We were excited. John and Laura, our first friends here in our new hometown invited us to take a drive to see land they owned outside Idaho City, and we were going by ourselves. We argued over what time to leave in the morning. It was not the first time we negotiated departure times. I won: 9:00, after walking and pooping Buddy, dressing ourselves warmly enough, and packing water in the car. The directions from John, according to Google maps, indicated a drive less than 90 minutes to the property. We stopped for lattes, then plugged our destination into the car’s navigation system, which like Google and John, had us begin on State Highway 44. We looked over the instructions in John’s email, debated whether to obey “Carol” the car navigator, or John/Google, and impulsively chose Carol. She was harder to ignore, for starters, and we thought, how rough could National Forest Service roads be, after all? Our new Subaru Outback could easily handle almost anything. It had the capacity to practically drive itself.
Carol instructed us to drive into Boise’s North End, and take 8th Street up the hill, east out of the city. Almost immediately, 8th Street became gravel, then hard pack, as it climbed the bald knobs of the Boise Hills, dropping hikers and mountain bikers at access points, and wound uphill steadily, squeezing itself to one lane, then a channel of dirt between scrub brush and barbed wire. Carol grew less talkative, as if she, too, was wondering where we were going.
The road became bouncy, rutted and very narrow. As long as we were climbing from the treeless west, we only needed to focus on its surface. Inexplicably, wooden posts with vertical lettering informed us of the road’s name changes. At some point the road became NF Road 231 or Mile High Road, then 275, then 275E (because there are actually TWO dirt trails with the same name), and finally NF 261. For Steve and me, this was the least important information we needed. We wondered aloud at our decision to listen to Carol, who periodically chirped her observations with a bravado that belied all of our convictions. She kept updating our arrival time, pushing it from 10:30 to 10:43, 10:55, 11:07… but there was, quite literally, no turning back, and God help us if we happened on another traveling vehicle (donkey, llama, or horse being the only seemingly viable means of transportation). We did, however, drive past two camping groups, which floored us: how – and WHY – did these people go HERE?
We reached a point at which, upon beginning our descent, we realized was the road’s summit. We sighed bigly, assuming the worst was behind us. We had entered forest territory now, and the by-now-late morning sun shone through the windshield. Steve eased the car into a coast, we both relaxed our respective grips on wheel and passenger grab bar, and shifted downhill. Into hell.
The road was barely the width of the vehicle. Great forest evergreens, and the sharp, leafless scrub branches beneath them combed and keyed our car. The ground pitched, and boulders and branches emerged as our vehicle rolled inexorably downhill, inch by inch. Steve maneuvered the wheel, his knuckles glowing in the shadows, eyes unblinking. I hung on to the overhead handle above my seat, leaning into the driver’s side, alternatively squeezing my eyes shut or staring horrified at what was in front of us. The car squealed and branches scraped its sides. Every time Steve negotiated a tire-wide rut, or a toddler-sized boulder, I rose out of my seat, as if helping the car clear its next obstacle.
Our estimated time of arrival jumped to noon. We had no idea where we were, beyond a sense that we were “west” of Highway 21, and “north” of the interstate. At least once, we believed we would have to abandon the Subaru and walk out. We didn’t actually say this out loud to each other at the time.
At one point Steve stopped the car, got out, and looked around. He was taking some time, until I realized he was pissing in the road. Right then I recognized my own urgency, but, since even breathing had become a deliberate, conscious act, didn’t dare say anything. He returned to the car. I touched his arm. I repeated a sentence I’d uttered several times on the way up. “You are doing an amazing job.” I followed up: “I feel safe.” I was lying about that; I believed we were going to roll off the mountain and crash and that I would suffocate from the airbag that would punch me in the diaphragm, saving my brain but puncturing my lungs. But safety—of his children, of me—has always been Steve’s deepest motivation; calling on his inner Boy Scout was an act of reassurance. For both of us.
We really were scared. Yet we did not turn on each other. At 12:15, we came out on something resembling an actual road; NF 261 opened up to lane-size, the ruts receded in depth, and a cabin appeared, as did a creek. Clear Creek, in fact, as this widened trail was called. An actual street sign told us.
We had taken the “back route” to John’s property. Following his instructions in reverse, we found the lot easily, parked the damaged and traumatized car, and slowly stretched our limbs. I found a spot, squatted and peed a long stream, releasing all those hormones and adrenaline into the dirt. We walked around the property, and walked it again. Elkhaven. It felt good to breathe clean open air, to swing arms in tandem with legs, to let sink in that we were, truthfully, safe.
Were there elk there? Not that day. Instead: Ponderosa pine, firs, and in the distance quaking aspen, its brilliant foliage just beginning to shine; jays, nuthatches, owls; chipmunks and squirrels. And that silence that emerges from a cold clear windless day. It smelled delicious, perfect, present.
We were reluctant to get back in the car; it felt a little wrong, but the temperature was only in the mid-thirties; we were hungry, and eager to drive on pavement again. Steve and I had arrived in our new state a mere two weeks before, with our old dog and our coffeemaker, having just dropped off the youngest at college en route. We had reduced our belongings to one trailer cube, and were awaiting arrival of furniture we’d ordered for our new home. The morning of the drive, we were still sleeping on a mattress on the floor, and sitting on two folding chairs, in a freshly painted and carpeted house about three times too big for us. We felt very much as if we were in a holding pattern, waiting to settle into a sense of community and belonging. There were no ties to anyone around us. We were, for the first time in our marriage, truly and completely on our own in a whole new world. The level of dependency we felt for each other made us both more nervous than we cared to admit. It was hard to remember to be kind all the time. The decision to go for a Sunday drive was a tacit peace offering to an exciting but tense couple of weeks.
The drive out took over 3 hours; the return, only 40 minutes, just like John said. Stopping at a new favorite breakfast spot just before closing time, we ordered huge meals, things smothered in gravy. We ate quickly and completely, scraping our plates as if we hadn’t had food in days. We congratulated ourselves, profusely, repeatedly raising our glasses of orange juice, as if we’d just returned from scaling one of the Himalayan peaks. Years ago, we’d gone to Italy, staying in a thousand year old castle in Umbria for a week before checking into a Marriott property in Rome, where Steve promptly fell on his knees and kissed the marble floor of the bathroom. Crumpling our napkins and belching, we used one of our cell phones to order car-buffing supplies on the Amazon app, and probably a couple of other things, because, frankly, it felt a little like Christmas. We beamed at each other; we couldn’t think of one thing to disagree on.
We really were scared. Yet we did not turn on each other. Sitting in that booth at The Griddle, I realized we were going to survive this ride that, in many ways, was far bumpier and more mysterious than any trip into any national forest in Idaho. Finally coming home, yes, home, we fell on each other in a frenzy of survival sex. We had no idea what would happen next in our lives, but we had each other. Tomorrow was another day, and that Subaru could practically buff itself.
Ana Rojas Halland was a professional opera singer for more than 25 years. She is a stepmother to five young adult children and currently lives in Eagle, Idaho with her husband Steve – and Buddy, The Best Dog In All The Land.