This post is part 3 of 3, continued from On the Road: What’s in a Name? Pt 2
Seeing their peaceful submission slip away in the three days following the attacks, the Nez Perce retreated from the Camas Prairie south to White Bird Canyon and the village. Now a small town at the base of the White Bird Grade, White Bird has a population that rises and falls near the number 100. The town itself is retired under an expansive canyon bridge that hurdles air-conditioned travelers to their desired destination and is just shy of occupying 0.1 miles.
In June the canyon of White Bird is just beginning to see the heat of the coming summer. The crickets bellow their lungs and scratch their knees, trees hide in the streams of spring rain and snakes run their bellies across the black rock. Dewy eyes and velvet noses of a rancher’s cattle search for food by the roadside grave of an army calvarymen. We wind down the hairpin turns of the old grade, past the rolling hills of the canyon. Two days from our arrival the White Bird Battlefield, which has its own history, celebrates its 133rd anniversary but we’re more interested in the road signs that pin to narrow gravel lanes that square plots of land: Baker Gulch Road – named for James Baker, a rancher who was killed in the June attacks – and my favorite, Yellow Wolf Road.
The story of Yellow Wolf is as easily known as the tales of his cousin, Chief Joseph so the street sign strikes my fancy for reasons of proportion. Less like a lottery and more like the painter’s wheel the more prominent players get the broader strokes – Chief White Bird was the area’s leader and so gets the town, the battlefield and later still the highway grade as his landmarks. The rest are left with subtle shading by way of street names or knolls such as the case with Yellow Wolf, a Nez Perce scout and then chief. What eludes me in this area, however, is a color for Toolhoolhoolzote which seems odd: Toolhoolhoolzote was considered the Nez Perce nation’s ‘war chief’, a role more influential it seems than Chief Joseph’s role of ‘administrative chief.’ But again, history has a way of writing itself like a sieve, the more compelling stories rest on the surface.
Curiosity about the entymology of names that give presence to the spaces around us, like a search for truth, plunges a curious mind into a Rubik’s Cube of fact and interpretation. Rather than sussing the truth, I think the adventure is better served by digging into the story and then simply acknowledging that one exists. That the land before you bore witness to a myriad acts of minutia before you alighted. Shortly after leaving the Camas Prairie to head for Hell’s Canyon I contacted my mother to clarify the location of the Nez Perce crossing from Grangeville into the White Bird canyons. We had assumed it was a place similar to the current highway, a seemingly natural path across a Mount Idaho saddle. Instead, the traditional crossing was the Grangeville-Salmon road. A winding ascent from the edge of the prairie past the now dismantled town of Mount Idaho and into the forest on the edge of the Gospel Hump Wilderness a land of timber and cougars where teens now light bonfires on the service flats. A road that runs right past my former mailbox.