On All Sides Nowhere (Bakeless Prize)

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9780618189298: On All Sides Nowhere (Bakeless Prize)

When Bill Gruber left Philadelphia for graduate school in Idaho, he and his wife decided to experience true rural living. His longing for the solitude and natural beauty that Thoreau found on Walden Pond led him to buy an abandoned log cabin and its surrounding forty acres in Alder Creek, a town considered small even by Idaho standards. But farm living was far from the bucolic wonderland he expected: he now had to rise with the sun to finish strenuous chores, cope with the lack of modern conveniences, and shed his urban pretensions to become a real local. Despite the initial hardships, he came to realize that reality was far better than his wistful fantasies. Instead of solitude, he found a warm, welcoming community; instead of rural stolidity, he found intelligence and wisdom; instead of relaxation, he found satisfaction in working the land. What began as a two-year experiment became a seven-year love affair with a town he'll always consider home.

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About the Author:

William Gruber is a professor of English at Emory University. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia, but spends his summers in Alder Creek, Idaho.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

[ 1 ] On All Sides Nowhere

Idaho first registered on my consciousness at the movies. In the summer of 1960 I was sixteen, and in the middle of August there was no place in suburban Pennsylvania to find air conditioning except in supermarkets or theaters. I could not spend summer days amid the cabbages and canned goods, and so to escape the heat I went with my friends as often as I could to the movies; one of the movies I sought out was an elegy for the waning days of modern civilization, On the Beach.
To the filmgoing public in 1960, keenly aware that despite all the best intentions the cold war could suddenly turn hot, the movie was perfectly credible. It was set only a few years into the future; a calendar on the wall read, ominously, “1964.” Nuclear war of undisclosed origins had killed everyone in the Northern Hemisphere, and now, as a lethal cloud of radiation spread slowly over the planet, one of the last surviving groups of humans clustered in Melbourne, Australia, to await the end. It was an intoxicating, almost carnivalesque, experience. Gregory Peck played the romantic lead opposite Ava Gardner, and at one point in the film, Peck, the taciturn commander of a nuclear submarine, tells Ava Gardner about his origins. In answer to her question about his childhood home, he replies with a single word that at the time seemed more homiletic than informative: “Idaho.” Whose decision was it for Peck to claim Idaho for his birthplace? Of all the possible states the scriptwriter could have chosen, why that one? And it was a choice: for the record, Peck was born in La Jolla, California, and his character in Nevil Shute’s novel from which the movie was adapted comes from Westport, Connecticut. Peck’s “Idaho” drops like a stone into a well of unknown depth; it falls without trace, without echo. It is a piece, apparently, of purely gratuitous information.
Why Idaho? The name resonates oddly with Melbourne and San Francisco, the environments of On the Beach. Those places set the mood of the film. To Americans in 1960, Melbourne was alien, exotic, and San Francisco brought to mind the glitz and romance of California. Set in that context, and set against the despairing hedonism of humans who number their remaining days according to the drifting global winds, “Idaho” seems dissonant. Its sound is stark, but as Peck speaks it, it sounds also moral and attractive. It seems to express Peck’s loneliness, his longing for the simplicity of childhood and for the innocence of a world before the Bomb. None of the familiar mythic names of the American West, not Texas or Oregon or Colorado, would have the same aura of pure expressivity. My guess is that the name “Idaho” was chosen for its semantic emptiness. The name made sense because to most people “Idaho” meant nothing, and, meaning nothing, it could stand in for the infinite pathos of a world that would shortly cease to exist. Idaho was then, and in some ways still is, a geographic What You Will, and as a result the name “Idaho” becomes a kind of cultural Rorschach test for whoever happens to reflect on it.

