Stop #8: Wallace, Idaho

Hey, look! We’ve finally made it out of the state of Washington! Welcome to Idaho!

Idaho is the state to the east of Oregon and Washington. Idaho’s East borders the states of Montana and Wyoming, while Canada is to the North, and the states of Utah and Nevada are to the South. Idaho was once part of the Oregon Territory, but it achieved statehood in 1890, becoming the 43rd state in the United States. We’re in the “panhandle” part of Idaho, so named because someone imagined the shape of the state as looking something like a pan (to me this seems like a much greater stretch of the imagination than Italy’s “boot”). Many residents of this area feel unrepresented by the government of Idaho (seated in Boise, some 400 miles to the South), and up here there is always hopeful talk of being annexed by the state of Washington or Montana. (In searching for links for this statement, I found this, which pretty much sums up the idea.)

Idaho’s nickname is the “Gem State”, which itself is derived from the idea that “Idaho” is a Shoshone Indian word meaning “gem of the mountains”. The only problem with that is that it wasn’t a Shoshone word and may, in fact, have been completely fabricated.

Idaho is a strange state.

Anyway! Here we find ourselves in Wallace, Idaho! It’s hot here right now: 88 degrees Fahrenheit (31 Celsius) as I type this, and it’s a dry heat! Wallace is a small town, it only has a population of about 1000 people. The city was founded on mining (the area that we are in is referred to as the Silver Valley), although a lot of the silver mines closed up about twenty years ago. These days, this area relies largely on tourism. Hey, that’s us!

Possibly the most interesting thing to note about Wallace is that it is, officially, the Center of the Universe. There’s a bit of a caveat to that: the “official” designation comes from the town’s Mayor, Ron Garitone, who proclaimed it to be such in September of 2004. We have definitely not yet been to any other towns that lay claim to being the Center of the Universe (that may have been a little different if we’d visited Seattle), but at the same time, we haven’t traveled that great of a distance. As part of the proof of Wallace being the Center of the Universe, there’s a manhole cover that notes it.

(This photo, by the way, is taken from the website TakeMyTrip.com, and the Wallace post is here, which does a better job of describing the sights of Wallace than we’ll do. I don’t normally cite my sources of photos, but what this fellow has done is very much “up my alley”. Check it out!)

I tried writing more about Wallace last night, but didn’t find much inspiration or hope from hearing from a citizen, so I delayed until today. I’m happy that I did, though, because this morning my friend Matthew Stadler (you should really check out his site) sent me a gem. He forwarded to me this excellent poem about a place very near to Wallace, that includes the city in its text:

Cataldo Mission (for Jim and Lois Welch)

by Richard Hugo

We come here tourist on a bad sky day,
warm milk at 15,000 and the swamp across
the freeway blinding white. No theory
to explain the lack of saint, torn tapestry.
Pews seem built for pygmies, and a drunk
once damned mosquitoes from the pulpit,
raging red with Bible and imagined plague.
Their spirits buoyed, pioneers left running
for the nothing certain nowhere west.
Somewhere, say where Ritzville is, they would
remember these crass pillars lovely
and a moving sermon they had never heard.

More’s bad here than just the sky. The valley
we came in on: Mullan. Wallace. Jokes
about the whores. Kellogg and, without salvation,
Smelterville. A stream so slate with crap
the name pollutes the world. Man will die again
to do this to his soul. And over the next hill
he never crosses, promises: love, grass,
a white cathedral, glandular revival
and a new trout, three tall dorsal fins.

We exit from the mission, blind. The haze
still hangs amplifying glare until
two centuries of immigrants in tears
seem natural as rain. The hex is on.
The freeway covers arrows, and the swamp
a spear with feathers meaning stop.
This dry pale day, cars below crawl thirsty,
500 miles to go before the nation quits.

That’s by Richard Hugo from the book The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir (W.W. Norton) 1978. I’ll leave you with photos of those nearby places:

Cataldo Mission:

Ritzville:

Mullan:

Wallace:

Kellogg:

Smelterville:

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One Response to “Stop #8: Wallace, Idaho”

  1. [...] the different old mining communities we’ve visited, I believe that this is the first coal-mining town [...]

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