing the Campbell’s Ferry bridge spanning the Salmon River, I felt a sense of newness, just a new outlook on life that committed to acting, living, and believing in and with love. I nearly felt whole. My love of wilderness and, for the first time in my life, the love of myself felt not an act of atonement, not reliving another’s past, and, most importantly, not guilt-ridden. I felt free and rid of any guilt. I felt full of gratitude, forgiving anything that punctured my insecure person. The heat still sweltered in the river canyon and my hunger became increasingly ravaged. As soon as I crossed that bridge and stepped foot on the other side, I zeroed in on Yellowpine Bar where I had a resupply package waiting. Recollections of the flames across the river and the Mylar-wrapped structures from my previous isolation here in ‘15 shown in front of my eyes, although I was not suffering in desolation this time like I had been that last time. The wide Salmon River powered downstream crashing into massive boulders that eons ago fell into the river, or unimaginably got tossed downriver by an unbelievable force. I passed by the road that provided me with a safe exit back some 7 years ago. I tipped my cap to some will o'the wisp, an impossible made up phantasm. I know that is nonsense, but that intersection had proved to be a meaningful point from that point onward. Here I was a newer person with another meaningful intersection.

Suddenly, a rumbling metallic noise screamed from the river, the cacophony of slapping metal baffling my ears. From a couple hundred feet above the river in a boulderfield I stopped and scanned down on the river below. The roar came from downriver and through the ponderosa groves a long metal motorboat powered its way fiercely slapping and clapping through the rapids and waves. I couldn’t get a whole view at first as the enormous ponderosas blocked my view. But, once the motorboat came into clear sight, I saw two giant flags waving in the wind off the rear of the boat: ‘FUCK BIDEN’ and an USA stars and stripes flag. 

My wilderness and nostalgic stupor instantly retreated and left my mind vacant with a little anger. That social opinion and splinter was the last thing I expected coming out of a wilderness complex and into a wild and scenic river. I shook my head in disbelief and just felt bad for all the rafting parties along the beaches. Maybe some folks believed in his message, maybe some didn't. His message just felt 'all up in your face' and brought a divisive tension over the calming sense of the river. It wasn't that I cared or not for the man's opinion either -- I just wanted the wilderness space and feeling back. The trail careened into a drainage and the roar of the creek submerged the slapping of the metallic motorboat. I'm sure everyone on every beach read his message. Everyone saw the attention he was craving for. No matter, once the motor boat got further upriver the quiet of the canyon fell back into place. I walked behind and occasionally through beach camps with kids playing in the water, the grills smoking up with burgers and hot dogs, and the adults sitting around in comfortable chairs around a fire ring -- all just enjoying the open space. I fell back into tranquility just seeing folks smiling, relaxing, and having a good time. Soon enough, I turned a corner and the Yellowpine Bar airstrip splayed out in front of me in a straight and narrow swath. I spotted a cottage with folks mingling on the patio. I was surprised at how lively the canyon was with all the people I had been seeing in just a short couple hours. The Main Fork of the Salmon River canyon has a long history of residents dwelling and working in the canyon. The river canyon is so wide that in the bends huge sandbars have packed up over eons of time that large flat areas held ranches and tiny communities. In some places that had larger communities than others, as well as access and location to mines up in the Chamberlain Basin and the now Frank Church Wilderness areas, a ferry helped miners, residents, and travelers across the wide river. The Salmon River holds a rich history of wars, homesteading, and river life. Besides hardship or luck just plain running out, once the wilderness became enacted in 1984, many of the ranches either became ruined or have been upkept by historical societies, maintained by caretakers, or are still owned and managed by the same families. In some places, fruit orchards still line the river even though buildings may be dilapidated or have remnants of ruins. Some of the apple and pear trees still bear fruit that black bears gorge on. The history of the Salmon River is fascinating and is one history I would like to learn more of down the line.

