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Herbert Huncke's America - Edited By Jerome Poynton Literary Executor - Ponderosa Pine - May 2019


You speak of Ponderosa Pine and I am catapulted back—oh, way back —and it is late summer outside Potlatch, Idaho. It is sunset—the sky riven with saffron—ice green—lavender—and changing pinks from flamingo to palest hue, overlaid with haunting black cloud shapes. The road is yellow dirt and sand packed down and spread with rough-cut white stone and gravel. It twists through the cluster of gray clapboard houses—past a railroad track—a train of flat cars loaded with massive tree trunks fresh cut from the vast forests covering the hills for miles and miles around—too huge for the sawmill—a painted red frame building on the edge of the community —where many of the town’s people work—the others employed mostly in the forests—axing—cutting—felling—hauling the great majestic trees—the countryside reverberating all day with the agonizing thuds of their crashing death—and we are in an open Model T Ford and we pass the sawmill—the general store—a beer parlor—where on several occasions just before the time I am speaking of I have gotten drunk drowning the frothy pitchers of ice-cold beer brought to the table by a dark-haired barmaid—wise in the ways of a beer parlor in lumbertown—able to laugh and toss joke for joke with the red-faced heavy-bodied lumberjacks—still wearing their caulked boots—I once saw two of them in a fight—and when one had fallen—the other stomped on his face in a fury until the face looked like a hunk of raw beef when he was finally rescued—and red and black—green and black— orange and black—blue and black checked shirts—and all of this in a flash in my mind as the road rounds the last of the houses—the evening darkening blue-black in the distance, bedizened with the lights of thousands of cosmic worlds, the stars and planets. The road now heads into the forests—only the tops of the great trees still visible individually—seemingly brushing the sky —all below a great mass of blackness, the headlights penetrating the mass— revealing brown tree trunks on either side and green foliage—the limbs of the trees begin too high up for us to see them. My companion is a young Norwegian boy—seventeen—the son of one of the foresters at the ranger station near Potlatch. It is his father’s job along with two or three others to keep up on the maintenance of the fire towers—to patrol the area and keep weather reports. The father had made this his life work and is a good but stern man who has raised his son—he hopes—to follow in his footsteps. The son is extremely proud of his father and in all probability will do as his father desires. When he returns from this little excursion or trip he has invited me to accompany him on—I had wandered up into that part of the country several weeks prior and had asked if they had some work I could do around the ranger station and they said yes—and I stayed until leaving on this trip which was to take us over into Montana to visit relatives—a cousin or uncle—if I remember correctly. Of my traveling companion—he will be ready to enter agriculture college at Moscow, Idaho. He is not very talkative and I sit back drinking in the heady aroma of the pine forest almost intoxicated by the richness of the beauty of the night.

We drive steadily through the night—stopping once in a small town at a lunch room for great steaming mugs of coffee and thick sandwiches of ham and cheese and homemade blackberry pie—then on—spelling each other at the wheel—the road always winding and twisting—alongside rushing streams for several miles up into the hills—past ravines and valleys —once up the side of a mountain—the road zigzagging all the way up and then all the way down the opposite side. Once in a while we hit stretches of pavement but for the most part the road remained dirt and gravel.

Dawn found us not far from the town of Kellogg, Idaho—a good- sized town where we stopped and freshened up in cold spring water— checked the condition of our car—drank coffee—discussed our further route. It was decided we drive through the Coeur d’Alene country and around the Coeur D’Alene Lake, after which we would pick up a highway leading over and through mountain ranges into Montana.

The topography had changed and we now hit stretches of flat open country with mountains way off in the distance. Huge rocks and boulders lay profusely in all directions. The soil was full of rocks and there were only a few gnarled and twisted live oak trees to be seen instead of the lush green forests. We arrived in Coeur d’Alene—drove thru and picked up a road following the shore of the lake—brilliant blue and clear—the shoreline ragged and stony—short windblown and twisted trees leaning toward their reflections in the water. A wind had sprung up and massive cloud formations plowed across the blue sky. The water of the lake became choppy—the surface agitated with small rolling white caps. The scene was magnificent and awe inspiring—beautiful and cold and real. I filled myself with it and can at this instant not only see it all vividly but smell the freshness of air— and hear the whistling of the wind.

We eventually reached the end of this wonderful stretch of earth and water—coming down off the lake road on to a paved highway leading directly into the mountains to be crossed into Montana. We began climbing—higher and higher—until our engine was heated and we were carrying a banner of white steam smoke from the radiator cap at the front of the car. Halfway up we came upon a small place at the side of the road where we pulled in to rest awhile. Near was a fresh mountain stream rushing downward where we filled cans and poured them into our hot and thirsty car.

The weather had begun to change and to one side of us and, back over the jutting angry-looking peaks of the seemingly endless chain of mountains, we could see rolling gray and black clouds constantly illuminated by flashes of lightning and accompanied by reverberating rumbles of thunder relentlessly bearing down on us.

