Along the Snake River I park the car, pull on my jacket, and walk straight up, ignoring various paths that wind more gradually up a hill overlooking the water. I'll exert myself now, focus on getting my breath, stretching my calves, keeping my balance on the loose rocks. I'm hiking on the east side of the river a few miles or so south of Lewiston, Idaho, a small city named for the explorer Meriwether Lewis who, with William Clark, was among the first whites to gaze upon the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers. In 1805, the floodplain was populated by Indians the explorers called Choppunish or Pierced-nose, now known as Nez Perce. They helped Lewis and Clark launch toward the Columbia River so the explorers could reach the Pacific Ocean. Only a few generations later, the Nez Perce's hospitality would be rewarded by forced exile from their homeland. I have a history of my own here, too -- many afternoons spent lazing on the rocks in the sun or hiking in the hills while my husband fished. Once, after we'd landed our boat a few miles south, he tied it to a rock and we walked upriver, studying the ground until we stopped to admire a plate-sized paw print. Later I hiked up the canyon with my binoculars, thinking I might see a falcon or a hawk: somehow, the print -- a cougar's -- seemed as remote as a dinosaur's. I stopped to rest, scanned the cliffs, saw a dog-sized creature lying in front of its den, paused, refocused, and discovered that a cougar, not a coyote, watched me attentively. Probably it had been watching me for the entire hike: it had that kind of view from the cliff's edge. I was alone then as I am now, but I knew my husband was less than a mile away, casting his fly into the river. I hurried back down the draw, trying to stay under cover. By the time I reached the river, I was giddy with relief, weak-kneed with gratitude that my husband was still there, faithfully fishing.
Today he's not awaiting my return. He's in his relatively new home with his relatively new wife and their relatively new sons, just an hour north, in Moscow. My son and his, age five, is with them, too, the temporary custodial exchange effected this morning in a Moscow motel room.
In the bottomland down by the river, I try to imagine the Indians' oblong tents with flat roofs described in Lewis and Clark's journal. Instead I see the manicured campsites of Hell's Gate State Park. I'm aware of the road behind me, where I parked; aware of the road across the river; the dams that interrupt the flow of the river; the pulp mill and its stench. The salmon and the Nez Perce are endangered now. Things have changed rapidly in the last hundred or so years. My life, too, has unraveled like a fast-forwarding videotape. I'm not sure what I can learn from the vision I'm having of the past superimposed on the present. I'm not sure what I can feel except confused.
My ex-husband and I lived in a house at the top of a hill on the Palouse prairie just barely within the city limits of Moscow, Idaho. To understand the Palouse landscape, imagine dunes such as those in the Sahara, asymmetrical, softly contoured, but covered with wheat, lentil and rapeseed plants instead of sand. The Palouse is the dryland farmers' paradise-its soil composed of silt blown into the dunelike configurations some 100,000 years ago. In some places the silt layer is 150 feet, deep enough-one might think-for farmers to take it for granted. Unfortunately, however, the wind is still blowing on the Palouse; the soil I used to see lifting in dust devils from the ploughed field behind our house is, in fact, disappearing at an astonishing rate. The Roadside Geology of Idaho asserts: "the region's loss of soil to erosion considerably exceeds its wheat production, measured in tons." The same wind that blew the soil as far as Western Montana was a constant companion for me in my Moscow home, particularly after my husband moved out, leaving only me and the baby and the sound of the wind pushing at the windowpanes, its high keening like something out of Wuthering Heights. I'm not a person for whom the constant sound of strong wind is a pleasure. It reminds me too much of my own anxiety, a force that, like the wind's suggestion of a coming storm, keeps me on alert. Such alertness wears me down, like the crying of a colicky baby, something my own child-at eight months-had only recently outgrown. Cuddling him in my arms at night, the wind always loudest on the south side of the house, I would rock and sing the only lullaby that ever came to mind:
Bye baby Bunting
Not yet certain my husband had gone for good, I liked to imagine him coming back to the house with that soft wrap for the baby, smiling in apology and knocking snow from his boots.
From my journal at that time -- What To Do When Feeling Panicked: Focus on something outside yourself.
What was outside me was the landscape-the apple tree in the back yard, the rail fence enclosing the two-acre pasture that plunged down the back of one hill to an intermittent creek that fed a small pond. In a breast-shaped curve up to the horizon rose the next wind- and water-carved hill, its wheat cut to stubble in the winter. The only trees visible out my back window were the few carefully planted and manually watered around our yard. The wheat behind the house, the wheat that dominated the Palouse prairie, was the product of dryland farming made possible because the soil retained large quantities of water. Soft winter wheat continues to thrive in that soil and in the relatively mild winters, moist springs and dry summers of northern Idaho.
