Friday, August 7, 2009

Oh Boy! Road Trip!

Eroded Rocks Sporting Pines in the Snake River Canyon

I have an affinity for the stretch of U.S. Highway 89 between Alpine and Jackson, Wyoming.

A long time ago, I remember riding with my family along that road, squeezed between the river and the hills the river snaked through. I don't remember if we were on our way to Yellowstone National Park or going home, but I do remember staring at the river far below, staring up at the trees clinging to the hills and listening to the chatter in the van as we tooled long with winding road. It's not a long trip -- less than 100 miles -- but it remains one of my favorite road trips ever.

Then there's this story:

My brother Albert is a bricklayer. I put myself through school working summers -- and some winters -- alongside him, most of the time as a hod carrier, occasionally as an apprentice bricklayer or rock layer myself. On this particular occasion, we were enroute from our homes in Idaho Falls to Jackson, where we were working on a house. It's one of those houses built by a real fusspot, which I understand; he was paying enough for the land, the house, and the work, nearly a million dollars, as I recall. The foundation, for instance, had to be built twice because the architect noticed it was off by a few degrees -- which was going to spoil the framing effect he hoped to achieve with the living room's big windows.

Anyway, we were enroute to Jackson, early in the morning. Albert was driving his white Chevy cream puff pickup. I was sleeping. It was winter, and the roads were slick. We were in the Snake River Canyon, headed north. Suddenly, through my sleep, I felt the truck slipping. I woke up to look down into the canyon as the truck was skidding towards the guardrail as Albert was trying to steer it the other way.

"Veer left!" I shouted, channeling Vizzini from William Goldman's The Princess Bride. "Veer left!" Albert finally got traction and we avoided going for a frosty swim.

I still love the road. Driving on it last weekend from Jackson to Alpine, we practically had it to ourselves. Most people touring the national parks to the north never go further south than Jackson as they visit, and they miss a lot. I love the eroded canyon walls where the copper-colored water bubbles and flows below. I love looking at the mountains, covered in pine trees from base to peaks. And I love turning west at Alpine and heading into Idaho, skirting the northern shore of the Palisades Reservoir, a 20-mile-long lake with arms and nooks and crannies flung north and south as the water fills the flooded valley.

The water is the deepest blue, embraced by the velvet green of the hills bearing pine trees to the water's edge. It's the kind of place I love to take people who tell me eastern Idaho is ugly. If it is, it's their fault; they never get off the interstates. Such hihgways are great for getting you from place to place, but they don't always take you through the prettiest places.

And then there's places like The Angus in Swan Valley, Idaho, a place certainly you'd never see if you're stuck on the divided highway. We wanted a good place to eat -- and you can't find such places in Jackson. We've tried. If you like coffee, they've got you covered. But the food there is, well, not to be desired.

The Angus was different. From the outside, it doesn't look like much: A very worn building that used to be a drive-in. We took two booths on the building's west end, feeling a little isolated form the rest of the diners -- but that was on purpose, as our kids were a little tired of being in the van and were ready to be a little loud.

I'll admit I wasn't holding out for good food -- this was just another greasy spoon, after all. But they surprised us. First, my Dorothy burger. Beef with ham, cheddar and Swiss Cheese, served with crisp French fries. Then my daughter's chicken strips. These were not cafeteria strips. They were huge. SHe couldn't eat them all, so we shared them out. Definitely worth the stop.

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