Last week Julie and the puppy and I drove to the Livingston Mill trailhead and started up the Boulder Creek trail toward home.
From our house, it's a two-hour drive to the Livingston Mill. If you draw a straight line on the map, it's only 17 miles. The White Clouds are in the way, of course. We packed for a four-day trip.
We left the car keys with friends who were coming out as we were going in. They would leave our car safe in our garage.
We spent the first night at Sapphire Lake in Big Boulder Basin. The spine of the White Clouds rose 1,000 feet above us. We could see the saddle between Ocalkens and David O. Lee peaks. The next day we would go over it and down into Bighorn Basin.
From Bighorn Basin we would connect with the Iron Basin trail, which would take us to the Warm Springs trail, which would take us to the Big Meadows. From the Big Meadows we would hike up to Garland Lakes, and from there we would descend a long sagebrush ridge—a quick ski run in winter—to home.
That was the plan. When we got to the saddle, the way down into Bighorn Basin was an exposed scree slope, the whole thing far steeper than the angle of repose. Underneath a layer of small round pebbles, rough clay soil and knifelike bits of limestone had been baked into a hard breccia by the summer sun. If you started sliding, you wouldn't stop until you hit the bottom, and by then you'd be a long bloody streak visible on Google Earth. Still, I was 95 percent sure we could do it, backpacks and puppy and all.
"I'd bet my life we can make it," I said to Julie, "and yours, too." With that unfortunate phrase, we both understood we were turning around and hiking back to the Livingston Mill, where no vehicle awaited us in the parking lot.
I spent the rest of the day wondering about the thin line between wisdom and cowardice. This summer, we've had too many demonstrations that life is suddenly and easily damaged. Friends have lost family members to plane and auto crashes. The elk and deer on Highway 75 have made a trip to the Stanley post office seem like a slalom course. People we're close to have taken a wrong step and broken legs, or fallen off bikes and ended up in comas, or died in climbing accidents. At times, living a normal life, with its everyday commitments to people, places and things—to say nothing of travel plans—has seemed like too much of a risk.
Julie didn't help the mood when she said it wouldn't do much good to have been cautious in the mountains only to get picked up by a serial killer while hitchhiking home.
It took us four rides to get to the house, which wasn't as much a problem as you might think. You get more rides with a puppy than without a puppy, even from serial killers.
Our first ride was with a hunter heading for Challis to pick up his cut-and-packaged elk. He told us wolves were destroying Idaho's elk—at least all but one of them. We agreed with him. On the second ride there was a tumbler full of whiskey and ice in the console. We smiled our approval. On the third, there was a pistol on the seat that had to be moved before I could sit down. That was just fine with us, as long as it stayed in its holster. A shiny black smoke-windowed van stopped for our fourth ride. The driver was from Las Vegas and had a New Jersey accent. We conceived a sudden disbelief in all those stories about Vegas, the Mob and the Rat Pack.
Nice people, all of them, and together they got us home. We fed the puppy double rations and left her sacked out in her crate. We backed the car out of the garage and headed for dinner at the Sawtooth Hotel.
What had we seen? A new wilderness, a little bruised from human contact, not much different from the wilderness study area it had been. The Kettles had changed from when I first saw them in 1973. Then they were small, vertical-walled pools set deep in blue glacier above the Big Boulder Lakes. Now they were dry, amphitheater-sized depressions in jumbled gravel, proof that millions of tons of Pleistocene ice hadn't made it into the Endocene.
We looked down at Bighorn Basin but didn't see any bighorns. We did see seven mountain goats and a six-point buck. We did look across miles of clear air to the tops of the sagebrush hills above our house. We went by six turquoise lakes and a dozen drought-emptied potholes. Going down, we left the trail and walked through high meadows full of sun-whitened avalanche debris. It's fall up there now—lots of tiny red leaves close to the ground, golden grass swaying in the wind, and shallow meandering creeks luminous in slanted sunshine. You find yourself wanting to sleep for weeks on a creek bank, even if it would mean a walk out in falling snow.
Despite no car in the parking lot, despite beating myself up over not descending a slope I would have danced down when I was 21, despite not walking home—and coming home a day early and, out of guilt, using the extra day to give the house a much needed cleaning—it was a great trip, not least because there were other trips to be made, and we were all three of us alive to make them.