Driving across the country I still play the childhood game of looking for rare license plates. Of all the states, none appears more seldom than Idaho. Ive seen plates from Alaska and even Hawaii more often than from Idaho; its as if something about the environment breeds people who stay close to home. There is no stranger destination, writes Marilynne Robinson, than Idaho, nor odder origin. Each year people ask me where I spend the summer. I say Idaho, and I can tell by the emptiness of their faces that my answer put them in a state of social uneasiness. To tell an Easterner youre planning a trip to Idaho is to strain the rules of etiquette. Theres never a comfortable response. It goes beyond mere puzzlement. Sometimes I can see them weighing what they know about me against what they have heard on television about Richard Butler and the Aryan Nation. Then, in an effort to fill the awkward silence, they ask whether I have relatives in northern Idaho, or they make a joke about potatoes. Other times they misconstrue Idaho for Iowa. This happens more often than you would think possible, and then they tell me about their cousin in Des Moines or the time they drove with their kids through the midwest. Or sometimes they just look at me with a genial inquisitorial stare, the way you imagine Jane Goodall contemplating the behavior of a mountain ape.
Even in an age when everybody is wired to everybody and everything else, Idaho remains elusive. The name itself is a trap for the unwary. Idaho, according to widespread myth, comes from native American dialect, Ee-da-how. This means, I was taught as a child, light on the mountain or the sun comes down the mountain. Truth is, that story, like the story about Eskimos having dozens of separate words for snow, is fiction. The Inuit have no more than the usual number of words that occur in most Indo-European languages to refer to the different varieties of frozen precipitation, and Idaho doesnt approximate any known native American word. It doesnt mean what we think it means. In fact, it probably doesnt mean anything at all. Its most likely a coined word, a polysyllabic assembly made up a long time ago by some unknown promoter who wanted a name that would sound romantic to a population who dreamed of striking it rich in the West. Idaho is to the states of America as Haagen-Daz is to brands of ice cream. Both names are empty, meaningless sets of sounds invented to impress a gullible public. In this way it mimics the history of much of the West. When, in 1803, on the eve of the sale of the vast amount of land that was then called simply Louisiana, Napoleon was asked by his minister Talleyrand exactly what he should tell the Americans they were about to purchase, the emperor responded that If an obscurity did not already exist, it would perhaps be good policy to put one there. Talleyrand obediently reported to the Americans that they should construe it [Louisiana] in their own way.
If Idaho is hard to fix in the mind, its even harder to come to a clear opinion about it. Much of the popular press about Idaho isnt good. Dave Barry in his columns regularly makes fun of it, and in the minds of a hundred million Americans right now, its the place where white separatists have their hideouts. Idaho is the place where Richard Butler located his national socialist church, and its the place to which Mark Furman retired after being disgraced during the trial of O. J. Simpson.
My experience of north Idaho is different What sets Idaho apart is not its atavism but its openness to change and to difference. If I had to sum up its ethos I would say this: its a place where an amazing tolerance extends to every person. In Idaho, your background doesnt count for a whole lot; here youre liked or not depending on what you say and do starting from the time you arrive. Many times in the days when I had a beard I met with long time residents of Benewah County who professed to dislike hippies, which to them apparently meant anyone alien, young, and hairy. Yet in spite of the fact that I looked exactly like the sort of person their televisions had taught them to be afraid of, I was always welcomed warmly into their houses. They talked to me, they sometimes fed me, they always gave me their best advice. Hippies for the locals were always somebody other than the person they were talking to.
Its a place that in many ways is the place where time stopped, where you can find, as Montanans like to advertise about themselves, the last best place. But much of what is good about the state results not from its spectacular geography but from its emptiness. People are still relatively few in number in Idaho, and apart from Boise theres nothing that can claim the title city. In 1990, the census counted barely half of the states population as living in towns with populations greater than 2,500. Idaho is still isolated ranches and small towns, and with those towns and ranches comes a hunger for companionship and a belief that simple human contact is the pearl beyond price. I still remember the day in 1974 I received by mail a license place for my truck. This was in the days before private citizens could choose to lower their plate numbers in indirect relationship to the size of their individual egos. The number on my plate was unbelievable: 67.
That number on my license plate was a constant reminder of the relative sparsity of humans in Idaho; all my neighbors had numbers like that. It made for an odd sight in parking lots and along side streets in St. Maries; the lineup of license plates made me think Id stumbled onto a convention of big shots: 50 was parked next to 35 next to 122. And in a way I had: since then, the closest Ive come to something like it is the row of cars at Emory University Hospital in the spaces reserved for hospital administrators and chiefs of surgery (although their cars are a little more upscale than youd have seen parked in front of the IGA in St. Maries in 1975). Those memorable numbers were an affirmation of their owners place in the order of things. And with that affirmation of identity came social responsibility. Here was a place where people could not escape their neighbors and so could not escape themselves.