Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
I’m a sucker for a good farmers market. Meeting face to face the people who grow or create the product I’m buying is intimate and feels like a privilege. I especially love finding a market when I’m on the road, and we made it to the Kootenai County Farmers Market in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, with about an hour to spare before they closed.
We browsed the rust-painted stalls set up in a grove of ponderosa pines. Mulch softened the ground and a musician played bluegrass from a stage. There were baby goats hiding under a table. Jim bought huckleberry tea and I bought herb-marinated goat’s milk feta.
Despite the many charms enticing us to stay (baby goats!), we couldn’t linger. We were back to our carefree routine and had no clue where we were sleeping that night, so we got a move on. We had a couple of stops to make before searching for camping on the other side of the state and didn’t want a repeat of our after-dusk set up in Oregon.
The oldest building in Idaho was on the way and we stopped to take a peek. In 1850 – 53, Catholic Missionaries and Coeur d’Alene Indians built the Mission of the Sacred Heart. Well, to be fair, from the way the brochure tells it, the Coeur d’Alene did most of the building:
“The Indians dragged in timbers and rafters, then dressed and put them into place all by hand,” it says.
Old Mission State Park preserves the church, the parish house, and the cemetery. Our visit was brief, not just because of time, but because there was some sort of retreat happening. Teenagers dotted the park, each sitting alone and either kneeling in prayer or reading from an orange-covered booklet. All the girls wore skirts. A priest sat facing away from the grounds, and one-by-one a youth would kneel and speak to his back.
It felt uncomfortable, like we were intruding, and we took our leave.
Heading east, we pulled off at the Sunshine Mine Memorial honoring the 91 men who died in 1972 when a fire developed in the shafts. It was one of the worst mining disasters in the country, and was the worst in Idaho. Jim’s parents were co-owners of a Missoula radio station and his dad was news director at the time. Jim’s dad co-opted a colleague to take a photo while he flew over the site. He beat the other news outlets by seven hours, and that image was used in all of the AP stories.
Remarkably, the mine reopened just a few months after the disaster. This was the Silver Valley, a stretch from Coeur d’Alene to the Montana border. It’s one of the largest silver districts in the world, producing over 1.2 billion ounces since the first claim in 1884. It’s where Amasa Campbell and others made their riches. The company Campbell founded, Hecla Mining, is still digging for silver, and finding it.
We left the memorial and soon entered one of the original mining towns. Wallace occupies less than a square mile and every building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Getting that designation for the entire town was an act of self-preservation.
You don’t mess with Wallace.
When he was growing up in Missoula, Jim, his parents, and his sisters drove through Wallace quite a few times to see their family in eastern Washington. The last time Jim made the trek was in the 1970s, and he remembered taking the surface streets through the town even though they were on I-90. That’s because, at the time, that stretch had the last traffic light on any coast-to-coast Interstate highway. To speed things up through the valley, the Federal Highway Administration wanted to convert I-90 through Wallace into a freeway. Doing so would have demolished most of the town.
That didn’t sit well with its residents, so in 1979 the city leaders got every building listed on the National Register and downtown became an official historic district. I can picture the “take that!” expressions of Wallace residents as the FHWA realized they’d have to build an elevated viaduct freeway instead.
Our first stop in the still-standing town was the Wallace Chamber of Commerce and its open-air mining museum. We explored, talked to the man inside the visitor center, and then entered the time capsule of downtown. We wanted to see the Center of the Universe. I mean, we’d already been to the Center of the World the year before, and on this trip had visited the (almost) Center of the Nation. We certainly couldn’t miss the Center of the Universe.
How did Wallace receive this honor? Well, it began with lead in the water. In the early 2000s, the Environmental Protection Agency discovered that the silver mines had caused an environmental disaster. It was so bad the EPA declared a 21-square mile area around Kellogg, Idaho, a Superfund Site. Upon further inspection, the government agency exponentially increased the area of the site to 1,500-square miles, which included Wallace.
This would be disastrous for the economy, especially since some people in Wallace thought the lead was naturally occurring and not the fault of the mines. It was 2004, and Mayor Ron Garitone was having none of it. With an idea hatched in a bar (where else) by four residents, it was decided that since the EPA made decisions based on the concept of “if it can’t be proven, it must be true,” then so could Wallace.
In a fit of cheeky pique, Mayor Garitone declared that a sewer access cover was the Center of the Universe, because thanks to the “newly discovered science of Probalism” nobody could “unearth one scintilla of proof” that it wasn’t.
Did the EPA learn nothing from the FHWA? Don’t. Mess. With. Wallace.
Joking aside, the pollution in the Silver Valley was and is no laughing matter. Many of the valley’s residents have serious health problems, with lead levels that still far exceed recommendations.
Jim made sure I didn’t get hit by a car while I straddled the sewer access cover. I took my photo of the Center of the Universe and we followed up that excitement with a visit to the Wallace District Mining Museum. They were going to close before we could tour, but we asked the nice lady behind the counter about camping and she told us her favorite spot. We tucked that away and crossed the street to Wallace Brewing, located 80 steps from the legendary sewer cover.
Beer’s big in Wallace. In fact, in 1902 the water wasn’t fit to drink due to Typhoid contamination, so the town drank beer. (That’s their story, anyway.) We tried a couple of different brews and landed on the Red Light Irish Red Ale as our growler fill. While we sipped, a motorcyclist at the bar struck up a conversation and told us how he had ridden from Spokane, Washington, to Whitefish, Montana, to see a local Missoula band – a four hour ride.
I’d figured out by now that in this part of the country, where wide open spaces are the norm rather than the exception, driving long distances is just what people do. When you’re in a place like Arco, Idaho, and the only grocery store is a Family Dollar, you’ll drive an hour to Idaho Falls to run your errands. Then again, they probably think Chicagoans are crazy for sitting in traffic for two hours every morning and evening. (Can’t really argue with that.)
With a full growler and a suggested campground, we got back on the Interstate and soon crossed the border into Montana. After seeing multiple hand-painted signs advertising fresh cherries, we succumbed and found a long building with horizontal brown wood siding on the bottom half, vertical mint-green wooden siding on the top half, and tin signs promoting beer, cigarettes, and credit cards all over. As we paid for our bag of sweet cherries, a weathered, lanky man rang us up and told us he packs up about 600 pounds every three days.
“Or maybe half that. I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a lot.”
We thanked him for his efforts and ten minutes later were picking out our campsite in Lolo National Forest. Jim set up the tent and I began making dinner. I hadn’t cooked in a few days and I felt ambitious, so I made salsa, refried some canned pinto beans with onions and garlic, and pan-fried some seasoned chicken for tacos. Every few minutes, two hunting dogs named Walter and Cleveland would run through the woods from our neighbor’s site and check us out. We knew their names because our neighbor would yell “Walter! Cleveland! Get back over here!” in a huge, booming voice.
Funny, the first five times.
After he boasted to his much quieter friend about getting wasted and kicking a different friend’s butt at chess, he finally calmed down and we enjoyed a quiet and peaceful night in the woods.