My Wild Idaho

Am I wild? Am I a free spirit — a woman who runs with wolves? Or, is it all merely a metaphor, something that can never be realized — a fantasy that can never be true? Is my version of nature only a romantic conception of Native American vision quest and animal totems decorating me with glory? I can't help but wonder: just how wild am I?

These were some of the thoughts that were coursing through my mind as I sat somewhere in Idaho, in a rented Subaru Outback, a name that implies wild adventures on rough roads in primitive, unexplored country. In marked contrast to my abstract ideals, I felt rather tame as I watched the rain. To further my civilized shame, I was actually listening to NPR on the radio, an easily accessible reality now that radio waves and frequencies probe every inch of the wilderness. Where were the wolves I was supposed to be running with as I discovered my wild interior?

The rented Subaru Outback was warm and dry inside, but, outside, the cool Idaho rain was washing down the windows, making the trees, the firs and cedars, look as if they were melting. There was a lushness here not normally found in California where, even one step in from the coast, the green disappears and you find yourself looking at all those endless, golden brown hills.

I told my husband about the sign I saw when I was washing up in the creek. The ice cold water of what was called Quartz Creek was running near our tent, which I hoped would live up to its claim that it would repel the rain. The sign was a warning to hunters: "Know Your Bears!" it admonished. As I looked closer at the silhouettes outlined on the yellow metal square, I noticed that it was showing the difference between a black bear and a grizzly. Apparently, a grizzly has a large ruff around its neck, which the smaller black bear does not possess. It also has canines that are one and three-quarters inches long. The only thing I knew was that grizzlies were fiercer than black bears, more prone to attack, mall, rip, render, and devour silly little hippies like me. And, according to the sign, grizzlies were protected.

Well, I'm from California, and, even though the grizzly bear is our state symbol, we don't have any grizzly bears there, thank you very much. Killed the last one off in about 1925, if I'm not mistaken. I think we killed them off along with most of the antelope, the condor, the mountain goats, and several species of little rare frogs, to mention a few. It's the inevitable result of population encroachment, right? I mean, if I had to choose between my beautiful daughter and a rough old grizzly bear, I'd have to shoot the bear, wouldn't I? We have to choose, don't we? We can't get rid of people, can we?

I regard myself as a staunch environmentalist, a leftist liberal, and a champion recycler. Hell, I even raised my babies in a tipi and heard a mountain lion scream. Twice. Nonetheless, my first response to the bear sign in Quartz Creek, Idaho, was one of absolute terror. "Aren't grizzly bears the ones that attack for no reason?" I asked my husband, who merely smiled back noncommittally. I decided he was either trying to ignore my concern or he was trying to be nonchalant in the face of imminent disaster. A man who can sleep through anything, including windstorms and tent collapses; a man who lived out in the woods for several years working for the Forest Service; a man who survived the debacle of Vietnam is either immune to the worries that plague me or simply numb. Even though his complacency was pretty impressive, in my anxiety, I had to return to the main point: what about the bears?

Normally, when we go camping, after the squirrels in my metal cage have finally calmed down, I nurture a few passing thoughts about the reality or unreality of a bear or a mountain lion bothering us in our little nylon tent, that insubstantial piece of fabric that separates us from the wildness of the night. Here, in Idaho, as I prepared myself for bed, I found I had a harder time of it — with the knowledge that grizzlies were around. I had to ask myself: did I leave a piece of onionskin on the ground when I made dinner? What about coffee grounds? Was my shampoo particularly smelly?

I know that you're supposed to make noise when you encounter a mountain lion and act larger than life, but how does it go with a grizzly? Are you supposed to yell or play dead? Should you run or stand still? And what about all those rubbings and the ripped bark visible on the hillside. That they were bear signs was obvious. But, they were not merely the work of a shy, black bear. Those bear signs were also the work of a fierce and fearsome grizzly.