A road map of Idaho, if you focus on the narrow strip of land that sits atop the main bulge of the state, will show U.S. 95 extending upward from the town of Lewiston on the Snake River and running due north until it touches British Columbia. U.S. 95 is the only north– south road in the state; for most of its five hundred–odd miles, its major function is commercial. On it, apart from a few weeks in summer at the height of the vacation season, wheat and wood chips move south to the granaries in Moscow or the pulp mills in Lewiston, logs by the tens of thousands head north to the lake towns of Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls, and Sandpoint. On that map, halfway between Moscow and Coeur d’Alene, several miles above a couple of minuscule settlements designated, echoically, Desmet and Tensed, a thin blue line splits off from U.S. 95 and runs due east for twenty miles until it dead- ends in Idaho 5 coming north from St. Maries.
Nothing much shows on that road big enough to be named; it starts from nowhere, goes to noplace. Travelers on it turn their backs on the rolling grainlands of eastern Washington and head toward a low wall of mountains, smooth, rounded, thick with timber. The change in topography is instantaneous. In less than two miles they’re in the foothills of the Bitterroots, the westernmost range of the Rocky Mountains, scarcely seventy-five miles from the Montana border. Once over the first row of hills, the road descends again and presses deeper into those foothills for fifteen miles or so, following alongside the Benewah Creek and through the Benewah Valley.
Houses and landmarks on that road are few. It’s a gravel road, in theory at least, but for much of its length it’s better described as a dirt road backed up withhhhh whatever rocks nature or the Benewah County road crew found time to strew there. “I lived here better than twenty years,” the owner of Benewah Motors, Wally Krassalt, once told me as we made our way from town out toward my place to diagnose my ailing Land Rover, “and I never once saw the Benewah Road in good shape.” Much of the time the road follows alongside the Benewah Creek, running slightly above the creek through draws filled with alder and aspen or traversing occasional flatlands and pockets of deep forest. You drive along the road with no real sense of progress. It’s hard to mark the miles: there are no towns to encounter, no height toward which to aspire, just a succession of curves and glimpses of fields and pockets of forest so similar that they are valueless as landmarks. If you pursue the Benewah Road almost to its terminus at State 5, you come upon a Dumpster, angle-parked on a turnout on the downhill side of the road, positioned so that as you discard your trash you can look out and down at a postcard view of the southernmost end of a chain of glacial lakes that stretch from St. Maries north almost to Canada. On most days the Dumpster overflows with abandoned household goods, broken bedsteads and electrical components, scraps of carpet, Sheetrock, and lumber, random tools or parts of tools, bald and shredded tires, and pieces of cars. At one time some local wag took a can of bright orange paint and sprayed “Benewah Shop-n-Save” on the side of the Dumpster. Like all good humor, it had one foot in reality; my neighbors and I checked that Dumpster regularly, like a lottery ticket.
Long before you encounter the Dumpster, though, if you are headed east from U.S. 95, you pass a spot marked on your map as “Benewah.” Maps denote “Benewah” with a small blue circle, as if to promise travelers a settlement of some kind or other situated about midway along the road, but the maps promise more than ever existed. Even in the heyday of north Idaho logging and homesteading, there never was a town named Benewah. The place is recognizable as a civic location only because of two buildings, an abandoned one-room school, painted, the time I first saw it, bright pink, and a swaybacked frame structure with a faded sign, “Benewah General Store,” and because of a smaller dirt road that dead-ends at the Benewah Road just east of the schoolhouse. Less than a hundred yards along that lesser road a sign cautions you that there should be “No Heavy Hauling When Surface Is Soft.” In one instant, if you read it attentively, that sign tells you much about the local climate and economy as well as the politics and favorite pastimes of the people who live there. The sign, like every other sign the county erected along that road, is riddled with small holes; it’s an instance either of vandalism or of “bullet art,” depending on your point of view. As you pass by the sign, the road begins to climb out of the valley and heads into the timber. Now you’re on the road to Alder Creek.

