Davidson: ‘Paradise’ has turned a little grim
Writers on the Range
January glowed brightly around us as we hiked the ridgeline of Carbonate, the mountain flanking the Big Wood River on the edge of Hailey, Idaho.
It’s a popular hiking spot, generally in late spring and fall. The entire trail is open to the sky, and switchbacks quickly unfurl views of the Smoky Mountains, Camas Prairie and the star-pointed peaks of the Pioneers. Even when I’m out of breath, it’s hard not to fling up my arms and whoop at the glory of it all.
As my husband and I scrambled toward the summit, slushing through small pockets of snow, our dog bounded ahead. Dark midwinter days can be tough, and it felt good to be in the sunshine, working hard. The mountainside was dotted with people. A fit, gray-mustachioed gentleman crossed our path on his descent and gave a half-cocked smile. “Just another tough day in paradise,” he said.
We laughed and nodded. That line — “just another tough day in paradise” — is slung around a lot in this area around the plush Sun Valley Resort. It’s a statement edged with both gratitude and smugness. “Tough,” of course, is always said ironically. We enjoy majestic views, sparkling rivers and sage-scented air. I’m sure that some of us feel like we’re part of “the geography of hope,” as Wallace Stegner called it in his wilderness letter 50 years ago.
On this particular winter day, the Pioneer peaks were embossed like crisp white linen on a brash blue sky. Yet it was hard to ignore that we were approaching the 6,720-foot summit in January while wearing running shoes. And we were walking on bare ground in mid-winter for the second year in a row. A hike that we always considered closed until April is fast becoming a January tradition.
A year ago, the snowpack in central Idaho was only half of average, which meant tough times for local businesses and a winter economy built around skiing. Farther down the watershed is Magic Reservoir, the water storage facility that allows the dry Snake River Plain to bloom with alfalfa, sugar beets and grain. The reservoir was predicted to fall far short of irrigation demands, and people were worried, until spring rains came and dampened the tension for a while longer. This year, the snowpack started out fair but has been receding over the past month. We’ve had rain for days at a time — in February! — that washes away more snow. Worries about summer water have surfaced again.
The ground we’ve walked on Carbonate for the past two Januarys has suffered more than inadequate snowfall. In August 2013, Carbonate was engulfed in the 111,490-acre Beaver Creek Fire. Smoke ghosted the valley; ash choked the river. The south side of the mountain, thick with sage and rabbitbrush, burned hot and fast. The east side burned longer, as solitary pines torched one after another. So the ground we hiked in January 2014 was black. This January, the ground still looked raw, more gray now than black. A few snow banks clung to shady spots.
As we arrived at the summit of Carbonate, frayed prayer flags fluttered, and a mosaic of stickers from coffee shops and outdoor gear companies covered the metal flagpole. A faded yellow ribbon still clung to the pole, honoring the American soldier from Hailey who was held captive in Afghanistan for five years.
A friend once told me, “The hard thing about living here is that there’s so much pressure to be happy.” Ultimately, she retreated to a place near Magic, that reservoir 30 miles downstream. Her view from her trailer consists of a wide expanse of desert and a dugout lake. She finds that stark view a little easier to live with.
Paradise in Idaho’s Wood River Valley has some scorched edges these days, and those edges might be as significant as the peaks. Still, we try to look to the future with optimism. Perhaps more snow will come before spring truly arrives. Perhaps the reservoirs will fill. And when the hillsides flash green and the yellow balsamroot blooms, our hopes for summer will flicker, too, and we’ll forget both snow and fire.
For now, we relish the hikes we get to take on Carbonate, though we probably should not. Much of the vegetation here was burned by the fire, and our footsteps pounding away at the bare ground surely nudge it closer to erosion.
But on a midwinter day, when the sky is blue and the sun is bright, we can’t resist walking the line — burned-out and muddy as it is — along that rough and tender edge.
Jenny Emery Davidson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in central Idaho and serves as the executive director of The Community Library in Ketchum.
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