“What is the deepest canyon in North America?” was one of the cherished questions from the geography quiz my brother Dave and I would plead for when traveling long distances with our parents. The answer is (and still is, I hope) Hells Canyon, the about sixty miles of it that cuts the border between Oregon and Idaho.
What mysteries we Spokane Lutherans imagined lurked in Hells Canyon. My dad promised to take us there too. Although only a day’s drive – a rugged one – from our home it was still “out of the way.” We understand that such a promise is really the most heartfelt expression of a hope that one can make. We all wondered at Hells Canyon and wanted to see it, dad included, but could never find the time to go just that way. Not so its principal competitor the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.
The Grand Canyon was but one National Park we visited on our summer trip of 1950. We headed first for Yellowstone, and then onward to Jackson Hole, Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon, Big Bend, those caves in New Mexico, Sequoia, King Canyon, Yosemite, and Crater Lake. Although Grand Canyon is surely grand it is – again – still not as deep as Hell. But it is more often precipitous and also strapped or banded in many variations of red, a better color for Hell and Hell’s own. And, again, it was “on the way.” While barging through eleven national parks heading to and returning from Texas we did it in a brand new torpedo-nosed Studebaker. I can still recall the prestigious smell of it.
Dad was a delegate to a church convention in Houston. He also had a sister in Arizona we visited. She fed us squab. Our parents assured us it was a delicacy but we suspected that it was an economy. Another of dad’s ten sisters lived in Wichita Falls, Texas, and we found her in a tideflat shack with a TV set stuck on wrestling. Her son repaired TVs in a small shop downtown. In that house a clear line ran from the front door to the back, and those were the only doors in the place. The rest was hanging sheets. I concluded that my dad had come from a family of struggling Wisconsin farmers whose biggest crop, their own children, had scattered to the winds.
There are only a few prospects above Hells Canyon from which you can see the Snake River. This is one of them. The river can be seen reflecting the bright but still confounded sky. If I have figured it right, the drop here between Horace Sykes camera and the river is over 5000 feet. If Sykes had turned his camera to the horizon on the right he would have included the summits of the Seven Devils, the most precipitous mountains in Idaho. The fall from the 9300 foot summit of He Devil to the Snake is nearly 8000 feet – a fall of biblical dimensions, perhaps, a continuous descent into Hell. Some of the landmarks on that Idaho-side horizon continue the demonic motif. There’s the She Devil (second in height to the He Devil), the Gobblin, the Ogre, Purgatory Lake, Mt Belial, the Twin Imps, and the Tower of Babel – a very spiritual ridge. All of these mountains are strangely gnawed near their summits and the rock itself, because of it, looks like anti-matter might look.
On the other (east) side of the Devils is Highway 95 running north-south along the Little Salmon River. I rode it in a post-war art-deco bus north out of Boise in 1964, a most enchanting ride. Over the rolling hills part of the trip the two-lane but paved highway with grass shoulders (not gravel!) dipped with the topography like a roller-coaster. There was hardly any deep grading through the hillocks. And I took this trip early enough to experience the splendid collection of hairpin curves on White Bird Pass. It was subsequently straightened in the 1970s. Just north of the pass is the in the high-plateau of Nez Perce farmland is the Idaho agri-town of Grangeville. I first visited Grangeville when I was 13, a guest of my brother Dave when he drove down from Spokane on a summer weekend. For me it was a revelation of teen lust. The youths of Grangeville spent their weekend evenings slowing cruising up and down Main Street, a libidinous promenade of souped machines, hidden beer, pop music and carefully chosen clothes.
If you look to the far left horizon of Horace Sykes view from the nearly 7000 foot high Hat Point you see clouds. Beyond them on a clear day you would see instead some of the farms around Grangeville. Dave and I were then on Grangeville’s Main Street only 43 miles northeast of Hat Point (and perhaps even Horace Sykes for the timing was within range) as the devil crow flies over the deepest canyon in North America. But at that time I gave it no mind attending as Dave was to other matters, and following after him.