Adventure to Idaho

 

by Mike Mascelli

Wednesday Sept 19, 2001
(A week and a day after the World Trade Center Disaster)
To Sunday Sept 23, 2001


Nothing looks different.

The road to our local airport is one that I drive every day, and except for the fact that there is an unusual quiet in the skies, everything at least looks the same. The first clue that something is different is that all of the normal chaos
at the curbside of the terminal is gone. The odd Skycap here and there with a cart full of luggage, but nothing like the normal carnival that one usually finds.

The days of getting a free cup of coffee and the attention of a ticket agent before you even go through the doors are gone. And replacing them are the first of what will no doubt be an endless series of endless lines. Make no mistake, people are flying, and while they seem calm enough, the hugs seem longer, and the number of bags smaller.

It never ceases to amaze me the hardships people endure traveling with small children and pets, but the reality is that we are a nation who has come to accept air travel as a seamless part of everyday life. Everyone has a car, everyone flies. When I was a kid we went to the local hardware and knew everyone in the store by name, and knowing someone who had flown more than once was pretty big news.
Home Depot and SkyMiles have changed all of that.

I really didn't know what to expect at the security check in, and even though Albany is the capital of a big state, we have a pretty small airport. At the top of the escalator in the lobby is a makeshift concession stand selling coffee and donuts, since the real coffee shop is on the other side of the security checkpoint, and non-ticketed folks can't get there. There were a few extra people at the scanners, and they did insist that everyone show a ticket before passing through. One thing that
is different is that every member of every air crew had to pass through the detectors and show their ID as well. The screener didn't ask to open either my suitcase or my laptop bag, and except for the damn steel toes on my new work shoes, I would have slid right through. Even so, it was a pretty easy time. So far, so good.

I can't honestly say that taking off was without a certain apprehension that I have not known before, but the reassuring feeling of the plane's wheels leaving the ground and the strange comfort of watching the stupid safety video helped a little. To be sure flying is not the same, nor will it ever be again. The calm did not last.

Those young and hopelessly brave parents of the three little ones boarded last, and as if by some cruel twist of reality they settled down in my row Dad and toddler right next to me. I don't mean to sound like I don't like children, I just prefer
to have some polite distance between us, and find it much more satisfying when they are the ones outnumbered. Having some slight experience with little ones I remembered that there are only three functions that comprise their existence. The
flight attendant with the beverage cart shot me an understanding glance, and for one brief moment I fantasized that I could sneak the contents of one of those teeny tiny vodka bottles into Junior's formula.

My eyes may have tricked me, but it was not long before my nose warned me of function two of babyhood, and I could only hope that the motion of the plane would eventually induce that most blessed "third" state of sleep that turns all babies into angels and spares the ears of near geezers. I buried my nose in the last issue of Jeff Jewitt's article in the last Fine Woodworking, as Junior burrowed into Dad's armpit. A small but welcome mercy.

I don't know if Atlanta's Hartsfield airport was a Delta hub before it became a sprawling, surreal city of asphalt, hangars and terminals or if that is why they chose to fly virtually every East Coast flight through it ? In either case, the relief of feeling the wheels hit the pavement is quickly replaced by the realization that the plane has to taxi several nautical miles over this vast sea of tarmac.

This place is big. The ground crew folks were more than accommodating as they directed us to the nearest escalator down to the underground subway system that connects all the terminals. To be sure there are people in terminal, but it was clear by the idle cash registers and forlorn looks of the clerks that the numbers are still way down from what they used to call normal. Everyone was polite and orderly, like so many school kids watching over their shoulders for the stinging stare of some matronly chaperon. Normal is different now.

The good thing about flying through a big hub is that you usually get on a big plane where there is a bit more room to spread out, an in flight movie, and one of the better lunches. This particular 767 holds 400, and it would say we exceeded half of that number or slightly more, and were joined by an extra captain and first mate right back here in the cheap seats. The flight crew was extra large and extra polite, the food was extra hot, and for the first time I could remember they actually
came back through several times and cheerfully refilled drinks.

These wide bodies also get up to around 35,000 feet and I don't think I was the only one who looked down on the rolling field of clouds below with more than the usual sense of wonder. Flying is perhaps as close as average folks ever get to personally commanding a view of the big world that we try so hard to shrink, and take so easily for granted. The magic still works.

Approaching Atlanta from the air is fascinating, but very poor preparation for similarly approaching Salt Lake City. Lewis and Clark never got to see it from the air, but they would surely recognize the description of the isolated clumps of dirty brown mountains that look like some old wool blanket carelessly strewn over a pile of boots and saddle bags. It is a harsh place, one not willingly tamed by humans,
where occasional perfect rectangles of green dot sprawling perfect rows of flat roofed buildings neatly cut by perfectly straight highways. Between the lumpy mountain piles it’s flat, and brown. And hot.

