July 25th: It is six a.m. Tuesday morning, and I am lying in an exquisitely comfortable bed looking out a second-floor cabin window beside a lake in McCall, Idaho. The sun has just come over the mountains and cast a brilliant surge of sunlight across the lake – an electric stroke of glitter suddenly reflecting off the shimmering water in the early morning light. My view is of parallel formations: the blue lake, the thin brown shore across the way, a thick blanket of dark evergreen trees extending along the horizon, another darker green swath further in the distance, and, finally, craggy, white granite mountains miles beyond. The sky itself is light blue, large, and cloudless. I am listening to water slap the shore below the cabin and birds singing in the trees above a small dock extending onto the lake. A large pot of bright yellow tulips, orange-yellow marigolds, and red and blue pansies, centered at the edge of the dock invites anyone, everyone to go for a swim or row the small tethered boat bobbing gently in the clear water.
Yesterday I flew to Boise, Idaho, where one of my most important clients lives with his wife for a two-day visit. I am a fundraiser, and when I travel, it is to ask for money. My hosts know this, and at some point during this trip we will have ‘the conversation’ about their gift giving in the year ahead. There’s a certain dichotomy to this: pride in my coming, angst in the amount I will request. It is like playing with the Devil. Everyone knows my position, and why I have come to see them. Yet people are always surprised when the subject comes up, when ‘the ask’ is made. Why I feel it’s a deceitful business, I don’t know, but no matter how pleasant the trip, I always end up lowering the goodwill of the visit by asking for money and lots of it.
My hosts pick me up at the Boise Airport and are glad to see me. We really are friends after all, especially after all the years I have been visiting them. My hosts are an older couple: he has lived in Boise all of his life, and she is formerly from Texas and shares his life-long interest in botany and horticulture. Through his inherited wealth, they have explored the flora of the world and, as a result, have thousands of pictures of plants from everywhere reflecting their endless travels. In fact, I have come precisely because they are currently between trips.
After treating me to a light lunch and tour of the large and beautiful garden next to their house in Boise, they decide, given the heat of July, that the family cabin in McCall would be the perfect spot for my visit. McCall is approximately two-and-a-half hours away up in the mountains, and I too would love to visit their summer house and explore this aspect of their lives.
It isn’t long before we leave behind the high-desert foothills of Ada County outside of Boise and are climbing in elevation, driving beside the Payette River with its frothy white water churning down the mountainside; up we drive through canyon lands and into the Payette National Forest with thin evergreens of ash and pine. An hour or so later, we pull out of a mountainous passage and into a large valley with hundreds and hundreds of dark brown cattle grazing in the afternoon sun. I am told, these herds will be taken down to a lower elevation before winter, but summer has just arrived and the cattle are fully-engaged, eating the high-meadow grass. It is another hour or so before we cross over a small hill at the far end of the long valley and enter, quite abruptly, the resort town of McCall, located at the near end of Payette Lake. Dinner of buffalo steaks, a bottle of red wine and light champagne at McCall’s Lake Shore Lodge is our only stop before completing our journey at my hosts’ lake-front cabin.
The cabin is small and has been in their family for generations, but it is nicely accommodated. The night goes by with more wine and lots of talk about how things are going but without ‘the ask’ being made and, I know, they are relieved the subject didn’t come up, and, to be truthful, I am too. I get to pretend I am a distant relative or an old friend from their past, and I like ‘the role play’ that this presents. Though, as I go to bed that night, I can feel the pressure push against my temples – or is it too much wine and being up too long to fly out here from the East Coast? I’ve stopped everything to be here – at the office, at home; I’ve incurred the cost of flying across America, and yet, if I don’t do this right, choose the correct moment, for all intents and purposes my visit will be over, my hosts will want me gone, and, even more critically, they won’t pledge the gift that I need from them.
Now, in the early morning light, I don’t know why, but I am wide awake. I actually feel good within the warmth of the white, down-filled quilt in the quiet of the cabin with my hosts still asleep. The cool, fresh air coming from the open window against my face, my arms, provides a refreshing contrast. In fact, the tranquility of this moment is spellbinding: gazing across the lake at the conifer forest on the distant shore, breathing slowly, steady, head on the pillow, hands on the soft quilt, smelling the fresh sheets, the cool mountain air. I realize I am quite satisfied, and I am looking forward to the day ahead. This is, indeed, a good spot for my visit.
July 26th: Payette Lake. I am told the distant shore is a peninsula of forested land jutting out like a long, thin finger from the town of McCall. The peninsula runs the length of the lake, almost separating it in half; it is a state park protecting a long backbone of a coniferous forest that, like a blanket, covers the land right down to the lake. There are no houses along the shore except for a tiny ranger station further down the way toward McCall; the structure’s dark brown wooden walls and green slate roof appears to be in danger of being pushed off the peninsula by the very trees themselves.
I woke up early, once again, and find myself focusing on the conifers across the lake; I am told they are Douglas furs, Ponderosa pine, and several varieties of spruce. From what I can see, they appear to be tall, with straight brown trunks and short, scruffy branches curling upward to the heavens. The trees at this distance remind me of rubber teeth in a woman’s thick hairbrush; there are no gaps in the dark green brush, just the ranger station clutching the shoreline.
The lake, I am told, was created by a glacier and is fed from the North Payette River at the opposite end from McCall. However, the peninsula is the result of an earlier, volcanic geological formation. The glacier could not push the peninsula away and in time simply encompassed it. When the glacier melted, the lake was formed.
Lying in bed, I am sorry we did not go out to the peninsula yesterday. I am heading back to Boise later today and will be on a plane flying home by mid-afternoon. This is my life, quick trips to distant spots and endless turn-a-rounds. My hosts and I have yet to have the conversation we need to have for me to complete my visit, and now there is only half a day remaining. The night before was spent at the cabin enjoying a wonderful dinner of London broil and, once again, drinking too much wine and champagne. Now, in the early morning light, I am sorry I didn’t make ‘the ask’ when we were all feeling so good last night. It will be difficult finding the right moment today before they drop me off at the airport.
Lying in the cool sheets under the warm quilt, I can feel an attraction to the distant shore, a desire to walk amongst the trees and climb the slope, an urge to be on the ridge line, alone, centered on the backbone of the mythical black bear sleeping in the middle of the lake.
Yesterday my hosts were resolved to take advantage of my stay in McCall. After an extensive tour of their summer garden located on the hillside behind the cabin – a garden with beautiful, large polished stones carved from a quarry in China, shipped to McCall, and put into place by a crane from Boise – a garden complete with white granite walkways and large, stone fountains arranged with sweat and love within their forest of pines and furs – a garden showcasing countless colorful beds of mountain flowers lively in the summer breeze, we walk up to a reservoir on the other side of the road behind their property, eating Huckleberries and studying the wild flowers along the way.
It’s a beautiful walk, climbing to a natural reservoir that easily could have been a swampy marsh in a mountain meadow until the winter snows and rain filled the bottom-lands. Years ago the meadow was dammed near the forest slope and a small runoff from the reservoir now forms a rushing stream that feeds my hosts’ garden with fresh water and runs alongside their cabin before emptying into the lake. Later, after walking along the reservoir, we follow an old dirt road down the hillside, stopping frequently, once again, to inspect the flowers along the way.
It’s an easy morning ending back at the cabin with a lunch of meatloaf sandwiches, salad, and beer on the sun-lit patio overlooking the lapping lake and the distant forest across the way.
“You know, you never see anyone over there,” I comment, pointing to the peninsula.
My host looks over, focusing on the distant shore as if for the first time in days. “There was a born-again, Christian colony over there at one time,” he says matter-of-factly, “but the forest service didn’t like them there and didn’t renew their lease. The only thing that remains today is the dock house which is now the ranger station.” He shrugs, “I am not even sure they use it all that often.” My eyes run along the distant shore to the small structure down the way. There no boat docked there from what I can see; it’s just quiet, peaceful, and serene.