Yellowpine Bar held three homes lining the airstrip and I took a stab at the cottage with a large garden, a large work-shed, and a huge expanse of lawn. This place looked more year-around than the previous cabin. I knocked on the screen door hesitantly of the cottage with a redwood deck overlooking the Salmon River. I made a nervous entrance, but I had made it at a somewhat reasonable early evening hour, as long shadows swallowed up the bottom of the canyon with the rays of sun rising on the opposite side of the canyon with its lowering in the horizon to the west. The circle of the day had completed and my hosts, Greg and Sue, hospitably and politely regaled me with conversation, a highball glass of whiskey, a slice of pizza, and, most importantly, my resupply package. Greg and Sue have lived in the canyon some 30 years, if I recall correctly. Their first 10 or so years were spent downriver where they caretaked a backcountry ranch where a visitor had to hike in. The last 20 years have been spent here at Yellowpine Bar, a large flat area above the river that once held 1500 river people. Now, 3 homes are spread out adjacent to the airfield amid a ponderosa forest and stone fence ruins that have been weathered over the years. They live a simple life as caretakers: gardening, knife making and farriering, colorful creations of art, tending to pets, among a slew of other ranch duties of a simple life set in the backcountry. A neighbor came to visit as the long shadows engulfed the canyon. I slowly sipped my whiskey as a warmth washed over me, my eyes getting groggy. The trio spoke of river gossip. Even out here in the backcountry people are still people. Visitors to Yellowpine Bar -- the family reunions and former lives of the families out here; the history of the Salmon River -- the living museum in the cottage of Yellowpine Bar; the river etiquette -- the upriver neighbor who zooms on by with his motorboat that causes a wake and lifts unsuspecting boats and river rafter's vessels up onto huge boulders or beaches; the wildlife -- the bears picking at old apple groves, the deer and elk migrating across a ice floe across the river in the winter,  and the lack of elk because of the reintroduction of wolves; and finally, the seasons -- the short winter days where the opportunity for solar power is scant available save for only about 3 hours for a very, very short day, the seldom trips to town, and the incredible wildfires of yesteryore that have scarred the landscape here -- all of these sentimental topics represented the real history and real lives of the people of the Salmon River. Sure enough, as they spoke of the neighbor upstream, I knew instantly they were speaking of the 'FUCK BIDEN' flag man. No matter where you live, in every neighborhood, even out here where neighbors are there to help each other out, there's always an asshole.

Greg led me to a cherry tree on a beautiful vibrantly green lawn to sleep under. The damp grass felt so soothing to lay down upon. The whiskey set in and I drifted quickly into a deep slumber, the chickens in the chicken coup quietly cooing and clucking, as if they were snoring like a tiny child. I woke up to the river churning below and I gazed above me at the twinkling stars above. I got up to take a piss in the bushes lining the bluff above the river and could see the reflection of the moon shimmering in the small rapids. I felt relaxed and tranquil yet vanquished by this tiny bit of paradise. And, now I wanted to slide away like the moonlight downriver to be swallowed up by the darkness of the canyon, back to a restful slumber where I would succumb to the nature that surrounds me, to simply let go and be sucked in by the blackness both of the night and the river. I stumbled back to my bedroll and dove in and nestled into my silk liner. The light switch to the moon turned off and I slept in dreamlessness. Sure enough, however, as soon as I felt my eyes had closed, a rooster began crowing. Then, another screamed into the early dusky morning and pierced the silence. I was up, but I rolled over feeling the condensation beaded up on my quilt. I lowered my buff over my eyes and I thought, 'I love this place.'

I heard the screen door shut and I rolled out of my quilt and began packing up. I floundered over to the deck in my bare feet that sifted through the damp grass. Songbirds began to chirp, the chickens really began to cluck, and the house cat began rubbing up against and weaving through my legs, as Sue brought me out a cup of coffee. I was in no hurry, but I also did not want to overstay my welcome. I chatted with Sue, a mild-mannered and free spirit of a soul. I didn't want to pry too much on 'how did they make it work out here,' nevertheless I tried just a tiny bit. I was fascinated by the life they had created here. I was not envious -- I was inspired. Greg came out from the cabin with a cup of coffee in hand. He asked if I wanted a tour of his furrier shop and the museum room. I eagerly jumped up and followed him into the side cottage that substitutes as his workshop. Being as they live off the grid, Greg showed me the solar panels and battery storage system, all of which helped power his machines, such as a grinder, to fine tune his craft. We toured his masonry oven room, the brick ovens all handmade. He showed me the slag and metal scrap used to craft a blade. He walked me through the process from scrap to finished product. I could tell from this patient craftsman that to complete one knife took a fair amount of time. Slowly and methodically, he pounded out the molten metal to shape out a blade. He grinded and sharpened the beautiful and glistening metal to its perfection. In his shop, I could envision him in his process. Next up, he opened a door within the masonry oven room. We entered the room. Spackled, tacked, nailed and hung on the walls displayed the history of Yellowpine Bar and the surrounding Salmon River canyon. Old faded photos showed the canyon dwellers living life in the canyon or having leisure in the canyon along the river. On a large shelf stuffed wildlife heads were mounted in a stoic position. Skulls were positioned on another shelf above. I ogled at the black bear skull with the skeletal and vacant eyes. I peered into the mouth of the stuffed wolverine trying to envision the birth of their growl and ferocity. In the mix was an old picture from the 70's. A young man, mustached, wearing an animal hide hat, with peaceful and kind eyes with yet a vacant visage, stared ahead from the photograph. Greg let me know that the photograph of that rugged individual was of him right before they had moved west from Minnesota to Idaho. I could see that this room was more than the living history of the canyon. It was also the history of an idea and vision this kind man had so many years ago. His purpose along with Sue's appeared to be one of living intently. We closed the door and went back out to the deck. I was full of pep inside and eager to get hiking again with a sense of inspired purpose, while outwardly I maintained a calm demeanor. This visit to Yellowpine Bar at the hamlet of Greg and Sue had replenished me more than just with my resupply box. I had met two people who lived life together in unison, individually yet together, with a kind and peaceful disposition, with a purpose to thrive without the distractions of the crazy society we are all a part of, and lived a life with love.

