After several years living in and exploring other landscapes, I am back where I began, in the high desert of southeast Idaho. This is a land of agriculture, the fields furrowed and plowed, where grain is piled high in corrugated steel silos and where mountains of potatoes stand and wait in the shade of sod-covered cellars. The potato is our heritage, so ubiquitous that we stamp its image on our license plates, a movable feast reminding us of that tuber that fills our bellies and our billfolds.
I grew up in a house surrounded on three sides by potato fields, high on a hilly bench below the Big Hole Mountains, where a century before my birth Hinmatuyalatkekt, or, since it slips easier from white men’s tongues, Chief Joseph, and his band of Nez Perce, evaded federal troops in what still remains as our nation’s longest ever high-speed chase. The position of these fields affords a contemplative view of the Great Snake River Plain, carved and melted millennia ago by the Yellowstone Caldera, that truest sleeping giant. If the restive energy of this terror had been known in the forties, Yamamoto would have used a different metaphor.
This is my land.
As a boy I spent much of my free time exploring along the farm roads that parcel the fields. The Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee are famous for their hollers. Our hills here have the like, but in miniature. In the folding and unfolding of faulted ground rise up intermittent unplowable stands of juniper, sage, and aspen. In the larger of these stands live families of mule deer. In the largest, elk the color of grain. A moose or two annually wander into our backyards and graze from our bushes, drink from our kiddie pools. Mostly these insular copses are tenanted by rabbits and foxes.
When the air cools and the farming’s done, the potato fields are left strewn with withering vines, the grain fields with stubbly beards. Each awaits winter, which comes early. Winter is the best time to be in these hills, and snowmobiling the mode of travel. Acres upon thousands of acres of unbroken land make for great riding. I mean, we could walk out our backdoor, hop on the snowmobile and ride as far as three towns away without crossing so much as one navigable road.
I loved the look of the fields on sunny days: the endless expanse of glistering snow, the undulating hills like sea swells, the dark pine-spiked mountains above, and the quiet quilted plain below. Here we rode.
While a shabby relative to the machines available today, our snowmobile was a hot item in the middle 1980s. It could manage sixty miles per hour before having to strain. I enjoyed driving it. It was one of the first models to feature heated handlebars. Oh, I can still smell the almost-sweet stink of hot gloves and hand sweat, the sensuous exhaust of a two-stroke engine finely tuned.
More than driving alone, I liked to ride behind my older brother Joe. I’d sit on the back of the slick maroon seat and wrap my arms around his waist. When it was cold, I buried my face in the middle of his back, shielded from the wind. It didn’t matter where we went. We just cruised. We flew over the hills looking for drifts and windblown cornices. Once, at nearly eighty miles per hour and snow-blind, we hit a large drift that rocketed us into the sky. The machine executed a barrel roll before landing neatly on its track. We were not so fortunate. We cartwheeled into a frightened heap, surprised to stand up unhurt. Another time, school was cancelled because of cold, and we ventured out on a morning fifty degrees below zero without a breath of wind. I wasn’t wearing a hat and was wild with pain within minutes. Returning home, despite lying for hours in a tub of lukewarm water, frostbite swelled my ears into purple balloons.
Some of our rides found us looking for rabbits or foxes. Seen from above, their tracks delineated on the fields a tracework, like a map of the territories. We couldn’t really follow the tracks to good effect because they led everywhere. No, to find them we had simply to cover ground, to ride enough miles and keep our eyes peeled.
One afternoon we spotted a fox in the distance, some distance above an escarpment of broken basalt. Joe thumbed the throttle and we headed for it. The fox just stood there, watching us as we approached, its features clarifying, like waking up from a dream. It didn’t move until we were within a few hundred yards.
I remember as we rode hearing the high iridescent whine of the engine splitting the air like tearing paper. I remember the fox’s black eyes and silver tail, the flame of its back and belly. Its body seemed to shrink into a dense center and then explode like a red bullet. Zero to everything in an instant.
What came over us I cannot say. Not a word was spoken, but we both knew: we were after it.
Pursuing in a straight line, we caught up rather quickly. Even with a light body and splayed feet, the fox had to work to keep ahead of us. Still, it was a thing of wonder. Just as we would get near, it would change direction with abruptness unimaginable, expert as a dragonfly. We’d catch up and it would dart left or right. Joe cranked the handlebars and the machine, by comparison, banked a turn as blunt as a ship’s.
No sound from the fox. It merely ran. It ran through belly deep snow with heroic effort. It ran and ran and kept going, churning the snow under foot. Eventually, it tired.
After narrowly missing it on one pass, close enough I could have—like some rodeo trick—reached down and grabbed it, we turned around and saw the fox had stopped. It sat in the middle of our track and collapsed on its haunches.
It wasn’t terribly cold that day. The sun was out. Joe aligned the machine and opened the throttle.
I have a picture indelibly printed of the fox in that moment. The crimson fur on its hackles stood straight up. Its wet black eyes and wet black nose. The puff of black on the tip of its tail. Its chest heaved from a heart pounding as hot and fast as a hummingbird’s. Its pink tongue hung out of its mouth like a bit of licked taffy.
The fox never even tried to get out of the way, only dropped its head, as if we would float right over it.
It wasn’t much, running over that small fox. The sensation was like swallowing some too large thing, a momentary catch, a pressing against the soft flesh of the throat. We turned around and saw the fox meekly raise its head. Even the weight of the machine and us on it was not enough to kill the fox.
We had broken its bones. Its slender front legs zigzagged at severe angles. Some of its insides were outside. We had smudged it.
It took us several more passes before the fox was dead. And dead we left it, the fox spreading in the snow: soft and quiet under the distant winter sun, spreading like an ink pen lying on linen.
As we cruised back home my ears and nose stung from the cold and the wind watered my eyes. Here, in my belly, a small tight knot.
Of what consequence, this mere fox? Passing over this bit of fur, this bit of bone. Noticed by no one, perhaps, save only him, who notices the fall of every sparrow. Good God in heaven, who among us had not where to lay his head, forgive me. I was a boy then. I was only a boy, and I took unto myself a lump I couldn’t swallow. I cannot swallow still.
After completing an MFA at the University of Arizona, Jaren Watson moved back to Idaho where he was raised and now teaches writing and editing at a small university. In 2009, his essay, “Of the Drowned,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and this year, he won second place in the 13th annual Eugene England essay contest. Currently, his stories and essays can be found at Furrow, Irreantum, Forge Journal, and Eunoia Review.