Because I couldn’t take the wildfire smoke that was predicted along my chosen southern route through Lolo pass, I made a quick decision and drove up Rt 200 to meet Rt. 2 in Sandpoint, Idaho. Where it took me was to Paradise. Yes, that is Paradise, MT, just southeast of Thompson Falls, but I also mean that it showed me why some people fall in love with this country. I’ve been driving every day and have, in a number of posts, remarked that I would like to come back to a spot, or I wish I had time for a spot, or some spot looked interesting but I had to make up time.
What the hell am I doing out here if I’m trying to make up time?
Just south of Paradise on Rt. 200.
The speed at which one drives in MT makes the world fly by like a movie outside the window, but today the movie was so beautiful that I kept stopping the car and wandering along the side of the road. When I came to a National Forest Campground at Bull River I checked in for two nights, determined to slow myself down. Immediately I second-guessed the decision, of course. I think I’ve become used to the hum of the tires and a destination for each day. Besides, this is bear country, and I’m a city wimp. The place is almost deserted. There are some trailers and fifth-wheel campers around- just no other tenters. The silence is deafening; it is also liberating. Behind me is the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, in front, the Clark Fork River, one of the most lovely I have ever seen. Beyond that there are more hills and mountains and then Idaho. My iPhone thinks I’m in Idaho and displays Pacific time. I’ve shot three rolls of black and white film already and I loaded the Retina with some fast color film. The iPhone is filling up fast.
But is this more of the same thing, putting the camera, like the drive, between me and the place I am now. Doing in place of being. I have taken pictures of signs on the side of the road in the past few days, but I didn’t stop to photograph the billboards that appear at the state line coming in from ND. They simply have a map of the state with the words “Get lost in Montana” superimposed––low budget, no models, no fancy props, just an idea; one I don’t think I understood until today.
After cooking my evening meal (carefully, with everything kept away from the tent and all food stored in the bear box) I drove across a small bridge to Noxon, a tiny town on the other side of the river. There is nothing else on that side of the river, or so I had been led to believe by the state map. At the end of a single row of tiny houses and a general-purpose food place (deli cum restaurant cum food store) there was a tavern with some pickups out front and a sign that pointed me down the road to Heron. Another town? I took the bait. After about 6 miles of wash-boarded gravel road sure enough I came to an even smaller town, this time with no tavern but a church. Maybe the population of the two towns is self-selecting by pastime. These two do seem to play a very large roll in rural life, drinking and praying, and one can only speculate how much the traffic on that gravel road shifts back and forth between Saturday night and Sunday morning. The road took me past this, however, so it wasn’t a waste. Back the next day with the Speed Graphic.
I said that the road took me to Paradise, and I can see where a person could find that in this country. The scenery is awe inspiring, the freedom from interruption and busy-work could make for calm reflection and focus in one’s everyday tasks, the air is clean and nature is present in all of its glory right outside your door. There is fishing and hunting aplenty and most likely, like-minded folks around you with whom to commune. There are Mennonites (good roadside store on Rt 200 – Belknap store, where the folks running the place seemed that they might be members of the Mennonite church I saw just about ½ mile further on) and seventh Day Adventists evident in number. No obvious militia groups that I could detect- I guess you have to look more closely for that sort of stuff.
I can also see where someone would consider it a hell on earth. There is little to distract you, lots of work to do to stay on top of all that nature that keeps trying to take back your living space and little opportunity for gainful employment. Everything is at least a couple hours drive away, there are scary animals (sign at roadside rest area: Rattlesnakes have been seen here- stay on pavement), and the winters are long… and I mean long. This is northern Montana, after all.
It’s just a matter of your point of view. Right now it seems pretty sweet. I took the no travel day and just drove a few miles (well over 100, but that’s just around the corner in this part of the world) to see old-growth cedars off Mt Rt 56, and the swinging bridge at Kootenai Falls. Going just past it, I came to Libby, a nice town and one that had all the amenities I needed: a place to clean off the pounds of MT bugs that I have so wantonly slaughtered in driving, a grocery store for dinner and a pharmacy where I can get some antihistamine to combat the lingering effects of this smoke.
The Kootenai River is a brilliant green in the distance, especially in the rapids, and clear as air up close, actually a lot clearer than the air around Montana right now. The falls had been slated for a dam, but the folks in the area fought it and won. It remains a wild place, crossed just below the falls by a bridge that looks like something out of a Harrison Ford movie. There are warnings near the bridge to keep people out of the water (“12 have lost their lives!”) but I think anyone who tries to enter the water here is already so far gone that they can’t read anyway- it’s about a 30’ drop to a very fast moving set of rapids. The load limit of the bridge is stated as 5 people, but they don’t say what size people so I assume that don’t mean a Whitey and 4 others. Anyway, I demur and head back up the trail to the 64 steps needed (no, I didn’t count them–it’s posted) to get over the train tracks and the long climb back to the parking lot. A peaceful late-afternoon drive back to the campground and I’m ready for Idaho tomorrow.