When the smoke pours into Missoula, the psychological suffocation is just as real as the particulate matter drifting into your lungs. The days blend together like a dimly lit dream, and your spirit starts to wither. By the end of last week, the smoke was so bad that Chef Boy Ari was hanging out at the mall, for the air conditioning. Cruising the wide corridors, window shopping at Victoria’s Secret, examining Palm Pilots at Radio Shack and Italian porcelain at Café Dolce. I figured I could keep myself occupied until the rains of September kicked in.
On a brief trip home to water the garden, Ardito stopped by, inviting me to climb Slickrock—a 1,200-foot granite cliff, the longest uninterrupted technical rock climbing route in Idaho.
“Won’t it be smoky there, too?” I asked Ardito.
“I just called down there,” he said. “The guy I talked to said, ‘you’re calling from Missoula—that bowl where the smoke just sits. Here, the wind is blowing and the air is clean.’”
I’m not a climber, except when chased by bears, or if there is a jar of mayo at the top. Hanging onto a barren cliff, wearing shoes that make my toes feel constantly stubbed, entrusting my life to wafer-thin pieces of metal squeezed into cracks in the rock…no thank you, please.
But it was Friday night, even the bars were full of smoke, and tomorrow the mall would be crawling with weekenders. The prospect of immediate lungfulls of air was more than I could resist, so I squeezed into Ardito’s rig with two more climbers, Masm and Rocky, and our dogs, and we made a break for the fresh air of Idaho.
Driving up Route12 we passed the fire camps, tent villages with headlamps bobbing in the haze. When we cleared Lolo Pass, the Lochsa River smelled sweet as rain, and we could see the stars for the first time in days.
The next morning, the sky was clear and blue. After a jump in the Salmon River, we ate plums and blackberries by the side of the road, then got gas in the surprisingly touristy town of McCall. A dollar eighty-nine a gallon? Shoot, what’s the point of going to war if we can’t get cheap gas?
We turned east on a Forest Service road toward the Frank Church Wilderness. As we approached our destination, rock outcroppings rose from the green forest, and my rock-head friends got excited. “Wow, look at that one!” (slamming breaks). “Aw, yeah!” (group salivation, drool).
I’m like, “Jeez, you guys, it’s just a friggin’ rock.” They quickly shut me down with three pairs of stink-eye.
When we got there, the cliff was immense, sheer and smooth like a giant bar of soap. Rocky and I were climbing partners. She led, and her shorts fit her nicely. Seven pitches later we sat on top, munching smoked salmon and venison jerky—two flavors of smoke I can handle. We could see the menacing haze to the north and east.
On the walk down to the car, more wild sweetness: This time it was huckleberries, thimbleberries, service berries, currants and the tiny, delicious grouseberry. We set our course north and west, toward the edge of Hells Canyon. Sunday’s plan was to frolic amidst the Seven Devils, a curving chain of lake-infested peaks overlooking the deepest canyon in North America.
At the Seven Devils campground, it was time to feast. The thing that’s great about car camping—as opposed to backpacking—is that you can bring whatever you want. A cooler full of perishables, all the cookware you desire, bottles of wine…everything you need for the deluxe five-star quasi-backcountry dining experience.
On this occasion, the cooler contained specially prepared Ziplocs full of 24-hour-marinated venison backstrap cut into long thick strips. The marinade contained crushed garlic, mustard seeds, soy sauce, red wine, sugar, minced hot peppers and cider vinegar—all to taste.
First I prepared the grits—known as polenta in fancier circles. Whatever you call it, it’s basically just corn meal and water.
I heated six cups of water with a teaspoon of sea salt and a short pour of olive oil. When it boiled, I added three cups of corn meal. While it simmered, I stirred in some black pepper and kept stirring ’til the water was all absorbed. I tasted to make sure it was done and then sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Then I heated up some grapeseed oil in a cast-iron skillet and fried the meat strips—crispy on the outside, rare in the middle. I put them on top of the polenta, quickly fried the marinade liquid, and poured it on top. Served with wine, olives, feta, and Jack Daniels for dessert, it was very much not a problem.
The next day, as we frolicked in the high country, we looked toward Missoula, into the ominous haze creeping in our general direction. The entire Northern Rockies was burning. With heavy hearts and held breaths, we drove toward the smoky bowl of home.
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