The Curve of the River

by Pauline Mortensen

My father stored his dynamite here in this barn-dynamite he used to change the course of the river. A decade after he died, my brothers Ed and Jerry got rid of the dynamite. I can imagine how they got rid of it. I can see them throwing a stick at a time down some canyon; a stick a time after urging the old fuses to burn, first slow then fast, until the leaking, seamy stuff had been ”gotten rid of.’ ‘ No matter what they did with it, I suppose that it all went off, and no half box of unexploded dynamite lies strewn down a bank waiting to surprise someone in the hot distant future . But dynamite is not here anymore in the hay-littered barn where rats gnawed away for generations; I am here in carpeted comfort, in the barn at Magee, unbuttoning my pajamas in the night’s heat, putting my feet on the cold rafters above the loft.

I am here as an initiate-my first snowcat ride into the ranch in the dead of winter. I am the novice and the dunce . Can I help it if the snowcat keeps getting stuck? Ed complains he is not here to work, not here to pull me out of the powder when in my confusion I let up on the gas to avoid a mere abyss-and land in the powder; or when I gun the snowmobile and jump the abyss and land-in the powder. The idiot thing is not supposed to sink down to the windshield. But it does, and I get yelled at, and we come back to the barn to cool off and warm up.

So my father stored his dynamite here in this barn while he tried to change the course of the river. He blasted away a mile of rock to dig a new channel closer to the mountain , so that the river would run smooth and straight there, and leave the family alone where they were trying to plant a garden and raise chickens in the middle of the meadow. It was a precarious situation then, as it is now, trying to share with a wandering river the narrow space between two mountain ridges.

We sit here in the barn, which is now Ed’s cabin , and play pinochle with Carolea, his wife, and Elaine, our sister. Between Ed’s complaints about having to wait on three helpless women, we shuffle the cards and talk about old times.

Someone says, “Wouldn’t the old man have loved this?” referring to our father and how easy it is to get up here now, with the spring-cushioned, ignition-start snowmobiles sitting on the porch. And someone adds, “Yes, this is the life . He was just born thirty years too soon.”

Our father’s snowshoes hang crossed above the window like sabers, the curling cracked leather now varnished hard . These were the snowshoes he used when he wintered up here-that he used to check his beaver traps up Callus Creek and wore when he made emergency trips to Coeur d ‘Alene, where he walked full-bearded to see his family down the unplowed road out to Dalton.

This was my father before I was born. And I had always heard it said that, rather than thirty years too soon, he was born a hundred years too late.

I pull my feet off the cold rafters and slide them back under the blankets. This is my thermostat. The rest of me cooks in the compounding heat that rises to the loft, burdening the breathing air that sometimes condenses on the rafters and drops on my face . This is the thing about Ed’s barn. All the heat rises to the top, and Ed sleeps downstairs stoking the fire in a draft.

But I’m not complaining. I could be over at the house where Elaine and I tried to ” rough it” last night. Chop our own wood, dig our own snow-that sort of thing. She did not tell me that the stove was temperamental, that if you opened the door for more than five seconds to do something superfluous like stick in another log, the idiot thing would belch smoke out at you . It would stop drawing up the chimney the normal way and start pouring smoke out through the forty or fifty rust holes around the sides and fill the old homestead house inside of ten minutes. She did not tell me this. I was just supposed to know. So we lay there in bed in our knitted ski masks and our snowmobile suits, the doors and windows wide open so we could breath.

I try to remember what it was I came up here for. After all, I could be home going through the dumpsters behind McDonald’s looking for packing boxes. I should be doing that, because after the sheriff’s auction next month, my husband and I will have to move . They will be selling our home, not because we lost our jobs and couldn’t make the payments, but because the escrow man decided to take our downpayment and borrow on our equity and invest it all in a gold mine in Nevada.

