Real Adventures in the American West
After almost a week of whitewater and wilderness, we returned to the high valleys of Central Idaho. I was happy to get to the hotel in Salmon to shower, do laundry, and catch up on things. Ela, however, was still adventuring. We were in the middle of the real American West and she explored it every day.
‘Salmon City’ the locals called it; the biggest town for hours in any direction and home to 3000 citizens. It had most of the things people wanted when they came out of the backcountry, like restaurants and bars and a movie theatre. But the closest Walmart was 150 miles away and, except for a mini-Burger King hidden in a convenience store, there were no fast food franchises, either. Businesses shut down early in the evening and everything was closed on Sunday. It’s laidback demeanor suited us well after five days on the river. We walked all over Salmon sampling local foods and products, and smiling all the time.
Big on Ela’s trip itinerary were little towns that reflected the Old West. She wanted to experience the real America; not Hollywood flash or un-reality shows, but people of substance and character. The kind of Americans who embraced the freedoms for which their country was famous, like the young river guides with whom we just shared an adventure. They chose hard lifestyles, made sacrifices to live freely; clearly descendants of pioneers that chased a better life across the continent. Settlements, abandoned mining towns, places that reflected a culture of hard work for freedom. Europeans admired the adventurous spirit they equated with the American Dream.
We travelled to Challis so Ela could meet Tammy Anderson, a friend and member of a great American family; one that represents four generations of service to the Idaho backcountry. For the last two years, Ela listened to me talk about Ted Anderson. He was the subject of a family biography I wrote about the men who pioneered recreation on the Middle Fork. I moved to Challis for a year to be nearby, to be able to talk with him about the good old days, to research personally his history for “Humble Heroes”. He devoted a lifetime to the river, shared his time and remembrances generously with me, and we became great friends. I couldn’t go back to Idaho without having lunch with Ted, Tammy, and the family.
The Salmon River tumbled alongside US 93 the entire stretch from Salmon to Challis; it was a scenic byway best driven slowly. Bald eagles watched the water from trees at the river’s edge. Cars and pickups pulled off the road to fish at good spots on the river. Outfitter’s crew buses towing stacked trailers pulled over, too, and let quicker traffic pass. We passed one and the bearded river guide waved. I waved back because it’s customary. And it’s cool.
“Do you know them?” Ela asked.
“No,” I laughed. “Just being friendly.”
And it felt friendly, even though it was foreign to her. They don’t do that back home in Poland. People there are more reserved. Passersby in Strzelin are surprised when I smile and wave; it’s not normal.
After an hour weaving along with the river through the mountains, speed limit signs slowed things down to 45, then 35 mph in town. There was MiniMart and Kimble Oil; two filling stations on the right as you came into Challis. Across the street was the Forest Service setup. A house with a sign that said ‘Supervisors Office’ and smaller houses that served as residences. Simple structures built and painted the same… government white and green. Ted worked there until he retired thirty years ago. He grew up packing for his dad at the Bar X Ranch and later worked 20 years for the Forest Service as the Middle Fork River Manager. He guided U.S. Presidents down the river, countless dignitaries, and tackled the problems that accompanied phenomenal growth in popularity of the river. But he was as normal as your father. Blue jeans, flannel shirt, 90-plus years old and still driving his truck… the kind of guy who always reaches for the lunch ticket.
“Pretty sure you bought last time, Ted.”
“No. I kept the receipt,” and he pulled it out of his pocket. “That’s your mushroom cheeseburger with french fries, and your card number on the bottom. I’m buying lunch today.”
Like an uncle or older cousin, he teased me because he liked me. And I liked being liked by Ted. I was pretty much a loner during my time in Idaho and didn’t make too many friends, and fewer who understood what I did all alone in that wilderness. Ted was an old-timer… legendary, to be honest. He appreciated my enthusiasm for the backcountry. It was our common bond.
We sat in a small town diner in Challis and ate American food. I watched curiously for Ela’s reaction to the fare. I listened to see if my friends had any trouble tuning into her hard German accent (yes, she’s Polish, but they sound the same when speaking English). It was too short, only lunch, but memorable and important to me. The Anderson family were men and women that, like so many people in the West, did what they needed to do to make a life where there was no easy way. It was with great pride and affection that I introduced Ela and my brother Frank to Ted and his family. She appreciated their warm welcome. No formalities; like meeting with old friends after a long time apart.
Finally, we got on the highway to the city. Our family headquarters was in Salt Lake, so we took the interstate south to Utah. It turned out to be one of the great culture shocks of the trip. Long, wide, and straight stretches of concrete and asphalt made high-speed travel safe and enjoyable. And there was so much open space between the towns. It was a stark contrast to the narrow two-lane motorways that bump through Poland’s villages. We spent our last few days in America with family.
When we were walking around Mom’s neighborhood in Magna, Ela saw a sign for the Pleasant Green Cemetery established in 1883. It was a mile up the hill from home. We visited the memorial during our last afternoon in Salt Lake City. It was a stark, powerful history lesson. The sacrifices made by Western pioneers were evidenced in the tombstones. Child mortality was high; people died young. We didn’t have to search to find a story; tragedy was written everywhere.
The culture of the West was tangible; it had personalities, told stories, and conjured feelings. We spent time in the backcountry and visited historic sites, but Ela was most impressed with its people. We were blessed with the company of many fine examples of western culture. It was a genuine American adventure.
Every adventure is like a strategy …. You have to think carefully and prepare for it to succeed.I have to admit that doing something for yourself in this shape and style is the most original and unusual.A valuable lesson in fortitude and body… Bravo.