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Travel: The Great Nevada Road Trip - Day Three - A Detour to Boise

Travel, Photography, HistoryTrey TakahashiComment

Day 3

The Boise sky.

The Boise sky.

Beautiful morning at the Hostel, just as the sun was breaking.

Beautiful morning at the Hostel, just as the sun was breaking.

            The morning started off with a literal bang. The hostel had a new roof being installed and the roofers were well on their way driving in roofing nails early in the morning as the sun broke. It was not the most pleasant awakening but one that was needed to shake our weary bones out of bed and get ready for a day in Boise. Still the only two people in the hostel, we slowly rose out of bed, showered, dressed, brushed, and loaded up the Explorer knowing that we would most likely not return until well past the evening. Boise, much like Twin Falls, is a city that I had always wanted to explore more having only previously passed through. I had known about it being a growing hub of youthful liberal spirits and a hub for a community effort to create a blossoming city of self-sustainability. Being both a college town home to a few different universities as well as an age old farming community—this little hub of the west always comes up on various lists of “Best Places to Live” or “Best Communities.” With that image of Boise in mind, we headed into town right around 8 a.m. to get ourselves a cup of tea for some much needed morning fuel.

We Drive into Boise

A look down Capitol Blvd. in downtown Boise.

A look down Capitol Blvd. in downtown Boise.

            Just before coming into town, a long-time follower of mine on Instagram reached out to me (@oh_miss_lady) when I earlier made mention of coming into Boise for a day. Madeline, as her real name would be, texted me her grievance that she was unable to participate in the day’s activities but ensured me that she’d be eager to join Celeste and I in the evening and visit her favorite places in the downtown area. With a local in close contact, she gave me her highest recommendation of the ‘must-see’ site of Boise: The Old Idaho Penitentiary. Researching into the place further instantly made it jump to the top of our itinerary. But after studying the location and hours we noticed we still had several hours to kill before finally making it to the site. Looking at a local map, however, showed us that next door to the Penitentiary was the Idaho Botanical Garden which would be open in time for our arrival and would be an excellent place to start our morning with a stroll and some photographs.

            Our drive to the site took us right through the center of downtown Boise and had us driving along historic homes built long before Idaho gained her statehood in 1890. After a 30 odd minute drive from our hostel in Meridian out to Old Penitentiary Road where both the gardens and the old pen sit. The road twists up for a brief moment before giving sights of some the old prison walls along with a copious amount of signs pointing you to all the museums down the small tow lane road. We pulled up to a large dirt lot, assumed to be the designated parking area for the Idaho Botanical Gardens, and began to suit up with our cameras and gear to go explore the site for a couple of hours. As I strapped on my cameras, Celeste was quick to point out the large gaggle of young parents and children gathering outside of the admissions area—and there were several staff members standing around with large signs marked “Ticketing” and “Admissions.” Assuming nothing of it, we continued on our way just as a young mother and her child did who were in the parking space adjacent to ours.

Change of Plans, Kathryn Albertson Memorial Park

            “Are you working the show?” the gal under the “Admissions” signs balked upon our approach. “Um, no,” we were quick to retort albeit a little confused, “we’re here for the gardens.” “Sorry, the gardens are closed today, we have a concert.” Unbenounced to us, it was apparently the day where both Willie Nelson and Don McLean were going to entertain a large mass at the gardens and the general public were barred during the setup. Only slightly cursing myself for not conning my way in with professional camera gear as a journalist, we turned back to the car where the young mother too had a look of disappointment as she strapped her young child back into her car seat missing a nice day out at the gardens. “I always forget they close when there is a concert…” She murmured to us. We both expressed our disappointment and started our engines gearing into reverse just as she rolled down her window, “You know, if you’re wanting to see a great park, the next best place is the Kathryn Memorial Park. They have beautiful lilies in blossom and it’s a great place to walk and take pictures.” Thanking her, we both nodded in agreement that this was probably the best place for us to kill some time. We promptly headed out to the gardens.

The lilies were surprisingly beautiful. 

The lilies were surprisingly beautiful. 

            After another 15 minute drive back across the downtown hub of Boise again passing historic homes that had been there long before statehood, we arrived to very large sign carved out of sandstone marking the park in all its grand opulence. Coming from Henderson, NV we are familiar with a great deal of park, as it is a city always ranked as having the largest density of them, but we both were amazed at the amount of parks with Boise, and even more so, the grand size of them. Katherine Memorial Park features larges ponds and scenic walkways twisting around large trees and creeks that serve as protected nesting grounds for a large duration of the year. It was, just as the young mother had described it, a remarkable place to walk and take pictures to kill some time in the morning. As Celeste wondered off to capture some Pokémon, excited for the return of her cellular data, I wandered the gardens taking pictures and enjoying a peaceful stroll.

