We land in small town Idaho in the dark of night under high reaching sky filled with glint of star. All day in airports and cramped planes; a flight delay (“… the plane is broke…”) a missed connection. We arrive 5 hours late in the blackness near midnight in the high desert town of Hailey.
Come daybreak the rising sun cracks the razor edge of ridge to the east; there is haze in the dawning and the scent of woodsmoke from forest fire in the air like the scent of a malevolent flower. “Idaho’s burning up” we are told. It has been hot and dry and everything is as of tinder. Spark and oxygen and parched wood; fires start and spread as a malignancy on the land.
Hailey lies to the south in a long, narrow valley; Ketchum up the road, then Sun Valley. North of that, land rises steep and forested. Large lumbering hills border the valley, hunch backed as if the spiny backs of creatures long forgotten. On the east-facing side of the valley pine grows thick and shaggy; on the west-facing, scrub and aspen and dried grass and sand.
Idaho land is different than what I take as the norm; all that unites Idaho to Wisconsin are the birds. Dusky-backed robins stage for early migration; feed on berries in backyard hedge, nervous, always moving. Kingfisher streaks blue over clear water, staccato call rattles off rock and reed. Stately gray sandhill cranes stand like sentinels in honey-blonde stubble fields; rounded hills rise to the horizon sandy, rocky, bare of any trees. Idaho birds; same as Wisconsin birds. But the land, the land differs.
We drive up a blacktop road past verdant golf courses and houses of significance, past them and the road climbing all the time breaking free from the valley, rising to the hills. The good blacktop turns rough; big stately houses left behind; small, plain wood frames take their place. Then the bad blacktop fades to dirt and dust plumes up behind us as we drive. We climb further then park and walk. There is dust everywhere, fine as talc, pervasive as sunlight. We walk along a free running stream, a noisy little riverlet, shallow and fast-running and bright with the reflected sky. On the horizon, distant yet seeming an arm’s length away, the Pioneer Mountains rise sharp and peaked as a shark tooth as if trying to break free from the bounds of the earth.
The dust is everywhere; stomp hard on the ground and it rises as smoke; breathe deep and feel it come with the air. The high-rising hills and the distant Pioneers lift to the arc of blue mountain sky. Thick white clouds walk across the sky, cast shadow, then pass on and open to late afternoon sun. It is beautiful.
It is nearing autumn, and aspen leaf is turning yellow in the shortening days, not all leaf but some, portending the days ahead when chill will fall along the high hills and roll downhill to valley. Today is warm, but the leaves warn of cold to come, yellow leaves bright as a lantern signal as if reflecting the sun above.
This is vacation land, where people come to get away from it all, driving up the long valley to the promised land of leisure. This is where people come to leave it all behind, to time of leisure under the arched hills that are lit with the yellow leaf of season change.
A day later we drive south to Silver Creek. Dust rises behind us on dirt roads, hangs in the air as fog, then falls soft and quiet. We walk the path along Silver Creek. Prime trout water this, running crystal clear and shallow over rock and weed. There is a shape lying in the shallows and the shape turns to trout, long as a man’s forearm, holding steady, and in the flicker of light one can see the trout and then the light changes and the trout seems to disappear; then light comes again and with it the trout, dark and shadowy as a mystery. In a flash the fish moves, V-ing the water; then gone.
We walk along the river in the emerald greenery that holds back the dry sand and dust and tumbleweed. In the soft dust the imprint of deer hooves, small and delicate and the dust is deep enough and of enough substance to hold the print as snow would hold it come winter. Two dozen mallards fly overhead, flocked like an arrowhead. Wings whistle, chestnut breast and green head catch morning light. The land is different; the birds the same.
This is Hemingway country, this part of Idaho. Hemingway lived here, wrote here, fished for trout in Silver Creek, hunted mallards along the rivers, and in the end, when the words no longer came, died here. His grave lies under two tired looking trees; a slab of concrete cold and gray like a section of sidewalk marked with his name and the dates of his life. On the slab four empty beer bottles, dozens of pennies and a paperback copy of “The Old Man and the Sea”, pages weathered and dry as autumn leaves.
We take it all in, the river and the rugged hills and the Hemingway grave and the yellow leaf on the hillside.
Trout fishermen ply the Big Wood River patient as herons in the silver flow of water, fly rods working the up-and-down, the forward-and-back metronome-like movement of the fly caster. Every time we pass over the river, and there are several times we do this, there are fishermen in the stream and one wonders of the trout; Do they grow weary of it all? Do they take the wading fishermen as scenery, as part of their world? What do they, the trout, think of it, supposing they can think at all?
The fishermen cast their flies upon the water under the dry hills flecked with golden leaf of aspen. Here to get away from it all, to recreate and relax.
We too relax. We too let things go, get away from it all. We too are on vacation in this most wonderful of places.
There is yellow in the town, different from the yellow aspen leaf on the steep side hills, yellow ribbons on trees and fence posts and sign posts in town. Yellow ribbon that flutters in the breeze as yellow leaf on the trees. Strange, one thinks, yellow ribbons, so many of them, yellow ribbons that reflect yellow leaf that signs the change of season, the passing of time. Yellow ribbons; so many. A strange leaf.
They are there, the ribbons, the bright yellow bows, for a local kid. Bowe Bergdahl: Recognize the name? Local kid, raised here in Hailey under the rugged hills and the golden leaf. Bowe Bergdahl: The only American POW in Afghanistan, held now for over three years. Bowe Bergdahl. A long way from home now. A long way from Silver Creek and the Pioneer Mountains and from the saw-toothed ridges and the yellow leaf of a season in change. A long way from the place where people go to get away from it all, but in the end cannot.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournal NOW.com.