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Into a world of refuge and memory

November 29, 2005|Gary Ferguson | Special to The Times

I ARRIVE ON THE BACK side of still another Western firestorm, a burn that has swallowed some 40,000 acres in Idaho's remote Stanley Basin. An early-season snow has laid down the smoke and ash to reveal brilliant views of the Sawtooths. The smell of charred wood gives way to the peppery scent of live lodgepole, to the sad sweet fragrance of wheatgrass curing in the meadows along Valley Creek, the stalks brown and still in the autumn sun.

Most of the tourists have been sent packing or were warned away, and the tiny village of Stanley hovers just above a ghost town. I first came here in 1977 when I was 20, having cruised west on a high-speed escape from the corn and rust of my childhood home in northern Indiana. Whereas Midwesterners were keenly reliable, as unwavering as their county roads, the people of Stanley were splendidly chaotic -- a boisterous mix of cowboys and river runners, hunters and backpackers, a temporary haven for curmudgeons and black sheep from across America.

Today in Stanley, the sky is drenched with sun, and the past is close at hand. I recall climbing out of the deserts of southern Idaho and pulling off at Galena Summit for the first time, standing slack-jawed before this staggering toss of mountains, the upper Salmon River flashing in the sun. Here I'd spent four summers dressed in Forest Service green, leading tourists on nature walks, and in 1979, I was joined by another Hoosier, a 24-year-old lover of the wild named Jane.

We married the following June, just west of here, in a meadow stained blue as the ocean with sweeps of camas lilies. If something ever happens to me, Jane used to say, scatter my ashes out here. But of course that was all theoretical.

Yet now the unthinkable has come to pass: Last spring, we had a canoe accident on a remote river in northern Ontario. I smashed my leg; she lost her life.

So it is that this afternoon I pull from my old van a loaded backpack, open the top and carefully place inside a small brown pottery vase holding a small ration of her remains.

I start climbing this trail along the banks of Iron Creek, heading for a lake basin hidden among the high peaks. Red squirrels and Clark's nutcrackers flit and chatter and squawk, frantic to build storehouses of pine seed before winter. Just ahead a mule deer spooks from a patch of fireweed. At the lake shore I sit for a time, thinking about early mornings when Jane was still asleep in the tent and I was catching brook trout for her, frying them up with grits and eggs.

Indigenous cultures hold as sacred certain corners of their landscapes, never visiting them casually, reserving such places only for ritual, for rites of passage. From this day on, the Sawtooths will be like that. And if that realization carries a measure of melancholy, it also offers a sense of liberation, a feeling of the land being re-enchanted.

Since Jane and I first roamed these mountains, the great wilds of Western America have largely retreated from the daydreams of the nation -- this after more than 100 years of people being in love with the mere thought of the Rockies, touting them as a respite from urban life.

In these great sweeps of public land, said bestselling 19th century author Henry George, Americans would find strength to keep alive the "consciousness of freedom." Mountain peaks and sagebrush flats and willow bottoms would be "wellsprings of hope," even for those who never set foot on them.

Then came the Sagebrush Rebels of the 1980s; at the same time government agencies started running the outback for profit. All of which led to some memorable fits of lunacy, including a study that determined that a day in the wilderness is worth the price of a movie ticket. Even the environmental movement was willing to trade the landscapes for tourism dollars.

Here, at least, beside this lake in the Sawtooths, there is only the unfettered comfort of the wild.

As for the scattering of ashes, saying too much might squander the fire of the experience. But there is this one thing: the faint patter of tiny chips of bone hitting the water and then fluttering through the shallows, shards of oyster white, at last disappearing into a garden of granite stones. That, and the old sadness that comes with knowing the winds of winter are on their way -- soon to churn the waters of the lake, soon to rim the shoreline with a layer of ice that will last all the way to June.

I have a friend in Utah who for years has derived great comfort from the thought that on his own death and cremation, the molecules of his body will be released, ultimately taken up by other life-forms. "That's immortality, brother!" he once shouted to me from a backcountry trail.

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