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Exploring Hidden Idaho (en Cowboys & Indians)


We visit Idaho and fall in love with everything about it, from its rugged terrain to its ancient cultures to its beating heart, Boise.

Enlace: Cowboys & Indians

Heide Brandes. “Don’t write about us.” The young woman who uttered that was standing in front of me in a faded bikini as I soaked in a small pool of steaming hot water on top of a mountain deep within the Boise National Forest in Idaho. Around me, families with small children laughed and lounged under the backdrop of a dark green forest with the peaks of the mountains just visible above. After I confessed to the locals who were enjoying the Rocky Canyon Hot Springs that Saturday that I was a writer, Bikini Woman’s demeanor had stiffened slightly.

“We don’t want any more people moving here,” Bikini Woman said. “They ruin everything.” I couldn’t quite tell how she meant it, but there was reason to take her at her serious tone. The “everything” she referred to could only mean the rugged and mountainous landscape of Idaho, its multitude of hot springs, its still-wild open spaces, and the curious geological wonders that drew me to explore this state to begin with.

I had never been to Idaho before. It was one of those states that seemed off the radar and slightly mysterious. I had of course Googled some basics. Informally, it’s known as “the Potato State,” the largest potato-producing state in the United States. Farmers began growing potatoes in the 1830s, when missionaries moved west to teach the Nez Perce to grow crops. Then, when gold was discovered in Idaho in 1860, potatoes were grown to feed miners in the gold and silver camps. There is something called the Idaho Potato Commission, which says the state is an ideal spot to grow potatoes because of its volcanic soil, a mountain-fed irrigation system, and warm days and cool nights. It’s officially called the Gem State — it produces up to 72 types of precious and semiprecious stones and up to 240 different minerals. And then there was acclaimed American novelist Ernest Hemingway and his Sun Valley legacy.

I’d seen pictures, of course. More than baked potatoes and gems, it was the call of the beautifully wild landscape that lured me here. A fellow writer told me once that Idaho “was the last truly wild place in the Lower 48.” And it was that attraction that resulted in 10 days of roadtripping around the southern and central region of Idaho. My companion and I went from Boise, where we immersed ourselves in the buzz of the hip and historic capital city, down to Bruneau Dunes State Park, where we slid down massive sand dunes that rivaled any desert. We drove east to the tortured, blackened lava fields and cinder cones of Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve and camped under cathedral-shaped rock formations at City of Rocks National Reserve near Almo in south Idaho.

We marveled at the sight of Shoshone Falls thundering near Twin Falls, skirted along the narrow ribbon of road that soared over Hells Canyon at Idaho’s border with eastern Oregon, took bumpy dirt roads to hidden hot springs, and hiked up the sharp gray peaks of the Sawtooth Range to bask on the shores of crystal blue alpine lakes.

Along the way, we learned about Boise’s unique Basque community, visited the ghosts at the one of Idaho’s oldest penitentiaries, learned about the rich Native American culture that shaped this land, and met stalwart ranchers, residents, and cowboys who still hack it out in Idaho’s untamed wilderness. We traveled in the wagon-wheel ruts of the more than 600,000 immigrants who ventured through this unforgiving land in the 1800s on the Oregon and California Trails, risking disease, death, and despair for a better life “out West.”

I feel like I barely scratched the surface of all of this state’s mysteries, histories, and vistas. But even with my scant introduction, I knew I’d found an amazing place animated not just by its beauty but also by the Old West “never say die” spirit.

For me, it all began in Boise.

Basques, Bad Boys, And Birds

Idaho’s first inhabitants were Indigenous tribes. Five federally recognized tribes call the state home: the Shoshone-Bannock, the Shoshone-Paiute, the Coeur d’Alene, the Kootenai, and the Nez Perce. Most live on four of five reservations. The Boise Valley Shoshone and Bannock tribes lived in the area now known as Boise and have never relinquished title to the land. They say their ancestors inhabited the land years before any Europeans came near it. They also claim those ancestors were there even after white men came to the valleys.

Despite colonization and the genocides that came with it, all of Idaho’s tribes are actively involved in the state’s politics and are working to ensure that their voices are heard. Their history weaves throughout the state at museums, cultural centers, through art and food, historic sites, and trails like the spectacular 73-mile Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes that stretches from border to border across the Panhandle.

