Friday, April 8, 2016

Taste Idaho Tour

A Taste of Idaho
By Amy Larson, as seen in IDAHO Magazine

Riding with a charter bus-full of other food and travel bloggers and writers, it was hard to keep my mouth shut. All I wanted to do was tell them the Idaho back stories.

United Dairymen of Idaho, who’d invited me on the TasteIdaho tour through a terrific magazine I write for (IDAHO Magazine), did a great job presenting Idaho information. It was a task I didn’t envy: How does one explain Idaho in three-and-a-half days?
The fry sauce, finger steaks, that most people say “Boise” incorrectly, that some of our potatoes are made from ice cream, and some of our ice cream is made from potatoes, but that we’re not actually all about potatoes all of the time. That we have a Table Rock, a City of Rocks, and places where water shoots out of rocks, miles of area that looks just like the moon, and about 340 natural hot springs. 

I wished they knew about the delicious brunch I’d attended at a real dairy farmhouse’s backyard a while back, wished they could heard farmer Brent Jackson say, “If my dad could see us all right now, he’d probably say, ‘Why are you all just sitting around? There’s work to be done’ ’’ and then with some tenderness, saying, “But my mother, Hazel, she’d just love this. She held a lot of family gatherings right here on this same spot, and she’d think it was great.”

I rode the toy tractor at the direction of Brent Jackson’s young grandson that day, and was shown the steepest ditch to roll down.

I tried to be understanding as I watched fatigue set in among the traveling writers, all the while wanting to talk their ears off about the place I loved.

The visit had been complete, beginning with a cycle tour of downtown Boise on a giant pub on wheels, allowing thirteen virtual strangers to get know each other better. The ride was halfway through before I realized not everyone had pedals. Three sat comfortably on a back bench, grinning broadly, and two others were pedal-free, seated above wheel wells.

We received red carpet treatment: posh rooms in downtown Boise, a reception on Eighth Street the first night, and dinner at a Leku Ona, a Basque restaurant on Boise’s Basque Block. I attempted to explain the Basques to those at my table: 

“They’re from France. And they’re from Spain. But they’re not French or Spanish, and their language has no relation to any other language. There are about 15,000 of them here, but I’m not exactly sure why. They also have a ‘Jaialdi’ celebration every five years, and they play this game called ‘fronton’, sort of like racquetball, but without the racquet.”

A few blank stares, a few nods of recognition. I tried.

Early the next morning, we loaded the bus to experience agri-touring at its finest, duly admonished not to don any fancy footwear. Boots or tennis shoes, we were told, or we’d regret it. 

“Don’t eat anything this morning!” our hosts had warned us, “because there’s going to be a ton of food for breakfast, believe us.”

They didn’t lie. A loaded buffet line awaited us at Simplot Foods, a large Caldwell food processing plant, replete with a Payette watermelon fruit salad, a Franklin egg /fresh Buhl brook trout/Gooding cheese/ smoked brown mustard combo, Burley bacon, a Boise bakery’s pumpkin French toast, Northern Idaho apple cider, huckleberry smoothies, and of course, shredded hash browns. 

Talking potatoes, I knew from my brother-in-law, a warehouse manager there, that multiple train carloads of product shipped out daily, and I knew how hard the people at that plant worked. I couldn’t help but think of that as I enjoyed the buttery spud dish.

 “That crispy bit on your pumpkin French toast was cheese,” we were informed, “We grilled it and got it nice and caramelized. We thought it contrasted well with the pumpkin, the sweet with the salty. That cheese is from a small family farm in Gooding, where the son is now the cheesemaker.”

“And the trout,” Chef Randy King added, “Came from the Snake River that’s carved a big canyon through the middle of our state. There’s about a 30-mile stretch where it’s cold, clean, and aerated where the aquafer dumps out.”

As forks clinked with plates, Chef King mentioned that Idaho produced a large portion of the trout eaten in the U.S., and I wanted to beam with Gem State pride.

“Um,” said blogger Brooke Bass, “That crispy cheese is so good.”

Back inside the tour bus, we saw “potato and hop field stops” on the itinerary, but were told that wouldn’t be happening this time around. 
“This tour is going to differ from what’s planned,” explained one of our hosts, Leah Clark of Idaho Preferred, “This year, due to our hot, dry summer, everything was early, starting with asparagus on March 28th. We’d planned to see hops and potatoes being harvested today, but they’re gone. We can’t ask the farmers to hold up for us, just so we can watch them do that. We should also still be in peach season, but we’re past the peaches and into apples, now.”