            Along the concrete pathway that takes you under awnings of large trees and through relaxing water features, we also found several birds making the park their home, including much to our amazement, a couple of majestic roosters standing tall in their strong morning pose as you’d expect to find on any image of a morning farm scene. This park was the perfect recommendation to visit in the early morning. The weather reports had the day as being humid at hot, approaching a high of nearly 90F, but here under the shade of greenery and nearby water features, it was like a small cool sanctuary from the heat. Still, despite our ability to spend a few more hours here, we had a schedule to keep—and so after taking the last couple of pictures we headed back to the truck to head once more back through downtown Boise and those homes that were built long before Idaho became a state.

            Apparently my estimations were wrong for the opening time of the Old Penitentiary. That, or there was some conflicting information posted between Google, Yelp, and other travel sites. Estimating that the place opened up at noon, we still had a couple more hours to kill—so we began once again to search for something to entertain our time for what was panning out to be a pretty poorly planned charade. “Ah!” I thought, “what about the history museum?” I had long taken pride in the amount of capital museums I’d visited including Alaska’s which is a little difficult to get to. “Closed for renovations” Now growing a little irritable and tired for this mis-mashed day, we decided then we should just see what we could find downtown, and at the very least get a close up of the Boise Capital building which we were now driving past for the third time. Parked, paid, and once again strapped up with camera gear we headed up to Boise’s capital building which to my amazement is much larger than most I have seen.

We Explore the Idaho State Capitol

The basement levels stretch out in both wings to empty halls.

The basement levels stretch out in both wings to empty halls.

            Standing at 208 feet tall, the capitol building towers above the whole of the Boise Downtown and is visible from just about every direction. It’s a brilliant building, featuring sprawling symmetrical gardens out front with several statues commemorating famous people in Boise’s history. Fixed atop the dome is a large copper eagle adorned in gold leaf making it shine and sparkle under the mid-day sun. We made our approach to front of the building and instead of heading up the massive staircase, we followed the signs for the “gift shop and visitors information” that lead us through a small basement entrance on the east side of the building. Immediately we were greeted with massive marble hallways in what was a building of grand opulence. Contrary to other capitol buildings I have seen in the west, usually simple buildings of concrete, granite, and stone sourced from local quarries, this place was designed with architecture inspired by grand classical Roman and Greek architecture.

The opulent capitol dome.

The opulent capitol dome.

A look at the center of the capitol building from the top floor.

A look at the center of the capitol building from the top floor.

            Constructed in 1912 based off the design work of John Tourtellotte, the building was built to meet the demands of a true capitol building after the old territorial legislature buildings were becoming obsolete for the growing population and government. Different marbles from around the United States and even some as far away as Italy were used. Inside of her halls on the basement level, we were greeted with silence and long empty white halls—it was as if the building was empty and we weren’t supposed to be inside. Still, we explored some of the exhibits they had on display for visitors in the basement level, before finally being greeted by an older gentleman who provided us with some additional information about the building and informed us that everything was open to the public unless posted otherwise.

The state legislature meets in both wings and is accessible to the public when not in session.

The state legislature meets in both wings and is accessible to the public when not in session.

            Up the curved marble staircases (quite literally everything seemed to be made of marble), we ventured up to the other floors to visit the different parts of the capitol building. Aside from the Idaho Supreme Court, which had been moved to a new building the 1970s, the other branches of government continues to operate within this massive 200,000 square feet building. The building was largely empty due to the Idaho legislature being out of session, leaving us the ability to explore both the floor of both houses along with their upstairs viewing galleries and their recess chamber. These two wings (which were added after the original building construction) were evidence as to why this great capitol building was one of great expenditure costing over 2 million dollars upon its original construction, and costing tens of millions to restore and upgrade to its current condition. After seeing all the different halls and our eyes nearly blinded with white marble adorned with more white marble, we made it a point to see the painted gold statue of George Washington on a horse (one of the major selling points I was told). And, having seen all there was to be seen, we snaked back down to the basement level, picked up a few postcards from the Capitol Gift Shop and were finally on time to head to the ultimate destination we had intended, the Old Penitentiary.

Downtown Boise from the top of the Capitol building.

Downtown Boise from the top of the Capitol building.

 

Imprisoned in Purgatory

The sandstone walls of the old prison were cut from a quarry overlooking the prison.

The sandstone walls of the old prison were cut from a quarry overlooking the prison.

The guard towers still maintain their ominous presense over the facility.