I ambled upriver as the sun peered over the ridges high above. I passed the cove where the metal motorboat was beached. Not one flag hung from the rear of the boat. 'Just for show,' I thought. Soon enough though, I had rid the thought of that boat, never to bring it forth in the mind again. Rather, I focused on the welled up goodness and inspiration I felt from Yellowpine Bar. And, soon enough, five miles passed and I was at the junction to Bargamin Creek. I decided on this lower alternative route rather than the original Rattlesnake Ridge route of the ICT. Greg and Sue had told me the trail up Rattlesnake Ridge had been obliterated for some years. Coupled with my sense that most ICT hikers had been taking Bargamin Creek, the decision seemed like a no brainer. About a mile into the canyon, I felt happy to be back in the true wild. The canyon just had that feel about it. The canyon started off as narrow and the trail wedged in between the steep slopes above and the roaring and cascading creek. The trail was in rough shape, but nothing too difficult or annoying. Other than merely moving at a slower pace than I had been accustomed to, the first 5 miles or so the trail led upstream without too much obstruction. I dodged huge piles of bear scat, some fresh, some hard and crusty. My awareness piqued realizing I was in an even truer wild place than I had initially thought. See, I truly love wilderness. A place free from major human impact, a place truly wild in nature, a place where I can gaze into a horizon and feel the isolation and the emptiness of man, a place where I can be where I can face myself without any distraction, where I am truly me. Some places are more wild than others, some places have a sense of wilderness in bits while some places exude an immensity of wildness that one feels utterly immersed in this wilderness state. The latter is where I thrive, where I have to be aware of every single second of a moment, where every decision matters, where I am acting in pure nature within a pure nature. There is no other feeling like it -- this is the love I have always sought and will continue to seek.

I hit a rock slide, a big one that had destroyed the trail. I had to climb over a couple huge trees that had fallen atop the rock slide. I looked up the steep slope and could see a fire scarring on the slopes above me. I knew that the trail would get worse from there. After I negotiated the rock slide, the trail became incredibly overgrown to where I couldn't see the ground below my feet. I began to understand that hardly a person let alone a rider on horseback had traveled this far in the depths of the canyon. I could tell that only bears used this corridor. I would go from an overgrown path to a trail full of carnage from smaller rockslides to large sections of downed trees. I looked at the map and thought that once the canyon widened, possibly the trail would get better. I slowed from a 2.5mph pace to a measly 1.5mph pace. I worked incessantly to get over the countless downed trees until I hit the widening of the canyon. To my surprise, the condition of the trail got even worse. Really, the trail was no longer. I negotiated my way through a meadow that once held a tall grove of ponderosa. My shins took on the beginnings of the constant thrashing I would encounter the next 4 days. I poked my way across this ravaged meadow climbing over humongous dead, burnt, or fallen ponderosa and in between each tree I fought my way through hard brush that lashed at my shins and forearms and snagged at my clothing. I could barely see the ground and fought my way through trying not to trip or fall. The temperature swooned and became hot as hell. Sweat poured down my whole body and stung my fresh new cuts and scratches on my shins. Suddenly, the sky turned dark. A strong wind came roaring down the canyon. I looked above and could see the formation of a thundercloud moving swiftly in overhead. Rain began to patter and I paid no mind to the water as I was already drenched in sweat. The rain fell harder and harder as I continued to climb over fallen ponderosa that had now become slicker with the pouring rain. The wind would careen down the side canyons and raged through the standing burnt totems of snags, as thunder boomed above. All of a sudden, the heaviest of gusts came roaring in and I moved with a speedy intent trying to get out of this ravaged meadow and out from under the totem trees that now creaked with the proposition of crashing down. In an instant, standing dead trees began snapping and the green trees whipped and yawned over almost to a 90 degree angle. Every time the wind howled through I would look up at the trees in case of one snapping or falling over. I tried to run but I had to keep climbing over the trees that laid across my pathway ahead of me. I was utterly vulnerable. The thundercell lasted about 30 minutes and I finally made it to safe forested confines of Porcupine Creek. I sat and leaned up against a giant fir tree and closed my eyes and slowed my heart rate down. The spectacle and escape from the roving thundercell had my adrenaline way up. I needed to calm down. I washed my face off in the cold creek and again leaned against the fir. I fell into a nap and out of the crazy excitement of the past couple hours. I fell into the last long break of the day and hoped for clearer paths ahead.

