Desiccated chicken legs under the chairs. Piles of twisted accordion-shaped pop cans. Coffee can of shotgun shells. Stray Cheerios float atop milk drops on a vinyl tabletop. Cat scratch couch arm with exploded stuffing. Television on, volume off, Spokane station, a blur of staticky snow. Two teenage boys devour a sack of Cheetos, their fingers stained a color not found in nature. Early 1980s in rural northern Idaho.
Lou Fielder has taken me under his wing. I’m sitting in his living room where everyone smokes and no one aspires to be lean. My temporary home is down the gravel road in a drafty rental with a faulty chimney that will eventually catch fire when I’m on the other side of the valley, steam cleaning machinery for a local farmer. His wife will open the back door and calmly call out, Your house is on fire. The only words she will ever speak to me. A week later Idaho will experience its biggest earthquake ever, a 6.9 ground shudder. Downstate, new valleys will cleave and open in a geological instant. But by then everything I owned was in the farmer’s unheated, mouse-infested trailer, and I was trying to work off my debt to him before the first snow.
But that’s weeks away. On this bright autumn afternoon Lou fills a dented Stanley thermos with boiling coffee and we load up into his green, four-wheel drive Dodge Power Wagon, circa 1970 something, with a winch on the front of a deer-repelling bumper. I do not believe it has ever been washed. Forget seatbelts. They are seen as a government plot. We set off to do what we do every day: drive back roads, drink coffee, spot moose, and cut wood. Under Lou’s tutelage, I learn that the best wood is Red Fir and tamarack. Burns slowly and evenly. Leave the aspen. Burns like paper.
I’m in my late twenties, broke, in limbo, waiting for my life to kick start. I’ve got nothing going for me. A year earlier, after hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” album, I dropped out of college in search of blue collar credibility. Besides, I thought writing in my journal qualified me as a talented artist. Someone with special insights. I spent many hours in coffee shops. I read too much Hesse and Castaneda. I consciously inserted the word muse into conversations, opting for the upper case version, such as “The Muse is especially strong tonight.” I tell people I’m between jobs, but that’s a lie. I’m between lives.
I drifted to Idaho because someone once told me that that Idaho is what America was. I also liked the way Idaho looked on a map. There were all these blank places without roads.
Except for a month on a Ford assembly line in Detroit that Lou doesn’t like to discuss, he has lived in northern Idaho all his life. He survives on poaching, huckleberry picking, dumpster diving, and shadowy jobs that involve midnight drives down to Boise. His quarter section of land belonged to his great grandfather who died of the 1918 Influenza. His headstone is visible out Lou’s kitchen window. All of Lou’s deceased relatives are buried behind the house. In Idaho you can do things like that—bury your kin in your backyard.
We’re an odd couple but somehow it works. Best thing is that when Lou talks I don’t have to say anything. He doesn’t ask me if I have a plan for the foreseeable future, and I don’t ask him about the out of season elk steaks in his freezer. Besides, he tells the best stories. Some of them are made up but I don’t care. Too much is made about whether something is fact or fiction, truth or tale. A good story doesn’t have to be true. It just has to be told right.
“You know how I lost this?” Lou asks, holding up his right hand with the index finger missing, as we head out on Spring Valley Road. “Was fishing on the Snake for steelhead but hooked onto one of them slimy sturgeon that sit on the bottom in the river silt. Must of been seven feet long and a hundred years old. Pulled him up on the beach, tried to take the hook out, and the goddamned pot licker chomped my pointer off. Clear through the bone. Bite was so clean it hardly bled. Then he flopped back in the water. But, before he took off, he turned around and, I kid you not, he winked at me.” He uses the phrase goddamned pot licker often and it refers to any creature that might bite your finger off.
“Now pour me some of that mud.” I open the thermos. The Folger’s instant is still bubbling. We are bouncing around on Idaho’s infamous washboard roads, so I try not to spill the coffee on my crotch.
Northern Idaho is Appalachia West but more isolated. Shocking poverty contrasted by the most lovely forests and hills. Canyons that only see two hours of natural light a day. The most endangered wildlife hunted relentlessly. Muddy pickups in various states of broken scattered across front yards: valet parking for the poor. Everyone is armed—locked and loaded and twitchy fingered. Snarling wolf-hybrid dogs covered with fat ticks loll in the yards like lions waiting for their chance to pounce. Children with bad teeth stare slowly at cars passing through town. The worst kids throw rocks but only at vehicles with out-of-town license plates. A favorite bumper sticker: “Welcome to Idaho. Now go home!” Perilous two-lane highways barely wide enough to contain logging trucks that carry out the last of the old growth without ceremony. The weather is always cloudy with a chance of fire.
