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From Boise

Hermits of Idaho

publishedabout 1 month ago
8 min read

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Editor's note: Today's story is by Amanda Patchin. Amanda gives us a fascinating look at some of Idaho's hermits and muses on solitude in our always-busy world. Enjoy!

We talk a lot about introversion and extroversion these days. Any one of a dozen personality tests can tell you which side you tip onto and many of them offer a dubiously helpful percentage score. While the accuracy, usefulness, and purpose of personality tests can vary widely, I do think that understanding the introvert/extrovert dichotomy can help a person navigate the social dynamics that they find enjoyable vs. the ones that they do not.

A lot of From Boise’s coverage is geared toward the extrovert side of our culture. Concerts, shows, events, places to see and to be seen, all dominate. There is loud music and there are big crowds in the Thursday email and these things are clearly quite popular and meaningful for a lot of people! However, Idaho has long been a haven for the introverted as well. Estimates vary, but somewhere around one third of people tend to be more easily overwhelmed by loud noise, drained by casual social encounters, and happier when alone or in a small, intimate group.

For those of us more inclined to quiet, Idaho topography offers plenty of opportunity for the peace of wild spaces. For most of us, that means we might escape the noise and bustle of Boise to go camping in the Sawtooths (never mind the noise and bustle of Stanley in the summer), or we might just sneak off for a hike in the quieter reaches of the foothills, or perhaps simply take a stroll up the eastern reach of the Greenbelt where gravel paths and a nature reserve leave space for a peaceful walk.

However, Idaho History reveals that the longing to be alone can take much more dramatic forms. The hermit impulse seems nearly universal in human history. We get the name “hermit” from the Greek word for “desert” and its definition in our culture is very much shaped by the western tradition of religious solitude. While at least one religious hermit lives in Idaho today (Sister Mary Beverly Greger at Marymount Hermitage in Adams County), most of the “hermits” in Idaho lore are more accurately described as “individualists” or “loners”.

In the 1990s, river guide and author Cort Conley wrote a wonderful compendium of some of Idaho’s most famous recluses. Idaho Loners is a chronicle of a dozen people who lived alone, or mostly alone, in the wilder parts of Idaho. That dozen is far from all of the hermits of Idaho but it does make for an interesting review of some of the possibilities for the lonely life.

I’ve been a little preoccupied with the eremitic life lately. Perhaps it is because I am getting a bit older and grumpier. Perhaps it is because the world has been particularly chaotic of late. Perhaps it is simply my annual reaction to the noise of leafblowers. Perhaps it is the encroachment of electronic devices, surveillance, and the fact that people bring their phones with them into the sauna of all places, and all of this annoys me. But, whatever the precise cocktail of causes, the idea of a quiet life in a cave, close to nature and far from noise, flashing lights, and holiday expectations, has been sounding pretty good to me.

This video about Austrian priest Johannes Schwarz converting an old farmstead into a hermit’s retreat inspires longing for mountainous solitude. This book about Sister Wendy, the famous art critic and contemplative, inspires longing for the kind of quiet that can live anywhere. But Cort Conley’s book Idaho Loners has reminded me that going off on your own can be rather uncomfortable as well.

According to the accounts in Conley’s book, it doesn’t seem that the hermits he profiled were particularly concerned with comfort, although some of them seemed to have fairly comfortable lives, considering their limitations anyway. I quite like the set up that Earl Parrot came up with, although I think I would have done a bit more laundry as he was observed to always wear “dirty overalls” and “shoes…which he never takes off.” Known as the “Hermit of Impassable Canyon”, Parrott lived on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River for thirty years. He built two cabins in the canyon, one small one down near the river, and one larger one high up the canyonside, accessible via ladder and rope, and surrounded by a luxurious vegetable garden.

According to Conley, Parrott carefully managed his potatoes, squash, and other vegetables to replant only the best of the best each year and so his potatoes weighed a pound each and the rest of his veggies were equally flourishing. Between growing food, hunting for a bear each autumn in order to preserve its fat, and hiking out just once a year to buy sugar, bullets, and tobacco with the gold he had extracted from the river, he managed all his caloric needs and personal comforts without undue stress.


