Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Lewis and Clark Trail Cabin at Syringa: Escape to the Wilderness

I could see why some might think this would be ideal Bigfoot country. Anything or anyone could live in those hills without expecting to be found, giving me renewed awe of the Lewis and Clark expedition. An online account of a Sasquatch sighting as recent as the fall of 2012 claimed that the native Nez Perce, although well aware of the stories, tend to keep relatively tight-lipped about the large-footed legend with those not in their tribe. 

Efforts to convert the American Indian over to Christendom from the southern corner to the northern tip of Idaho were evident while driving through one small town after another, filled with quaint, white church houses. The radio dial offered on-air sermons, and in Midvale a white-haired woman named Betty placed her hand upon mine as I ate my lunch, praying that my trip would be a safe one. 

“Do not be afraid of the wilderness,” a radio evangelist with a southern accent crackled over the airwaves, “The wilderness is a place of growth.”

I drove through Kooskia, (pronounced “Koo-skee”) past the Opera House, the funeral parlor, and the market, heading to Syringa, on the meandering Highway 12.

Distant trees stood tall and blue-gray, and their colors popping against the blue sky, accompanied by the ongoing river, created brilliant combinations.

The area was rich with an almost tangible lore; Chief Looking Glass, Sasquatch, the Kooskia Internment Camp of World War II with its legendary residents who built the highway, created deeply touching artwork, and courageously convinced the powers that be toward fairer treatment. Adding to the history was the abundant rainfall, mountains, and glistening water on the winding rivers, not to mention the wildlife. Bear, cougar, moose, wolves, elk, whitetail deer, wild turkeys, rabbits, beaver, otters, bald eagles, osprey, Canadian geese, trout, Steelhead, Chinook salmon, and Whitefish. 

And then there’s the recreation: Whitewater rafting, tubing, hiking, biking, fishing, horseback riding, hunting, and lots of other things, I’m sure.

“We're not in the middle of nowhere, but one can see it from here…” said the ad for the Lewis and Clark Trail Cabin at Syringa, where I’d reserved a two nights’ stay. 

With its fire ring, Little Smith Creek trickling through the backyard, a horseshoe pit, old school furniture and enclosed porch, charm wove through every photo.

It wasn’t long before I spotted my getaway on Little Smith Creek Road. Parking under a large cedar tree, owner Scott Swearingen was there to offer help. After brief introductions and comments about the cedar tree shading us (“The cedars only grow in certain places”), I was asked if I had any questions.

I did.

“Is it safe to hike around? What about the bears and mountain lions?”

“Just make some noise, you’ll be okay. Let them know you’re there,” Scott replied.
“---that’s not what another lodge owner told me once about this area,” I countered, doubting.

“I know,” Scott said, choosing his words thoughtfully, “it’s just that some think a little differently.”

As he began to walk away, the cabin owner said, “I try to be there if people need me, and not be when people don’t. Some just come up for the peace and quiet.”

I mirthfully remembered the website saying that cooking, assistance with chores and fire-tending while telling stories of the area (or lies, but those would have to be arranged in advance), were available at an hourly rate, and grinned to myself.

 “You’d have to be a good people reader in order to know which type was which,” I commented, and he just smiled. Mr. Swearingen was an excellent people reader, but I didn’t find out why until a day or two later. 

The rustic two-bedroom, one-bath, cedar-framed cabin was a trip to yesteryear, beginning with the screen door, which sounded like summertime when it banged shut. The interior smelled like Grandpa’s memory-filled creek-side home in Pennsylvania. There was no cell service or internet there, either, adding to the peacefulness.

After viewing the collection of DVDs, video cassettes, and books, I noticed two photos from Mr. Swearingen’s outfitting days; one of a bighorn sheep. The comforting hum of the living room’s freestanding fan, the birds chirping, and tumbling water in the creek lulled me into a state of calm.

I roasted sweet corn and grilled sliced onions, and seasoned sparingly, wanting my food to mirror the atmosphere. Until, that is, I found my favorite cherry-flavored soda in the fridge, offered on the honor system for a buck. I tumbled sparking ice into a spotless glass from the well-stocked kitchen and poured, taking plate and glass to the picnic table within its circle of conifers.

Squirrels peeked behind branches, scolding and flicking tails. They didn’t hibernate here, but ate year round. And they wanted my corn. 

