That clichéd saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions tells only half of the story; for not even John Milton could locate hell in a heliocentric universe so the road leading there is at best poorly marked, let alone paved. Truthfully, I have looked for this road but haven't found it in obvious places like Anchorage or Pocatello—and not to make too much light of perhaps the most serious tenet of Christian orthodoxy, I think this cold morning (I’m writing this from a backroom desk in McCammon), with last night's snow drifted against fences and magpies hunkered in the pine by the window, I should look for the road to hell again by following my trail of good intentions.
Before I went to Alaska in 1974, I was given a miniature poodle, chocolate colored, that I took coon hunting. She was excited to go, but every time she crossed a set of tracks, she would, with her nose to the ground, back trail the raccoon, not giving up on finding where the coon had been until I called her off. At first, I thought her back trailing the tracks was an accident. I didn't know how sensitive her nose was. I thought she might not be able to tell if the scent trail was growing fresher or colder. I could see from the raccoon’s footprints which direction the coons were traveling; so I knew immediately if she was following the animal. Apparently, so did she. When she crossed a set of tracks, she repeatedly and consistently back trailed the raccoon. She never followed the tracks. Fascinated as she was by the scent, she apparently feared catching a raccoon.
So to find this road to hell, I will begin by back trailing my good intentions: I still owe a little for three new windows, but I can’t remember exactly how much …
When Idaho State University offered a Doctor of Arts degree fellowship, a degree they were determined not to be my first earned degree (I had not completed my M.F.A. degree thesis so that degree wasn't yet awarded, and I have never taken an undergraduate degree), I intended to rent an apartment in Pocatello, and I did for two weeks. But my upstairs neighbor had a toilet that regularly overflowed, and though she didn't intend to, she flooded my apartment three times in those two weeks. So I looked for another place to live at a time when Pocatello had under one percent vacancy rate.
Twenty miles south of Pocatello, in the small town of McCammon, I found a house with a for rent or sale sign. I called the listed number, that of a Realtor. He said he wasn't particularly interested in renting the house but would like to sell it for twenty thousand. After years in Alaska, I found the price almost too low to believe. I really wasn't interested in buying, but he was willing to carry the contract and to pickup the closing costs for twenty percent down. I couldn't rent for less, and I believed the house had to eventually rise in value. So I became the less than proud owner of a house built in 1935, the wiring of which was and still is of museum quality.
When I purchased this well-used gem, I knew I should replace the front picture window—the house had been built during the Depression by salvaging lumber from an even older house in Pocatello. I'm sure Tom Harris's intention when he built this house had been to provide his young wife with immediate shelter. I doubt he even thought about this house still being around sixty five years later. But it is, and portions of it need more than a facelift.
The front picture window was probably original to the Pocatello house from which Harris salvaged materials. The window's casing had rotted before I acquired the house. The case no longer securely held the quarter-inch-thick plate of heavy glass. So it was my intention in 1991 to then replace the window. It was still my intention to do so when that academic year ended in May 1992.
But before I got around to it (a chainsaw distributor once sent me a sack of wood dics or round tuits, one of which my daughters would hand me whenever I used that expression), I returned to Alaska where I spent another year carving in UAF's Native Arts Studio on a very modest honorarium. … The then acting chair of UAF's art department wanted an otter bowl from me, and it has been my intention to finish that bowl for seven years, but it, like a trencher for Robin Karnes in Newport, Oregon, and a crouching bear bowl for my daughter Kristel, sit waiting for me to get back to them.
The casing of that front window became so bad during the 1997-98 winter that when spring came I contacted a Pocatello glass company about the cost of replacing it. In addition, I needed two other windows replaced.
The glass company had an employee living two blocks diagonally from me. After some weeks they directed him to stop by. He did, and he measured the windows I wanted replaced, then said, "I'll be retiring in a month. If you can await awhile, I can save you some money."
When William Jennings Bryan spoke about being crucified on a cross of gold he probably had me in mind—I needed to save every cent I could, and since it was then early summer, I could wait some period of time to replace the windows. After all, I had been putting off replacing the one window since I purchased the house.
