I have unfairly judged North Idaho. Terms like “backwoods” and “redneck” most often come to mind, based on experiences during my five-year residency there—the same timeframe as my five-year marriage to a true North Idahoan. I’ve written off the panhandle of the Gem State as a home for bigots and racists, with a smattering of California transplants who’ve successfully transformed some beautiful landscapes into well-known tourist spots.
While my sentiments still feel (somewhat) legitimate, I must recognize there are many well educated, thoughtful, open-minded souls residing there, and beyond those fine individuals, North Idaho mustn’t be written off.
For one thing, I love good, unadulterated wilderness, and there remains plenty of it in the state’s panhandle. North Idaho has a collection of pristine lakes and rivers, and ranges of mountains and forests left to themselves, seemingly empty of capitalist commercial juggernauts ruining them for the sake of a buck. No, here—where locals drive big trucks with fishing rods, rifles and dogs—the land is pure as it can be.
Take, for example, the St. Joe Scenic Byway and rugged Moon Pass through St. Joe National Forest. Every twist and turn in the road delivers a new treat to behold—from marshes to road-side creeks to mountain-flanked riverbeds. Moon Pass follows part of the old Milwaukee Line—which would be an adventure unto itself, even without the surrounding mountain views, thanks to its tunnels and single-lane trestles high above the valley floor. Moss-covered rock walls tell where water rushes over in the spring and trickles down in summer. There are picture-perfect picnic spots high above the river, where the only sound comes from the water itself and the air is so crisp and clean, you want to bottle it up to take home.
And then …
Then there are the ghosts. The cedar ghosts. Hollowed out shells of trees left standing since the big burn of 1910 when fire roared through the forest and the lives of countless acres of giants and dozens of human lives, too. They were 300-500 years old when the fire scorched their trunks and snapped off their tops. And here they stand – gray and cold and unmoving, but not dead.
Oh, not dead. For something in them spoke to me. They want to recognized, loved. They have stories to tell and I must listen. Stories of a land called North Idaho that calls to be loved rather than labeled.