Special Report

To the River of No Return

Moving on in the American West.

By 5.6.08

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"I wasn't lost; I just didn't know where I was for a couple of weeks" -- Jim Bridger

Westerners are as a rule a transient breed. Fly-over country is also start-over country. A historically boom-bust regional economy has always dictated some bouncing around. People primarily move in search of economic prosperity, that job with a good salary, benefits -- in short, a future. But small western towns tend to be half populated by provincial multi-generational types; the other half are the relative newcomers trying to get along or making a mess of things.

Recently, at a local laundromat, I bumped into an acquaintance from my days as a security guard at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, a dozen years ago. This man had lately gone through a divorce and was just days away from packing a U-Haul and giving up the Cody ghost. After 13 years he was moving back to Iowa. And he was walking away from a good job. "I just need a change of scenery," he said.

I found this encounter interesting because after 14 years residence myself, Cody and I are also parting company. The one year sabbatical spent working for a paper in Choteau, Montana, I've covered already ("It's Hot," TAS, July 1998). And rather than bore readers with the reasons for my new move, I refer them to my recent "Cody Coda."

In the piece I speculate as to whether I'll move to nearby Big Horn County, Wyoming. But after careful thought I've changed my mind. I've decided to move to -- God willing -- Salmon, Idaho, which will offer a more reasonable standard of living. More on that later.

WESTERN TRANSIENCE encompasses the region's entire 200-year history. Mountain men, gold rushers, cowboys trailing a herd. Later, Depression-era public works projects attracted thousands of desperate people to build roads, bridges, and dams. And later still came the oil booms.

Maybe it has something to do with the vast landscapes and the ability one has to see off into far vistas. Easterners can't see very far. Low hills and dense hardwood forests block the view. No spikey peaks line the horizon fifty miles away. Those long western views have always been a stimulus to dream of flight. To go away across a wide river or mountain range. Away across the Great Divide.

Easterners don't get this. "Back East," most people think it the norm to work at the same job for life, and then retire to God's waiting room in Florida or somewhere else warm. These are the "Beach People." I have eastern relatives and friends in this category. The un-transient East (and there is nothing more un-transient than lying on a beach) does not understand the transient West. These are two distinct cultural and demographic views inhabiting the same country.

Going back to Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Jack London, transient Western writers have been the rule rather than exception. Wallace Stegner probably wouldn't have achieved any degree of greatness if he hadn't roamed the West in his youth. His family had a dozen addresses in Saskatchewan, Washington state, and Montana before landing in Salt Lake City, where the aspiring author managed to attend the University of Utah during the Depression years.

While Stegner's roaming was strictly economically driven due to the times he lived in, writers have always been after that change of scenery, new people and experiences to get the juices flowing again. Though they tend to fall into that aforementioned category of people who make a mess of things.

I've always believed that writers go stale without periodic life upheavals (good or bad) or uprootings, and lately I believe that I've fallen into this state of literary disrepair. I've digested and regurgitated Cody, Wyoming, many times, and I'm tired of it. I need a new place for a psychic tuneup, if you will.

SALMON IS A town of 3,300 people in central Idaho near the Montana border. Some 400 miles west of Cody, it's situated in the Salmon River Valley at 4,004 feet of elevation (altitude larger than multitude) and at the confluence of the Salmon River and the smaller Lemhi River. The ten thousand feet snowy peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains line the east side of the valley ten miles away.

Closer to the west are the Salmon River Mountains, and just beyond them the border of the "Frank Church -- River of No Return" Wilderness, at 1.3 million acres the largest federally designated wilderness area in the lower Forty Eight states. The "River of No Return" refers to the fact that multi-day river rafting parties can only float downstream from Salmon to take-out points along the river for up to 200 miles to Riggins, Idaho. They cannot return to Salmon via the river.

The region was visited in the summer of 1805 by the westering Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery. There the indispensable Sacagawea had a reunion with her Shoshone relatives. She had been born a few miles up the Lemhi near present Tendoy, Idaho. But modern-day Salmon claims her as its own, and a small museum called the Sacagawea Interpretive Center is devoted to her and the Lewis and Clark enterprise.

A generation after the latter, a Rocky Mountain Fur Company brigade -- including mountain man legends Jim Bridger and Thomas Fitzpatrick -- spent the winter of 1832-'33 camped on the Salmon hunting game and fighting occasional skirmishes with small parties of marauding Blackfeet. Later on came the miners, loggers, and ranchers.

SALMON IS certainly remote. Missoula, Montana (population 75,000) is 140 miles to the north; Boise, Idaho (population 200,000) is 250 miles to the southwest and over mountain roads. Yet Salmon is a modern town with good schools, a small hospital, Internet and Cable TV service, a good public library, microbrews and fancy coffee.

There is a vibrant downtown economy because -- at just 3,300 people -- it's too small to attract big box stores such as Wal-Mart, but that's good and bad. The river chugs through town, keeping a dozen local river rafting outfitters busy all summer. And packtrip outfitters get tourists on horseback to probe the "Frank Church" on weeklong jaunts. I plan on quite a bit of trailhiking there myself.

I also plan -- to paraphrase Voltaire -- to "cultivate the garden" of my "working retirement." Writing, of course, and doing God-knows-what-else to make a living. After 30 years of wandering around the American West whenever I could, Salmon may be the last stop on the trip, so to speak.

So I bid my Cody friends adieu, with invitations to visit and promises to return yearly over the mountains myself. Small future interregnums from my last hurrah on the River of No Return.

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About the Author

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