Joy Passanante studied writing at Sarah Lawrence College, Washington University, and Cornell University and now teaches literature and writing at the University of Idaho. Her poems, essays, and stories have appeared in numerous small magazines such as Short Story, College English, Xavier Review, and Weber Studies. A collection of her poems, Sinning in Italy, was published by Limberlost Press in October 1999. Read other work by Joy Passanante published in Weber Studies: Vol. 12.1.
Okay, I'll lay this right smack on the desktop and confess: my first river-loyalty is embedded in the Midwest—the Muddy Mississippi, Old Man River, Big River, its legends as long as its string of sobriquets. Born only 12 miles from its dramatic banks down a steep cobblestone drop from Broadway, I spent 20 years of my life absorbing its lore—fishing with my father, watching him gut the catfish that my mother would reluctantly fry, belting out odes to the Old Man at my suburban elementary school and Camp Zoe in the Ozarks. And learning respect, in school and out, for this Mighty force, the longest river in the US—2348 miles—one that delineates the boundaries of 10 states. I know, I know, heresy for an Idahoan, even an adopted one.
Certainly one of the highlights of my tenderer years was the excursion on the riverboat The Admiral, which my mother arranged for my little sister Judy and me. We garnered oohs and ahhs in matching midnight blue velvet skirts and silk blouses with Peter Pan collars, Judy round-faced and dimpled, her dark hair in two thick pony tails arching out from the temples—quintessential 50s. As the white ship churned and hooted its way up and down the mocha-hued waters, we sipped cherry cokes while from the bandstand on the top deck our mother pointed out all the hallmarks of the earliest history of the Euro-American West: on the Missouri side, the spires of the first cathedral inside the Gateway to the West (Arch-less in those days), and nearby the dome of the Old Courthouse where the Dred Scott decision hurled the country closer to civil war; and Schwarz Studio, the first taxidermy establishment west of the Mississippi. On the Illinois side, the Peabody Coal plant shot out a column of orange sparks; and in between, Eads Bridge connected east and west, across which my father as an eleven-year-old toted satchels of bootlegged whiskey from Illinois for one of his father's sub rosa business ventures.
When the July sun reddened our cheeks, we followed the music of a juke box to a lower deck, and to the tunes of Perry Como and Doris Day danced the rest of the afternoon away, swirling each other wildly, our skirts spinning around our lace-edged cotton panties, our shiny black patent cut-out Mary Janes scuffing the linoleum until we fell down dizzy and giggling (something we're still known to do).
In the unwieldy days of junior high, I survived my First Date in the same place, with Todd Green, a boy who had lived in my parents' subdivision since we moved from St. Louis City to County and who in grade school used to race toward me from the line of boys on their side of the gymnasium wall to choose me as his square dance partner. His parents drove us all the way downtown in their Buick Riviera and then diplomatically disappeared to leave us alone—feeling vulnerable and, oddly, trapped in the current bound for New Orleans. While my adolescent date and I fox-trotted and cha-cha'd on what was now a parquet dance floor lit with soft-colored lights, the dancing this time stiff and predictable, and I flailed around like a caught catfish for words that might make him feel good about himself and me, I wistfully conjured up the pleasure of my look-alike sister's giggle and grasp in the same place already a decade before. When the band took a break we squeezed into a photo booth in the arcade and bought four flashes for 25 cents. I still have the snapshots, in a column shaped like a bookmark, each pose one inch by one inch, recording the straps of the polished cotton and organza dress I had worn to a Bar Mitzvah the Saturday before, my tight pin curls and his bow tie, our uncertain smiles.
It is a short lifetime later. Words like "draw," "switchback" and "elk rack," and "eddy," "whitewater" "rapids," and "shoal" have drifted into my personal lexicon. Although this vocabulary represents a different discourse, rivers for me remain rites of passage, occasions for ceremony. For my fortieth birthday my closest friend of three decades and I rafted the Lower Salmon. My husband and I roasted hot dogs for daughter Liza's first boy-girl party on the dunes of the Snake; toasted daughter Emily's 13th birthday on the white beaches of the Lower Salmon; Thanksgivinged on the Lochsa; anniversaried on the Yellowstone; introduced Chinese students to the U.S. riverworld on the Clearwater. When east coast family and friends visit, we head immediately for the Selway or the St. Joe to show off Idaho's star exhibits down to its glittering chips of mica. Moving water is still in my blood—and the sense of occasion that moves along with it.
