Yellow Pine: Now you know about it, forget it
I’m going to tell you about a place I love, and then I’m going to tell you to forget about it. Well, maybe not altogether, but mostly. Because, like Boo Radley, exposing it to too many people might kill it.
Yellow Pine, Idaho, population about 40, sits on the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River, at the end of a 32-mile, one-lane, paved road, then about 15 miles of unpaved road.
Its main drag is a block-long, dirt road, with one coffee shop, one café, two taverns, and one tiny, shuttered grocery store that’s for sale. Scattered around on the hillsides are cabins, some rustic, some pretty swanky, often used only on weekends during the summer. In the brutal winters, most people here head down the mountains to warmer climates.
But in the summer, Yellow Pine reminds me of my grandmother’s town, Hanover, Kansas, where I used to visit as a kid. Everybody knows everybody.
I had never heard of Yellow Pine, before we hit the road in The Epic Van.
During the first month we were out, while camping in Cochise Stronghold in Arizona, we met Jeff and Ann, two of Yellow Pine’s tiny population.
They had a Sprinter van, like ours, but they had outfitted it themselves, and we compared notes about our rides. And we had some drinks. And we played dominoes. And we had a few more drinks. And some chocolate. And we shared notes on life.
They told me about Yellow Pine, where they had settled after a cross-country motorcycle journey. They had sold their stake in an ambulance company and were looking for a new place to live. Ann is a nurse and Jeff a paramedic, trained in firefighting and back-country rescue. And they both race motorcycles.
They happened on Yellow Pine during its harmonica festival when, the first weekend in August, it opens its arms to the outside world. They were asked if they would serve as the medical volunteers required for an event permit. They said yes, and soon decided they had found their new home.
We visited during the harmonica festival two years ago and went back this year, parking The Epic Van in Ann and Jeff’s yard. Across the dirt lane from their house, the woods were filled with other campers, temporarily swelling the town’s population to about 2,000. Kent, Jeff’s longtime paramedic buddy, comes every year to help with medical calls. And, this year, Jeff’s daughter, Kalie, who’s just finished her master’s in nursing, is helping, too, along with several other members of the town’s volunteer fire department. Their other daughter, Cassie, who we met the first time we visited, is starting a pathology degree.
For three days at the festival, you can listen to masters of harmonica, acoustic guitar and other instruments on the stage across main street, or in the tavern or café, or buy a tie-dyed T-shirt with the shape of Idaho across the front, or a brightly painted metal flower made by the lovely couple who lives up the hill, or get a soft-serve cone from the ice-cream truck parked at the other end of the block.
Along the way, Ann will introduce you to all the regulars, like Brooke, who’s “consistently nice.” “Well,” Brooke will say, “there’s an hour in the morning that I don’t show to anyone.” Or the head of the forest district, who’ll be by for dinner on the porch later to discuss the new plan for gold mining up the hill, or Tom, who lived here when Yellow Pine still had its one-room school, and would ride his Flexible Flyer down the sheer ice of a mining road going 50 miles per hour.
A young man with a swollen eye stops for Jeff to look at it, the woman selling burgers and fries from the food truck asks Ann about a remedy for carsickness for her niece, who was miserable on the winding drive up the mountain, and then the radio squawks and they are off on a call for a foot injury, a dislocated toe, which Jeff re-locates while Ann distracts the patient. This year, things are pretty quiet. Last year, they had to airlift several patients, including two who had heart attacks.
The music goes until midnight on the outdoor stage and until 2 a.m. in the tavern. The first night headliner this year was a band called Guess When?, a Celtic folk-rock band from Boise. They were four manly men sporting kilts, long beards and wicked humor. None of them played the harmonica but Jake, the lead singer, did bring out a bagpipe for a few numbers. They played an eclectic mix of music from Scottish-inspired to rock, anything but Freebird.
“This is like Freebird, but different,” Jake would say before almost every song.
The second night, in the tavern, we snagged a precious pair of barstools and listen to Roby Kap, one of the regular favorites. Another regular is fwopping on the washtub base. I see Brooke dancing across the way, and wave. The tavern is packed and, when the main stage closes down, the very tipsy dancers all file in and fill the space in front of the band, now playing Ring of Fire.
But as Jeff said, you can’t really judge Yellow Pine by the festival. You need to be there afterward, after the crowds leave, when things get back to normal.
He’s right. The quiet that descends when the visitors leave is magical. The mother deer and her twin fawns are seen again. There’s morning coffee with the regulars again. There’s time to ride the ATV over to celebrate a friend’s birthday with cocktails and hand-picked-huckleberry cake on their deck by the river, and for pizza in another friend’s handmade brick and earth oven.
And when you go back into the tavern, there are plenty of barstools available, and Sam, the cook at The Corner, who’s sitting at the end of the bar, will tell you how he’s happiest without crowds, out in the wilderness, alone.
“Some of my best holidays have been when I’m by myself,” he’ll say.
And as you sit on the deck and the only sound is the breeze rustling the pines, you get Sam’s love of solitude.
So, now I’ve told you about beautiful Yellow Pine. Forget all about it.