When the landscape was covered with snow, my back pasture looked exactly like the view in Andrew Wyeth's "Study for Easter Sunday," which hung on my wall. The blonde Helga, her pigtails braided, stands under the roof of a porch gazing out at a snow-covered hill rising in the same soft curve beyond the painted pond as did my own wheat field beyond my pond. I used to study the painting for clues about how the observer of such a landscape might deal with its emptiness-snow whiting out the pasture and the sky so that gullies and ripples of ground, contrasts between pasture grasses and wheat stubble, even the definition of earth and air were difficult to see. Helga stands, her back to the viewer, the collar of her drab green overcoat turned up to protect her neck. Light reflects from her braided hair and one side of her face -- contours of forehead, cheekbone, nose and mouth in profile. No eyes or lips are visible. It's impossible to tell how she feels. Like the still scene she surveys, she is motionless.
Meanwhile, I paced with my baby, looking out the windows at the empty land the way a prisoner at Alcatraz might look at the sea. When I could get into the snow, trekking across the hills on my cross-country skis, I felt strong. But because of the baby, I was housebound, wind at the windows my most reliable company. In my way, I loved that pasture, that wheat field, and the low, piney range of the Moscow Mountains beyond them, but I wasn't ready, like the painted Helga, to merge permanently with the landscape, still and solitary in the bleak wash of whites and grays.
In contrast was another kind of scene I was used to sharing with my son's father, the kind of experience that glued us together for eleven years as we traveled and camped from our stripped-down pickup truck. On a cloudless morning in May, you might find us at Trout Creek campground on the Deschutes River in Oregon, following the stonefly hatch. The smell of sagebrush was so strong it burned my nostrils, not unlike turpentine, but it was oddly sweet to me, too.
I sat on a high bluff overlooking the river. Below I could see the campground, my husband fishing, shaded under the wide brim of his hat. In the light the mesa's color changed-grey to purple to brown. I loved the transitions between sagebrush and lava rock, my husband's wader-clad hips and the water that surrounded them. Upriver, stray cattle bawled to one another. Their brown bodies glistened in the sun. The wind stirred. A moth landed on my knee. The circling falcons landed in their nest. From my perch I looked at my husband's line arcing, connecting sky and water, and thought: we in high aeries need our mates.
One of the ways I used to cope with my feelings just after my husband moved out was to go driving. I preferred I-95 from Moscow to Lewiston because it was mostly wide open, and I could go fast, letting the fields curl, then open, around me. It snowed -- big gentle flakes that made the landscape slightly dangerous. My red Subaru parted the storm, headlights blazing across the open land. I moved across the earth until the ploughed ground changed into rugged hills high above the Snake River; then I coasted down the 2,000 foot drop to Lewiston.
From the place where I stand now above the Snake River, the sky begins to darken. Here and there, lights come on. Normally I don't feel lonesome when I'm by myself in the wilderness unless I see the glow of a campfire from which I'm excluded; the lights of the houses have the same effect.
The Nez Perce band that came to Idaho from the Wallowas would have been able to look across this river toward the Blue Mountains and imagine their way back to their beloved valley where the cabins of strange white families now stood. Rather than dwell with that daily reminder of exclusion, I suspect I, too, would have fled with Chief Joseph et al.
Clicking on my flashlight, I head back toward the car. Time to escape this scene of sorrow superimposed on sorrow. Time to head east along Highway 12 and the Clearwater River, outrunning my emotions along the road.
Fleeing the ghost of my ex-husband's former self on the Snake River breaks, however, I find it again along the Clearwater River as I drive along Highway 12 toward Missoula. I reach the confluence of rivers where we once took a weekend trip down from the Palouse prairie into the steep-walled valley where the Lochsa and Selway Rivers join to form the Clearwater. I turn into the driveway of the other motel-the one I didn't sleep in that night with my ex-husband.
"You by yourself?" asks the proprietess, looking past me out the window toward my car.
"I'll give you the cabin closest by."
The log walls make the cabin dark inside. The bed sags. The surfaces of things-end tables and chair cushions, walls, counters and stovetop of the kitchenette-are covered with a sticky grime. I open the door for some fresh air, listening to the river. It's the Lochsa-meaning "rough water"-and it flows to the west just a few feet beyond my door. Highway 12, across the river, parallels its course. The night is moonless; there's no traffic on the highway now.
In the steep surrounding mountains, Lewis and Clark's party struggled in three-foot snow, though it was early September. Unable to find enough game, they killed horses for food; they named one creek to mark the butchery: Colt-Killed Creek. More than once, the remaining horses, loaded with supplies, lost their footing on the rugged slopes, rolling until they landed in the river. As the party became more desperate, Clark decided to scout ahead, hoping to find a way out of the mountains. Finally, descending an open plain, he encountered three Indian boys. Their people, the Nez Perce, received Clark et al into the nearby village, where Clark ate so freely of buffalo meat, salmon, berries and roots, that-after his near-starvation-he made himself sick.
In front of my cabin, the river's current, moving in the dark, carries all these stories: there's a simultaneity to my experience of the present and the past, even if I've only read about it in books. The starving explorers are vivid to me, as are the three Indian boys running to their village with the news that white men have arrived. The Nez Perce's kindness to Lewis and Clark was extraordinary. If only the story could have ended there.