And, the trail did get better, for about a 5 mile stretch. But, situationally, the weather had calmed too and I just had to walk. Beargrass blossomed in vast hillsides as I gradually climbed higher. The forest became aromatic with the scent of the massive fields of beargrass. Atop the tall stalks and a cluster of white flowers bunch together to form a bulbous flowering pod that is topped with a white or green nipple. The creamy white flowers splash pollen onto the hiker's clothes as one walks along a trail that is lined with beargrass. Beargrass reminds me of the yuccas in Southern California I grew up around. Not nearly in numbers, but if you look at some beargrass across a drainage and up on a hillside, the swaying in the breeze reminds me of the yucca on the chaparral slopes of Southern California. As I hiked up Bargarmin Creek, the beargrass fields became epic in numbers. I could not hike without getting the pollen in me and my clothes. The pollen and the scent of the beargrass soothed my senses. The pollen awas soft to the touch that caressed my and cooled my sweaty skin while the aroma of the flowers brought pleasant imagery to my imaginations. This splashing of the pollen from the beargrass continued on the duration of the Bargamin Creek trail until I finally popped out at the Magruder Corridor, the remote and backcountry dirt road that bisected the Frank Church and the Selway-Bitterroot Wildernesses. I arrived at the Poet Creek trailhead and rested my weary body sitting atop a log stump. The temperature had cooled down quite a bit since that sweltering oven in the canyon, however, the skies had remained dark since then. Giant cells roamed in the sky surrounding me, but, as usual with these large cells, a vacuum in the sky behind the passing cell kept the tail end storm free. After all these years of tracking storms on foot out here in the West, one thing you notice is the vacuum created by these massive storm systems and the space needed above for them to roam in. Another thing you also notice, is that they can still be very unpredictable and may circle back. So, as I was sitting on my lumpy stump I could see the tumbling of the system that had passed over me. I knew I had time, at least enough time to hike a bit more and set up campe before the cell came back around. So, I slunked into my lumpy stump and ate my dinner. A couple of moths landed on me as I was completely covered, really decorated, in beargrass. The moths paid no mind to my movements, albeit as slow as they were. I leaned in to inspect the moths, to investigate their movements with great scrutiny. I was fascinated by their arrival on my body. I marveled at my new disguise that had me blending in with the surrounding blooms and forest. I felt an animal within me finally becoming the animal on the outside. I watched the moths with their tiny proboscis peck at the splotches of beargrass pollen on my shirt and forearms. As small as they were, I could feel their softness, their gentle touch and kisses. I fixated on their tinyness, their dainty wings and hairy body. I lost track of time being absorbed in their microscopic world. Even though their world was my body, I had become detached from my own skin. I felt so high above the scene, soaring as an observer on the world below. Out of body and out of mind, I had misplaced my awareness in a wild forest as thunder boomed above me, a dramatic ending to the movie I had been watching. I packed up, stood up, and scooted down the trail trying to find camp in a burnt landscape. Indeed, after some time, I found a flat piece of ground on a saddle without any standing dead or burnt trees. I calmly set up my shelter as the wind strongly blew in. As soon as I got onto my sleeping pad, a light sprinkling began that within five minutes had turned into a steady downpour. Lightning flashed around me and thunder crashed within seconds after each flash. I tucked my head into my quilt and slowed my breathing down. I fell asleep dreaming of the moths pecking the pollen off of my skin. I dreamt of being a tall stalk of beargrass swaying lightly in the wind, as around me the storm raged. 

Wilderness has different states. To me, true wilderness is as such: absolute in nature, the essence of a brutally perfect chaos, radically harmonious under the laws of nature. I woke up early to the storm rattling above me, like the last shakings of a tremor. I waited a few minutes for the raindrops to stop and poked my head out from under my tarp. I had a window, so I packed up swiftly and started uphill on an exposed and burnt broad ridge. This was my first full day in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Immediately I encountered a terrible trail right off the bat. I jumped, climbed, scaled, crawled under, scooched over, and scooted on over hundreds of blowdowns. I moved slowly, at a snail's pace, in the early soggy morning. Things weren't off to a good foot like I had had in the Frank Church. Then, I hit the Lynx Meadows Trail and encountered another burn area and obliterated trail, worse than before. Each burn area has a unique character to it. Depending on the terrain, whether meadow, ridgeline, ridge tops, valleys, or canyons, each have a different scarring. The wildfire that had moved through an area had behaved differently depending on conditions. Weather would influence the tenacity of a fire, the winds shaping a scarring design in the trees that gives a wildfire a personality like a living and thriving being. Different types of trees influence the difficulty of hiking through a burn area afterwards. A forest of a certain type of tree determines the struggle. Whatever burn area you are traversing one must climb over each downed tree obstacle, must constantly scan ahead in pursuit of the corridor of least resistance, and must apply utmost concentration to avoid injury. For example, in lodgepole pine forests the carnage is the worst. Tall and thin trees with shallow roots topple over quite easily, and without much thick bark for fire protection and the stands growing all closely together, make for a denuding of the landscape which perfectly creates a horrendous wildfire aftermath with countless hazards to hikers and wildlife, not to mention completely obliterated trail. This is the place I was in. 

