Renegade Spirits on Highway 3

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1991
Renegade Spirits on Highway 3

Cruising history with Oregon's last warrior
By Annick Smith

In the remote northeastern corner of oregon, there is a sacred land to which I sometimes go. To get there, I drive U.S. 12 south from Missoula, Montana, over the Lolo Pass into Idaho, retracing backward the route Chief Joseph took in 1877. His band of renegade Nez Percé had been exiled from their tribal homes and hunting grounds in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon, and rather than be relocated on a lowland reservation near Lewiston, Idaho, they chose to fight. That year, Chief Joseph and the Nez Percé led the U.S. Cavalry on a disastrous 600-mile chase from Idaho to the newly created Yellowstone National Park and then north into Montana's Bear Paw Mountains. We all know what Chief Joseph said in surrender: "I will fight no more forever."

Fighting is far from my mind, however, on this sun-shot morning as I wind through the elk and mountain-goat country framing Highway 12, a two-lane that follows the cliffs above the Lochsa River in eastern Idaho. I speed past Jerry Johnson Hot Springs (the last time I hiked in, Mount Saint Helens had just blown her top and the pines were white with volcanic ash), but I will stop where the Lochsa flows into the Clearwater River near the town of Syringa for a ritual slice of huckleberry pie at the Syringa Café.

Highway 12 unfolds through the reservation towns and steelhead fisheries of the Clearwater Valley, then rolls past Nez Percé National Historic Park in Spalding, where in the mid-1800s Presbyterian missionaries Henry and Eliza Spalding labored to convert the Nez Percé. I rejoice in the deeper meaning that stories bring to places. I know this area's history. I also know that Eliza and her companion, Narcissa Whitman, were the first white women to inhabit this part of the Rockies.

In hundred-degree heat, the smoking stacks and pulp mills of Lewiston, at the confluence of the Clearwater and the Snake rivers, seem a mirage from hell. I breathe more easily as I cross into Washington State, turning south onto Highway 129, which in another 40 miles will become Oregon Highway 3. The road is a plunging switchback into the gorge of the Grande Ronde River. Make sure to drive this rugged, isolated stretch in daylight. If you're lucky (as I was once), you may see a mountain lion.

The air cools as I climb a piney plateau to 4,693 feet near the northern border of Chief Joseph's land. The Oregon town of Enterprise is the gateway to Joseph's Valley, and there you'll find some not-too-fancy motels and restaurants, and a fine bookstore called The Book Loft. Stop in and pick up a copy of Alvin Josephy's The Nez Percé Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, which is by far the best intellectual guide to this country.

Six miles south of Enterprise, Highway 3 dead-ends at a glacial moraine that forms a natural dam at the base of Wallowa Lake, just beyond the town of Joseph. I scramble up the moraine and look out over the green ranching valley that surrounds me. I imagine Nez Percé teepee rings, herds of spotted appaloosa horses, but what I see is a land speckled with cattle. Across Wallowa Lake rises the 220,000-acre Eagle Cap Wilderness, its peaks white with perpetual snows. Beyond the mountains the orange sun dips into a fist-shaped thunderhead. Chief Joseph was right: This is a land worth fighting for.

I could drive one of the back roads of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. I could go horsepacking or trekking with llamas to more than 60 alpine lakes that offer some of the best trout fishing in the Northwest. But I have other purposes. Instead, I follow the access road along Lake Wallowa's shore, past the Chief Joseph monument to the state park, where campgrounds and motels fringe the waters and where visitors can rent canoes and horses.

I've come to meet up with three friends. After a night by the lake, we pack a lunch and head toward the bottomlands of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. We stop first in the town of Imnaha to refresh ourselves with cold beers at the general store and bar. A jeep road then takes us down into Imnaha Canyon--a world of sagebrush, rock terraces, and hot, red sun, a place as different as you can get from the green landscape just 30 miles up country.

Inside Imnaha Canyon, we must make a decision. We can take the rutted two-track to Hat Point and peer down 7,000 feet to the desert of Hells Canyon (which is more than 1,200 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon), but on this day we want more than vistas. We descend through flowering ranchland and along willow-lined streams that are home to deer and small game. Our destination is Cow Creek, far down the canyon, where there is a pool of crystal water. The creek's bottom is sandy, and there are rapids to ride and cliffs to dive from. My friends and I shed our clothes and cavort like daughters of Eve in Eden.

The backroads don't end at Imnaha. You can drive the good gravel downstream to Highway 86, where you can float the Snake, or cross the river below Brownlee Dam on your way east through Cambridge, Idaho, to U.S. 95 and Lewiston. Or you can head west, stopping for good hippie food, arts and crafts, and dried wildflowers at the historic town of Halfway.

For me, the way home begins 50 miles west of Halfway, where Highway 86 comes upon Interstate 84 and the town of Baker. There is a neon-lit commercial strip here, glowing with colors God never imagined. At Baker, I will steer my four-by-four up the interstate's on-ramp, tune my radio to a canned country-and-western station (no NPR in these parts), set my cruise control at 72 mph, and feel the steady pull of home.

Annick Smith is a frequent contributor to Outside.

Copyright 1991, Outside magazine

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