The next day, I hike along a slope above the Selway River. Designated "wild and scenic" by the federal government, it's a pristine combination of riffles and pools at the base of a narrow gorge, flowing north to converge with the Lochsa, forming the Clearwater River. From the trail, I look down at the river through the needles of pine, tamarack and fir.
As I round a bend in the trail, two deer, just above me, bound higher up on the slope, then turn. We look at one another quietly. In that moment, I think of nothing but my luck at seeing the graceful curve of their necks, the steady movement of their ribs as they breathe, their delicate hooves poised for flight. Yet when the moment passes, and I start hiking again, scaring them further uphill, the ghost of my ex-husband's former self arrives. Not so long ago, we camped on the flat by the river with our infant son. One morning, when it was barely light, we looked out the window of our camper to see a moose standing on the opposite bank. There were supposed to be many more such small miracles for the three of us together.
In this same country, the Nez Perce took their three-and-a-half month, 1,500 mile trek into Montana, hoping to catch up with the Crows or perhaps with Sitting Bull in Canada. On their way, they passed over the Lolo Trail. They might not have been on the particular ground I'm sharing with the local deer, but they were close, traversing the convoluted crests of the ridges to avoid the impassable terrain lower down. Some 800 men, women and children with their gear and their ponies traveled through the same mountains, albeit in a different season, that had nearly done in Lewis and Clark. What's more, they had to travel with haste, trying not to leave a trail for General Howard to follow.
If Lewis and Clark hadn't been fed by the Nez Perce people 72 years before; if the settlers, gold-diggers and missionaries who moved into the Wallowa valley hadn't been threatened by the existence of the Nez Perce; if three young Nez Perce braves hadn't killed some white men; if the commanding General had been more sympathetic to the Indians; if the soldiers hadn't begun to shoot when the Nez Perce leaders rode out to explain themselves under the protection of white flags, perhaps there would be no tale of battles, flight and forced exile for the Nez Perce people. If someway, somewhere, something that occurred did not occur, or if something that did not occur did, perhaps the campsite where I once saw a moose with my ex-husband would have been the playground for the descendants of the three Indian boys who first encountered Clark nearly 200 years ago. For us, there would have been no house on the Palouse prairie. No hikes along the Snake River breaks. No divorce. But alas, "shit happens." One thing leads to another. Events we can't always control bring us together and push us apart.
The Nez Perce who survived the final battle forty miles from the Canadian border in the Bear Paw mountains of Montana were sent to the bottomlands of the Missouri River, where many suffered from malaria and died. Then they were moved to Oklahoma. The death rate continued to mount; over 100 children died, including Joseph's daughter. No doubt the loss of heart they must have suffered away from their beloved mountains, the loss of their loved ones along the trail that led to their surrender, must have weakened them as well. How could they continue, penned into what must have seemed strange, ugly lands, lands devoid of nourishment, when what remained in their memories were lush valleys and snowy peaks, as well as the great blue lake in the Wallowas?
Ghosts, I think, haunt us because they need something. Once I visited the Big Hole Battlefield in Montana, where although the Nez Perce were surprised by Colonel Gibbon's men, they managed to outfight them and continue their flight. I walked along the interpretive trail by the river, imagining the scene: young white men, some of them teenagers, riding down from the mountain, picked off by Nez Perce sharpshooters; Nez Perce women running for the river, where they held their children underwater so the children wouldn't be shot. Thirty of Gibbon's men died. Eighty-nine Nez Perces, many of them women and children, also lost their lives there. I stood alone on an August evening under the quiet sky, the poles of the coverless tipis skeletal on the horizon, and felt the ghosts, Nez Perce and white alike, asking me to grieve for them.
I think my ex-husband's ghost, his younger self, wants me to grieve for him, too. As does the ghost of my former self. I suspect these ghosts, personal and otherwise, are rightly terrified of one thing: we will forget them and they will disappear for good.
I climb the slope once again above the Selway River. The trail winds steeply through a fir-darkened forest. The earth smells moist. I want to hold onto all these sensations, especially the feeling of wholeness I have in the quiet forest of the Pacific Northwest, alone with the self that I am. I reach a green glade marked by fallen timber, Douglas fir branches high overhead. There I have this thought of myself and my ex-husband: "You both did the best you could." Wanting to mark this moment of forgiveness, I pick up a stone. Like many rocks from the area, it is metamorphic. It has been another rock, but at a high temperature and pressure, it has crystallized. I don't know what it was like before this transformation, but now the rock is a stunning combination of white crystals with streaks of orange and maroon, shiny flakes of mica sparkling like sequins. It is complex, a rock whose many elements have fused with one another in unique and striking patterns--a symbol of both past and present, a fusion of circumstances, an illustration of how the past both vanishes and remains.
The rock is still in my pocket when I return to the Snake River breaks, looking east toward the Nez Perce homeland. I am aware of the history of the region, the history of my self, but this time the ghost of my ex-husband's former self doesn't appear. I carry the rock north as I drive up the Lewiston grade back toward the Palouse prairie. It rides close to my hip when I greet the flesh-and-blood father of my son. On the desk in my Eastern study now it holds the memories of all I've said here; somehow, it quiets the ghosts.