The first blog I ever started was called “The Writing Moose”. I still insist on calling my blog “The Writing Moose Blog”. Why writing moose? Have we talked about this yet?
First off, the ‘writing’ part is pretty straight forward. I’m a writer.
Second, the moose. This is easy and at the same time there’s a story here, so…
Moose are my spirit guide.
Now you don’t have to buy into spirit guides, I mean, I don’t. I never gave spirit guides much thought beyond mythology of the Native Americans I studied. So you can imagine, when I was 19, a spirit guide was the farthest thought from my mind. At that time, I was busy buying into being lost and not sure what I wanted to do with my life.
My first year of college found me drowning. In the deep end of the ‘I don’t know who I am or what I’m doing with my life’ pool. For lack of a better idea, I followed the footsteps of several high school friends and got lost amid the collegiate crowd at a State University.
While I didn’t know what I was “supposed” to be doing, the only feeling that radiated with intense assuredness was that I didn’t belong there. But where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do, well, that was the crux.
Then came an opportunity that would change the trajectory of my life. I was invited to visit my great aunt and uncle for a few days. It would have been one thing to visit them at home, in Boise, Idaho. But this particular summer, they were volunteering for Idaho Fish and Game. And turns out they were living Smack dab in the middle of nowhere.
Just in case you were wondering, if you offer a confused, fledgling writer of a girl with a gypsy spirit the opportunity to go to the middle of nowhere, she will jump at the chance and ask for no other information.
After making the proper travel arrangements, and a fist full of babysitting money, I found myself in a place called Stonebreaker Ranch. In the middle of Chamberlain Basin. In the heart of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. In the middle of Idaho. Quite a mouthful, huh?
Now, for this story, it is important to understand two things. I have always had a wild gypsy spirit, a wanderlust if you will, to travel and go and see and experience. (When I was twelve I asked my mom if I could go visit someone on a plane. By myself. My supportive parents sent me to my Great Grandmother in Idaho. A few summers later, I went to stay in Georgia for a few summer weeks. While we didn’t have Europe money and travel wasn’t something exotic, every time my family got in the car to go somewhere I was alive.)
Secondly, I spent my developmental years in Southern California. Busy-hectic-smog filled-O.C.-(before it was a TV show)-Hollywood is only 45 minutes away without traffic -graduating class of 500…that Southern California.
It’s important to note that I went from here:
The first task in my journey was getting to the Ranch.
Often referred to as “the Backcountry”, the River of No Return Area is 2.3 million acres big. There are 2,616 miles of maintained hiking trails in the area. The Middle Fork of the Salmon River runs through the whole thing and offers 100 miles of whitewater rafting. The ONLY way into this haven of wildness is by horse, backpack (aka feet), or small plane. No wheeled vehicles are allowed in this area. And those small planes can only land on a handful of makeshift airstrips.
I went by small plane.
Here is the plane I took from Cascade, a small town 100 miles north of Boise. I flew out with Ray Arnold Aviation. A company that contracted with the Post office to deliver mail to those who’ve chosen to live outside of the reachable parameters of city life. Every Wednesday Ray Arnold Aviation delivered groceries and mail to those people and chartered people into the backcountry.
Now if you are like me, you noticed that there is nothing but a grass field, cleared of trees that consists of a landing strip. What you don’t know is that my first decent into the area, all smiles and white knuckles, was attempted twice due to the pilots need to “buzz the elk and moose that were standing in the middle of the field so we could have a clear landing space.”
I exited the plane and was greeted by the sight of the only buildings I would see for the next few weeks.
I put my suitcase away, arranged my sleeping bag and was ready for the tour of the property.
My Aunt and Uncle were volunteering and while here, they were helping to fix up the property as it had been newly acquired by the Fish and Game. First I was shown the bathroom, ‘we have plumbing’, my aunt said happily. It was a nice flush toilet, located in a nice outhouse sort of building, about a hundred yards from the main house. Let me tell you something, in the middle of a darkened night with only a flashlight, that one hundred yards was a shaky trip. After the first attempt at walking through darkness such as I had never known that first night, the promise of plumbing didn’t bring me much comfort.
The house was set up with propane so we could cook with a gas stove. There were also a few propane lanterns hung throughout the downstairs. Heat came from the fireplace. There was a hand radio for emergencies and to get in touch with whomever it was that took grocery orders. The plane that brought me in would be back once a week to deliver groceries and mail.
Of course electricity was not available. And water was delivered to the house from the river, via a ditch system. Water with a brown tint was boiled so it would be drinkable. I tried to lean into the rustic light brown tint to the water; it was just part of the experience. I actually effortlessly leaned into the whole Little House on the Prarie experience with great abandon.
I don’t know how much help I was, but I tried to work hard. I hiked almost every day, pulling yards and yards of old barbed wire left from 1920s ranchers that first settled in the area. I followed rivers and streams and pulled tangled barbed wire. I wound it up and attached to my day pack, carried it back to the ranch.
My other job was to walk the ditch that carried our water to the house once a day. To make sure it was clear of debris and obstructions so the water wouldn’t stop flowing.
The backcountry is further North than I’d been in my 19 years. So the summer months gave sunlight to this grand area late into the night. Dusk finally arrived around 10pm. After finishing the work day there were still several hours of daylight before bedtime. So I played card games, read, hiked, read, wrote, or read. Or wrote.
The other thing I did was hike all over that wildflower covered country as much as I could. So I was informed how to handle myself if I ever came across a cougar, an Elk, or a moose. There was a prairie like vastness in front of the main house. Large open fields where large herds of elk and deer came to graze. As I sat and watched those majestic animals day and night, I continued to wonder how I was going to explain this to my friends in the Concrete paradise of Southern California.
And yes, there were several moose who joined the mix every no and again.
My uncle had told me that if I ever came across a moose I should just get out of his way. The best thing to do was get to a group of trees where the moose couldn’t get his antlers through. If it was a female moose, I needed to slowly back away and make sure I wasn’t between her and her baby, if there was one. But then I was assured, they would be more afraid of me and run away before I even saw them.
So there I was, tromping around part of the 2,616 miles and I heard a rustle. I looked up and there he was.
My heart in my throat and I looked around me a bit manic because no one told me what to do when you come upon a moose and a group of trees is NOT nearby. I stood still and taking a deep breath tried to back away, v e r y s l o w l y. But then, my moose caught my eye. We stared at each other for several heartbeats. That damned moose, well, he looked into my damn soul. He then gave a nod to me, so human, I stopped moving. So when he continued forward, passed me so close I could have reached out a hand to touch him…the heart that fluttered in my stomach when I first saw him, then dropped into my shoes and I started crying.
A crazy, uncontrollable crying.
In that moment, I was insignificantly alone in the middle of nowhere. That moment, time ceased. A nod of a moose shook me to my core, and the weight of what did and didn’t make sense brought me to my knees. I collapsed with the release of tears.
In that moment, I didn’t think my life was in danger, instead, life came into crystalline view. Some would say I met my spirit guide in that moment. Perhaps. But I like to think the moose was a catalyst for understanding. Understanding I didn’t need a map to an ideal destination of a future. In that moment, wanderlust solidified itself as my path, writing was my unwavering calling, and the woods, well, they became the answer.
Side Note: I moved to Idaho a year and a half later. And I never stopped writing.