Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Bruneau Dunes: A Hidden Gem in Southern Idaho

I don’t usually write travel pieces per se but in this day and age of crowded campgrounds and over marketed tourist traps, I’d like to mention a prosaic little area I recently had the pleasure of spending a night at. For anyone traveling through the vast open spaces of southern Idaho, Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park is a welcome stopover on the way to or from eastern Oregon. It has impressive sand dunes, lots of wildlife, marshes and small lakes, and it is wonderfully under used by human beings. We first discovered it back in 2005 when we were planning to visit my friend Stan up in Bend, Oregon. The idea was to head north out of Grand Junction, Colorado straight up the western edge through Flaming Gorge and on up into Wyoming. From there we would skirt across the southern half of Idaho, a state I was woefully unfamiliar with.

I had no idea where we could camp as we got near the southwestern corner but I wanted to be somewhere near the Snake River. A little googling of the Idaho State Park system brought up a photo of some large mountains of sand looming over a small marshy lake. Seemed like it might be a hidden gem so I booked a campsite…or rather a camping cabin which is basically a small roofed structure with a bunk bed, table, heater, and electricity. Water is from a nearby pump and cooking can be done at a picnic table or fire ring just beyond the covered porch from which an expansive view of the dunes can be enjoyed. Within the campground itself is a large centrally located restroom complete with hot showers! But there are clean pit toilets along the fringes for the less picky.

When we returned there last month for a one night stay we were greeted by a large gopher snake slithering across the porch. Rain appeared imminent so the covered cabin was a welcome amenity. The rest of the campground was virtually empty. Once settled in, we got out to see the very large dune fields which rise in grayish brown hummocks along one edge of a small valley. It didn’t take long to see numerous birds coming and going from the natural lake at the base of the dunes. In a few minutes time we saw curlews, northern harriers, killdeer and several ducks. A great blue heron rose from the shallows in front of us. My daughter Lindsay climbed to the top of the nearest dune.

Meanwhile we were surrounded by the vast volcanic tablelands and low, heavy skies of the Snake River country. I watched clouds climbing over distant mesas as they darkened and spread our way. But it remained dry long enough for us to prepare a typical camping dinner outside. The rain came later when we were safely ensconced inside the cabin and the sound of the light downpour was particularly soothing.

The following morning dawned clean and clear and we quickly cleaned up our site and were soon on our way. But we will likely return to Bruneau Dunes whenever our travels take us through southern Idaho. For those of you intrigued enough by my rhapsodic waxing, I include a link to the State Park site. Check it out. I don't think you will be disappointed.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

You Can Never Go Home

The little house on Almond Avenue was a quiet and welcome sanctuary when I most needed one. I rented it when I first moved to Redding, California in 1988 coming off the heels of an acrimonious divorce and a failed love affair. Clinging to a hillside on the west end of town, the 700’ square foot bungalow had probably seen better days in a neighborhood now shabby around the edges. But it boasted a full basement where I could set up a darkroom, a roomy rear deck with a great view of Mount Lassen to the east, and a chunk of open space across the street under the flyway of Benton Air Field.

It had been built in 1938 by a man who, at the time, was working to complete the nearby Shasta Dam. Its simple clapboard construction housed two small bedrooms, a narrow kitchen with a breakfast nook, a living room with a fireplace, and a bathroom so tiny that one could barely avoid stepping into the toilet bowl when exiting the shower. The detached one-car garage had long ago been converted into a small studio apartment which I eventually sublet to a single mom. For a now-single park ranger it was a perfect setup.

The house was also conveniently located only six miles from Whiskeytown Lake where I worked as the Chief of Interpretive Services for the National Park Service. It was there that I met my future spouse Amy. By the spring of 1989 we had meshed our lifestyles together in the Almond Avenue house buying antique furniture and bookshelves for the interior and struggling to grow a garden on the exterior. We had one bedroom fixed up for my daughter Alison’s monthly visits. On the Fourth of July we could sit on the wooden deck and watch the Redding fireworks show in the valley below. And in the fall of 1991, we crammed our friends and relatives inside for our wedding reception.

Eventually we bought the house and spent three more years enjoying its simple pleasures and filling it with our own. Time and circumstance finally stepped in and moved us to a larger home in Redding and, not long after that, an even larger place in Northern New Mexico. But over the years we kept in touch with the old house, driving by it whenever we were in Redding and noting with approval the changes made by its current tenants. Until the last visit…

We pulled up to the Almond Avenue residence last month to find it boarded up and empty. The garden was dry and neglected. A notice on the window warned us to stay away. When I looked through it into the living room, I could see that the once wood-paneled walls were now painted purple. In the back of the house, the collapsing rear deck was cordoned off with yellow tape. Graffiti was sprayed on its railings. We wandered around the place in a state of shock.

In a matter of minutes a neighbor poked his head over the fence. We introduced ourselves and asked what the hell had happened to our former home, and he obligingly filled us in. Seems like the last resident was a 17-year old cocaine addict who had been illegally leasing the house from his mom. A few weeks earlier there had been a wild party with over forty people running around and trashing the place. Now the house was in foreclosure. “You could probably pick it up for 25 grand if you wanted to”, he said. But why would we ever want to?

I always figured that if you put enough love and energy into a place, the good vibes would somehow live on within its walls and rooms. That the “better angels of our nature” would somehow imbue successive residents with the will and obligation to carry on the good work of sustaining an aura of quaintness and caring. But this is just the hopeless conceit of a man who values a house as a home. The little house on Almond Avenue was the right place for the right time, and now that time has passed. Until, perhaps, someone comes along who will feel its history, see its potential, and allow it to nurture and protect them as it did for me so many years ago.