You wouldn’t think a drive through a desert would change much, that it would stay pretty much the same from year to year.
You’d be wrong.
My favorite Idaho desert drive is the one from Boise to eastern Idaho. Not the freeway part – the Fairfield cutoff. You leave I-84 just east of Mountain Home and take U.S. 20 through Fairfield, Carey and Arco to Idaho Falls.
It’s not scenic in the usual sense; no evergreen forests or alpine lakes, lots of sagebrush. But there’s just something about it – all those wide open spaces, big skies and long stretches where you can see forever. It’s good for the soul.
I had to drive it this summer to do some interviews at a ranch near Ashton. It had been a few years and I’d missed it, in the way you miss an old friend you haven’t seen in too long.
But my old friend wasn’t the same.
The first surprise was at Tollgate, just out of Mountain Home. It shouldn’t have been a surprise; I knew that the little store named for a frontier toll road to the gold mines north of there had been torn down, but had forgotten. It was a pleasant place to stop for a snack and a chat, and the bend in the road it overlooked seemed lonely without it.
Gone as well were the waggish signs marking the distance to Bennett, Idaho. Probably just as well. Some people found them offensive. But they were the mischievous work of songwriter Pinto Bennett, and because he’s one of my favorite people they never failed to make me chuckle.
Highway 20 crosses more than desert. East of Bennett, it climbs a lovely hillside dotted with quaking aspen to the Camas Prairie, scenic at any time but spectacular in a wet spring when the Camas lilies are blooming. It’s impossible for me to cross it without affectionately remembering a couple of Idaho icons, Bob Ertter and Mannie Shaw.
Ertter and his wife, Mamie, owned the store at Corral, the little, barn-red building with a weathered, three-word sign out front: “It’s Coffee Time.” Somehow it always was.
The unusual thing about Bob, the “prairie captain,” was that for two weeks of each month he ran the little store perched on a sea of rolling prairie and on the alternate weeks worked as the captain of a giant oil tanker on the San Francisco Bay. Lifestyles that couldn’t have been more different. Mannie Shaw was a rancher and revered old-time fiddler. Both first-rate gentlemen, both long gone. The Corral Store is vacant and all but falling down now. I stopped for old time’s sake, but seeing it that way was sad.
At Picabo, an oasis – lush farmland, world-famous Silver Creek and the Idaho Angler, a fly-fishing shop. That’s what it is now, at least. I remember it as the Picabo General Store. You could buy virtually anything there – from gas and groceries to picks and shovels to perfume and lingerie. You could mail a letter, order lunch. Years ago, when I asked the manager if there was anything the store didn’t sell, he thought long and hard and said, “Yes. We don’t sell cars. … But we used to.”
These days you can buy anything you need for fishing Silver Creek there. But don’t even think about asking for paprika or a sledgehammer.
A few miles up the road at Carey were three things I used to look forward to seeing. One was a house surrounded by DeSotos, my favorite cars during my youth. There were over 20 of them. I always wanted to interview their owner, but he was never there. Another person I looked forward to seeing in Carey was the girl with the lion eyes. She worked at a drive-in there and had striking, golden eyes, like a lion’s. And of course, Pete Cenarrusa, who ranched in Carey and served as Idaho secretary of state longer than anyone. One of the nicest men I’ve ever known.
Now … no Pete, no DeSotos, no golden-eyed waitress. Even the drive-in was gone.
Next, Arco – once the home of Grandpa’s Southern Barbecue. Lloyd and Loretta Westbrook ran it out of a little house on the highway into town. Lloyd used his grandfathers’ time-honored recipes to make the barbecue; Loretta baked scrumptious Southern desserts. Grandpa’s made driving to Arco worth the trip. Now, it’s just an empty house.
Dr. Fuzzy Steuart, Harvard- and Johns Hopkins-trained oncologist and a founder of Mountain States Tumor Institute, is gone as well. Tired of dealing with bureaucracies, he moved from Boise to tiny Arco, where he charged $10 for an office visit. If you didn’t have $10, he’d barter – a homemade pie, a six-pack of beer or a song played on a guitar for some of the best medical advice this side of the Mayo Clinic. He died in 2008.
With reminders of absent friends passing like somber signposts, I struck out across the lonesome stretch of desert that ends at Idaho Falls. A range fire and a thunderstorm were brewing; the sky was the color of charcoal, streaked with red and purple. I’d almost forgotten how vast – how empty – that landscape is, nothing but windswept desert and towering, faraway mountains that you never get to.
And that was how I felt – empty. Bob Ertter and Mannie Shaw, the Picabo Store, Pete Cenarrusa and the girl with the golden eyes, Lloyd, Loretta, Fuzzy … All my desert friends were gone, and I didn’t feel so hot myself.