Coming Home to Sawtooth Valley
In 1987 I cashed out of the ski resort of Sun Valley, Idaho, and went fifty miles north to my family’s place in Sawtooth Valley to build a house. I did so out of a deep homing instinct—the same forty acres that had sustained our tiny herd of horses every summer for thirty-five years had sustained, for me, a vision of a place where I belonged in the world, where I could get up in the morning, step out the door, and catch dinner from the Salmon River, or simply step out to watch the sunrise light the Sawtooths above their dark foothills. And then, depending on my horoscope in a week-old Idaho Statesman or the shape of the morning’s clouds, I could fix the fences, cut firewood, change the water on the pasture, plant trees, or just fish some more.
It was a vision of a life, I think now, that came from memories of our horses, brought from winter pasture every June, whinnying and bucking around the fence lines, biting into the spring grass, running full-gallop through the shallow water on flooded river islands, home at last. Such memories become metaphors, and in early middle age, such metaphors become calls to action.
So when I found myself in the unexpected financial condition of being able to return home, I did. The house was begun in September 1988 and, owing to good weather all through that fall, was finished in February 1989.
That March I sat at my desk, warm and comfortable, the nearby cold of the Sawtooth Valley spring held harmless by thermopane windows and six inches of fiberglass. If I looked up from my monitor, I could see the cold stone towers of Mount Heyburn, their ragged edges smoothed by thick drifts of snow. The willows in the river bottom were skeletal and frosted, but every bit as beautiful as they would be that July, when the horses would hide in them to escape the flies and the heat. The snow on the valley floor held my weight in the mornings, and at least once a day I went out to wander the fence lines, or sat on the melted-off riverbank to watch the flyovers of returning geese, or skied the hill behind the house, or ran to the mailbox when I heard the mailman accelerate toward his next target, my neighbor’s mailbox a mile up Highway 75. Home at last.
But it wasn’t home. I found what once was familiar was unfamiliar. What once was real was no longer real. Everything might have looked the same to the horses that spring, but things had become more surface than substance for me.
That fall the power crew spent a few days digging trenches and driving a pipe under the highway in order to run power underground from the pole on the other side of the road to the house. There were to be no wires in the air outside the windows of my home.
The United States Forest Service wanted it that way. That agency is charged with maintaining the pastoral values of Sawtooth Valley as part of its larger mission of oversee-ing the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, a central Idaho enclave of fun that includes the Sawtooth, White Cloud, and Boulder Mountain Ranges, and the small patches of flat ground between them. Forest Service agents were authorized to purchase land and easements under the 1974 Act of Congress that established the SNRA, and while my family was lucky enough to be allowed to stay, the Forest Service has told us what structures we may build and where they may be placed ever since they bought the easement on our property. In their view, electrical wires and pastoral values do not mix, and so the wires went underground.
I wanted them underground anyway. A wire running into a house looks ugly, as do the strung-together lines of great steel crosses stretching across formerly pagan Idaho deserts. They remind me of the wires that run above any of western America’s commercial strips: wires that power neon signs, the flash fryers of franchise restaurants, the spotlights of auto showrooms, and the hundreds of whirling ceiling fans hanging over home-care customers.
But as I was pulling underground cable along the bottom of the trench that led to my house, I remembered the summer of 1955, when I watched with a child’s awe as the Rural Electrification Administration planted the first power poles in the glacial gravel of Sawtooth Valley. I was only five, but I can remember sensing the great expanding outside nation that those poles represented.
People outside the valley walls cared about us, we who lived in this most remote place, and were including us in their progress. No longer would we have to use oil lamps for illumination. No longer would our radios run off car batteries. No longer would we be people without power.
The only analogous experience I have had since is watching the ending of the film Dr. Zhivago. There, the final image of a great hydroelectric dam clears away messy images of human tragedy and replaces them with crystalline Soviet light. At age five, in wonder and delight, I switched the newly wired lights of our cabin on and off and on again. At age five, I would not have wanted to bury the power lines.
