June 5th, 2023 is a day I will never forget. That’s the day my wife and I saw the Stanley Basin and the Sawtooth range for the first time. My knuckles still white from steering our 38’ RV, Jeep in tow, through the Salmon River corridor from Challis, we rounded yet another curve and the valley opened up, presenting a vista that will forever be seared in my memory. Long shadows lay strewn upon the landscape while the river danced and shimmered in the fading twilight. Cattle grazed along the bank, framed by log fencing that spoke of a time when the road was unpaved, and far less busy.
We quickly settled into our role as SIHA volunteers, our former work lives fading away like a mid-afternoon rain shower as the evening draws near. The immersion therapy of river rafting, horseback riding on the ridge above Little Redfish, campfires by the lake and the first Thursday night street dance of the summer left no doubt that we had come to a truly unique and special place.
At first glance, the peaks seemed distant, regal, aloof in their glory. I stood at their feet like a peasant, unsure if I was worthy to meet their gaze. Soon, however, the trails beckoned, and I came to the realization that the beauty we’re surrounded by is ready to embrace us. All that’s required is the willingness to breach the threshold and let the mountains draw us in, along with the knowledge that, like a Vegas casino, we’re required to play by their terms.
As I meandered upslope from the Boundary Creek trailhead through a grove of trees that were saplings when John Stanley first wandered into this valley, I couldn’t help but think that they were smiling benevolently at me. “Poor little man, with only a few more decades to live”, I heard them say. Meanwhile the rocks at their base laughed heartily at the mortality of the trees, oblivious to the fact that all the while the creek was smirking at the rocks, as if to say “I’ll be back for you later”. In the end, water always wins.
As June yielded to the turn of the calendar, we experienced our first Stanley Fourth of July parade. Along with our fellow SIHA comrades, we rolled into the fray in the bed of a truck, armed with buckets. It quickly became apparent that we had brought metaphorical knives to a gunfight, but we soldiered on, finishing our foray completely out of ammunition and soaking wet.
July also brought another inevitable change to the basin. Parking lots, suddenly overstuffed with vehicles of all shapes and sizes, tormented the periphery of my consciousness. I kept hearing Don Henley’s haunting admonition from the last song on Side B of Hotel California… “You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.”
Could this really happen? Is it already happening? The locals that I’ve met seem to feel that it is, but if my amateur, outsider assessment of the situation is of any comfort, I think the mountains and the parameters established by the SNRA will be Stanley’s fortress. An old football coach of mine was fond of saying “your strength is your weakness and your weakness is your strength”. I never spent much time contemplating the phrase, but I think it could prove accurate as it relates to the Sawtooths. The mountains bring people here, but the mental grit and physical demands it takes to live here year-round will prove too much for all but a hardy few. I certainly hope that I’m right, because it would be heartbreaking if the Sawtooths become another Park City or Flathead Lake.
Defining the SNRA with a single phrase is akin to triangulating the source of a thunderclap while hiking in a canyon. Idyllic and pastoral are oversimplifications. Magnificent or breathtaking feel worn, mundane, incapable of capturing the true essence of this place. I keep coming back to restorative. It’s impossible to smell sagebrush, willow, or damp pine in the still morning air and think that it’s not meant to be an elixir for your soul.
Mankind has been drawn to mountains, balanced on a razor-edge by equal parts of fear and awe, since we learned to master stone tools. Most of us never live at altitude but for brief and fleeting moments, pulled inexorably back to the lowlands and the daily grind of modern life. I consider myself blessed to have been afforded the opportunity to spend three months in this place. While I’ve left miles of footprints, I’ve harvested more than my share of memories!
Brian is a volunteer with the Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Association (SIHA). He enjoys assisting other Sawtooth newcomers as they learn about this special place.