Respite at Rock Creek on the Oregon Trail

Rock Creek Today

Rock Creek Today

After weeks of subsisting on bread and bacon,
beans and biscuits, corn mush and scrapple,
and barely edible pilot bread dipped in coffee,
Emily Towell and her company crossed over Rock Creek.

Three men took pails to the creek for water
and found the stream brimful with trout,
a boon as rare and unexpected as the quail
that dropped out of the sky to feed Israel’s camp.

The weary travelers raced for buckets and bowls,
dishpans and pails, any vessel would do,
in a mad dash to scoop up the silvery shimmery fish,
a miraculous respite from dietary dullness.

Soon, the paradisial sound of crackling grease and the
blessed aroma of frying fish wafted over the wagons,
the succulent sweetness an unexpected godsend,
a moment to be savored in the stark, sterile landscape.


Looking for Wildlife at Ritter Island

black widow

black widow

I hope to see a great blue heron

glide through the air like a pterodactyl

or glimpse a vixen and her nearly grown kits

skulking through milkweed skeletons.

If I am lucky, I’ll see a rainbow flash

as a trout snatches a damselfly.

I’m in thrall to the surrealness

of whitetail deer springing across a meadow

with their pogo stick legs

or a pretty little cottontail

sitting speechless by the trail.

But today, a shiny black widow

startles me as she surreptitiously spins

behind the toilet in the women’s lavatory.

At Lake Owyhee

Leslie_Gulch_reservoir _reflections

Photo by Eric Valentine of Praise Photography

Dense suffocating heat

extracts my soul –

I gasp.

Minidoka Relocation Site


In a bleak forsaken place,

tumbleweeds gather

and derelict barracks

and bare cement foundations

bear witness that thousands

of Japanese Americans

slogged through the mud

and baked in the heat

of Hunt Camp.


Silence reigns, save the

chuck-chucking of irrigation sprinklers,

making it hard to imagine

cook pots clanking,

old women gossiping,

generators humming,

vehicle tires crunching,

children reciting the pledge of allegiance

in a place surrounded with barbwire

and guarded by reluctant G.I.’s.


13,000 people were forced

to leave homes and livelihoods

to live inside tarpaper buildings.

Whole families were crammed

into 20 by 20 foot rooms

in a then, never-silent place.

Through paper-thin walls

seeped sounds of whispered quarreling,

children calling out for parents,

a neighbor’s husband snoring,

mothers sobbing for their soldier sons.


Now, a riverhawk circles overhead,

searching the sagebrush for carrion.

Paint peels from reclaimed buildings,

and the sun beats down where

incarcerated Japanese,

citizens and immigrants,

choked during dust storms,

suffered relentless winter winds,

and designed oriental gardens,

sculpting beauty out of heartbreak.

Artemisia Tridentata

In Vale, Oregon, population 1750,
sagebrush blanketed the hills
and crept into wooded areas.
The ugly grayish green shrubs
were so much a part of the landscape
they were unremarkable.

Sagebrush were bushes to avoid
because they might be
hiding places for rattlesnakes;
if we brushed against them,
our mothers made us strip
to check for ticks;
and sagebrush seemed useless,
covering miles and miles of territory
without providing respite
from the scorching summer heat.

To be truthful, I never really looked
at the sagebrush–it was so common
it did not seem worth examination.
Who knew there was big sagebrush
and fringed sagebrush and stiff sagebrush?
Who stopped to notice that big sagebrush’s
petite, fan-shaped leaves formed tiny tridents
and frilled sagebrush’s leaves were as delicate as lace?

Sagebrush was something to steer clear of,
not a plant to glorify with a highfalutin name
like Artemisia tridentata.


Labor Day Jumping Frenzy

B.A.S.E. jumpers leapt off the I.B. Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls in rapid succession this Labor Day weekend—kind of like lemmings. I met jumpers from St. Petersburg, Russia; Buffalo, New York; Houston, San Francisco, and France.

The most colorful jumper was a fifty something from the Bay area who called himself CapTim America. He was decked out in a red, white, and blue costume for his fourth B.A.S.E jumping attempt. His perky costume ears were reinforced with paper clips, he told onlookers.

Before handing his shield to a friend and climbing over the fence in the center of the bridge, CapTim America stepped back and did some serious deep breathing to calm himself. Other jumpers just clambered over the barrier and stepped off into thin air, seemingly unfazed by potential danger.

Thanks to Cap Tim America for giving us a smile on Labor Day and reminding us of the red, white, and blue.

