We motored out of Jackson, Wyoming. Time to swing west to the Pacific, following the Old Oregon Trail, the pathway of the pioneers of yore, crossing the vast spaces of southern Idaho on the way.
Back in the Cretaceous, I’d seen the unremarkable western movie, The Way West, a misadventure that has Kirk Douglas and Sally Field lurch interminably along the Trail from Missouri to Oregon. While the tale was a tad dull, the scenery looked great, so thought this might be a good ‘way west’ for us.
We opted to take the Teton Pass (Highway 22) over the range across the Wyoming-Idaho border, then into Idaho Falls. It saves about an hour of driving the long way. Bound for distant Boise, up into the clouds we went.
The route wiggles vertically to an elevation 2,500 metres and in winter is considered one of the most dangerous roads in the US due to ice, avalanches and hopeless drivers.
Many a winter road train has lumbered up one side, hit the ice on the other, lost control and ploughed into traffic or done a Thelma and Louise off the mountains to its doom. “Rubber Ducky, we have a gravity problem…”
Even though the June weather was so-so, it wasn’t icy. Our feeble rent-a-chariot managed to putter over the pass, mercifully without being squished like a huckleberry between Mack and Kenworth.
We crossed into Idaho, the celebrated land of spuds, and into the Teton Valley. At Victor we jumped on Route 31, then motored through pretty forested backcountry to Swan Valley.
It was brekkie time so we rolled into an old-style roadhouse, but never left the car – in fogged-up diner windows sat as scraggly a gaggle of grim truckies and weird Willy Loman types as you’d ever wish to see. They sipped coffee, nibbled pancakes and gawked forlornly out at us – truly an abysmal tableau.
You read about “terrible incidents” occurring in such places in the national press. It was enough to forgo the blueberry muffin, put the pedal to the metal and hastily pursue the Snake River into Idaho Falls – with luck, a more convivial pit stop.
Idaho Falls, the state’s largest city after Boise, serves as the commercial, cultural, and healthcare hub for eastern Idaho, as well as parts of western Wyoming and southern Montana.
It is an agreeable place, and, like many townships in those parts, teeming with Mormons. This definitely gives it a pious and affable air. The historic downtown sits on several blocks of the original townsite along the east side of the river.
Things were a tad quiet when we pulled up on A Street to find a café. It was as if we’d been beamed back to 1939.
Perhaps it was the exceedingly staid atmosphere and mid-twentieth century facades, but I half expected Godzilla to come out from behind the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and go rampaging through the historic district, crushing cars and batting fighter planes.
We spotted two demure Mormon lasses in floral frocks, sensible walking shoes and bonnets, and asked if there were any good coffee joints thereabouts.
“Oh, there are so many fine cafes in Idaho Falls, sir, you’re spoiled for choice, “ cheeped one effusively, sounding suspiciously like she was in the employ of the city marketing department.
“We pride ourselves on our fine diners. They’re all down that way. The Snake Bite Café is my favourite. You be sure to have a great day, now, won’t you!”
The Snake Bite sounded interesting, but we toddled into the City Bagel and Bakery instead and broke the fast out on the pavement with the prim and inquisitive locals.
Afterwards, we took a stroll to see the parkland and namesake falls. There is a scenic river walk featuring running and bike trails, art installations, and points of interest along the Snake River, which flows through the city centre.
But we still had a long hike to Boise, so headed out of town, westward bound on Highway 20, a road that, believe it or not, was to take us all the way to our hotel room on the Pacific Ocean.
At the city limits we entered a desolate desert location, ominously called the Idaho National Laboratory.
In 1949, the Atomic Energy Commission opened the National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS), and on Dec. 20, 1951, a nuclear reactor produced electricity here for the first time in history. There have been more than 50 nuclear reactors built at the facility for testing; three currently remain active.
Maybe it was just a logical aversion to lethal radiation, but an unsettling pall hangs over this bleak, creepy place, and I felt my right foot once more heavy upon the gas pedal.
For about 75 kms of barren terrain one encounters mysterious fenced-off heavily guarded facilities, odd structures and strange low hillocks bristling with equipment and aerials.
There have been incidents in the past. Some we know about.
In January, 1961, the SL-1, or Stationary Low-Power Reactor Number One, was a US Army experimental nuclear power reactor that underwent a steam explosion and meltdown, killing its three operators. They were buried in lead coffins.
“The core meltdown caused no damage to the area, although some radioactive fission products were released into the atmosphere,” says a description of the incident. Riiight.
