We who were born and raised in those parts seldom referred to it as "northern" Idaho. It was just flat-out "Idaho." For the most part, we played it as it lay. Lines on a map never carried much weight when most all roads ran east and west and a huge border-to-border wilderness area kept the quite alien culture from the south at bay.
Actually, the southern border of "our" Idaho ran along a snaking route from Lewiston through the Clearwater Mountains to Lolo Pass just southwest of Missoula — which, as the geographic muses would have it, was also part of our state. Spokane, too! In our radical minds, we had seceded from Idaho proper while annexing eastern Washington and western Montana.
Oftentimes we would refer to that section of the map below what is now called the "Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area" as "Baja Idaho." We were geographic snobs to be sure and considered the southern climes of the state with its strict constructionist, fundamentalist, agricultural mindset to be, at best, quaint and, at worst, Neanderthal.
Our intolerance was made easier by an almost total lack of cultural exchange. Most of us had never actually been there or met anyone who lived there by choice. And, of course, we all believed that the state government in Boise cared not a whit about the welfare of the mining and logging communities up in the hinterlands.
It wouldn’t be until after moving to Utah that exploratory excursions northward into the heart of Baja Idaho would ensue. Getting from Park City to Weiser, Idaho, for their "Olde Time Fiddle Festival" involved cutting an annual swath across the Snake River Valley.
Then there were the Park City Rugby Football Club Muckers and their legendary road trips to Sun Valley on the "Mucker Bus." Fans were always welcome to join them if they weren’t afraid of flying and the invite was accepted more than once. It wasn’t long before the inhabitants of this foreign land didn’t seem all that strange.
One year, following a trip back to the old sod up in the panhandle, an epiphany of sorts arrived along the two-lane of life. Returning through the Bitterroot Valley and topping off near where Chief Joseph had given the cavalry the slip in 1877, the journey continued on through Salmon, Challis, Stanley, and Sun Valley.
The stretch from Salmon to Stanley, showcasing the Sawtooth range as well as other glories, overwhelmed. The northern section of Baja Idaho was as gorgeous as it gets and the local populace chock full of great characters. Just maybe, we northerners weren’t as tragically hip as we thought.
Last week saw a return trip to the area, only in reverse. Ketchum, and Hailey for that matter, astonished the wayfaring stranger in a manner similar to what Park City does to visitors who haven’t been back in a long spell. Density and trendiness certainly roam the west.
Not to say that big fun can’t still be had thereabouts, however. While roaming the mall in Sun Valley stalking that illusive hallway featuring all those historical photos from the ’30s and ’40s (memory had them in the Inn but they turned out to be in the Lodge), one could even stumble upon an evening with the local symphony performing outdoors at its new digs near the bottom of Dollar Mountain.
For overflow, there was a big lawn above the bowl itself with a forest of pole-mounted speakers for lounging and sipping Pinot Noir on a perfect summer evening. One could characterize the space-time as exquisite, impeccable, and silky upon the skin.
One thing that becomes immediately evident in Baja Idaho is that the prevalent manner of pouring an alcoholic beverage is much more user friendly than that to which the Wasatch Mountain crowd has grown accustomed.
The next day’s trip up and over Galena summit, with the mouth of the Salmon River and the quite startling Sawtooth Range as backdrop, affords a quite different perspective than when driving in the opposite direction. And then there’s the gorgeous setting of Redfish Lake, the perfect spot to loll away a morning by gazing up through swaying lodgepole pines.
And when a summer squall arrives, there is no better place than Stanley (Lower Stanley, actually) to hole up and refuel the Pinot tank while awaiting a more tranquil traveling window.
The actual destination of this jaunt and the site of the three-day Braun Brothers Reunion music festival, the town of Challis, reposes just up the road. For the past several years they have hosted an ever-growing salute to the family of Muzzie Braun and his four sons, Cody, Willy, Gary, and Mickey, a DNA sequence that has given us the bands "Reckless Kelly" and "Mickey and the Motorcars," the two festival headliners.
Along with the rest of the bill — Robert Earl Keen, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Randy Rogers Band, Pinto Bennett (featuring local drummer Tommy Martinez of the Barfly Wranglers), various generations of the Braun Family Band, and assorted other family and friends — they provided as fine a weekend of live alternative country and roots music as you could find anywhere.
Even the brief monsoon which visited Thursday evening’s street dance and the quite unexpected sunbathed large-marble-sized hail shower during Pinto Bennett’s set on Saturday arrived with spiritual overtones. This is truly a blessed event and should be included on any local music fan’s calendar.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.
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