97. Idaho

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Another reasonable starting time this morning even though my planned drive wouldn’t be that long. Weather forecasters are predicting heavy winds of 15 to 25 mph with gusts to 35 today. Additionally, the wind would be out of the SW which would be partially headwind and partially broadside. The motorhome is much more affected by wind than was the boat. With cool morning temps (48), with the wind, and the temps building to the hi 80‘s in the afternoon, the morning’s lighter wind was advantageous.

Some 70 miles south of Dillon, I crossed into Idaho and nearly immediately entered a small portion of the Targhee National Forest, a major change of scenery from Montana ranch land to heavy forest.

The forest scenery soon morphed to endless vistas of brown and sagebrush entering the northern border of the Great Basin Desert, one of four North American Deserts.

After roughly half of the segment on the Interstate, I left it at Dubois to get on the Nez Perce Trail. Every once in awhile the landscape would jump in my face as some acres of real green would appear together with those huge sprinkler systems rotating around a central pivot point. I even passed two corn fields. I was shocked. At the second one I slowed way down (no traffic so it didn’t bother anyone) to make sure it was corn. As far as I can remember, the last corn fields I have seen were in Eastern South Dakota.

At some point the Nez Perce Trail turned more due west over the mountains (the mountains probably didn’t bother the Nez Perce indians as they fled the US Cavalry to try to escape to Canada) while my road angled southerly to skirt the mountains. Soon the road joined and became the Oregon Trail.

I arrived at my destination for the next three nights, Arco, ID and checked into the Mountain View RV Park. Arco is a town of about 900 people and is sited at about 5,300’ elevation. Even though I’ve been generally at a mile high for a week to ten days, I’m still not comfortable with it. Ain’t age wonderful? Again this is a minimal amenity park but well designed/built i.e., long enough sites, level, well placed utilities and relatively green and trees. I have a great view of the nearby mountain right out my living room window.

As you can see, it’s a bit breezy. This is the view standing by my motorhome door. I’ve zoomed in on Graduation Mountain a/k/a Numbers Hill. Every year since 1929, the graduating high school class climbs this mountain to paint gigantic numbers of their graduation year on the side of the mountain. Those are some steep cliffs that the numbers are painted on.

So why Arco? The world’s first peacetime use of nuclear power occurred when the U.S. Government switched on Experimental Breeder Reactor #1 (EBR-1) near Arco, Idaho, on December 20, 1951. The town of Arco became the first city in the world to be lit by atomic power from a reactor on July 17, 1955. Nearby is the Idaho National Laboratory facility, one of the 7 national research parks of the United States Department of Energy (Fermilab, Los Alamos, Savannah River, Nevada Research Park and Hanford). It is on a 890-square-mile complex in the high desert of eastern Idaho, between Arco to the west and Idaho Falls and Blackfoot to the east.

Twenty miles south of Arco is the large physical laboratory complex. It is located a long way off the public road too far to get a recognizable photo. There is a self guided tour but it as well as the entry road was closed due to COVID19 🙁, a real disappointment. About 30 miles from Arco and on the south side of the laboratory physical complex is Atomic City, population 29, up from 25 in 2000. It is located maybe 10 miles down a dusty gravel road.

At one time, some 7 decades ago, this road to the nuclear future bisected Atomic City.

Today, all this place has going for it is a funny name. It is an isolated ghost town-to-be. The gas station is also the post office and bar.

I saw one of the 29 residents and she was pulling up to the bar. It would be with some degree of apprehension that I would ever get out of my car. The thought crossed my mind that if ever some manufactured illegal drugs were found contaminated with radioactivity, they might have been made here.

At 9:01 p.m., on January 3, 1961, a nuclear reactor the size of a small grain silo exploded in the nearby desert. All three men inside the Stationary Low-Power Plant Number 1, or SL-1, were killed. To this day, they are among the only recorded nuclear fatalities ever to occur on U.S. soil. Even in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear meltdown, in March 2011, no one in the mainstream media mentioned the SL-1 disaster. 

The reactor went critical and in 4 milliseconds, the surrounding water became steam slamming against the lid of the reactor like a piston. The lid was blown 9’ in the air. The men’s bodies were wrapped in several hundred pounds of lead, placed in steel coffins, and buried under a foot of concrete.

