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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Imprisoned in Purgatory
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Finally some Potatoes and Rest
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.
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 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.
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.
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.