“I don’t think we’ll be here forever, but forever we will say, ‘Wasn’t that the most incredible place we ever lived?’”
So said Holly Akenson, wife of Jim Akenson, about the Taylor Ranch Wilderness Research Station in Central Idaho, where they lived for two decades. Their experiences as scientists and managers of Taylor Ranch are the focus of their memoir, “7,003 Days: 21Years in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness” published earlier this year.
Jim and Holly Akenson spent those 7,003 days at the ranch across two separate periods: 1982-1990 and 1997-2010. Established as a homestead in 1911 by Dave Lewis and later sold to Jess Taylor, it is now owned by the University of Idaho and run as a research center and laboratory. The 60-acre ranch lies in the heart of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (so named for former Idaho Sen. Frank Church) and sits along the Big Creek drainage, the largest tributary to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Inaccessible by vehicles, Taylor Ranch required the Akensons and those who lived with them to either hike in with their horses and mules or be flown in from Cascade by skilled backcountry pilots. (In fact, Google Maps says that it “cannot calculate directions” from Boise to Taylor Ranch.)
Trained as biologists, the Akensons attended Eastern Oregon University and then worked in natural resource jobs in northeastern Oregon. Jim obtained his master’s degree in resource geography from Oregon State University, while Holly earned hers in wildlife resources from the University of Idaho. They accepted the manager positions at the ranch in 1982 and began living with no electricity and few comforts of a normal life. But this lifestyle hardly bothered them given that “our thirst to live, work, study and educate others in wild places ran deep in our blood and was an integral component of our relationship.” In fact, Holly told their friends not to give electrical appliances as wedding gifts in preparation for their adventure.
“7,003 Days” details the stories, the adventures and the wisdom they learned over their two decades in the wilderness. Culled from their diary entries (totaling some 2,400 pages), the stories run the gamut of life in the backcountry: working to release a cougar accidentally trapped, teaching students from U of I and Idaho State University every year, studying the history of the Sheepeater Indians and the remnants of their pictographs, bringing electricity to Taylor Ranch and surviving a forest fire in 2000 that destroyed several buildings.
Jim Akenson sums up his years of experience in five themes:
▪ “Seeking adventure is a lifestyle.”
▪ “Richness-in-life comes from having and sharing challenging experiences that are intertwined with nature.”
▪ “There is a need to recognize the human heritage component of a big wild place.”
▪ “A family-type community functions in the Idaho backcountry.”
▪ “The elements of ‘Old Idaho’ still exist but are becoming overshadowed by society’s technological advances and pace of life.”
That last theme is most prominent. Akenson observes that he and his wife “straddled the line between two cultures” and witnessed a transition “from the remnants of Old Idaho to a New Idaho that included many of the conveniences of the modern world.” He further notes that he had “never felt more of a historical presence in any place ... than in the Big Creek country.”
His constant references to the history of the place, to the traditions their neighbors in the backcountry shared with them and to the stories passed down from the earliest residents reiterate his historical consciousness. As the historian John Lukacs writes, “Human existence is historical existence.” Indeed, Akenson’s writing embodies a sense of place that allows him to interact with a former culture.
Although the book would have benefited from another edit, it is nonetheless the raw and real experiences of the Akensons at Taylor Ranch. It is very much evident how much love and care Jim and Holly have for the Idaho backcountry. Reflecting on his reasons for publishing “7,003 Days,” Jim Akenson states he wanted to impart to the reader “a vivid sense of life in Old Idaho.” He succeeds.
The story of a family
As with the Akensons, Richard Shelton tells the story of an Old Idaho in “Nobody Rich or Famous.” Shelton’s memoir, however, is intertwined with his ancestors’ stories. Born and raised in Boise, Shelton uses three generations of journals to trace the movements and actions of his family––searching for their “ghosts,” as he puts it. A writer and poet of the Southwest, Shelton is now an emeritus professor of English at the University of Arizona. He has published more than a dozen collections of poetry as well as two other memoirs.
Shelton describes his book simply as “the story of a family and how it got that way.” As the last living member of his family, he sets out to learn their story and, in the process, recalls his own life. The basis of the story is the inherited journals of his great-grandmother, Josephine Cummings Adams; his grandmother, Charlotte Adams Beech; and his mother, Hazel Josephine Shelton. “(The journals) have proven to be invaluable, and I have tried to treat them with the respect they deserve,” he writes.
Divided into six parts, Shelton’s memoir moves forward and backward in time, spending several chapters on certain family members and only a few chapters on others. The book is told primarily in the first person from the perspective of the author but often intersperses long excerpts of imagined dialogue from his relatives. At times, he also writes in the second person, addressing his deceased ancestors with questions about their lives and motivations.
Several sections are set in Idaho, both in Boise and Sandpoint. The first part comprises six scenes from Boise between 1920 and 1951, which describe how his parents met, their early marriage and stories of his childhood, where he dealt with a physically abusive older brother and an alcoholic, adulterous father. Most memorable is his recollection of Pioneer Cemetery, located on Warm Springs Avenue. At age 6, he encountered a “fairly old man with long greasy hair” who chased him with a hoe “screaming that he was going to catch me and cut off my head and chop me into little pieces.” He avoided returning to the cemetery for several years.
Like Jim Akenson, Shelton also laments the passing away of an older Idaho. Returning to Boise as an adult, he is dismayed to find that the old Central School on Broad Street has been torn down and replaced with a parking lot. Then, traveling on Cole Road, which he remembers as a “quiet country thoroughfare,” he now finds it to be “a horror of uncontrolled commercial development.” On a visit to Hells Canyon to investigate the area where his relatives worked as horse thieves, he describes the Snake River as “damned and defiled, a slave to the farmers of Idaho and a toy of the Idaho Power Company.” Despite the changes, he can “somehow (tell) this is where I was born. I was imprinted with this heartbreaking light, with this place where the mountains reach down tentatively into the enormous desert of the Snake River Plain.”
Shelton’s family history is a compelling and sad one if not particularly dramatic, and Shelton acknowledges as much. Yet its strength lies in the hope that parts of the story “might illuminate the lives of many in our culture.” Shelton’s own presence, however, slows down the pacing of the story. He continuously refers to the difficulties of his genealogical research, yanking the reader out of the narrative and into the present day. That methodology is interesting, but the story would have been better served if Shelton had provided less commentary. At times, the book feels as though he’s trying to reckon with his family’s history as much as he is trying to tell it to the reader.
Taken together, these two memoirs recall a different time, an Old Idaho, that, for most Idahoans, has passed. Remnants remain, to be sure, and can be seen in places like Taylor Ranch and Hells Canyon. Thus, to acquire a better sense of place and historical consciousness, readers would do well to pick up “7,003 Days” and “Nobody Rich or Famous.”
Alessandro Meregaglia is an assistant professor and archivist/librarian at Boise State University’s Albertsons Library.