Hell is Other States, Pt 2: PretentiousPDX Hits the Road

Idaho: A Vacation from Civilization

(August 2012)

Having put Boise behind me, I headed east, toward my next stop – Ketchum. The stretch of Interstate between Boise and Ketchum is terribly bleak – miles and miles of rolling brown wasteland as far as the eye can see. I tried to amuse myself by listening to the local radio, which was equally sparse. The only conclusion I could draw is that, much as Portland radio flogs Adele songs to death, people in Idaho really, really love Taylor Swift. Also, Boise radio is terrible.

As I neared Ketchum, the landscape began to take on a slightly more appealing aspect. Sun Valley is, after all, a resort community, and the surrounding area enjoys some fame for its fishing and skiing – which is presumably what drew Hemingway there in the first place, at least before he decided to dispatch himself with his favorite shotgun.

Once in Ketchum, it was not a difficult task to find the cemetery, as it sits astride the main highway at the outskirts of town. Nor was it difficult to locate Papa Hemingway’s grave, as it was surrounded by a trio of frat boys who were apparently paying their respects. I had never visited a Celebrity Grave before, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect – but Hemingway’s is fairly unremarkable. His headstone is a long, grey slab flanked by two small evergreens, and decorated with the detritus of his adoring fans: a well-worn copy of The Old Man and The Sea; a map of Michigan; numerous, numerous empty bottles of wine, beer, and liquor; and inexplicably, lots of pennies. It was the sort of starkly picturesque scene that I’m sure that Hemingway would’ve enjoyed. However, despite having driven about an hour out of my way to see this place, I was strangely unmoved by the tableau. Hemingway may have been one of the greatest minds of the last century, but at the end of the day, he’s still buried an unremarkable grave in a tiny cemetery in what I was about to find out it is a terribly godforsaken corner of the country.  Dear reader, beware – none of us are particularly pretentious when we’re dead. So, after taking one last look at Papa’s final resting place, I muttered, “Well… that’s a grave”   and went off to find something to eat.
Having paid my respects, I went back into “downtown” Ketchum and stopped at a local bar, Whiskey Jacques, for dinner. WJ was a pleasant enough place, and apparently enjoyed a modest degree of fame as a local music venue. Which would no doubt explain why it was the one and only place on my drive where I encountered any minorities – well, I guess minority singular would be more appropriate. Seated at the bar was a spot-on Lil Wayne lookalike – complete with backwards baseball cap, sunglasses, dreads, and a ridiculous grill. However, as this was a resort town in rural Idaho, instead of spitting mad rhymes, Lil Wayne’s doppelganger seemed to be content to spend the evening grinning profusely and playing video games on his iPad. It was an odd sight, admittedly.
In addition to my bejeweled bar companion, Whiskey Jacques was the first place I noticed a puzzling phenomena – every bar that I visited in Idaho had Deschutes Brewery beer on tap – from the Boise Airport Applebees to the deepest recesses of Challis (more on those places, later), pints of Chainbreaker and Mirror Pond are as ubiquitous there as they are in Portland. And yet, paradoxically, everyone – both bartenders and patrons alike – seemed to treat these taps as a great novelty. Everywhere I went, I heard a conversation that went something like this:
          Bar Patron (ignoring the giant taphandle emblazoned DESCHUTES) – “What’s this tap, here?”

          Bartender – “Oh, that’s from this place called ‘Deschutes Brewery.’  It’s from… Ore-gon. I hear it’s not bad.”

What the fuck, people. Idaho shares its largest border with Oregon. It’s not exactly deepest darkest Africa. And more importantly, presumably these taps have been here for a while. It’s not like the Bar Fairy magically deposited these taps here one night, to the shock and awe of bartenders across the state.

Hemingway’s Grave & Other Equally Silent Vistas

After dinner, I got back in the car and started the final leg of my trip – north through the Sawtooth Forest towards Challis. This part of the journey was relatively pleasant and uneventful – the Boise and Sawtooth Forests offer some truly beautiful vistas – although after 10+ hours of traveling by various conveyances, I was fairly anxious to just get through it and check into my hotel.

Finally, a little after 8 PM, I saw a sign that informed me the hamlet of Challis, Idaho – Population 1,081 – was now at hand. With much relief, I slowed down (another sign informed me that the standard speed limit throughout all of Challis was 25 miles per hour) and began looking for my designated lodging place. When I had asked about finding lodging in the town, I had been told that The Wee Tyke’s grandmother, a Challis native, had already reserved “a block of rooms” at what she judged to be the nicest MOTEL in town (there were, apparently, three Motels in Challis… and no hotels). I would later find out that grams also worked at the adjoining restaurant, so I suspect that she may have just picked the most convenient place to make reservations at.

