Monday, August 20, 2012

Channeling Frank Church Into The Soul Of Idaho

On the second leg of my just-completed 6,100-mile cross country trip which began at my home in Durham, NC, I headed up into the soul of my native state of Idaho with my daughter and two grandsons for an annual rendezvous with other family members at a lake along the western edge of the Northern Idaho Panhandle.

I was born and spent my early years on a ranch in the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho, but I now understand why people claim that the soul of that state is an overlook just past the nearly 9,000 foot Galena Pass on the Sawtooth Scenic Byway, half way between the “restortiness” of Sun Valley and the unpretentiousness of Stanley, Idaho.

The overlook, renamed a few years ago in honor of the late US Senator Frank Church and his wife Bethine, whose ancestral ranch is in that area, is perched 2,000 feet above a narrow 30-mile valley floor of ranchland that straddles the headwaters of the Salmon River as it carves its way to Stanley between the 10,000-foot Sawtooth Mountain Range and the White Cloud Peaks.

(My thanks to Dr. Joe Smyth at the University of Colorado Mineral Structures Lab for permission to use an image in this blog that he took from the overlook.)

As we stopped for the night in Stanley, population 62, the town was abuzz with crews including helicopters fighting the Halstead forest fire that had been sparked a week earlier by a lightning strike over a ridge 18 miles to the north and fueled by beetle-killed trees has now burned more than 92,000 acres of national forest.

In the mid-1970s, Tom Lucas, a long-time friend from law school days, and I had skied Sun Valley and on another occasion white-water rafted one of the forks of the Salmon River,  but because of my daughter’s suggestion this was my first time to travel this incredible stretch during daylight.

As darkness fell after a long day of skiing Sun Valley, Tom and I would head up over that same pass with another friend from school, Dick Mayberry, in my orange 1970 VW Beetle, eventually cutting across to I 15 in a mad dash back to Spokane and classes the next day.  The windshield defroster wouldn’t keep pace so Tom stayed busy keeping the view clear.

My journey earlier this month with my two grandsons, their dog (my dog, Mugsy, stayed at Camp Bow Wow in Salt Lake City) and my daughter, continued down the deep river gorge through Challis, where friends of my family had owned a dude ranch as I was growing up, to Salmon ID.

Until recently, when it dropped down a classification, Challis was a long-time sports rival to my native North Fremont County, just across the Lemhi Range and the Snake River Plain in the shadow of Yellowstone Park and the Grand Tetons.

Then where the Salmon River takes a hard left across Idaho at North Fork to empty into the Snake, we headed up, right under the nose of the face Montana carves into Idaho, over the Rocky Mountain range at a point called the Continental Divide where the rivers flow either west from Idaho into the Pacific Ocean or east from Montana into the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and into the Atlantic.

We dropped from the Continental Divide down into the spectacular Bitterroot Valley ranchland, where my parents seriously explored the possibility of buying another ranch in the late 1950s which was located between Darby and Hamilton, to Missoula of Smokejumper fame.

We then sliced west back through the gap between two national forests and over the Ponderosa-carpeted Bitterroot and Coeur d'Alene mountains of the Idaho Panhandle to our ultimate destination where we met up with family on the shores of Newman Lake.

I was growing up in an Idaho that elected Frank Church to the US Senate when I was the age of my oldest grandson now.  I realize now that Church was the only Democrat from Idaho ever re-elected to the Senate and he served until I was in my early 30s, the same age he was when first elected.

For me, Frank Church instilled pride in Idaho as he fought for civil rights and environmental protection and spearheaded the creation of wilderness areas.  He stood up to intelligence agencies and against the Vietnam War.  He was emblematic of a moderate Idaho that had elected the nation’s first or second Jewish governor and was on the forefront of the progressive movement.

It was also during his service in the Senate that right-wing extremism took hold in Northern Idaho in the late 1970s and began to frame as socialists anyone moderate or center-left, such as Church, a movement that seems to have consumed the Republican Party though it has been frequently rebranded under labels such as the religious right and now the tea party.

My arch-conservative Dad, also an Idaho native, had a point when he often repeated the joke that God had taken Florida in one hand and California in the other and shaken all of the nuts and berries into Idaho.

But seeing the great things that state had given the nation, I have faith that it will soon be part of a movement that will swing the pendulum back to the center and the middle-class values that have truly made this country great.  They may even give us another Frank Church.

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