Charmed by Wildflower Names

At first, I was interested in wildflowers themselves, but recently I have become captivated by their fascinating names. Some are descriptive, like dusty maiden and Indian paintbrush. Others have scientific names, like Hesperochiron californicus or microsteris. Then there are the cool-sounding ones, like puccoon and saxifrage. And the mystifying ones, including lupine and collomia. Just as knowing the names of people makes them more dear, learning the names of wildflowers makes them into familiar friends.

I was so excited to identify my first dusty maiden on the North Fork Trail near Ketchum, Idaho, last week. This sweet trailside find looks exactly like you would imagine with delicate pink flower clusters arising from dusty-colored, grayish green leaves. On the same hike, we also found a patch of horse mint, which has a decidedly unglamorous name. I was happy to learn that this pretty lavender flower is also called lemon bee balm, which sounds much more appealing to me. The flower is quite pretty (nothing horsy about it) and a whole hillside of them is definitely striking.

The name scarlet gilia always makes me think of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. And the funny thing is the flower looks like the floral embodiment of the girl with its slender tubular flowers that flare in showy petals at the ends. However, the origin of the name scarlet gilia was not that romantic. The flower was named after the 18th century Spanish botanist, Felipe Gil ( You might also know scarlet gilia by the names of sky rocket or fairy trumpet. I especially like the idea of fairies blowing little reveilles on these flowers.

My other favorite, both for its name and its looks, is the aptly named firecracker penstemon, which looks like the gilia from a distance, but the tube doesn’t fan out at the end. I was excited to find firecracker penstemon blooming this year on the Canyon Rim Trail above Shoshone Falls. Other penstemon varieties were in abundance on the North Fork Trail: showy penstemon, hotrock penstemon, and a variety of miniature penstemon. Allison, our guide, explained to us that penstemon comes from the Greek penta- meaning five and stemon meaning five stamens. Penstemon are also known as beardtongues because of the golden hairs in the throat of the floral tube.

Since lupinus means of wolves, I wondered how the lavender, pink, and white lupine covering whole mountainsides near Twin Falls and Sun Valley got a name associated with wolves. Ancient lore has it that people thought the lupine plants were wolf-like and robbed nutrients from the soil; in fact, quite the opposite is true, as the lupine adds nitrogen to the soil (

Then there’s puccoon, also known as wayside gromwell. Now, if you ask me, wayside gromwell sounds like something you would want to avoid. Puccoon, on the other hand, has an intriguing ring to it. This flower is easy to miss because the light yellow flowers are partially hidden by a profusion of knife-shaped leaves. On the Third Fork Trail, I walked right by it on the way in but luckily spotted it on the way out.

The ballhead waterleaf has a name that is easy to remember, and it has unforgettable ball-shaped clusters of flowers that have numerous thread-like filaments extending from them. When we hiked the Wahlstrom Hollow trail in the South Hills, these flowers virtually carpeted the trail and I knew I would never forget the name after that.

I’m still hoping to see a smooth-stem blazing star, a parrot’s beak, or a Jacob’s ladder, but in the meantime I will keep asking and looking up names and enjoy the surprising variety of wildflowers and their intriguing names.

Idaho Origami

Andrew Christensen folds his B.A.S.E. jumping parachute with the same precision and concentration as an oriental origami master, each fold taken to a precise spot and carefully creased. Instead of a paper crane, his folded chute will whoosh out with a snap when he pulls the ripcord. The beauty of the folds will be in the safe and smooth ride they provide.

B.A.S.E. (short for bridge, antenna, span, and earth) jumping requires an odd melding of exactitude and derring-do. It is the same combination of skills possessed by the spymaster or the Navy Seal: patience, care, and preparation wedded to the desire for adrenaline-inducing, heart-pumping action.

The jumpers who fold their chutes on the lawn of the Visitor’s Center by the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho, spend 40 painstaking minutes folding their chutes before walking out to the middle of the bridge where they step over the railing, free fall for four seconds, and float for about 20 seconds under the canopy before landing on a grassy strip at the bottom of the Snake River Canyon.

Preparing to base jump is a little like cooking Thanksgiving dinner. The sumptuous turkey dinner requires three to four days of intense preparation and culminates in a 20-minute feeding frenzy, which is followed by an hour of cleanup. For the base jumper, folding is not the only investment. The jumper must also get to Twin Falls, a small farming community in southern Idaho,  the only place in the U.S. where it’s legal to jump any day of the year. And, of course, there’s always the chance that it will be too windy or too stormy to  jump. If all goes well, then he can enjoy a 20-second adrenaline high followed by a 30-minute hike out of the canyon, unless he is lucky enough to have a boat waiting in the river below.