The next year, a substantial section of the highway between Sun Valley and Stanley was paved, including the section in front of our home.
My father was a fishing and hunting guide. The paved road meant more tourists, and more tourists meant better business. His clients would come to the house at four a.m. for sourdough pancakes and strong black coffee. After breakfast, he would take them back through the willows to the river, hook a Chinook salmon, and hand them the pole so they could land it, all for $10 per person per day. He didn’t guarantee them a fish, just a fish on the line.
In the spring, before the salmon runs, my father and his clients would fish in the inlets of Redfish Lake for bulltrout, and I can remember days when a limit of trout, spread out on the grass of home for a photo opportunity, weighed more than a limit of salmon.
It was a kind of paradise we lived in. We had electricity, paved roads, a new ’56 Ford, and an endless string of professional visitors—doctors, lawyers, CEOs, and politicians, all of them from places like New York and Dallas and Washington, D.C.—who assured us that we were living the kind of life they would live if they could only break free of their responsibilities to live it. I took literally every yearning word they spoke, even when the snow drove us out every fall and we moved south over Galena Summit to the Wood River Valley, where my mother was a nurse at the Sun Valley Hospital and my father drove ski bus after his fall trapping season ended. By Christmas, our southern freezer was full of venison and elk and the French-bread shapes of paper-wrapped salmon, and we had only to look at our dinner plates to know where we were based and where our sustenance lay. Every May we returned, over the still-frozen Galena, to a valley mirror-bright with water and new willow leaf, noisy with the sounds of nesting birds and the roar of rapids.
This world lasted longer than it had any right to. It lasted long enough for me to be raised in it. It lasted, I suppose, from our ’56 Ford to our next car, a ’65 Ford. But the power lines and the paved roads and the Fords and even the salmon in the river were destabilizing forces, and eventually it came to an end.
The valley became crowded with people. Some of our neighbors began subdividing their ranches and selling them off, taking the money and running to places that were warm in the winter, where life was neither as beautiful nor as hard as it was in Sawtooth Valley. They left behind them little deposits of summer cabins, where people from Twin Falls and Boise and Pocatello spent summer weekends. The sagebrush flat just west of Obsidian Mountain, three miles upriver from our place, came to be filled with trailers and prefabricated kit houses.
In the Salmon River there were fewer and fewer salmon. The Army Corps of Engineers, afflicted with the same naive fascination with power I had displayed at the light switch of our cabin, had built great roaring spillways on their hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and the Snake Rivers. Slack water and turbines killed millions of little salmon swimming to the oceans, and the depleted returning runs faced gill nets, nonfunctional fish ladders, and the nitrogen-poisoned waters flowing from the spillways.
Government programs poisoned grasshoppers with DDT in Sawtooth Valley, and we stopped seeing eagles and hawks and ospreys and herons. The Idaho Fish and Game Department used Toxaphene to poison Petit Lake, ten miles upriver from us, and inadvertently poisoned the river as far downriver as Stanley, baby salmon and all. Four years later, in August, my father rode up the river for three miles, looking for spawning salmon and didn’t find a single one. By that time he had stopped guiding for a living and had begun working as a mechanic and welder for road construction projects.
By 1974 Sawtooth Valley had been cut up into thousands of pieces. Plans for condo projects on the moraine above Stanley had been drawn up and were about to be implemented. A good percentage of Castle Peak in the White Clouds was determined to be molybdenum, and ASARCO—a mining company—was planning to build a road into it and carry it away, bit by profitable bit.
The act of Congress that established the Sawtooth National Recreation Area had the effect of reversing many of these later changes. In Sawtooth Valley, except within three small designated communities, parcels of land under twenty acres were purchased outright by the Forest Service. Larger parcels, such as our place, were placed under strict zoning to preserve the early-ranching character of the valley, and their owners were compensated for the difference between what the land was worth as agricultural land and what it was worth as homesites. In most cases, this represented about 95 percent of the land’s value.
