Friday, June 4, 2010

Do Mountain Men Tweet? And Do They Carry Pink Umbrellas?

If I had a smart phone rather than a mere iPod Touch tethered to my home network, I might have tweeted the beginning of our trip like this:

Off-road for the first time in the Pilot. This road is really rutted. Don't tell Grampa.

Mud puddle. Right through it. DON'T TELL GRAMPA.

This used to be Grampa's Pilot. No more.

Ouch. Big bumps. Where does that road go?

Ah. Concrete bunker. Everybody out. We walk from here. Ha. Nice Indy reference.

Bones. Probably elk or deer leg. Is it a good omen that the voyage begins with bones?

We're walking down a canyon wall. In mud. These kids are going to get filthy.

Huh. More bones. Part of a jawbone. Much older than the leg. Not sure if that's a good sign.

But that would have been annoying – and we don't need yet another annoying Twitter feed, do we? Besides, if you tweet through life, sometimes you're going to miss the life you're tweeting. So I'll do this the old-fashioned way: via words pounded out on a standard QWERTY keyboard (no namby-pamby Dvorak board for me) and with digital photos. I resisted using the digital video camera because it was windy enough that's all you would have heard.

Besides, who really needs technology to do what we did today: Climb to the top of a broken-down dam.

Yes, I've visited the dam before. I've told you that the dam is really one of the 1,272 residents of Sugar City, Idaho, the small town I live in, even though it's miles outside the city limits. I've told you all about the old folks here who mark history not by BC or AD, but by whether you lived in town prior to June 5, 1976 – the day the dam broke and wiped the town off the map – or after.

We're afters. But that's okay.

We're also among the few who've actually climbed to the top of the thing. Or at least what's left of it. All that's left of the 305-foot-tall, 1,300-foot-long dam is the bit in the middle. The part to the north blew out when the dam failed, while the part on the south got dug out my investigators trying to figure out what went wrong. That means what's left is a roughly pyramid-shaped pile of dirt, clay, rock and sagebrush.

There are as many ways to get to the bottom of the canyon as there are people who make this voyage. We chose to descend the canyon wall on the south side, taking a trail that parallels an abandoned chain-link fence that used to surround an irrigation pump structure – the bunker from my imaginary tweet. There are also two roads that wind down either east or west of the dam. They make for easier walking, but they do take longer.

At the bottom of the canyon, there are plenty of places to explore. Other abandoned irrigation structures lie around, mostly on the south side of the river. But the dam remnant itself is what beckons. On the dam's east side, a rough road zigzags up the face, but to really see the maw where all the water gushed through, you have to get off the trail and wander around on the pyramid's northern side. Stay away from the edges – the slope is steep enough bits of the dam are still crumbling into the Teton River below. It's worth going to the edge, though, to see the giant's staircase-like outcroppings of rock that make up the canyon's northern wall where the dam used to connect, and for checking out the graffiti intrepid souls have painted on the canyon walls. In fact, there's one graffiti – a painting of a palm tree with the sun rising nearby – that I've seen at 17-Mile Cave, another of my favorite local wandering-spots.

It's an eerie, lonely place. Standing atop the dam, gazing to the east where the 250-foot-deep reservoir was supposed to be, you see the wild beauty of the river, nestled in its narrow, winding canyon between field after field of potatoes and grain. Pine trees and quakies hug the southern slopes, protected from the winter winds. The river is muddy, confined between cliffs of rolling basalt and rhyolite topped with agriculture.

To the west, more canyon, but different. It's scored by the floodwaters, still showing where the water stripped soil off the walls and carried it downstream.

I like it lonely. There's talk of rebuilding a dam on the river, but I'm not sure I'd support that. Not out of fear it'd break again, but because I like the idea that, if I wanted to, I could descend from the top of the dam and walk along the riverbanks, getting lost in the canyon somewhere up there before the walls flattened out and the river brought me into the Teton Valley, without likely seeing another human being, a habitation – aside from a manse or two perched on the canyon above – and seeing only the hawks flying above, being pestered by crows or sparrows.

Only 300 or so feet above my head, I as I walked in my imagination, is civilization – or at least as much civilization as agriculture offers. But where I am, it's wilderness. A corridor for the mountain man in me.

Who really, really, wants to tweet as he walks along. OK, how much is a smartphone?

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