Among these rivers, the Little Salmon, flowing a mere 40 or so miles in the heart of Idaho along the state's major north-south road, has seldom appeared on the list. But I nurture a particular fondness for the Little Salmon and the unlikely, sometimes scruffy bounty of its banks, so different from the monuments up the levees of the Mississippi. The Little Salmon really is that: little. Me, too. Tip-toeing to just 5 feet, I've always been drawn to the small—doll house furnishings, tiny paper fans, miniature dachshunds, the diminutive cupped petals of lily-of-the-valley. And the Little Salmon, its short stretch from New Meadows to Riggins, is not only small, but as generous with variety as one of those surprise balls, its idiosyncratic little gems wrapped mummy-like in layers of crepe paper.
Unlike the Mississippi, which reaches St. Louis from northwestern Minnesota near the Canadian border and empties into the Gulf of Mexico, the Little Salmon courses north. On a breezy June day, armed with curiosity and a cooler, I gas up the Camry and drive south from my home in Moscow until I get to New Meadows, then backtrack to trace this river from as close to its genesis as I can get in a car.
The headwaters of the Little Salmon, somewhere along Blue Bunch Ridge, drain down the West Mountains above New Meadows. The still-teeny river skirts the town to the west, but there's a barn with a broken roof that, for me, marks the actual spot, which is too distant to see from the highway. Already before it winds into New Meadows, it has taken on two or three creeks, reinventing itself several times over. (On my way north I count close to twenty of them; within the first few miles Threemile Creek, Fourmile Creek, Martin Creek, Sixmile Creek all trickle off the Salmon River Mountains from the east.) The joined waters curlicue, continuing to receive streams, and meander around an expanse of meadow. Vistas are broad. Cattle graze bucolically. (To celebrate these moments, I plug Beethoven's Sixth Symphony—"The Pastoral"—into the tape deck.) We cross the 45th Parallel, the little river and I—another Significant Event. It marks the place halfway between the equator and the North Pole, and there's a momentary sense of suspension, of perfect balance, and all this somehow recalls the Mississippi, separating east from west in the America of earlier frontiers, and my earlier rites of passage, in St. Louis, where Lewis and Clark launched their voyage to…hm, around here, actually.
As I contemplate these connections, the river runs by a trendy settlement of varnished log homes, a hallmark of the chic New West, where it obligingly waters the green of a meticulously groomed golf course. But suddenly at the far end of the meadow, the cattle vanish, a new stream spills down from the west, the tamaracks close in, and I draw in breath as I would at the skyward arc of the Ferris wheel as the road begins to descend and the gathering of waters abandons its placid flatland loops to rip straight into a canyon of white rock. In this stretch Highway 95 crosses and recrosses the stream. The water swells at Hazard Creek, where, abruptly, whitecaps bubble over blanched boulders—and presto!—a bona fide river.
The human landscape changes, too. Isolated ramshackle houses stranded on piles of mud-caked rock from the river's rampage of February 1997 create their own islands. The river whooshes by abandoned motels on the left, Fall Creek Cafe ("closed on Monday," the sign says, but I've never seen it open on any day of the week), rusted trucks, junked washers and dryers and refrigerators in front of Dave's Repair close to Pinehurst, clusters of house trailers with tin roofs, chicken coops and satellite dishes dwarfing the buildings. (If I had a Loretta Lynn tape, I'd replace the Beethoven.) The canyon widens and starts to look more like ranch lands—dried grasses and boulders, dotted with tenacious succulents. The river takes on the sage tones of the hills; smooth river rocks, striped and flecked, shimmer with mica.