Since I’d vacated the cabin, hummingbirds swarmed the red plastic feeder by the front door. Butterflies danced about, sampling hundreds of wildflowers. 

I went for an after-dinner hike up the road, which narrowed to gravel, then to barely a trail, engulfed by butterfly-filled, waist-tall flower bushes, singing with color. Bleeding hearts, daisies, and sweet-smelling Syringa made me feel like royalty in a parade. Crossing a small stream and expecting it to be ice cold was folly; nothing was cold in the hundred-degree temps. Making noise as instructed, I loudly sung a favorite song, then wondered how far the sound carried. Upon emerging from the forest, I’d either be greeted by applause, or curious stares.

Thankfully, I saw no one.

Sundown arriving late, I sat outside watching hummingbirds, who’d only approach if my face was in a book. Once it was, they weren’t above fly-bys within inches of my head. One aggressive bird continually chased others from the feeder, but when dipping his head to drink, three more snuck back.

When it got too dark to read, I got paints and brushes out, to create something influenced by the Northern Idaho I saw. Deep, dense green, with the off-white and pale pink/peach of a Syringa flower’s center found its way onto the paper, a gift for the owners.

I did one more, of the evergreens. Once completed and knowing I needn’t wake up early, I grabbed a shower with surprisingly good, five-star-hotel-worthy water pressure, and then took the book, “Ridgerunner” to bed. 

It was all about a man who kept breaking into lookout stations and thieving, couldn’t be traced, and knew his way around the mountains and forest like a wild animal, may not have been the best choice. It was nonfiction, and had happened nearby. 

When I left the cabin the next morning after sleeping in, Scott and his wife, Pam, offered ideas for places to visit. Selway Falls, the Lochsa Historical Ranger Station, Three Devils, and the River Dance Lodge, where I could get a bite to eat.

“Ask for Rachel,” they told me. I’d seen the café’s menu sitting neatly on a chest of drawers in the cabin, and appreciated how the businesses supported each other.

When commenting on the fantastic water pressure, and the difference the water had made on my skin and hair, Scott said, “---thought I’d put in an adequate hose!” 

Pam said simply, “It’s just our well water.”

The mountain water made my skin clearer, and my hair fuller, putting me into an even more festive mood after spending the night surrounded by nature, books, and the sounds of tumbling water.

When thanking the Swearingens for stocking the fridge with my favorite soda, they told me their daughter was behind that pick, since it was also her favorite.

“Hi!” the daughter called cheerfully from the kitchen, and I waved enthusiastically back.

River Dance Lodge, with its Syringa Café, was just a mile or two down Highway 12. Not really all that hungry, yet feeling I should eat something, I ordered their Prosciutto and Bleu Cheese salad. I stared at the bottom of the plate twenty minutes later, having had the best salad I’d ever tasted. There was something in every bite, I hadn’t had to dig. Roasted prosciutto, crumbled bleu cheese, sundried tomatoes, finely diced white onions, candied walnuts, and a honey-Dijon vinaigrette with only a hint of flavor, so as not to overpower. I attempted to get the recipe from Lorraine Smith, who chefs there with her husband, Greg, but was basically unsuccessful.

“The dressing’s a family recipe, and I promised not to give it out,” she told me kindly yet firmly.

 “Oh, wow!” I exclaimed an hour later, when approaching the frothy, turquoise-blue water of Selway Falls stumbling over huge boulders. I gingerly turned the SUV around, using caution so as not to morph the trip into a whitewater adventure.

Getting dinner at the Kooskia Café, I ordered an old-fashioned, open-faced roast beef sandwich, assured that everything there was homemade. 

The café’s wait staff seemed like the epitome of “nice”, and even gave me their “secret” fry sauce recipe.

“We don’t tell people from around here, but since you’re not…”

(It’s ranch mixed with Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbeque sauce. And it’s good.)

“It’s so hot today, I’m gonna eat light,” said an older gentleman walking into the café, “Give me some French fries!”

I settled in at the cabin, sunburnt, happy, and ready to read and sleep. Having scared myself with the previous night’s selection, I opened Peter Jenkins’ “Walk Across America”, and read until slumber ended the chapter.

“Wish you were able to stay longer,” said Scott the next morning, “there is just so much to see and do here.”

I agreed. I still hadn’t spent a couple of hours at one of the sandy beaches along the river, an absolute must. When asked what I’d done so far, I mentioned Syringa Café, and attempts to get a recipe from Lorraine. Scott and Pam laughed, saying, “Good luck.”

