Smoky skies everywhere
Larry & I left Rocky Mountain National Park with two long days of driving ahead, but eager to get to one of our favorite places: Stanley, ID.
A small detour into northern Utah took us to Flaming Gorge. We crossed an utterly desolate and barren, windswept high plateau and then descended into the Green River area, all the while passing signboards telling the history of the seas, the dinosaurs, and the geological formations that have created this unique land.
We checked into our little motel in time for an early evening walk to see the gorge. With the late day slanting sun shining against the red rock walls, it was easy to see where the name "Flaming Gorge" came from. Imagine the red rocks of southern Utah and a small Grand Canyon. That is Flaming Gorge.
The next day, instead of taking the GPS-advised boring route, we opted for a 500 mile back road trek, ending with 60 slow curvy miles on a beautiful canyon road along the Salmon River from Challis, ID to Stanley. We were tired, driving into a low sun, looking forward to our cabin and a chuck wagon dinner at Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch, our home for the next six days.
There were many RVs and campers heading in the opposite direction, which seemed vaguely odd this time of day.
We passed through "central" Stanley. (More on this later, but just know that, although a mere 80 miles north of Sun Valley, Stanley is a world away at the crossroads of two state highways, a population of 68, two unpaved roads in "town", and a handful of log cabin style motels to serve the summer hikers and fly fishermen.)
Only five miles from the ranch, now in the beautiful Salmon River Valley, we saw a very dark, large smoke plume rising around the next bend. We approached and suddenly the road was blocked. "FOREST FIRE! It's jumped the road. The road is closed. Redfish Lake (with 250 campground places) has been evacuated," said a firefighter. ( THAT explained all the RVs and campers we'd seen!) The thought of fire destroying this incredibly scenic and peaceful valley that we love so much was terrible.
The firefighter, saying the fire was between us and the ranch, turned us back toward town.
In those couple miles, we began to quickly consider our options.
In a town with very few hotels, the odds of finding a room in the height of summer with evacuated families looking for emergency shelter was zero.
Would we actually sleep in our car? Would we have to forfeit our prepaid days at the ranch?
In town and now with cell service, a call to the ranch confirmed what we already knew.
Meanwhile they were in the middle of gathering their guests around the chuck wagon to advise them of a voluntary evacuation. Anyone choosing to stay should pack up so as to be ready to evacuate in the middle of the night, if necessary.
But what about US?? The manager suggested we go into town for dinner while they tried to find us a room.
We were feeling a bit more reassured at this point. As I said, Stanley is VERY small, even with the influx of summer workers. Everybody really does know everybody else. We might end up in someone's guest bedroom, but that'd be fine.
We had a great dinner of grilled local trout, several glasses of wine, and shared our latest adventure with others in the restaurant. Eventually, my cell rang. The ranch had found us a room at The High Country Inn. It actually belonged to the guitarist playing at the ranch's chuck wagon cookout. Since he couldn't get back to town, his belongings were quickly packed up, the room cleaned, and in we went, not knowing what the next day would bring but very very grateful to have a bed.
We went out the next morning to smoke in the air burning our eyes and irritating our throats. But we did make it the one block to our favorite Stanley Bakery that has the best breakfast west of the Frederica Cafe.
You go to the Stanley Bakery not just for breakfast. You go to hear what's going on. To chat with the slightly spacey waitresses wearing cowboy boots and tee shirts with pictures of the Himalayas. To sit on the sunny front porch in your fleece, even though it's only in the high 30s.
Sure enough we got the word: the fire was not out but the road was open!
There was no gas at the pumps due to firefighters shutting off power south of town, but off we went. We passed smoldering trees, charred fences still licked with flames, blackened grassland, firefighters blocking access to trailheads, giant helicopters with long hoses sucking water out of the river to drop over still burning areas.
But we arrived at the ranch where, although operating on a generator, all was well as westerly winds guided most of the smoke away from the lodge.
Despite questions about what afternoon winds would do to the fire, we decided to hope for the best....and we are so glad we did! Thanks to the incredible efforts of "hot shots," an elite group of extensively trained wildland firefighters able to undertake dangerous, high priority fires in remote locations, the smoke cleared, trails re-opened, and the fire was soon extinguished .
Our time at this historical ranch with the spectacular front porch views of the Sawtooth Mountains was as perfect as we'd hoped.
Next time: why we think Stanley is so special.