At a one-hundred-and-one year old Symms Fruit Ranch in Marsing, we were introduced to orchard workers who had been there for thirty years or more, whose fathers and children had worked there, too. We picked and sunk our teeth into crisp, green apples while Jamie Mertz, whose family had run the farm for generations, told of the strips used on trees to overload the orchard with pheromone points, skillfully tricking the culling moth into thinking there were no females to mate with. Wandering for days unsuccessfully looking for love, they soon died, thus resolving culling moth issues in a very effective, organic way.

We were told that four of the orchard’s original trees still remained and still bore fruit, and that they were unofficially named “Adam”, “Eve”, “Cain”, and “Abel”.

At a sunny Marsing vineyard we watched grapes being pressed by a machine, and some of us couldn’t help but reference the famous grape-stomping “I Love Lucy” episode.

“It’s not as fun as you’d think,” offered blogger Debi Lander, who’d just returned from a trip to Tanzania, “There are stems involved. And they hurt.”

We soaked in Vitamin D during a gourmet sandwich and homemade potato chip lunch on the winery’s deck, overlooking the Snake River and Marsing valley, and admired the stunning early October view. 

At AgriBeef, a Parma feedlot and beef processing plant, not everyone understood Idaho’s meat and potato ways right away, but those that didn’t still managed to express interest in the large silver belt buckles a few of the plant’s employees wore. There was a fascination over meeting real live rodeo people. 

I was intrigued by the livestock psychology. One cowboy explained that the best handlers entered a pen, virtually unnoticed. They were the ones that could tell if something was wrong with an animal, a tough thing to discern, since cattle tend not to display signs of weakness. There’s a hierarchy to cattle, and the weak ones get picked on. Therefore, even if there’s something very wrong, livestock take pains to hide it, but those working with the herds for a while can pick out the sick ones.

After our day on the farms, we spent the evening having a progressive dinner in downtown Boise, enjoying intricate foods with elaborate platings. 

“The sauce,” our entire table kept saying at Juniper, referring to a fish dish, “Oh, my gosh, the sauce.”
“What’s sitting under the fish?” we all asked. Herbed polenta? Ground spiced lentils? We weren’t sure, but we liked and ate it, anyway.

“Bacon wrapped bananas with homemade ice cream…” sighed the blogger sitting beside me at the next stop, a place with a glittering balcony overlooking the busy weekend street. 

“What’s that sprinkled on the ice cream?” she asked the restauranteur. 

“Foie gras,” he replied.

“That’s controversial,” a magazine writer at the next table commented.

“That’s delicious,” said the blogger, taking another spoonful.

I liked my entertaining fellow bloggers and writers. The well-traveled Debi, the three mom-type bloggers, Cathy, Megan, and Amanda, who all knew each other. The intellectuals, Roger and Scott, the funny, friendly Brooke, Lily, and Lauren, and savvy New Yorker Jenny Hart of Redbook Magazine. Listening to them experience Idaho was beyond interesting.

Up early on day three, we breakfasted on the bus: yogurt, scones, fruit, string cheese, and chocolate milk, courtesy of United Dairymen of Idaho, en route to Clear Springs Foods, the world’s largest trout farm in Buhl. Once there, we learned about egg production, the importance of nutrition, and about testing incoming water supply. The farm housed 50 million individual animals.

“You’ll be having some of them for lunch at Elevation 486 in Twin Falls,” we were told.
As we walked over to the sturgeon-viewing visitor’s center, I noticed two others had joined our group. When saying hello and introducing myself, the couple introduced themselves as Celia Gould and Bruce Newcomb. 

I thought those names sounded familiar.

Celia Gould is the Director of the Idaho Department of Agriculture, formerly of the Idaho State House of Representatives. And her husband, Bruce Newcomb, was Idaho Speaker of the House, among many other things. 

They’d seemed like normal folk, walking along the grassy lawn toward the sturgeon tank with us. That was something else I liked about Idaho. Everyone mingled. 

As I talked with Celia, the sidewalk we were on suddenly split, one side leading into the underground viewing area, and the other to above-ground viewing. As if by choreography, she took the high road, and I took the low road, and found myself finishing the thought intended for Celia with an entirely new person, who then laughed at me. 