The guard towers still maintain their ominous presense over the facility.

            By mid-day, the sun was beating down pretty hard and the heatwave was making life a little miserable. We had escaped the over 115F weather in Las Vegas, but here in Boise the added humidity made life a little more difficult. Still, without skipping a beat we headed further down the main stretch of downtown back over to the Old Penitentiary where we had originally started our day and drove up past the gardens and off to a dirt lot where we parked next to some old sandstone buildings and disembarked for what was our main destination from the start. Cameras in hand, and bags on our backs, we ventured inside the prison walls into the original intake gates to pay admission and explore what was already looking to be an amazing place.

            Two incredibly friendly volunteers greeted us, both older ladies with gray hair looking to be at least in their late 60s, talking up the site and all the wonders it had. With a smile, they provided us with a map of the site while my credit card transaction was processing and before we headed on our way, one of the gals informed us they would be doing a walking tour of the site in approx. 15 minutes which would start from the intake area and proceed through the main buildings. Nodding our heads that we’d return, we proceeded back outside of the main halls to explore some of the sites not included on the walking tour.

The Woman's Ward stands outside of the main prison walls with its own building, and surrounding walls.

The Woman's Ward stands outside of the main prison walls with its own building, and surrounding walls.

Cell doors in the old Woman's Ward are flat works of iron riveted together.

Cell doors in the old Woman's Ward are flat works of iron riveted together.

            The Old Idaho State Penitentiary is a pretty remarkable place, as it is one of only three still standing territorial prisons, and one that was in use well into the 1970s before a prison riot caused a fire which burned down several of the original buildings such as the mess hall. Completed in 1872, this old prison has the look of a place that had been almost abandoned after the prison riots, being preserved as it was left almost into decay. Just outside of the main walls, we walked along part of the path that twists up a hillside where the sandstone quarry is that was used to cut the stone to build the prison. Here several old prison buildings could be found that had been re-renovated into storage facilities for maintenance and care of the grounds. Regardless, it gave us the ability to see the outer walls up close and the rusting steel and iron rails for the guard towers that cast a shadow over the clear skies.

And old shed, possibly abandoned built outside of the walls.

And old shed, possibly abandoned built outside of the walls.

The original mess hall for the prisoners burnt down in the prison riots--destroying the first floor and giving people a clear sight of the basement.

The original mess hall for the prisoners burnt down in the prison riots--destroying the first floor and giving people a clear sight of the basement.

            Removed from the main grounds, just to the rear of the prison, is the Woman’s Ward. Constructed by prison inmates in 1920, the small housing block only features a handful of cells, a garden on the outskirts of the building and primitive flat iron doors riveted together—a place clearly not in use for very long, or at least not updated as we would find in other parts of the prison. Along the white and blue walls we read information about many of the female prisoners who were housed within these walls with some of the ridiculous cases including one woman who was arrested for adultery despite being legally separated from her husband. This case, as with a few others we would read and hear about, gave us some interesting insight to some of the prisoners who lived and died within the prison.

The walls of the mess hall and chapel still stand, with the charred marks of the fire visible.

The walls of the mess hall and chapel still stand, with the charred marks of the fire visible.

The weapons cache for the guards has many replicas on display.

The weapons cache for the guards has many replicas on display.

            Back at intake just before the tour started, we gathered around a host of young families and a few older tourists sporting their walking shoes and cargo shorts ready to explore the grounds with one of the volunteers for a walking tour. She opened with a grand greeting to all of us, and immediately dived into the history of the intake area and some of the main talking points of the two main gates of the prison. Within just a few minutes, she waved us outside and took us over to some of the charred ruins of a couple of the buildings and continued talk about the prison. While clearly knowledgeable about the history, her speech was neither compelling nor very interesting and before long standing under the unrelenting sunlight Celeste and I grew weary of her tour and silently departed to explore the grounds on our own with the map provided and informational placards scattered about being our guide and resource.

Despite the age of the exterior, parts of the prison were modernized as the prison was used until the early 1970s.

Despite the age of the exterior, parts of the prison were modernized as the prison was used until the early 1970s.

In buildings where the fire broke out, the scars are still very visible.

In buildings where the fire broke out, the scars are still very visible.

            Madeline was correct in her recommendation—this place was spectacular. A dream of abandoned photographers, many of the old buildings still carried the graffiti left by prisoners and even the old peeling paint was left to flake off the walls. We moved from cell block to cell block, looking in awe toward some of the different buildings and seeing the change over the years with the facilities and how they were upgraded and retrofitted to make this age old prison last for over 100 years before its closure. Some of the spectacular sites included the laundry facilities along with some of the cells used for prisoner grooming. Even the old gallows and death row were still available for viewing, giving us a near haunting view of the room eyelet hanging above the trap door directly below.