While I tried to maintain some unity with the wild, I remembered reading The Ohlone Way by Malcolm Margolin in which he described how white men witnessed the Bay Area indigenous people covered with a claw marks from their interactions with the grizzly. The California grizzly was extinct, and gone, never to return. But, we were in Idaho, where grizzlies still run free. Trying to dismiss these thoughts as irrational city slicker fear, I started counting mental ravens hoping to dwindle down into dreamland.

Earlier, as I sat in the warm, dry car, I had estimated the distance from the tent to the driver's seat where I would die if if a grizzly came after us while we were sleeping. Of course, with the hunters in the camper next door — the only other inhabitants of this remote wilderness campground on United States Forest Service land — I realized that no bear in his right mind would dare come within a mile of my tent. Why would they?, I asked myself. Humans mean nothing but trouble to any creature that walks on more than two legs, and, if you count birds, you might as well include any creature that is not human.

But, we were in Idaho, and the meager comfort that I got from thinking that there were some beer drinking, Deliverance-type survivalists next door was almost as discomforting as the idea of grizzlies attacking our tent. In fact, on the way up this mountain, we took a turn that spun us off the main drag on to the national forest road. We were looking for a place to park and set-up camp and, thinking that we were near a deserted creek and a flat place, we innocently happened upon a couple of pickup trucks backed up into the trees.

I couldn't see what they were doing, but, whatever it was, I figured we should probably leave. I was turning the car around in the cul-de-sac, keeping an eye on the dogs that were suddenly bristling around the car, when I inadvertently hit the horn.

This must have awakened some alarm in the men who were lurking in the trees. My husband and I noticed some humans — if you can call them that — walking toward us. One of them had a large, double-headed ax resting on his shoulder. He lurched toward us, exhibiting a menacing body language, kind of like a cross-eyed Paul Bunyan on meth. I hit the accelerator, and we tore off — I am sure escaping near-death at the hands of some crazed Idahoans. (By the way, didn't the Ruby Ridge incident occurred in Idaho?)

Back in the Subaru: we were almost ready for bed. The rain was still falling, but we were optimistic that the tent would not leak, that the rain would soon stop, that the grizzlies would not attack, that the survivalists would not suddenly decipher my leftist, environmentalist leanings and want to make an example of me and my husband by skining us alive.

I must confess that I did not sleep well. My husband, on the other hand, slept the sleep of the innocent, while I stared at the tent ceiling, nurturing a slow, seething resentment, which I directed at his back. After all, I am the one with the crystals, the fossils, and the feathers; the books on discovering my personal wildness, identifying my unique totems, and searching for my own animal magnetism. He, on the other hand, reads non-arcane tomes on mathematics and linguistics, or Don DeLillo and Robert Stone novels, as well as the Anderson Valley Advertiser. (Well, I read that, too!) And there he slept, snoring softly, while I lay wide-eyed and rigid, expecting at any moment to be eaten by a bear.

In the morning, the trees were dew-covered and the strange, mossy ornamentation hung down from them in shreds like Mrs. Haversham's lace. It was very still except for the dripping of the last raindrops and the chuckling of the creek. Even the survivalists' generator was quiet. I emerged from the tent — alive and somewhat shamefaced as I set about making the coffee.

In the cool, calm light of day, I considered my hysteria from the night before. I thought about the "Barnes and Noble" wildness that was now such a part of American culture. I thought about the commercialism of the wild, and, more, how so little of it was left. I thought about the California state flag that bore the symbol of a ferocious grizzly, but realized that there was nothing behind the picture except extinction and another Santa Rosa suburb.

As I sipped my coffee, I looked at the bear markings on the hill, and realized the only grizzly I would probably ever see would be on the Discovery Channel, which I would be watching from within an acclimatized house, along a well-lighted street, and with piped in chlorinated water, a steady stream of electricity, and a sewer system that flowed into a mighty shit river along with millions of others just like mine.

In the silence of the dawn, as I added some fresh half and half to my second cup of coffee, I realized that the part of me that spurned civilization, the part that yearned to survive with only a knife and a handful of potato seeds, the part that longed to howl at the moon while racing on padded feet across the lava beds, had probably gone the way of the grizzly: extinct in California, but still alive in Idaho.

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