I felt better after lunching at a restaurant overlooking the Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, the very same canyon Evil Knievel attempted (without success) to jump over in his steam-powered Skycycle X-2 in 1974. 

The trout, accompanied by garlic mashed potatoes and herbed steamed zucchini with yellow squash, was scrumptious.

“Now this is my kind of food,” said food writer JohnGottberg Anderson, delighted over the old-fashioned granola fruit cobbler with real ice cream, a dessert we’d talk about for days.
Though our tour ran on a tight schedule, time would stop at the dairy farm in Jerome.
 “See that guy up on the tractor?” we were asked by our dairy guide at Si-Ellen, “he keeps the feed pushed up to the cows, coming on at five a.m. and going till five p.m. He works seven days a week.”

Sounds of surprise emitted from the group as we tried to imagine such an all-encompassing life of milk production.

At the calving area, two cows were licking each other in a nurturing, “it’ll be all right, dear” way. As our dairy farmer guide spoke, a hoof emerged from a mama cow, and that meant we weren’t going anywhere. A birth was something not many of us had seen before. 

There was a schedule, we were gently reminded, but no one budged as the mama dropped wearily to the ground, brown eyes widening with every contraction. We didn’t know that birthing was an iffy thing, taking anywhere from five minutes to an hour or longer, according to dairy expert Cindy Miller. Tricky, since we had dinner reservations at a Sun Valley eatery, and it would be bad form to keep them waiting. 

Still, we stayed. 

Assessing the situation, a dairy employee in plastic covering climbed into the pen and grabbed the protruding hoof, speeding up the process. Cameras went wild, with several writers climbing into the pen to get selfies with the new arrival.

“I just saw a cow being born!” was all over social media for the next hour.

The farm employees were unmoved. With Barn Number One, Barn Number Two, and Barn Number Three running 200,000, 135,000, and 88,000 animals respectively, they saw a lot of that.

The birth and photo frenzy thereafter was the cause of our being late to dinner at one of Ketchum’s finest restaurants the Ketchum Grill.

“I had an incredible dish for you,” the restauranteur teased us, once we gathered into a dimly-lit, richly-ambienced private banquet room, “but it got over-done in the oven while waiting…”  

The meal pattern became obvious. We visited the fish facility, we ate fish. We visited cows, we ate beef. One of the best cuts of beef many of us had ever had.

“This melts in my mouth like butter,” the blogger on my left gushed, and I nodded. It would be difficult to return to real-life, ordinary meals. And then they had to give us hard-shelled chocolate-covered chocolate mousse, and cheesecake, too. We all traded bites of our dessert, as I had the first pangs of knowing I would miss those people when they flew back home.

“I’m pretty sure there’s room for four of me in my room,” said Scott from Reno, and we all agreed, with many of us opting to return to the Sun Valley Lodge early, in order to luxuriate in the large rooms and our own deep, sunken tubs. We gratefully realized that Idaho had pulled out all of the stops for us.

Our last day coincided with the Trailing of theSheep Festival, and thousands flooded Ketchum for the spectacle of hundreds of sheep being herded through town from the hillsides. Free to split up and wander, most of us chose to wander together, finding small spots along the road to spectate. 

“Yer gonna wanta put yer feet up on the curb, sweetie,” a seasoned parade usher told me, “because they’ll stomp ya, sure as shootin’.”

I obediently tucked my feet up onto the sidewalk, not relishing a stomping.

The parade moved curiously slow. We assumed they were stalling. It had been whispered there’d been difficulties with the sheep. It seemed the herds contained that year’s crop of “smut-faced” lambs, and they were understandably wary.

“All hell’s gonna break loose,” the seasoned usher laughed, shaking her head.

Adding lambs with the ewes was unusual, and the animals were in a tizzy. Once in town, they scattered left, right, backwards, and ran in opposite directions. Spooked, some leaped several feet into the air, with excited bloggers shooting every move. It was a longer parade than expected, and everyone cheered the sheepherders on, applauding once they’d finally passed by with their charges.

Post-parade, we met at the park on the corner for one last meal at a long table spanning under several large trees, set with white linen and shining glasses. It wasn’t hard to guess what the dish would be: Barbecued baby back lamb, and lamb meatballs in a marinara sauce.