The bear-paw hills signal my approach to Riggins, bringing oddly lush roses, peach trees. Rapid River runs into the Little Salmon about four miles above its mouth. On the left bank's an auto graveyard, stacks of crushed cars. Cottonwoods puff up fluff. I whiz by the turn-off to the Seven Devils, Hells Canyon Ranger Station, and the last creek: Squaw. The river and I enter Riggins (pop. 555, if you include Lucile—together they constitute the metropolis of the Little Salmon), the self-proclaimed "Whitewater Capital of the World." The confluence of Salmons at the site of the old mill in Riggins is masked by such establishments as Cattleman's Cafe and the Salmon River Inn, whose menu items feature sandwiches named after the rapids on the River of No Return and "Hard Ice Cream." (I smile at this remnant of the Macho-West.) I like to think of this place, my favorite of Idaho communities, as a rough-and-tumble cowboy town with a proto-chi-chi tourist mentality. So far, it's still what I think of as "the real Idaho." (When a couple of years ago I noticed the advent of an advertisement for "espresso" at the Stinker station, I groaned.)
Lots of surprises for such a little guy of a river, quirky and eclectic. But it remains a river that doesn't take over the conversation, or focus the vision over much, a backdrop river. In spite of its fitful ripping through the canyon, it isn't at heart theatrical. Not overdramatic so as to upstage my inner vision. In short, it provides a good place to write.
In the West, where the land itself is history enough, and the impulse to prove our rugged inner selves against the spectacle of the scenery is more historical fact than cliché, we have to think hard to come up with fresh myths for ourselves. For me, this is the spot, less than a mile from this confluence of Salmons, where Mountain flows into Pacific Time, where I choose to hide out, retrench. Here I can wade in my private myths, dip into metaphor, sweep down the current of the subconscious. Okay, so I get carried away, but it works.
I coast down the slope into the Lodge B and B, to the cabin I rent by the week. Just two months earlier, a colleague of mine found himself a few miles from here slugging it out with some river-drifters and was sent back up north with a concussion and fractured jaw. Knowing this, I come anyway, and alone. When I re-enter the world of the Little Salmon, it is to be in some ways vulnerable, in the way of all writers, to let whatever muses we can muster pitch their tents and do their stuff.
The cabin is wedged between the highway and the river ten feet from its edge. It's a single room crammed with beds and throw pillows, but there's enough space for me to pace and jive around to my taped music. One wall is completely covered by a paper mural of the Alps. (Ironically, if a window were cut through the same wall—and I had a telescope that penetrated the Riggins hills—I'd be able to see the Seven Devils themselves, looking every bit as momentous and striking.)
The first thing I always do is rearrange the furniture. I move the table that will become my desk in front of one of two long windows that afford river views, open it wide to let in the generous sound of the water, stretch my cord to the max to set up the computer as close to the window as possible. One (blessedly narrow) window faces Highway 95; I shut its blinds tight.
The river's rush blocks out the world of Riggins and its gas stations and bars and realtors and outfitter and rafting companies—and 150 miles away, the world of university students and concerts and libraries and e-mail; and more than two decades away, the land of electric garage doors and Cuisinarts that I left back in the Midwest burbs. In this faux-paneled cubicle of my own, I don't so much write as collect details—scraps to use later. Eventually. Any day now. But now, here, there's time for laziness. The idiosyncracies of the river and its banks give me a hodge-podge of goods I can later arrange—hand-jigsawed bits I can take away and—soon, I swear it—smooth out the splinters.
From the chair repositioned to face the window, I watch. A magpie, its wings glossed blue and black, toddles along the cut lawn between me and the river. Redwing blackbirds hover around the tops of poplars. On the hillside across the water, a raccoon lumbers through the brush and yellow blooms (wild daisies? buttercups?). Cottonwood puffs waft by like desultory snowflakes. The view and sound hypnotize me, so that I have to keep myself from becoming agoraphobic, not even wanting to venture out for the blackberry cobbler at This Old House Restaurant, a short walk through locusts and fruit trees at the RV park.
Into the afternoon I watch helicopters make mysterious drops on the cliff across the river; their noise is disconcerting, out of tune with the roar behind me, but intriguing. I imagine guns for militia-types, hospital supplies for survivalists. Riggins is a good place to hide, but I am determined to feel everything except fear. After all, I am in a contained place within a contained part of the larger Salmon River system.
That night, the mesmerizing river-voice keeps me asleep, one of its more pragmatic charms against my congenital insomnia. But I leave the curtains open, so that if I do wake I will see the moon-tinted crests undulating.
