Love Letter to Idaho

Tim Woodward’s new columns have been alternating with Woodward Classics during the pandemic. This one, slightly modified here, originally was published in The Idaho Statesman after the Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption in 1980.

  A fair part of the state has choked on volcanic ash, and a scientist has predicted Idaho will fall into the sea.

  No resumes are in my mailbox; no moving van is outside my door

  A world without Idaho? Unthinkable.

  What is Idaho?

  Idaho is mountains. John Steinbeck called them real mountains that reach to the sky.

  Idaho is farm country. It’s irrigated valleys with shimmering arcs of portable water, rain-swept hills of green grain. Smudge pots and spray planes and sweet-pungent earth. 

  Idaho is basins where the snow never melts, forests where the sun hardly shines, sagebrush immensities where you can spend a whole day and hear nothing but the wind.

  Idaho is an old man lamenting the demise of his favorite trout stream, a newcomer flushed with the discovery of unpolluted air and free campgrounds.

  Idaho is heart-stopping emptiness, half again as large as England with a fiftieth as many people. You can start at the northern border and drive all day without seeing the southern border or a high-rise building.

  Idaho is Sun Valley, America’s first ski resort. Exclusive shops, cocktails in the Duchin Room, suntanned jet-setters in gleaming Porsches. Grand memories – Cooper and Hemingway, Shearer and Sothern, Harriman and the UP – and simple fun – a Volkswagen full of backpacks and pizza at Louie’s.

  Idaho is corporations with offices from coast to coast, a weekly newspaper with a staff of one.

  Idaho is an abandoned cabin on a windswept plain, a lonely teacher in a one-room school.

  It’s elk grazing on a hillside, jackrabbits dying on a highway.

  It’s hermits in the back country, newcomers in the suburbs.

  It’s smog and computerized traffic, a town with a single parking meter.

  Idaho is a thousand little towns with names that dance lightly on the tongue:  Santa and Jerusalem and Coeur d’Alene, Eden and Hope, Pearl and Gem, Harvard and Princeton, Elk Creek and Three Creek, Grimes Pass and Good Grief. Bear, Eagle, White Bird, Elk River, Duck Valley, Horseshoe Bend.

 Idaho is millionaires. We have the Potato King, the Supermarket King, the Timber King and other royalty, and wages among the lowest in the nation.

  Idaho is a mansion with a view of a skyline, a baby crying in a migrant labor camp. Idaho is a general store with everything in the midst of nothing, a restaurant that serves eight kinds of homemade pie in the middle of nowhere.

  Idaho is wilderness: jade lakes in granite basins, stories around the campfire, hot springs under the stars. It’s huckleberries and hummingbirds and hunters in the hills. Raptors and rookeries and rivers on the run.

  Idaho is Basque country. Chorizos on the grill, weightlifters in the park, Oinkari dancers in the streets. Girls with flashing eyes and boys in tow, a solitary sheepherder in a wagon called home.

  Idaho is Indian heritage – Sacajawea, Chief Joseph, Pocatello – and Indian reality – Fort Hall, Lapwai, Duck Valley.

  Idaho has been called a natural paradise and a cultural backwater.  The reality is somewhere in between. You can’t pigeonhole a state like Idaho. It’s too big, too diverse; a geographic jumble, a cultural stew. 

  Idaho can be ugly, barroom brawls, dirty politics, sewage flowing from a pipe – and it can be lovely – flowers on the Camas Prairie, a full moon over Hells Canyon, sunlight on the St. Joe. Anyplace in the mountains. Any mountains. Take your pick.

  Other states have beckoned, but the sum of their offers is at best a trade. When you’re tired of Idaho, you’re tired of life.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on the following Mondays. Contact him a

One thought on “Love Letter to Idaho

  1. This was very poetic and if I weren’t born and raised here? I would want to move here after reading this. And that is where I am having a problem. Now I know every word is true. And I also realize word has gotten out about how Idaho is so lovely. But please stop, there might be someone out there who hasn’t heard that Idaho is the best thing since…since ever. Now I love all your writings and please don’t stop, but be cautious. A Fan from Ugly Emmett.


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