Whiskey, Mine Tailings and Dirt Roads 

Observations from an Idaho road trip

A friend and I loaded my dog in the car and split. We chose the rugged old logging roads of Central Idaho over the highways and freeways of typical road ventures, driving over the summits separating Idaho City from the North Fork of the Boise River, and into the canyon of the Middle Fork of the Boise River.

The water of the Middle Fork was gorgeous, shining green blue in the summer sun. Although our pace was slow, we embraced the quietude of distance and remoteness.

Idaho travelers have long seen the piles of rock throughout the Idaho City basin—the legacy of dredge mining and the boom-and-bust mentality of the old frontier. As we drove higher along the Boise River, we passed massive heaps of tailings, some of the largest I’ve seen. They were scarred reminders of those before us, who attempted to make an existence in harsh terrain. Or maybe the remnants of profit ventures leaving their garbage alongside the road. Sometimes the line between the two is blurred.

Then we turned along a bend in the river, just beyond the rock piles, and found braided river channels of aqua blue funneled through the uplifted river bed. While it had lost its original course, the river kept going, its rhythmic essence weaved through sediment islands, splitting and rejoining along the way.

Often, reclamation projects change the landscape and it’s viewed as a disaster or a tragedy, but somehow, the river still manages to display the awe-inspiring character that so captivats us. Although the place is not the ideal of what we might expect in the Western landscape, it still holds the power to fascinate and mesmerize even in its altered state.

That evening at the dog chased sticks, PBR’s and Jim Beam began to flow faster as the night went along. We had the usual campfire conversation about how being in the city imprisons us, and we need the freedom of fresh air and clear skies. Around the fire, it seems like a real promise. But we end up camping once a summer, and maybe doing the backpacking trip every three years.

I did learn one important lesson: never go camping with a shrink. It’s inevitable that after eight beers, they begin to psycho analyze you, and it may be brutally honest after a few too many shots of whiskey.

Our next destination: Trinity Lakes. We pushed up Forest Service roads to the southeast, the going becoming increasingly slower on the steep, narrow, rutted roads. But the views were stupendous, and the Wilco and Willie Nelson CD’s hit the spot.

We crested the summit and left the Middle Fork drainage. The road stayed high on the ridge, looking down a steep open slope and winding around a basin until we met a fork in the road. Turning south, the road took us over another summit and along a flat meadow ridge. The Trinities rose in the distance, Sierra-like, pointed with smooth flat rock faces.

I ventured a guess that the lakes rested in their shadow, and I looked forward to sleeping underneath the peaks. The grass seemed to grow lusher and the aspens seemed more vibrant as we approached. I imagined the mountains encouraging us on with each mile as their character became clearer—each rock spine, or crook in the ridgeline being revealed. We met another road junction marked with a sign reading three miles to Trinity Lakes.

We rounded a bend and were faced with a gate crossing the road. A closed sign hung from the gate like an eviction notice. We sat silently and stared. The dog whined.

I wondered, in that moment, as my friend opened the map, if the city had finally done this too me. Have I lost every bit of alpine common sense acquired during years living in ski towns and wilderness areas?

We turned the car towards Featherville, descending into the dusty heat of an Idaho river canyon. The bulletin board at the campsite we found said the fee was $6. All either of us had was a 20. With no desire to drive back to Featherville for change, I tore apart my car, looking under seats and floor mats. All we could muster was $3.82. I was willing to risk it.

“How far to Boise?” my friend asked me. I knew what he was getting at: It was time to pack up and go home.

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