Lou says we need to pay a visit to Virgil Small, the horse logger. Last month someone poisoned his team of Belgians. Splashed acid in their eyes. For vengeance. Probably his neighbor, Lou says. That’s one story. Another story making the rounds is that the horses have gone blind because of bad nutrition. Some essential mineral lacking in their diet, like potassium or selenium. Lou isn’t sure which story is true and like me he doesn’t really care.
“Hey,” Lou says, as we pass a wood chip truck, its cargo flying out the back like wooden snowflakes and forcing Lou to turn on the wipers. “What’s Idaho foreplay?” He won’t answer until I repeat his question. It’s extremely irritating.
“OK. I give up, Lou. What’s Idaho foreplay?”
Virgil is seventy, short and squinty with thick, black nerd glasses. On his head sits a steel helmet of the kind loggers wear. As if it could protect you from a falling ponderosa pine. As if you’d want to survive a head shot from a widow maker. He wears bibbed overalls over a dirty long-sleeved shirt. Thermal undershirt underneath. Snub-nosed pencil and a small notebook stick out of the front pocket. Muddy boots. I shake sandpaper hands. Mine are as soft as velour. He talks to me as if I am some kind of official investigator of animal abuse not an itinerant laborer wannabe artist without two nickels to rub together.
I spot the pair of blonde Belgians. They float through the trees like ghosts, magnificent in their freakish size. Virgil passes his palm quickly over the two horses’ eyes to prove they can’t see. “Look, they don’t even blink.” Virgil moves confidently between the team, swatting away knuckle-sized horse flies, patting their hams, stroking their noses. “Just look there, Steve. That’s all horse there, yes sir. That’s all horse.”
He rattles off the names of past logging camps: Enterprise. Sandpoint. Priest Lake. Kalispell. All tourist towns now. Places of soft hands filled with people like me—without a clue. Virgil says despite the blindness he’ll still take his horses into the woods this winter. Says his team can work by instinct.
Virgil’s wife Evelyn sells Fuller brushes. Talks about God and leaves pastel-colored religious tracts in post offices throughout northern Idaho. She’s thin as a whisper in men’s dungarees, a red-plaid wool shirt, worn boots. Despite the work clothes she appears feminine, bird-like, someone who notices everything.
Virgil and Evelyn’s trailer leans off kilter in a patch of sickly pines. No electricity or water. They pay a deacon at church fifty bucks a month to park their trailer on his land.
“My neighbor over there. I’m sure it’s him that done it.” Virgil points and I look up a scabby hill toward another trailer, this one surrounded by a barbed wire fence and a locked gate with a no trespassing sign posted. Four-wheel truck with a gun rack sits in front. A half dozen chained mongrels scratch in the dirt, itching for a fight.
“Horses got loose one night during a storm. Made a mess of his garden. Well, he come down here with his shorts all in a bunch and says ‘Get your god damned horses off my land. If I wanted neighbors I would of lived in town!’ Two days later my horses were blind. I know he done it. I just know it.”
Virgil won’t report the incident to the sheriff because like most Idahoans he doesn’t trust any branch of law enforcement, Feds most of all. “Evie says ‘God will take care of him.’” In due time, he adds.
Dusk arrives. Evelyn lights a Coleman lantern, takes up knitting needles, and hums “The Old Rugged Cross.” We sit propped up in lopsided lawn chairs huddled against the crisp air around a table made from one of those huge round wooden disks the power company wraps cable around.
The coffee catches up with me and I need to use the bathroom. Virgil leads the way into the dark trailer where he hands me a Planter’s peanut can and points toward the back where there once was a functional toilet, now covered with boxes of Fuller products. He waits outside the thin sliding door muttering. Because of his presence and the clumsiness of holding the can, it takes me forever to get my stream started. When I finally emerge I hand him the container of warm piss and he disappears outside.
I look around the trailer and realize that except for the horses, Virgil and Evelyn have nothing of material substance. In that way we are alike, but they seem happier. More settled with their situation, as desperate as it seems. Stacks of yellowed newspapers. Curry combs. Dirty dishes. Burnt orange afghan throws. Flaky linoleum. A hole in the wall. Useless lighting and plumbing fixtures. Water jugs. Mouse traps. Dusty curtains with scenes of cowboys roping steers. Copies of Scenic Idaho, circa 1950s, thirty-five cents. “Exploring Idaho’s Mystery Land, The Big Horn Crags.” “Colter’s Hell: A Historical Story.” “Complexities of Law Enforcement at Ft. Hall.” At the end of the hallway a bed made up neatly with flowered pillows and a log cabin quilt. Above the bed a wooden cross.
Back outside Lou is retelling his missing finger story to Evelyn, who is now humming “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” almost in synch with the clicking of her knitting needles. The culprit is now a pet badger that turned rogue on Lou. This time the badger smiles with the finger dangling from the side of his mouth “like a cigarette, ‘cept it was my pointer pointin’ at me! Never saw the goddamned pot licker again. And I raised him from a baby.” The word goddamned elicits a look of reproach from Evelyn, but I’m not sure Lou notices.
