Idaho? Idaho? This was the wildcard in the list of states I was visiting on the Trans America Trail. Sure, I knew I'd get mountains in Colorado, deserts in Utah, flatlands in Okalahoma and trees in Oregon. But Idaho? I genuinely hadn't a clue what to expect.
We left Utah crossing the Snake River. Yes, the same Snake River that Evel Knievel unsuccessfully attempted to leap in 1974. We went by bridge so we arrived in Idaho without incident. Immediately we were into farming country. It turns out Idaho is famous for potatoes. Lots of potatoes. A third of all American grown potatoes are dug from Idaho soil and the endless potato farms we passed were busy harvesting their crop. On some farms we noticed they'd even outgrown John Deere's sizeable agricultural offerings and had upscaled to Caterpillar equipment. That's serious farming!
Fast wide gravel 'county' roads mixed with tracks through grassy meadows were the order of the day until the potato farms and grasslands disappeared and the landscape suddenly changed. The TAT trail had entered the Craters of the Moon National Monument which is a 600 square mile lava field. You'd struggle to grow potatoes out here. Vast empty prairies coloured black and green with the occasional mountain peak punctuating the horizon under grey leaden skies put me in mind of Iceland. Only they don't have the rattlesnakes we found on the tracks in front of us in Iceland.
Idaho is America's 14th Largest state but has a population of only 1.5 million. Only 995 of those people were living in the small town of Arco, which was our first stopover on the Idaho section of the TAT. Arco was the first community in the world ever to be lit by electricity generated solely by nuclear power. A fact still celebrated in lights above the doors of the town hall. Those lights are now powered by conventional electricity since Arco's moment in the nuclear powered spotlight lasted a total of one hour. In 1955...
Few businesses remained on its boarded up main street. The cinema had closed and the Sawtooth bar hadn't served a drink in a long time. It felt like a town hanging on in there for survival. Arco's main tourist attraction is a conning tower from a US Navy submarine. An information board explained how it was transported and positioned in place but omits to mention the obvious question. Why? We imagined the local council meeting where someone mentioned they'd heard part of a US sub was going begging. 'We'll have it. Motion carried!' Checking into the motel the local recommendation for good food was 'the truck stop'. Arco was that kind of town.
The following morning the temperature had dropped noticeably. I had the heater on for the first time on the trip and even flicked on the heated seats. The TAT trail began to climb into the mountains. We came across some of the dirt roads that the notes on the TAT map advised were 'Impassable when wet'. They were slippy but not impassable but we were mindful of similar warnings on the Oklahoma maps whose red dirt tracks were very nearly our undoing. As we continued to climb we hit snow on the trails. It was September but a glance at the altimeter showed we were at 10,000 feet.
We lunched in the trendy and expensive ski town of Sun Valley where the thrift street market was just packing up. Unlike Telluride, Sun Valley felt way too manufactured and perfect and lacked the cool vibe of its Colorado ski resort rival. We parked our filthy 4x4s next to the shiny new SUVs that fill Sun Valley's streets and went in serach of food. We returned to find people peering in and around the Land Rover. Not for the first time on the trip. Worth pointing out that I'd driven almost all the way across the USA and still not seen another Defender yet so it's no wonder the attention it continues to draw whenever we arrive in a town.
Leaving Sun Valley we drive for 30 minutes up a trail until we get to a sign indicating the road is blocked just short of a town that's on the TAT route a further 20 miles up the trail. Do we chance it? We'd normally have a look at any blockage and often construction workers would stand aside and let you pass. In this instance, we decide it's a helluva long way to go to find out it really is impassable and we have to drive all the way back. It's time to get creative again so we consult the maps and GPS and work out a loop around to get us back on the track. Unfortunately there is no other way around than a long and boring highway drive that by the time we arrive in Featherville has had such a soporific effect on us that we decide to call it a day at 4pm and check into the small motel attached to the local saloon.
Featherville is a tiny town. Once a gold mining town there are only a few locals and every evening they show up at the saloon. There was CC the barmaid. Young, pretty and potty mouthed. She'll break every boys heart in the area. After her shift she's joined by her new boyfriend. Last week's boyfriend calls in to get ice. They don't speak. She's having 'just one more' and then leaving. CC orders one more as we leave.
The 'twins' are identical twins in their seventies who sport the same jacket and pork pie hats. They sit away from the bar crowd banter watching that nights football game in complete silence.
Bruce is a hunter. He arrives on his quad in full hunter 'Real-Tree' camouflage gear. He's just called in to pay his $50 bar tab. When CC can't find any record of a $50 tab, he pulls a wad of dollar bills from his pocket and buys a round of shots for the bar. He's hammered when he arrives. A few hours and a good few more drinks later he departs on his quad with a pizza under one arm which it turns out is for his dog. He forgot to buy dogfood.
Floyd drinks his beer from a tall McDonald's cup that he's brought with him and hands over the bar when it needs filling. Nobody bats an eye.
Roy is the hero of the evening and keeps us entertained with stories and our glasses filled all night long. He sold the family owned two acre plot of land in Silicone Valley and retired to Idaho from LA. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of local history and wild west history and should really be doing tours of the area. He bemoans the local lack of interest in local history and lists the various mining relics he's discovered in the area and even offers to take us to a secret abandoned mine shaft the following day if we wish. If you're ever in Featherville ask Roy to tell you the story about the time 'he forgot' he was carrying a gun through security at San Antonio airport.
The blockage we'd come across had been a landslip that the locals had told us had remained untouched for two years while the local authorities argued who was paying for the repair. We sought their advice on the lengthy section of mountain dirt tracks we'd be driving on our final day in Idaho. The advice we were given was 'you'll be okay if it doesn't rain tonight'. It started raining at midnight and was still hammering down as we checked out. We heeded the local advice and worked on another work around towards the Oregon border and our last pile of TAT maps with the final 700 miles to the Pacific.