AN ODE TO THE SAWTOOTH MOUNTAINS

Joe Leonard with help from Robert Service

I was born the other side of the Sawtooth Mountains above Arrowrock dam,
Raised by my grandma, a woman in touch with the land.
She was strong as they come, an old mountain woman all alone at the time.
A courageous old gal, a mighty fine pal, and a damn good friend of mine.
In one old rough hand she held me, in the other she held a stick,
To club those old rattlers to death with — now that was a trick.
She was rugged and true with eyes of blue, a woman that nothing could scare,
And she didn’t take me from off her knee until death she did dare.

The first time I saw this side of the Sawtooths I was but seven,
No rattlers here, I knew I had found heaven.
With no idea there existed a place of such beauty,
I vowed someday, no matter the way, for me to live here was my duty.
I didn’t get here for many a year, until came the time to turn thirty.
Then came the call of mountains so tall and I left that old city so dirty.
Twenty years have gone by under the mountain skies and life changes like it or not,
Today I turn fifty and I don’t feel too nifty, but this body is all that I got.

I’m one of the Sawtooth Brotherhood, I’m an old time pioneer.
Oh God how I’ve cursed these mountains, and yet I am still here.
My sleep is filled with dreams of past days before maps could tell where you are,
And finally when I became a young man of thirty I came to this valley,
To a place called Robinson Bar….
Robinson Bar was a dude ranch…. but now…. like a dream it’s long gone.
My partners were John and Bill and Nancy too, city people, Idahoans thru and thru.
After a time these three left the wilds for the lure of gold.

John left to be President of Boise Cascade,
Working in the Sawtooth Mountains is not a prosperous trade.
Nancy rode out of the White Cloud Mountains and moved a long way a way.
She is a brave gal who went to the White House to make Ronald Reagan’s day.
Bill traded Robinson Bar for the city to seek his fortune and find his truth,
I stayed with the mountains and rivers, never fearing the loss of my youth.
I was one of the bunch and I got a hunch that time spent here was the best,
But this guiding is only a gamble and I’m due for a good long rest.

I’ve followed my dreams by its thousand streams, I’ve toiled and tried to be bold,
I’ve lived the magic of these mountains, I’ve frozen and shivered in the cold.
Look at my nose — it’s as red as a rose, my toes are black and frost burned,
And that gruesome scar on my left arm, you’d think some day that I’d learn.
Each one a brand of this awesome land, where I’ve played and I’ve lost the game,
A broken wreck with a craze for booze and never a cent to my name.
With my partners Sevy and Ayer, Kovalicky and Kimpton too,
God, it’s hell to think of the years I’ve squandered on drink and on chew.

In the early days we were just a few and hunted and fished around,
We dreamed by our lonely campfires of the wealth that we’d thrown down.
We traded the life of plenty, just to sleep in an open glade
On the banks of Goat Creek where the first ski camp was made.
We were just like a great big family and every man had his rope,
And we lived such a wild, free and fearless life out on the mountain slope.
Then one night there came a rumor, and it maddened us every one,
We heard it at Casanovas, the tourist rush had begun.

Oh those Stanley days, amid the sin and the gin, the town all crazy wild,
Time was just like dirt here, plenty to have and to spend,
I got stuck on a Kasino Bar maid, and I won her in the end.
We got married in the meadow that lay just outside of town,
The mayor of Stanley wed us, laid the words upon us as we watched the sun go down.

Things were fine for a considerable time, I laid down that devil brew,
Till by chance I found myself in an avalanche all churned up in the stew.

My friends dug like wild men, looking for my carcass under the snow,
I heard one shout just before they dug me out, I found him! I found old Joe.

Twenty years in the Sawtooths struggling along its creeks,
Roaming its mountain meadows, climbing its God-like peaks,
Bathed in its fiery sunsets, fighting its fiendish cold,
Twenty years in the Sawtooths … twenty years …. and I’m old.
I’ve been trying to leave here for near a year and head for the city below,
Leave these cursed mountains, leave these rivers crazed, leave!
Let these mountains go.
I can’t! I’m old and beat, I’m too tired too lost, or too dead,
In the morning …. I’ll go …. in the morning …. when the sunrise turns the mountains red.