The laundry and shower facilities are open and much of the original equipment remains.

The laundry and shower facilities are open and much of the original equipment remains.

The old barbers cell, left to deteriorate as it was.

The old barbers cell, left to deteriorate as it was.

            Perhaps one of the most interesting stories of all was the tale of one of the most famous prisoners Harry Orchard, who was an assassin responsible for the murder of the 1905 governor Frank Steunenberg. As time passed in the prison, Orchard became more and more repentant of his crimes and an active member of the prison community. Eventually, the Steunenberg family forgave Orchard of his crimes and accepted him as a newly reformed member of their church and eventually became friends. Working on repealing his sentence after showing his reformed state, Orchard protested insisting that the prison had become his home and he wished to carry out his life long sentence on the grounds. Still, because of his status with the prison and his history, the family built him a cottage just outside of the prison walls, and Orchard was able to work the grounds of the prison and was one of the only prisoners able to freely leave and return to the main halls as he pleased. This little anecdote, gave us a wonderful little insight to perhaps some of the humanity found in some of these early prisons and certainly life in smaller communities such as those in Idaho.

            By now the sun had all but drained us of what energy we had. It was hot, muggy, and the buildings lacked any sort of relief aside from the shade. Nearing our point of physical exhaustion and much needed food (we had hardly stopped to eat), we began to make our final round of the grounds and stopped by the J. Curtis Earl Memorial exhibit at the rear of the prison grounds. This is one of the largest weapon collections in the US. Although seeming a bit out of place to have such a nice air conditioned building in the back of the grounds of ruined buildings, we both strolled into the museum to gaze at one of the most complete arms collections I have seen. Celeste, not quite as interested, took a rest and began to plot our next moves, while I casually strolled through the exhibit as it took me through ancient firearms throughout the ages and wars leading up through World War II. Right upon my finished walk, the volunteer informed us it was closing time, and with that we left. Tired, hungry, and dazed, we left the Old Pen and went back into town to refuel our bodies and plan for the final part of the day.

Many of the jail cells are left with paint peeling and the interior decaying with age.

Many of the jail cells are left with paint peeling and the interior decaying with age.

Finally some Potatoes and Rest

Old brick buildings in a historic downtown never get old.

Old brick buildings in a historic downtown never get old.

            After driving ourselves to exhaustion at the prison, and just needing time to decompress we ventured back into town to look for a bite to eat and a cool beverage to quench our thirst. Celeste however did have one requirement for whatever the choice of food may be: it must have, in some form or another, locally sourced potatoes—after all Idaho wouldn’t put “Famous Potatoes” on their license plate for nothing. On that very note, we took to the internet as many of us millennials do searching through various review sites to see what we could find. Finding many morning joints closing or lacking vegetarian options we finally discovered two potential places that offered up their own house made veggie burgers with a side of, well you guessed it, locally grown French fried ‘tators. The first place that came to mind had rave reviews for a great veggie burger and was close to our hostel so we could rest and wash up after our hot day in the sun, but after calling them we came to found they no longer served it. So, it was onto the second on our list which was only a few blocks away and was called the Boise Fry Company.

            House made veggie burgers, house made soda pop, and what was one of the greatest things to our surprise was their offering of a massive variety of French fries in various cuts using tubers of all types well beyond your simple russet or golden Yukon potatoes, with offerings even stretching out into the sweet potatoes variety. Locally grown, locally sourced, this place looked like just the place—and for added confidence (in something that you would find in Idaho) they had proudly framed awards designating them as having the Best French Fries in Boise. What more could you ask for? The man behind the counter helped us out with our selection and we each got our own choice of burger and fries, and washed it down with some of their unique soda pops such as the Kiwi Coconut blend and tried some of the other oddities including their blueberry ketchup. Satisfied and full of fries, our guts were full and it was about time to start exploring downtown a little bit with just under and hour left on our parking meter.

A wonderful quinoa veggie burger with russet fries. House made ketchup, chipotle sauce, and blueberry ketchup to dip into. 

A wonderful quinoa veggie burger with russet fries. House made ketchup, chipotle sauce, and blueberry ketchup to dip into. 

            The sun continued her relentless assault on us as we walked the streets—adding to the fatigue of already being drained from an early day and now digesting a very filling meal. We continued to move forward and pushed onward to a few local shops including one that offered locally made goods—but aside from a few postcards and a variety of novelty shirts nothing quite caught the eye leaving us to move on and trying to find something new. We must’ve come to the wrong neighborhood; aside from a few shops, most of the businesses were either restaurants or office spaces that were of no particular interest. With the time quickly expiring on the meter we made our meter run and decided that it was time for a much needed rest.

