Seeing Heaven in Hell’s Canyon

The following entry is from guest blogger and Idaho adventure-seeker, Bradley Norton:

The van took us confidently from the last peak down into the Canyon toward Pittsburgh Landing. Kelly, our tour guide, was driving. Because she had lived for years on a ranch above the small village of White Bird, she had become a particular talent at maneuvering on the narrow – often unnerving- dirt roads that run throughout the mountains of Central and Western Idaho. In front of us, an SUV with Texas license plates wasn’t doing as well. On each slope it built up speed, only to brake wildly and skid its back-end.

“I do think you should write a book about your life,” Ayla was saying to Kelly in the front seat. Ayla was a travel writer from San Francisco. Undoubtedly a life-long city dweller, she had the professorial voice of an intellectual and the easy confidence of a younger – fairer – Vanessa Redgrave.

“Yes, you should write a book,” John, another writer, chimed in.

Kelly shrugged. She had been telling stories of her days as a rancher. Funny, exciting stories that stirred in me every romantic cliché about living in the mountains I had ever held. (It took me aback how nonchalantly she spoke of capturing rattle snakes with paper bags and freezing them in the kitchen refrigerator.) But, as I watched her calmly driving – her hands at 10-and-2 and her shoulders slumped forward – I understood that to her, the tales of her life were commonplace: rooted in the day-to-day necessities of living in the wilderness. It has a strange effect on a person’s priorities when the only signs of civilization that can be seen from her front porch are a barbed wire fence and a dirt road. Although perhaps we weren’t keen enough to pick up on it, Kelly was alluding to the fact that most of the small population that lives in the area between White Bird and Hell’s Canyon has similar stories.

“So, is there an allure to living in the mountains away from everyone?” Ayla asked.

“It is a different way of life, which I really enjoy.” She paused. “Oh yes…and it’s gorgeous.”

That afternoon Kelly, the travel writers, who were an offshoot of the Society of American Travel Writers, and I took a 6-hour jet boat through Hell’s Canyon. The deepest in North America, Hell’s Canyon has long been like a secret handshake between outdoor enthusiasts of all types. Besides a handful of federal workers, the canyon is completely uninhabited, and its kayaking, white-water rafting, and hiking are some of the best in the country.

On the final descent toward Pittsburgh Landing when the last flourish of trees passed the windows, the van was for the first time in full view of the canyon. I wouldn’t mind living close to this, I thought as I reached for my camera. The jagged, sheer-faced mountains loomed over the Snake River like a city skyline. The landscape seemed at the same time foreign and oddly familiar, as if it were the setting of a famous movie that had never been filmed. We parked the car in the small parking lot and boarded the boar at the bottom of the landing. The Killgore Adventures jet boat was aluminum with a canopy and plastic windows. On the way upriver toward Hell’s Canyon Dam, it skipped easily over the rapid but heading back down stream, it jolted and crashed through the waves, burying the bow in the water and soaking everyone.

Throughout the trip, John and Ayla engaged in business I later found to be quite writerly. Ayla made it a point to ask plenty of questions and take notes in a small notebook she kept in her backpack, while John – also a talented photographer – made himself popular among the group. He fanatically snapped photos and showed them to every passenger. (“This lens cost $3500,” he said at one point, as if instilling in everyone that photography wasn’t exclusively about skill and practice, but good equipment too.) I was mostly silent, sitting and looking off the starboard side. I tried to wrap my head around the terrain. I had known that Hell’s Canyon always was and would forever be beautiful, but I was surprised by how lush and green the mountains were. Usually, by summer, the canyon’s plant life has dried out and blown away, giving the scene a still gorgeous but dangerous quality.

On this summer day, however, the grass that sprinkles the mountain sides was still alive; the canyon didn’t resemble a hostile, alien world but rather a warm Spanish mountain range. I stared through the window trying to see the peaks and thought of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and imagined Robert Jordan and Anselmo sitting atop a granite stone far above me.

The air was hot and dry; passage through the mountains must have been nearly impossible; even the amount of land the basin offered wasn’t sufficient. Hell’s Canyon is, at points, shockingly narrow as if the Snake were a single lane street swerving between skyscrapers. So, it is no wonder that even the scarce habitation had to be pushed away from the Canyon back to where Kelly lived and where we would be returning shortly.

After docking at Pittsburgh landing, we walked up the boat ramp toward the truck in the parking lot. Before stepping into the back seat, I gazed over Hell’s Canyon one more time.

“So…that was pretty okay, huh?” I said , attempting humor.

Ayla who stood next to me looked over. With a wink and a knowing smile she assured me it was one of the most beautiful places she had ever seen.

I should move to the mountains, I thought, but didn’t say out-loud.