On the third night of my sojourn, I wake with a start to an unnatural noise—the screeching of heavy machinery, squeaks, and gruff voices—a light out the highway window not there before. I wonder if I bothered to lock the door, and don't want to walk to find out until I throw on a shirt, which is on the other side of the cabin. But my curiosity wins out, and I inch open the blind, letting in a stripe of the sickly yellow light from the highway. A few feet from my window there's a United Van Lines truck the length of an Olympic field spanning the distance from my cabin to the main house and wedged between the road and my door. The driver seems to be having trouble avoiding the phone wires so he can park. He doesn't give my window a glance, and eventually his awkward mechanical antics bore me back to sleep.
But when the sun's out, so am I; I slip the disk into the laptop, take it outside, and set up. I spread a beach towel at the water's edge, where chicken wire holds back small boulders under a concrete wall my landlords have fashioned to keep the Little Salmon's power at bay. Don headphones and plunk in a Linda Ronstadt tape. Sit down to write. Time and water pass by swiftly, and looking at the nonsensical letters on the computer screen I'm just about to wonder if I have something in common with Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining, when I sense someone's presence behind me.
I pretend not to notice for a while, but then a giant shadow on my towel makes me remove my headphones. I look up—WAY up—into the sun at the flash of a silver tooth high above my head. It glints—it actually does—and I feel I'm caught on the set of a movie gone amuck—Clint Eastwood meets Bladerunner.
"I'm sorry if I'm interrupting you," the mouth around the tooth begins; the metal gleams front and center. He's sorry? Not many times have I heard these words from a man, especially a stranger, not to mention one with a tattoo of a spread-winged, mean-eyed eagle taking up the better part of one prodigious bicep; a rattlesnake flexed to strike on the other. I put down the laptop. If he had begun "What's a good lookin' lady like you doing with a computer next to a river?" I'd not have repressed my sigh. But something in his voice, even raised artificially over the churning of the water, begs my attention. Gets it.
My gaze swoops down, past the tattoos and glinting tooth, at a small, portly, white critter at the end of a leash next to him, poking around his ankles.
"Got these in Nam." (I realize he's talking about his tattoos, not the animal or the ankles.) "Got my wife there, too. She's in the house." He nods in the direction of my hosts next door.
I change the subject, finding it safer to talk to the animal. "Hello there, fella'," I say, stretching out my hand toward the tethered companion, who waddles away. Must be one of those house-pigs, I decide. The dog clearly resembles a piglet with an old hog's gait.
"It's a girl. She's a Chihuahua."
Surprise. I arch my brows and notice not only pointy ears but a diamond-studded collar. (Okay, so maybe it's rhinestone.) He continues, "Poor old girl just gained a little too much weight while I make my long hauls and don't have time to stop."
"What's her name?"
"Misty," he says.
I am expecting something a tad more, uh, manly from a trucker with rattlesnake tattoos—Spurs? Buck? even Ralph.
"And my sister's dog—" he nods towards my benefactors' place— "is named Missy—and the people in the A-frame up river just a bit, they have a dog named Mystery. And I kid you not." I smile at his neighborly attitude, the out-of-kilter rhetoric. I exit the file, close up the laptop.
"Like I say, sorry to interrupt, but I hope I didn't bother you any last night. I just couldn't get the truck in without taking the phone wires with it. Came to be with my little sister." I recall hearing that June, who rents me the cabin, has just had a death in the family.
"I'm sorry," I say. He can only nod, moist-eyed; I can tell I've opened the floodgates.
"Don't mean to disturb you or anything, but I have to walk Misty every hour or so." He stoops down, and I snap the laptop out of the way. "She's pushing old age. Has problems getting around," He leans slightly closer, adds sotto voce, "with her hips," and I suspect a subtext.
But I nod sympathetically, try not to smile. I'm beginning to like the guy. Vintage vulnerable. The type seems to find me even at the edges of rivers. I reach again toward the pooch, who snarls. I back off, respect a rival's jealousy when I see it.
He looks down at my oblong of towel as if he'd like to figure out a way to fit on it with me. I try not to think his thoughts.