The Swearingens invited me into their home for some more Idaho talk, and to view the pen-and-ink, incredibly detailed artwork of Scott’s brother, Charlie, who lives in Idaho City.

“My brother says that this area and his are very similar,” Scott commented, “but I don’t really agree.”

“They’re both filled with trees,” I nodded, “but it’s more dense, and…” I searched for the right word, “vertical here.” 

“The cedars only grow in certain places…” I recalled.

Our talk took an unexpected turn when I asked where this couple, so obviously comfortable with one another, had met. The two had literally been through high and low together, becoming engaged at the summit of Mount Borah, Idaho’s highest point, and then married at the concourse where the rivers joined in Lewiston, Idaho’s lowest sea level location.

“We met in prison,” they said.

Pam was offered a prison job, but initially declined. When a second job became available, her then-friend, Scott, had encouraged her. Being around inmates was new, and something that could induce anxiety in anyone. At times Pam wondered if she’d get through it. 

Conversations with Scott, also working at the prison, merited the creation of what Pam called “The Speech”. By way of a been-there pep talk, Scott told her something to this effect:

“In times of trouble and stress, one has to take care of themselves first.

Keep a schedule. Eat healthy.  Minimize caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. Get good rest. Get good exercise. Don’t listen to the negative self-talk that haunts one at the end of a long day. If one forces themselves to do these things when they just want to hibernate, they will be well-prepared.

Well-prepared to say the right things, make the right choices, and take the steps to eliminate the problem.”

That helped. She stayed at the prison for years, with The Speech displayed at her desk.

Being a former psychology major, I wanted to know more.

They told me that prisoners know how to read people, having lots of time to think about what body language, tone of voice, mannerisms, hairstyles, and the ways people dress meant.

“Everything you do says something,” they said, “and many prisoners will use that to their advantage. If you open the door a crack, they’ll find a way in.”

I was intrigued.

“Many don’t want to know about you to be your friend. Once they find a softy, they’ll get them to buy them cigarettes, contraband, and pass along messages to the outside.”

 “Prisoners have all day to think about that stuff,” added Pam, “while we were still going home to our families. We had to learn this.”

Scott put three books down on the table.

“Here are the sorts of books we read, to educate ourselves,” he said.

 “Games Criminals Play”, “Body Language”, and “The Gift of Fear”.

Pam stayed at the prison, moved up in the ranks, and eventually becoming a Lieutenant. When she was required to oversee the release of an infamous criminal, one who had murdered people, the victims’ family was outraged at his impending freedom. Knowing this, prison employees were asked to voluntarily protect the prisoner from possible sniper fire. The employees encircled him, not necessarily out of respect for the life of the prisoner, but to support Pam in her duties, risking their own lives to do so. It was the kind of thing Pam would not soon forget. 

Scott eventually had his fill of the prison career life, and moved on to become a State patrolman.

The Swearingens must have seen more of the county’s negative behavior than most. Yet, they were still there.

“You’ll find more good than bad,” they told me, adding, “People here are really good.”

The cabin owners wished me well, gave me directions to a good beach along the river, and sent me on my way.

Going back through Kooskia’s Main Street, I spotted an old building’s wall, painted in bright colors.

“Welcome to KOOSKIA,” it said, “Gateway to the Wilderness.”

Down in the corner was the artist’s depiction of Sasquatch.

 A few minutes later, I switched on the radio.

“Abraham had to spend time in the wilderness,” the preacher was drawling, “because the wilderness was a place of growth.”

I thought about Scott and Pam’s prison stories of personal strength, and of my visit to the Lewis and Clark Trail Cabin. About the peaceful meal, the hike in bear country, wading through the stream, the wildflowers, butterflies, squirrels, and hummingbirds. Of the Perfect Prosciutto Salad. Reading late at night, sleeping in, finally discovering a beach of my own, and of the friends I’d made.

‘The cedars only grow in certain places,’ I remembered.

Places like the wilderness.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Brunch at the Jackson Family Farm

Sitting beneath a white canopy with daisies on the tables at Jackson Family Farm, one of the few dairies left in Meridian, I could see why they were still here.

It’s all about rolling with it.

When Cindy Miller from the United Dairymen of Idaho viewed the charming place, she thought it the perfect setting for brunch, and the Jacksons were okay with that. They were already offering tours.

