Mr. Jenny has been wanting to write creative stories for some time. He says he is "taking over" the Sunday spot on my blog and so we shall begin a new weekly feature here - Sundays with Steve. There will be a button and a tab eventually but for now just visit each Sunday to enjoy his words.
In 1962 Dad got us up early one summer morning for a long Jeepster ride to the top of Bitterroot Range and Lolo Pass, on the Idaho-Montana border. My two brothers and I, and our mother, were all muttering about the 4.30 a.m. wake-up and 5 a.m. departure time. The Jeepster top was down, it was cool but not cold, and the 175 miles that took 4 ½ hours stretched our patience.
Our drive that morning followed the very scenic U.S. Highway 12, along the winding Locsha River and Lolo Trail. That path was used by the Lewis & Clark expedition both going to and coming from the Pacific Ocean. The trail also had been used for thousands of years to link winter and summer ranges of the Nez Perce Indians.
The Jeepster was (and still is) a fun, fun car. For short drives. For long drives, maybe not so much. The top down and rushing wind in your face is great! For the first hour. The roar of the wind, the rumble of the exhaust, then sudden whoosh of passing cars and trucks is exhilarating – for a while. After a while, particularly in the middle seat of the back, the drive became very long. After about half a century, we got to the top of the mountain in time for the cowboy breakfast followed by the politicians’ speeches.
The highway was the story that day. It was being dedicated that morning as the last U.S. highway ever constructed (not counting interstate highways). The modern new two-lane road would end some of the isolation of our home town, and allow commerce to flow between the Idaho and Montana. Up until then, this was a dirt road crossing the mountains.
On top of the mountain, and after filling up with pancakes and egg, the politicians were going to bore us with speeches. Two U.S. senators were there that day, Frank Church of Idaho who was just finishing his first term, and the very senior Albert Gore of Tennessee, who had lead the appropriations to build the highway. There were maybe 100 people there to witness the historic event.
I could have cared less. I was 12 years old and neither politics nor politicians were on my awareness radar, and certainly not history or historical events. Seeming to be just as bored with the whole thing was another boy my same age who was introduced by his father to the crowd as Al, Junior. After being fully embarrassed by the public introductions by his father on the stage, Al Jr. fled and ended up standing by me. We talked a bit, then decided “to split this place” and went exploring the meadow where the dedication was taking place.
We found some pollywogs in the stream, a turtle, and lots of plants in bloom. We talked a bit about some of our common backgrounds and why were we on the top of a mountain barely after dawn. Of course I did give him a bright idea that morning: “What if,” I said to Al Jr., “In 25 years you lead a team that could invent a communications system that was much better than telephones, that would allow those big computers the military and universities are using to communicate with each other by sending data over secure private lines. You could call it the Internet.” After a while a woman came calling for Al Jr., and he left. I never saw him again, other than on television in the 1990s when he was running for President and then Vice President, and claiming credit for inventing the internet, and then in the 2000s when he discovered global warming. (OK, I have to do this. Disclosure: Yes, we met the Gores on that trip, and we explored the meadow, but the internet conversation is what some might call fiction or maybe literary license. It didn’t happen.)
* * *
One of the thrills in the 1950’s and 1960’s was going up the Clearwater River a bit each spring to watch the log drives. Dad would load us into the Jeepster and drive us upriver 20 or so miles to watch the logs float by every May.
For decades, the local wood products “mill” received about half of its annual log supply when the snow melt would raise the Clearwater and its tributaries to near flood stage. The loggers had stacked their logs into huge racks all year along the banks of the river, some 100 miles or more above Lewiston and deep in the heart of the Clearwater National Forest.
The drives started when the loggers dumped the logs into the river each spring to float downstream to the big sawmill at Lewiston. The men followed the log drive to move stuck logs from the banks, gravel bars, or islands. The loggers lived on a floating hotel that followed along, called a “wannigan”. Calling it a hotel was generous, as it consisted of three large floating rafts. The first was always the cookhouse, followed by two rafts of sleeping quarters. There was a great deal of skill required to get the wannigan downstream, without wrecking or getting stuck on the same protrusions that would grab passing logs.
For us, watching the endless run of logs coming down the river was fascinating. We would stay for hours, maybe with a picnic lunch to help us along. The fun was watching the men rolling the stuck logs off the shoreline back into the river, or moving the logs off gravel bars or islands. The real fun, if we were really really lucky, was being there when the loggers had to use dynamite to break a large jam of logs. When scouting out a place to watch, dad always looked for the log jams to park beside, the larger the jam, the better.
The logs floated into a large pond next to the mill in Lewiston before being turned into lumber and paper over the next year. The Clearwater log drives started in 1928. The last drive was in 1971 when access to the river highway was blocked with the construction of the giant Dworshak Dam on the North Fork of the Clearwater River.