It was as if the valley was suddenly populated with lottery winners. One of our neighbors put his easement check into certificates of deposit and made more in interest that year than he had in his best year ever raising cows.
ASARCO was paid for molybdenum still in the ground. Castle Peak is intact, and no road has been built to its base. The Sawtooth Primitive Area became a wilderness, and mining claims within its expanded boundaries were disallowed. No longer could motorcyclists ride to the ridge above the north side of Sawtooth Lake. No longer could miners claim the beryllium deposits under Glen’s Peak or the gold that lies far under Goat Creek, where it hits the South Fork of the Payette above the old Sawtooth Lodge at Grandjean.
And some salmon did come back. They were hatchery fish, barged down around the dams, and were distinguished from what are called wild fish by clipped fins. In that first August after my house was finished, I found dead salmon on gravel bars, spawned out, evidence—for anyone who needs it—that sex and death are connected. There weren’t enough of them to re-create the stench of earlier spawning seasons, when you could smell dead salmon all up and down the river, but the people a mile downriver at the new Sawtooth fish hatchery insisted that they were working toward that end.
I tried not to count on it. I knew that the salmon in the Salmon River after the last Columbia dam had been built would have more in common with my neighbor’s domestic cows than with the wild salmon I caught when I was ten and twelve. Raised in a hatchery, transported over dams on their way to the ocean and back from it, caught again and again by human handlers who were trying to get them back—almost—to my backyard, they had become artificial wildlife.
In the intervening years, every third fish has been allowed to swim on up the river from the hatchery, there to spawn under the gaze of tourists. The rest have been slit open and milked of their eggs and sperm. Fertilization has taken place in a bucket. Death, for them, has preceded sex.
It’s illegal to fish for salmon above the hatchery, so I haven’t seen salmon fishermen elbow to elbow on the riverbanks behind my house. I haven’t crept back through the willows with a salmon rig to catch the product of years of expensive work by the salmon restoration industry. It wouldn’t be catching a wild fish. It wouldn’t even be poaching. It would be rustling.
There are still cows in the valley, but their owners worry more about the price of money than the price of beef. The ranches are still here, as pastoral as ever, but their owners are often elsewhere, especially during the coldest part of the winter. Some of the old ranch houses have been torn down and giant new log homes have been built for new owners, who live here during the summer and fall.
We have a population of caretakers. They’re nice people and good neighbors, but they have trouble saying the words “my home.” The people here who look most like cowboys wrangle dudes up and down the Sawtooth trails in the summer.
There has been talk for years of burying the power lines that run along Highway 75 and enhancing our pastoral values yet another degree. The electrical co-op we belong to doesn’t think it’s a good idea. The cold of the winters here would make it impossible to dig down to a frost-damaged line. But I hope they figure out a way to get around that problem, because like the landscape architects at SNRA headquarters, I think it would look better. The lines strung from power pole to power pole are a too-visible reminder of the power produced outside the valley walls, where acidic coal smoke and silt-ridden reservoirs and radioactive waste are the by-products of the electricity that keeps this house bright at night. I’d prefer the connection to be hidden and the lights to go on as if by magic.
Should the lines ever be buried, Highway 75, now officially designated a scenic highway, will carry summer tourists through a valley that looks almost as it did in 1956. Salmon will be in the river below the hatchery. Ranchers who live on wide expanses of land will be running up and down the road in pickup trucks. Some of us who live here will be out digging ditch or fixing fence or working with horses. Perhaps a bit of pageantry will be detectable in our motions.
There are worse lives than those lived in museums. There are worse shortcomings than a lack of authenticity. Trouble with unreality is much preferable to trouble with reality. So I get up in the morning, open the doors to the sun and tree-cleaned air and a backyard river that has never known a discharge of treated effluent, look up at mountains that tear holes in the clouds, watch the eagle that has made this stretch of river his home this winter, and consider myself among the luckiest of men.