(My regular column is suspended during the pandemic, but we’re running some old ones I thought readers might enjoy. They originally were published in The Idaho Statesman early in my career there. Many are humor columns from the 1980s. In times like these, we need humor.)
Idaho and Iowa are states so different from each other it would seem impossible to confuse them.
Idaho is mountains, irrigated farmland and desert. The definition of an Idaho rainstorm – a lot of wind, a lot of dust, a few drops and it’s over – is pretty accurate. Idaho has the nation’s largest wilderness outside of Alaska and more than 150 peaks higher than 10,000 feet.
Iowa is flat, a Midwest prairie with abundant rainfall and cornfields that seem to stretch forever. Its highest point is Merrill Sterler’s hog lot, elevation1,670 feet.
The states are separated by a distance greater than that separating New York and Georgia. One is so flat that people in Sioux City contact those in Dubuque, 300 miles away, by standing in the road and waving. The other is so mountainous that if pounded flat, according to some authorities, it would be the largest state in the nation. One is famous for corn, the other for potatoes. Products not noted for striking similarities.
There is no compelling reason for people to confuse Idaho and Iowa, but it happens all the time. Most of the mixups are funny; some border on the unbelievable.
At least one person – a professional pilot, no less – actually moved to Idaho thinking it was Iowa. He discovered his 1,500-mile error too late and has been an Idahoan ever since.
In Hawaii, a prospective thief was foiled by a geographic blunder printed on his checks, drawn on the First National Bank of Iowa, in “Boise Iowa.”
He was in good company. In a golden moment from his reporting days, former network news anchorman Tom Brokaw ended a newscast with a panoramic sweep of the mountains of the Boise Front and the words, “This is Tom Brokaw reporting from Boise, Iowa.”
Not to be outdone, fellow NBC anchor Deborah Norville transplanted Boise to Iowa on the Today Show.
The Boise, Iowa syndrome has been the undoing of countless mail order customers, including a couple who reported that “it took months to get our order. The company kept sending it to you-know-where. When we told them we were from Boise, Idaho, they asked how far that was from Council Bluffs.”
About 1,400 miles, give or take a spud cellar or two.
Idaho is home to numerous ski resorts, including Sun Valley, the nation’s first. Iowa’s terrain is more conducive to lawn tennis. The difference in terrain, however, wasn’t enough to stop The Wall Street Journal from moving Sun Valley to the Hawkeye State or the journal of the American Association of Retired Persons from plugging Iowa ski packages,
No one is immune. Harper’s, Time, The New York Times, even the president of the United States have succumbed to Idaho-Iowa confusion. An alarming number of Americans, apparently including some in the White House, believe that all four “I” states are in a neat line in the Midwest. Thus we have a hundredth-birthday card from President George Bush to a resident of Emmett, Idaho, mailed to the resident’s correct street address in “Emmett, Indiana.”
Indiana is the state second most frequently confused with Idaho, closely followed by Ohio, which doesn’t start with an “I” but has a similar sounding name. This was the inspiration for the old joke about the Idaho woman who was visiting the East and was told, “My dear, I’m sure you won’t take offense if I tell you something you ought to know. We pronounce it Ohio.”
The University of Iowa does a brisk business in T-shirts sporting the words, “University of Iowa, Idaho City, Ohio.”
Some people not only have no idea where Idaho is, they don’t even know it’s a state. When I told a Chicago cab driver that I was from Idaho, he looked at me as if I was from another planet.
“It’s out west,” I told him, “but a lot of people confuse it with Iowa.”
He laughed heartily.
“Iowa?” he exclaimed, practically splitting. “How could anybody confuse Idaho and Iowa?”
“I don’t know, but it happens a lot. Sometimes they confuse it with Indiana or Ohio, too.”
He laughed so hard the cab shook.
“I don’t believe it!” he said. “How could people think Idaho was Indiana or Ohio?”
A pregnant pause. Then …
“It’s part of California, isn’t it?”