Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Iatrogenic Idaho

Let’s get the big obvious topic out of the way upfront: Idaho is boring. Really boring. Topographically boring. Culturally boring. Boring. As boring as these sentence fragments.

I don’t say this lightly. When I was fifteen or so I eagerly stayed up till 2 a.m. or so watching PBS’s feed from some spacecraft that was nearing Saturn or Uranus or some uninteresting icy place. The picture was grainy, black and white, and largely static (in both senses), but I watched it for hours. This might also explain my tolerance for the music of Steve Reich.

Anyway, the boringness of the drive is actually part of the appeal here. It’s a signal of being out of the normal routine, which is boring in other ways, but recognizably urban ones. At no point over the rest of the year do I find myself asking not entirely rhetorical questions like “Why is sagebrush apparently not like sage?” and “What on earth were Lewis and Clark thinking anyway?” Still, even though I know that there are countless stories on and under this land, I can’t muster the interest. (Who am I, John McPhee?)

After the painted hills and all of eastern Oregon, it would be hard for any other state to compete. But seriously, Idaho, you’re not even trying. At least the southern part of you isn’t. I shouldn’t make fun--this is not a place that much tolerates being made fun of. And it isn’t as if Boise doesn’t have its charms: it’s compact, scenic, and more diverse than I had expected, what with the significant Basque population. (The Basques seem to have come to Boise for the same reason the Somalis more recently came to Minnesota: happenstance.) All the same, even the locals struggled for recommendations on how we should spend our time here.

We stayed in the Leuk Ona Hotel in downtown’s Basque Block--“Leuk Ona” apparently being Basque for “hotel that is actually a bar,” which it was. In Portland, we had wondered why more bars didn’t have rooms upstairs for patrons who found themselves perhaps less than able to leave at the end of the night, and here was just such a place. It was perfectly fine, except that our room abutted about forty-three Dumpsters, which were each lovingly lifted and emptied around 4:30 in the morning.

After a visit to the local history museum –which features a miracle of taxidermy I won’t dignify with description—and a Basque breakfast (more chorizo, basically) we got on the highway east, marveling at the sheer dullness of the landscape. I’m harping on this now, but there’s a difference between “empty” and “dull.” Emptiness has a lure, a scope, a wow factor of its own. Dullness is, well, just not worth looking at anymore than necessary.

Perhaps this is why people travel this road with hand grenades.

Ho-ho, ha-ha, right? Sadly, no. It seems some yob on the run got pulled over on I-84 near Mountain Home, and the presence of a grenade in his car caused a complete law-enforcement freakout, including the closure of the interstate in both directions. We and lots of pissed-off truckers got off and poked through Mountain Home, in the process missing the exit we’d intended to take. Worse (and even less ho-ho, ha-ha), there’d been a fatal accident at the point where westbound traffic was being detoured off the road on account of the grenade guy. So, to recap: a decision made in the name of public safety led indirectly to the death of an innocent young woman. There’s a word for this, but unfortunately the word is “iatrogenesis”—the process by which a solution engenders the problem it is trying to address. I have found this to be a surprisingly common dynamic, once I started to look for it.

The hours of lunar landscape after this were supposed to be inspirational—what sounds better than “Craters of the Moon National Park”? But we both thought this was just dignifying a landscape that looked like tremendous piles of dried dung.

We finally reached the town of Arco, and here things started to look up. We’d been discussing the nuclear history of the west, and here it was under our feet: a town that had once gotten all of its electricity from atomic power at the nearby Idaho National Laboratory. It is also home to America’s Submarine in the Desert, which I suppose is self-explanatory, once you see it.

Not far away is the world’s first nuclear reactor, now decommissioned, and lots of lab sites that we weren’t allowed to get anywhere near. When you get a funny feeling about what the government is up to, this is one of the places where they’re up to it, along with several suburbs of Washington, D.C.; most of Utah and Nevada; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for starters. These kinds of places that have a lure for us—there really is something going on here—but by definition we can never quite see it. (One terrific book on these kinds of places is the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America.)

After skimming along in the lab’s rush hour traffic, we finally made Idaho Falls, with not a lot of time to spare. We then got mildly lost (since I managed to elide the difference between U.S. 20 and Business U.S. 20), which was really quite an achievement in such a small place.

Mellaleuca Field was opened in 2007 and must be about as swanky a stadium as there is in short-season A ball. The statute of the Unknown Chukar, new this year, is pretty creepy, though. This franchise is a step down the hierarchy from Boise, but the trappings were far nicer—comfortable seats, good sightlines, etc. We settled in with some Red Hook Sunryes in seats just behind the visitors’ dugout and watched the Chukars pound the snot out of the Missoula Osprey, 13–3. A Chukar, incidentally, is not a cricket player, but some kind of raptor (Full disclosure: Before this evening, I thought an osprey was a fish.)

No comments:

Post a Comment