Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents an excerpt from Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip. Enjoy!
Jim hates me.
When Jim gets a cold, it’s a beast. It’s a nearly apocalyptic event that never ends. It goes on, and on, for days. If he’s only ill for a week, it’s a short one.
When I get a cold, it sticks around for one day, three at the most.
This cold was a two-and-a-halfer. We’d picked up some cold medicine the day before, and with that and my whiskey, I woke up feeling almost fit-as-a-fiddle. What a relief. It wasn’t like I could take a sick day or stay in bed for hours. Plus, we had two stops to make before I would meet some of my in-laws for the first time.
One of the reasons we stayed in Arco, besides EBR-1, was that Craters of the Moon National Monument was a mere twenty minutes past the tiny town. The landscape is 618 square miles of molten vomit. There are 25+ volcanic cones and 60 lava flows, and some are only 2,000 years old. Christianity is older.
I think by this point we’ve established that Mother Nature is capricious and there’s no rhyme or reason to her vagaries. Yes, yes, we know there are scientifically documented explanations for her often seemingly inexplicable creations, but let’s just say that when you’re driving through central Idaho and come across a sea of black basalt you might be forgiven for thinking, “dayum – that lady was trippin’.”
The name “Craters of the Moon” was coined in 1923 by Geologist Harold T. Stearns in an effort to garner protection for an area that contained nearly every type of basaltic lava known to science. NASA took Stearns’ sobriquet literally, and in 1969 sent the Apollo 14 mission astronauts to the lava fields because the volcanic activity was supposedly similar to the moon’s. As of 2018, NASA was still researching and conducting experiments in this unearthly landscape.
We hiked the short – very short – North Crater Flow trail before driving the Loop Road. Lone pine trees grew in the middle of black fields, and flowers poked their petals through black cracks. Hikers climbed a giant black dune called Inferno Cone. Tufts of green brush and purple blossoms dotted the black terrain, fed by the rain that had seeped into the lava below.
Originally I’d thought of camping in this harsh and unforgiving world, but as I looked around us, I was glad we’d stayed in Arco. The motel had a tiny shower in a tiny room, but it had a shower, and after the three previous nights of primitive campgrounds, I was sure Jim’s family would appreciate our choice.
During our southwestern exploration of the U.S. in 2017, we’d encountered Great Sand Dunes National Park. It was a stumble that made me feel like I knew nothing of my country. Sand dunes, in the middle of Colorado? How did I not know about this? It wasn’t like they were hidden. They were preserved as a National Park, for Pete’s sake.
When I was planning our drive across the northwestern states, I knew our route would take us from Grand Teton in Wyoming to Caldwell, Idaho, and I discovered we’d drive past such interesting waypoints as the first nuclear power plant, a molten landscape, and Bruneau Dunes State Park.
I felt a similar disconnect. Dunes? Dunes, in Idaho?
We left the black basalt of Craters of the Moon and headed west to the barren Idaho high desert. Three hours later we saw the dunes to our left. We turned and drove towards the piles of sand left behind after the Bonneville Flood some 14,500 years ago.
It was a displaced Sahara. Two dunes rose from the center of the basin, a unique formation in the United States since most accumulate at the edge. The biggest peak towered 470 feet high, the tallest freestanding sand dune in North America. A couple of cattail-rimmed lakes at the base of the dunes invited fishing, and we saw a grandfather and his grandson readying their poles. We followed the path to a sundial placed by the local Girl Scout troop near the only public observatory in the state. Jim stood in the center of the sundial and we confirmed that it was, in fact, accurate, and it was time to go.
I felt a bit dissatisfied when we left. There was more to see. There were paths to follow. There was so much sand.
They would all have to wait for another time.
We drove northwest, skirting Boise until we got to a small town. It doesn’t matter what town; just that it was small, and family was there. We pulled up to an assisted living facility, met Jim’s cousin, Cheryl, now my cousin also, and she took us to see her mom. Jim’s aunt didn’t recognize him. We didn’t stay for long, and I don’t know if she ever really remembered him, but she understood he was her nephew. She asked Jim if he’d sing with her, and they sang her favorite hymn, together. The look on her face, and the emotion in that room, was pure joy.
When the song finished, they smiled together. Cheryl and I smiled. And when we left, his aunt hugged me with a strength I recognized from the family I’d come to call my own. Cheryl called it the Goodrich hug. Jim called it the Aeschliman hug, after his mom’s side. Didn’t matter who called it what, that hug was family.
On the way to Cheryl’s house I was consumed by conflicting emotions. There was grief, realizing that Jim hadn’t seen his aunt for twenty years and that I’d never get to know the person he remembered, compounded by the loss of his other aunt shortly after we’d started our journey. There was gratitude, that they’d been able to sing together and experience real joy.
And then there were horsies.
I’m a happy person. My grandma loved to tell people how, even as a baby, I’d wake up happy. It can be quite annoying for anyone around me, especially first thing in the morning. (Jim will verify this.) I’m frequently giddy and entirely lack subtlety. I “squeee.” A lot.
This is my default state. But then I get near horses and it’s magnified. Suddenly I am twelve-year-old me screeching HORSIES!!!! and I start to tear up because I’m so overcome with happiness and glee and oh-my-word-they’re-so-beautiful. I’m grinning right now at the mere thought of these gorgeous, graceful, imperial beings.
Jim warned Cheryl ahead of time. Cheryl and her husband, Tosch, breed and board thoroughbred horses. Cheryl, being the smart cookie that she is, immediately saw this as an opportunity for help with her evening chores. I, being a twelve-year-old girl in love with horsies, bounced ever higher as we neared their farm in anticipation that I would be invited to actually feed these glorious equines.
At the ranch, Cheryl and I loaded up the wheelbarrow and scooped the feed into the troughs. Mares and foals followed and surrounded us. Yes, there were foals! Or as Cheryl called them, BABY HORSIES! (She totally gets me.) I couldn’t stop grinning. I can’t stop grinning.
Dinner was burgers, watermelon, and chips and salsa outside, followed by ice cream inside. Tosch regaled us with stories of his youth, including the tale of his time in a home for boys. He was fostered by a man who bred horses. To hear Tosch tell it, that man didn’t become like a father to the teenager; he was his father. I reminded them that I was writing a book and asked what I could and couldn’t share, and Tosch said, “If I’m telling you, you can share it.”
This was a man who made mistakes and grew from them. He owned them. That’s a man to respect.
Plus, he had horsies.