The difference between base jumping and life is that base jumpers choose their poison, but in life we step off bridges unknowingly—sometimes it may seem that we are thrown off. Our careful preparation must be made daily because we do not know when we will need to act decisively in only four seconds or when we will need to trust our parachute of preparation.

Cultivating a Wildflower Disposition by Judy Grigg Hansen

Yellow-bellied marmots scurried among the rocks and western tanagers played hide-n-seek on the hill above us as my husband and I hiked around Dierkes Lake near Shoshone Falls on an evening in early June. Our real discoveries, however, at this small man-made lake that sits below the towering rock walls of the Snake River Canyon included parsley desert buckwheat, barestem biscuitroot, and hopsage.

In the natural world, audience seems not to matter. Flowers bloom and trees grow leaves regardless of whether anyone is aware of them or not. Why, then, are the ideas of audience and legacy so important to we humans? Why are we not content to merely be? Why, by the way, am I writing this blog? In humans, there is a yearning for audience and for creating a legacy. This may be the whole point of mid-life crises: we suddenly realize that our imagined audience is either shrinking or is never going to materialize; and, at the same time, we realize that we may end up as a yellow bell under a sagebrush blooming in isolation with nothing to leave for posterity.

Maybe in our quest for audience and legacy, we should step back and examine the virtues of having a wildflower disposition. No matter how long or short our lives, we could just be the beautiful persons we were meant to be, not worrying about whether or not anyone else is watching.

The Infinity of Smallness by Judy Grigg Hansen

“It doesn’t look like there are any wildflowers out there,” my husband said, surveying the meadows by the side of the road, as we drove into Idaho’s Castle Rocks State Park on May 14 for a wildflower walk. I had to agree that our chances of seeing wildflowers looked pretty dim as it had been unseasonably cold and there were no splashes of color in the meadows. However, when we gathered in a grassy area with the other walkers, Park Director Wallace Keck told us that 49 different wildflowers had been seen already that year.

Blue mustard being held (Photo by Judy Hansen)

In fact, Keck told us to look down by our feet and see how many wildflowers we could find before we started out. As we peered at the grass by our feet, our eyes magically opened to a miniature world of beauty in the grass at our feet. We found spring draba, a member of the mustard family that has eight miniscule white petals that Thumbelina princesses could use to decorate their hair. Slightly larger were the delicate lavender blossoms of the blue mustard.

Microsteris gracilis (Photo by Wallace Keck)

My favorites were the microsteris, the smallest of the phloxes at the park, and blue-eyed Marys, which sport two blue petals and two white petals. The ranger told us that tiny insects suck nectar from and pollinate these miniature flowers. Now I was hesitant to take a step, as I might crush some delicate little kingdom thriving in the grasses at my feet.

Blue-eyed Mary at Castle Rocks (photo by Wallace Keck)

A few days later, with my thoughts on mini-kingdoms, I imagined being a rabbit as I walked along the Shoshone Falls trail. The sagebrush became a forest of trees where shade was available, and the rocks were hills and lookout towers. When I got home, I imagined being an ant in my front flower garden, nesting under a fuchsia-colored lily or a bright orange poppy. I might think everyone lived underneath such a riot of color. I would probably be aware of the marigolds and petunias beyond the lilies and maybe even of the yard across the sidewalk and possibly of the neighborhood beyond. It gets harder to imagine the ant knowing about the world of the city or the fields of corn and sugar beets outside the city limits, to say nothing of other cities and oceans and deserts. Likewise, our universe might be a much larger and more diverse place than we currently imagine it.

When I was growing up, we were taught that the atom was the smallest type of matter in the universe. Now, scientists who study quantum mechanics have identified more than 200 subatomic particles, including bosons, baryons, and pentaquarks. I cannot help but wonder if these unimaginably small particles are also made up of even smaller particles, kind of like Russian matryoshka or nesting dolls, each holding a smaller and smaller kingdom.

What then are the limits of smallness, or largeness, for that matter? When do we get to the smallest small thing? How can we possibly perceive it? What are the limits of outer space or universes or worlds beyond our knowing? It somehow seems easier to imagine the infinity of space than to imagine infinitely smaller particles or kingdoms. Maybe our perspective is as limited as the ant’s only in an inverse way.

Copyright May 29, 2011