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From the Far Margins

Custer County in winter


White. The snow stretches vast and flat between clumps of pine. Wind sweeps fine grains across the surface. The flicker and the jay, raven and eagle have stayed as the world freezes here in the high cold of 7,000 feet. Central Idaho. Custer County. If it's New Year's, nothing would tell but for the long nights, the silence of winter's deepening. Yet the days will lengthen.

Below, rivers wind, filled with chunks of snow that hiss softly against banks. The water is a dark place. It steams between delicate shelves of ice that grow ever inward toward the center. There in deep spots, fish still circle. A golden eagle flies the great curve in the river where the desert starts. Its wings beat like a slow-motion heart, a black dot against a white mountain impossibly large at this distance. This is the county where humans eke a tiny strip of habitation out of the wilderness. One river corridor. The rest belongs to mountain goats and sheep, great herds of elk that pick their way by the hundreds down to the river to drink, then climb back into the white cold to sleep anywhere out of the wind.

In Boise, I have in my mind a map of the people I know from Custer County. Invisible strings tie us to that place at the edge of all. We drive the hard road "home" to where beer is $2 in the bar, $1 at happy hour and strangers still wave when they meet a car on the empty white highway. Cold and isolation makes us generous, keeps us connected. Even in Boise, in the snow, people are kinder. It's as if, when we face the cold, we have a common adversary and it binds us a bit. We bake cookies for neighbors, stop when a truck is stuck in the snow or a horse has broken loose.

Now many houses sit empty. Main Street in Stanley is entirely closed, not a single business open on a Wednesday. Winter leaves people at an economic edge. The pass closes under the weight of snow and everything goes dark.

Dogs wander the middle of Main Street Challis. People fishtail, spin cookies on the broad unplowed pavement. The few locals huddle in the the open bars. People shovel the sloughs to ice skate in candle-lit darkness.

In this place, the wild presses. At 40 degrees below zero, human life hangs at a vulnerable edge. But the people of the county have a difficult relationship with designated wilderness. It's not that they don't love the country. It's that for generations ,they've used it differently. Horses, ATVs and motorbikes, generators, caches of gear in the trees off favorite campsite. Wilderness prohibits all of this—except the horses and mules, but few can keep mules busy anymore.

Wilderness designation puts a place on the map—worthy of visiting. Places are loved out of their silence, their wildness, loved into trampled, contaminated, scarred, playgrounds where goats, pine martin, owls and mink won't go.

It's not that the locals of Custer County do not love the land as much as anyone. They do. Wolves are not of the wild to them. They are seen as introduced, thus of government—a thing far away and foreign. Government is huge federal taxes, tickets, permits, regulations on everything from the width of your front door to the conditions under which you can sell eggs, milk and muffins to your neighbors. Government is the sheriff, Forest Service, health inspector, building inspector.

Even with all these government functions, the face of government is just your neighbor down the highway doing her job—making a living in tough times, looking the other way when she can on the things that don't seem reasonable.

The snow falls. Snowplows pass in the night. The days will stretch ever longer into spring but, for now, the humans of the high parts of Idaho split wood, stock up on supplies, tend to stock with hay and heated water. They watch the deer and elk thread their way up and down the ridges, walk routes for the winter bird count, make things summer leaves no time for, commute on icy roads to that job at the mine or inn, the school or bar or district office.

In this state of isolation the world outside can seem hostile. Between Fox News doing all it can to keep viewers in a perpetual state of fearful anger and the Facebook news feeds of like-minded "friends," the foreign becomes frightening and even the ordinary can become foreign. Believing skewed news about black protestors or the consequences of gay marriage is no stretch. Today, even communities like Challis and Salmon have visible gay and transgender residents, but black faces, far less so. So what's foreign becomes scary. Prejudice is a nonsensical word out of the handbook of political correctness—part of that world Fox News says is ever working to put whites down—because they want you to believe equality and justice are finite and if others are given something, there will be less in the world to be gained for your family and yourself.

We are generous. We look out for our neighbors, for those we know and those we believe are like us, trying to get by in the world. We respect hard work and self sufficiency. We can grow our own food and put it by for winter, live off next to nothing from the outside in a pinch. These are the places our values come from. These are our sources of belief. In a large world, these are also our vulnerabilities.