So we are in transit, after having thought that we were settled. We thought this because we spent almost a year changing the landscape . As a sure sign of our intention to stay, we began scraping madly down to bedrock. We began with the fruit trees. I’d always had the misconception that the Orem bench was a soft alluvial hump, the sediment of a million-years inland sea. I was wrong. It is an alluvial rock pile dumped forcibly from the mouth of Provo Canyon and then cemented together by the clay sediment of a million-years inland sea. We chipped and dug for three days to plant those fruit trees. It was a warning we didn’t heed.

For the rest of the summer, as we watched our limp semi-dwarf fruit trees struggle for survival in their individually carved saucers of water, we worked on the rest of the yard. We heaped up rock and pushed it aside for the vegetable garden; we wedged it up and pressed it flat for the lawn; we groomed and cornered it into rocky but incredibly neat flower beds. We did all this in the summer, and in the fall the escrow man , who had embezzled our future, scraped together a few thousand dollars of someone else’s money and left town for places unknown .

This has been our experience with buying a house. Our lawyer has since shown us where we went wrong . He shows us in retrospect. My brother says, “You have a college education. You should have known better.” But I majored in literary theory. How am I supposed to know about real estate investment? All we wanted was a place to settle, to have one place to pile all our junk so we didn ‘t have to move it for the next thousand years.

I roll to the side to let my back cool. I didn’t come here to prove anything, to show Elaine and Ed that I’m still tough, still an Erickson, and that I haven’t become some educated fool who doesn’t know how to make it in the real world . I dido’ t come here for that. I came here to see the snow, to see the house in winter, to see the river and what it’s done to my father’s place . I came here because I am in transit.

There is something about this place that invigorates and depresses. It draws us frantically on like a burning fuse, hissing and fizzling under our stomping feet. It may be the river. Behind the house the frozen river flows idly under the ice. It is a mere trickle and a river only by definition. There is no hint of the torrent that rages every spring, the carnivorous beast that has already gnawed its way through a chicken coop , a bunkhouse, a half mile of board fence, a garbage dump, and a clothesline. Last year it took a bite from under the corner of the woodshed not twenty yards from the house . It is a geologic inevitability-the meandering stream in process, leveling our valley and our ranch to a peneplain.

We have tried with dozers and backhoes to pile rock, with shovels and axes to place toothpicks against the spring thaw. We need the Army Corps of Engineers. By ourselves we have only been rearranging rock.

Our father bought this place during the war, after a long line of spurious enterprises. Before. this he tried farming without seed and equipment, dude ranching without horses, and wool raising without sheep. He was going to make his fortune in Karakul sheep , selling the precious black wool to make coats, until he discovered that it took hundreds more sheep than his dozen and that he had to kill the young lambs just after they were born to take their curly black hides.

Before the ranch, the family was always moving-packing quilts and dishes and kitchen chairs for a new start. They moved from Rexburg to Bayview, to Rexburg, to Rose Lake , to Linfore , to Pritchard, to Dalton, always looking for an occupation that would not tax Dad’s weak heart. But he bought the ranch and made a living in the woods. It was one sustained rush to make his fortune before the dynamite in his chest exploded.

I remove my feet from the covers and try the rafters again. The cold moves down my legs, and I throw back my arms for air.

I had not been born yet, through all of these false starts; I’ve only heard about them around the card table on trips like this one, and most of what I know of this place is largely secondhand. Sometimes when we come up here, we sit around on the beds that line the living room of the house and bring out all the ‘ ‘blackmail” we can think of. Some of us are better at this than others. I can still remember the time my sister made me ride old Coalie against my will. I told her it wasn’t a good idea with all those other horses running up and down along the outside of that fence. But she made me do it. And when he bucked me off and I passed out, she carried me into the house screaming, “Speak to me, speak to me!” I don’t know why she doesn’t remember this like I do . I remember very distinctly her crying over my limp , battered body. The fact that I was unconscious at one point has nothing to do with it. She asks, ifl was knocked out, how could I remember what happened? She says I’m lying through my teeth to make her feel guilty about the bad back I’ve had ever since . But that’s got nothing to do with it. I like to tell the story because she’s forgotten it and gets so mad when I tell it and because it is just one of those things that happened here.

