West vol. 4: Desert moose

Namesake

Driggs, Idaho

8 October 2013

Dear fellow-travelers,

Trail Creek Road descends into a vast dry valley.  The horizon ahead is barred by mountains that rise a vertical mile into the sky, snow-streaked and desolate.  For much of my journey, hawks have circled overhead, but there are no birds flying here.

During the night, I had camped in a tangle of willow bushes, trying to hide from a strong, cold wind.  Headlights on the road swept the tent regularly in the dark.  As I continued eastward in the morning, I made a point to wave or nod at every driver visible behind the wheel; and as I emerged onto the open desert, a blue and white pickup that had just gone past me backed into a turnout on the side of the road.

Usually, this has been the prelude to a conversation – where are you going?  Do you need a ride? – so when I got close enough to see the faces of the two men in the cab, I waved.  They didn’t wave back.  I waved again when I was close enough to make eye contact, and the man on the passenger side gave me a distracted scowl.  They were looking up and down the road as though they meant to pull out and were afraid of getting broadsided by another vehicle, but as the only other car in sight shot past, they stayed where they were, looking increasingly desperate.  I couldn’t tell what was agitating them.  The desert was empty in every direction except for a horse off in the sage across the road, and it wasn’t doing anything.  It was just standing there.

Then the horse moved, and I realized there was something wrong with it.  It was too…huge.

Abruptly the pickup lurched into motion, and I caught a glimpse of a rack of antlers protruding over the tailgate before the driver slammed on the brakes, because the moose came striding up out of the sage and came to a stand right in front of the bumper.  I stopped; the truck stopped; the moose stopped; we all stood looking at each other.  The two hunters were clearly having a crisis of inordinate, moose-like proportions, and the moose looked like it was considering what to do to their truck.  It must have been a pacifist, because it stalked across the road and broke into an enormous trot, weaving around bushes and fence posts and stopping periodically to look around in a perplexed kind of way, as though it had misplaced its glasses.  It veered through the brush along a gully and loped up the bank to consult a band of horses milling there.  The horses lined up rather formally to receive it, and after a brief how d’ye do, the moose either turned shy or remembered that it was a moose, because it suddenly lit out parallel to the road, running with surprising swiftness up on its long, long legs, its body a high antlered rectangle over the sage.

Its course took it back toward the road again, and the car that had just passed me slowed as the moose came to a halt behind a barbed-wire fence.  The car stopped.  The moose considered.  Then, with something of the cadence of a breaching humpback whale, the moose leaped over the barbed wire, passed looming right in front of the car, and trotting off, vanished in the direction whence it came.

This is Idaho.  A one-room cob house built by hand; flamenco music in the desert night; a schoolhouse in the mountains filled with cloth, calligraphy, and every sweet and savory thing that grows; steam billowing into the rain along the dark shores of a canyon, a burst of water, coruscating heat.  Idaho is greasy hair and wild tattoos, TACKLE AMMO LOTTO AMMO, spent shells in the dust like toys and severed legs along the road.  Split the atom: light a town.  Its towns are dying peaceful deaths, igniting, disappearing, fighting tooth and nail against a landslide and a flood and unemployment, meth, the Forest Service, loneliness, and life without a purpose.  Idaho has no time for a life without purpose: not with winters this inhuman.  Idaho is where you come back to rebuild, to make a stand, to measure strength, to be a person in a family.  Are you a fighter?  No?  Then learn.  A wood flute and a knife, a truck, an elk, a swarm of flies, a dizzying abyss, a storm of snow, abandoned storefronts and a heap of blankets, a handshake and a parting smile, is Idaho.

For a thousand miles, I’ve been walking toward the Tetons.  I wanted something I could show to people – this mountain, you’ve seen it, I was there.  I wanted to leave the cart behind me for a moment and head into a higher place.  On the way out of Rigby, I ran into the worst stretch of road on the trip so far and broke the bearings of my left wheel trying to heave the cart through a wallow of dust and loose rocks.  By the time I got to Driggs and the sky was expected to clear, I needed very little egging on to cram two days’ food and equipment into my backpack and start out on a still, blue morning, up past the silent houses of Alta into the snow.

First the trail was muddy underfoot.  Then I tied my borrowed gaiters down.  The sun danced through cascades of powder sloughing from the trees, and torrents wound through stony channels, muffled, deer tracks leading on until the clear ice glistened and the trail went cold.

Above the tree line the sun stopped moving and I lost my breath.  The snow ahead curved up through bands of black rock, scoured on the open slope, knee-deep in switchbacks.  Stumbling, sinking.  An eagle swept above me, soundless, riding a wind I couldn’t feel into the distance.

Hold your eyes to the skyline.  The first thing to pierce the rim of snow is a jagged horn.  Then come talons, scutes and bones, a towering mass of ribs and shoulder blades and vertebrae on cathedralic scale.  The bones of the Earth drop into an intervening gulf whose final crevices are too far down to see.  From the highest spire on the Grand Teton, a shout takes six seconds to reach the bottom.

Staggering dazedly across the stones above the pass, I checked my watch.  Four in the afternoon.  As soon as I made up my mind to retrace all eighteen miles of my steps that day back down to Driggs, the sun fell from the place where it had hung all day, and I crashed into the trees as night stirred, drawing all the grayness from the thickets by the streams and inking in the groves with spilling black.  A twisting, turning path; thick stands of brush; the masking rushing of cascade after cascade; the autumn twilight; if only the bushes had still borne berries, a headlong meeting with a bear would almost have been inevitable.  I marched along in the dark singing anti-bear pop anthems until my inability to remember lyrics reduced me to shouting, for miles at a time, the following refrain:

“Yope yope yope yope yope yope yope heeeeeeeiiiiiia yope yope yope yope yope!”

On and on until I got to the road and a man in a pickup stopped to ask if I was okay.

Thirty-six miles is, for me, a long way to walk in a day, even without snow.  The night of my fifty-mile stretch to Walla Walla, I found myself waking from a walking doze convinced that I’d been on the road for ten years running, maybe more.  On the road out of Teton Canyon, for a moment it seemed I had watched the old planets die, seen new ones born.  The moon was gone, and the river of the Milky Way flowed over like a gateway; not walking west, but walking perpendicularly, tumbling forward through the cold edge of the galaxy.  Then lights swim up, and the sound of a man and woman singing through the PA speakers in a roadside bar.  The moment barely happened; it’s lying somewhere in the black behind, in the mountain.

Now it’s time for a southward turn.  The mountains were in front of me; then I was among them; and now it’s time to go.

So long, Idaho,

Owen

Next: West vol. 5: Borderline

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