More Than Potatoes

Hello friends and family!

We’re just leaving Idaho, where the license plate tagline is “Beautiful Potatoes”. I was initially sort of worried about that. I mean, you can eat potatoes anywhere. Just ask Prince Edward Islanders – there’s a limit to how much tourists care about the world’s largest potato chip. However, we’ve spent the past two weeks here, and from lava fields to deep canyons to snow-capped mountains to high plains, Idaho has so much more to offer than potatoes. All in all, I’ve been charmed and pleasantly delighted by Idaho and all its beauty. I suspect that they may be trying to keep that beauty a secret, which is why they’re constantly advertising potatoes.

Two weeks ago Eric and I reunited in Spokane and headed across the panhandle of Idaho, the thin strip of land at the top of the L-shaped state, towards Montana. We drove past forgotten mining towns tucked into the armpit of the elevated highway, with just their church steeples visible from the road.

Once we entered Montana, the casinos and crosses started. A guy once told us that Montana is the last free state in the union because ex-cons can easily and legally purchase guns. Well, there are certainly no regulations around gambling, because every gas station and family restaurant and liquor store is also a “casino”, which means there’s a collection of run-down slot machines in a dark bar corner. The crosses are another story. Montana commemorates traffic fatalities with white crosses by the roadside. I counted thirty crosses in the thin strip of Montana between the Idaho border and Missoula. Most in singles, some clustered in twos and threes. I saw one cluster of four: an entire family, perhaps.

Melancholy Idaho

I realize I’ve become a bit obsessive about spotting roadside memorials. Crosses with fake flowers and autumn leaf wreathes, crosses wearing cowboy hats, crosses festooned with stuffed animals, crosses titled Melody and Angela – shrines to the roadside dead. It makes me realize how dangerous it is to drive every day, and how, statistically, Eric and I are more likely to die in a car accident than anything else. The backwoods and the forests aren’t safe, either. I remember finding a small shrine to a young man along a canyon rim, and then looking down to see the crushed-can remains of a car on the canyon floor. Just a few weeks ago I hiked to the top of a waterfall falling into a deep chasm with such force that it shook the bedrock below my feet, and found a plaque commemorating the lost lives of two young girls. These memorials are always urgent reminders to appreciate and appropriately fear the places I’m intruding into. They’re humbling, and somewhat haunting.

After a stint in Missoula we entered back into Idaho (passing another 18 roadside crosses), heading south-west into the swathes of national forest lands that blanket most of the state. An incredible infrastructure of campgrounds and boat launches and picnic areas and hiking trails exists in these forests, and most are free. It’s a paradise for the outdoorsperson. We watched some fellows fly-fish one day, whipping their lines like lassos over their heads to cast into the Lochsa River. Another night we spent at a free campground for fishermen, who gathered in prospector tents and RVs. I didn’t see a single woman in the dozens of people readying themselves for a lazy Saturday on the river – perhaps traditional gender roles are another key feature of Idaho.

Enjoying the Hot Springs

We spent a few days in the river valley surrounding the Lochsa River near where the Lewis and Clarke expedition passed by, hiking and dunking into natural hot springs that emanate from mysterious rocks (for some geological reason I have not yet googled). I even had one opportunity to enjoy the springs as they’re meant to be enjoyed – au naturale – when we found ourselves alone in a pool for a half hour. This was before a dozen teenaged missionaries showed up, all of them modestly attired, wearing long shorts and t-shirts to bathe. Suddenly a bikini felt pornographic, and Eric’s bare chest was obscene.

Once we emerged from the river valley, we found ourselves in the high altitude steppes of Idaho. How to describe these high plains? I once had a coworker in northern Ontario who found a dead moose by the side of the highway and sawed off its velvet-covered antler as a trophy. The entire time we drove through the high plains, I kept thinking that it’s exactly what the landscape looks like: rolling hills covered closely by golden antler velvet. The hills are folded and pleated like Mary’s skirt in Michelangelo’s Pieta. Ankle-high sagebrush forms natural pathways that meander across the dry ground, and the rare tree is stuffed full of chittering birds seeking a measure of shade.

Amidst all this beauty, we visited Boise for a few days, sleeping in a Cabela’s parking lot and taking in the local attractions. I hiked up above the city to the cross that stands on a sandstone formation called Table Rock, feeling like I was back in Montreal, when I’d drunkenly navigate home by the light of the illuminated cross on Mont Royal. Boise feels like an oasis of liberalism in a state that, back in 2016, went Trump in 42 out of 44 counties. In the rural areas, each property hangs TRUMP 2020: NO MORE BULLSHIT flags next to BLUE LIVES MATTER flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, in such profusion that I want to tell them that they only get one vote, regardless of how much partisan swag they display. We drove through one town where several people stood on the main street, waving huge Trump signs, hoping for honks. Hell, even the grocery stores know which way the wind blows in Idaho, selling camo TRUMP TRAIN trucker hats in the checkout line, right next to the ammunition.

Of course, much of rural Idaho is exactly the sort of economically depressed – and depressing – place you’d expect to vote for Trump. We drove through countless block-long towns with shuttered businesses, where half the housing stock was old trailers. I spotted a bank advertising subprime loans for mobile homes. Kids were literally shooting pellet guns at tin cans tied to the branches of a tree for fun, which is something I thought only happened in movies. Rush Limbaugh is syndicated on multiple radio stations. We saw only one house with Biden signage, and I still often wonder if their neighbours, who had posted Trump 2020 signs all along the property line, still stop and say hello.   

After leaving Boise, we drove east towards Stanley, heralded as the coldest place in America. That’s no joke! Stanley sits at around 7,000 feet in elevation and has several inches of snow in October. We drove the winding mountain roads through the Sawtooth Mountains, aptly named due to the profusion of ridges shaped like jigsaw blades. We didn’t linger long in the sub-zero temperatures. We drove south through the Sun Valley, which is home to the mountainside mansions of Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood and tons of other wealthy Californian types hiding out from Covid. While sitting in a brewery in Ketchum, I watched a very LA industry guy, inexplicably wearing a 1970s sweatband around his head, threaten to grab someone “by the short and curlies” on a conference call. It was like watching Jeremy Piven’s character in an episode of Entourage.

Our next destination was Craters of the Moon National Monument, a swathe of land that between 15,000 to 2,000 years ago was erupting in volcanic activity, resulting in black fields of space rock and cinder cones and lava caves. It’s sort of hard to describe the place. The rocks are lightweight and pocketed with air bubbles and shine in the sunlight. Some rocks carry imprints of tree bark or are patterned with striations that indicate flowing lava, or look like freeze-fried bubblegum or blobs of caulking or unkneaded bread dough or coral reefs or elephant hide. Just google it! 

Twin Falls, Idaho

Our final stop in Idaho was Twin Falls, where the deep and massive Snake River canyon winds through town, bringing much-needed water to the arid farmland of south-central Idaho. The town is home to the only bridge in the world you don’t need a permit to BASE jump off of, so we spent a while watching some maniacs leap off the bridge and parachute safely down to the river’s shore hundreds of feet below. We also went to the famed Shoshone Falls, the “Niagara of the West,” where we discovered that much of the falls have been diverted to irrigate – what else – potato fields, and so we watched a small trickle of water drop down into the Snake River and called it a day.

That’s all for Idaho! We’re now in Utah heading west to California, hoping that we won’t get caught in any snowstorms in the mountains.

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