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Endless Change is the Story of Our Lives

By David Shribman

STANLEY, Idaho -- Why is it that the days that are the longest are the days we wish were even longer?

We always go into the mountains this time of year, knowing that the long days at the midpoint of the calendar assure that we get more than our money's worth of summer. And that's without taking into account the way snowy Decker Peak looks this time of year (think of it as a craggy old man at day's end, wearing an antique white nightcap) or the American bald eagle we saw banking into the mountains, dipping down by the pond, putting on an air show for the ages. All this is a reminder that if you sit on a porch rocker in summertime, you need never worry about being amused.

The porch is best at mid-afternoon -- no slanting sun to make you squint at your novel -- but the way to start your day in Idaho is with a morning hike in the Sawtooth Wilderness. It is a humbling experience, not because the peaks are so high (though more than 50 of them soar above 10,000 feet), but because in a lifetime of hiking you almost certainly will never dip your big toe in all of the 300 alpine lakes that God and glaciers dropped into the high-altitude meadows and valleys.

The cliche of the climb is that a mountain hike is good for clearing your head, but the truth is that its value may be in discovering what random thoughts muscle in when your principal preoccupation is the arnica wildflowers whose heart-shaped leaves, jagged and sharp, seem to mirror the Sawtooths themselves.

These thoughts, the trail mix of the mind, are not regrets -- regrets like being afraid to ask a pretty girl to meet you under the Biltmore clock after the big game, an F. Scott Fitzgerald kind of moment, gone forever; or the regrets inherent in Hemingway's novels, some of which were written not far from here. No, not regrets -- but revelations.

Make the round-trip, through aspen groves and a lodgepole forest, to Fishhook Creek Meadows, for example, and you very likely will realize how different things look on the walk back from the way they did on the hike in. On the way in you see the snow on Heyburn Mountain, and the hump of Horstmann Peak, and you cannot imagine how anything can be as dramatic.

But on the way back, you see sagebrush hugging the gulch, which has a beauty all its own, and you notice how the mountains and the treble clef of the tree line seem to alternate, and you wonder how such a thing, nature's counterpoint, could have been contrived, and to think that they were here, in Idaho, before anyone gave even a thought to designing buildings or gardens on a computer screen.

Following the lead of our 15-year old, once so tentative on the trails, now so confident on them, and beautiful in the summer sunshine, we noticed the same thing the next morning, hiking into the vastness of Elk Meadow, a great green bog whose tint seemed to change with the hour. The stream to the north caught our attention on the way in, but it wasn't until we headed back, tired and hot, that we noticed that the stream fed an aqua lake. Was it obscured by the foliage, or didn't we look hard enough?

The way things look from different angles, and the way things change with time, are the issues we wrestle at work, and yet it takes the solitude of the Sawtooths to make great truths seem great and true.

It was entirely by coincidence that this week in the Upper Salmon Basin I dipped into Ernest Poole's old stagecoach novel, "The Nancy Flyer," a book about men who loved the old conveyances too much, not realizing that the steam train was coming, and that in its path would come changes great and small, and most of all disorienting. This book, which you can get on eBay for a dollar (don't try your library; the too-efficient clerks there discarded it years ago), is a meditation on how people can fall in love with the way things are, so much so that they cannot see the way things will be. Some of my friends in the newspaper business might profit by a few hours with this novel.

That notion of change, so dramatic here in the changeless mountains, came into sharp relief one afternoon when, at the end of seven miles of dirt road, we stopped at the town of Custer, once a bustling mining center, now an abandoned wreck of a place that gives up almost no hints that once, when the country was young and the dreams of gold were fresh, a hundred buildings stood on the main street, including nine saloons, three hotels and a newspaper office.

Custer, named for the doomed Army general, began to boom in 1879, settled by what Willa Cather once called "great-hearted adventurers who were impractical to the point of magnificence." In its first year of operation Custer's mill produced $1 million in gold and silver bullion. The mill closed in 1904; the town went bust in 1911. The money was good, but fleeting. The town thrived, but died.

These are the things you know on one part of your journey but only notice on another. They are the signs of changes that defy resistance, irresistible changes which, on the longest days of the year, the days which you wish were longer, you realize are the story of the West. And when you think that virtually the whole country, starting with the Appalachians, was once the West, you realize that this is the story of America itself, and of our lives.

Copyright 2007 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


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