And, the storms did not stop. While climbing continuously over downed trees and dodging the roving thunderstorms at the same time, it is a necessity to remain persistent and concentrated. You absolutely cannot fuck up, especially in this wilderness complex being so far away from any town and help. Hours after creeping along, I finally got to an access road of reprieve before entering back into the wilderness. Luckily for me, a huge dumping of rain occurred right around that time. I found a large Douglas Fir for rain protection and hunkered down under the canopy to remain dry. The storm dropped hail that bashed the leaves of the smaller plants around me. I hardly got wet. Ascending up the Patrol Ridge Trail, the next cell hit as soon as I crested the rounded ridge top. This one was a big one, huge in scope and smothered the whole sky as far as I could see. Huge curtains of rain had finally caught up with me. The supercell moved in so fast, so alarmingly, I couldn’t take the breather I had wanted after the 4,000ft climb over 4 miles. The top was bare and had been burnt before, but had huge piles of huge boulders, outcrops large enough to possibly find coverage. I got to the first outcrop and sat under a partial overhang for 5 minutes before the storm and the rain curtains arrived. I was too exposed, so I bolted out from under the boulder. I needed to get lower somehow. I decided to get to the saddle below that had larger trees for protection. I ran as thunder clapped above me, my adrenaline at full tilt. Using my trekking poles for stability I meandered and jumped along a rutted out channel of trail. Moving swiftly, at a trot, I finally found a large grove of large trees slightly off the downhill side of the saddle. With a widespread and thick canopy, with all the excitement passing above me, I huddled under the perfect tree to keep warm and dry. I waited for the storm to pass and I fell asleep in a crouched position. The wind picked up and I opened my eyes, feeling the tail end of the cell. I looked up and could see the directional tail of the curtains of rain. The worst was in front of me. I got up and left and began the next climb up the ridge. Luckily I couldn't move too fast with such a steep trail because I did not want to catch the tail end of that storm. However, as I neared the top, a smaller cell crashed in from the west. Crashing and booming, the profound clack deafened me and brought a ringing to my ears. The storm was directly overhead; I was in it. I found another large jumble of boulders with a better overhang than the previous outcrop. I slid under and stashed my poles away from me and jabbed the metal tips into the damp dirt just beneath the boulder. Lightning flashed and the drops got fatter and began pounding the ground. All the fat drops turned to dime sized hail that indented the dirt. I sat dryly under my overhang and watched the pieces of hail bounce once the ice ball hit the dirt. Soon enough, balls of hail rolled down and into my hovel. I grabbed a couple and sucked on the ice that almost instantly melted in my mouth. While picking up the hail that had accumulated around me, just as alarmingly as the storm had come the storm had vanished and pushed north. Now, a deafening silence ensued, ensued like an action of silence, like a river of silence. The silence was palpable, almost as threatening as the storm.

I hiked onward, still seeing the storm ahead of me zooming into the northern skies. I left the ridge at a saddle on a somewhat good trail. That's how it goes in these wild parts. Wildfires burn and burn widespread areas and leave a destroyed and barren landscape. Wildlife survives and finds a way, new plant life emerges and changes the looks of the land, water melts and flows unimpeded without a viable root system of the trees and lack of topsoil -- the landscape changes so drastically after a devastating wildfire. Then, a hiker encounters a lush forest at the burn scar boundary and instantly follows a good trail. I made up some time on this decent trail that wiggled through dense forest and lush meadows. I had lost some time dodging and taking cover from the storms throughout the day. I had to make up for some time somewhere. I knew losing a few hours here and there would affect my food rationing, so I hiked on into the evening under foreboding skies. Cumulus clouds circled back and I began to look for cover in a forested area. Raindrops pelted my tarp tumultuously, as I laid down nervously in a hollowed out swale not too suitable for a camp. I had no choice, nonetheless, and I slunk into my quilt as flashes of lightning upticked the pounding of rain onto my tarp.

At some point in the night, the rain ceased and I woke up to everything being damp from the moist air and the dripping trees. I got up a little antsy not knowing what the day would bring. Would I continue to dodge storms amidst destroyed trails? How many trees would I have to climb over today? Both thoughts gave me an unending feeling of anxiety. I brushed away the greenery soaked from the previous night's rain that lined the trail. A carwash is what us thru-hikers call it. And, I was in the midst of a thorough drenching. Of course, I encountered a burn area. I hiked, scrambled, and picked my way through the burn area over hundreds of downed deadfall. The trail was gone and I followed only the contours of my map and of the terrain. While hopscotching over treacherous downed trees, I gouged my shin on a stob. I let out a yelp in the cool morning air and a young bull elk leapt from some thick brush about a 100ft away from me. He sprinted away, but then began to act strangely. He kept flanking back by me as if some territorial behavior of a perceived threat, or out of just plain curiosity. Maybe I was the first human this young bull elk had encountered. His odd behavior continued for about two miles up the drainage all within the burn area. These two miles went by slowly and I felt to really gather an experience with this young bull. I could see his ratty fur and short and stubby tines. I was amazed at how easily he traversed through the ravaged terrain simply hopping and jumping over piles and piles of logs. I excruciatingly kept on trying to keep pace. He would stop and wait for me to get within that 100ft barrier and then leap away. After those slow two miles, he crossed the creek and disappeared from me forever. A mile or so later, I stumbled out of the burn scar with my shin welting up with a bloody contusion. Then, with the snap of a finger, I was back on a better trail, the memory of the young bull elk supplanted with a knotty contusion..

