My late husband John could recite from memory Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” I too relish roads “less traveled by,” sometimes to my peril.
Just last week, I started off innocently enough. Destination: Coyote Falls on the Similkameen River, near the Canadian border, less than an hour’s drive from home. I planned to attend the traditional Native American salmon ceremony, when fish are invited to return to their spawning grounds. Tribes have been doing this for millennia, although these days the ceremony is pretty much symbolic with a soupçon of politics. Just above Coyote Falls, salmon are blocked from proceeding upriver by the defunct Enloe Dam. The dam hasn’t produced power in half-a-century. Indian tribes on both sides of the border and various environmental groups are campaigning to have it removed.
There’s a fine hiking trail on the other side of the river, but the ceremony was to be held on the road side. In my case the wrong road. The river flows through a deep canyon. High on the canyon wall, a two-lane, paved road snakes around multiple curves. I knew I’d have to turn onto a gravel road to reach the canyon bottom at some point, but I couldn’t remember where that turnoff was. I’d noticed a bright blue car in my rearview mirror and then, after one of the curves, that car had disappeared. By then I’d driven beyond the falls and dam and decided I must have missed the turn-off.
After a quick u-turn, I spotted a flash of blue making its way down a steep, winding gravel road. You don’t usually follow someone who’s behind you. That alone should have been a warning. Slowly, cautiously I proceeded downward, noting the “Primitive Road” warning sign that the county posts on back roads that are not maintained. This one should have had a skull and crossbones at the bottom.
By the time I realized I had no business on that road, it was too late. With barely a single lane, I clung to the canyon wall that brushed my car on the left, trying not to think about the sheer drop-off on my right. The ruts were troughs, littered with rocks and shards that threatened to high-center the car. Downward I crept in low gear, wishing I had a lower than low-low gear. I tried to calm myself by talking to John, pleading with his spirit to intervene, rescue me.
Finally, miraculously, halfway down the canyon, I reached a wide spot. The blue car had pulled off and parked, as did I. Thank you, John! I noticed the other driver, whom I didn’t know, had started walking downward and then stopped to wait for me.
“I’m so sorry I took that road,” I said as I got out of my car. “Me, too,” he admitted. Turned out he was a tribal member from British Columbia. He asked where I was from. When I answered “Omak,” he asked, “You Colville?” Never before has anyone confused this blue-eyed blonde as Native. I was deeply flattered. I explained that I’ve lived for a long time along the Okanogan River, which is fed by the Similkameen. “I love the river and all its inhabitants,” I continued, as if I expected the cast of characters from “Wind in the Willows” to join us at any moment.
Despite my lack of tribal bona fides, he treated me as the elder that I am, generously offering his arm to steady me as we scrambled downward. At this point, the road was pretty impassable even on foot. I gasped when we finally reached a large, flat area, where a dozen or more cars were parked.
“How did they get here?!” I exclaimed. That’s when we noticed the other road — the one MORE traveled by. We could have taken it had we gone up the canyon a little further.
I never did make it all the way down to the river but watched the ceremony from the bank above. The drum beat and chanting were inaudible above the roar of the falls. Still, I joined others in rhythmic clicking of rocks, calling to the salmon. Tribal biologists tell us that native fish returning to our river are pitifully few and far between. Eliminating the dam, one biologist said at a recent meeting, is “their only chance.”
I walked away from the river, wondering if my own chances of getting my car back up that road were equal to salmon butting heads against a concrete dam. But a combination of prayer, John’s encouragement, and front-wheel drive pulled me slowly, safely upward. Back on pavement, I was heading home when a coyote ran across the road ahead of me. I slowed and noticed that he stopped in the middle of an alfalfa field, turning back to watch me. In Native legend, the coyote is a trickster, a mischief-maker.
“Yeah, you thought you had me back there at Coyote Falls,” I said. “But all you did was teach me a lesson. From here on, I’ll be taking the roads more traveled by.”