We Meet With Madeline

The night is alive with people and characters wondering the streets.

The night is alive with people and characters wondering the streets.

Many of the buildings are beautifully illuminated when the sun goes down.

Many of the buildings are beautifully illuminated when the sun goes down.

            The previous night while talking to Madeline we made the plans to meet up in the evening, after she got off of her work at a local boutique so that we could explore a little bit of the Boise night life, this gave us at least some time to wash up and recoup some energy from our exhausting day out. Rarely the mid-day napping type, I still was having a hard time keeping my eyes open by the time we hit the road back to our hostel, and by the time we arrived we nearly both knocked out for a little over an hour. Resting up came easy, and gave us the energy for what we both knew would be quite a late night out. Unfortunately for us, again with our miss planned visit to the city, we happened to be in Boise on a night were just about nothing was happening in the city—sometimes that’s just luck. Taking in a second wind of air and throwing on a fresh shirt with a washed face, we turned off the light for our room to make the drive back into town. It was about 7pm by now, and we still were not scheduled to meet with Madeline until about 11. Either way, we’d find something to do.

            By the time we were back into town it was already dusk and the city lights and neon signs were beginning to turn on and cast their colorful glow onto the old brick buildings of downtown. As with many of these small, quaint downtown districts, there is a dazing affair of tungsten lighting that creates for a warm glow on the faces of those of us who would rather walk the streets at night. Still trying to navigate our way, I continued to ask Madeline for recommendations as we still had ours to kill. Goldy’s Coffee shop was the first that came to her mind, a small quaint tea and coffee shop that was attached to a rather large bakery producing oversize treats that even the hungriest of men would second guess. With that in mind we wondered inside, grabbed ourselves some tea, coffee, and one of these gargantuan scones, and headed back around the city to wonder and take a few photos where we could.

In alleyways or parking garages, there are art decorating the walls creating dazzling displays amongst decay.

In alleyways or parking garages, there are art decorating the walls creating dazzling displays amongst decay.

            By 9:30 I was beginning to grow weary and hungry—I didn’t partake in the scone, and aside from the burger that filled me up hours earlier I was beginning to sputter out. Wondering around in circles we came upon a small shop called Pie Hole, a little local punk pizza-by-the-slice joint that was serving up some interesting mixes. With walls covered in age old bumper stickers, a few old mannequins with funky wigs and glasses, and several signs informing customers that they do not have water cups I ordered their slice of the day, a ravioli pizza and a water up (and promptly felt like an idiot for it). The eccentric young man behind the counter whipped it up into the oven, tossed me a bottle of water from the fridge and called up the next customer. And just as we took our seat outside with the two of us sharing the slice, a text chimes in from Madeline suggesting we meet her at the Pie Hole in just a few minutes.

Posing for a few portraits, Madeline at the Old Chicago

Posing for a few portraits, Madeline at the Old Chicago

            Here, at night, sitting outside on the benches waiting and watching the people pass by was all that I’d hoped for to pass the time. This was the time to see many of the local groups come out en masse to talk, dine, and laugh—the sight I always preferred to see over many other novelty attractions of a city. Here we had a wonderful mixture of people who were discussing matters of agriculture from the outskirts of town, local college students who were discussing the music scene, a young group of punk kids out for a late night snake while skate boarding the streets. It was the gathering of everything that I had found Boise to be, a growing community blossoming with life and pride to make a great city. Something found too in many college towns across the country, but not always with a positive aura that could be simply felt in the air. And here, things just seemed alive, even if it was one of the more quiet days.

            Soon after finishing our pizza, we both met up with Madeline and began to walk and stroll—a fun gal with a great sense of humor and a great laugh circled the city and took us to some of the local graffiti spots so we too could leave our mark on some tiles on one mural like hundreds of others had before us. Our evening walk continued with us passing by some of the dark alleyways and bustling bars, when our path was interrupted with Madeline spotting a small praying mantis crossing the sidewalk. Immediately she stopped to pick it up and bring it to safety, setting him down in a small garden off to the side—a small act of kindness but one that shows someone’s true heart.

