Are you missing your Idaho highway history?
This story was originally published in November 2018.
What do we miss as we whiz around our state at 65 or 80 mph?
This summer, after several trips around Idaho, that nagging question crystallized for me. I was zipping past marker after marker on Idaho highways that told about history, culture and geology, and I wasn’t stopping. I was too rushed to get to know my state’s history. I was lazy and had no excuse.
So I did some research. I found the Merle Wells, the Idaho historian whose passion and scholarship got the state’s disparate highway signs and markers standardized, modernized and verified, a network of history markers that is the envy of many states.. It lists them alphabetically and, more helpfully, by highway milepost. It’s got a nice tribute to
When I mentioned my “discovery” to Idaho historian Judy Austin, she didn’t treat me like the unschooled, neglectful naïf I am. A day or two later, in fact, she brought me her well-thumbed copy of the guide. The spiral-bound, ink-on-paper version had spent decades in her car-door pocket. (As the longtime editor of the Idaho State Historical Society’s scholarly journal, she is even credited as a contributor.)
As I perused the booklet, I learned about the misbegotten 1865 diamond rush started by Gov. Caleb Lyon at Diamond Gulch. That Meridian is named for the Boise Meridian, the original north-south line surveyors drew from Initial Point in 1867. And that the College of Idaho in Caldwell still has its
Judy told me that the history marker program was Merle Wells’ baby, and that Dec. 1 would be his 100th birthday. She was a good Wells friend and a big fan, as are most Idaho history buffs. In his centennial year, she’s hoping Idaho remembers and celebrates Wells’ lifetime and his commitment to making the state’s history tangible and accessible.
“He liked to connect places to history,” said Austin, noting his love for field trips, on and off the beaten path. “So in a different format, this was an example of that.”
The lovely guide to the markers was published by the Idaho Transportation Department with a federal grant around 1990, Idaho’s centennial year. When the grants expired, so did the guide. It’s now out of print.
“The priority, from the public’s point of view and the lawmakers who direct us, is we’re all about roads and bridges,” veteran ITD spokesman Reed Hollinshead told me. “Everything else takes a back seat, as it should.”
The guide exists today only in pdf form on the Historical Society website. Both the Historical Society and the ITD are interested in creating a modern digital version based on detailed mapping data — a plan that will need some money and advocacy to get it beyond the wish stage.
“One of my goals for the program is to have an app for the markers so the information can be readily accessed while traveling,” said Tricia Canaday, who heads the State Historic Preservation Office.
I suspect Merle Wells would love the idea of Idaho history in everybody’s pocket. I never met Wells, who died in 2000, just as I got to Idaho. I do know that we’re all heirs to the passion of the state’s pre-eminent historian. So, on a recent trip north to see my nephew and watch the WSU-Cal game, I decided to slow down and smell the history. I loaded Judy’s copy of the guide into my wife’s comfy sedan along with my coffee, energy drink and pretzels, and hit the road.
From the 27 markers on Idaho 55 and U.S. 95, between Boise and Pullman, Wash., I learned about battles and old highways and trappers; Nez Perce houses and legends; Lewis and Clark’s 1806 winter provisions; and the trestles and tunnels that made the railroads possible.
I learned something else: Not much learning going on these days. At White Bird grade, I was the only person stopped to see the marker and the Nez Perce National Historical Park interpretive resources (or take in its mesmerizing views). At the marker along the gorgeous Salmon River canyon near Riggins, I was alone. Ditto in Nez Perce, Craigmont, Lapwai and Camas Prairie. In fact, in two days of travel, totaling just more than 600 miles, I was the only person stopping to see any of the markers. A couple people stopped at the viewpoints above Lewiston, but they were enjoying the sweeping views, not the history lessons.
I was feeling superior, then I caught myself. The last time through, I was the guy ignoring the history. That brought me to another realization: We travelers are not just out of the habit of stopping, we’ve pretty much stopped thinking of our travels as opportunities to learn.
The routes we glide over at 65 and 80 mph were the paths and roads that indigenous and pioneer people traveled on foot, on horseback, on wagons. But we pass at such speed and at such remove that we have little time and few prompts to contemplate our common passage.
Not that long ago, a 600-mile cross-state trip was an event. On such excursions, stores, stations and various roadside attractions regularly coaxed us out of our cars. Automobiles needed water and fuel often. Gas stations and hilltop stops were havens for overheated cars and passengers. Stinker and Stuckey’s became destinations for travelers who had to stop every few hours for help or for comfort or for sanity.
Now? Heated seats warm our bums. DVDs and audio books absorb our attention. GPS tells us where to turn. We don’t need to get out of our cars to get refreshed, get entertained, get directions.
I am as guilty as the next: Travel is no longer an odyssey, it’s an obstacle. It’s an inconvenience, minimized by freeway speeds in capsules of comfort. Heck, you don’t even have to roll down the window to know the temperature outside — it’s right there on the dash, next to the GPS and the USB. I conceptualize my trips not in milestones, or even miles, but in minutes: The 215-mile trip to visit Mom in Pendleton is 200 minutes, give or take a coffee stop in Baker.
Judy and Merle helped remind me that not every trip has to be that way. Highway history is a good first step in reclaiming our road scholarship. Stopping at White Bird grade lets you really picture the task engineers faced in connecting south and north by road. Further north you can see the daunting forests and mountains that Lewis and Clark survived only with the aid of their original inhabitants. You can feel how mining reconfigured our very landscape at places like Yankee Fork dredge or the tailings outside Idaho City. Taking your feet off the gas and the brake and placing them in these places is a step to connecting to the depth of our history, a complexity that the markers can only hint at.
Stand there a little while and you realize something else: History is not just all around us. History is us.
What will a future Merle Wells say in 100 years about our leaders, our decisions, our battlegrounds? What did we do with our time and our opportunities? Did we build, or tear down? Will distant generations stand at future roadside markers and celebrate our stories, or shake their heads at us?
Whether it’s guilt, or curiosity, or eat-your-peas duty, stop at the next history marker. Get out, move around, breathe some fresh air. Stretch your muscles, and your mind. You’ll like it. You’ll be glad you interrupted your rush past history to reconnect to the stories of our state.