Just when we thought we’d made it through sans mushroom cloud or growing 13 extra toes, we entered Arco (originally known as Root Hog…don’t ask), the world’s first town to be powered by nuclear energy. Surprisingly, none of the populace was pulsating with a fluorescent mauve glow.
Many Americans are proud of their nation’s seminal role in creating the Nuclear Age, but as we drove away from their historic ‘ground zero’ of ‘useful’ fission, I couldn’t help thinking the peoples of several Japanese cities, Maralinga, Chernobyl and Bikini Atoll may beg to differ.
Between Arco and Carey, Highway 20 travellers come across the striking volcanic basalt formations that make up the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. You can’t miss it – it literally looks like another planet, and not a particularly hospitable one.
The moon reference is a bit of a mistake, as the craters here are of volcanic origin, while the lunar craters are due to meteor impacts. The early boffins peering at the moon through didn’t realise this geological difference.
The dark, roasted landscape looks like a pizza left in the oven for a week. It features lava flows, cinder cones, jagged rubble and rifts where magma has burst to the surface.
Situated 1800 metres above sea level, the Monument is the largest and most complex post-Ice Age basaltic lava field in the continental US. In the past 15,000 years, eight major eruptive periods formed the fields, which now cover 1,600 square kilometres and consist of 60 lava flows and 25 cinder cones.
The geological mechanism at work is probably best explained by lava lamps. The hotspot plumes that bring magma to the surface are like the wax inverted pear-shaped blobs that float upwards in the lamps.
These columns flow upward until they meet the overlying North American Plate, which is colder. The plate consists of the crust and the uppermost mantle. Occasionally, blobs of iron-rich basaltic magma rise up into the crust from a depth of about 50 miles.
In the crust, these molten blobs melt overlying rocks and form sponge-like magma chambers, which then push lava out onto the surface. Presto! A lava landscape.
Due to the slow southwesterly movement of the North American Plate, the hotspot is currently under Yellowstone National Park over in Wyoming.
There’s some speculation that North America’s next super volcano (if there ever is one) may result from what’s building up under Yellowstone, and many a cheesy doco and D-grade TV movie have been made about this impending cataclysm.
We had a quick squiz at the Craters interpretive centre and hot crusty surrounds and carried on our way.
Onwards we travelled through the open farm and ranching country of Fairfield, Hill City (no city to be seen), Castle Rocks and into Mountain Home.
As far as I know Mountain Home is the only town where there is with a real M-1 tank and F-111 fighter-bomber as entry statements. The town is home to a large air force base and there were plenty of uniformed military personnel strolling around the streets.
A bit frazzled from the road we grabbed a coffee in a kind of bric-a-brac-cum-café run by a talkative fellow recently moved (very quickly it seemed) from the creeping economic malaise of Middle America.
He said it was always good to set up shop in military towns because at least the government is paying the troops and they can afford a coffee and a bagel on payday – that is, of course, if there hasn’t been yet another budget crisis in Washington.
We had a look around the store at the wares, which seemed a tad dear. The asking price for a 1970s used Wal-Mart plastic eggcup rivalled that of an 1870s Fabergé egg. There was the obligatory movie studio “signed” eight by tens of John Wayne, a threadbare stars and stripe flag limp in the corner, military curios, trinkets under glass, western memorabilia and pretty much everything else, including a kitchen sink.
All the while, on a large TV on the wall framed in cheesy knick-knacks, a galling televangelist blurted drivel about walking in the footsteps of the Lord and donating to an obscure P.O. box in deepest Arkansas.
Galloping back through the lampposts festooned with banners of young men and women in dress uniform readying for the next dubious US war, we jumped in the car and left Mountain Home faster than an F-111 on a bombing run.
Heading up the I-84 into Boise we saw several signs promoting the ineffable culinary joys and healthy advantages of spuds. Unsurprisingly, the potato is the official state vegetable of Idaho.
Says a state spiel: “Rich volcanic soil, water from melting snow in nearby mountains, clean air, sunny days, and cool nights all combine to produce consistently high-quality potatoes that have made Idaho famous worldwide.”
They have festivals, sporting events, cook-offs, eating contests and peculiar rituals revolving around the starchy staple, the celebrated Idaho potato being the star of every show.
We had even looked at spending a night inside a giant spud just south of Boise. The Big Idaho Potato Hotel allows Airbnb spud connoisseurs to live a luxurious dream (like happy weevils) inside their favourite tuber.
But we’d sworn to cut the starch from our diet while on the road and headed for our more conventional digs in downtown Boise.
See Jacqui’s Starfish story about our Boise stay at: http://www.thestarfish.com.au/starfish-road-trip-loving-boise-idaho/
Our road trip continues through Oregon in the next edition of The Starfish.