Normally, I resist allowing anyone else to make my travel arrangements for me – there’s always the threat that they’ll pick the wrong airline or rental agency (The thought of flying without assigned seats and possibly having to jostle past other people for a window seat? How gauche.), or worse still – a truly shitty hotel. However, in this case, lured by the promise of a cheaper rate and the knowledge that Priceline doesn’t list hotels in such a small market, I had allowed the family to make a reservation for me at the rather unimpressively named Village Inn (not to be confused with the chain of diners). When I pulled into the parking lot of the V. Inn, I began to wonder if this momentarily lapse in my commitment to Traveling Excellence had been a mistake.
The ******* Inn was a collection of several long, low-slung buildings of decidedly worn aspect and boasted a parking lot full of US Forest Service vehicles (there being significant fire activity in the forests I had just passed through) and lifted pickup trucks. Entering the office, I spoke to the clerk who informed that the aforementioned “block of rooms” was actually just a reservation for two rooms, myself and one other person. At the clerk’s side was hung a sign that proclaimed “We’re no Hilton.” He then handed me my room key, which was one of those old-fashioned affairs with a rusty key attached to a lozenge-shaped plastic tab and instructed me to park “round back”. “How quaint,” I thought, suppressing a deeper foreboding that such keys are most frequently seen in low-budget horror movies.
Those forebodings proved well-founded when I parked in the back of the motel and tried my room key on the lock. The scene that greeted me was equal parts surreal and horrifying. It’s as though someone took the hotel rooms from the movies Identity and No Country For Old Men and then said, “Ok, now, combine the two… and make it sketchier.” The room itself boasted the most dilapidated pleather armchair I’ve ever seen, the wall lamps were askew, and an ancient television was bolted to the ceiling in the corner of the room. The floors were covered in a very weary-looking teal carpet. Inexplicably, this same Methuselean carpet was also covering a bench that was built into the wall just under the TV.

I have no doubt in my mind that Hell’s Waiting Room looks very much like this.

My skin instantly began to crawl – whether from fleas or sheer horror, I’ll never know. I gingerly set down my suitcase and set about exploring the room. Outside the bathroom, an industrial soap dispenser was bolted to the wall next to the vanity mirror. Somewhat heartened at the thought of readily available cleansers, I tried the dispenser… and found that it was empty. (You know you’re staying in a swanky joint when they have the same bathroom digs as an abandoned Wendy’s!) On the counter below the dispenser was a small, withered bar of Jergens soap that appeared to date back to the Nixon Administration and was about the size of my fingernail. Inside the bathroom I found two threadbare towels and another haggard crumb of Jergens.

The extent of my toiletries.
Shown: My Thumb, for scale
Not Shown: My Look of Utter Horror

To say I was unhappy with my accommodations would be something of an understatement. I slid my luggage into the bathroom, hoping that the tile floors would prevent the abject poverty (and/or fleas) from impregnating the ballistic nylon. I stood in the middle of the room and turned on the TV. Not surprisingly, it was tuned to Fox News. Local Idaho TV turned out to be about as exciting as local Idaho radio (albeit with slightly less Taylor Swift), so eventually I screwed up all my courage and very gingerly took a shower, trying all the while to avoid touching as few surfaces as possible. Once out of the shower, I decided that it was time explore the Challis nightlife, so I dressed and went out into the growing darkness.

As I fled my Lovecraftian digs, I was confronted with a rather peculiar sight. An elderly man was staying in the room next door to me, and for some reason he had left the blinds to his room wide open. Moreover, it would also seem that he had decided to wash his clothes in his bathroom sink. The components of his geriatric wardrobe were strewn about the room – a shirt over the lamp, pants on the armchair, socks on the weird, carpeted bench. But the real kicker was the geezer’s sad, dilapidated briefs – which were hanging from the curtain rod… dead center in the middle of his front window. The man himself sat on his bed, shirtless, staring off into the distance.

When in doubt, hang your undies in the window.

Now, I’m not one to criticize those who have fallen on hard times – and I can only imagine how hard those times must be to be doing one’s laundry in the Seediest Hotel in the Pacific Northwest – but why, for the love of the God, would you do so with your friggin’ blinds open? The mind boggles.

It was all too much for me. With a perplexed shake of my head, I walked through the parking lot and towards the main highway, in search of slightly more pleasant surroundings. I walked down to the highway and started towards what seemed to be the center of town. I had asked my friend for some bar/restaurant suggestions, and she texted me with the rather enigmatic advice that there was another motel with a bar on Main Street that was tolerable. I was about to text her back to ask what the name of this bar was when I realized that clarification was unnecessary: there, on the side of the highway, was a rather plain-looking building with a sign that said, simply, “MOTEL.”