Gradually we reached the top and looking back could see the black rain curtain—feel the oncoming rush of rain-laden wind. At the top of the mountain was a short distance of straight road bound on either side with fairly dense growth of tall and at this time writhing trees. As we started to drive this respite of straight terrain—high up above the world—near the lowering, furiously rolling clouds, the full force of the storm struck and we could go no further. We pulled over a little onto the shoulder of the road and stopped.

The wind a mass of heavy raindrops relentlessly tore at us as though infuriated at not being able to lift us from our spot and fling us crashing into the heavy gray boulders just ahead—abating an instant and then with renewed vigor attacking our flimsy little car—shaking and rocking it with the fury and force of its anger. Long jagged sulfurous bolts of lightning drove with full force into the ground around us filling our nostrils with the smell of burning ozone. Thunder crashed deafeningly down and around our heads and all the earth trembled. The roadway became a rushing flow of water—a tree was struck—and split in a great screech, the top half falling toward the ground pulling the wound open further, the life of the tree no longer protesting. With this sacrifice to the greed of the storm, it began to slacken, passing on over—only occasional flashes of lightning, and instead of crashing thunder there were only low rumblings becoming fainter in the distance. The rain had ceased altogether—the clouds began clearing away and soon the sun—bright and warming—appeared.

We of course were thoroughly drenched and, what was worse, unable to start the car. We worked with it—checking the motor—cranking—but all to no avail. It was utterly impossible to get it moving. Finally, we hailed a passing car and asked for a tow to the first filling station. The people—a man and his wife—were accommodating and towed us to a station on the other side of the mountain in Montana. There we discovered all was lost— not only were things flooded but completely burned out—the Model T had had it—it would carry us no further.

My friend was very disappointed but decided it best to call his father. He called and his father said we were to stay near our present location—the boy’s mother would pick us up in the family car the following day.

We stayed in a motel not far from where we had made the call. He was very disappointed with the entire experience and failed to share my enthusiastic impression of the storm—nor was he impressed by what I considered the wild, almost breathtaking beauty of the lake and the forests we had driven thru—saying at one point he supposed they did have beauty but in his opinion they were just a lake and a forest—and a forest was a forest no matter what one said about it—and the storm was sort of exciting but he would rather have his Model T working—after all he’d earned the money to pay for it and now it was just a loss.

His mother arrived the next afternoon and we drove straight back to the ranger station near Potlatch.
I guess he had decided I wasn’t a very stable kind of person because— although I remained several days at the station before leaving to go head back home—he never came around to say hello, and once or twice his father —who had always in our short acquaintance been friendly and considerate—was somehow sharp in his replies to questions I asked him. Anyhow—you spoke of Ponderosa Pine—and this was Ponderosa Pine country—and I remember it all clearly. Or course there was Tamarack and Yellow Pine and White Pine—but Ponderosa is a beautiful name—and maybe—just maybe—there wasn’t any Ponderosa there at all—but please let it suffice—of the other three—White and Yellow and Tamarack I am sure— and somewhere in the past I’ve been around Ponderosa Pine country—of that you may be confident. It is only that I am a little forgetful these days just where all the things I’ve been around or near are located.

I wouldn’t have bothered with further explanations except—I dislike being caught in an outright lie—and it is just possible Ponderosa Pine is strictly native of California and it would be most embarrassing to hear this— after having given it root—in a manner of speaking—in wild rugged Idaho. And at this point—that is right this moment that will already be of the past— when you hear of it—or read of it—I sincerely believe that by now Ponderosa Pine must thrive in Idaho—and if it wasn’t there when I was there —someone planted it there, and in no time it began to flourish.

The forests of Idaho are, or at least were, truly wild and beautiful. The great tall trees reaching to the sky and on the stillest days—with hardly a breeze stirring near the earth—one hears the wishing of the treetops way up high enough to always feel the wind. And at their feet—wildflowers—ferns—flowering streams—berry bushes and morning glory vines. Sometimes—of course—they have grown very close together in groves like clusters on the side of the mountains—and no sun has penetrated down through to the earth—there are only blankets of dark brown needles sere and dry.  There is wildlife—deer and bear—pheasant and grouse—rabbit and squirrels—there are only non-poisonous snakes—and many kinds of birds.

As I said before it is surely Ponderosa Pie country—and if anyone asks you to visit Idaho, please make sure you don’t refuse—and if I am around still, please, please see if you can swing an invitation for me as well. Every now and then it all comes back to me in a rush and—strange as it may sound coming from an old drug-soaked city character like myself—I long to see all I have spoken and much I’ve left unsaid again. Perhaps my most carefree hours were spent there—and maybe it is impossible to recapture any of it—but I sure as hell occasionally long to give it a try.

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