Three months passed before the fellow returned. He had retired and had started his own business; he even had the name of his business painted on his pickup. I guess he was doing rather well for himself. He seemed to be prospering.
He again measured all three windows. I said I wanted polarized glass on the bedroom window. He knew what I was talking about, but he didn't know exactly what that glass was called. Evidently nobody in Southeast Idaho had ever ordered a window of it. So he couldn't give me a definite price for what the three windows installed would cost. But he said six hundred dollars ought to cover it, and we agreed on six hundred.
When I was in business, my usual arrangement on orders was to ask for a third down: I wrote him a check for two hundred as a deposit on the windows and enough money to get him started. This was in late July, 1998.
I had, early in 1998, negotiated a lease for an old store building with a false front and the residence that went with it in the little northern Idaho town of Peck. The store would have made a very good muzzleloading gunshop. I had also notified friends, vendors, other gunmakers of my intention to return to building guns in Peck. But the owner of the property couldn't get her former tenant to vacate the store, and while I'm sure her intentions were sincere, she also couldn't get her husband's friend to remove the half dozen derelict vehicles that were in the yard of the store. So after I paid two months of rent but still couldn't get occupancy, I notified the owner that I intended to terminate the lease.
However, when I first negotiated the lease I also agreed to teach two sections of English for Lewis-Clark State College's extended programs Outreach campus at Orofino; thus I was committed to teaching at very low pay (one hundred five dollars a student) but without anywhere in the area to live once the lease agreement fell through.
Perhaps I should have told LCSC that although my intentions were honorable, changes in circumstances prevented me from fulfilling my commitment to teach at Orofino. I didn't. Instead, I found a different place to rent along the Clearwater River, a place that had on it terrific hunting but unfortunately not a place from which I could conduct business. Nevertheless, it was all that I found available, and I moved into it for the academic year of 1998-99, leaving the now self-employed glass contractor to install those three windows at his convenience.
When I returned to Southeast Idaho in May, 1999, those windows still hadn't been installed. I asked why, and the contractor came over right away, remeasured the three windows and returned in a month to install them … the polarized glass window I wanted for the bedroom became the type of rippled glass seen in bathrooms. It wasn't at all what I wanted. But I have been in business for a long time. I knew how much it would cost the contractor to return the window, and I could live with it. (My wife—a new wife, Carolyn—was very unhappy about the fact I could live with it.) While my intention had been to have a window we could see out but would be difficult to see in, we have a bedroom window that lets in light. That's all.
The three windows were to have cost six hundred dollars. They now cost seven eighty. But the move to the Clearwater and back had left me short of money: I only had three hundred available in my account. I wrote him a check for that three hundred, with every intention to pay him the remaining two eighty in a month. But money has remained scarce as I have had to fight a lawsuit filed over that lease agreement in Peck—I was sued for breaking the lease, a suit that went to trial and was eventually resolved in my favor.
So six months passed and I still owed the contractor two hundred dollars. But intentions are to pay him with the first moneys I receive not absolutely necessary to maintain life.
After I negotiated the lease for that store in Peck, I sold the piece of property I used for a shop in McCammon—just couldn't afford that payment with what I would be paying for the store. So while my intention had been to supply a gallery in Sitka with a dozen large bowls which the gallery had ordered and for which I would have received enough to alleviate some of my money problems, I couldn't deliver through what I believe was no fault of mine.
My intention to pay the glass contractor before now had been made in good faith; my motives were more pure than today's drifted snow. My intention to supply Robertson's with bowls was honorable; I have just been prevented from doing so. Unanticipated circumstances and factors beyond my control have stopped me from delivering what I intended to do. I can't live up to my expectations for myself.
Thus, as I take my first steps along my back trail, I find numerous good intentions driven into the ground like mile markers. From where I stand, I see them meandering northward along the road I traveled to Idaho. I suspect if I follow them back far enough I will find that they are the measure of my life, that we are really the accumulation of our good intentions.
If who we are and where we stand today are the accumulation of our intentions, then the road ahead of us doesn't lead to that evangelical hell, nor to an intra-dimensional heaven, but rather to a divine intention that no one be lost. But to continue along this path requires that I turn around and see who sprung from whose head, man or God.