Fortuitous, too, since he leads me over the next bend of familiarity as smooth as glass.
"Actually, she has anal problems, but I'm trying to help her by walking her. The vet told me I could give her some medicine to help her…. He seems to wait for my reaction; I guess he never had kids. "But I know if I stick my finger in her anus, I'll blow lunch. But I hate to see her in pain. Tears me up."
Who IS this guy?
He invites me on a tour of his truck. I accept, curious, and yet there's an undercurrent of danger, the hint that he could, if we were in a slightly different story, shove me into the cavern behind the driver's seat, let loose the brake, and jam down on the accelerator. He has to boost me up, a gesture strangely intimate. Inside it's spacious, and carpeted, and he points out all its attributes with pride—the coffee maker, a bed tightly tucked, a computer with a dot matrix printer.
"I'm gonna tell you something I haven't told many people." I brace myself: from a man who is so open about his dog's nether anatomy, anything could come rolling out. I repress images of a story about slaughtering Vietnamese villagers with a machete. "I write poetry," he says sheepishly.
"Wow," I say, genuinely surprised. And relieved.
"I'm not very good, of course, but—"
"It's not always about being good," I offer, and think of filing that advice away for my dry days.
He smiles gratefully. "You're nice, you know."
I climb down from the cab without his help. He follows. We both stare at the river, but I get the idea he isn't listening to it the way I am.
He says proudly, "I moved a professor once. From Seattle to New Orleans. We got to know each other real well. A little unusual, but the nicest guy you can ever imagine." I am running out of responses. "And he gave me his e-mail address," he adds and waits for me to respond.
I sense a request in the air—perhaps more than one—and let it hover there.
That night I wait in the lingering edge-of-the-time-zone light until all the bulbs blink out in the house next door. I wrap a towel around me and walk over June and Harvey's deck to the hot tub, which they've graciously invited me to use. I slide its lid toward the perimeter, hoping I can lift it entirely off and on by myself, watch the steam and climb in. I don't turn on the jets; that way I'm immersed in water absolutely still so that I can hear and feel the river instead—more potent by contrast. The moon makes me see in outlines, strips down the complexity. In its glow it haloes a fringe of mountain mahogany that crowns the hill across the river. And then I see him, holding the dog and her leash, murmuring to her in a tongue akin to love, but I know he is looking for me. I wait him out, leave long after the moon has taken its silhouettes and left only a smudgy blue.
In the morning, I stay in bed, thinking. When I hear the door of the truck open, I peek out the blinds facing the highway. Before he hoists himself into his seat, he lifts the ailing old dog tenderly into the cab, cradling it as if it's a year-old infant, and gets ready to release those massive squeaking brakes to back up the truck and aim it in the direction of Ohio. He glances toward my cabin, holds the gaze and waits for a minute or so, but though it's sunny I stay inside. I'm glad he's left unceremoniously, hasn't blared the horn.
When I walk outside to set up my neat, towel-sized camp again, as close to the river and its concrete-and-rock retaining wall as possible, I find a piece of paper tacked to the door with a small nail. It's a poem, about cowboys, 14 lines, a sonnet; and I sense the onset of a wild, rootless guilt, for a second wish the river were roaring into my psyche to drown it out. But it's not that sort of river.
For me rivers are the pulse-pumping backdrop of cameo moments of significance; what I do with them later is up for grabs in the way that what the water does to its beds and rocks, pools and drops, all its inhabitants—and the houses and squatters, neighbors, users, and guests along its banks—is also uncertain. In spite of Old Man River's perennial presence in lore and literature, his role in the economy and definition of the West, I will instead think of him as a refined old gentleman who assisted me in fixing moments of particular pleasure and awkwardness—kind of like the man with the silver tooth who escorted me into and out of his truck. And the self-contained and odd Little Salmon is a good traveling companion. It may not be a poster-river, but it's approachable. Whimsical with a hefty undercurrent of canniness. Giddy at times, though not coquettish. Fretful but not unreasonable.
Despite my insistence on superimposing on wild water myths and metaphors, conscience and cognition, philosophy and fantasy (and I know that, in this, I'm not alone), like all the rivers that call me and stay with me, the Little Salmon—well, it jes' keep rollin' along.