In the heart of Boise — pronounced BOY-See (not Z) by locals — lives another unique group of people, one of the largest populations of Basque peoples in North America. On Boise’s Basque Block, lively festivals, traditional dining establishments, and spirited gatherings feel like a portal to another world that harks back to a tiny region in the western Pyrenees bordering France and Spain on the coast of the Bay of Biscay.

The first Basque arrived here around 1890, the same year Idaho achieved statehood. At the time, the sheep population had grown to about 2 million in the state. Although the sheepherding Basques had already made a foothold in Argentina and California, they had also begun converging in Idaho with dreams of silver. Silver mining wasn’t as profitable as they had hoped, but the rich soil in the area made it ideal for sheep and ranching.

In 1993, one of the last remaining Basque boarding houses, once plentiful as homes for new immigrants and herders, was converted from the Cyrus Jacobs-Uberruaga boarding house into the Basque Museum and Cultural Center. There, photos of Basque immigrants line walls filled with timelines, stories, and relics. The only Basque museum in the United States, it takes its mission to preserves the heritage of Basque culture seriously.

A few doors down, so does the Basque Center, which operates as more of a social club and community center. I stopped there to chat with Teresa Franzzoia, who manages the gift store. “The Basque history here is still relatively new,” she told me. “We’ve had Basques coming here since the 1890s, and I think the last sheepherder to come was in 1990. That’s part of why our Basque community continues to thrive — we still have [descendants of] that first generation who are active in our community.”

Tradition is kept alive with annual events like the Sheepherders Ball, which livens up the block with traditional Basque food and dancing in December. Events such as the San Inazio Basque Festival in July display the talent and passion of the Oinkari Basque dance troupe, whose old-country costumes and dance steps have survived the Old West and the New World. And the language survives, too — you can take classes in the Basque language, Euskara, at the center.

The culture remains remarkably vital in the Basque cuisine that’s widely available in this part of town. Hailing from both Spain and France, the food is as unique and colorful as the people. Because the Bay of Biscay was so prominent in the homeland, Basque Block restaurants naturally feature fresh seafood in traditional dishes like marmitako (a fish stew), txipirones (baby squid sauteed in their own ink), as well as hearty meat dishes like txilindron (lamb stew), alubias de Tolosa (bean and pork stew), and morcilla (blood sausage).

After feasting on pintxos — a tapaslike snack featuring ingredients like ham, chorizo, and vegetables — at The Basque Market restaurant and specialty store, we ventured to Freak Alley Gallery, the northwest’s largest open-air, multi-artist mural gallery. What began with a single drawing by artist Colby Akers in a back-alley doorway of Moon’s Kitchen Café in 2002 has proliferated into a community artistic endeavor that spreads throughout an entire alley and enlists hundreds of participants, volunteers, and community greenbelt members. Artists add new works every year. Moon’s Kitchen, now at 8th and Main, is still in business making its famous homemade beignets. It’s a great place to stop for breakfast or lunch or an espresso drink to go if you’re headed to the greenbelt.

We could have spent all day meandering along the Boise River Greenbelt, one of the city’s most beloved outdoor areas, with 25 miles of tree-lined pathways following the north and south sides of the Boise River through the heart of the city. Scenic, restful, and wildlife- and pedestrian-friendly, it gives access to many of Boise’s popular riverside parks, its so-called Ribbon of Jewels. But our beignets and lattes were history, and true history was calling, so we embarked instead on the three-mile walk from Freak Alley Gallery to the far southeast end of town, where the foreboding Old Idaho Penitentiary State Historic Site has transformed from fearsome territorial prison to top tourist destination.

More than 13,000 prisoners served time here between 1872 and 1973. Until the early 1970s, this was home to one of the oldest and fiercest prisons, notorious for its stone-cold solitary confinement and stacked-stone cells made even more ruthless with heavy clanging steel doors. Built in 1870, it’s one of the few territorial prisons still open to the public. On the self-guided tour we found out about criminals once housed here — like Raymond Allen Snowden, aka “Idaho’s Jack the Ripper,” who was convicted of the brutal murder of Cora Dean and died by hanging here on October 18, 1957. In its 101 years of operation, at least 110 died in this place, 11 by execution. It’s an eerie and chilling feeling walking into its cramped cells where both men and women were incarcerated. Today, guests can explore the rock-hewn prison through a video presentation, self-guided tour, and exhibits like the impressively extensive J. Curtis Earl Memorial Exhibit, which includes historic arms and military memorabilia and is one of the largest collections of its kind in the nation.