Later in the day spiraling down Moose Ridge, I was close on the heels of something. I couldn't pick out what I was following but I guessed by the overturned leaves around shin level that I was within an hour or so of a bear or Coyote and Dre. My tracking sense turned on and I spied out the ground in front of me looking for footprints, even the tiniest bit of evidence. The long descent dropped 5,000ft to the Selway River below. I scurried on trying to catch what was ahead of me, as my ears popped and my knees swelled up from the pounding of a steep downhill. I had a feeling it would be Coyote and Dre, though I couldn't be sure. From a bald point I could see the giant X of an airfield situated a couple thousand feet below me. I heard a slight hum in the air and saw a prop plane zigzag around the vast empty space above the airfield and coast in for a smooth landing. I enjoyed observing the landing, like a kid watching a model train go along the model tracks. Soon, I crossed the Selway on a long suspension bridge and hastened my pace. I was excited to reach the Moose Creek Ranger Station situated on the broad bar of the confluence of the Selway River and wide Moose Creek. I had arranged a package to be flown in along with a Montana Conservation Corps' backcountry immersion crew's resupply. So, my thoughts were trained on food, besides meeting the MCC crew that held the package. As I neared the Ranger Station within a hundred yards or so, I saw two figures standing in front of the main building. I deduced from their stature and their outerwear that I had caught up to Coyote and Dre. I smiled and waved and they waved back. I trotted on to the cabin.

In '06 I moved from Los Angeles to Billings, MT to serve a 10 month term in the MCC. I loved my experience so much I stayed for another 3 years. The program changed my life and proved to me that I could commit to something and follow through with it. I saw the value of the program in a young adult's life and how the program was a launching pad for the rest of their life. My experience in the MCC was like that: a launching pad. One of my favorite aspects of the MCC was the immersion crews, where 6-8 young adults went into a backcountry setting for 5 months on end. No cell service, no television, no city visits, just immersion in a vast wilderness with 6-8 strangers all working on a trail crew busting their asses in every type of condition. This experience was gnarly and one I had been most fond of when I was at the MCC. It just seemed the crews came out as such different and stronger people afterwards. The growth appeared profound. All these years later, too, I have remained in close contact with a friend I worked with in the MCC. Cliff has been a sturdy friend in my life the past 10 years. So, when I put the ICT trip together I reached out to him about any MMC immersion crews that were in the Frank Church Complex, in particular based out of Moose Creek Ranger Station. He then put me in contact with another MCC office that had a crew set to embark on their backcountry stint. After I shipped my package to the Missoula MCC office, my package then hitched a ride on a backcountry prop plane, similar to the one I had observed flying in way above on Moose Ridge. As I strutted up to the cabin Coyote and Dre hailed me in and out of the cabin came a couple of crew members with my box. Turns out I had, indeed, been following Coyote and Dre and they had only arrived about 30 minutes before me here at the cabin. We circled up on the lawn and chatted feverish away, our jaws flapping over the social encounter with so much to talk about. Coyote, Dre, and I yapped about our Frank Church and Selway-Bitterroot experience. We compared scraped shins and tattered gear. We created huge yarns of wildlife sightings and fierce lightning storms. I overlapped that conversation with getting to know the friendly crew members. I gutted my food box and divided up the goodies and treats I had had for the crew. Rice Krispie treats, chocolate bars, coffee, licorice, and a big plastic baggie of organic chili mac. I was so pleased over their excitement, and I could tell they had a wild glare after a month in the backcountry with the same food, the same tough work, and the same people. They were just about hardened and still glowing in that honeymoon phase. A rain cloud hovered over us and a few drops fell. We hurried inside to avoid a soaking. A buzz of activity came about as other crew members arrived and introduced themselves, as well as a University of Montana fire ecology crew. We were the stars amongst the stars there at Moose Creek Ranger Station, while I looked at the crew as the stars knowing their experience was just beginning. The MCC crew offered us up a huge pieced together meal of hot leftovers, some pasta and rice, while the fire ecology crew dashed us over a couple of beers. Our obsequious hosts just regaled us with our immediate needs. We scarfed down the dinner and soaked up the beers, and as the storm passed by us, we knew it was time to beat feet and go on and find ourselves a camp further up the trail. We said our goodbyes and wished everyone a great season, so grateful for their work out there and their help to us. We bade them farewell and a great summer.

