7.1 Idaho Oasis
Most people think of Oregon as being a heavily forested state, because of all of the logging issues and the beautiful coastline with its rainforest edging, but, like Washington, Oregon is mostly… desert. The waters and moist clouds of the western shores are sequestered by the Cascade mountain range. As a result, the eastern two-thirds of the state are arid, though punctuated with areas of high-altitude forest, and irrigated orchards.
Evidently, the forest areas are subject to fire, and with infrequent rains, the fires go unchecked for days and weeks. This summer in particular has been bad, and, consistent with the sunset I enjoyed at Crater Lake, a brilliant red ball drops to the horizon as I drive across this sparsely populated region.
The towns are far between, but offer the services to road-weary travelers, and to road-savvy truckers. I stop at Jake’s truck stop in Bend Oregon, an important refueling center. For the first time I see a “truck-wash”, a facility designed to efficiently clean the miles of dust and grime from an 18-wheeler. I hadn’t ever thought about it before, but of course there must be a way of rejuvenating the chrome and gleam of these giant beasts of burden. A truck wash is the natural explanation for why the trucks you encounter on the interstate are not all dirt-gray, but usually display their billboard-size logos with pride and polish.
I refuel at Jake’s. My car takes its usual 17 gallons, and I decide to go for the restaurant. I discover that, unlike some restaurants in the cosmopolitan coast of the state, this one had a smoking section. In fact, it was pretty much all smoking section. There was a small side room with some empty tables for nonsmokers, and, discovering that the main room was choking full, the staff struggling to keep up with the clients, I took my place in the smaller room and was handed a menu by an otherwise idle server.
Breakfast is one of those meals that is always good when cross country traveling, no matter the time of day. I ordered the western omelet, deciding that I should have the small one, so I would have an excuse to stop again soon when I became hungry again. It didn’t work. All I can say is that I’m glad I didn’t order the full-sized portion, because I was unable to eat the giant plate of food presented to me. I’m not sure what creates the huge appetites in truckers, but Jake seemed to understand and cater to it. No wonder the dining room was full.
As I cross the border from Oregon to Idaho, the night is advancing, and I contemplate the fundamental flaw in the traveling astrophotography road show: I can’t shoot pictures all night and then drive all day, nor can I drive all day, then shoot all night. As a result, there end up being dead times, where nothing can happen, because… I need to sleep!
The winds have become so fierce that trucks are having trouble staying in their lanes. I think ahead to the miles I must cover to reach my next stop, Idaho Falls, a modest town on the other side of Idaho.
Idaho Falls has become in recent years a focal point for my family, where new roots are gently extending and taking hold. While the Olson clan, with their growing families and extensions have for much of the last century made the metropolitan center of Minnesota their home, my brother struck out in a new direction to set up his pediatric practice. Having spent his medical training in western states and possessing a natural inclination for the big sky experience, he was able to forego the strength and comfort of a local family network and to build his career in a town that needed his expertise.
His success in building his practice, his home, and his life out in the “remote frontier” of Idaho Falls inspired my parents, driven by my mother, to set out and make a second home in this more temperate, frostbite-free, and mosquito-bite-free region of the country. And so now there is a family outpost to the west, a station for me to stop and recharge, replenish, and reconnect, before continuing my travels.
The only problem was one of timing. It was late evening and there was an entire state to traverse. I’d been on the road all day, but it looked like I would not be arriving in Idaho Falls until considerably after normal waking hours. Families are there to be imposed upon, but it would seem a bit inconsiderate to show up and knock on the door at 4 a.m.
I needn’t have worried. I didn’t last that long. Weary and bleary, I pulled off to a rest stop an hour or two from my destination and decided to “rest my eyes” for a while. When I opened them a moment later, I looked out the window to a beautiful thin crescent moon in a clear dark sky, accompanied by a bright point of light that I could only assume was Venus. I vaguely realized that I should get up and take a picture of this. It would have been very nice, the moon in its crescent phase right next to Venus. I’m not sure what phase Venus was at, but from its brightness, my guess was that it was gibbous; it would have made an interesting composition, but I was just too tired to get up, and I turned over and went back to sleep.
The next time I woke up, the sun was about to rise, making a pale yellow-blue canopy (if such a transition is possible) of the sky. The moon would be up there somewhere, but its delicate crescent could not compete. I lumbered over to the washrooms at the rest stop, splashed some water in my face, dragged a comb across my head, and headed out to join the 70mph occupants of the freeway. I felt better than when I had stopped, but not much better. Eventually, the daily chemical cycle in my body started up again, helped by a quick stop for some caffeine. I felt an overall lifting of my internal energy levels, improving by the mile as I approached my next destination, Idaho Falls.
I have mentioned my GPS receiver before. It had become a dashboard companion, its electronic trail indicating my progress, and highlighting the names of cities I am about to encounter. As I approached Idaho Falls, it displayed some new markers. Locations with cryptic names, not corresponding to towns or roads. Waypoint identifiers that had been created by someone to mark a past trail of landmarks.
I soon realized that these were my markers, waypoints that had been set a few years earlier as I had shown off my new GPS gadget to my dad, marking the corners of his newly acquired homestead property. They had been retained in the memory of my GPS receiver, and now within range, were proudly displaying their prominent positions with the labels I had assigned way back then.
It was a welcoming sign, one that marked the exact location of my destination down to its driveway. I drove the unfamiliar streets of Idaho Falls homing in on the virtual beacon and soon pulled up to a warm greeting from my mother.
Yes, home is where they have to take you in, and I had found it in this western town. I was able to recharge my batteries (I’m talking about the various power sources for my equipment) while getting a real shower. I took my mom and sister-in-law out to lunch where we were joined by a quick visit from my brother, escaping his hospital duties for a few moments to help bring me up to date on the various important events in their lives.
As comfortable as this setting was, I had no intent to fall prey to the various invitations to stay the night. No, this night I was hoping to be taking pictures in the Grand Tetons, a magical place where the mountains loom immediately above the flatlands of the Snake River flood plain.
I managed to extract myself from the familial ties and packed up my various items, including the laundry that my mother had insisted on washing, and headed east to Teton Pass. It had been a brief stop at a valuable oasis, a place where I could refresh my body, but more importantly, could become grounded by the momentary reconnection of family bonds.