I have a friend from home whose whole family comes from a little town in Idaho. She needed a change of pace for the summer, so she spent 3 months with her relatives there. I flew out to visit her for a few days and accompany her on the 14-hour drive back to the Bay Area. Her pace had slowed so much by the time I got there that we barely built up enough momentum to make it home.
Most people probably don’t think of excitement or variety when they think of Idaho—especially if they’re familiar with Napoleon Dynamite—but it was certainly unlike any place I’ve ever been. I like to pretend I’m from a hick town; I tell people that our high school mascot is the Cowboy, enjoy mentioning the pig races I saw at the county fair this year (called “poetry in motion” by the announcer), and brag about our award-winning rodeo team. But while that’s all true, in reality my hometown is a modern suburb, a comfortable city with a new restaurant every couple of months and easy access to a major metropolitan area. We may have a rodeo parade every year, but it’s no Idaho.
This Idaho town is called Council and has a population of 816, less than half the size of our high school. It’s where my friend’s grandparents live, where both her parents grew up, and where her older sisters were born. When we first drove through the main drag—consisting mostly of one bar called the Ace (grandma’s favorite hang out), a coffee place, and one or two general stores—a man wearing overalls and shaggy hair crossed the street slowly in front of our car. “Hey, Overalls!” I said, already enjoying the local Idaho charm. “That’s my uncle,” my friend said. And it was. We stopped and had a chat.
I met most of the other family members as the weekend went on. We stayed in a spot outside Council called New Meadows with Aunt Janice and Uncle Dave in their beautiful home overlooking an expansive valley that looked like you might see it on a postcard with “Welcome to Idaho!” stamped over it—fuzzy cows and their calves grazing and lolling around under patches of sun and shadow, butterflies and hummingbirds dancing across the pinks, oranges and yellows that flower the soft hilltop. All quiet except the dull, fast thumping of tiny wings, the occasional moo, and the melody of crickets.
Some critters aren’t always so welcome, however. It’s not a Disney movie, after all. One morning as we enjoyed the view over waffles, bacon and eggs, Aunt Janice tromped outside in her bathrobe and slippers armed with a pellet gun and, after pumping it ferociously, took aim at a big blue jay who apparently had been causing quite the uproar for weeks, scaring off the other birds and acting like he owned the place. Lucky for him, he’s gotten pretty good at dodging fire. Also elusive is the notorious and legendary Payette Lake monster, a relative of the Loch Ness monster whom everybody knows as Sharlie. This sounds more like a drag queen than an aquatic beast to me, but I kept an eye out for her from my jet ski nonetheless.
The next day we had a picnic by a creek and picked wild huckleberries along the bank as a fisherman dangled his line in the little waterfall. It was truly lovely, but when I say fisherman I don’t mean a sweet old man with a vest covered in feathery fishing lures. No, I mean a fat, red, shirtless man in his 30s, with about a foot of crack stretching above his faded white jeans—though he did have a very friendly smile, despite all the holes in it.
Finally, stuffed with huckleberry dumplings and pie—heavenly down-home treats made with those tiny berries, perfectly purple and juicy—we stuffed the car with a summer’s worth of Idaho fun and headed for California. As we drove down the dirt lane away from Aunt Janice’s house, one young buck bounded effortlessly in the field along side the car, as though offering a gallant farewell and urging us not to forget the beauty, vigor and grace of his home state.
The sun soaked the brown hills in light as it rose above us, coloring the backs of the horses and cows (and even 3 head a’ bison!) that spotted the pastures in white, black and brown, feeding themselves in order to feed and provide for their owners as they always have. The highway crept on, and as our car winded smoothly over it, toward our first stop at the Just Say When Casino a few hours south, Fiona Apple sang her Beatles cover through the speakers: “Nothin’s gonna change my world, nothin’s gonna change my world…”
Apparently, though, in addition to satellite TV, a new attraction does roll through town from time to time. We passed a church on the way out of the state that advertised “GOD: Alive and in Person HERE!” We were in a hurry, so we drove on past, but I’ll always wonder if maybe that little church in the middle of nowhere had the secret, the answer that everyone’s been looking for in all the wrong places.