Professor and chair of the Department of English William Gruber received the 2001 Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize for creative nonfiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College for his collection of essays, On All Sides Nowhere: Building a Life in Rural Idaho. As part of the prize, Gruber attended Bread Loaf in August 2002. Below is an excerpt from On All Sides Nowhere, provided by arrangement with Houghton Mifflin. For additional information, read about Gruber in Emory Report. Photos courtesy the Idaho Division of Tourism Development.

Idaho first registered on my consciousness at the movies. In the summer of 1960 I was sixteen, and in the middle of August of 1960 there was no place in suburban Pennsylvania to find air conditioning except in supermarkets or theaters. I could not spend summer days amidst the cabbages and canned goods, and so to escape the heat I went with my friends as often as I could to the movies; one of the movies I sought out in August of 1960 was an elegy for the waning days of modern civilization, On the Beach.

To the filmgoing public in 1960, keenly aware that despite all the best intentions the cold war could suddenly turn hot, the movie was perfectly credible. It was set only a few years into the future; a calendar on the wall read, ominously, “1964.” Nuclear war of undisclosed origins had killed everyone in the northern hemisphere, and now, as a lethal cloud of radiation spread slowly over the planet, one of the last surviving groups of humans clustered in Melbourne, Australia, to await the end. It was an intoxicating, almost carnivalesque, experience; Gregory Peck played the romantic lead opposite Ava Gardner, and at one point in the film, Peck, the taciturn commander of a nuclear submarine, tells Ava Gardner about his origins. In answer to her question about his childhood home, he replies with a single word that at the time seemed more homiletic than informative: “Idaho.”

Whose decision was it for Peck to claim Idaho for his birthplace? Of all the possible states the script writer could have chosen, why that one? And it was a choice: for the record, Peck was born in La Jolla, California, and his character in Nevil Shute’s novel from which the movie was adapted comes from Westport, Connecticut. Peck’s “Idaho” drops like a stone into a well of unknown depth; it falls without trace, without echo. It is a piece, apparently, of purely gratuitous information.

Why Idaho? The name resonates oddly with Melbourne and San Francisco, the environments of On the Beach. Those places set the mood of the film. To Americans in 1960, Melbourne was alien, exotic, and San Francisco brought to mind the glitz and romance of California. Set in that context, and set against the despairing hedonism of humans who number their remaining days according to the drifting global winds, “Idaho” seems dissonant. Its sound is stark, but as Peck speaks it it sounds also moral and attractive. It seems to express Peck’s loneliness, his longing for the purity of childhood and for the innocence of a world before the Bomb. None of the familiar mythic names of the American West, not Texas or Oregon or Colorado, would have the same aura of pure expressivity. My guess is that the name “Idaho” was chosen for its semantic emptiness. The name made sense because to most people “Idaho” meant nothing, and, meaning nothing, it could stand in for the infinite pathos of a world that would shortly cease to exist. Idaho was then, and in some ways still is, a geographic What You Will, and as a result the name “Idaho” becomes a kind of cultural Rorschach test for whoever happens to reflect on it.

Next >>> “A road map of Idaho . . . ”