I hear the Belgians shuffling in their enclosure. Virgil starts talking about the past, how he’s been chasing the old growth across the Northwest for fifty years. How at first it seemed endless, a dark green sea grove from horizon to horizon, impenetrable rain forests of bough and rafter. Wet trees of two hundred rings. Trees where a dozen men holding hands could not complete a circle around the base. Logging trucks with one tree per load. Trees with the truest grain. Douglas-fir. Port Orford cedar. Humboldt redwood.
The same land now a replanted monoculture of fast growing hemlock factory trees that are harvested in only twenty years. Harder for the little guys to find work, the gypsy loggers, the gippos. Mills closing up and down the Pacific Coast.
“If you don’t believe me, go down to the docks over there in Astorai and watch our raw logs head to China and Japan, and then come back a month later and watch the same boats come back and unload finished boards. Makes no earthly sense.” When she hears the word earthly Evelyn closes her eyes and smiles. She doesn’t believe in the concept of earthly.
Most folks up here blame the enviros—the Earth First hippies and the tree spikers—but Virgil says it was human greed that led to this. Shakes his head and says, “I never thought we’d run out of trees. No sir. Never thought…” Evelyn stops her humming and knitting, looks over at Virgil and reminds him that “God will provide. He always has and He always will. We’ll get through.”
Virgil keeps talking. Darkness finally hides his face until all you see is his metal helmet bobbing like a Jew in prayer.
A yard light goes on in front of the neighbor’s trailer spotlighting our circle. I see a barrel of a man stagger out the doorway carrying a bag of dog food. Like many men in northern Idaho he wears a holster and a sidearm. Assume it’s loaded, safety off. When they see him, the dogs bark and howl like a pack of wolves, and jump on him as if he is prey. He swears, kicks them off roughly, and pours kibble into two dingy plastic buckets. They devour the grub and then begin to growl and fight over the buckets. The neighbor ignores them, looks over at our small circle, takes out his gun, points it in our direction, and yells.
His actions shatter the mellow fellowship of Evelyn’s hymns, Virgil’s stories, Lou’s jokes, and the serenity of the crisp Idaho evening. The neighbor’s rage takes over. He rants about the horses, the stink, the flies they attract, their “shit piles,” the damage to his land; the “damn government” with its black helicopters spying on him. That part about the black helicopters was a frequent gripe back then and was discussed in most rural cafes by both the sober and the intoxicated.
I think back to a similar incident six years earlier when an old cowboy in Colorado took a shot at me. He was crouched with his rifle behind a pickup truck, his girlfriend next to him, her beehive hairdo peeking up like a periscope above the bed’s frame. They were both beyond drunk. Turned out he was shooting at my blue heeler Emmie Lou, not at me. At first I was enraged and began to charge toward at him, but then I came to my senses, grabbed Emmie, and got the hell out of there. Ran into the guy the next day and he was as friendly as ever. There is nothing more erasable than a drunk’s memory.
Without a word, Lou disappears back to the Power Wagon, where I know he keeps a loaded Israeli made, Desert Eagle .50 caliber handgun in the glove box along with a box of ammo. “My goddamned potlicker stopper,” be once told me, fondling it tenderly.
As I nervously watch Virgil’s neighbor stomp around waving his weapon, it occurs to me that I have not made much progress since my last run in with an angry western gunslinger. What am I doing here? What’s next? Shouldn’t I be further along in my life? Past the stage where I am pissing in a coffee can while on the verge of becoming a gunshot victim? Beyond these idle months of driving around gazing at scenery and waiting for something, anything, to happen?
But this evening it occurs to me that the life I’ve been waiting for has been here all along. So this is it! An evening in the Idaho woods, surrounded by the warmth of fellowship and the threat of bodily harm. The human condition revealed. How had I missed this before? Looking back today, I felt at that moment as if I had just come out of an unconscious state. Maybe it was one of those your life flashes before you moments before you die. Except, I wanted to live.
“Ah, don’t pay him no attention,” Virgil says to me. “He does this most nights. We’re used to his shenanigans.”
I spot Lou quietly circling around the woods toward the neighbor, crouching like he’s in special ops. I see something silver in his right hand, the one with the missing finger. The Belgians whinny and stamp. Virgil calls to them. “Easy guys, easy now.” The neighbor’s dogs growl. Evelyn continues to knit calmly, then softly hums “Count Your Blessings,” a hymn I recognize from church camp. I begin to hum with her. She stops her handiwork, looks up, smiles gratefully, and nods to me. Together we sing:
So, amid the conflict whether great or small,
Do not be disheartened, God is over all;
Count your many blessings, angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.
© Stephen Lyons
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty]