Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Beer Bust

I got my first glimpse of the Salmon River Canyon 50 years ago. It was a mind-altering experience _ the sheer volume of emptiness within the chasm, and its freedom from signs of humanity. From that day in June 1964 forth, I always intended to write something that used the canyon as a setting. I just didn't know what until I began work on "The Leather Man" after my retirement from journalism.

My first attempt to write about the relatively unpublicized gash in the earth's crust was an unpublished short story, "The Wind in the Canyon," which I wrote during my school's Christmas break that same year. I couldn't decide what to do with it and eventually submitted it as a paper in a creative-writing class at Brigham Young University the following spring. But, given the size of the canyon, which constricts the river for better than 200 miles of its 425-mile length between mountains that soar 7,000 to 8,000 feet above the water, I deemed anything "short" to be inadequate. The second-deepest defile in North America deserved more, I felt, something sublime ... "Moby Dick" with the crazed pilot of a jet boat chasing a white steelhead, perhaps. Or, "War and Peace" involving combat between budding entomologists and the pesky larvae of the Douglas-fir tussock moth. Or, an epic beer bust?

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I didn't exactly grow up in a metropolis. The closest version of one would have been Ogden, Utah, about 100 miles south of the roadside general store my parents ran in Virginia, Idaho. But between childhood and the two months I spent living in a tent deep in the Salmon River Canyon, I had lived and worked in San Francisco; spent nearly five months visiting 22 countries in Europe (including Yugoslavia, which since then has been split into seven nations); and then returned to do missionary work for my church in Austria and Bavaria. That allowed me to familiarize myself with elegant avenues and narrow side streets in amazing places like Vienna, Munich, Nuremberg and the resort cities on the southeast shore of Lake Constance.

So I felt world-wise by the time I resumed my education, and I didn't mind getting back to nature. It was with excitement that I noticed a job opening on a BYU bulletin board _ the U.S. Department of Agriculture was looking for insect collectors in Salmon, Idaho. I applied, was told when to report and went home to Marsh Valley for a few days before the trip into country I'd never seen before to exterminate some kind of bug that was killing off beautiful Douglas firs.

The work sounded simple: Climb hillsides, stopping every 500 feet of elevation to collect moth larvae from the branches of infected trees and kill them in test tubes half-filled with formaldehyde. The reason for the increments: The larvae can be sprayed effectively only in the fifth of seven growth stages, and they grow faster at lower, warmer altitudes. Back to the schedule: Eat lunch at noon, being careful not to sit on the tubes, and bring the samples back to the unit entomologist before sunset.

We were told to wait at pickup points along the Salmon River Road for a ride to the campsite at Corn Creek, about 50 miles downriver from the gravel road's starting point at North Fork. Reality turned out to be not quite so simple: None of us was in shape, and no amount of training could have prepared anyone for pre-OSHA work conditions, even in a government agency.

Looking back, it all seems fun, but I realize now I had a few near-death experiences. Once, I ran out of climbing room and had to grab a rocky overhang, let my feet dangle over a drop of perhaps 20 feet onto a slanted rockslide that could easily have conveyed me back to a lower collection point _ and pull myself up blindly onto the shelf, praying all the while that it wasn't some rattler's warming spot. Another time I climbed a steep wall of granite, peered over the knife-edged ridge and looked straight down into a bend of the river 2,000 feet below. The rock held, obviously, or I wouldn't be writing this.

Temporary workers have no union, but we finally complained enough that the USDA began airlifting us in small helicopters to mountaintops from which we could collect bugs in reverse order, top to bottom. Once summer arrived and the larvae hatch began in earnest, the air show started. It was spectacular: We got to watch a variety of World War II surplus aircraft _ thick-bodied P-47 Thunderbolts that used to strafe German railroad lines and factories, B-17 bombers, and sleek, nimble F-51 Mustangs outfitted with tanks full of insecticide. The fighter planes were used because they could knife down a mountainside just above the treetops, hit exactly the grove they wanted to hit and then pull up, missing the opposite side of the canyon by what looked like inches.

The memories were still alive decades later, and Chapter 10 of "The Leather Man" employs them in several ways _ giving tidbits of the history of the magnificent chasm that defeated the Lewis and Clark expedition, introducing several elements of the novel, including new characters, and the first suggestion of the kind of organic racism that can exist when members of the predominant race are unfamiliar with people of a different color.

In the person of Blaine "Froggy" Lund, that kind of xenophobia is a misnomer: A powerful left tackle on the Canyon State College football team, he doesn't fear much of anything, but he subscribes to a fallacy widely held in the Vietnam Era _ that black athletes, despite their superb athleticism, could not be good quarterbacks. Froggy, whose mistrust of strangers applies equally to anyone, has consumed more beer than the other three football players in David Talty's car combined, and he provides comic relief by trying to complete the sentence, "Ever' numb-nuts between here and Texas wants to move to Idaho." The other occupants of the vehicle continually interrupt him, and he has to start over again and again.

The four are staying at Uncle Joe Talty's cabin south of Salmon, but they decide to drive into the canyon north of the city to consume the beer they avoided during spring practice, which just ended. Preston "Taters" Jones, one of two occupants of the back seat, interrupts Froggy to ask if he wants to exclude everyone, including Danny Malahewa, a heralded linebacker who should strengthen the Canyon State defense:
"You know Danny's good, man," Froggy cranked his head around, an impressive accomplishment for someone with a neck as thick as a Doric column. "You're good, Danny. You're welcome."
But Malahewa is of Hawaiian extraction, and he takes umbrage a few minutes later when Froggy suggests that Edison Green, a black player and the team's new quarterback, won't be able to win close games. David tries to defuse the situation by pointing out that Froggy is inebriated and by asking Malahewa about his experiences against black players at high school in Los Angeles. The new arrival from a junior college in Utah is glad to oblige:
"We're, what's the word? ... conditioned to think only white guys play the position. You think about it: Almost every kid in Pop Warner starts out playing for white coaches, and half the coaches volunteer so their sons get to be quarterback. If a black kid gets ahead of that game, you better respect it."
The malty tour doesn't get quite as deep into the canyon as Corn Creek, which is where the all land-based transportation ends, and David turns around after a rest stop to head back toward Salmon. It is slow going, though, and at another stop of necessity I shared, through him, my feeling about the place:
Before they reached North Fork, it was time for another rest stop. The canyon had widened and the road was away from the river. The clouds had scattered, and the moon was up, throwing an argentic light across the knobby foothills and glinting off the water like varnish. The view affirmed what Talty had grown up thinking: If there's a more beautiful place on Earth, I'd like to see it.

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