July 15, 2017 You drive due north for a long time on US 95. The mileage markers pass 500. Idaho is a long, tall state. At some point, road signs don’t announce a next town. They say “Canada”. You are in Boundary County. This might be America’s best place name. A dozen miles south of the border you veer left onto Idaho 1. The road rides a bench on the eastern flank of a wide valley. The Purcell mountains are on the east and the Selkirks rise on the west. The mountains are clad with forest, edging up and over the peaks. This creates a deceptive sense of softness. Where fire has burned away the greenscape a rugged character is revealed.
It is an agricultural valley and there are glimpses of a magnificent bottom-land clad in wheat and canola. In early summer the canola blooms a dense cheery yellow. Miles of yellow. The wheat land is said to produce 100 bushels an acre– an almost mythic harvest. There are rolling slopes of wheat and alfalfa on the land rising from the bottoms. Cattle, horses, elk, and deer dot the land. Agricultural traffic can clog these roads. Locals have a forbearance for this slow traffic. In more eastern parts of the US, this delay would have drivers cursing and swerving. Not here.
A few miles up Route 1 you enter a road cut along an alfalfa field. As the road sinks into the land you can see the green roof of a snug cabin backed by a steep ridge studded with Spruce and Lodgepole. It can be easy to miss. You turn right where multiple mailboxes stand like rural sentries. It’s Idaho, so each has its own style and rust bloom. Multiple gravel drives head into the underbrush. The right fork takes you to the green-roofed cabin. As you pull into the dooryard, a massive black dog lopes your way. His tail wags so hard that his trunk folds like a concertina. This is Jasper and you are at the Hart place. The grand kids stream out, Jasper leans in and knocks you down. The long trip is over.
From the Hart’s, a grassy pathway winds through low brush. It passes piles of next year’s firewood, a few fruit trees, and sheds containing evidence of a rural life: tractors, scraps of wood, tools, bicycles and the other items that might someday be useful. The path leads to the Zales, Nate’s mom and step-dad. Roger and Naomi are the kindest people you might ever know. It makes sense that this path absorbs a lot of traffic. People, animals, services, food, and gear move seamlessly between the homes. Functionally, it is more of a hallway uniting a single home.
In addition to various sheds and coops there is one other building in the compound. It is a skull and skeleton museum and no doubt it is one of the world’s best. Nate has been collecting, trading, assembling, and curating skulls and skeletons for most of his life. (NO Pets or Humans!) Specimens often arrive in oozing, stinking boxes. They are rarely intact. Nate, with some magic chemistry and a well-developed beetle colony prep the bones for assessment and assembly. It is a painstaking process. (Some might find it a bit ghoulish.) For Nate, this prep is just part of the process. And the results are breathtaking. Where else might you find a skeletal cobra battling a skeletal mongoose, with skeletal grizzlies, wolves, and impalas looking on? Few people on this planet could lay claim to such a magnificent life work.
Lyndsay, my daughter, is far better known as Mrs. Hart, the teacher. She is posted at Mt. Hall, the northern-most school in Idaho. There is a forested slope to the rear and farms to the front and not much else. I can’t imagine the work is easy as there are too many kids, too little support and a remorseless bureaucracy that chips away at the ideals it allegedly supports.
Mrs. Hart might suspect that a number of parents want the school to fix their family problems. These kids might be violent or withdrawn. They might lack a hat, sandwich, or self-esteem. This is not in Mrs. Hart’s job description. It is front and center in her class-room every day.
Idaho is pro-gun, pro-life, pro-mining, pro-logging, pro-heterosexual, and pro-white. The state might be more pro-potato than pro-education. Mrs. Hart notices this but thinks local. These kids are her neighbors. At Mt. Hall School, a teacher is a community leader. In the absence of stores, government offices, and churches the classroom is a community outpost. Mrs. Hart is the mayor of this tiny, roiling village. She sets the rules, mediates disputes, allocates resources, curses the budget, dispenses with hugs, and paints the trim. And there are days when she teaches. It all works because Mrs. Hart leans in on the work and leans on a community of caring colleagues that understand this immense challenge.
She takes a big deep breath in June when the buses roll away and her summer begins. It is not long before Mrs. Hart is back, hanging posters, painting walls, repairing desks, and making ready. The river of kids flow without end. They leave and then return, bringing tales of high school, jobs, and new places. Mrs. Hart remains a north-star, a fixed point of navigation on their journey. Her work in the classroom is just a beginning. Mrs. Hart creates an impact that ripples across time and place.
And there is Maddie, my granddaughter. Somewhere in the tangled chain of genetics, Maddie received the water gene. Her season starts with ice out, and ends when the ice edges back in.
To witness Maddie in the water is to witness Brady at the line of scrimmage. Mastery, affinity, and joy come together. Unlike her mom, Maddie won’t be a state swimming champ. Swimming is not about purpose. It is about simplification and joy. No thought is given to water being too cold, sun being too bright, or better things to do. For Maddie, it is the moment, a chance to bring curiosity, energy, and inventiveness to her natural stage.
Watching Maddie promotes a realization. The Compound has guiding principles. It is exploration without fear, curiosity without constraint, and the simple joys of freedom. Kids aren’t closeted and adults don’t hover. Bruises, cuts, and stings are considered an emblem, not a consequence. Wyatt can traverse peaks and Maddie can stretch out with the trout. Eyes are watchful, but guiding words come in questions rather than orders. Up in the northern reaches of Boundary County, the horizons are far-reaching in every sense of the word.