A little backstory from my wife:
My goodness the responses to Joe’s poem have been too great…we have had so much fun with it.
I would like to share “more of the story” with you – the nitty gritty of it, and so typical of Joe – one can never be quite sure what he might pull out of his hat….
He had been writing and rewriting his speech for the attorney’s of Boise Cascade for weeks. Writing and crumbling the pages to pieces and writing and crumbling. And, it is true, he was not at the top of his game at that time. Life, as it will, was throwing its darker side to him just daring him to cave. What, after all, in such a tumultuous time in life would he say to a crowd of attorneys from Boise Cascade? How could he share his life story in hopes of opening their eyes to a different kind of life experience…an old mountain goat suffering the physical ravages of a life well lived. He, for the first time since I had known him, was without words.
So….we drove from Boise to Stanley on the day of his birthday. We drove up and up, past Idaho City and Lowman, and Joe had not said one word the entire time. You can imagine my terror – never had I spent that much time without Joe saying something…anything…one word. I was trying to find some words that could help him through his spell when all of the sudden he pulled over to the side of the road, grabbed all his little notecards that held the speech he had worked so fervently over, jumped out of the car and made his way down the bank to the Payette. I think that is when I started praying.
After a good long spell he trudged back up the bank of the river and got into the car. Not one word….not one. After driving a few miles he said to me, looking intently at the road ahead “I threw my speech in the river. I threw it in the river, all but my poem.” Then, once again, silence. I found myself at a loss for words, which is unusual. All I could think about was the fact that in three hours time he was going to be giving a speech to the well-dressed, well-groomed, well-educated of Boise Cascade.
And…not only that. This particular retreat for these highly regarded folk was to spiff them up on their own speaking abilities. So, in light of this burdensome endeavor they had hired one of the top speaking consultant companies from all of California. They too were going to listen to Joe’s speech…god help us.
We drove into Crooked Creek, took showers, changed into our best duds and left for Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch. Still no peep from his lips…and I with heart in my mouth. We arrived and were welcomed by the top officials of Boise Cascade whom we returned our warm greetings and were ushered into the dining room where all were seated for a good meal and to listen to the light of my life give an earth shattering speech.
We sat at the head table and almost immediately Joe excused himself to go to the men’s room, leaving me at the table alone with the honchos, doing my best to keep a smile on my face and keeping myself from throwing up all over their beautifully decorated table (wildflowers and that kind of thing, you know.) The head of the legal department looked at me and said “So, Sheila, what will Joe be speaking about today?” Not wanting to tell a lie, I looked at him in the eye and said “I don’t really know.” keeping that smile on my face all the while.
Joe finally, after some time, returned to the table and sat down. Still no peep from him. No sooner had he sat when he was called to the lectern. It was really strange, the whole thing felt surreal and I was starting to feel claustrophobic. But then I felt this kind of warm cocoon surrounding him as he stood and walked resolutely towards his fate.
I swear to God, Tom, the minute he opened his mouth to speak it was as if all the angels in heaven came swarming down and spoke through him. Honest to God, it’s true. It was THE most brilliant, magical, and inspiring speech I have ever heard in my entire life, and I know I will never hear another like it. I cried through the whole thing trying to hide my tears so the great gents I was seated with would not see my emotion.
When he finished his speech, with his poem, the guests rose in unison and their clapping and resounding voices could have brought that big beautiful log building to collapse. The person in charge of the company from California, there to teach all how to give a proper speech, came up to me and said “Why didn’t you tell us he could speak like that…we should have filmed it!”
When we got in our car to drive back to our beloved Crooked Creek, the silence had finally broken and I asked Joe was he did away from the dinner table so long before his speech. He told me he went to the bathroom to stare at himself in the mirror and to pray. Pray he did, and God did listen, for his speech was one to be written in the great books of great words spoken.
I thought you might like to hear “the rest of the story” as Garrison Keiller would say –
Love to you-
Shiela