September begins the empty nest season of northern Idaho.
Gone are the Winnebegos and the migrant osprey. The Peach Man has packed up his canvas tents like the circus leaving town. No more plums dark as garnets. No more yellow cherries with pits to spit. No more flat peaches shaped like donuts. If you are unattached to a tourist season, you might have a rare opportunity to visit Paradise. But the sun has to flare the temperatures to make it worth your while to explore the vacated places.
Like a mother calling home lost children, the sun radiates a burst of desperate heat. She’s already casting a lower trajectory with shorter days and nights, but the angle of her persistence fills my office with unexpected warmth. September is for school and firewood collecting and letting the garden go wild. It’s too hot to linger inside, too hot to join the beetles and zucchini outside. A few late osprey and Canadians or Californians might be straggling behind the summer exodus and unsure how to respond to a summer day when the summer is over.
It’s a gift, you see. Take a drive to the Pack River.
Although your GPS-guiding system might tell you otherwise, there are directions to Paradise on the Pack. Go south past Elmira Pond three miles to Samuel’s Corners. Put $20 worth of gas in the tank of your truck – it must be a truck or else everyone will know you’re from California -- pick up a 6-pack Mike’s Hard Lemonade (Black Cherry) and turn right out of the station to follow the winding road through the forest of tamarack and pines.
Your GPS might fail to inform you, but the air will feel cool and your body will start to relax. Follow the narrow paved road three more miles north. Here you’ll cross the Pack River in Edna. Your GPS won’t know it’s Edna, but if you cross the bridge and see ramshackle cabins, you’re there. Drive slowly. You might hear whispers of memory or smell the ghosts of tavern hamburgers past.
Turn off your GPS at this point. You don’t want to miss glimpses of the river and Selkirk mountains. Count out three miles using the odometer (it’s located on your dash board). Or don’t. Distance is relative. You’ll drive until pavement abruptly turns to gravel. You’ve crossed county boundaries, but it doesn’t matter. It’s mostly Forest Service land. Start counting dirt roads that turn toward the river. Never mind discarded paper-plate signs from vacated campers. You want the fourth turnout. You will appreciate your truck when you descend to the river.
As you did with your GPS, turn your motor off. Now, step away from your technology.
Paradise on the Pack is near. It gurgles over metamorphosed rocks, a sound like welcoming laughter when no one is the butt of a joke and all are invited to guffaw. The late summer secret of Paradise on the Pack is the pool glittering gold in the sunlight. The water level is low, yet the grainy-bottom pool is deep enough to swim. The campers and locals who know of this swimming hole are gone. Alone in Paradise on an unexpectedly hot day is a gift.
Strip down to your bare soul and take a dip in Paradise.
Jerome pops the tab off his can of Rainier, slurping foam. “What did I tell you Donnie? Best swimming hole ever? Better than those on the lower Pack, that’s certain.”
“Not bad, kind of cold, pretty.”
“That describes the woman I’m in love with!”
Both men laugh and sit on riverside boulders, water droplets glistening on hard bodies honed in youth on the hardwood basketball courts and maintained as young sawyers tipping trees for the Forest Service.
“You’re a damn fool, Rome.”
Jerome slides the circle of the tab on his pinkie and wiggles his hand at his friend. “Going to marry that wisp of a Civil Service gal.”
“Uh-huh. When? Before or after she drafts you to Korea?”
“She wouldn’t dare. Not with my leg.” A fresh axe wound recently relieved of cat-gut stitches runs like a red line the width of lipstick down the back of Jerome’s leg. He props it on his pile of clothes on a lower rock. The friends finish their six-pack, gather clothes and head for Donnie’s truck. Jerome limps, his tendon will never fully heal.
Viola types silently, listening in on the office banter. She focuses on reports, issuing train and meal vouchers for the latest recruits to be shipped to Spokane. She worries about her sister left alone in their one-room apartment on Alder Street. The girl has one more year of high school. One more year. Then what? Viola tries not to think about the drunken woman who pounded on their door last night, slurring their father’s name. She tries not to think about the derelict who fathered the two of them. Good memories are worse. Loving parents, baking bread, hands dirty from hilling potatoes, cows calling from the pasture. When mother died, father left, too. Never mind, Viola tells herself. Just type... she wills her fingers meant for other things she’ll never get the chance to do.
A commotion at the office door and a handsome rake on crutches hobbles in and passes other desks to stop at Viola’s. She doesn’t stop her typing.
“Draftee Jerome Walsh reporting, General Miss.” He cracks a half smile. Steely gray eyes turn up to his Irish blues. Hers widen in surprise.
“Are those crutches?”
“Why yes, these would be my crutches.”
“Since when did you have crutches?” She glances at the paperwork she’s typed. Then at the clock. This smart-ass is not going to make her late. She promised her sister. And in order to take her to the high school concert in neighboring Priest River, she’d have to steal their father’s car from the Eagle’s Club.
Jerome scratches the back of his head. “Purt-near a month now.”
“But I signed you up last week.”
“At the Pandida Theater. Honey, I was sitting. How would you know I had a bum leg?”
“But you let me take all your information.”
“I wanted to get to know the pretty gal who rounds up young men.” Jerome smiles, full and toothy.
Viola thumbs the papers. His are already typed. She has to get home to her sister. “Walsh? Congratulation, here’s your paperwork to report in Spokane. Train leaves Thursday morning 7 a.m.”
“You can’t seriously draft me. I just want to get to know you.” She grabs her coat and flees.
Along the Pack River an abandoned beer tab once dreamt of being a wedding ring.
A grizzly bear once got a beer tab stuck on his toe. It pissed him off and made him cautious of the two-legged meat snacks that stole his fish from the river. Eventually it healed, his flesh closing up around it. The floppy silver part wore down until not even the keen-eyed raven could spot it.
But the pain of the tab remained deep and stabbed with every step.
Deer often complained that the two-leggeds’ metal containers were dangerous. Why the deer stood in the treeless paths until one of the contraptions struck was beyond him. He could hear the rumbles far away, and feel the packed dirt vibrate as they drew near. The odor of those containers was sharp like a burning forest miles away. He could judge the distance from sound alone, moved by the time vibrations irritated his tabbed toe, and was nowhere near their passing once the fumes hit.
He wondered why deer were inattentive.
Such were his thoughts as he grunted and left piles of his excrement on the contraption paths. The two-leggeds often claimed his territory down by the long pool of water where the trout hid beneath the rock shelf. They deposited their own markings among the trees, sometimes leaving white flags to back up their claims. These he ignored. After they dove for fish, never catching any without the use of their long sticks, they’d consume food from a can and litter those blasted tabs.
Chattering squirrels and the occasional raven picked up the shiny objects. The grizzly understood the attraction – an item glimmering like the belly of a trout must be something important. Not everything that glitters is food. He spoke this truth to others while hiding the wound that gave him such wisdom. Squirrels continued to bite the tabs and ravens often added them to nest collections for purely aesthetic reasons. The deer had no use for the things, and continued to stand contraption-struck in the paths.
Like a quiet rebel, wounded by an enemy little understood by his peers, the grizzly marked another path.