Teardropping Into the Past
Editor's Note: This story first ran in the July/August issue of Cool Tears. As I was doing some research for a new story, I read it again and knew I had to share for all of our new readers. This epic story of history, family and memories is one for the ages. My hope is you enjoy it as much as I did!
The man was kneeling by a cold campfire. His lips were tight but he looked relaxed. A razor hadn’t touched his beard for several days. The skin on his face and hands was almost as dark as the leather jacket he wore over his well-used bib overalls. A clean white undergarment poked around his neck. The brim of a crumpled fedora shaded his eyes that looked through black-rimmed glasses. His left hand held a cigar that seemed to be his signature.
Four men, two women, and a young kid, that was perhaps four, stood behind him. One of the women held an infant in her arms. The campfire ring had a frying pan and several other cooking pots around it. A four-door sedan was parked behind the group and a fly rod sat on its top. A steep sagebrush hill with a few Doug fir trees formed the background.
The infant was my mother. The man kneeling was my great grandfather, George E. Hill. On the back of the photograph was written, “August 1927, Slate Creek–below Crater Mine,” along with a list of names identifying the group.
My grandmother had given me the black and white photo some thirty-five years ago. She’d explained that her father had invested in a mine in Slate Creek and had told her, “There are more gold mines than gold in Idaho.” I’d framed the photograph and it had hung in my office for two decades.
The kneeling man intrigued me. He looked like he’d been in the hills all summer and owned the campfire. Most of the group looked fresher, as if they’d just arrived. But George looked like he belonged there.
I’d purchased a commercially built 4 x 10’ teardrop in 2004 and loved it. In 2013, my wife and I ran into a guy pulling a five-wide manufactured by So-Cal Teardrops and we got a look inside. A foot can be a lot. Three weeks later I was building a 5 x 10’. That fall we took our new teardrop on its maiden voyage to Zion National Park. My sister and her husband joined us and they camped in a tent. The weather was cold and wet and of course they kept eyeing our ‘drop.
That winter they started shopping for a teardrop. They focused on a 4 x 8’ and planned to pull it behind their Honda CRV. During a frail moment, I offered to build a teardrop cabin if they’d weld the chassis and buy the materials. I’d work for free. How could they pass it up?
Five months later the four of us bolted the cabin to the chassis and headed for western Montana for a two-teardrop tour and had a blast.
Meanwhile, I kept looking at the photograph. I studied the drainage using Google Earth’s aerial photos and topographic maps. They had camped on a sagebrush flat, presumably next to the creek–who wouldn’t? The vegetation on the hillside in the background showed that it was a south-facing slope. I concluded that the site was findable.
Slate Creek was about an hour and a half drive from our home in Salmon, Idaho and five hours from Jay and Jane’s residence in Salt Lake. The drainage is within the Salmon-Challis National Forest and a few miles from the one-block town of Clayton.
Eighty-eight years had passed since my nine-month old mother had camped along this creek. It was time to try to find the spot. The idea was a great excuse for a double teardrop adventure.
In early June, we turned off the highway and drove about a mile along the Salmon River on a forest road before we arrived at the mouth of Slate Creek. My wife and I were in the lead pulling “Flash” with our white Tacoma, followed by my sister’s copper-colored CRV towing their “Tiny Tear.”
The sides of the drainage are steep and thickly covered with Douglas fir, but sprinkled with sagebrush openings. The road follows the creek and is a narrow, single-lane dirt trail that doesn’t look friendly to low-slung vehicles.
The night before, we’d camped in Stanley Basin and had been pounded with rain. It was still drizzling in Slate Creek and waterdogs of fog hung on the White Cloud Mountains that formed the headwaters of the drainage. Mud spun off our rig’s tires and onto the aluminum of our teardrops.
After about a mile of winding along the creek, the valley opened up. After studying the photograph, I felt a twitch in my bones. We’d found the sagebrush flat that three generations of my family had camped on.
The flat was about a half mile long and two hundred yards wide. Here and there we could see parts of the old wagon road that George and his troop must have used to get to their campsite.
We picked a sheltered spot in the trees next to the creek, unhitched, and built a campfire. After dinner we snuggled next to the flames and studied the photograph.
We wondered how they had executed the trip. We knew they had travelled nearly two hundred miles from Rigby, Idaho. Seven adults and two kids. They had to have at least two cars. How long had it taken on those old dirt roads? Was it one long day, or did they camp along the way? What had they brought to eat? Had they drank water straight from the creeks? What did their camp look like? What did they bring for bedding? How long did they stay? Had George spent half the summer camped along the creek? We managed to answer some of those questions, but most will remained locked away below the ten thousand foot peaks that rise above the drainage.
Two teardrops and an old photograph that brought siblings back to a nearly century-old family campsite. Sometimes I think that every teardrop trip is better than the last. But how can the next one be finer than this one?
I think George was wrong. There is gold in Idaho. Lots of it.
Tony Latham writes non-fiction and mystery/thrillers. He lives and plays in Salmon, Idaho. You may catch a glimpse of he and his wife’s teardrop, Flash on a winding road some splendid summer day.