Back out in the light of day and warmth of the sun, the adjacent botanical gardens bloomed green and restorative on 42 acres of what used to be prison grounds. What better way to shake the gloom of those cells than to take a free ambassador-led hour-and-a-half-long tour.

Venturing not far out of town past the airport, the vibe turned from jailbirds to endangered birds at The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey, where we learned about falcons, saw endangered California condors, watched live bird demonstrations, and immersed ourselves in lessons on the importance of conservation. Watching a grisly-looking vulture bounce along the ground like a playful puppy to snatch up a treat from a handler charmed me more than I could have ever imagined. We were both entertained and enlightened. According to the center, more than half of all raptor species are in decline, with 17 raptor species threatened with extinction. Education about the plight of these majestic birds combines with research at the station, using strategies of saving habitat, engaging the public, and addressing threats to animals and the environment to stop that decline.

Wild And Wonderful

It turned out there was good reason Bikini Woman was apprehensive. In 2023, Idaho got a lot more crowded. In fact, the state topped the nation in newcomers moving to its open and quiet lands — nearly 25 people for every 1,000 people in the state are new. Millennials, professionals, and families led the new migration to Idaho, mostly from California, and locals are not entirely happy about it. “It’s too expensive to live downtown anymore,” said one Boise resident over a glass of wine at the Basque Block. “We had to move to the outskirts to buy a house. All these people coming in is just making it harder for all of us who live here.”

More people moving in means more impact on the very scenery that makes Idaho unique. In southern Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest and in the South Hills and Albion Mountains, researchers and students with the Intermountain Bird Observatory camped in the high alpine forests to count an endangered bird only found in Idaho and in only two places in the state at that. The Cassia Crossbill has a hard enough time making it work in such a limited area, but the 2020 Badger Fire burned up to 25 percent of lodgepole habitat in the crossbill range. Dr. Jay Carlisle, research director of the IBO and faculty at Boise State University, said these wildfires, as well as a warming climate, are threats to Idaho’s little endemic bird.

Still, hiking 10 miles to an alpine lake on the Iron Creek Trail in the Sawtooth Mountains can make you forget about hordes of people moving in or the damage that can cause. Instead, the forest’s silence blanketed the trail under those looming gray-faced mountains. The lake, impossibly blue and surrounded by evergreens, was so clear it almost looked fake.

Another day, we tempted geologic fury by traversing the winding path along Hells Canyon. At 7,913 feet deep at some points, Hells Canyon in Oregon and Idaho is the deepest canyon in North America. Filled with scenic vistas, whitewater rafting, jet boating, and more, it’s also home to the Nez Perce National Historical Park, which celebrates the Nimiipuu, the Indigenous people who lived on these lands for thousands of years. Many of their sacred sites remain.

We learned about the Nez Perce through items collected by Presbyterian missionary Henry Spalding in the 1830s and ’40s; formerly the Spalding-Allen Collection, it is now called the Wetxuuwiitin’ Collection, meaning “returned after period of captivity.” Spalding collected Nez Perce artifacts and had them sent to his benefactor, Dr. Dudley Allen, at his home in Ohio. One of the most significant ethnographic collections in existence, it wasn’t easy to come by. The items were loaned to the park by the Ohio History Connection, which initially requested the items back but then agreed to sell them to the Nez Perce. It wasn’t until 2021 that the Ohio History Connection returned the $608,100 that the tribe had raised in 1996 to purchase the collection.

“We are pleased to see this wrong corrected,” said Samuel Penny, Nez Perce tribal executive committee chairman, when the items were finally returned. “To us these are not pieces of art or décor. They are pieces of us and they retain the spirits of our ancestors. . . . These healing steps — bringing the items home, providing a fitting name and now reimbursement — give our people hope and build on that connection that’s been missing for far too long.” Gazing at a woman’s lovingly beaded elk hide dress and cradleboard, an exquisitely decorated woman’s saddle, and a hauntingly designed deer-head- shaped bag, I keenly felt the importance of repatriation of cultural items to their rightful homes.

Endless Exploration

This year, the famed Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve in western Idaho — that otherworldly black lava flow that stretches 52 miles along the Great Rift — will have its own celebration.

