The Nation's Pulse

Salmon Winter

It's been a Groundhog Day for everyone this year.

By 2.9.11

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I'm "wintering" -- as the local saying goes -- here in Salmon, Idaho, and just like everywhere else in the nation, it's more severe this year than last. We've had more snow, and the hydrology pointy-heads tell us that the mountains statewide are in the 100%-plus range for average snowpack. Spring and summer Idaho will be green and sporting rushing rivers and creeks, full reservoirs, and irrigation ditches brimming with cold runoff. But today I can look westward at the Salmon River Mountains and see their sagebrush foothills spidered from the tracks of snowmobiles. The river is an ever-flowing gray slurpy. We haven't seen the ground since Thanksgiving.

Salmon streets, frozen and rutted, are typical of Western towns in winter. "The City" municipal guys plow the streets to make them passable, but snowy periods mean driving on squeaky, snowpacked pavement. I'm up early for work, and at six a.m. on some mornings I hear a grader scraping a dark, deserted Main St., its yellow light atop the cab flashing in my kitchen window. The grader pushes mountains of snow onto the centerline, and a following front end loader and a dump truck clean it up before automotive Salmon comes alive for the day. It makes quite a racket, and on those mornings I don't need my alarm clock.

The building I live in is drafty. In my apartment I have plastic sheeting tacked onto the inside of two of three old sash windows, partially depriving me of my mountain views until the spring. On windy days the plastic expands and contracts in the breeze. This is not comforting. My electric baseboard heaters click-click away, jacking up my electric bill in the winter months. Recent morning temperatures: Fourteen below zero on February 2; a warmup to four below the next morning. In the empty retail space downstairs my landlord has to keep the heat on 24/7 to prevent the upstairs pipes from freezing.

People in wintertime Salmon are always looking for something to do that gets them off the couch, although for some the couch might be the smart place to be. The community calendar feature in the local newspaper is almost exclusively devoted to church activities and the locations of AA meetings. This all points to what much of the population of Salmon does with their winter leisure time: Go to church, drink in the bars, or attend AA meetings in church basements. There's very little middle ground in Salmon, Idaho. You're either a sinner or a saint. What I call the "reasonable center" (well, left-of-center) in town spends the winter attending the public library reading and book discussion series (they just did Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird to everybody's enjoyment; Frank Herbert's Dune is next), or the chess or philosophy clubs at the Odd Fellows Bakery. I've altogether passed on the Philosophy Club. The idea of contemplating the human condition on dark subzero evenings increases my sense of existential dread, and would through stages eventually lead me to an AA meeting in a church basement.

Lately, the Bakery -- an ersatz community center located on the ground floor of the Odd Fellows Building on Main St. about twenty feet from my front door -- has started up a Wednesday "Pizza Night" that's become popular for both the pizza and as a venue for local musicians (mostly bluegrass) to sit on a circle of chairs by the front window and play. It makes for a midweek respite from the snow and cold, and a chance to catch up with the neighbors. The kitchen is also a popular place for socializing, with steady heat emanating from a large, wood-fired brick oven.

The Bakery is a partnership of youngish, idealistic entrepreneurs in the Ben and Jerry mold, all very nice people. There's always plenty to read with your coffee and blueberry muffin, as the bakery subscribes to the New Yorker and Harper's, and -- of all things -- the London Review of Books, where I can peruse the enthusiasms of the British Left for the new START treaty, and the hoped-for prospects of Palestinian statehood, among other un-Salmonocentric subjects. There's also small bookshelves for nostalgic Boomers who remember the little personal libraries found in 1970s Che-postered college dorm rooms, back when college kids actually read books. Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus -- the whole absurdist, nihilistic bunch. One day I flipped through an anthology titled The Beat Reader, fascinated by William S. Burrough's own fascination with the enema as a heroin delivery system. Since Wednesday Pizza Night is such a smashing success, maybe next summer they'll try Friday Naked Lunch.

On a recent frigid morning I went hiking up on nearby Discovery Hill with ten women of the reasonable center tribe. I've written about this crew before. Discovery Hill gets its name from the fact that in 1805 the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery passed by amongst the sagebrush hills as they went north in their struggle to find their way out of the mountains and on to the Pacific. The deep snow kept us on a packed-down road for three miles. The sun was eventually strong enough to burn off the freezing valley fog and reveal the shining peaks of the Bitterroots. An altogether glorious day in good company, albeit cold. But the conversation was lagging, so to stimulate it I uttered the two tried-and-true words designed to push the right buttons, er, left ones: "Sarah Palin." The resulting clamor might have triggered avalanches on the mountains, or sent herds of elk scurrying for the timber. For ours is a fierce friendship.

And such are the joys of winter in Salmon, Idaho. 

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.