We bought forty acres of land, about the smallest amount of land available then by way of rural subdivision. Our forty acres were a quarter part of the 160 acres that had once belonged to a family named Deja. In the early decades of the twentieth century the place was the headquarters for a local logging crew, and then, the timber gone and the land valueless to the company that owned it, the land passed as a second-generation homestead to Deja. Our place contained Deja’s house, a log cabin about twenty by thirty feet with green cardboard interior walls and two antiquated but functioning wood stoves, a ruinous and older cabin that had been built in 1915 as a bunkhouse for a crew of loggers, and a lovely and graceful barn with the top half of its roof missing. Around the house were two, maybe three acres of meadow and pasture dotted with huge stumps left from the first time that particular piece of land had ever lost trees to human hands. Most of them were burned black, evidence of someone’s vain attempt to turn cut-over timberland into pasture. The rest of our place, officially 37.5 acres according to the tax records, was woodland.
Forty acres is a big place to someone used to measuring his horizons in terms of city blocks, although I soon understood that a square of land one-quarter mile on a side was much too insignificant to register against the immensity of the American West. Translated into its legal description, our forty acres seemed downright puny: we owned merely the northeast quarter of the northeast quarter of Section 32, Township 45 North, Range 3 West, Boise Meridian. That legal description reflects the surveyor’s grid that was laid down over the western half of the country when it was opened for development. Homesteads were designated as one quarter of a section, or 160 acres—more than large enough to make a living if the land was fertile and the growing season long, but in northern Idaho too small to do much other than to cut the timber and sell out. The real winners in the development of much of the American West were not the homesteaders but the railroads, which, in exchange for their efforts and expenses at laying track, were granted alternating sections of land along their rights of way. A mile of track, 640 acres of land: it made for estates the size of which would have put a dukedom to shame, and it made the railroads rich. Even in the 1970s, when the railroads nationally were losing money by carloads, the Burlington Northern compensated for its losses by selling timber from its vast holdings.
Before Deja owned it, our place had been the site of a logging camp. The original bunkhouse was situated by the road, and we found rusty sections of rail and rail spikes in the grass by the barn, the remnants of a small logging railroad that had been built down the draw of our creek to where it debouched into a bigger stream that fed the main fork of Alder Creek. To the north across the road lay two of the three remaining forties from the Deja place, owned then by absentees, and about a mile to the east was the Brede ranch house, unoccupied except during the summer grazing season and fall roundup. Beyond us to the south was a large, lightly timbered meadow, almost a savannah, and beyond that lay a mile or more of dense forest that ended at the Alder Creek Loop Road. Our closest neighbors lived along that road: Ed and Jean Strobel, Jim Yearout, Bud and Bertha Yearout, and “Cotton” and Peggy Stanridge. With the exception of the Strobels, they had all lived in Alder Creek for decades.
The first days on our farm were full of emptiness; I had never known such quiet, and with the stillness came many unexpected discoveries. Sitting high atop the barn roof one afternoon I heard for the first time the rush of air over a crow’s wings as it flew by overhead. Mornings in the cold, still air you could sometimes pick up traces of conversation spoken nearly half a mile away at the Brede ranch, and later in the winter I often stood on the porch simply to listen to the falling snow. It fell with a hiss, the lightness of which buoyed the spirits like a sleeping child’s breath.
Our place hardly resembled Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “little house in the big woods.” On three sides of our land lay the open rangeland of the Brede ranch, and on the remaining northern side meandered the county road. So we could not think of ourselves as living on the edge of a forest, much less a wilderness. But still it gave us pleasure to contemplate owning a woods big enough to get lost in for a short time, if only you remembered not to walk too long in a straight line, and big enough too to support its own wildlife population. We had our own resident deer, coyotes, grouse, and beavers. In the meadows wildflowers grew in great profusion: dandelions, lupine, and wild roses in May; ox-eye daisies, Indian paintbrush, and mustard in summer; and Canada thistles in late August, on those days when you felt the first chill of fall in the morning air.
And we had mushrooms. One of our entertainments in April and early May was to hunt wild mushrooms, mainly morels. One day, not long after we were living in our cabin, Nancy came across several women with baskets tramping through the woods. They were members of the Spokane Mushroom Club, they said, and they had hunted morels on this land for years. Despite her assurances that they were still welcome to hunt our land, we never saw them again. But their visit was the inspiration for our own interest in hunting mushrooms, and each year during the early spring there was nothing more important to us than gathering morels.
Part of the reason we hunted mushrooms was economic; we were always looking for ways to stretch our budget. But the economic value of twenty pounds of morel mushrooms—a good annual harvest—was insignificant in relation to the social value of the hunt. Hunting mushrooms and talking about hunting mushrooms were communal enterprises for us and for our neighbors, almost a cult; the sociability of the activity increased its satisfaction. Nancy became the expert, and she recruited our daughter Elaine as soon as she could walk; together they endured cold, rain, snow, and gloom as they made the rounds of their favorite, often secret glades.
Some of the appeal of foraging in the woods was the experience, new for us, of being in tune with the natural world. Hunting mushrooms, you focused on the smallest of environmental details, the texture and color of scales on a fallen cone (these closely resembled young morels) or the contours of the forest duff (small mushrooms, especially young boletes, often lay partly hidden under a carpet of needles). And some of the attraction was distinctly sensual. Sure, the morel vaguely resembles a phallus, but this erotic shape wasn’t really part of their emotional and intellectual appeal. Mushrooms have always been symbols of potent unconscious forces, forces as potentially dangerous as they are liberating, and so one of their charms comes from the knowledge that unlike, say, corn or asparagus, wild mushrooms are not entirely under human control. At times, hunting mushrooms be-came a mystical experience; as the author of one field guide puts it, hunting mushrooms is “not simply a matter of traipsing through the woods in winter. It is an art, a skill, a meditation, and a process.”