Retrospect is a funny thing, in this case it saddens me when I think I think of some of the events of my youth and how I wasn’t impressed with the history of the amazing feats we witnessed, that are now gone forever. We need they were amazing events, we knew that, but we didn’t have any perspective of where they fit into the history that was being created.
* * *
Our town was founded in 1860, old by Western U.S. standards, not so old for you folks back East. You have read, I’m sure, of Mrs. Steve’s 200 year old house in Ohio and many like it in the town where she lived. While those houses were being built, Lewis and Clark were being outfitted for their great exploration of the newly acquired Western Wilderness. Our town, of course, was named for Captain Lewis, while neighboring Clarkston was named for Captain Clark. Their expedition spent time in what was to become our town, building canoes, hunting, fishing and resting both on their way to and from the Pacific Ocean located 350 miles to the West.
In 1961 our town had its 100th birthday, a grand centennial celebration with parades, parties, dances, fireworks, plays, and other festivities. I recall my mother outfitting us in period dress for several different functions. We were dressed in black stripped pants, long sleeve shirts and bowler hats. I did not like this.
* * *
One of the events in 1963 was the performance of a play that focused on the theft of the state capital seal and records from Idaho’s first capital at Lewiston occuring exactly 100 years before. Undoubtedly the theft occurred on a dark and stormy night, executed by a group of despicable scoundrels who happened to serve in the first territorial legislature. That theft lead to the capital’s relocation to Boise -- a dastardly deed that still rankles among us old-time Lewiston natives. The play was written by one of my high school English teachers, Eva Peterson, and performed that summer by friends and neighbors at the Lewiston playhouse, in a small building down by the river. I was impressed. Not only did I know the history and the script, I knew the actors and the writer. It was an excellent play, of course, at least in my foggy memory of it.
* * *
That Sunday in May, 31 years ago, broke clear and warm. Summer flowers were blooming with forsythia and lilac perfuming the air. The neighborhood was alive with the sounds of lawn mowers, barking dogs, kids on bicycles in the streets, and other neighbors coming home from church.
In late morning I noticed the Western sky was getting dark. Not just dark, but black. There wasn’t a distinctive storm cloud in the sky; there were no individual cloud formations at all, it was just a black sky. Black as the depths of a deep mine at midnight. That black sky just rolled toward and then over our unsuspecting home town.
The town turned silent, weirdly silent. The birds stopped singing, the dogs stopped barking, and the neighbor turned off his lawn mower. Kids on their bikes peddled for home. Cars were not moving. The silence was ominous and complete. There wasn’t a peep to be heard, nothing, just pure silence. I thought, sort-of-but-not-really-jokingly, that if I were in the Midwest I would be heading for the cellar about now.
I turned on the radio to hear my announcer cousin Gene telling us that Mount St. Helens, some 150 miles to our West, had exploded several hours earlier and the ash cloud was due to hit our town shortly. And then it did: It started to “snow” dirty-grey ash about noon. There was no light, the sun was completely blocked. Street lights came on. It looked like midnight in the middle of a December snow storm, except for the green lawns, fully leafed trees, and flowering bushes. It was strange and weird, a unique experience. It was warm out, it was dry, but from indoors it looked exactly like a winter storm. The gritty ash continued to fall through the day and into the night. I ignored the warnings to stay indoors, and drove up my Oldsmobile Tornado up the hill highway north of town to take in the panoramic view. But I couldn’t see a thing from the hilltop. It was like being in a blizzard but with no wind, thick falling snow, and 80-degrees. I felt that the highway should have been slick as if covered by snow or ice. It wasn’t, not at all. It was strange, very, very strange.
By the next morning there was about one inch of dirty grey ash covering our town. Thirty miles to the north, 6” covered the next town. Everything was grey, there was no color, it was like the after-the-nuclear-bomb scenes from the movies. Authorities said don’t drive unless you have to, and if you have to, change your car air and oil filters often. Don’t go outside without a mask. Don’t go outside to exercise or do any labor. The warnings lasted two days. By day three the ash started to disappear. It rained the next weekend, and with that the ash was gone, washed into the soil or down the storm drains into the rivers. The ash turned into a sort-of boom to the region: People were trying to sell samples of the stuff to tourists for years, and the tourists were buying. Also the crops that year and next were of record yields, enhanced by the fertilization properties of the newly fallen ash.
I had moved back to Lewiston from the Boise area the previous year, and that fall I left Lewiston for Montana, never to return to live there again. No, I didn’t leave because of the ash and the continuing eruptions of Mount St. Helens, but for job opportunities elsewhere.
(c) 2010 Jennifer R. Matlock
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