Mary Churchwell The Cabin on Sawmill Creek

ISBN 13: 9780870043802

The Cabin on Sawmill Creek

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9780870043802: The Cabin on Sawmill Creek

Mary Jo and Stew Churchwell fled Southern California to get away from the rat race. They built a cabin on a tiny stream called Sawmill Creek, high in the Idaho Rockies, where the only rats in the race are the wood rats. This is required reading for those who dream of dropping out.

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A man dwells in his native valley like a corolla in its calyx, like an acorn in its cup. Here, of course, is all that you love, all that you expect, all that you are. Here is all the best and all the worst you can imagine. What more do you want? - Henry David Thoreau

In central Idaho, the ranges of the Rockies bunch on their march through the state, making access so difficult development isn't even thought of yet. This is wilderness - not pristine wilderness like the fur trappers knew, not wilderness by Alaskan standards - but wilderness nonetheless. It is the limit of the habitable earth, still uncivilized some would say.

In this mountain vastness, among the ragged peaks of the Sawtooth Range, the Salmon River rises in a trickle of snowmelt and begins its undammed route to the Snake. The Salmon meanders through meadows of its own making. It divides and forms islands of sand where geese raise their young. It curves and creates cattail marshes where deer come to drink, blackbirds to breed, and ducks to winter warm beside the thermal springs. Where the river boils backwards, helmeted river-runners ride. Where it slows to riffles, anglers stand in rubber boots, throwing lines across the backs of migrating steelhead. Where the river carved a valley, at the far end of the rainbow, the town of Challis lies, a classic picture of the old Wild West.

The curves in the Salmon River (known locally as the "River") account for the curves on Scenic Byway 93 (known locally as the "Highway"). This ribbon of pavement connects Challis with rural-route ranches and one-lane dirt roads that follow feeder creeks down from the peaks of the Salmon River Range. These roads bear numbers not names. They drift closed in winter, wash out in spring. Ten miles north of Challis, where the river meets Morgan Creek, such a road begins its climb to the top. The road runs wide through wild pastures. Then it narrows where the cliffs close in. Where cottonwoods give way to aspens and the road crosses a creeklet called Sawmill, the two ruts we call a driveway begin.

Our driveway runs for a mile, through acres of wildflowers in some seasons or acres of snow, crossing the creek twice without benefit of bridges. Within that mile it passes through a gate separating hundreds of miles of public pasture from two parcels of private pasture. Finally the driveway passes through our gate and up the sagebrushed hillside where it dead ends at our back door.

Thirteen years ago Stew and I came into Salmon River country, not to hide out for a few summers but to live year-round in sync with the seasons. Having left our life in smoggy Southern California, having left the tameness and sameness of our days and a future that offered little of what we wanted, we came to live off the land (as they used to say it). Here in Sawmill Canyon, far removed from humankind, we chipped out a niche and found our way back to a better time.

Lucky us. There is no time but right now, no place but right here. From our porch, national forest lands heave and hump in every direction to all horizons near and far. We are surrounded by peaks pointed and packed with snow until late June. When I stand in my garden, in the warm summer sunshine, with the green grass growing all around, I know the only world worth living in is the world on Sawmill Creek.

The mountains control our lives. The climate brings killing frost ten months a year and locks us in from November to May. But the climate only partly defines our lifestyle, a lifestyle Spartan to be sure but bare-boned by no means. To say we are poor isn't exact. Ours isn't a millstone poverty, a poverty we haven't the strength or the means to lift off our backs. Ours is a voluntary poverty, something we don't exactly embrace but something we willingly accept as payment for riches beyond belief. We do not suffer, believe me. Like Thoreau we measure wealth not in money but in sunny hours and summer days, in the abundance and diversity of wildlife, in happiness and good health and air so clear you can see every pine needle. Our work is not bound by bosses but by nature's saner jurisdiction. Every day we deal with things that are real. As the seasons change from white to green to greener to gold, our labors turn to foraging, gardening, fishing, and hunting. In sum, we have fun. Like the folks in town say, "Those Churchwells don't work."

Every culture needs its dropouts. Call us countercultural pilgrims, if you will, because we scorn this high-tech age we live in. Call us old hippies (or whatever hippies are called nowadays) because we moan that we were born too late when so much that was good is gone. Bartering is gone. Now goods and services are paid for by check not moonshine or country hams. The Age of the Horse is gone. It has been dead and buried for decades. Driving a horse-drawn buckboard over these crooked mountain roads would be about as safe as driving it on the Hollywood Freeway at rush hour, and just as insane. Even more disheartening is that we old-fashioned meat hunters must abide by modern game laws, laws designed for trophy hunters, laws that run contrary to natural selection, and at times even common sense. But what is most disheartening of all is that today's burgeoning population has fueled the fires of environmental crisis. Where Sawmill's frontiersmen fought weather and wolves, Stew and I fight the managers of public lands, who all too often cater to the politics of the day. While dreaming of the way it was, we hope for the way it will be.

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Churchwell, Mary
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