Driving across the country I still play the childhood game of looking for rare license plates. Of all the states, none appears more seldom than Idaho. I’ve seen plates from Alaska and even Hawaii more often than from Idaho; it’s as if something about the environment breeds people who stay close to home. “There is no stranger destination,” writes Marilynne Robinson, than Idaho, “nor odder origin.” Each year people ask me where I spend the summer. I say “Idaho,” and I can tell by the emptiness of their faces that my answer put them in a state of social uneasiness. To tell an easterner you’re planning a trip to Idaho is to strain the rules of etiquette. There’s never a comfortable response. It ...

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Book Description Mariner Books, United States, 2002. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****. When Bill Gruber left Philadelphia for graduate school in Idaho, he and his wife decided to experience true rural living. His longing for the solitude and natural beauty that Thoreau found on Walden Pond led him to buy an abandoned log cabin and its surrounding forty acres in Alder Creek, a town considered small even by Idaho standards. But farm living was far from the bucolic wonderland he expected: he now had to rise with the sun to finish strenuous chores, cope with the lack of modern conveniences, and shed his urban pretensions to become a real local. Despite the initial hardships, he came to realize that reality was far better than his wistful fantasies. Instead of solitude, he found a warm, welcoming community; instead of rural stolidity, he found intelligence and wisdom; instead of relaxation, he found satisfaction in working the land. What began as a two-year experiment became a seven-year love affair with a town he ll always consider home. Bookseller Inventory # APC9780618189298

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Book Description Mariner Books, United States, 2002. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****.When Bill Gruber left Philadelphia for graduate school in Idaho, he and his wife decided to experience true rural living. His longing for the solitude and natural beauty that Thoreau found on Walden Pond led him to buy an abandoned log cabin and its surrounding forty acres in Alder Creek, a town considered small even by Idaho standards. But farm living was far from the bucolic wonderland he expected: he now had to rise with the sun to finish strenuous chores, cope with the lack of modern conveniences, and shed his urban pretensions to become a real local. Despite the initial hardships, he came to realize that reality was far better than his wistful fantasies. Instead of solitude, he found a warm, welcoming community; instead of rural stolidity, he found intelligence and wisdom; instead of relaxation, he found satisfaction in working the land. What began as a two-year experiment became a seven-year love affair with a town he ll always consider home. Bookseller Inventory # APC9780618189298

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Book Description Mariner Books. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Paperback. 144 pages. Dimensions: 8.2in. x 5.5in. x 0.4in.When Bill Gruber left Philadelphia for graduate school in Idaho, he and his wife decided to experience true rural living. His longing for the solitude and natural beauty that Thoreau found on Walden Pond led him to buy an abandoned log cabin and its surrounding forty acres in Alder Creek, a town considered small even by Idaho standards. But farm living was far from the bucolic wonderland he expected: he now had to rise with the sun to finish strenuous chores, cope with the lack of modern conveniences, and shed his urban pretensions to become a real local. Despite the initial hardships, he came to realize that reality was far better than his wistful fantasies. Instead of solitude, he found a warm, welcoming community; instead of rural stolidity, he found intelligence and wisdom; instead of relaxation, he found satisfaction in working the land. What began as a two-year experiment became a seven-year love affair with a town hell always consider home. This item ships from multiple locations. Your book may arrive from Roseburg,OR, La Vergne,TN. Paperback. Bookseller Inventory # 9780618189298

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