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The only alloy in Parrott’s life as a hermit seems to have been the increasing rafting traffic on the river, and his brother’s audacity in coming to visit him. Surveyors stopped by one year, then many years later men working on CCC projects. A reporter or two came by and the news story brought his brother over from Portland. His brother’s visit annoyed him deeply because he felt that he had to lie to his brother to get him to leave (Sure, I’ll come visit you next year…)

While some hermits kept journals or wrote occasional letters, Parrott’s opinions and ideas are only known from the accounts of people who visited him. What is remarkably unclear is what drove him to find such an isolated place to live out his life. One person who knew him before his retreat, said that he did not care for the company of children. A late visitor said that Parrott had been “disappointed in love” but there is no simple explanation for such dramatic isolation.

And this holds for most of the stories in Cort Conley’s book, as well as for the accounts of scores of highly isolated people who lived in the Idaho wilderness in the first half of the twentieth century like Frank Love who lived in a cave, Snowshoe Johnson who mined on Wilson Creek, or Major Downey who lived alone for a few years on Owl Creek.

Wheelbarrow Annie, who lived alone in Hells Canyon, seems to have simply decided to get away, and then stayed away. William Moreland “The Ridgerunner” was in periodic legal trouble, but all of it seemed to be caused by his desire to get away instead of being the cause of that desire. Major Downey was likely suffering from the trauma of WW2. Sometimes isolation seems to descend on someone who was married, or lived with their parents until illness or age took everyone but them.

William "Doc" Hisom, known as the “Cove Recluse” was one of those who ended up alone inadvertently. He, a Black man, had partnered up with a white man named White. They claimed a 20-acre parcel of land along the Snake River near present-day Melba in 1906 or 1907. White had to leave their mining claim because of a serious injury sometime around 1913 and Hisom simply stayed behind, living alone there for nearly 30 years. But his isolation did not seem to bother him, indeed he flourished creatively and physically, mining, trapping, and making beautiful deerskin gloves to give away.

Still, there is some active choice in remaining isolated under such circumstances. Something about the peaceful loneliness must make up for the social deprivations. And something about the work of supplying their own needs must make up for the physical deprivations. Each of Idaho’s hermits had incredibly industrious and creative ways of feeding and clothing themselves: foraging, gardening, hunting, gold mining, trapping, fur tanning, and all manner of drying, canning, and storing of goods. Even the simple satisfaction of baking a loaf of bread goes a long way. How much more gathering and making all of your own food?

And this is where annoyance at leaf blowers and the pervasive intrusion of advertising and the hectic schedule of modern life begins to seem like reason enough, and maybe good reason, to get away from all of this. Each of the hermits I’ve read about seemed to be fully themselves, in all the weirdness, complexity, and difficulty that entails.

Sensitivity to noise, to lights, to too much company, to the demands of family, to draft notices, and to stimuli of all kinds, can be frustrating for others deal with and yet that sensitivity can also be the root of the appreciation of beauty, of kindness to animals, to plants, and to the land. The quiet of a hermitage is the place where a strong inner life, a strong sense of harmony and order, can flourish. Certainly, the loners of the Idaho wilderness had varying relationships to harmony and beauty, to themselves and to others, and yet I find their stories hopeful. Some of them were not always alone, some of them came back out of their isolation, some simply left a few pithy statements that speak to the wholeness with which they viewed their own lives.

And it is that wholeness that is the point. People crave the stimulation that overwhelms and squashes them, but people also crave wholeness. It is a great and glorious western tradition to try and be as self-sufficient as possible. Of course, no one is fully self-sufficient and no one should really try to be so. However, each time we learn to do something for ourselves – even if it is just occupying our own thoughts without distraction – we are each a little more complex, a little more interesting, a little more whole.

Here in Boise I think we can learn more than a little from Idaho’s hermits. The quiet of the wilderness is necessary for our inner lives, even if we take it in relatively small doses. Likewise, their general capability is important for our individual development. Read their stories because their history is part of the fabric of our state and their beloved wilderness is one of our responsibilities.

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

Amanda

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This story was written by Amanda Patchin. Amanda has a monthly-ish newsletter where she shares her booklist, selections from her fiction, and updates on what books she has for sale in the Zed Bookshop.

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