Diane Josephy Peavey, an organizer of the Trailing of the Sheep as many as 19 years ago, joined our table.
“The sheep ranchers here really speak from their heart about what it means to them. Their kids grew up with the sheep, and want to be in the business, even when they make nothing from it. It’s a tough business. If they make the cost of production, it’s a good year.”

Thoughts flooded in of all of the hard-working people we’d been made aware of during our adventure-filled tour: The food processing plant employees, the multi-generational orchard workers, the vineyard grape harvesters, the tough-as-nails cowboys and cowgirls at the feedlot, the fish farm employees out in the hot sun, the dairy employees working twelve hours each day, seven days a week, and the sheep ranchers who barely broke even. 

I thought about how the different sectors of Idaho’s agriculture worked together. How manure from the feedlot went to fertilize the fields. How potato drippings from the food plant got shipped to the fish farm for feed. How the rangelands fed the sheep that provided both meat and wool during our chilly Idaho winters. How the Idaho cottonseed, silage, corn, and soybean meal that was produced fed the cows, who gave the milk that made the crispy cheese on our pumpkin French toast, and the homemade ice cream on our granola crisp. It was amazing, really, the Idaho food circle, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever really put that together.

All of that hard work, all of those resources, all in the name of the harvest.

Glasses clinked one last time, as hosts and wordsmiths celebrated Idaho, one definite gem of a state.

*Special thanks to IDAHO Magazine, my hosts United Dairymen of Idaho, the Idaho Department of Tourism, Idaho Beef Council, and to Caldwell Transportation for the amazing TasteIdaho15 Tour. Loved every minute of it! 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Idaho Dairy Cow Delivers Pizza During National Pizza Month

Red lights all the way into town when you’re late for work. Rain just after washing your car.  Losing something you’ve put in a “very safe place”. 

These are a few of the things you can count on in life.

You can also count on the average pizza delivery being fairly routine.

But this was not an average pizza, this was not the average pizza delivery, and October was not an average month. It just so happened to be National Pizza Month.

Smoky Mountain Pizza’s back room was filled with two dairy farmers, (Clint Jackson and John Wind), and their families, United Dairymen of Idaho friends, and a handful of media people. The tables were laden with brie kisses, garlic cheese bread, and fried mozzarella, a cheese-centric heaven.

Excitement hummed from every corner, since we were all in on little secret: that night’s deliveries would be made by farmers Jackson or Wind, accompanied by “Bossie”, a young Holstein attracting fans out in the parking lot while waiting patiently for her first gig.

“She’s a good cow,” said owner Tea Harrison, who’d raised Bossie since she was a few weeks old. “Most of the cows I’ve raised end up at my grandpa’s farm, but I think we’re going to keep her around. She’s pretty calm.”

With more than 25 miles of travel already logged that night, Bossie endured multiple compliments, flash photos, and pettings before becoming a Smoky Mountain delivery employee. Thoughtfully chewing her cud, she took it all in without comment, although later that evening she would perhaps make it known that the frequent loadings and unloadings were considered pointless.

The question was bound to be asked. We were in Eagle, and would be delivering to residential areas. 

“What if…” several of us queried.

“That’s why we’ve got the shovel,” assured Bossie’s caretakers, “We’re prepared.”

When the signal was given, everyone jumped into the closest car to get to witness Smoky Mountain customers’ reactions. It was all very “Candid Camera”, but with a cow.

I rode with Smoky Mountain Vice President of Operations manager, John Ryan, who took his managerial role seriously.

“Let’s see,” he said, scanning past his windshield, “Where’s the photographer? Hmmm. Oh, there he is. Good. Now, where is the delivery vehicle…?”

“…and the cow. Where has the cow gone?”

The absurdity of that question made me laugh.

“Oh, there she is, there’s Bossie. Good. Follow that cow!” John declared, creating a phrase to be repeated for the next two hours.

In Idaho, a truck towing a trailer with a cow isn’t exactly a spectacle. But a truck pulling a cow trailer in an upscale neighborhood being followed by two more farm trucks, a delivery van, and another five or six private vehicles isn’t something that’s seen every evening. 

As the convoy circled a neighborhood park, two residents stood at an intersection, looking more than a little confused.

“Watch this,” laughed John, as he pulled over and rolled down his window.

“Excuse me,” he said, in a polite, business-like tone, “we are looking for a cow. Have you perhaps seen a cow?”

Without a word, both women pointed to their left.

“Oh, thank you,” John replied, without  further explanation, “Have a good day, ladies.”