So we sit around telling such stories: about daddy and his exploits with the Fish and Game Department, about the poached deer he would always have in the cellar, about the time he spent in the Kellogg jail for poaching deer, and about the tame fawn that came bounding in the front door and skidded across the linoleum between daddy and the game warden, and the game warden jumping up and saying, “What on earth was that?” and daddy laughing, “Oh hell, they do that all the time .”

I was not even here when these things happened, but I can tell them as well as anyone. There are stories of other places, of Linfore , Bayview, Rose Lake . But there is a difference between those stories and the ones we tell about the ranch , about Magee. Here there is affection, good feeling. It is the pull of gravity and time, the settling place, the inside curve of the river.

So we sit around and tell game-warden stories, tell about the people who used to inhabit that world of a generation ago. And when we run out of stories about the past, stories about the dead, we disparage living relatives.

Most of us recognize the pull of gravity . We have our family reunion here every summer, and Elaine and I take the new generation up the face of Deer Hill across from the house , so we can pull the weeds out of rocks before we paint the great letter ”E” that stands for Erickson. Most of us come to the reunion , but there are some who refuse because of hard feelings-because the great bulk of the ranch, which we loved and hated while we were growing up here, was left to mother when daddy died, and during the sixties she sold it to our brother Glen , and he in turn sold it back to the government from whence it came-all but these ten acres. We’ve all regretted it ever since. But some fail to recognize our common loss and dally in tributaries, refusing to come back to the main stream.

Basically there are two contending factions in the family, two ways of explaining what has happened . Some of the family explain it this way. “You can’t live in the past. You have to support your present family . One way to do this is to invest in real estate . This is a very profitable way . But in order to invest your money, you must divest yourself of emotional attachment. You sit on the property a few years and then , taking advantage of the inflationary trend, you unload .” There are several who think this way . They are our rich relatives.

Our poor relatives argue thus: “The ranch is my heritage . It is my ancestral home . Someone has sold my ancestral home for a mess of pottage . The ten acres given back to the family is to appease a guilty conscience. I will not be party to appeasement.”

These are our left and our right. The rest of us take the middle ground and make snowcat trips here so we can sit and talk about everybody that doesn’t think like us.

Then too, we speculate . Where will my husband and I want to build our cabin? Which acre of the ten do we want? What about one big lodge which all ten of the brothers and sisters could build together? Some will never be able to afford their own cabin. And if they do, what will happen if all ten families and their children’s families decide to build their own private shack up here-digging backhouses wherever they please and polluting everybody else’s water supply. It could happen. So I am here in transit speculating on my one solid, snow-covered acre.

It goes on and on. We build phantom A-frames and log lean-to’s, while the very snow we are sitting on could melt suddenly with one good chinook and wash it all away . We are all poised on the powder of the inevitable. It’s all only a great “what-if”; someone building a retaining wall here, someone tearing it down there, the river surging and wiping clean the scrapings of a former, industrious generation, the river merely taking a wider swing and making an oxbow of where I live. Is that what I came here to find out, to rest my feet on a cold log and be cooked and smoked to death when I could be home packing my kitchen chairs?

Perhaps. But this is the view of the river through binoculars. I am standing on the ground, ground I thought was solid. Where do I go from here? I see my own ignorance, my own misguided judgment in real estate-and my husband’s. Let’s not leave him out of this. I see this and feel the sand dissolving beneath my feet. So I ask: Where do I insert the dynamite to change the course of the river, or how high of a retaining wall must I build? But these are rhetorical questions. I see more than this. I see the layered rock of ancient peneplains. Yet I see my own incredible need for place in the midst of all this change; I am neither a mover or a shaker of massive fortunes. I am a settler. And although the face of the land must change, I am still a river-running novice who has the gall to demand a place to pull in from the water-a shoal, a settling place, a sandbar, on the long inside curve of the river.