On my drive back, I wondered if the research labs were actually operational etc. As I approached the entry road, I decided they were. I passed at least 40 beautiful new luxury passenger buses, each painted the same and labeled with the laboratory name, complete with electronic signs for their various routes to the populated cities of Pocatello and Idaho Falls, 80+ miles distant. It was 4:40pm and obviously the facility draws its large workforce from long distances. Also obvious is that the facility is productive.

The Arco area has a long history of military testing

One Small Step for Man… a/k/a
Al Does the Moonwalk

Eighteen miles west of Arco is Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. CoM are definitely of volcanic origin but not of the stereotypical Mt St Helens type where the mountain blows its top, not of the caldera type like Yellowstone, a giant bowl that sinks into the earth but of the rift type, a giant fissure . CoM is a 52 mile long fissure called the Great Rift. The vast volumes of lava cane not from one volcano but from a series of deep fissures that cross the Snake River Plain. In addition to horizontal lava flow from the fissure, there are a number of craters stretching from south to north. Geologists say the earliest of the craters is in the south and occurred some 15,000 years ago while the younger, north craters last erupted 2,000 years ago.

The publicly accessible portion of the Park is located on the north side and includes the “North Crater” and “Big Craters” along with a number of spatter cones and an area of lava formed caves. There is also a visitor center (mostly closed due to COVID19) and a primitive (no utilities) campground with sites widely dispersed among tall and rocky lava formations. Additionally there is an excellent 7 mile long loop road with numerous turnoffs and trailheads.

I stopped at all the turnoffs and walked some of the shorter trails while skipping a few with steep climbs or long distances. The trails leading to the North and Big Craters are nearly 2 miles long, each way, and I skipped those. I did manage 2 short but very steep trails to two spatter cones. Spatter cones are small eruptions or vents. One such climb was only .2 mile but was 18 degrees steep with no guard rail protecting one from a drop off. Climbing up took all my breath but coming down was scary. Not a downslope to be wearing flip flops (I wasn’t). The trail, though paved, was about 30” wide. Up & down traffic passing each other needs to pass carefully or better, sideways. On the way down, I was alone the whole way, thankfully, and I made good use of holding on to the lava rock sides next to me. The other spatter cone I climbed is named “SnowCone” and was a shorter climb. It gets its name from the fact that there is constantly snow and ice at the bottom of the crater. It has steep straight down interior sides such that direct sun light never reaches the bottom and thaws the snow. There is a chain type fence right at the top and if you lean over or, as I did, hold your camera over the edge, you can see or get a picture if the snow. 90 degrees outside and you are probably 100’ from snow!

Other areas of note are the cinder hills and flats. While some of the eruptions result in lava, many are so hot that the lava is incinerated leaving just black cinders. Over the years, decades and centuries prevailing winds deposit the cinders into hills, much like black sand dunes, and accompanying flat lands interrupted here and there by giant boulders or lava formations. The cinder fields are often populated by what looks at a distance like patches of white mold. Closer inspection reveals 6” or so patches of tiny white flowers. They are spaced from each other with such precision that one would think they are planted but they’re not. Since the area is so arid, the little plant has a root system of about a 3 foot radius to sip what water is available and thus the plants are separated by available water. The flowers are white to reflect as much of the sun’s heat as possible.

There are also lots of area of scrub brush and rugged looking Limber Pine trees. One of the walks I took was in a flat area called Devils Garden, a cinder, brush, Pine tree and rock strew area. No path, you just wander clearing areas between the scrub brush listening for the sound of rattling. Didn’t hear any 😀. The cinder is really thick and it is the softest walk I can remember. It almost felt like I was walking on pillows or a mattress. Also in this area small yellow lichen manifested itself growing on the lava. Almost looked like veins of gold. There were also some petrified trees and other pretty flowers. It was an unworldly section in an unworldly fascinating park and well worth the visit.

So where is Arco, ID and why would someone go there?😎

The RVPark owner also runs a Friday and Saturday night restaurant on site. It is listed as the #3 rated restaurant in Arco (out of 12) on Trip Advisor and on the campground sites, most reviewers rate the food as 5 star. His specialty is smoked ribs and loaded smoked potato (nobody seems to have ever had this and it draws special raves) baked beans and cole slaw. The ribs are smoked all day behind the restaurant and the restaurant opens when the ribs are ready. He has nearly a full park for tomorrow, Thursday, so the restaurant will be opening a day early. lucky me!

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3 thoughts on “97. Idaho”

  1. Interesting writing, excellent pictures (good enough that I can read all the informational signs! Thank you!). Very enjoyable!


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