Fact Finding Mission to Idaho

We land in Salt Lake City and drive across the wide desert, dotted with sagebrush like an old, faded chenille bedspread. Mountains are barely visible through the brown haze on all sides of the valley. The heat is oppressive. We travel in our unit of air conditioned comfort. We drive for hours through this desert, sometimes through passes in high hills that give way to more desert. There are rivers, but they don’t seem to water the land around them, only rush across the hot desert to the cool sea as quickly as possible. Some of the rivers have cut gorges in the surrounding rock to hide themselves from the sun.

Our first night we spend in Boise. It is a pretty interesting town, with lots of trees and flowers. The people have found ways to force the rivers to give up their precious liquid, and they use it with abandon. We walk around town, looking at things. We eat at a nice Italian place in our shorts and T-shirts, surrounded by couples in formalwear. There is a play starting at 7:30 somewhere nearby. On our way back to our hotel we see one sign for a restaurant that has “food like Mom tried to make” and another for Fairly Reliable Bob’s Automotive shop. We walk along the riverbank under the trees to our hotel room.

The next day we continue to drive across the now rolling desert. We can see the mountains on the horizon in the brown haze, but the road keeps us from getting too close. We drive to Lewiston, the lowest point in Idaho. Indeed. This is the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers. They rush on into Washington to meet the Columbia River and this, therefore, is a seaport. It’s only 700 ft above sea level. Across the bridge is Clarkston, WA. Get it? Lewiston and Clarkston. In Lewiston there is a paper mill. It permeates everything. There is a nice path that goes a long, long way down the river’s edge and we walk on it for a while, carefully avoiding the sprinklers and goose droppings. There are lots of geese. In our hotel room there is an air purifier, and a water filter is attached to the sink. Hmmm.

We try to leave Lewiston via an old highway that winds up the hill behind the town and gives panoramic views of the city. There is a “road closed” sign at the bottom of the hill, but we don’t pay any attention, because the road obviously continues … for a while. Twenty minutes later we find a dirt slide very near the top of the hill that has closed the road. We enjoy the panorama and the reasonably breathable air, then drive down again and take the main highway out of town. We drive up for a long time through the desert and then level out on the Palouse. It’s a large area of rolling hills, covered at this time with all kinds of harvesting activities; combines and haystacks and the epidemic burning of stubble fields. We stop in Moscow, where there’s a university and drive around. It feels a lot like Austin used to, but it’s very small. We continue up into some big hills, maybe mountains, that are forested, wherever they haven’t been clear-cut. We stop at a State Park to see the big white pine. It is alone, and dying. Almost all the white pine has been harvested.

We drive around Lake Coeur d’Alene on the east side. Close to the lake it is heavily populated, but pretty, away from the lake it is heavily logged. We drive into town, and see the resort. The resort dominates the skyline and the lakefront, and looks like it doesn’t belong there. Patrick points out that it probably does a pretty good job of steering and regulating the tourists that obviously flock to the area. There are motor boats everywhere, and the water smells like them. We drive to the west side of the lake across the Coeur d’Alene River, which is polluted with heavy metals from the mining that went on upstream. We find our bed and breakfast at the top of a hill overlooking the lake. It has a beautiful view of everything. We like it there and stay in for the evening.

In the morning we have breakfast with our hostess who is very nice. She has lived in the area her whole adult life and has lots of information about how the area has changed, mostly about how it used to be better, including the temperature, which she says is noticeably warmer. Spring starts sooner, fall comes later. There aren’t enough trees left to give the place a piney smell.

We drive north to Sandpoint. We have a lunch and shop a little bit but aren’t too impressed overall. Everyone there seems like they’re barely making it. Logging trucks roll through the center of town pretty continuously. We drive out of town to the east, around Lake Pend Oreille. Not finding much different, we drive west and north to Priest Lake. It is wild there. Not too much logging yet, although they’re working on it, and hardly any people. We don’t see any wildlife, but the air is cooler. We head back to Coeur d’Alene through Priest River, where we stop for a snack. It is a comfortable little town. We drive through forests that have been “select logged.” The remaining trees stand about 10 feet from one another. They need the whole forest around them to survive. They are dying. Areas that have been logged recently have brush piles burning among the remaining trees. The smell of the forest burning awakens primeval feelings; we need to get away as quickly as possible.

We go into Coeur d’Alene and hike around a city park called Tubb’s Hill. It has been set aside for the people to enjoy by a private family. It is not maintained by the city. It is beautiful. We get away from the marina and the city noise. We walk along above the shoreline and can see deep into the clear blue water. We watch a dog retrieve a tennis ball. We walk around the hill and it takes about an hour. The path comes out into a neighborhood that we walk through, then back to our car.

We stay at the same bed and breakfast. The temperature drops overnight, and in the morning it is raining. Somehow, this makes us happy. It feels cleaner and more hopeful. We head through the mountains to Missoula, Montana. The cooler wetter air is very refreshing. The mountain pass is up, up, up one side and down, down, down the other. The area has been logged heavily. Montana is open, wide, and wild, as we expected. In some non-specific way it seems better taken care of than Idaho. We stop in Missoula for lunch. A friendly variety of people converge on the restaurant. There are ranchers, business people, retired travelers, and young people. Even some parents of one waitress who is equally delighted and mortified that they showed up.

