Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Inside and out, Rember remembers

Sawtooth Valley native to give Iconoclast reading

Express Staff Writer

John Rember, author of "Traplines," a novel that explores the changing face of the West.

"... growing older has forced me to find value in decay. The fence that slowly sinks back toward the ground provides a metaphor for all the distinctions made between self and other, them and us, darkness and light, among past present and future.

"Such distinctions start to weaken. Natural psychic forces, analogous to the sun, the wind, and the fungus working on old wood, begin to break them down. Both good and evil people start looking like mere human beings, subject to suffering or joy as dumb luck decrees. Loved ones or enemies begin to stare back at me with my own eyes."

—John Rember, "Traplines"

Anyone on a crooked bender could say, Iconoclast Books is directly across the street from the Roosevelt, formerly known as Slavey's. The bar was one of the places where author John Rember worked after graduating from Harvard. Its true location is a matter of perspective or sobriety, something Rember works hard to provide in his work, but he leaves plenty of room for humor.

Commemorating the paperback release of his novel "Traplines: Coming Home to the Sawtooth Valley" this month, Rember will conclude a reading tour with a final stop at the Ketchum bookstore Thursday, Dec. 30 at 7 p.m.

"Traplines" is about the land, and how people identify with it as development has changed the ecology of the West. Just as a bar changing names holds a story, so, too, does the transformation of home in Rember's experience. In part, his story is an exploration of memory in a landscape of disappearing landmarks.

Rember's connection to the Wood River Valley is similar to that of many people of his generation who came to the area from elsewhere with a basic love of the outdoors. The key to enjoying an active lifestyle was finding a compatible job. In addition to bartending, Rember worked on the Sun Valley Ski Patrol and as a U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger. But, he did not come here from the East Coast, California or anywhere else where Idaho immigrants originate.

Rember graduated from Wood River High School in 1968 and he was raised in the Sawtooth Valley.

"My father was a trapper. It was part of the family income," Rember said, stopping for a visit to Ketchum before his current book tour.

Despite earthy roots that included learning how to fly fish and shoot, clean and pack ungulates, Rember writes and talks more like a diffident and observant outsider than a life-long local who knows the full story.

As writer-at-large at Albertson College in Caldwell, Rember is currently working on a lecture titled, "Writing as a Mortal in God's Country."

"It is about how the West has become a stage setting used to sell an awful lot of outdoor products," he said. "It is like you have to draw the curtains on the Grand Tetons. It is almost a default setting for writers."

In the face of both naiveté and cynicism, Rember talks about how the West is changing in profound ways. But, rather than join the collective moan that comes from Westerners when they read the name of their town in an outdoor magazine's top ten list of the best places to live in the West, Rember offers his critique by linking his life to broader cultural phenomena.

"A lot of people don't like change," Rember said. "Walk into the Pioneer any night of the week and you can get an earful from somebody who doesn't like change. The change is in the tourist economy. As the Wood River Valley gets built out, and the Sawtooth Valley is getting bought up, the West is now becoming like Europe. Only a few people can afford to live and own. The rest are trying to find niches."

One niche his father carved out was working on the Salmon River as a fishing guide. For $10 he guaranteed clients would get a hook into a chinook.

As a writer he tries to look at difficult issues head-on. He talks about his grandmother watching the flash of atomic bombs from Timmerman Hill, and how he almost caught the last sockeye salmon he ever saw in Redfish Lake.

"What I find is when you write about salmon disappearing it is very, very hard to write about the truth," he said, talking about the impact of dams on fish habitat. "When I see Grand Coulee Dam there is power there. You feel as though you are part of something greater ... we won't get rid of dams until we change our imperial self-image."

Rember is also forthcoming with his contrarian impression of how people view wilderness, another touchy subject.

"Wilderness areas are incredible artificialities. What we've done is try to create these places where nature is free. To do so we have created the most highly regulated chunks of real estate in the country," he said, explaining that going into wilderness thinking you're going to be free is a fiction. "Not paying your bills is wilderness."

The struggle to pay bills and the promise of profit through real estate is another theme Rember feels takes a psychic toll on the mind of Westerners.

Rember's parents made their living off what the land would provide in Sawtooth Valley, but even with the historical hunter's bounty, life was a challenge. In the winter the family would migrate to the Wood River Valley. On this side of Galena Rember's his mother worked as a nurse and his father drove the ski bus.

Although he struggles with the loss of architectural and ecological links to his own past, observing change has long been part of his modus operandi. While working at Slavey's Rember also wrote short stories for the Idaho Mountain Express about how life was changing before he sold out in East Fork and moved in 1984.

The byline helped him earn a scholarship and a master's degree from the University of Montana.

Returning to the place of his youth, a place he loves, is both an academic and practical challenge. But, the challenges are different from those people face who, after spending lives in a world disconnected from the area's past, plunk down for a chunk of land and try to fit in.

Rember does not lay claim to the land as his place alone, however. In his book he describes how ephemeral being a local is for anyone in the West.

Rember is the author of two previous books, "Coyote in the Mountains" and "Cheerleaders from Gomorrah."

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