written by Michael Gay
“The things we see, hear, smell and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all.” – Flannery O’Connor
In northern Idaho there is a stretch of dead end road that turns off of Highway 97 and leads to Outlet Resort on the edge of Priest Lake, one of Idaho’s crown jewels. The road is simply named Outlet Road. There is nothing special about it, just a half-mile of sloping dirt, gravel and potholes that ends at a small cement boat ramp and a few vacation cabins.
But as a boy, after the long nine-hour drive from Portland, as the evening sun sank over the tall hills, my family’s car would turn off the highway, crest the top of Outlet Road, and the boat ramp would slide into the clear waters of the lake in front of us. My heart would flutter with exhilaration and a wordless awe as I anticipated the joy of adventure waiting in and around the water.
Almost every morning for the week or two that my family spent at Priest Lake, my grandpa and I would walk the dirt and gravel of Outlet Road together. Grandpa is an early riser, and a man of habit. He would get up at 6:30 or 7 even on vacation, and had a tradition of walking to the top of the road and back every morning. I would scramble out of the cot where I slept to go with him.
It seemed so quiet at that time of morning, like we were the first to greet the day, and the day would offer us the first of it’s treasures in return.
Grandpa would often bring his cup of coffee with him. He’d wear his khaki shorts and a polo shirt, tan and skinny legs driving against the ground like the beat of a steam engine. He had a shock of white hair that never seemed to thin.
We would cross the short-cut, dew-covered lawn, our feet soft and silent as salamander skin until we hit the gravel of the road, and the crunch of our tennis shoes was like a shotgun in the quiet morning. The air was still cool, especially in the shade, but as we crossed the patches of sunlight we could feel the warmth of the mountain sun settle on our backs.
More than anything I remember the smell of diesel. The road was dirt and gravel, and to keep the dust down in the summer they would spray oil across the road. It created these dark, always damp brown patches, and an intoxicating, unique smell that is so vivid in my memory it’s like I can hold it in my hands.
Grandpa and I would walk that road, side by side. Sometimes we would trudge along in silence, but usually we would talk. We talked about everything related to the world of science and ideas and how things worked: electricity and world events, fishing, the way radios and trains operated, what supplies we needed to finish insulating the trailer, the price of wheat. From these conversations with Grandpa I learned an insatiable desire for knowledge, not as a tool or means to an end, but just for the sheer pleasure of knowing a thing.
Those morning walks up a gravel road were symbolic of how Grandpa folded me into his life and world in a way that I never wanted to leave. We talked and worked as men and as friends, as people who have forgotten themselves and are enjoying sharing their lives together, even though I was just a child. I wasn’t just tolerated, it felt like he found me as fascinating as I found him.
These days its my kids in the backseat of the car when we crest the hill on Outlet Road and look down the boat ramp into the lake. The road is paved over now, and there is no need to spray oil on the dirt in summer. It looks and smells a little different, but the lessons I learned at Grandpa’s side won’t ever leave.