The Summer of 1998 Part XVII

As I was exiting the parking lot, I gave one more “Thanks again, Holiday Inn” wave, and then accessed onto I-84 for a few miles before egressing at state highway 55. I was headed north through the sprawling suburbs of west Boise. My, oh my, the city had really expanded since the last time I’d been there (November of 1981). I glanced at the odometer, and calculated I had driven exactly 2,500 miles. As it would turn out, in terms of miles, I was half-way through the journey. It was re-assuring to have new plugs and especially, a new oversized radiator core, the latter of which was immediately tested. The afternoon temperature was in the mid-90’s, and I was negotiating a arduous ascent out of the valley. As was my habit, I kept checking the temp gauge, but after awhile, it proved pointless.

The needle held steady at the “just barely running warm” mark (exactly midway between cold and hot). I never could fathom Detroit’s reasoning behind replacing gauges with those obtuse “idiot lights” (when the red light flashes, it’s probably too late). I always marveled at how sensitive Ol’ Baleau’s temp needle was (how sensitive was it?). It was so sensitive, and this is no exaggeration, when I would be driving under a blazing sun and then duck into the shadow of a huge cumulus cloud for several miles, I could actually see the needle register a drop in temperature. I swear, it’s the gospel. But now, I could really relax, knowing everything was cool and copasetic…what a relief it was.

As I was cruising along the beautiful highway, I was reflecting on what all had happened over the last five days. I happened to recall reading somewhere that the Old English noun “travel” (in the sense of a journey) was originally the same as “travail” (meaning “trouble”, “work” or “torment”). The traveler was an active man at work. The tourist, on the other hand, is passive. He goes “sightseeing”, expecting everything to be done to him and for him. Well, I could certainly relate to that. I caught a splendid sunset in the outside mirror as I rolled into Grangeville, about 200 miles north of Boise. As dependable as the sun setting, the city park was there, waiting for me to repose for the night.

The next morning, after finishing off half a cantaloupe and a banana, I grabbed my Louisville Slugger and four horsehides, and strolled over to the nearby baseball diamond. I spent about a hour hammering line-drives into the back-stop… just being one of the boys of summer. I packed it in and headed out of town, but not before making a pit stop at the local mom and pop’s grocery store. As I was getting out the van, I noticed the pickup next to me had both windows rolled down and the keys left in the ignition. And this wasn’t some farmer’s rattletrap ’49 Chevy…it was supercab brand new. What a pleasant surprise to see there were still some people who didn’t live in a culture of fear. After all, it was Grangeville, with a population of about 3,600, where everybody knew everybody…just like those towns back in Oregon (Lakeview and Burns).

And it’s because of this familiarity everyone has with each other, every time I’m in one of these only-one-in-town groceries, I feel like I’m Karen Abdul-Jabber in Chinatown. One cannot disappear into obscurity within the endless, cavernous aisles as if in a giant Safeway. You’re a stranger in town, and everyone in that intimate store knows it. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t feel any uneasiness at all. People were amiable, yet a little reserved, as is the norm in small towns. I was squeezing and pretending to smell a cantaloupe, when an elderly lady approached me and said, “You know, I’ve never been able to tell if a cantaloupe is ripe by its smell.” I chimed right in with, “I know exactly what you mean, ma’am. How can you tell what a cantaloupe smells like if you don’t know what it’s supposed to smell like?” With a quizzical turn of her head, she gave me an empathetic look through her squinting eyes. Nothing more had to be said. The young lady at the check-out counter gave me a patronizing smile, as if intoning, “Did you find everything you wanted?” Her subdued friendliness could not restrain me from saying, “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you people. Thank you, ma’am.”

As I was strolling through the parking lot, I approached this old-timer sitting in his truck and rhetorically asked, “How is it a guy can leave his keys in his truck, like that F-350 over there, and not be afraid of it being stolen?” He gazed at me through weathered eyes, and with an appreciative smile, said, “Well, we trust each other around here. Never think about lockin’ things up. We’re kinda different from them big city folk, if you know what I mean.” Yeah, I did know what he meant … they didn’t have to carry concealed hand guns, or have their homes wired to the hilt with burglar alarms. A sweet testimony to life in the small towns.

I headed east on U.S. 12, paralleling the pristine Lochsa River. I swear, even driving along at 50 mph along the curving, two-lane highway, I could clearly see every rock in the bottom of that clear water river. It was also obvious that I was motoring along a very historical route (a roadside marker gave it away) taken almost 200 years ago by two incredibly brave men named Lewis and Clark. I tried transporting myself back in time, imagining the indomitable courage it must have took to trek 2,000 miles from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean (and back to tell about it).

All that way without a map, a Motel 6, or a McDonalds…nothing, but two horses and a canoe. What stretched my wonderment even more was envisioning them as they encountered all that unbridled wilderness and unspoiled beauty. What were their impressions through all of that remarkable odyssey? I returned to the present, and found myself thinking of America not as highways, but as rivers, a way to get closer to the country. Everything about America is a gift of the rivers: steamboats, blue herons, the Grand Canyon, jazz, catfish, and ferry boats. The rivers are the heart-beat of any country. I followed the Lochsa to my day’s end.

I made one more stop along Route 12, at a shaded pull-off directly across the highway from a pedestrian walkway that spanned the Lochsa. What really caught my eye was the manner in which it was constructed – a masterful system of timber connections held in suspension by wire cables. It was like a miniature Brooklyn Bridge. I walked the entire length, pausing at mid-span to gaze down at the incredible clear water streaming underneath, hoping maybe to spot a trout swishing its way downstream. And then, there was a conjured apparition of Lewis and Clark, paddling below me, on their way to the unknown, not knowing what lay around the next bend of each river, or what could be expected over an impending mountain range. What really boggled my imagination was that, over their 4,000 mile round-trip, they would never see a man-made structure of any kind (except for an occasional tee-pee).

When I got back to the parking area, I couldn’t help but notice an early ’70s model Chevy van with Arizona plates. The owner was a loner, an elderly man, so I felt pretty much at ease as I approached him, just as he was opening the cargo door. One look inside his van told me he was a magpie on wheels …it looked like a mobile garage sale. But everything in there was of some use to him, I guess. Part of my fun of traveling is seeing how other van owners utilize their interiors. I’m always open to helpful hints to home improvement (I was remembering Pete Garvey, back at Lake Tahoe, and how he had hung his fishing rods from the overhead struts). We had a short, friendly chat, then said adios. I had a feeling I would see him again.