The Idaho Sage

by Matt Schiff

This is a love story about high plains, barbed wire fence, getting away from it all, and the sagebrush that blankets this land.

Travelling southeast from Leadore, Idaho on highway 20, the valley widens and fills with sagebrush. The mountains move into the background while the sagebrush rangeland becomes the prominent feature. This undesirable land has been cleared for hay and developed for housing such that only 10% of the unique habitat is left undisturbed. Here, in the heart of nothingness, lies a woody shrub – big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) – a hearty little stiff plant you smell in the air and even more when it rains.

Air is swirling all around us. Sometimes we’re pushed from behind yet sudden gusts come ripping from the side. These air masses collide; hot and cold meet up to sort out their differences. Lightning flashes and thunder erupts. A small cell thunderstorms forms but the lightning is cloud-to-cloud (they keep it to themselves). We get hit with sideways rain and hail, and our shoes fill up like buckets. The pungent smell of sage fills the air.

The first time I was shocked by how desolate a landscape could be I was driving west on I-70 through Utah. Your first experience is not something you easily forget. Three years later I’m in a work pickup, 50 miles on a dirt road from Eureka, NV, not far from Duckwater, and far more remote than I-70 in Utah. It was raining lightly so the windows were up. We crawled 10 slow 4wd miles to our worksite; it was my first day of work. We opened the doors and that thick smell seemed to fill our clothes. The remoteness further stunned me. Footprints in the sand seemed like an intrusion to this rarely visited landscape. I loved it but didn’t know how much. It’s the landscape as well, but more so the sage.

There’s nothing out here along highway 20 and you better like it that way if you plan to stay. It is the antithesis of Las Vegas. Vegas pulls you in with neon lights, makes promises it can’t keep, and pretends to be savory when in reality it’s just quick and cheap. Vegas is your soft drink, that when finished, breaks your heart. In Idaho sageland there’s nothing but barbed wire fence, sage, a rusty can, and not a soul to keep you company. This place is like no-frills tap water. This place could break your heart. But if you run your hand through some sage leaves it might cleanse your spirit and leave your mind at ease (see traditional Native American uses). Even throw a handful in your shoes for proper balance (and anti-bacterial properties). Then maybe the soaring raptors become playful, the landscape peaceful, and the barbed wire gates a little easier to open. Your cowboy scowl softens – that’s the beginning to love – and you accept this landscape, this baron land, a place that was never worth saving.

Good ol’ BLM land. Thank you for wasteland!