The only inconvenience of the trip was getting bumped off the scheduled flight to Boise on to a small 50 seat SkyWest jet that was packed full to the running boards. Forget putting the carry on bag in the overhead bin of this roadster, I was just happy that the guy next to me was also of the skinny persuasion. Pulling out of Salt Lake north to Boise I found myself wondering who it was that dropped the giant Alka Seltzer into this lake and left that crusty lumpy white ring around the edges ? The water is a shimmering robe of blue, but make no mistake, the salt is winning the ground war.

It was a very short hop to Boise, and I quickly realized that the distinction between Northern Nevada and Southern Idaho is meaningful only as some lines on a map. They call it Mountain Home but this is high mesa desert. Sage brush, tumbleweeds, and endless vistas of dusty brown earth.

My mind was a crazy pinball game of emotions as I walked down the steps of
the plane on to the toasty tarmac and into the deserted terminal. There was one
outsized cowboy security guard standing awkwardly next to my very old friend.

After a thousand or so rehearsals, what finally came out of my mouth was simply, "Hello Boss". He was genuinely excited that any damn fool from back East would actually come all this way, and I was instantly comfortable just being there. The echoes of our voices careened all through the empty terminal and we didn't stop talking until I marched back through the security check to come home.

Some crazy planetary alignment allowed our orbits to cross a few years ago, and they have been pretty synchronous ever since. Email is wonderful, in person is better. Way better. I need to try and explain this Idaho of Alan's, and I am afraid that words will not do justice to this hauntingly beautiful and desolate place.
He is fond of saying that there are two Idahos, the North Idaho with its forests, lakes and lush vegetation, and the South Idaho with its mesas, rolling mountains and truly unique geological features. Mountain Home is just on the seam of this unlikely patchwork near a kink in the Snake River. Nearly all of the "green" part of Idaho is Federal land, and a good bit of the dirt as well. I was just about to find out why.

It is true that man has done a lot to shape his world, but coming here one realizes that ultimately it is the land that shapes the people. Here in the East settlement followed the rivers inland, and any place where the water fell a few feet a mill became the seed of a town. In this arid landscape, anywhere where humans could scratch an existence out of the dirt a survivor was born. That pioneer spirit, more than any other tie is what binds together the very diverse folks who have chosen to stick it out here. It may sound altruistic, but there is a genuine lack of the kind of class distinction that the "civilized" old world of the East has evolved. Some folks here do a little better than others; everyone works hard, and in a way I could not have appreciated simply driving through,
everyone is treated equally.

Oh sure, small town folks all know each other, but I got to meet Alan's one and only local competitor who seems for all the world to have come straight from Haight-Ashbury in the late 60's without bothering too much with the 30 odd years in between.

Alan's friend and sometime partner Dan is another skinny New York Italian who as a young man followed some work out here and found it a perfect place to be self employed and independent. The family that runs the local convenience store has been here forever, which is about 3 generations.

Old here is 100 years, well-off here is a pretty new pickup and a yard with grass and several trees, and fancy here is a new T shirt and that special pair of Tony Lama custom boots. And yet the supermarket is as large and well stocked as any back home, and the little java joint across the street makes a darn decent cappuccino.

The train may run right through the middle of town next to the big grain silo, but they've also got a genuine Chinese restaurant and their very own WalMart. Doors are left open, trucks are left with the keys in the ignition, and everyone stops to talk. Time is gentle here.

Our adventures on the straight and dusty roads began with a trip to a place called simply The Trinity Mountains, for the three little jewel lakes someone carefully set among the Sawtooth Mountains. Leaving the flat lands we climbed well over a mile in elevation and entered the Boise National Forest passing towns that really
have a lot of nerve claiming their own zip code. My favorite is called Rocky Bar which is exactly nine abandoned buildings at the intersection of two dusty gravel roads.

100 years ago this place was teeming with gold miners of every size shape and color, including a large population of Chinese laborers. When the gold gave out everyone just left, and through some incredible Idaho weather witchcraft, the buildings have hardly deteriorated. I signed a makeshift guest book in a house that Alan knew was inhabited by a solitary old cuss up to 30 years ago. He just liked it up here.

Perched on a rock outcropping atop the mountain, treating our eyes to the panoramic feast, I heard what I thought was an approaching helicopter. Turns out it was just the wing sounds of a bird flapping by -- the Idaho skies are that quiet !

The lake where we pulled up for lunch did not disappoint in its unspoiled
beauty, nor did the fabulously clear vistas we saw coming down the mountain on the other side. We stopped at the Anderson Ranch Dam, one of the many elegantly engineered water control structures that provide modern residents with life giving irrigation water as well as some of the cheapest electricity in the nation.

You don't need or want a lot of bright lights in a night sky where the Big Dipper looks as if it is at the tip of your outstretched finger, and hydro plants have no smokestacks. Our second adventure took us to what I now know is a unique North
American geological feature, and one whose picture I can sincerely recommend to Mr. Webster to include in the dictionary under "surreal". They call the place The Craters of the Moon (National Monument) because "endless frozen river of swirling shimmering black rock" was a little too long.