“We visited just a couple of months ago,” Cindy told the brunchers, “and this yard was filled with lilacs. It was incredible.”

There’s something very honest about dining in the back yard of a home that’s hosted more family parties than even the family could tally. Though times have changed, the Jacksons continue to have a Fourth of July celebrations on the shady stretch of grass behind the original home, where grandparents Stanley and Hazel built a life.

“If my dad could see us all right now,” said Brent Jackson, son of Stanley, “He’d probably say, ‘Why are you all just sitting around? There’s work to be done’.”

We laughed, knowing the type.

“But my mother, Hazel,” Brent said with a kind of tenderness,“she’d just love this. She held a lot of family gatherings right here on this same spot, and she would think it was great.”

 Brent also informed us that his mornings started hours before most of ours did. 

“Cows need to be milked, and they calve whenever they calve,” he grinned, as those in attendance with agricultural backgrounds nodded. 

There was something so soothing about sitting amongst people who had their favorite types of cows, (the sociable Jersey wins by popular vote), who talk about which high school FFA program was the one to watch and whose dairies were doing innovative things to keep going, all while sipping chocolate milk and enjoying a farm fresh egg, tart and fruity yogurt, and savoring cheddar-y hash browned potatoes.

Gentle breezes, country music, and contented conversation blended into the farm-fresh air, and for the first time since my big home move, I felt relaxed and happy.

“I’m just so glad I got to go to the Iditarod,” Idaho Magazine publisher Kitty Fleischman was telling me, “When I had that blasted heart attack last year, that’s what came to me. That more than anything, I told God I wanted to see the Iditarod one more time.”

She relayed how a friend with thousands of frequent flyer miles saved up offered Kitty and her husband tickets to Alaska, asking her what season she’d like to visit.
Typical of Kitty, she replied, “Are you, kiddin’ me? In the summer you can’t see the Northern Lights, it’s light all the time, and there’s no Iditarod. Give me winter!”

But Kitty was going to be in Fairbanks, and the Iditarod started in Anchorage. Except for this year, there was no snow in Anchorage, and you can’t have an Iditarod on no snow. Since there was snow in Fairbanks, that’s where the Iditarod began. And Kitty’s prayer to see the Iditarod again was answered.

“The Iditarod came to me,” she said, her eyes misting a little. 

That sort of real-ness, in the setting of decades of good, hard work reminded me that life in all its forms was really pretty magnificent. That the several people around our table were making a difference to all of us, directly or indirectly. Two were agriculture instructors who taught around 400 kids about all things crops, some were with the state agricultural department, and some, like Kitty and I, told their stories.

Sometimes it’s tough to convey through words the glow on farm wife Laura Jackson’s face when talking about giving up California for deep Idaho family ties and a simpler lifestyle, or the gleeful expression of  ten-year-old Dylan Jackson demonstrating how to roll down the ditch in his tractor-like go kart. The fragrance and scratchy feel of hay just on the other side of your jeans as you sit with thirteen others on bales atop a trailer being pulled by a John Deere tractor. The mirthful expression of Brent Jackson’s son, Clint, who’s found his second calling as tour guide and stand-up comedian.

“Hi, Amy!” another friendly United Dairymen of Idaho employee called out from atop a hay bale. They’d been greeting me since my first steps into the place. This lady couldn’t move her head, because another United Dairymen employee was French braiding her locks.

“Getting your hair done, I see,” I smiled back at her.

“Hi, Amy,” said another employee, “I’m Danni.”

I thought Danni said she was helping with the TasteIdaho agri-tour event in October.

“You’ll have to watch that one on the agri-tour,” I fake-whispered, pointing over at Kitty, who was sitting innocently on a bale at the back of the trailer, “She’s trouble.”

During the hayride, we learned about the sustainability going on. Tree and landscaping branches that would typically be taken to the dump are put through shredders to create good mulch for the ground cows stood on, wicking moisture away and providing softer standing areas.  When asked about the feline population, Clint quipped, “That’s yet to be determined,” then added, “On this farm we have a catch and release policy when it comes to the cats. You catch ‘em, and are not allowed to release them until you get back to your place.”

A perfectly timed comment, as we were pulled past open stalls typically used as a maternity ward. A tiny brown-and-white-spotted calf had made its dairy farm debut that day. In the adjoining stall reclined an entitled-looking black and white cat, causing predictions that she, too, might be anticipating her own Labor Day.