I must admit, I love being here. I decide I really should be a distant relative and not the cold, calculating fundraiser flying in for a quick ask. Clearly, I am having problems with my identity. My hosts know me from their past, don’t they? I fit so well. I must be the old friend who has come to visit and has nothing but good feelings for them. To be truthful, that’s true. That true. I do. I find it easy to laugh with them and can engage in wonderful conversations with them about plants and family and friends. They need this. This is what they want from me, and this, in turn, is easily given. My gift.
The afternoon is a different treat altogether. We get into their Subaru and drive away from McCall and further from Boise, the airport, and my life back East. Quickly we leave the lake behind and are following the North Payette River into the interior of the state, heading higher and higher into the mountains. We pass the Upper Payette Lake and spot a few campers in tents fishing in the Payette River. There are no houses here, no roads except the road we are on, so seeing anyone encamped along the river is like passing a rare pilgrim on a religious retreat. They look up when we drive by but don’t wave. These are serious people, I decide, survivalists living off the land with their old trucks and cabs on the back.
We continue to climb and suddenly the slopes change from a rich conifer forest into an open expanse of mountainous terrain with hundreds of dead Lodge Pole Pine trees up and down one slope after another. These bleached, white trees are everywhere, standing with their trunks jutting straight up into the wispy sky, devoid of bark and branches, with nothing but scrub grass growing at their base. The thought occurs to me, staring at the trees extending up the slopes all around us, this must be what Calvary looked like: the Lodge Poles providing endless crosses for thousands of sinners and thieves to be hammered high onto their dead trunks.
My host speaks up. “This is the aftermath of the great fire of 2007,” he says as we continue to climb. “At one time, that summer, it was the largest fire in the history of the United States – thousands and thousands of acres were burned.” We drive on, but the point is duly noted. This is not an ancient moonscape or volcanic badlands, but the stark reality of thousands of acres burned in a wind-driven inferno. There is no life, no birds, no animals, except for a smattering of individual trees here and there, except for a large vulture circling in the sky. This is bleak, sad, and spectacular too. I have never been in the aftermath of a mammoth forest fire. Five years from now – it could be thirty years later – it will look like this still. The fire was too intense; it incinerated everything. “No one tried to stop it,” my host says, “even if they wanted to; there is no one up here and no reason to expend the energy.” We stare out the windows of the Subaru: he and his wife and me. “It will always be like this,” he says finally. “The growing season is too short. There is nothing to be done.” We drive on in silence, and, then, over a ridge and down into healthy trees that survived on the other side.
When you are up this far, most people go to Warren, population of twenty – give or take ‘in sickness and in health.’ We, though, are going to Bergdorf, a small gathering of buildings about ten miles from Warren with a permanent population of four or five. We have driven down a dirt road about five miles off the main highway to this special spot in the middle of nowhere that my hosts thought I would love, and indeed I am very excited to be here. They know me too well. Bergdorf has about ten cabins more-or-less in the vicinity of each other, three or four of which are falling to pieces, literally. My hosts say they can tell the passage of time by how demolished the structures are each time they visit. Given the cabins are totally caved in and appear to be like hot plastic, unglued, and bent completely in on themselves, the years must be accumulating. However, it is hard to say, the winters are tough here and unforgiving. With the extensive amount of snow that falls, the deep cold that settles in and cracks this land, and the interminable length of winter itself, nothing lasts long. Most of the year, I am told, the only way into Bergdorf is by cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, or snow mobiles. When I ask what you would do if your snow mobile ran out of gas by the time you get here, my host laughs and says, “That’s easy, that’s what the cabins are for.” He winks. “Why else would you stay here?”
In fact, from what I can tell, there’s only one reason to be in Bergdorf, unless, of course, you robbed a bank or stole a man’s horse. Bergdorf has a locally-famous hot springs that feeds into an old, cement pool located next to the central, most accessible cabin. We park the Subaru near this structure and go into the cabin; it is a large room with a counter that separates us from the permanent staff. I notice a sign offering coffee and soup from the small gas stove on the far wall. The walls near us are covered in elevation maps, indicating other dirt roads and hiking trails. An older man with wavy white hair, wearing a faded work shirt, looks up from the table behind the counter where he is rolling cigarettes; coarse fingers maneuvering tobacco from a pouch into a small rolling machine. He asks no questions – just stares at us; when we ask if we can bath in the springs, he says it costs five dollars each – in cash – we can leave it on the counter – and gestures to the door that leads out to the pool.