            Quickly growing to be good friends, we found ourselves heading over to the Old Chicago bar for their late night post-11pm happy hours to enjoy some cheap bar food and drinks before calling it an night. With many of the other bars closing, and lights slowly shutting off down the streets of downtown Boise. We all were growing weary, as it had been a long day for all of us, be it a day full of exploring or earning a day’s worth of pay in Madeline’s case and by now it was beginning to show. Despite the bags under our eyes and frazzled hair, the conversations were dazzling over greasy pub food and a couple rounds of drinks. Time, as it were, stood still and it wasn’t until I glanced at my watch that I had noticed it was now approaching 2am and we had an early day on the road the next morning. Knowing the conversations would soon have to be over I was a little saddened to not have more time here as it was, without a doubt, one of the highlights of the trip as I have always found great comfort illuminating new faces and building new friendships.

            Before saying our final goodbyes, I took a few old Polaroid photos using some of my beloved Fujifilm FP-3000b film with my trusty Polaroid 250. For these occasions I always try and document the memory, the moment, and place the photograph down in my trust travel journal to catalog the event.  Boise, as it seems, came and went almost too quickly. This small quaint town often overlooked in a state only talked about when it comes to talking about potatoes. Our detour here was well worth it, even with our setbacks, and it only makes me thirst for returning to the city to explore the rest of what it has to offer and to partake in many more new experiences and, just perhaps, make even more new friends along the way.

A scan from one of the Fujifilm FP-3000b shots. Memories to hold onto.

A scan from one of the Fujifilm FP-3000b shots. Memories to hold onto.

Travel: The Great Nevada Road trip - Day 2 - From Caves to Idaho

Travel, Photography, History, NatureTrey TakahashiComment

Day 2

The beautiful Baker Creek that cuts right through Great Basin National Park.

The beautiful Baker Creek that cuts right through Great Basin National Park.

This old Ford Explorer has been through a lot but it still has many more miles to go.

This old Ford Explorer has been through a lot but it still has many more miles to go.

     Camp was broken down by 6:45 a.m., after the sun had broken over the mountains and shown down into the small creek valley we called home for the night. It was hard waking up in the brisk morning after a long night with a powerful moon and many moments pondering under the stars. With a slight breeze cutting through the tent mesh, I groaned as I unzipped my sleeping bag and finally awoke Celeste after many failed attempts. Exhausted, I pushed on with the day knowing that we had a very long drive ahead and still so much to explore in Great Basin National Park. With my mind still racing from fresh thoughts from the night before I slowly gathered myself to make for another long day on the road.

Baker Creek was as peaceful a place to camp as any, wish we had another night.

Baker Creek was as peaceful a place to camp as any, wish we had another night.

Great Basin and Up Wheeler Pass

Scenic looks along the tight and narrow Wheeler Pass.

Scenic looks along the tight and narrow Wheeler Pass.

Age old bristlecone pines are scattered about the park, something the Great Basin is famous for

Age old bristlecone pines are scattered about the park, something the Great Basin is famous for

     We began to make our plans for the day, or rather, what we wanted to see and do in the park before leaving. There was still a long drive of approximately eight hours ahead of us to make it into Boise, but we had missed our cave tour so we had to explore more of the park before leaving it. The decision was made to drive up Wheeler Pass to see the mountains and the surrounding viewpoints, so a short hike at the top and come back down in time for the Lehman Visitor Center to open so we could pick up a few souvenirs and knickknacks before hitting the road. That being said we hit the restrooms to wash our faces, and quickly set off to the top of the famous Wheeler Pass.

Scenic overlooks along Wheeler Pass are worth it, even if it's just for the trees along the trails.

Scenic overlooks along Wheeler Pass are worth it, even if it's just for the trees along the trails.

Among the trees are scares from lightning strikes and brush fires.

Among the trees are scares from lightning strikes and brush fires.

The top of Wheeler Pass lets visitors hike various trails through beautiful alpine views.

The top of Wheeler Pass lets visitors hike various trails through beautiful alpine views.

     Wheeler Pass is an extraordinarily winding two-lane mountain road that twists and curves around the mountainside. It cuts up right over Wheeler Mountain, just under the peak climbing high to ultimately reaching an elevation of just over 10,000 feet. Along the way there are several overlooks and hikes to give explorers like us time to rest the car engine and gaze out into the vast emptiness of the Great Basin. Each scenic vista gave us an incredible appreciation for the surrounding landscape and the majestic beauty that came with it. By the end of the drive we arrived at a small nature trail that splits off into several directions, one of the main ones being the famous Bristle Cone Pine Grove containing pines that are well over a millennia in age still living and thriving in the wilderness. With what time we had left, we walked along some of the trails before heading back down to the visitor center before making the final push up I-93 to Idaho.

Back at the Lehman Visitor Center we found this very rad bus.

Back at the Lehman Visitor Center we found this very rad bus.

            Making it down the mountain fast leaving the new front breaks of the Ford Explorer smoking (despite downshifting) we hit the visitor center a quarter-‘till ten, and picked out a few post cards and a poster that are pretty hard to find outside of the park. Ready to checkout we stood behind an old couple who were talking to the ranger about a Lehman cave tour. We were still pretty disappointed about missing ours, but when we made reservations a week before we were told they were all sold out well until the next week. Still, when I was up at the till, I had to inquire. “Do you guys have any more cave tours open?” The ranger had a slight smile, “You’re lucky,” he replied, “Today we have a 10am tour for the Grand Palace reserved for 'first come first serve' park visitors. We rarely do them but we still have space, are you interested?” Ecstatic I immediately jumped on purchasing two of them while telling him the story of our misjudged scenic byway from the previous day and how we missed the afternoon tour we had booked. Our misfortune had turned to a great lucky happenstance as not only were we able to have an amazing mountain drive the day previous, but we now were also able to do the longest and most extensive of the Lehman Cave tours, more so than what we had originally booked.

Lehman Caves and the Grand Palace Tour

The Lehman Caves is home to some beautiful sites and is famous for her formations.

The Lehman Caves is home to some beautiful sites and is famous for her formations.

Tours by candlelight are no longer possible, but our guide gave us a great demonstration on how eerie they were.

Tours by candlelight are no longer possible, but our guide gave us a great demonstration on how eerie they were.

            With only a few minutes to spare we headed outside to gather with our fellow tourees to explore the caves. Our friendly guide was a volunteer from the Dixie State who was working on her degree in botany, a friendly gal with a flower in her hair and eager to lead our small group of just under 20 through the twisting corridors of the Lehman cave systems. Despite the remoteness of this national park and small size, our tour group included people from all over the world from as far as Korea to explore this magical place and natural wonder that once carried the designation of a United States national monument.

            The tour started with us being lead down a narrow man made hallway for easy access to the cave; this bypassed the original small entrance that lead down into the caves with only a small rickety wooden staircase. Our guide told us stories of how the caves were originally discovered by Absalom Lehman around 1885 and began to settle the area for tourists around his ranch—giving them tours of the place and allowing them to visit for a full day. As technology allowed it, the original way of visiting the caves was to simply go down the natural entrance, light a candle/lantern, and explore the caves for up to 24 hours. Only if you did not emerge after that time, then Lehman himself would come to rescue you. While the park service has discontinued candlelight tours (due to mildew that would grow from the candlewax), our peppy guide cut the electronic lights and showed us just how eerie exploring the caves with a candle light is.

Guiding the way with a flashlight and some electronic lights along the way we navigated the dark caves

Guiding the way with a flashlight and some electronic lights along the way we navigated the dark caves

            With the caves divided into different rooms, we continued room by room through narrow corridors ducking our heads under stalactites and dodging around massive stalagmites and shields along the way. Each room was brilliantly illuminated with a variety of different colored lamps to create dazzling shadows and draw brilliant colors from the cave’s natural formations. The Lehman caves have a long history of people using its large corridors and spacious rooms for a variety of events. Weddings were once held in some of the small narrow passages; secret society meetings and proms in the “Lodge Room” where old candle soot graffiti can be found on the cave walls; music played on the natural massive straw formations created by a naturally occurring ‘organ.’ This brilliant cave was home to a trove of human history as well, giving it even more alluring traits for the historian in me.

            Lasting over 90 minutes underground, we walked the caves jaws agape with each room presenting us with even more awe inspiring natural features. At the end we were given just over 15 minutes to explore the final room, the ‘Grand Palace’ to take photographs before heading back up another long dark corridor. As a joke to us all, our playful guide gave us a demonstration of an earthquake underground by slamming the heavy wooden exit door open and shut causing a massive shock wave of sound to ripple down the hallway. And with that demonstration over, she opened the door to blinding sunlight as we all said our goodbyes.

            I have been in several underground places before, from other much smaller caves to mines and in various places, but nothing quite rivaled the sheer size and brilliance of the Lehman Caves. We both were incredibly thankful we were able to do the tour for the experience was worth every minute, even if it meant delaying our long hard drive up to Boise for the day. With more photographs than we could count, and memories that would last a lifetime, we set off to the small town of Baker, across Highway 50, and back up I-93 until we reached our next destination: Ely, Nevada.

Ely and the Long Drive

            It was around 11:40am when we left, and we soon found ourselves after about an hour of driving at the city of Ely, the county seat of White Pine County in Nevada—with a larger population than many of the other smaller towns we visited thus far, along with a greater number of amenities it was the right spot to stop to fuel up the tank and take a stroll along the downtown section, even if it was for just a few minutes.