The new calf was adorable, everyone agreed.

“Did you see that placenta lying over in the corner?” a visitor asked.

“T.M.I.,” I said in a juvenile way, but didn’t care, “That’s way too much farm for me.”

Departure from the hayride led to the feeding table containing Dixie cups pre-measured by Dylan (the same one that showed me how to ride the tractor/ go kart deal down the ditch) with feed for the hungry goats and llama. 

“This one’s greedy,” commented visitor Nancy Buffington, as a goat crowded in on his pen mate, aggressively going after palm after palm of morsels.

We got to pet the young calves, too, and one took a liking to me. Knowing there was hand sanitizer nearby, I relished the cuteness of the calf licking my hands and jeans. Both were washable.

It wasn’t until my new friend Nancy was taking a picture for me that the calf decided to kick things up a notch by biting my leg through the material. 

“Not okay!” I told it, and it went back to licking mode.

“I was licked by a cow today,” I thought to myself, “I wonder how many people could say that during a regular workday.”

I had also fed a llama.

“Hi, Amy,” Tony Harrison said, extending his hand, “I’m the one who’s emailed you about the TasteIdaho agri-tour reservations.”

As we chatted about random things, I happened to mention where our former acreage was. Tony lived on that same road. 

“Wait a minute,” I said, getting ready to throw out one very long shot, “Is your daughter named…”

His daughter and my daughter had sat by each other on the bus for years.

“Our daughters used to play together!” I laughed, “I’ve been to your house before, and I’ve even met you and your wife before.”

Brunch, new friends, animals to pet, and neighbors-past.

To top it all off, the United Dairymen of Idaho sent us all home with swag bags.
It was a beautiful day on the farm.

*For more on the Jackson Family Farm, see this great Meridian Press article.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Colleen "Speedy" Fletcher

My friend Colleen Fletcher had been my friend for longer than I knew.

When a Colleen Fletcher messaged me on my Creative Wordery page to ask a question about some content, I fully intended to answer her. And then I didn’t. I don’t think I answered for weeks, maybe longer. Not on purpose, but because my sometimes A.D.D./ artist mind tends to jump around, causing me to drop a few juggling balls now and then.
I didn’t put all the pieces together until one fateful Saint Patty’s Day, where Colleen and my sister, Laurel, were listening to the Boise Highlanders. Colleen’s son and my sister’s husband were both a part of the bag-piping band. 

Although the music was a little too loud to be talking over, I thought I’d be courteous and say hello to my sister’s friend, who was sitting with us around the table.

“I already know you,” she told me with a grin, “We’ve met several years in a row, each time on Saint Patrick's. I’m the drummer’s mom.”

The light was starting to come on, but Colleen helped it along.

“I messaged your Wordery page, and never got a reply,” she told me, “I just thought, ‘fine’.”

“Colleen…Fletcher?” I ventured, and the bright-skinned, blue-eyed blonde nodded.

Oh, crap, I thought. Then tried to recall how long ago I’d gotten that message. Weeks. Months. Not good.

That was a few years ago, and it seems that Colleen’s into forgiving, since the owner of Wholistic Beauty Boutique has been nothing but kind to me. I’ve stopped by her shop on State Street many times, and Colleen is well aware that my favorite room there is the “pillow room”, where you can totally relax and get all ‘zen-y’ and stuff. Often I’ve been there and had jewelry or just the right-sized little journal call to me.

What I didn’t know was that Colleen has a “racy” side.

When we decided to take a test drive together in an Audi A4 convertible, I figured it would be one of those brief acceleration things, followed by laughter and the resuming of reasonable speed. Given the fact that I was doing some work at the dealership, and that the car was there on consignment, I figured this would be a cautionary venture.

“Oh, good, we’re coming up on my favorite off-ramp for its curves!” Colleen informed me, as I tested my seat belt one more time.

“I’ve always wanted to race,” she said, letting me know that she and her husband owned a Subaru WRX, not a car that’s known to be slow.

“You watch out for me, and I’m going to go for it around these curves,” she told me, then added, “Hang on!”

I did. Believe me, I did.

In the interim, I learned that Colleen had been in Hawaii, and had lived in Australia, too.
And I just thought she was the Highlander drummer’s mom who gave great facials and knew all about positive energy.

Nascar won’t know what hit it.