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Pilgrimage to Nespelem

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Visiting the grave of Thunder-Rolling-in-the-Mountains

It is November, and I am on my semi-annual visit to the cemetery at Nespelem. I try each year to come when the vernal and autumnal equinoxes are near. This fall I am six weeks late, as I was when friend Kevin and I came in May. Much of life seems like that these days. Nespelem is a tiny village in the dry, basalt hills of the southern Colville Indian Reservation in Ferry and Okanagan Counties, Washington. It is a town falling into itself. If it had a Chamber of Commerce, they might pay me not to say this, but there is none. Its half square mile is half full of empty churches and decrepit businesses, abandoned houses and broken-down cars.

    Among the derelicts are a few, well-kept homes, a new community center and a pair of gas stations with accompanying convenience stores facing on Highway 155. The closest community of any size is 17 miles south, where the twin towns of Grand Coulee and Coulee Dam sit at each end of Grand Coulee Dam, grown in the middle of the Columbia River, making electricity for Bonneville Power Administration and holding Lake Roosevelt in place, a backwater stretching 120 miles east and north.

    Thirty miles upstream of the dam, at Hawk Creek, the river abandons the southerly course it has followed since leaving Canada and takes a hard right into the Big Bend. It runs west from there past the mouth of the San Poil River and the Keller Ferry to the dam, where it turns right again and drops 300 feet through the turbines that Woody Guthrie wrote into Roll On, Columbia, Roll On when they first began turning at the end of the Depression. The river then runs north to the mouth of the Nespelem River before veering west into the reservoir behind Chief Joseph Dam.

    The reservation sits in that hook of the river, and one way to enter it is via the bridge below the dam that links those towns of Grand Coulee and Coulee Dam.

The Confederated Colville Tribes have a casino in Coulee Dam. On summer nights, the face of the dam becomes the screen for a laser light show, and casino patrons walk across the street to the park facing the dam or line the rails of the bridge. After Neil Diamond’s Coming to America echoes above the river and the image of an eagle soars across the face of the dam one more time, they return to their machines and trying to get rich one nickel at a time.

    There are many ways to come to Nespelem, a full day’s journey from my house and back. Most times, I drive U.S. 2 through Reardan, Davenport and Creston to Wilbur, where Washington 174 and 21 turn north together west of town and part company at the north edge of the golf course. From there, they both run up a long ramp of grain fields to the edge of the Columbia gorge, only to drop 1,200 feet through dark basalt cliffs down to the river.

    The left branch, Route 174, leads to a long, straight canyon that funnels the road to Grand Coulee. Route 21 drops off the edge of the basalt in a series of convolutions that demand a driver’s attention and a delicate right foot. I prefer 21, which leads to the Keller ferry ramp.

    There are two ferry crossings on Lake Roosevelt. The one at Keller is the longer of the two, leading from a rest area and a variety of orchards on the south to a lonely picnic table on a steep, rocky point on the north. Sixty miles upstream, the other carries traffic from Gifford, on Highway 25 on the east side, to Inchelium, on the Reservation. Inchelium’s closest neighbor west of the river is Republic, seat of Ferry County, at the intersection of Highways 20 and 21. Republic is not quite at the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from there, and just beyond that is Inchelium.

    Today, I chose to approach Nespelem via Inchelium. It is a personally redemptive route, for the first time I crossed there on my way from Colville to Wenatchee nearly 20 years ago, I failed to make the left turn necessary to go to Nespelem and ended up a long, winding way later in Republic, in the dark, and very surprised to be there - not to mention unhappy. We finally drove into Wenatchee at 3 in the morning.

    That was before I learned my way around in this country; before I learned my way around in many ways.

    Today, I made the turn at Inchelium and drove past Twin Lakes across the Bridge Creek pass to Highway 21, and turned south along the San Poil River toward Keller. Just north of Keller, I turned up Cache Creek, and drove across the Keller Divide and down into Nespelem.

    In the switchbacks above town, a logging truck has dumped its load of reservation-grown yellow pine and larch into a steep gulch in a loop of the road. I was surprised to see that neither tractor nor trailer is in the gulch with the load. I can imagine that the driver was surprised, too, and torn between gratitude and grief.

    At the cemetery, I get out of the truck into a piercing cold. There is a new grave today, and I find it is of a man six years younger than me. There is no wind, and the tracks of the hearse and the footprints around the grave are sharp in the dark gray dust, made just hours ago. The mourners wore tennis shoes and boots with vibram treads. One woman had shoes with a wave pattern in the sole, and I find myself thinking that these shoes are the plastic ones that sell for four dollars at Wal-Mart.

    There were not many at the graveside for this man, and I can only speculate about what he died of, but it might have been a drunk driver, diabetes, heart attack, cancer, suicide. It is certain he didn’t die of old age, which is something few folks in this place have died of. In fact, many of the graves are child-sized, and many have no markers.

    The doctor who attended the death of the man I have come to pay my respects to said he died of a broken heart. His name was Thunder-Rolling-In-The-Mountains.

    Thunder-Rolling-In-The-Mountains is buried with a white marble obelisk at the head of his grave and a struggling, ancient elm at his feet. He died on the first day of autumn in 1904, and was born in the spring some 60 years before in a cave in the Snake River breaks near the Grande Ronde River. We have come to know him as Joseph of the Nez Perce, or at least to know of him. We have read about him in history books and learned many things about him that have little to do with who he really was.

    The old woman who first showed me to his grave nearly eight years ago and told me his name in his own language said, “He was not a war chief, you know. Some things they say he did, he didn’t do.”

    Beginning from this place, though, I have learned a lot of what he did do, and much about who he really was. He grew up in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon, and his longest fight was the fight to be allowed to return home. It was a fight he did not win, and that seems to me to be what broke his heart.

    I have been told by a Native American man that their tradition is to honor their dead just once, and they are somewhat confounded by the attention Joseph’s resting place continues to get. He also told me that the people who live next to the cemetery have seen pilgrims come at sunset and still be sitting at the grave at sunrise.

    I visit because he has become a hero of mine; a man who stood for what he believed and kept his word, even to his enemies, in the face of a thousand betrayals and lies.

    Today, I meet two other pilgrims at Joseph’s grave, Brian and Heather Reathaford from Spokane. They drove up to find this place for the first time today. Even shivering in the cold with no coat, Brian wants to know what I know. I can’t tell him all I have learned without freezing him to death, but we are both pleased to find fellow pilgrims.

    “Why is he buried here,” Brian wants to know, “instead of in the Wallowa with his father?”

    That’s a good question, Brian. The best answer I have is that this is where his family was, and still is. That new grave carries a name I recognize as being descendent of the bands that followed Joseph to this place when his conscience would not let him go elsewhere.

    I won’t stay long today. I leave a small gift hanging in the elm, as many pilgrims do. It is something I want to let go of, and this is a good place to let go of things. It is not a pleasant spot, this cemetery at Nespelem, more acerbic than restful. The rough edges of this place and the biting cold can scrub a soul clean, though, even one that is six weeks behind itself.

    In the spring, when I come again, I will try to be on time.



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Sandy Compton Sandy Compton Sandy Compton is one of the original contributors to The River Journal, and owner and publisher at Blue Creek Press (www.bluecreekpress.com). His latest book is Side Trips From Cowboy: Addiction, Recovery and the Western American Myth

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