The hot springs, I am told, is 114 degrees, but the pool is cooler, closer to 103 degrees. It looks like it has been here awhile, cement sides, steps at the far end. I peek into the steaming water and wonder what germs might be incubating in there. I guess we’ll find out. We change in a room to the side and slowly work our way down the steps into the water. An older couple sitting at a roughly-made picnic table nearby tells us, as we ease ourselves into the hot water, to watch out for the horse flies as they are biting today. The floor of the pool is crunchy, covered in small pebbles, and I am relieved it is not a slick cement bottom of grimy ooze. I don’t smell sulfur and am surprised; in fact, I don’t see any signs at all about the medicinal value of the springs. I thought all hot springs have medicinal value. I ask my host, who is floating in the pool, water up to his neck. “They don’t claim this spring does anything, except boil you alive if you stay in too long,” he says, then laughs. “These guys up here don’t claim anything. Back in the 1800s someone said there was gold in the surrounding hills, and a bunch of people moved up here, but it’s only this spring that has survived.” He looks around, treading with his hands in the hot water, his face red and perspiration starting to bead on his forehead, “I can remember coming here as a boy back with my dad, and, I swear, nothing has changed, nothing at all, except maybe one or two of the cabins were in better shape.”
I too am treading in the water, keeping my feet off the bottom and my head clear of the water. There is no shade here, just the intense water and the harsh afternoon sun shining down on us in the open pool. The old geezers, watching us from afar, are right; the horse flies are huge and black and are attacking us as we float in the water, aiming, in particular, for me, like black, thimble-size bombers on a kamikaze mission, like they know I am an outsider, not tough and sinewy, like the people from this area. For me, the dip in the hot springs is becoming an endurance test, a baptism by fire, as time and time again, I am forced to dunk my head under the surface of the hot water to avoid the piercing bites of the horse flies. Damn horse flies. Damn this water with no medicinal value what-so-ever.
“Let’s go jump in the lake back in McCall,” my host’s wife says, swatting away flies. “It will be more refreshing than this. Besides, I’m being eaten alive.” We quickly agree and are soon dressed. One quarter of the population of Bergdorf looks up from the table as we walk by, the man’s hands still at work, rolling a large pile of cigarettes; he doesn’t say a word, simply stares at us as we walk through the cabin, nodding our goodbyes, and go out the door. Driving away from Bergdorf along a long mountain meadow heading back to the main road, creating a cloud of dust behind us, my host says, “Sometimes you see elk or moose, but today it’s too hot; they’ll wait until tonight to come down and graze.” He looks over at me in the front passenger seat. “Good reason to camp here.” He smiles sympathetically, “but you’ve got a plane to catch tomorrow.” He’s right, I have a plane in the afternoon, a wife back home, a child in college, and a boss who’s waiting to hear if I made ‘the ask’ and, even more importantly, my host’s response.
I am asleep and am dreaming of dead Lodge Pole Pine everywhere and no matter where I hike, what ridge I cross, the stark, white trunks are endless. I am struggling at this altitude. A stream runs through the devastated area, and it is too hot to cross. When I look down into the steamy water, I can see rocks at the bottom that appear to glitter in gold. If only I can reach in and grab one of the rocks without getting burned. I am afraid and keep going back and forth, giving up, then running back to the stream, or hiking along the bank looking for a shallow spot or a nugget that might be sticking out of the water. But there are never nuggets poking out of the water, I know this in my heart of hearts, and the only way to get the rocks is to burn.
“We’re home,” my host says. I have slept most of the way back to their cabin outside of McCall. I see the lush forest all around us, the lake on the other side of the cabin, and the peninsula in the distance – tranquil, shimmering, inviting. “Get your swim suit,” he says, “it’s time to jump in the lake.” That’s what we do. The water is freezing.