Downtown Ely looking at the famous Hotel Nevada

Downtown Ely looking at the famous Hotel Nevada

The Nevada Club in Ely

The Nevada Club in Ely

            This town, like many others can be considered a ghost town when compared to its former glory as a boom town for it essential stop along the Pony Express route, mining and a major junction for the now defunct Northern Nevada Railway which helped connect the major city along with other mine towns to the Central Pacific Railroad, the first transcontinental line. It is, however, a ghost town that never really died—the mines surrounding the area have always been alive with some sort of activity; today copper continues to keep Ely an important part of Nevada’s still ever booming mine industry. Unfortunately due to the long drive, we did not have much time to rest here, or stop by many of the historic sites or museums such as the famous Northern Nevada Railroad Museum. Shaking our heads about having to leave so soon, we hit the road once more, for the long drive north along I-93—one of the toughest we had planned for the whole of the trip.

            I-93 after Ely stretches on and on for mile after mile over flat basin with not much to see on either side and small towns such as McGill, Currie, and Wells lacking most amenities until you hit the border town of Jackpot. Most of this stretch of road is designated “Daytime Headlight Use” zone from the mirage that appears in the road and the ease of dazing out and being unable to see approaching drivers. Mile after mile ticked, with many of our own tunes playing on the radio. We even finished an audio book or two, and occasionally out of curiosity tuned into what the local radio stations had in-store. After hearing a few religious sermons and religious rock songs we turned off the radio for a few more miles. People often forget that while Utah is always known as being Mormon territory, northern Nevada also is part of what many sub-culture analysts deem the Mormon quarter of the United States.

            We tanked up again in Wells and checked our maps, distance, and time for arrival. Still without cell service, it was all just a game of estimation based on distances we could measure the good old fashioned way along with the time estimation guides on the bottom of our two maps guiding the way. With water refilled, faces washed in the restrooms, and a tank full of gas, we decided to push right into Twin Falls where we would make our final stop before the two hour drive into Boise where our hostel was for the next two nights. With another two hours to go, we left and drove straight there taking only glances through the windows at other small towns such as Wilkins and Henry along the way before reaching Jackpot and the signs welcoming us to Idaho.

Not much is in Wells, so we stopped by the Flying-J and hit the road.

Not much is in Wells, so we stopped by the Flying-J and hit the road.

We Make It to Idaho

The Snake River cuts right through parts of I-84 making it a wonderfully scenic drive from Twin Falls to Boise.

The Snake River cuts right through parts of I-84 making it a wonderfully scenic drive from Twin Falls to Boise.

            By the time we hit Twin Falls it was already nearing dawn. We were hungry and tired from a couple days of long drives and still a little sleep deprived. Here, we decided, would be the perfect place to stop for a moment to rest our legs and grab a bite to eat. After some careful navigating and praising the return of cell service we hit the downtown stretch of Twin Falls just after most of the small businesses closed. Still, there was a lot to discover and it was nice to stretch our legs and walk the historic downtown.

Downtown Twin Falls offers some great historic sites, but has a lot of businesses close past 5pm

Downtown Twin Falls offers some great historic sites, but has a lot of businesses close past 5pm

            Twin Falls was a lot more quaint than I remembered, then again I had only passed through once before and stayed on a farm for a day. Regardless, we saw a few of the historic theaters and took a few moments to appreciate the great looking signs for the various businesses along the downtown stretch and over I-84 connecting Twin Falls and Boise. Without finding anything appetizing to eat that was still open, we decided to load back into the truck and head to Boise for the final leg of the day. Drained, tired, hungry, and eyes glazed from the road we still made stops as frequently as we could including the wonderful Snake River scenic overlook. The drive along I-84 is a pleasant one, it cuts through lots of protect land, the small town of Mountain Home, and for a good portion of the drive the road twists and turns around and over the Snake River.

            It was not until about 10pm that we finally reached our farmhouse hostel right outside of Boise in the suburban farm town of Meridian. Greeted by our host Nick in his Punisher comic tank top he showed us around the property and told us we were the only ones going to be staying there for the night, and possibly the next. With our dorm room shown to us and a quick overview of the expectations, Nick yawned as he showed himself out. We finally made it to Boise after a long drive of nearly 9 hours on the road, and tomorrow a full day would be spent in this capital city just north of Nevada. Before hitting bed we decided one last time to try and find something to eat, swearing off fast food of any kind for the journey. With no luck, we grabbed some bread and cheese to snack on before finally calling it a night and enjoying a good night’s rest.

Our lodging for the night at Hostel Boise just outside of town in the city of Meridian, Idaho

Our lodging for the night at Hostel Boise just outside of town in the city of Meridian, Idaho