“According to tribal legend, the Nez Perce were created right here,” Rachel, my wife, whispered in reverent excitement.
We were near Kamiah, some 60 miles east of the Nez Perce National Historical Park (NHP) Visitor’s Center. An idyllic valley about two miles wide where the creek enters, it’s hedged on both sides by step-stone mountain ranges increasing in size from velvety buttes to scrubby hills to fir tree-lined mountains.
A short trail led us to our destination—the Heart of the Monster, a large mound protruding abruptly from level ground and, unbeknownst to us, the beginning of our journey towards renewal.
Today, there is no Monster, but instead a semi-circle seating around the site where visitors can sit and listen to the story of the Nez Perce’s creation myth, “Coyote and the Monster.” A guide explained how Coyote vanquished the great Monster whose drops of blood, mixed with water, sprouted to life as the Nimiipuu or “People.” (French traders later named them the “Nez Perce” — literally “pierced nose(s)” — mistakenly identifying them with the neighboring, pierced Chinook.)
At the Heart of the Monster, Rachel exuded palpable excitement, and a weight I didn’t know I was carrying lifted from my shoulders. We had been battling our own monster since October 7, 2018. That was when Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle, bringing to our doorstep the third-most intense Atlantic hurricane to ever make landfall in the lower 48.
The hurricane was an altogether different kind of monster than the one from the myth, yet it transformed us nonetheless. It made us stronger and more grateful for the little things. But after a year in a natural disaster zone turned construction zone — where roofs, electricity, and grocery stores were hard-won luxuries — a change of pace and perspective felt good.
Past RV road trips had taken us to many parts of the US. But in the wake of the storm, our opportunity for vacations had been slim—too much to do, to reclaim, to build. When we finally had the chance to travel again, we couldn’t pass up the chance to see Idaho, rich with history and natural splendor. After all, recovery is one thing. Now, we were seeking renewal, and we wanted to go somewhere unlike any place we’d been before.
Back in the RV, we headed west on Highway 12 towards Spalding, and Rachel continued summarizing aloud as she read. “There’s evidence the Nez Perce have been in the region surrounding the Clearwater and Snake River valleys for more than 11,000 years.”
“And they helped Lewis and Clark’s expedition out, right?” I asked.
“Yes, the Corps of Discovery stumbled, starving and weak, into one of their camps. If it hadn’t been for the Nez Perce, they would’ve likely perished. Can you imagine how different history would’ve been?” Rachel’s voice trailed off. As a retired high school social studies teacher, these were the kinds of meaty questions she loved to mentally devour.
We spent that night at Canoe Camp just outside of Orofino. It was just incredible to be staying at the very site where Lewis and Clark, along with the Nez Perce, had carved the canoes that would take them all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Formerly known as the Lewis and Clark Highway, US Highway 12 traces the Discovery Corp’s route, which in turn, follows the ancient Nez Perce Indian trail (a.k.a. Lolo Trail) through the Clearwater National Forest. In Spalding, we visited the Nez Perce Historical Society and Museum, reveling in its stunning collection of tribal artifacts, from elaborate headdresses to intricate jewelry. We also grabbed a map outlining a day-long trip of 26 historical sites and headed out to explore.
Our late start meant we wouldn’t see all 26 sites, but the experience still proved enriching. Some of the sites were part of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, the route taken by Chief Joseph and his band of 300 in 1877. Fed up with broken treaties and reservations, they fled for the border with Canada.
After a 1,170-mile quest, the military stopped them just 40 miles from their destination. Despite the devastating defeat, the people proved resilient. Today, their culture and language remain a testament to fortitude.
Continuing west on Highway 12 to Lewiston, we visited an impressive 20-foot-long bronze statue of Mother Earth known as Tsceminicum (literally “the meeting of the waters”) commemorating the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers. At Lewiston, we headed south on Hells Gate Road following the Snake River towards Hells Gate State Park.
We glided down the trail, wind in our faces, snow-packed pines flying by, with permanent grins affixed to our faces.
Sitting atop a 15,000-year-old river bottom exposed after the Ice Age, the park boasts numerous attractions. These include the Hells Gate Marina, where we spent time relaxing on the white sand beach. There’s also the Lewis and Clark Discovery Center, and 14 million-year-old basaltic columns located at the south end of the park, remnants of the Pomona flows.
At the Discovery Center, we watched a compelling 30-minute video detailing the Discovery Corps’ expedition and then explore the museum’s rich collection of artifacts. Even more history was waiting for us that evening; as we settled into the campground we learned it was once the site of an ancient Nez Perce village. Evidence remains in the form of depressions south of the campground, remnants of pit houses once occupied by the Nez Perce during seasonal trips to the Asotin Creek to fish for lamprey. I smiled at these small whispers of the past, tidbits that echo stories across generations.
From the park, we departed on a half-day jet boat tour of Hells Canyon, North America’s deepest river gorge. We learned more about the Nez Perce tribe as we stopped to view ancient petroglyphs at Buffalo Eddy. We also stopped at Dug Bar, the site where Chief Joseph’s bands of nimí·pu· (Nez Perce) forded the Snake River on May 31, 1877 while complying with the U.S. government's demand to leave their homeland in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon and to move onto the smaller Nez Perce Reservation near Lapwai, Idaho.
Those seeking spiritual renewal might think of far off misty mountain tops or secluded beaches before they think of Idaho. But that would be a mistake. From the Heart of the Monster to the Discovery Corps and Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce Trail, Idaho’s rugged beauty is the stunning backdrop for some of America’s most dramatic historical chapters. It’s a land that has seen change, growth and rebirth time and time again. It only makes sense for it to be the ideal setting for our journey from recovery to renewal.