“Time’s stopped here,” I said to myself on my first road trip across Idaho. For cross-country motorcyclists, wearing a helmet was still optional. For the fried food lover, fry sauce (mayonnaise mixed with ketchup) accessorized any order of potatoes. As my car whisked by houses with wishing wells in their front yards, I noticed one rancher on his front porch watching life go by, in sagging overalls, a crumpled cowboy hat, and a sprig of barley sticking out of his teeth. I stopped the car to photograph green hills flanked by an open sky larger than my previous hometowns, and marveled how perfectly poised an abandoned barn with a sod roof held on the horizon. The Wild West was no longer just a movie set in High Noon, it now laid out in front of me
In Idaho, I discovered that the desert could turn a corner and meet an alpine forest full of wildflowers at the base of the Rockies, that the rock broke apart forcing dramatic canyons and that in between those canyons, over thirty raging rivers moved like arteries, pumping life into a rustic landscape. After two summer road trips, I fell in love with both the landscape and a man. I moved there for the next two summers to spend my days putting together my first book. Known as “The Valley of a Thousand Good Men,” I followed mine and let him introduce me to his untouched wilderness with a childlike smile on his face.
Though Idaho was one of the smaller states in our Hot Springs and Hot Pools of the Northwest guidebook, it took up the center pages. Every time we set out on a weekend’s drive, we made a deal to discover a new hot spring. There were hot springs just off the side of the road along rivers and maintained by those who loved them, and there were ones that you came upon that had trickling falls waiting for you to stand naked beneath them. Then there was the secret one at mile marker 282, near the four-hundred mile “River of No Return” Salmon River, a short drive from my favorite sleepy town of Stanley and the ragged Sawtooth Mountain range. At this hot spring, we hiked in for an overnight stay, pitched our tent on a narrow ridge, and watched stars I never knew existed until we sat in a series of cascading hot spring pools.
Camping came as easy as driving down a dirt road to find a barren spot near any river. There were no reservations, or little manila envelopes to fill in while stuffing a ten-dollar bill, just firewood and campfires to burn. To be on an extended river trip in Idaho, and set up camp with just a tarp above in case it rained, was the equivalent to a desolate island in the South Pacific. Food tasted better when it came cooked at camp from a Dutch Oven, swimming in the river felt better while naked, and the occasional moose, elk, or eagle popped in to remind us that we were never truly alone.
And while there were only a million people in the whole state (compared to the six million I was used to in Bay Area), I came to love the 1,000 or so folks in the tiny town where we lived, how they welcomed me right away. I got a job taking photographs for the town newspaper and rode in a hot air balloon over the Teton Mountains on the Fourth of July. I attended my first rodeo, buddied up with the rednecks at a demolition derby, and learned from meat eaters that Buffalo burgers were a culinary delight. Doing ten-mile hikes to the tops of mountains became a regular weekday activity (when I needed a break from the book), and I learned that some towns still shut down to be quiet on Sundays. I mastered my yoga practice at the one studio with thirty students and let go of my fear around headstands and handstands. I joined the summer softball league and went out for beers after a win. And while the grizzlies ate the huckleberries on the trails, and the potato families took a week off to harvest in the Fall, I thanked the nature lover in me for this time, and told my inner city girl that the city would always be there, but the Wild West may not.
Photo courtesy of the author