EBR-1 Atomic Museum and Arco Idaho

Driving through Jackson, Wyoming, was like driving through a pinball machine. Bells and whistles everywhere tried to distract us, but we had to keep our eyes on the prize:

Arco, Idaho.

Now what, you may ask, is in Arco Idaho?

We had no idea.

That’s not entirely true. We knew that the EBR-1 Atomic Museum was there. We also knew Arco was just about halfway between Grand Teton and Caldwell, Idaho, or at least it was the closest thing to halfway we could find along that stretch.

My road trip methodology, as you might have guessed by now, is a combination of defined destinations with random routes in between, a healthy dose of good luck fueled by optimism, and the belief in local guidance.

Basically, it’s a crapshoot.

We entered our seventh state on our twelfth day. We’d traveled more than 2,400 miles and spent over 60 hours in the car. We’d camped eight of those nights, and with the exception of our two nights in Yellowstone, each time we’d set up our living arrangements, from scratch, only to break them down again the next morning.

Every few days we’d find a grocery store to stock up on things that would be easy to cook over a fire or a Coleman stove or to toss in a bowl: pre-seasoned meats, canned beans, bagged salads. Packets of ramen soup contained quick-cooking noodles that could be transformed with my bag o’ spices. Breakfast was often eggs and bacon, and while they lasted, I’d rejuvenate one of those pitas we’d picked up in Iowa City by searing it in the grease. Lunch was trail mix or wraps lined with nut butter.  Afternoons were spent on the road, and we inhaled the whizzing world like a couple of cats given tuna for the first time (or any time, really).

We were exhausted. We were exhilarated.

It didn’t matter if it was a crapshoot or a perfectly executed itinerary. This was America. This was what we came to see.

We came out of the mountains and through Idaho Falls on US-20, a road we could have driven all the way from Elgin. That morning, we’d awakened under cottonwoods. By afternoon, we were driving through lava fields. We pulled into EBR-1 Atomic Museum. Its parking lot sported freshly painted lines and was ringed with massive Mad Max-like equipment.

There’s something about the light in Idaho. It feels like the sky is touching you. The red rocks and green scrub brush sit faded like a vintage Christmas card. A sixty-year-old lead-shielded locomotive with its washed-out paint seems alive, and the yellow lines in the parking lot leap out like a 3-D movie.

We walked past a guard shack and entered the world’s first nuclear power plant.

It’s deactivated, of course, and has been since 1964. Even so, I grew up in the 70s and 80s, and the idea of a civilian entering a nuclear facility was just wrong. My Cold War-era sensibilities kept thinking “should they be showing us this?” even though there was a sign that said “Cameras are allowed.” The guard shack, the nondescript building, the interior all reminded me of a James Bond movie, down to the gauges with their frozen needles and the slate gray panels hiding all the stuff that could make us go boom.

I might have an overactive imagination.

Especially since the facility itself did not build weapons. It was a power plant built to prove Enrico Fermi’s theory that atomic power could produce more fuel than it used: EBR stands for Experimental Breeder Reactor.

He was right. The museum tells the history of the facility and the science behind it. We took the self-guided tour and learned that atomic energy was harvested on December 20, 1951 when the reactor powered four lightbulbs. The next day, it powered the whole building. Fermi’s theory was officially proven in 1953 when the reactor generated more energy than it consumed.

Before leaving we checked out the gargantuan rusting remnants around the parking lot and discovered they were leftovers from an aborted nuclear jet program. After ten years and a billion dollars – yes, billion – JFK scrapped the idea.

Lead-shielded locomotive designed to transport nuclear engine

Arco, Idaho, with a total area of 1.07 square miles and a population of under a thousand people has five motels. We pulled up in front of the DK Motel, a U-shaped cluster of dusty-blue cabins with a building in the center. As we entered the parking lot, we noticed a hill covered with huge numbers across the street. After ringing the bell to the center building, a young woman with a red nose and a puffed face opened the door. She let us in to the lobby and we could tell it was connected to her apartment. She was as sweet as could be, and we felt terrible for the young woman because she was obviously suffering from an exponentially worse version of the cold I was experiencing. We could hear her toddler next door. As the young mother got us set up I asked her about the numbers on the hill, and she told us that graduating classes from the local high school have been painting them since 1920, including her own.

“Only a couple years haven’t done it because they couldn’t raise the money,” she said.

We asked her where to eat and she suggested The Mello Dee Bar & Steakhouse. The brick building was painted cream with a door on the left under a blue sign with musical notes and “Mello-dee” in cursive over the triangular awning. There were a couple of cars out front, but the place still looked deserted. We parked in front of the door to the right and entered under a big sign that proclaimed “STEAKS” in yellow lettering. Inside, a white board listed burgers and other sandwiches. A bearded gentleman came from the back, greeted us, and gently let us know we had twelve minutes before closing time.

Despite the name and the sign, there weren’t any steaks at The Mello Dee Bar & Steakhouse. Our dinner prospects didn’t look promising, but we were hungry and tired and hadn’t seen an option for fast food. We put our faith in the recommendation from the young woman at the motel and ordered a couple of burgers with tater tots. The man with the beard told us we could sit in the bar next door and he’d bring them to us.

We walked through the adjoining doorway into a room lined with dark paneling, found a seat at one of the tall tables, and each ordered whiskey and seven, $3 per. Six locals lined the bar. There was camouflage, profanity, and chain-smoking. One guy bought a round for the rest. They talked about work, about life, and when the man with a gray ponytail down his back got up to leave, the guy next to him squeezed him in a bear hug and said “I love you, man.” A black and white hunting dog named Gracie made sure we were OK, and the bartender told us sometimes there were more dogs than people. “Had four huge black labs and a black standard poodle one time,” she said, “and they all got along – probably better than people.”

The gent from the place next door, which we’d now learned was a different business named Burgers by the Number, entered The Mello Dee with a woman carrying two baskets of food. He sat at another table and she brought our burgers to us, and they were some of the best burgers we’ve ever had. I am still craving them. They were hand-formed and had to be at least half a pound, probably bigger. I asked the woman how big they were, and she held up her small hand and turned it back and forth. “I don’t know. I’ve never weighed ‘em,” she said. “The size of my hands, I guess.”

We finished our drinks and our burgers and got up to leave, and the men at the bar turned as one and protested. “You can’t leave! What’ve you had, one drink! C’mon!” We thanked them and said we had to go, but have a nice evening.

Outside, we got into Jeannie the Jeep and looked at the sign that said STEAKS. Not promising? I should have known.