The classic story: The boy came here with a broken heart and found a new love in the land.
By Mike Medberry
When I drove to McCall from Sacramento, I came in expectation and sorrow. I knew there lived a place with salmon and trout teeming in rivers, with elk, deer, and bear clambering through the rugged forests. I had seen those 5 years before! I came because of the deep lake that was Tahoe of a hundred years before, the land that was vast and wild, granitic and familiar, and the beauty of the blue, blue skies and starry, starry nights. I searched for Twain, Thoreau, and Hemmingway. And saw them in McCall. I drove because of a woman that I had loved in California who had shiny, obsidian-rich hair, a certain refined manner with long hands that wanted a ring, and who spoke with a slight Irish lilt. Megan was smart and wise, shapely, original, and entirely lovely. She was inscrutable to me, which made her all the more exotic and desirable. She charmed me. And crushed me, like a bug on the windshield, when she ended our love affair. I was 22 and I was leaving Sacatomato.
Reno was tears. Winnemucca gambled my money away. Western Oregon was parched and lonely. But Idaho—what a silly name–was green and luscious as I drove up the North Fork of the Payette River in late spring. Such a powerful river I had never seen! There were the American, the Sacramento, the Carson, and the Humboldt, but none brought the passion of this quintessentially Idaho river that was mashed in by the railroad on one side and the automobile road on the other. The narrow, car’s road wound up and up. It seemed to end a thousand times into the roaring, cascading water. The smell of pine was new to me and wetness in this dry air refreshed my stale soul. Crazy people in kayaks curved around rocks, paddled through a mountain of water, and managed to keep upright through the froth. I pulled over to watch three kayaks jetting downstream: submarines, penguins, and otter-people is what the kayakers were. They disappeared in a wink. I carried a kayak on the roof of my car, but this descent was simply too insane to be believed.
I drove upriver to a lull in the hurrying water—the river slowed to catch its breath before plummeting downhill again–and pulled over just below Smiths Ferry to watch mist wafting across the eddied river. The mist blew and skated above the water. It looked impossible with detail, improbable in form, like a thousand cobras rising up on ice. The calm wideness brought a stunning contrast to the wild river downstream and then a braying sound came out of the mist and two pair of geese turned as they saw me, winged upward, and beyond. This was magic!
In McCall, I lay face down on the grassy park in the center of town, sleeping-off my long drive. When I awoke, I was at the edge of a calm Payette Lake that stretched miles to the north with a sawmill on the east. I woke to the sound of log trucks with their Jake brakes growling discontentedly as each one made a curve at the lakeside. I sat and looked out at the lake wondering what this place would bring.
For days the sky became pure white and then bruised, as Mt. St. Helens blew to smithereens off toward the amorphous northwest. The cloud lingered just north of McCall. It hunkered like a vast genie as it blackened and grew tall. Wandering afoot, I found a crowded camping spot in Ponderosa Park along with dozens of evacuees dropping down from Moscow, Lewiston, and Coeur D’Alene. I listened to people predicting Armageddon as the big explosion to the west dropped inches or a foot of volcanic ash, depending upon the story teller, on the lands and upon windshields, gumming up carburetors, bringing cylinders to a halt, and people to this place. The volcano made for much, much commotion and lively conversation. I went for long runs through the forest, fished in the lake, or read from a novel about infidelity. I loved that mountain for blowing up! It was exquisite! The ash lay in aerodynamic tails on rear bumpers, like the mists on the North Fork. Mount St. Helens had blown its guts apart sending plumes of soot high into the sky. That sounded so right! And it created chaos. My love had blown up about that way, once upon a time, not so long ago. It folded well into my feelings about lost love that lay splattered on my windshield, spread out on the bumper. I fished for fishless days until getting bored with the sterile waters that never produced a single, stinking trout.
Damn, I needed a job and a place to live. It might as well be here, beside this lake, in this mountain town, by the frigging lumber mill with the loud, annoying logging trucks. In a bar near the outlet of the North Fork from Payette Lake, I found both my job and a place to live in only one hour. Talk about luck! I met J.D., an unforgettable curmudgeon, who steered me to the owner of Lardo’s and a place where I might live in a tumbleddown cabin beside the lake. JD, a joker, a smoker, a drinker, and a lover, became a very good friend of mine for a time.
As the bartender, I was privileged. I saw drunks and heard their reasons, broke up fights, played matchmaker, served drinks, fired up the potbellied stove every night for two years in winter, and gave away drinks to pretty women for my vanity. One time as I was picking up glasses on the patio, which fronts the main road, several men were snorting cocaine. I noticed the chalk lines disappearing into their hairy nostrils. And I noticed the police driving by on the highway. It seemed, well, it seemed a little foolish for my customers not to notice that the police might just happen to glance at what was going on on the porch and bust the whole lot of them and, well, maybe me as well, and close the bar in the bargain. But it was a pleasant Saturday afternoon with coke and beer, pretzels and laughter; all of us were as high as the blue sky and the police simply didn’t look our way.
On weekends the bar was a fine party! Bands played late, people rocked-out till they puked, credit cards were maxed out, and some crept upstairs and did odd, unmentionable things. I closed the bar, counted money, and left one-line jokes on the receipts for one particular accountant to enjoy. That accountant was a woman who I had a big-old-crush on. She worked days and came in to visit the bar at night. I fell in love with the way she smoked her cigarettes, the way we both watched curlicueing smoke, the way she blew the smoke out as if extinguishing a fire. We became friends and laughed about the rowdy, exciting nights; she liked my jokes (I imagined her each morning counting the till, smoking a fag, and smiling or laughing when she found a good one-liner or a sick joke). I liked her looks. But it wouldn’t be any more than a courting friendship because she was committed to another man.
But alas, all parties must end and I grew weary of being a bartender. I’d seen too many drunks, too much pitiful cleverness, too many worthless things coveted, too many lives tossed out, and I didn’t want to be one of the lost. But I loved living in McCall, it’s nearby mountains and streams and wild animals. I’d could fish, hike, build stuff, make trouble, think about Thoreau, become outraged at timber mills, and, as Plato must have said: “build a house, run a marathon, and have a child.” These were solid goals. Mostly. No, not so solid. But they were my goals anyway. And McCall could provide me with each of these challenges. I had to make decisions and live with them, as joyous and painful as that might be. I was going to stay in this odd state of Idaho and I’d found this detour, this youthful search, as the way that I found myself: a boy who had begun to recognize in himself a man.
Mike Medberry still lives in Idaho. He is the author of the memoir On the Dark Side of the Moon, which explores the stroke he suffered in teh backcountry of Craters of the Moon National Monument, his recovery, and the fate of wild lands.