The Snake River is right on the edge of a small tear in the vast fabric of crust that covers the earth, and every once in while some of the goo angrily squeezes out. Those intervals are roughly every 2000 years, and the gloppy glacier of rock stretches over 100 miles above the ground and eventually blends into whatever subterranean marvels are beneath Yellowstone.

We walked among the tiny cinders and the giant chunks that look to have been rolled up by some mythical snow plow at the edge of a parking lot. There are holes and domes and caves in the rock, swirls and curls and textures better suited to creme frosting than to baked basalt. Molten has meaning here.

I never did find out what the Native Americans called this surely sacred place, but someone took the liberty of naming the nearby town Shoshone, in their honor. There is a reservation near here, as well as the unresolved issues of a time so long and yet so short ago. This is the West.

The final chapter in our travelogue included two more utterly unique features of the entire American landscape. One was made by the wind, and the other is heralded by it. There is one funky little elbow of the Snake that carved itself a deep crescent into the sandy rock south of Mountain Home, and like those giant "cyclone" filter units that settle out dust by swirling the air, this place is nature's own sand trap.

The Bruneau Dunes State Park contains the largest single land-bound sand dune structure in North America, and could at a moment's notice serve as the set for a remake of Lawrence of Arabia. These dunes are big. The footprints and slide marks down the faces were made by kids who surely know that plastic saucers are for snow, and that a good head start is necessary to keep them from melting on
the way down the dune. It looks like the Wizard's sandbox, and I was absolutely sure we were not in Kansas anymore.

Not far from the dunes the sharp eyed visitor can make out a clear blackish line across the lower facade of the distant rising mesa, like some stripe of dark mineral under the lighter sandy stone. It was however the sharp attack on my nose that confirmed the incredible story Alan was trying to tell me as we drew nearer the
shadow line that stretched a full 180 degrees across the horizon. Them be cows.

Where I come from a nice family dairy farm has 40 head, a big beef spread might have a couple hundred, so my tiny mind was not able to fully comprehend the sight of over 200,000 cows in an endless series of nice neat outdoor enclosures.

The cows in the foreground are obvious, but just above them (and below the horizon), that band that looks like a distant city ... thousands of cows!


Not even an army of angels could milk this many head, but nearly every soldier who has paraded between the Golden Arches has learned the reason for Mr. Simplot's Great Idea. I was standing toe to toe with a billion Big Macs ! It seems that the Ore-Ida food company also provides most of the golden grist for the McDonald's French fry mill, and knowing that somehow helped the stupendous scale of the place make sense. Nah, I must have dreamed all of those cows.
Nobody has that many cows. Do they ??

I will always remember that I came to Idaho the week after "that day" though I am not sure that I will ever be able to recreate the complex emotional roller coaster that I found myself riding. The apprehension about getting on the first plane, the spooky sense of aloneness in the empty airports, the incredible high of finally meeting Alan, the gripping reality of the gravity of The President's address, and finally the desperate desire to hang to the moment just a little longer.

We stayed up way too late, and even the best of us are not at our best at 5 am on 4 hours of uneasy sleep with knowledge that the adventure was ending. The drive to Boise in the dark seemed almost instantaneous, and it was a genuine surprise to find so many scurrying life forms in the terminal at that hour. Things were definitely returning to normal and as Alan and I sat there people watching the hour away, it was almost easy to forget that air travel has been changed forever.

I did my best to explain to the gruff grandmother marshaling the scanner that my dandy new work shoes had steel toes, but I got carried along on the wave of impatience and set off the alarm. There is nothing quite like sitting in front of 50 people while Sergeant Preston runs your shoes through the scanner, and thinking "Gee, Mom was right", it is always good to wear clean socks. I finally passed, and literally had to run my roller bag down the long hallway toward the gate.

The first leg to Salt Lake City was a pretty full 727 - 200, though I can't say I remember much between the time the wheels left the ground, and when they found it again. Surviving air travel means eating when they feed you and sleeping on command.

The big plane to Atlanta was nearly full, and if the air crew hadn't mentioned the extra security measures, it would have been just like any other flight. In a strange way I was pleased to see the utter chaos of Atlanta and the normal bad language associated with landing at the extreme end gate of one terminal and needed to get to the extreme end gate of another, was subdued by the soothing sounds of the big
prayer service playing on the TV screens.

Everyone was paying attention, lots of folks were crying, and in the midst of the sadness was the overpowering desire to be home. You could feel it.

The last few hours were long and happily uneventful. Not having Kathy and Matthew at the gate when I arrived was a small price to pay for the added security that was clearly in evidence at my little home airport, and it did not diminish the
force of the great big exhale that meant I was really home. I called my Mom, who was understandably worried, and then Alan. "Got the CLIPS done ?"

'Twas Groop that took me to Idaho, and 'tis Groop that will keep metappin these keys for quite a while yet. I would never have believed that a simple email message would change my life, that I would ever need to go to Idaho, or that I would be writing a story about meeting someone I have known forever and met for the first time.


Not the last.

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