We woke up the next morning tucked away in the trees adjacent to a soggy meadow. Coyote spotted a moose on the other side of the creek, a young one that galloped away from him. We packed up and hiked away from camp through the damp and tall grass, the mackerel clouds hanging low in the valley. We had heard a Forest Service trail crew was currently up the North Fork of Moose Creek clearing trail and retreading the neglected pathway. The corridor started off that way, just saying. We were having early morning conversations, quiet yet giddy, for we were happy to be around one another. Really, this was the first company each of us had had on trail so far. We reminisced about our time in Stanley together, the conditions of the trail when they first started, my knee injury...all that shit. I mean, we basically got to know each other in a half day more than most people get to know each other over a span of years. Our mood was high. That's how it is with trail life. Everything matters so much because you are living in the moment. Every minute decision has a consequence. You have an intense purpose in every action. You have no time not to be committed fully or not to be acting in full. One cannot afford to be lazy with intention; one must act in earnest. We plowed on through tall undergrowth that drenched our bottom halves. Literally, we were plowing ahead. Sometimes we hopped a giant log, most times we fought through tall and thick brush, and yet we forged away even when more often than not we couldn't even see the path we were walking on. We kept going and going, following each other with cheerful conversation through worse and worse trail. Even with our outset from Moose Creek expecting better trails, we were resilient, almost immune to the rigor of the overgrowth. Nonetheless, after four consecutive days of tremdous effort, four consecutive days of hopping, crawling, climbing, straddling, scaling, scooching, poking, snapping, clawing -- over and under or around or atop or through thousands of downed trees, our shins turned to leather stropped and willowed like animal hide, our fortitude weakened and exacerbated with electric thunderstorms atop isolated knobs, dodging the downpours, non-existent trails just hairy with brush and wreak-havoced by a fire scarred landscape, throw in a couple sketchy creek crossings -- the fucking Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness became a matter of survival. And now, as much as the trail ahead of us in the North Fork drainage got worse, we laughed harder. I believed we all knew in that moment that nature doesn’t care -- thrashed shins, countless downed trees, high water, our determination through the chaos --  whatever it was, nature simply does not give a fuck. This is why I love nature truly and wholly. It does not love me back and, only then, do I understand fully the definition and philosophy of love. Everything in that moment, everything felt so damn perfect, simply brutally perfect. 

We intercepted the crossing of the North Fork of Moose Creek around mid morning. Coyote was a few minutes behind me and Dre a few more minutes behind Coyote. I plunged right in eyeing the line across the wide creek. I could see the line break across the undulating waves where the creek funneled in and pushed through a deeper zone. The sun had crested the ridge behind us and the trees casted a shadow right on that fast channel that divided the river in two, the sunny side and the shady side. I got to the channel and felt the power of the water from underneath trying to sweep my feet out from under me. At this point the water was up to my mid thigh, yet I felt under control. I was reading the creek like a book, page by page, ripple by ripple. I propped and jammed my trekking poles into some secure pockets beneath some tire-sized boulders. I looked back to the crossing point from where I came some 20 feet away. Coyote trotted to the gravelly shore where the trail terminated into the water. 


Coyote nodded in understanding, his brow furrowed in concentration. I could see in his eyes he craved this exact situation. I continued picking my way across the tumbling creek, the rest of the way as wide as a city street. I reached the other shore where the trail picked back up. I took off my pack and propped myself up on a rock to film with my phone Coyote and Dre crossing the creek, my trekking poles close at hand just in case I needed to spring into action. In Stanley, the three of us had had breakfast together. The duo had appeared a little shell-shocked from the trail conditions they had experienced in the Sawtooths (amazingly high snow levels and water content and runoff) and in the Frank Church (incredibly high flood waters blocking their way in). From that conversation in Stanley to our camp conversation the night before, I had a feeling they may have felt a little repercussion from those hairy events they had experienced. On many, many trails over thousands and thousands of miles, I have seen some hairy shit. I have been in their shoes once and I knew what to expect and what I was capable of. They absolutely had the capability and just needed confidence especially through experience. And, now directly in front of them raged a deep creek with strong currents and many strong rapids. Coyote had waited for Dre and they entered the water together after devising a plan. I had wanted Coyote to see the line that I took. I wanted them to take the same line, too, because I could see it was the safest line. Coyote led her out into the knee deep water where one could see the width of the creek in full view where the roar of the creek became deafening. Dre's trekking poles began to tremble in the swift current, as she leaned in upriver. Coyote shadowed her from behind with only one trekking pole, as his other one had lost the tension in the clip that tightened and held the rod into place within the extended length of the pole and now lived in his water bottle pocket on his backpack. They side-stepped over slowly facing upriver and leaned in with the weight of the backpack on their backs. Slowly and methodically they sidled over. A long minute had lapsed on the video mode of my phone. And... then they both came to a halt, just about 10 feet shy of the area that I had called the crux and had yelled at Coyote to be aware of. They both remained in the deep shadows of the other side. Coyote turned his head and looked at me nervously. His glare had changed and I could see he was at a somewhat impasse, like he was unsure of his stature and balance in the creek while sensing the tightness of Dre at his immediate arm's reach. I put down my phone in a dry spot. He continued to turn his head in every direction looking for foot placement in the creek, his left and poleless arm calmly flailing. I could tell he was trying to keep the calm out there, so as to not stir up any panic. I trudged into the creek at an angle slightly behind the two and set a vector to walk up stream while angling over. Dre remained focused on the water directly and below her. I thought she looked like she was stuck in tunnel vision. Coyote spotted me out of the corner of his eye and gave me a nervous grin. I thought he looked like he had no place else to go. He looked stuck. I had a feeling they needed some support, some encouragement. I started trudging across and reached a spot more than passed midway and right before the crux. 

