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Smith: On the value of literature

By J.D. Smith

From the Headwaters of Dry Creek

Published on October 20, 2017 2:56PM

The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness was established along Idaho’s Salmon River in the early 1970s. At that point, the BLM and Forest Service burned several “unpermitted” cabins that existed on both shores of the Salmon.

There were some interesting folks living in those cabins, like Rollie Hammel who logged the river for driftwood during peak flow with a chunk of rope from an open 12-foot fishing boat, and the extended Jones family at the bottom of Carey Creek who counted coup on bears with a switch in the old orchards and Lum Turner, the gangly old loner, who was eventually killed by the river after 70 years of threading the trail to town on his monthly Social Security quests.

I met Lum only once, in Summerville’s Bar in Riggins, on a Saturday night when our whiskey quests happened to mesh and when coincidence, or his cantankerousness, provided an empty stool at his left elbow. As soon as I ordered a double shot of Jim Beam, with a beer back, he waded into me.

“Where you from, son?”

“Well, I’m living up at Burgdorf.”

“No, I meant where you from, son?”

“Grew up in the Sandhills of Nebraska. Got here by the way of Massachusetts, Italy, Mississippi, Illinois, California and Montana.”

“How do you make your living?”

“Right now I’m rolling logs to the headworks in a houselog mill.”

“Oh yeah, for Little Bill Mockwitz up on the school section. You can’t do that forever. What do you want to do when you grow up?”

“I’m thirty-one-years-old with a kid and figure I’m just about grown now, but, if you really want to know, I’d like to make my living as a writer before I stop living.”

“That’s a good one. Somebody’s got to put it all into words, I guess. I do some reading myself, but I never realized the true value of literature until the winter of 1953. Buy me a shot, and I’ll tell you the story.”

I bought the shot. What follows is Lum’s assessment of the value of the written word:

“I was wintering four mules, two of mine and two from the Owens’ ranch, in a little set of corrals behind my cabin 15 miles upriver. It was a heavy winter for this part of the world, maybe a foot and a half of snow at river level that stayed forever. I hadn’t got a whole lot of hay put up the summer before.

“Sometime around Christmas I belled one of my mules and turned all four out to fend for themselves. The river is gentle and quiet in the winter months, so I could hear the bell real good. When the mules got too far away from my place, I’d ski out to find them, chase them back home, and hay them a little, just enough so they would remember the joys of civilization and not wander completely off. I worried about cougar, too. Just about every critter in the Salmon River country comes down to the river during the winter.

“A month or so before the snows came, I had been in Riggins to pick up my government check and get a few supplies. While I was there a lady friend forced me to take darn near a cord of her old used Readers Digests back up the river to my place. I didn’t want them in the first place, but I was taught to accept gifts gracefully, so I hauled them home and stacked them in boxes beside my bed.

“Along about January I got lonely and bored enough to read one. It was a Sunday morning, a pretty nice day, and I was sitting at my table with the window open, a pot of coffee and one of those magazines. The more I read, the more disgusted I got. The one that really torqued me was an article about this guy named Raymond L. Ditmars who was working to save the American rattlesnake. I’d lost two dogs to snakes the summer before. I pitched the book out of the window, out into the slop and snow of the mule corral.

“A couple of cups of coffee later I decided it was time to get to some sort of work, so I went out to bell the mules and let them wander for feed. While I was out there I got to thinking that it would be just my luck that this would be the day that the lady friend would come to visit and find one of her books out in the corral, so I’d best retrieve it. You know, I could not find that Readers Digest anywhere. And when I opened the corral gate, the mules just stood there looking at the cabin, didn’t want to leave.

“That’s when I discovered the true value of literature. Those mules had literally digested the Readers Digest, and were waiting for more reading material. That bunch of literature solved a lot of my problems that winter. I was out of hay, but not out of feed. Didn’t even have to bell the leader anymore. Once every morning until the snow melted, I’d pitch a wad of Readers Digests out into the corral and watch the mules shred them into fodder. They’d come home every night. I don’t know whether it was the ink or whatever, but all four of them shed off early and were plenty slick and fat by mid-March when the grass started growing again. Yep, you go ahead and become a writer. You never know when a book is going to come in handy.”

J.D. Smith is an accomplished writer and jack-of-all-trades. He lives in Athena.


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