[ 1 ] On All Sides Nowhere
Idaho first registered on my consciousness at the movies. In the summer of 1960 I was sixteen, and in the middle of August there was no place in suburban Pennsylvania to find air conditioning except in supermarkets or theaters. I could not spend summer days amid the cabbages and canned goods, and so to escape the heat I went with my friends as often as I could to the movies; one of the movies I sought out was an elegy for the waning days of modern civilization, On the Beach.
To the filmgoing public in 1960, keenly aware that despite all the best intentions the cold war could suddenly turn hot, the movie was perfectly credible. It was set only a few years into the future; a calendar on the wall read, ominously, “1964.” Nuclear war of undisclosed origins had killed everyone in the Northern Hemisphere, and now, as a lethal cloud of radiation spread slowly over the planet, one of the last surviving groups of humans clustered in Melbourne, Australia, to await the end. It was an intoxicating, almost carnivalesque, experience. Gregory Peck played the romantic lead opposite Ava Gardner, and at one point in the film, Peck, the taciturn commander of a nuclear submarine, tells Ava Gardner about his origins. In answer to her question about his childhood home, he replies with a single word that at the time seemed more homiletic than informative: “Idaho.” Whose decision was it for Peck to claim Idaho for his birthplace? Of all the possible states the scriptwriter could have chosen, why that one? And it was a choice: for the record, Peck was born in La Jolla, California, and his character in Nevil Shute’s novel from which the movie was adapted comes from Westport, Connecticut. Peck’s “Idaho” drops like a stone into a well of unknown depth; it falls without trace, without echo. It is a piece, apparently, of purely gratuitous information.
Why Idaho? The name resonates oddly with Melbourne and San Francisco, the environments of On the Beach. Those places set the mood of the film. To Americans in 1960, Melbourne was alien, exotic, and San Francisco brought to mind the glitz and romance of California. Set in that context, and set against the despairing hedonism of humans who number their remaining days according to the drifting global winds, “Idaho” seems dissonant. Its sound is stark, but as Peck speaks it, it sounds also moral and attractive. It seems to express Peck’s loneliness, his longing for the simplicity of childhood and for the innocence of a world before the Bomb. None of the familiar mythic names of the American West, not Texas or Oregon or Colorado, would have the same aura of pure expressivity. My guess is that the name “Idaho” was chosen for its semantic emptiness. The name made sense because to most people “Idaho” meant nothing, and, meaning nothing, it could stand in for the infinite pathos of a world that would shortly cease to exist. Idaho was then, and in some ways still is, a geographic What You Will, and as a result the name “Idaho” becomes a kind of cultural Rorschach test for whoever happens to reflect on it.
A road map of Idaho, if you focus on the narrow strip of land that sits atop the main bulge of the state, will show U.S. 95 extending upward from the town of Lewiston on the Snake River and running due north until it touches British Columbia. U.S. 95 is the only north– south road in the state; for most of its five hundred–odd miles, its major function is commercial. On it, apart from a few weeks in summer at the height of the vacation season, wheat and wood chips move south to the granaries in Moscow or the pulp mills in Lewiston, logs by the tens of thousands head north to the lake towns of Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls, and Sandpoint. On that map, halfway between Moscow and Coeur d’Alene, several miles above a couple of minuscule settlements designated, echoically, Desmet and Tensed, a thin blue line splits off from U.S. 95 and runs due east for twenty miles until it dead- ends in Idaho 5 coming north from St. Maries.
Nothing much shows on that road big enough to be named; it starts from nowhere, goes to noplace. Travelers on it turn their backs on the rolling grainlands of eastern Washington and head toward a low wall of mountains, smooth, rounded, thick with timber. The change in topography is instantaneous. In less than two miles they’re in the foothills of the Bitterroots, the westernmost range of the Rocky Mountains, scarcely seventy-five miles from the Montana border. Once over the first row of hills, the road descends again and presses deeper into those foothills for fifteen miles or so, following alongside the Benewah Creek and through the Benewah Valley.
Houses and landmarks on that road are few. It’s a gravel road, in theory at least, but for much of its length it’s better described as a dirt road backed up withhhhh whatever rocks nature or the Benewah County road crew found time to strew there. “I lived here better than twenty years,” the owner of Benewah Motors, Wally Krassalt, once told me as we made our way from town out toward my place to diagnose my ailing Land Rover, “and I never once saw the Benewah Road in good shape.” Much of the time the road follows alongside the Benewah Creek, running slightly above the creek through draws filled with alder and aspen or traversing occasional flatlands and pockets of deep forest. You drive along the road with no real sense of progress. It’s hard to mark the miles: there are no towns to encounter, no height toward which to aspire, just a succession of curves and glimpses of fields and pockets of forest so similar that they are valueless as landmarks. If you pursue the Benewah Road almost to its terminus at State 5, you come upon a Dumpster, angle-parked on a turnout on the downhill side of the road, positioned so that as you discard your trash you can look out and down at a postcard view of the southernmost end of a chain of glacial lakes that stretch from St. Maries north almost to Canada. On most days the Dumpster overflows with abandoned household goods, broken bedsteads and electrical components, scraps of carpet, Sheetrock, and lumber, random tools or parts of tools, bald and shredded tires, and pieces of cars. At one time some local wag took a can of bright orange paint and sprayed “Benewah Shop-n-Save” on the side of the Dumpster. Like all good humor, it had one foot in reality; my neighbors and I checked that Dumpster regularly, like a lottery ticket.
Long before you encounter the Dumpster, though, if you are headed east from U.S. 95, you pass a spot marked on your map as “Benewah.” Maps denote “Benewah” with a small blue circle, as if to promise travelers a settlement of some kind or other situated about midway along the road, but the maps promise more than ever existed. Even in the heyday of north Idaho logging and homesteading, there never was a town named Benewah. The place is recognizable as a civic location only because of two buildings, an abandoned one-room school, painted, the time I first saw it, bright pink, and a swaybacked frame structure with a faded sign, “Benewah General Store,” and because of a smaller dirt road that dead-ends at the Benewah Road just east of the schoolhouse. Less than a hundred yards along that lesser road a sign cautions you that there should be “No Heavy Hauling When Surface Is Soft.” In one instant, if you read it attentively, that sign tells you much about the local climate and economy as well as the politics and favorite pastimes of the people who live there. The sign, like every other sign the county erected al...