Suppressing a certain degree of trepidation, I went inside. Much as I suspected, the bar was patronized exclusively by Caucasians, probably about 15 or 20 in all. Much to their credit, only about five of the bar patrons stared at me as I came in. Aside from the glaring homogeneity, the bar was not vastly different from dives I’ve visited in Portland. It was staffed by three inattentive but affable ladies – who, it turned out, represented three generations of the same clan – grandmother, mother, and daughter. The mother, I noticed, was taking advantage of another Idaho quirk – a lack of a statewide ban on smoking in bars – and spent the entire evening chainsmoking as she worked the til.
As I mentioned, the bar was fairly non-descript, but one notable thing did happen during my sojourn there. As Challis is located in the heart of wildfire country, much of their motel business comes from the traveling US Forest Service and BLM fire crews that work in the area. The “MOTEL” was no exception – on that particular evening, almost all of the rooms were apparently being used by fire crew workers. And, seemingly without exception, almost all of them were in the bar. They were a slightly boisterous lot, and several of them gifted me with some conversational gems that bore repeating on this blog.
The first came when one of the younger crew members voiced a distaste for some aspect of Northwest Living. One of his older, saltier compatriots retorted, “Well, son, perhaps you shouldn’t live in America. Perhaps you’d be happier in a different country. Like, you know… California.”
The second came a few minutes later, when one of the gents was asked about a recent trip he had taken, one that had apparently lasted a couple of months. He responded, “Yeah, it was alright. I mean, the house was still standing when I got home. There weren’t any n*ggers living in it or nuthin.”

Ahhhh, Idaho. What a grand place. It’s also heart-warming to know that a man can sit in a bar, enjoying a beer while staying in a hotel room paid for by the federal government, safe in the knowledge that no black people are illegally squatting in his home. That, my friends, is progress.

That, my friends, is the American Dream. Unless you live in California.
Having had my fill of multi-generational beer slinging and xenophobia, I paid my bar tab and headed back to the hotel. When I got back to my room, I noticed that, despite the lateness of the hour, the lights were still on the geriatric’s hotel room-cum-Laundromat, and the blinds were still drawn wide. As I neared the door of my room, my gaze drifted through the window and into the old man’s room. There he was, lying fast asleep on his bed. Stark naked.
The coup de grace had been delivered. I had reached the nadir of my existence.
Reeling and aghast, I hastened to my room and locked the door. I went to bed forthwith and attempted to sleep the sleep of the just and civilized. But my dreams were troubled. Challis, it was readily becoming apparent, was not the town for me.
The next morning, I rose early, dressed, and checked out with something akin to gladness in my heart. On the way to the church, I stopped at the motel’s restaurant (also called “The Village Inn”), where I was served a barely palatable breakfast by a rather laconic Steve Zahn lookalike who was missing several teeth. Having breakfasted, I headed on to the church.

Scenes from Challis.
Challis is also a great place to find “Wood for Sell” – only 120 “dollers acord”!

Arriving at the church, I introduced myself to the Pastor, who it turned out had attended seminary in Oregon and shared several common acquaintances with me. This did not surprise me greatly, as I often run into people that know me, in my travels. As Catholics go, I’m kind of a balla.

The Baptism itself went fairly smoothly, and as it was the main object of my trip, I will not say anything negative about it, save for one small observation. Most Catholic Churches start Mass off with the ringing of a small brass bell (or bells). It’s a distinctly antiquarian trait. However, this church eschewed such traditions and instead chose to commence services with the ringing of – I kid you not – an honest to goodness household doorbell. This baffles me, as I can’t imagine that wiring a doorbell into a church is in any way more cost-effective than purchasing a $30 brass bell.

Following the Baptism, I joined my newly christened godson’s family for a light luncheon. It was there that I noticed another Idaho peculiarity – all three of the eateries I had visited in Challis had prominently featured salad bars, although their wares were decidedly tired-looking. I had initially dismissed the first such specimen as an aberration, but it seems that Idahoans really love their iceberg lettuce. It was a quite novelty for me, as such things have fallen out of favor in Oregon ever since the Rajneesh got his hands on one. This is not to say, however, that I actually sampled the wares at any of the aforementioned salad bars – they looked just as hazardous as the ones in Rajneeshpuram.

Beating a hasty retreat to Boise.

After lunch, I bid farewell to my friends and started off on my trip to Boise. Aside from a massive forest fire that was burning unchecked in Challis National Forest, the return leg of my trip was completely uneventful, and it was with much relief that I pulled into the Boise Airport Holiday Inn and returned to civilization. Inside the hotel, I checked in and went up to my room, where I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had been given a spacious and nicely appointed suite, with a king-size bed, a sitting area, and real, usable toiletries. Thanks to the wonders of Priceline, this modern Taj Mahal by moonlight had cost me roughly the same amount as my previous night’s sojourn in Perdition. My only complaints about the room were the lack of a light in my walk-in closet and the fact the concierge had only Cherry Pepsi, not Regular or Diet Pepsi – but I greeted such inconveniences with great mildness, as I was so happy to be experiencing First World Problems once more.

First World Problems? Yes please!

The next morning, I bid a not-so-fond farewell to Idaho and boarded my flight home. When my feet touched Oregon soil once more, it was all I could do to refrain from dropping to my knees and kissing the tarmac. When I went to retrieve my car from Long Term parking, I took out my earbuds – I had been listening to the Joy Formidable’s “Whirring”, and sat down in my car. Turning on the engine, I was treated to the dulcet sounds of 94.7 playing the exact same song. My joy was formidable indeed. Finally, I was back to a land where my tastes were in sync with my environs – in this case, quite literally.

It’s good to be home.


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