"I've been flying in the backcountry for thirty-seven years," Barry tells me as we arc back up the valley. The mighty river, which has so dominated my life over the past few days, is reduced to a thin rivulet wedged into the foot of the mountains. The craggy peaks that loomed overhead are below our wingtips now, stretching in ranks as far as the horizon. All around, no towns, no roads, no houses. Idaho is even wilder than I thought. From the road, the state seems relatively unspoiled; from the air, you can see that vast reaches are completely deserted.
At 9,000 feet we skim over the mountain ridges. We're surrounded by forested hills and snow-clad peaks, their highest ponds still frozen, a mummified bluish white. It's possible no human being will stand on their banks this year, or maybe this decade, or maybe ever. As we fly along, Barry describes the various drainages to me—what creeks run into what forks—but all I can see is a wrinkled blanket of geology. We turn and start to descend into Johnson Creek valley.
We're met at the grass airstrip by Diana, a woman with a big smile and a big truck. After Barry takes off again Diana and I drive down the dirt road that runs alongside Johnson Creek through the narrow bottom of the valley to Wapiti Meadow Ranch, which first opened its doors to guests 80 years ago. It's nearly as remote today as it was back then; getting to a paved road means a 17-mile drive on dirt track. Apart from Diana and Barry, who own the ranch, only two families live in the valley.
We follow the winding course of the river and then cross it on a wooden bridge that leads to a cluster of outbuildings arrayed along the edge of a natural mead-ow. "Moose and elk come to graze here," Diana says as she helps me unload my gear into one of the ranch's four cabins. Inside, my two-bedroom unit feels like a miniature version of my grandparents' house, with rec-room wood paneling, seventies Colonial-style furniture, a woodstove, and an embroidered wall hanging that reads HAPPY HEARTS MAKE HAPPY HOMES. Copies of Bugle: Journal of Elk and the Hunt are stacked on the coffee table. It's exquisite kitsch, minus the irony. And who wants irony in this setting, with rugged wooded ridges rising steeply on either side and the roar of the snowmelt-swollen creek for mood music?
The pleasures of life in the mountains haven't changed much over the years: hunting, fishing, riding, hiking. The next day I saddle up and ride out across the meadow into the timber with Cody, a 20-year-old cowboy from Emmett, Idaho. We traverse lush meadows, moving along the edge of the valley, through thickets of lodgepole pines and across streams. Cody's border collie, Ty, runs up and down the path in front of us, sniffing out prairie dogs and marmots.
We come upon a tricky bit of trail along the side of the hill; Cody suggests I keep my toe tips in the stirrups and jump away to the uphill side if my horse starts to tumble. He does have to scramble a bit in the rocky, dry soil, but fortunately stays right-side up. We stop for a picnic lunch on a forested bench overlooking the river, then leave the horses and scrabble up to a scree field where someone has placed an old tin bathtub at the foot of a natural hot spring.
On the way back to the ranch we pause on a bluff with a view of the Johnson Creek valley. Before us lies a majestic vista: a broad, limpid river, its gravel bed twinkling beneath the swift current, laid out under an epic mountain sky. Below us, a pair of steelhead trout as long as my arm undulate in the crystalline flow.
If Idaho were a religion, trout-fishing would be its sacrament. "Idaho has some of the finest dry-fly fisheries in the world," says my cousin Jamie Glasgow, who likes fish so much that he became a trout ecologist, and likes Idaho so much that he married an Idaho Falls girl. "People here are passionate about trout. They don't see fishing as a means to an end. They see it as an aesthetic experience."
The most storied trout streams are the Henry's Fork and the South Fork of the Snake River, both in eastern Idaho. So after a few more days at Wapiti Meadow Ranch, I fly with Barry back to Stanley, pick up my rental car, and drive 250 miles southeast. It's time to get serious about fishing.
My bunk for the night is at the South Fork Lodge, a hideaway built by Mark Rockefeller right alongside one of the most productive stretches of trout water in the state. As the sun goes down I settle in on the terrace for a drink, watching the trout rise to feed in a honey hole a few yards away, before retreating inside the futuristic silo-shaped main lodge for a meal in the cavernous dining room.
The next morning, I wake early to meet my guide, Darren Puetz, 29. "I've never had anyone not catch a fish," he says as I help him put our drift boat into the water. "There are four or five thousand trout per mile in this river."
We ease our boat into the current. It's been a while since I wielded a fly rod, and my technique is a mess. When I try to undo an incipient snarl by twirling the lure around the rod, I only make the situation worse.
"Fly-fishing is like golf," Darren says, trying to be helpful. "It has a rhythm."