The 100th anniversary of this moonlike landscape and preserve is this year, and a year-long centennial is underway with special events, artist talks, and star parties. My friend and I explored that alien moonscape one afternoon, delving into lava caves and walking among the ancient cinder cones and sagebrush. It’s easy to see how the area earned its name and reputation — even the NASA astronauts who first landed on the moon came to this area to train.

But Idaho has always been a land of extremes. Echoes of the brave souls who ventured into the unknown in the 1800s along the famed and deadly Oregon and California Trails seeking fortunes and gold and silver still resound in the ghost towns and wagon ruts that dot the landscape. At the historical markers that line every highway in Idaho, I could almost hear the creaking of wagon wheels and the grinding teeth of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who passed through the heart of this wild terrain.

Some didn’t survive. Cholera, starvation, exposure, and even massacres and wars riddled Idaho’s soil with bodies and graves. Still, if they survived their perilous journey here, those seeking the riches of California or the fertile grounds of Oregon marveled at Idaho’s beauty. The City of Rocks National Reserve near Almo in south Idaho is a National Historic Landmark associated with the mass overland westward migration. Now populated with rock climbers, campers, hikers, stargazers, and history buffs, it was once streaming with immigrants traveling the California Trail. Reaching Circle Creek in the City of Rocks, they often broke for a midday meal or camped overnight. Some of these travelers left their names on the rocks along the trail within the reserve and its heart-stopping scenery and weird geological architecture strut with arches, windows, panholes, and spires. I stood on the very spot where thousands must have first seen “The Silent City of Rocks” on their perilous journeys west. At that moment, time bent, and I marveled at the same geological cathedrals and spirals of stone that must have taken their breath away, too. I think the moment I fell in love with Idaho was when a fierce storm rolled through those towering rocks before giving way to the glittering array of stars that night.

Beauty Abounding

Through it all runs the mighty Snake River, Idaho’s famous waterway that begins in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming to travel over 1,000 miles to join the Columbia River in Oregon. In Idaho, the Snake gets a little wild. It carved out Hells Canyon, leaving its 8,000-foot-high spot from the top of the Seven Devils Mountains to rage with rapids at the bottom of the canyon, leaving massive granite and basalt cliffs in its wake. The Snake was vital to the Native American inhabitants of the state for centuries as it once supported millions of wild salmon and steelhead before the construction of dams and irrigation systems impacted those species. The immigrants who passed through Idaho dreaded its dangerous river crossings, and its waters ran red with blood as colonizers and Native tribes clashed on its shores. Today, the Snake is more of a recreational and scenic playground, popular with boaters, fishing enthusiasts, and scenery seekers.

Also running through it is the cowboy spirit that permeates Idaho’s very essence. The vast open ranges — where cattle, antelope, and deer roam freely — still present challenges of the untamed West. Bears and wolves still take calves, and cowboys and cowgirls still drive herds from pasture to pasture, sometimes sleeping on the ground under those howling stars. We met two women who raised working ranch dogs for ranches around the world, lawmen who still prowl the wild for outlaws, and researchers who spent weeks in the wilderness to ensure the conservation of Idaho’s secret places.

These tough residents are right to be wary of strangers. They have their rituals and history, and frozen-yogurt-eating crowds threaten to remake this cowboy and Indigenous land into something tame and bland and crowded. Maybe I shouldn’t tell people about how marvelous Idaho was, but in the end, I couldn’t help myself.

The secret is out. But maybe we can contain it and conserve what makes Idaho Idaho. I hope all the newcomers discover what I discovered: that Idaho’s natural attractions and ancient peoples vividly depict the diversity and richness that define it. That it’s a haven for those who seek solace in the great outdoors. That its wilderness offers sanctuary for those yearning to escape the chaos of modern life. That this singular place is a living, breathing testament to the spirit of the American West.

In just a mere 10 days, my heart became forever entwined with Idaho’s Western heritage, and, all due respect and apologies to Bikini Woman, I just had to write about it. The echoes of history that resonated through its canyons have left an indelible mark. I know I’ll return for more one day, and maybe stay for much longer. I hope Bikini Woman ultimately doesn’t mind. And I want her to know, I get it: If all this beauty and wilderness were mine to call home, I’m not sure I’d want to share either.

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