I hesitate to call Riggins, Idaho a town. Township maybe. Hamlet? Grassy, sparsely treed mountains corral livable land on all sides as best I can tell. The population of 419 may seem miniscule, but the visible structures, repair sheds, RV parks, houses and businesses compete for space. Driving from the south, we see miles of side streets supporting mobile and fixed homes abutting the western shore of the Little Salmon River; most are well maintained and charming, but both the charming and the depressing sit side by side.
About ten minutes out from Riggins, we have to slow down. Cars and mostly trucks are parked on both sides of the two lane road and people are crossing on foot. On the right, people are fishing. On the left, handwritten signs offer the best deals on smoked salmon. Big barrel smokers are everywhere, as are all manner of homemade contraptions designed to do the same. The gathering appears unregulated. No health department signs or seller’s permits hang from the vendors’ vinyl canopies or are taped to the back of their pick ups. I like the independent spirit of the West. It reminds me of the defiance of the South, but out West, I assume the likelihood of a posted shotgun lookout – because, y’know… revenuers – is not as great.
The throng of parked vehicles stretches all the way to town with not a parking space to be found, save prudent deference on either side of pack of Harleys, and then stops dead at Big Salmon Rd. right before Riggins. The problem is, our map says we need to turn at Salmon River Rd. right before Riggins. People in the city tell me both the sign and the map are wrong. It’s called Big River Rd. I may have transposed who called the same road by which name, but confusion yields confusion. Sorry.
At a combination bait and tackle/hunting/grocery store/sandwich shop we pick up a picnic lunch of apples, chips, and, to share, an absurd hero sandwich the size of a Basset Hound and head down to River Salmon Big Road.
There is a hallway in the home of my in-laws that is covered wall to wall in blown up vacation photos. My father in-law spent freely on camera equipment and books of photography. His pictures reflect the expense and attention to the work of others. Scottish castles, buffalo on the plains, a Venetian market. His progress as a photographer is apparent when you compare shots of my wife on a sailboat in the Caribbean when she was a teenager with the latest ones of lizards and birds in the Galapagos Islands. The Caribbean pictures are of friends smiling, posing for the camera, taken as a memento of joy. The Galapagos pictures have composition. They strive to be an object of beauty in themselves. Somewhere in the middle are the pictures of the Salmon River. I know that the family took three different trips, each lasting about a week, down the river, but, with the exception of those with people in them, I am lost as to the photographic chronology.
We come up on it quickly, heading up river on the left bank. In little time the road narrows from two to one lane with few areas to pull over and let opposing traffic pass. Our rented Toyota Sequoia feels larger than it did a moment ago, and it was huge then. Before we know it, we are on a dirt road. One side is sheer cliff. The other side drops forty feet to the river. It’s hard to enjoy the scenery when you are tensing at every blind curve, and they are all blind curves, but the river is awesome, just like I knew it would be from my in-laws’ hallway. At times calm and turbulent with banks sweeping steeply upward. Our side is heavily wooded. The other side grass.
Perma-tense. My shoulders ache. We are going agonizingly slowly along the “road.” A sign says “No Trailers” and repeats every five miles or so. Obeying signs didn’t tame the West. We meet a steroid addled truck towing a trailer around every sixth or seventh turn. My brother-in-law takes to honking before rounding blind outcroppings of rock. I jokingly tell him he’s going to start an avalanche. He stops honking. We are all very unsettled. I shouldn’t have said anything.
Our destination is Vinegar Creek; the last put-in on this part of the river and the terminus of Salmon River Big Rd. It’s only twenty-five miles from Riggins, but it takes us over an hour to get there. Half a mile before the parking area is a small wooden bridge with a twelve thousand pound weight limit. Do you know how much your rented Toyota Sequoia weighs? Two minutes of flipping through the manual tell us seven thousand and change. Laugh if you will. The parking lot has several areas designed to turn illegal trailers around and a cement ramp for illegal trailers bearing watercraft to back into the water.
The river is gorgeous. I’ve heard many tales of travels from my father-in-law. He found the only Scotsman in Edinburgh who had never tasted Scotch. By the end of that day the Scotsman was learned. Visiting his daughter who was living in Italy, he shouted across the Grand Canal upon sighting her, “Ciao bambino!” Was corrected by the water taximan and without dropping a beat, “Ciao bambina!” Rants about the world’s most expensive cork screw from the Gritti Palace were the gift of that same trip. In Scotland? Why wouldn’t you stay at a palace? Caribbean sailing trip happen to dock alongside the same boat night after night? Investigate and find the captains having a tryst. Loan money to Germans you meet in a bar only later to find out you just financed pornography? That’s traveling. But it was this river. Simpler things: cooling beer in the river, laughing at the “magic box” that left nothing behind, camping under the stars.
We divide the Basset hound. Holding a dissenting opinion on the application of mayonnaise, I have my own sandwich. We jump around the boulders, pick out pretty colored rocks for the kids as souvenirs, and watch butterflies. There are so many butterflies. Light blue and grey wings fill the air like mosquitoes back home.
When the time comes, we say our piece and get back in the truck.
The road back is the same as the road there, but I’m less tense. There are still the same trailered trucks and even a school bus (!) this time, but I’m not as much in the moment, no matter how terrifying the moment is. I’m watching the water. My father-in-law is taking his last trip. I’m watching his ashes flow down the river that, like him, is grand, brilliant, at times absurd, but bold and sure of its course. RIP.
My second son is a week old today. His cousin, my nephew from my wife’s sister, is three days older. I cannot imagine my father-in-law’s pride had he been here. At the hospital last week, I was holding my son and staring out the window onto one of those pebbled negative spaces that are inevitable to the design of every hospital and force the viewer to consider what he would do if that area were part of where he lived (courtyard with full outdoor kitchen, six inch elevated reflecting pool, long wooden dining table for twelve guests, and potted trees in a row along the left.) I was maudlin, but comforted. My newborn son missed my mother by four years, my father-in-law by ten months. They are part of him. From my mother, he has in his makeup the ability to laugh at any situation (and anyone) and no fear of new things or failure. “Formidableness” if such a word exists. From my father-in-law, in his veins flow something grand, brilliant, at times absurd, but bold and sure of its course. It’s a good way to start.