We drive south in a wide valley with mountains on both sides. Ranches dominate the scenery. We drive up into the mountains again, preparing to return to Idaho. At the top of the mountain pass, we are stopped for an hour and a half for roadwork. An ongoing project on the Idaho side keeps the road closed for several hours a day. We wait. The air is cool and forests line the road. We still can’t smell the pine trees though, just dusty gravel and occasional tar. Eventually, we follow the pilot car down the other side of the mountain. We stop at a hotel in Salmon at dusk. We eat at a restaurant recommended by the friendly people at the front desk. The food is remarkably sophisticated and delicious.

The next morning we continue south along the Salmon River valley. It is really beautiful. The mountains define the valley, and the road winds along beside the river. They aren’t into bridges much here. The valley is lush, with big stands of white barked broadleaf trees, presumably aspen and cottonwood. There are many grassy points between the road and the river, but very few places to pull off, and no picnic tables.
We pass a few steaming hot springs, and see numerous caves carved into the mountains. The house of choice in the area seems to be a single-wide mobile home. We get closer and closer to the big mountains – the Sawtooths. We tour Stanley, a small community just on the outskirts of the Sawtooth range. It’s quite lovely, although seems unfinished.

We drive to Redfish Lake and eat at the lodge. It is a large and beautiful lake with an impressive mountain at the far end. We take a short hike up that starts out along a nearby creek and ends up on a ridge overlooking the lake. We see a few ground squirrels and chickadees. It is a lovely day. We read in the guidebook that it is called Redfish Lake because thousands of sockeye salmon used to crowd into it to spawn. Because of the dams on the Snake River, the salmon don’t seem to be able to make it back to their breeding grounds. Last year one sockeye salmon made it back to Redfish Lake. Here’s what my guidebook says:

“We can have the dams or the fish, but not both. Which will it be? Politicians, judges, corporate executives, apathetic citizens – all pay lip service, point fingers, and pass the buck. When it comes down to it, we’ve made our choice and just won’t admit it. The dams will stay and the magnificent salmon and steelhead runs on this greatest of Pacific Northwest river systems will be lost forever, on our watch, right before our eyes. How do you explain that to your kids?”

We continue south , with the mountains in sight on either side of the wide valley. The road stays stubbornly centered, as far from the mountains as possible. We climb up into a mountain pass and look back on the Salmon River valley. We see where it starts as a little creek on the side of this mountain. Through the pass we see the three tallest mountains in Idaho. Their snowy tops stand out in the sunlight. They’re a long way away, though, and the road does not allow any lingering looks.

We continue south into the Wood River Valley. Suddenly, there appears startling display of million dollar homes, bordering on the requisite golf courses. The homes are gorgeous, naturally, and the valley is obviously cared for. There is no logging here. We drive through this displaced wonderland into Ketchum. Here there is an odd mixture of business and alpine village tourism. Lots of shops, restaurants and beautifying flowers, sprinkled liberally among the 3 to 4 story office buildings. There is an unimpressive (no steep runs) ski area nearby, which apparently initiated the insanity. Patrick likes it. He says this is where the winners come to live.

As we drive out of the valley, the houses become less and less impressive, eventually giving way to acres of the ubiquitous single-wide. The scenery becomes less and less impressive as well, and before long, we’re out on the wide, flat desert again. Sagebrush gardens are pocked with lava outcrops and, because of the rain, bunches of yellow flowers. We have reservations at a bed and breakfast in Shoshone. It is early afternoon, however, and this town has little to offer. We cancel our reservation and press on to Twin Falls.

We see Twin Falls long before we get to it. As we approach the city, a dark stripe appears across the desert before the city. The Snake River gorge takes shape, but it is deep, and the bottom isn’t visible until we reach the rim. In the bottom of the gorge are golf courses and parks, things that don’t mind getting a little extra wet in the spring. A few houses cling to the sides of the gorge, but not many. We find a hotel, then go in search of Shoshone Falls. The falls are surprisingly big, beautiful, and horseshoe shaped, like Niagara. In fact they are taller than Niagara, but unfortunately can only be viewed from a tiny platform that is nestled about 20 steps down into the canyon. There’s a park with picnic tables, but none of them have a view even into the gorge, let alone of the falls. Unlike Niagara, there is no convenient bend in the river that makes the falls more photogenic, and the surrounding countryside is hardly romantic.

The city has trees and flowers, and everything else a city should have, but it is surrounded by the desert.

The last day, we head back across the desert to Salt Lake City. It is hot again, and except for the yellow flowers there is no indication that there has been some rain. There is nothing to clutter the scenery, nothing to keep the road from cutting a straight path to its destination. The Salt Lake valley is brown with haze, as usual.

Our fact-finding mission to Idaho is a success. We have found many facts.

Copyright 2008, Linda Mae Dennis

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