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At the Trailhead

Twelve miles up the potholed road from Lowell, Idaho, the gravel fans into a parking lot where the Selway Trail begins. Horse droppings and cigarette butts litter the ground. A Dodge truck sits near the empty hitching rail, where a gray trailer looms against the fir trees, its windows gaping at the oncoming dusk. The river rolls with the sound of a great body moving through grass.

I have just parked the government truck near the trailhead. Twenty-six miles wind ahead to the cabin where I will join my wilderness trail crew, and I have decided to walk the distance in the dark. I am troubled by a recent call from my sister. Tonight, as I linger in the breeze rising with the river's chill, I see the history of her divorce playing over the surface of the water.

When I set out along a western trail burdened with trouble, I also carry faith that the rise of the slope will creep into my spirits. There is no end to western trails. They go up one mountain and down the other, looping back like infinity. But following a familiar path to my destination can put an end to worry.

An hour of daylight remains as I shrug into my pack and set off. The first few miles are a wreckage of puddles and ruts where mules have savaged the ground. Hopping along the grassy berm, sometimes leaping across the trough to keep my boots clear of the mud, I consider the night ahead. There are risks. Rattlesnakes thrive along the river, and they often coil in the trail at night. It is too late to raise the dispatcher on the handheld radio. If I fall, no one will think to look for me until tomorrow evening. I accept the risks because I do not believe that staying alive is the mark of a good life. Walking in the dark I might see a new thing. [End Page 85]


Across the river the needlepoint tops of the tamaracks stand against the fading sky. A campfire glows ahead, the sad eyes of a dog and the shapes of a man and a woman gleaming in its light. I call out to them, and they let me go without a word. A tiny gas stove hisses at their feet beneath a steel pot. The buttery smell of their dinner washes over my face as I pass. Beyond the rim of firelight I switch on my headlamp, and the world is reduced to the sweep of its beam.

The silhouettes of the lovers ripple over my thoughts as I go. I see them wherever I look, like spots burned into my eye after a sudden flash. Each present moment seems superimposed by the past.

When I was six or seven years old, my mother left my father. I remember how the house felt without her: the way it feels to watch rain streaming down the windows without turning on the lights; the way some winter days seem to break without dawn. And I recall bumping along the mountain roads in my father's pickup looking for her. My sister sat between us. We watched hills of purple fireweed roll by, saw the churn of Yaak Falls, crunched through the parking lots at all of the trailheads where my father thought she might have gone to think things through. The next day my mother came back, and our lives went on as before. Recalling this now I can understand why my sister first resisted all talk of divorce. She imagined her son in the pickup and the empty house. She saw my mother's hopeless return.

Night has fallen now. The circle of light dances ahead of my feet. I step into a clearing where knapweed has choked the underbrush. A wooden sign rolls into view. It marks the trail junction at Cupboard Creek, and I know that I have 20 more miles to go.

The horizon has nearly lost its dimensions. I can just make out the canyon walls flanking the river channel, opposing ridgelines rising like a raven's wings. Strange...


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pp. 85-93
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