Holding a chicken is something I never knew I wanted until I was presented with the opportunity, and holding a copper chicken named Nugget who pecks at shiny things and loves attention does not disappoint. Holding her domed rib cage, her large fan of a wing resting on my hand, was bliss. Idaho is full of things I never knew I wanted – a house where we can hike out the backyard into the mountains, a book about building miniature theaters, a wood burning hot tub, rock climbing on a small mountain made of lava, a band with a banjo player playing in the front window of a bookstore, a soup made of burnt chilis and corn.
It sounds like fiction: to be able to walk from your front door, down the driveway, and up a steep road that requires courtesy for passing up or down, leading to a trail that continues up a ridge bursting with wildflowers. But here we are, with our fingertips pulsing from elevation gained. Hiking up through the neighborhood towards the mountains a dog that looks like a pig, with a squashed pink nose and a rotund broad frame, follows us despite our hosts telling her to go home. Her pink, bedazzled collar looks absurd as she herds us upward, a glint of determination in her eyes. Finally, she gets the hint and takes off down the hill. She doesn’t stop once to look back or see if she made the wrong choice. We pick our way along, listening to facts about the flora and fauna from our biologist guides, stopping every so often to wait as a sample is plucked, or an identifying photograph is taken. At the top of a crest we pause for breath. And we can see it all — the peaks that used to sit on top of Yellowstone, long before humans, the farm owned by Mormons, the lava bluffs we climbed the day before, arms straining, palms sweating, tied in and holding ourselves against the hot rocks.
“It’s like Colorado, but without all the people.”
We don’t see a single other person on the Forest Service trail. What we do see is a mass of gray clouds rolling over the hills around us, and a crack of lightning simultaneous with a thunder clap on the next peak up cuts our lax attitude short. One of our hosts takes off shouting “Run! Run! I’m not even a runner!” as she frantically shuffles through the tracks we had just crossed. We follow behind, dashing down to find a shelter on a lower peak. Our stop and start descent continues until we are finally safely away from the ominous portions of the sky, when it starts raining. We learn that you’re most at risk of lightning strike when you’re at the edges of the cloud. A reminder not to get comfortable. My uncle ambles behind, collecting wildflower samples.
In sort of surreal timing, everywhere we’ve gone we’ve followed the wildflower blooms. Starting with the joshua trees in the West, moving through bluebonnets in Texas, over the ends of the lilacs in the East, now we’re onto the arrowroot balsamleaf, and more names I won’t remember. (I always want to remember them, why is it that other things more readily take hold, like the lyrics to all the songs off dusty CDs from my family’s back room?) We’ve also followed the rain. So it’s not surprising that our dusty sneakers get rain-spattered on the last little stretch down, as we wrestle raincoats out of our packs and turn our faces up toward the patches of sun and cloud that stretch wide, unobstructed by anything higher than us.
A fire came through here, seven years ago. Things are rebuilt now, but the junipers are hairless, scorched silver. Some people rebuilt and others left. But this house was spared, and we are given food from the garden before we leave — delicate lettuces and fresh oregano, fresh eggs from the chickens, each with a name except two new pullets, who have anxious faces and codependency issues. The life that teems around us here is odd in contrast to the slow regrowth of the older vegetation. The timelines seem so different, while being simultaneous. A bat swoops low between the star-speckled sky and the wood-fired hot tub, and I wonder if this type of life is even possible.
The stakes are different here – or maybe it’s the priorities, the ordering of a life. And it feels good. It feels like there is time and space for rigor, intensity, progression, but also to think and breathe. I feel as though, in this little bubble of Idaho, our specificities and interests are taken seriously because the specificities and interests of our hosts are of great importance to them.
I make the mistake of saying the cat named Rasper looks “silly”, which to me is a compliment of the highest order, but I learn from the facial expression I receive in response that Rasper is more dignified than that. I am grateful that I bit my tongue and did not call him “stupid” or “dumb”, perhaps the greatest compliment I can give an animal. When I say these words as a compliment they do not refer to any metric of intelligence, but to something playful or joyful I sense. But here, I understand that none of these words will be received in that way, and we are all serious beings, despite our silliness or playfulness.
There’s a whole stretch of Idaho rivers that you can’t get to without a boat or a plane. So we see none of this. Everything we hear about northern Idaho is that it’s white supremacist territory. It’s a blip for us, as we drive two states later through the panhandle, which looks more like a smokestack on our atlas. It’s all green trees, more lush than Montana, and the roads wind around and through it. I’m careful to let motorcyclists by, all the while wondering about their ideologies. But we won’t know. We were going to stop in Coeur D’Alene, a name I love to say (I’ve started really reveling in the anglicized French names everywhere near the Canadian border), but instead we keep driving, rushing out of this state that offers a precarious dream and a reality full of dubious politics. As in all the other ones, I wonder what we don’t see.