This is a simple recipe (below) that delivers indulgent eating – a perfect combination. But first (and this is a long post, so zip ahead right to the end to find the cookies)…
You’ll may recall from one of my earlier posts that the West isn’t funny unless you consider cows, and this is especially true of the remote parts of Idaho, which, in lieu of cows, feature several species of large predatory mammals who, with only the slightest provocation, won’t hesitate to use you as a chew toy. No, Idaho’s not funny, but its landscapes and its people do get under your skin. Mine, anyway. Here’s how it started 43 years ago:
Between Oregon and Idaho, the Snake River has spent eons carving out Hell’s Canyon, a deep gorge that, until recently, was considered the deepest in North America – some 5000 feet from canyon rim to the river. If you tour it by car, going north, you’ll get discouraged after a few dozen miles because the dirt road you’re on doesn’t seem to be headed anywhere but deeper into raw wilderness, with no towns ahead on the map. And suddenly, after it seems you’ve continued for hours into the farthest recesses of Nowhere, there it is, a signpost announcing the Kleinschmidt Grade slicing up the canyonside, and the town of Cuprum just 10 miles away.
Since it’s late in the afternoon and you’ll need a place to spend the night, you start heading up this narrow, steep single-track dirt road with scores of switchbacks and tight hairpin turns carved into the arid, treeless landscape, and you hug the high side to give plenty of elbow room to the adrenaline-pumping precipices with no guardrails. Others who’ve traveled the Grade call it the most terrifying driving experience of their lives, and I’ll second that. You push ever upward at five or ten miles an hour and eventually, after five miles or so, you’re entering trees – ponderosa and lodgepole pine – and the Kleinschmidt Grade thankfully levels out, feeds into another dirt road with a sign for Cuprum, and a few minutes later, you’re there.
In 1971, Cuprum’s winter population was 0, and in summer 4: Vern and Jeanne Hansen, their boy Billy (I’m pretty sure that’s his name), and Wilma Robbins, who rented out a couple of cabins. From time to time a hunter known as Cougar Jack would stop over, swelling the populace to 5, to share tales of bears and cougars who, thanks to his hunting prowess, would no longer haunt the wilderness. Vern and Jeanne ran the Cuprum Tavern, which operated as grocery store, bar, restaurant with two tables, post office, radio room (there were no telephones in town), power generator for the town, and town hall.
At the time, I was a few months into my first marriage and my wife and I shared a disdain for sticking to any kind of plan or schedule. So it happened we stayed in Cuprum for four days, bunking in one of Wilma’s cabins, eating every day with Vern and Jeanne, hiking up into the Seven Devils Wilderness just to the north, taking photographs, and on one memorable day heading off with Vern and Jeanne and Billy in the Cuprum Tavern Jeep to go fishing, picnicking, and tenting overnight at Black Lake, a dozen or so miles up into the mountains.
I’ve rarely known complete strangers to become friends so easily, and few people as gracious and generous as the Hansens. They were seasoned outdoors-people and wilderness-hardened, and at the same time gentle, kind, and exceptionally forbearing of a young and green citified couple from the East. It’s almost as if they’d adopted us. When we finally left, with hugs and handshakes, to wend our way east through the mountains down to Council some 38 miles away (38 miles! Almost two hours! The nearest school, gas station, the nearest anything was 38 miles and two hours from Cuprum!), we looked at each other and agreed: we’d stumbled on wonderful people in beautiful country, and the chance of ever returning to a town like this, remote as it was and 2500 miles from where we lived, was absolutely nil.
Back to Cuprum, 2004
When my (second) wife and I lived in Olympia, Washington, I confessed to her I had a strong urge to get back to Idaho and seize one more opportunity to revisit a tiny town I was sure I’d never see again. Idaho was just a scant 7 hours away, after all. And so we headed out for a long July 4th weekend through northern Oregon to Weiser, Idaho, then north to Council where we stayed the night, then up the road 38 miles and two hours back to Cuprum. No Kleinschmidt Grade this time; I’d learned my lesson.
Would the Hansens still be here? Would anybody be here?
When we came into town past the Cuprum sign, I was astonished. Years ago, it was mostly abandoned miners’ shacks and sheds from the early 1900s, but now the main road looked like a thriving community of freshly built cabins and homes. Cuprum 2004: winter population 8. Summer population, between 12 and 20.
