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A High-Country Bouquet of Memories

When the president is away, the reporters will play. Almost every year in August, whoever is the leader of our nation takes off for his chosen vacationland. Members of Congress also go on holiday. Government in Washington is pretty much shut down. So the news-less journalists take leave, too.

This year I went west in search of one of my roots, to Boise, Idaho, where my parents started their married life at the turn of the century. My wife and I received a warm, Western welcome from friends who had urged us to come.

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But the frame house my folks had built had been replaced with a brick office building. And I did not have time to trace the early plat my father had done - as Boise City engineer - when he had helped shape the city.

But with an experienced and most-engaging mountain man as our guide, we were driven in his four-wheel-drive vehicle up 7,000 feet so that we could look across Hells Canyon at the Seven Devils Mountains where my father's surveying party ran its lines in making its primary survey of the state line between Idaho and Oregon.

Our guide pointed us to the Devils' highest peak and said it was 10,000 feet. From there the mountainside plunged down to the canyon floor, providing what locals claim to be the deepest gorge in North America.

I wouldn't want to leave the impression that my dad and his men traversed those heights. All I know from my father's many accounts of his part was that the survey took him "through" the mountains.

He told me once that, unlike Lewis and Clark (whose route was through the Bitterroot Mountains to the north), he could not try to find the most accessible entry through the rugged terrain. His party, he pointed out, had to go where his work took it.

My dad had told me that his mountain work had taken him through a part of our country where no white man had been before - and where the Indians may or may not have preceded him. He said the forbidding terrain might not have been an inviting hunting ground. Like Lewis and Clark, he kept a record of the flora and fauna he saw on these surveying adventures.

Afterward some friends asked me what my thoughts were as I looked out at the site of my dad's early-century achievement. I told them that it made me - at least for the moment - wish that I had followed in his footsteps and become an engineer.

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I did, indeed, work as an apprentice surveyor with my father as I grew up - after the family had moved back to its original homestead of Illinois. I carried the back chain for a few years - then the front chain. Then I was holding the rod and helping to dig up cornerstones that were needed for reference points. Then Dad taught me to use the transit and the levels so I knew enough about what surveyors do to comprehend the challenge he faced and stand in awe over what he did.

Dad had many wonderful stories about those Western years. Once, he said, he just missed a stagecoach that would have taken him down a mountain and to a long-awaited reunion with his family. So he quickly scrambled and slid down the mountainside and caught the stage coach - which had to take a circular route down - at a lower level. He said he had torn his clothes and skinned himself a bit. "But I got there just in time," he would tell us youngsters as we waited eagerly to hear the punch line of a story we loved.

As we drove slowly upward toward our outlook view of the Seven Devils, starting at the little village of Riggins, our guide, Tommy Lee, showed us the foundations of a dwelling of an earlier, mining-town settlement. "It was called 'Gouge Eye,'" he said, adding that a lot of that sort of thing was going on in those violent days.

When we reached a higher elevation, about 5,000 feet, Tommy Lee - a veteran of Vietnam and a hummer of Western tunes - picked mountain flowers for us to take home: Indian Paint Brush and some other colorful flowers I cannot identify. They are dry now and make a beautiful bouquet - one that reminds us of our wonderful trip back into the past.

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