Dre yelled out: YOU'RE COMING BACK

I got behind a decent sized boulder where the water rushed around the swole hump of the boulder. The water came up to my waist, but I had control. I locked my left foot in place, my shoe braced and wedged between some smooth rocks. 


'I CAN'T MOVE. I CAN'T REACH.' I maneuvered to him just a few feet more and extended my arm out with the tip of my pole in hand. Coyote reached out as far as he could, as his neck strained. I inched a tad closer and he squeezed the pole in his hand. As he grabbed the pole his other hand came out of the water with a shortened pole. He had been stranded in that high water without a pole to brace himself. He had been stuck. Dre looked back at the maneuver. 

'YOU NEED A POLE. HERE, TAKE MINE.' With an act of love she was willing to sacrifice her safety for the safety of her partner. I, then, noticed that Coyote wasn't just stuck, rather he was protecting his partner. These seconds slowed down to me, time oozed to a slo-mo clip of an action scene in a movie that conjures up deep emotion. I could see each movement slowly, their love for each other passing unto each other within their own river of love. 

'NO, DRE, KEEP THE POLE.' She turned back around. 'LEAN! LEAN! FOCUS DRE! FOCUS!' 

Coyote looked at me, 'WHAT ABOUT YOU?' 

'LOOK AT ME,' waving my arms showing my stability in where I stood in the middle of the creek. 'I'M GOOD, JUST GET TO ME,' as I handed him my other pole.

They began to move slowly and steadily, carefully. I continued sternly yelling with encouragement. 


They got to my area. Coyote looked at me with relief. He gave me back one of the poles and we trundled on to the other side. On the soft sand, we all looked at each other. Dre looked incredibly pumped. Coyote looked like a concerned partner, and I felt ecstatic. I could see their eyes wide and white, their legs pink and red from the cold, their cheeks flushed with excitement.

'Let it out, if you have to.'

'I feel like that time I was a vet tech and a dog bit me violently,' Dre blurted. 'Well, shit, scream!' She let out the exhaust of adrenaline. 

'Let's walk for an hour, then let's talk about it.' We sauntered on with soggy shoes and feet, back into the overgrowth and the log-hopping.

Life is an act in progress with constant change. Characters change, you change, the stage changes, curtains close and open again and again. Within, one must stay flexible and rid the mind of rigidity. One must not confuse that rigidity for discipline or belief. With that, one must not be lazy about this act of life. Sure, it’s fine to lower expectations. In fact, I think it’s a sign of humility, even malleability. But, to be lazy only reinforces incredulity. If you cannot believe in what you are doing, then why do it at all. Life in the act of progress should not be hastened. Life is not of progress, however; life is growth and change. Age is only the tag under the collar that signifies the size of the shirt. Time is a concept that should only be looked at through the prism of gratitude. We cannot change things. We can only forgive. We can only be grateful. We can only leave it all behind. We can only love. We should only be supple. We should only kill off laziness and the rigid mind. To get stuck in trying to change things, to change time, one diminishes, one diminishes the act of life. We should only love truthfully, and live with love wholly. Whose time and life is one trying to waste anyways? Why waste the act of life? Has time passed you by? Or have you passed time?

Where had I been all these months drowning in my sorrow? Where did I go? Being around Dre and Coyote reminded me of how naturally positive I am, how indefatigably resistant to negativity I could be, how resilient and determined I am, almost overwhelmingly so. They provided me with the reminder of how much enthusiasm and energy I have for life, that pure and simple joy and love of nature and adventure. Seeing them look at me and I wanted to teach, to help, to inspire, just to anyone who would listen. Those moments I had with Dre and Coyote provided me with joy and purpose.

After our lunch debriefing, we parted ways. We hugged and said farewell not knowing what would happen on the rest of the trail and if we would all see each other again or not. I camped that night on Fish Creek Pass that held expansive views of the surrounding Bitterroot Range. I soaked up a sunset and sunrise, just smothered in pinks and oranges and purples. I looked down towards Fish Creek Lake and the airfield and scanned for Coyote and Dre. I could see no sign of the two. I recounted my food rations and I lost hope in thinking I could make it another 6 days with the appropriate amount of food. The recent trail conditions had me playing it safe. I could not afford to pull up short into town a full day short of food. I packed up my shelter and stuff and headed down the Boulder Creek Trail knowing I had to hitchhike into a resort 20m to the west along a weaving and quiet highway. I was cool with it, too. This is where life has led me. I will follow the path of life and acknowledge the harmony of randomness. I will follow the sign and heed the call of my pumping blood. I ain't dead yet. I trotted on excited for a meal, excited for a shower and a bed. At the highway, I scribbled a note on a kiosk to Coyote and Dre: SHORT ON FOOD, WENT TO 3 RIVERS. SEE YOU THERE. (:


  1. Thank you for sharing your beautiful writing. It is very meaningful to read deep and detailed accounts of such adventures. -Devin Bartley

    1. Thanks very much for your sentiments. Appreciate you reading. Cheers