“Follow that cow!” he said again, enjoying the situation, adding, "Can you imagine the stories circulating through the neighborhood tomorrow morning?"

The cow trailer was pulled up directly in front of the residence, closely followed by the delivery van. As Bossie contemplated unloading, delivery person Bryce stood at the ready, holding the fresh, hot food, and grinning widely.

“This isn’t your typical day at Smoky Mountain,” he quipped, which made United Dairymen of Idaho’s Karianne Fallow want to get that on video. Bryce got to say the phrase three times over, with feeling.

Bossie’s handlers led her to the unsuspecting homeowners’ entrance, joined by Clint Jackson, who carried the pizza, Smoky Mountain’s VP of Operations, Bryce the Delivery Person, a handful of dairy farm family members, United Dairymen of Idaho friends, and multiple media, all with cameras aimed and ready. 

“I’m afraid I might lose some customers over this,” John confided. I didn’t know if I should offer words of comfort or not; it could have gone either way.
When customer Kirk opened his  door, his face would tell it all. First the bland look of the necessary chore of paying for an anticipated meal after a long day, and then the slow grin of realization that, hey, there are a bunch of strangers at my door, and, hey, there’s a cow on my sidewalk.

Kirk quickly turned to call his wife, Tillie.

“Honey, you need to come and take a look at this.”

Forewarned, Tillie’s grin topped Kirk’s in bemusement.

Clint Jackson stepped up with Kirk and Tillie’s order, and gave a short speech on behalf of the United Dairymen of Idaho, thanking Kirk and Tillie for their support of Idaho dairy products, and, more personally, for the support of farmers and farm families such as theirs.
Standing there with the Jacksons and about twenty other co-conspirators, I felt proud to be a small part of that. 

John Ryan also stepped up to the door, thanking Kirk and Tillie for their patronage, and let them know that their dinner that night would be on Smoky Mountain Pizzeria Grill. The two grinned from ear to ear, as we all beamed back. Bossie remained expressionless.

With the first run a success, we piled into random vehicles for the next encounter, just a few miles away. This one, we were told, was a big BSU game party.

While unloading Bossie, pizzas, and our motley crew, a few party-goers beat us to the door, eyes glued to the approaching cow and crowd. 

“Don’t tell!” Karianne admonished them firmly, although an impending visit from a cow would be a hard secret to keep.

“Eleanor”, the party hostess, loved the special delivery. So did the dozens of guests who joined her at the door, with as many phone cameras aimed at us as we had aimed at them.

One little boy seemed initially alarmed by Bossie’s arrival, but on our departure, didn’t want to stop petting her. The crowed followed us out to the edge of the lawn, and partway down the sidewalk. 

“Hey, man,” one of the party guests said to Bryce, “thanks, man,” he offered, handing Bryce a twenty.

Bryce gave him his typical winning smile.

“How did you choose your delivery person for today?” I asked John, “Bryce seems ideal for this particular event.”

“To tell you the truth,” John answered, “our people are so good, we could’ve used anyone. I told the management to use the first person arriving for their shift, and it just happened to be Bryce.”

Bryce’s words rang through my mind, “It’s not your typical day at Smoky Mountain…”

He could say that again (so long as Karianne gets it on video).

Walking back to our cars, the distinct sound of a lawn being mowed was heard from Eleanor’s neighbor’s yard across the street.

“Someone’s sure working hard!” Karianne Fallow said, “I think they need bread sticks!”

An unplanned stop ensued, as dairy farmer John Wind, Bossie and her handler, Bryce, and John Ryan all lined up to do their thing. A gentleman came to the door and quietly stood through the presentation, virtually deplete of expression. There may have been a slight smile when being handed free breadsticks, but from where I stood, it was hard to detect.

As some of us walked away thinking, “You can’t win ‘em all,” and with my smart remark of, “Eh. I have cows on the front lawn every day…”, we suddenly got the reaction we’d been looking for when the guy helping the gentleman with his lawn came through the back gate, flushed from labor, and broke out into one of the biggest smiles we’d seen all night. 

“Breadsticks! Cool!” he gushed.

He thought the cow was hilarious, too.

*Watch for the Jackson, Wind, and other United Dairymen of Idaho families' friendly greetings on Smoky Mountain Pizza delivery boxes and ads. Delicious Idaho cheese tastes even better when you know where it comes from.

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.