DeVoto Memorial Cedar Grove in Idaho

The red cedars in the DeVoto Memorial Grove stand more than a hundred feet tall (Bob Sessions photo).
The red cedars in the DeVoto Memorial Grove stand more than a hundred feet tall (Bob Sessions photo).

Even in the midst of spectacularly beautiful country, the DeVoto Memorial Cedar Grove on the Idaho-Montana border deserves special recognition.

Like any good pilgrimage, my visit to this grove of old-growth red cedar trees involved anticipation and preparation. We were spending the day with our friend Dan, a fellow Midwesterner who a number of years ago caught such a severe case of mountain fever that he now owns a home in Montana. It was good to see this landscape through Dan’s eyes, for he has a deep love for the mountains and for their history.

We began the day by walking part of the Lolo Trail, which for at least a thousand years has been a human and animal pathway through the rugged Bitterroot Mountains. As we hiked its steep inclines, Dan told us of how the explorers Lewis and Clark had traveled this same path on their journey to the West Coast and back in 1805-06, and of how in 1877, the route had been trod by Nez Perce Indians when they were forcibly exiled by the U.S. Army from their ancestral home in the Pacific Northwest. The Lewis and Clark journey was one of adventure and exploration; the Nez Perce one of tragedy and sorrow. Knowing some of both their stories added meaning to each step we took.

A few miles down the highway, more strands of history intertwined in our final destination, the DeVoto Memorial Cedar Grove. A plaque at its entrance told of how the conservationist and historian Bernard DeVoto frequently camped here while working on his editing of The Journals Of Lewis And Clark (published in 1953, DeVoto’s version pared down the explorers’ thousands of pages to a more manageable 500). DeVoto’s visits to the grove helped provide inspiration for his writing project and made such an impression on him that before he died, he asked that his ashes be scattered amid the trees.

While historians cannot say for certain that Lewis and Clark visited this particular glade, their journals describe a very similar place in this general area and so it is entirely possible they were once here. And regardless of whether they were exactly in this place or not, what a place for Bernard DeVoto to write!

It took only a few steps inside the grove to realize we were on sacred ground. The red cedars there are centuries old and tower more than a hundred feet. The massive, shaggy giants had an Ent-ish feel about them (Lord of the Rings fans will get the reference), seeming like ancient and remote guardians of this high mountain forest. The sunlight filtering through their boughs had an almost an effervescent quality, and even with the soft murmuring of water from a nearby stream, a deep stillness enveloped the glade.

There’s something about large, old trees that speaks to something deep within us, isn’t there? I remember this same awed feeling coming over me in a redwood forest in California and in a stand of old-growth kauri trees in New Zealand. When a living thing gets to be that ancient, it becomes qualitatively different—-deeper, richer, more complex. Countless cultures across the world revere such giants, from the Druids and the ancient Greeks to the Maori of New Zealand. Perhaps it is because they make us feel small and weak–-the first step, often, on a spiritual journey. There is a kind of magisterial indifference about these trees, creatures to which we are but evanescent bubbles flowing by in the stream.

I envied Bernard DeVoto his many nights spent under those red cedars. And I thought too of Lewis and Clark and their men, those hardy adventurers who had walked and boated across half a continent. It was easy to imagine them here as well, peering upward into the barely visible tops of the trees. Even for travelers used to many outdoor wonders, these cedars likely would have impressed them.

Bernard DeVoto's ashes are scattered in the midst of the grove (Dan Magurshak photo).
Bernard DeVoto’s ashes are scattered in the midst of the grove (Dan Magurshak photo).

Thinking back, I realize that our time in the cedar grove was also made memorable by the fact we were there with an old friend, one we hadn’t seen in too long and whose deep love for the mountains was infectious and moving. Perhaps that is another reason why we value these sacred glades, for they nudge us into seeing the ordinary moments of our lives as something more-than-ordinary.

Before we left that sun-dappled grove, I stood for a long time in front of the granite boulder that marks the spot where Bernard DeVoto’s ashes were scattered. How wonderful for him that he gets to spend eternity in this place, slowly being transformed into the new seedlings springing up in this cathedral of trees.

Sunlight filters through the trees in the DeVoto Memorial Grove (Bob Sessions photo)
Sunlight filters through the trees in the DeVoto Memorial Grove (Bob Sessions photo)
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