The Hansens were long gone, but they were remembered by a young couple, Butch and Leila Cornell, who acted then as town historians and the main internet connection for the townspeople. Butch believed Jeanne Hansen had passed on, and that Vern was somewhere in southern California but had recently returned to see his old town and former home. He also noted that Wilma had died and was buried in the town’s cemetery. We chatted for some time, exchanged addresses, visited what used to be the Cuprum Tavern, and got a sense of what was drawing people – a very few people – to Cuprum to live. Independence. Freedom from the impositions of too much civilization. Creating a community on your own terms. Later, when we got back to Olympia, I sent him photos from my 1971 trip, and he responded with many photos of the town and its people from the late 1800s up to the present. (Butch Cornell has since published a book, “Thunder in the Mountains,” available on Amazon and elswhere, about the area’s mining history, trials and tribulations.)
Today, in 2014, the year ’round population stays at 8, with electricity and telephones for all. Arlan Turnbull, a 6th generation Idahoan some of whose ancestors were killed by Nez Perce braves under Chief Joseph, runs a website that acts as a community resource for residents and landowners. The summer population has grown some, and in hunting season, he says, “the place is hopping” and “can get a little bit crazy.” The woods still teem with elk, bear, cougar, and deer.
There are summer tourists and campers who come through, headed for the Seven Devils Mountains, and then there are those who stumble on Cuprum, basically “lost” after struggling up the Kleinschmidt Grade (the way I was in 1971). And always, as before, they are welcomed by the locals.
But in corresponding with Arlan, I’ve learned the town has a keen sense of self protection and pride in its relative isolation from the rest of the world. The website he runs is for the people of the town, not to promote tourism or bring in visitors. He says it best in his own words:
We are not impressed with the latest and greatest gadget, but appreciate a good pie crust that originates with bear grease. History is important as most of us can list the homesteaders, mine claim holders and various characters of the area past and present. We had veterans of both sides of the Civil War as neighbors. The population may bicker over trivial issues but if a problem arises everyone jumps in to help. We consist of retirees of means, intermingled with those of a more humble lifestyle. We’re independent, strong-willed, like Misfits of Manhattan.
Thanks to Arlan Turnbull for his help with this piece.
New note, March 6, courtesy of Butch Cornell, who just wrote in: he saw Vern Hansen two years ago, and learned Vern was living in northern Idaho but was planning to move closer to Boise.
What is it about so much time road-tripping and meeting people of all kinds and then discovering, many years later, a real itch to go back somewhere and see what happened to someone who made a small but memorable difference in your life? Somewhere, like Cuprum, very far away and hard to get to, but it doesn’t matter, you make it work and get back there, and you don’t find what you’re looking for but you discover other good things, and something else that’s important to be reminded of: the place has changed, the people have changed, and in fact everything around you is different because you’ve changed, too.
Bourbon chocolate pecan drop cookies
(with flour, or gluten free)
- 1/2 cup butter at room temp
- 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 1 beaten egg
- 1 1/2 cups flour or gluten-free all-purpose baking mix
- 1/2 tsp. xanthan gum (only if using gluten-free mix)
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 3/4 cup cocoa powder
- 2 or 3 oz. bourbon
- small handful of shredded coconut (optional)
- 3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
- 3/4 cup chopped pecans
- pecan halves for the tops of the cookies
Preheat oven to 400. Cream the butter in a large mixing bowl, then blend in brown sugar, beaten egg, and vanilla and mix until smooth and creamy. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour (or gluten free mix, with the 1/2 tsp. xanthan gum), salt, baking powder, and cocoa powder until well-blended. Now pour the dry ingredients into the butter-sugar mixture, add the bourbon, and stir until thoroughly blended. Add chopped pecans, chocolate chips, and coconut (optional) and mix (this will be quite a workout!) until everything’s nicely distributed. Spoon the mixture out in large globs onto an ungreased cookie sheet, anoint with 2 pecan halves on the tops (optional), and bake for 8-10 minutes. Check them at 8 minutes – if they look done, they are, even if the dough on top feels soft.
When out of the oven, let them sit on the cookie sheet for a few minutes, then transfer to a platter to cool.
There you have it.