Is This the Way to Idaho?

In the 1970s, in the middle of May after I finished teaching the spring semester, a few of us guys from Amarillo, Texas, would go camping in New Mexico and Colorado before snow completely melted in the mountains.  We called our movable camp, The Rendezvous, after the “present yourselves” French word, and more historical, the mountain man trade meetings in the early nineteenth century.  We camped out for a week, avoiding established campsites in favor of back country in the national forests:  Gila, Kit Carson, Isabell.  We took several pickups and one pop-up Coleman camper, tons of grub, beer (before several guys went on the wagon in the late 70s), money for bail, and reading material.  Over the decade of the seventies, we camped from the Conejos River Valley in Colorado to the desert boot heel of Columbus, New Mexico.  We bailed our friend out of jail at Tierra Amarilla and ate native plants near Jemez Springs.

One May, we started our movable camp at Holy Ghost Canyon near Santa Fe, up the Pecos River , then northwest ascending Holy Ghost Creek.  Getting to the campgrounds was tedious, dangerous, and way, way far into the forest.  The road to Holy Ghost turned into a one-lane, barely passable road where if you met a car or truck, you usually had to back up to a side cut in the road so both could pass.  Warning signs back at the main road that goes from Pecos to Cowles alerted recreational vehicles from ascending to Holy Ghost Campground, although stock trailers could usually make the trip to pastures in the high country of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to round up cattle.  Holy Ghost Creek was far away from normal camping areas.  Remote, quiet, and unnerving.  We really liked it even though it was built up with national park structures, tables, outhouses, the like.

After a couple of nights, we planned to leave Holy Ghost and venture elsewhere.  But before we left, three of us had to go into Terrero for some supplies.  Terrero was back at the crossroads to Cowles, a beautiful place at the entry to the Pecos Wilderness area.  We got in a pickup and headed back down the road following Holy Ghost Creek, coasting down the narrow road and being careful lest we run off to the side of the road and down the embankment.

About halfway down the road to Terrero, we met a car, an aged maroon Impala Chevy, driven by an old, mostly toothless driver waving frantically out the window for us to stop.  We slowed down and saw the car was filled with camping gear and trash, up to the window sills in the back seat and papers and junk on the dashboard.  The driver was alone.  A little Chihuahua dog was barking like crazy inside the car, running over the camping gear and junk in the back seat.  The driver was wide-eyed and hair-blown.  When we halted, he stopped waving.  We thought there must have been a landslide or accident down the road and he was summoning our aid or warning us to turn around.

We pulled closer so that we could understand him over the barking Chihuahua and truck, and still hanging out the window, the old man shouted at the three of us:  Is this the way to Idaho?

I thought: for god’s sake, mister, Is this the way to Idaho?  Do you know just where in the hell you are?  Apparently not.  That’s why the question, but you are at least three states away from Idaho and if you continue up the road, you will dead end at Holy Ghost Canyon.  There’s no way out.  Further, you are way off the Interstate 25 by at least fifteen miles.  Our Rendezvous group of revelers could barely navigate the road to Holy Ghost and you are looking for Idaho?  Up here?

We wanted to help.  So, being courteous to the old coot, we answered his question:  No, this is not the way to Idaho, you are pretty far off the beaten path for that, old timer.  We gave him correct directions back to Pecos, then to the interstate.  He thanked us and drove up and I guess turned around at Holy Ghost and went back to the highway cause we never saw him again.  We slowly drove to Terrero for supplies.

The three of us very nearly fell out of the pickup in laughter:  Is this the way to Idaho?  We must have told that story a hundred times over the years, but we pitied the old man in a good way.

We knew he was disoriented and probably a bit addled, but with his Chihuahua and car full of camping equipment, he probably wouldn’t hurt himself, but spend his days, driving the backroads,  trying to find the road to Idaho.  He could have been in a lot worse place, say, the Golden Age Nursing Home, looking at television.  The old guy, I think, was much better off searching for Idaho, El Dorado or the grail in the Great West of North America than watching reruns of Bonanza from bed.

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17 Comments

Filed under Adventure, Recollections 1966-1990

17 responses to “Is This the Way to Idaho?

  1. Amen. I hope when it’s time to end up warehoused somewhere I have the presence of mind to take a long hike in the woods and not come back.

    Great story…I can just picture him, actually…he sounds like the census person I found in our driveway a year or so ago…obviously living out of her funny old car, chock full of “stuff” (I must remember that one woman’s junk is another’s treasure), one cigarette burning in the ash tray while another was, remarkably, hanging from her mouth as she talked.

    (That was the day I vowed to keep the gate closed unless we’re expecting someone.)

  2. Now that is one long tall tale, and I am still laughing. I have been lost but not three states over. Since I have been to Cowles I can picture the journey. Great story.

  3. I had to laugh out loud…nice way to start the day. Been camping up at Holy Ghost several times and know the road well. Beautiful country. I could imagine this perfectly. It’s not a good time unless you get to bail at least one buddy out of jail ! : ) And, yes, the old man was much better off than the usual alternatives. Here in Minnesota, the Natives used to take a long walk out on the ice. Hope your weekend is off to a good start. T

  4. StarkRavingZen

    A year ago I took off from MN with only my dog for company. I thought I was headed for California, but ended up so enamored with NM that I just stayed within its borders. I didn’t use a map, I just drove. I had no idea where I was at any given time, or how I’d gotten there. It was marvelous. At one point, way down by Las Cruces, out in the middle of nowhere I came upon a border patrol check point. The officer was Hispanic and spoke with a thick Spanish accent. He stopped my car, I rolled down the window, and without even thinking said, ‘Am I in Mexico…?!’, while looking around totally baffled. I thought he’d never stop laughing.

    • Jack Matthews

      Good god, Kristy, you are a traveler! Sounds like a marvelous way to explore. And, courageous. What a story. Have you written about it? I can imagine how you might begin and it wouldn’t be, “Once upon a time….” Although that would be okay, too. Thanks for the comment.

  5. StarkRavingZen

    Oops.. that was supposed to be “border patrol”, not “boarder patrol”… 😉

  6. Lynn

    ha ha ha…LOL! I loved that story! Laughing thru tears………

  7. Count me among those laughing through tears. Great story. And so was StarkRavingZen’s. I’m hearing that old, “don’t know where I’m going but I’m making good time” ringing in my head. Some of my uncles in CA were farmers and cattlemen. They had a second ranch up in the foothills where our big family would gather for a picnic ever summer. There were two points in that mountain road worthy of nightmares. Uncle Clyde used to have us kids ride in the back of the pickup and gather to the inside of the hill for ballast at those iffy cliffy spots. I suspect todays seat belt laws would have put a crimp in how many family members reached the upper ranch. Thanks for the great laugh!

    • Jack Matthews

      That must have been fun and exciting riding in back of the pickup. The gatherings for a summer picnic in the foothills–I want to read about it one of these days on your blog.

  8. Erin R.

    Funny/sad story. Your way of looking at it is admirable. He could be worse off; he was on an adventure with his best friend!

  9. Evangeline Chavez

    That is a beautiful area that you camped, I could visualize it as you told the story , the ending was just the best ever. Thanks again for your great adventures stories. I will try to get you a photo of that area you described.

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