Idaho, a sense of place (and belonging)

Happy Thanksgiving.

Readers, please bear with me. Recently, I was asked “about the term, sense of place, what does it mean?” and last night I remembered having written this many years ago for a class on the Contemporary History of the American West. So here goes:

I love being from the West. I especially love that my part of the West is Idaho. I was born in Orofino, Idaho, part of the Nez Perce Indian Reservation, site of a gold rush, and by Canoe Camp of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

My great-grandparents homesteaded a one hundred and sixty acre wheat farm on the Palouse. It’s still in the family. My grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse. My maternal grandfather was a Swedish immigrant, logging on Gold Hill when he was 12 years old. My father was a logger and a rodeo cowboy. My step grandad was a logger and my other grandpa, the postmaster in Potlatch. I can make a cake with bear fat and comb my hair with a wagon wheel…..just kidding about the cake and wheel.

Being an Idaho native and daughter of the West is a great part of who I am. I let it define me in all the best ways whenever it suits me: bold, romantic, beautiful, daring, ever-changing. The West’s finest attributes I claim as my own. And, with a certain amount of swagger inherited from the men in my family, I often lay claim to some of the rougher parts of being a Westerner: I can drive a truck, drink most people under the table and swear like a logger. I used to be able to do it all at one time.

I believe being a Westerner makes you strong. It especially makes women strong. Some of my most cherished women friends, the one’s from the West, are the strongest women I know. They can cook for roundup or forest-fire camp, ride for roundup, pull a calf, barrel race their horse as rodeo queen and yodel. Lord, I wish I could yodel.

My sense of belonging to this state runs deep. I have friends here from kindergarten. People in my hometown still know me by name. I’ve met all of the governors in office since I was a little girl. I have pressed and cataloged all the wildflowers of my county. My family members are buried here or their ashes scattered in the Idaho countryside. I love the trillium of spring, thimbleberries of summer and old forgotten homestead apples in autumn.

The most beautiful weather in the world is in Idaho. Once, I had to stop the car and catch my breath at the top of the Camas Prairie at Grangeville. The sky was violet-black and the wheat fields blazing gold, just before a thunderstorm. The wind caused ripples in the fields. Sun, rain, hail and snow, all in 15 minutes.

I have lived in San Francisco and near Washington DC and witnessed what Wallace Stegner called the stormy physical and intellectual weather of both coasts. And though I love having seen how the other half lives, I will always call Idaho and the American West my home. I have entertained the notion of moving to Montana or Oregon, both very Western. But it isn’t the same sense of place. I won’t be leaving. I can’t image not being able to say, “I live in Idaho… I was born here.”

Mary Ann Newcomer
April 5, 2001

(Note, I have another version of this that I hope they will use someday for my obit. Of course, I want to have the last word)