Public Idaho, Day 2

For part 1 of this post, click here.

I put off getting out of bed, idly watching the dreadful The Firm with Tom Cruise (what is the secret to getting the most formulaic of scripts written and produced and guaranteed to yeild bags of money? I must know….), catching up on the latest project runway (please, judges, send Blaine home), working out, and finally admitting to myself that I was mildly terrified to leave the room.

But leave I did. After shuttling to the airport, I picked up my car, a Subaru whose lights had been left on, then was upgraded to this ridiculously luxurious Chrysler, the kind that’s trying to pass as a Bentley. It has satellite, and I found comfort in my familiar stations. Yet another benefit of satellite radio, as if the spouse hasn’t plugged it enough: solace on an unfamiliar road.

I ventured into downtown Idaho Falls, which has done a decent job of keeping its relatively small amount of character while growing, though not hugely. I passed a tattoo parlor, several coffeehouses with kids who’d be right at home in Michigan, and settled into a little joint that served me fish tacos and a chai, both terrific. The owners, it turns out, are from San Diego, and have put together a swell place to eat, The Snake Bite Café.

From there I walked down to the falls that give the town its name; they’re not big, though a dam extends in a big half circle to make them more panoramic, but they’re truly beautiful. I was struck by how different and indeed wild the west is, even in scenery. It’s a completely different feel from the Midwest, more expansive, lonelier (no one tailgates here because there’s just a ton of room on the freeway), with an empty sky that stretches forever. I stayed for quite a while, sucking up the view. At my feet were the strange, black pumice-like stones that you only see in this part of the country – volcanic in origin, they become increasingly numerous and culminate in Craters of the Moon park, which is too far to travel to. Lots of scrubby trees surrounded the site. Idaho has nothing deciduous and no fall; on the tree front, it’s not that exciting. Water and sky overcompensate with tremendous and fierce beauty.

It’s continually struck me throughout the trip a) how scenically rich it is and b) how completely I ignored it when I lived here. I will say that I always loved the sky. I saw yesterday why my dad loved the location enough to want to come back to it. If this is part of your blood, I think you would miss that sky and those huge expanses of emptiness more than almost anything else.

As I headed back to my car, I had to stop at Chesbro’s, which remains a great, great music store. I wiled away many an hour and spent many an allowance dollar here, picking up complete scores to musicals. I remember laying out the astronomical sum of $25 for the complete score of West Side Story, then getting it home and realizing it was almost impossible to play. Not that I cared. Bernstein was a hero at the time (he’s still up there), and I muddled my way through his crazy chords and rhythms as best I could. This trip, I picked up a couple of things for me and the kids. I couldn’t resist.

I jumped on the freeway and headed northeast. My plan had been to go to St. Anthony first, then head by the house my great-grandfather and grandfather built, the one we lived in. That would be on the way to Rexburg, my final destination for the night. As I drove, more and more I realized that it wouldn’t be complete without heading to Ashton, the next town north. It’s the town where Mom grew up (even though she lived in nearby Squirrel, which currently doesn’t have any signs on the road indicating it exists), so beleaguered that even the St. Anthony kids looked down on it.

(Rexburg, by the way, looked down on everyone else, but especially St. Anthony. Ashton could get a head scratch. Rexburgians are perhaps the most solipsistic folk in the country. When several of us from my high school went to Europe, I can remember kind Europeans asking where we were from. Raised in California and never wanting to claim Idaho, I would answer, “America.” The other kids would say, “Rexburg.” A few folks at the reunion confirmed that, at least for them, the mindset hasn’t changed.)

So approaching Ashton, which is on the way to Yellowstone, I was struck by how the highway hadn’t changed; it still narrowed to two lanes about 5 miles outside the city. I wondered what had replaced the Frosttop Drive In, which specialized in ironport and cherry, a strange but delicious concoction that was sort of like a combination of Dr. Pepper, root beer, and cherry. And…the Frosttop is still there. Not only that, turning a corner onto Main Street, so was everything else. In 30 years, nothing has changed in Ashton, at least not to the naked eye. It was downright eerie. The old high school has been torn down and replaced, momentarily disorienting but given that Main Street is only about 4 blocks long anyway, it wasn’t hard to find the new one further down. So people still live here. I got out, took some quick film, drove around the back streets looking for my Aunt Jessie’s house, gave up, and headed back. I should have gone to the Frosttop, but I was a little concerned about time at that point. Thus, a Proustian opportunity, ironport and cherry serving as madeleine, was lost. Alas.

Back to St. Anthony. The freeway has been constructed so that you can go right around it – you used to have to go through it – but once I got into the town itself, it hasn’t changed much either. The upkeep is better – someone is planting a ton of annuals down the main street which is actually called South Bridge or something; funny that in all the times I drove it in high school, I never knew the name and still don’t. The Silver Horseshoe, a Gene Shepardesque spot that specialized in chicken-fried steak and stuffed pork chops, is still there, as is Hunter Drug, with a classic soda fountain. I went in with my camera and got some stony stares, my first in a day where folks had otherwise been extremely friendly. I said some blather about how great it was to see a place that still had a working soda fountain – Lord help me, I think I said “fabulous” a few times, either nerves kicking in or my old but not forgotten urge to provoke the locals – and the heavily lined woman on a counter stool said, “Yep. Things don’t change much around here.” Smiling and backing up, I exited. No Cherry Coke for me, though honestly I should have got one and MADE her talk.

After a quick trip to the high school, which I attended for two mostly painful years – once again, little change other than some outbuildings – I headed to the cemetery just outside of town. I have written about the suicides of 2 brothers that I knew, a pair of events that has lingered with me and come to exemplify the despair that I associate with St. Anthony in particular; the town wasn’t particularly great to my parents on their return either, and I link the place with a slightly bitter sadness. The cemetery’s small enough to drive through, and I meandered around in the car before parking and getting out. After just a few minutes, I found a stone with their last name. Like a lot of Idaho names, it’s not an uncommon one, but also like a lot of Idaho names, it was clearly someone related, because Mike’s stone was nearby. I had expected to just see markers with names, but it was an expensive, good-sized stone, with a fish jumping out of a river and a deer leaping through the woods, as well as the sad inscription “October 24th, 1957- October 24th, 1981.” The fact that Mike blew himself away on his birthday has always hit me hard; it was something I didn’t learn from his sister, who had been my closest friend for a couple of years, though primarily out of necessity; she was one of those classic adolescent friends who you really can’t stand but end up hanging out with for lack of better company.

Abnout 10 feet away – far enough that you wouldn’t know it was there if you weren’t specifically looking for it – is his brother Roger’s stone. Roger waited until he was 29 to put the gun in his mouth. His stone was even more elaborate, with a cabin on a river in a forest.

There was something so terrible and at the same time moving about those stones, both of them tributes to the only things those brothers found solace in, hunting and fishing and being isolated. Irony sucks when it’s this sad. I wondered if the strange illogical distance between them was because the family couldn’t bear to be able to see two stones at once, and didn’t want anyone else to make the connection between the two deaths.

Bill Bryson writes someplace about a cemetery that he visits that fills him with thoughts of mortality and depression and the brevity of human life, at which point he says, “And then I thought, well fuck this.” Amen, Bill. I flipped off the camera and headed for Rexburg.

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