This weekend, the New York Times' Timothy Egan wrote that the majestic swath of the country I call home "may be the most overlooked part of the West — the Big Empty of north-central Idaho." This is the area bounded roughly by the St. Joe to the north and the Middle Fork of the Salmon to the south.
In The Last Wilderness, Egan writes about a grove of ancient cedars, pools of gin-clear trout water, and: "natural showers, courtesy of hot-spring waterfalls along the way. Of course you can soak in deep-pocket boulders — nature’s hot tubs. But there is nothing like standing next to polished basalt under a cascade of 105-degree water at the end of a day."
Egan correctly describes the area, which in may places is "as wild today as it was 200 years ago, full of jumpy rivers kicking out of the Bitterroot Mountains...[but] it may be safe to say that the wilds of the Idaho Panhandle, like much of the West, are deep into a new chapter — the microbrews and mountain bike phase. It has its hook-and-bullet enthusiasts, yes, and count me among those who get more excited chasing cutthroat trout with a dry fly than listening to Broadway show tunes."
Egan suggests driving across the Panhandle on US 12, which I agree is one of the prettiest roads anywhere in the country. I especially enjoy it in late October, when the weak sunlight enhances fall colors along the Clearwater River.
South of Lewiston is the heart of Nez Perce country. "These natives impressed Lewis and Clark more than any other people they met along the way," writes Egan. "Not only did the Nez Perce basically save the Virginia Men, as they were sometimes called, from starving, but they impressed them with what may be the finest breed of horse in the West — the appaloosa."
Let me add: "appaloosa" literally means "a Palouse horse," the Palouse being the stunning plateau of rolling hills, at the heart of which are the college towns of Pullman, Washington, and Moscow, Idaho. In 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote in his journal that the Appaloosa he saw on the Nez Perce range "appear to be of excellent race, lofty, elegantly formed, active and durable; many of them appear like fine English coursers, some of them are pied with large spots of white irregularly mixed with dark brown bay."
"Unlike some tribes left with only a casino or a small reservation, the Nez Perce are not a mere passive presence in this part of the West. Their imprint is big.
"There is the history, notably that surrounding
Chief Joseph and his epic 1877 running battle that is commemorated at sites along the Nez Perce National Historic Park. And then the culture, through powwows and numerous festivals open to the public in reservation towns like Kooskia, Kamiah and Lapwai throughout the summer months.
"For me, the most stirring of the Nez Perce sites is White Bird, along Route 95 south of the reservation. This is the Indian Gettysburg, where one of the few real pitched battles between natives and the American Army was fought. The army was routed at White Bird, while the Nez Perce did not lose a man. But it was bittersweet, as Chief Joseph’s people — about 750 men, women and children — were later chased more than 1,500 miles throughout the Rockies and finally gave up, hungry and cold, just short of the Canadian border.
"It does not take much to look down into the canyon from the roadside historic site and imagine the battle unfolding, or to stare into the wilds of the Salmon River country, the mountains snagging wayward clouds, the River of No Return at its center, and see why they fought so hard to hold on to this place."
You can read Egan's article here. You might also enjoy exploring this website on the region from the PBS series New Perspectives on The West.