From the March 2017 issue
Last month I drove our Honda Pilot to a resort in Ashton, Idaho, to fish on the Henry’s Fork. The route led me through the Idaho National Laboratory, home of the Experimental Breeder Reactor-I, not to mention Mud Lake and Atomic City. I am still glowing.
I wound up shelling out about $100 for every trout I caught, although a 22-inch brownie—“six kinds of awesome,” said the guide—induced a kind of fiscal amnesia. But then it began snowing, so I opted to drive home via the quickest route. The Honda’s nav system suggested U.S. 20 north, then west on Idaho’s Fort Henry Historic Byway. The byway, marked as “scenic,” would lead to the village of Spencer and the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station, both on I-15. I estimated that the byway was perhaps 25 miles long.
The road started out fine, paved and everything, with maybe three inches of snow and exactly no human beings. I knew when the pavement ended because the Pilot leapt six inches skyward after fording what I later learned had been a small stream. After that, there was just mud, interrupted by gravel swales and potholes the size of kiddie pools. In some places, the snow eradicated the road altogether. I can’t remember exceeding 12 mph. An ugly front rolled in, with purple clouds rear-ending each other on the Centennial Mountains a couple miles north. The Pilot’s altimeter indicated I was never below 5500 feet. The GPS showed a little icon resembling a dung beetle spinning in circles on a blank brown field of, well, excrement, it seemed to me.
Fort Henry Historic Byway
Occasionally the road was visible almost to the horizon, a mile or two of cold nothingness to let me obsess on the apparent cessation of life as we know it. In places, I saw not so much as an abandoned barn or outbuilding. Sometimes there weren’t even barbed-wire fences. No signs. My sense of critical distance collapsed. In theory, there should have been one village—Kilgore—but it apparently was a gassy aneurysm in some cartographer’s stand-up routine. “Where’s Kilroy?” came to mind. Also death came to mind.
I had set out at noon. Now it was nearing two thirty. A Dodge Ram dualie with snow chains came splashing in the opposite direction. “Does this road connect to I-15?” I asked the driver. “Eventually,” he responded, his wife looking as if she’d only recently been let out of a box. “Is the road passable?” I asked. He thought about that for way too long, then said, “I suppose” and clanked away in a fog of diesel fumes.
The Pilot was now coated in more gritty sludge than the average Louisiana swamp buggy. Not one piece of metal or glass was visible beyond the B-pillars. The rear wiper just skated over a hardening crust of opaque sediment. No one could see my brake lights, but there was no one to see them anyway. So much crud collected in the wheels that I felt a paint-shaker imbalance coming on. The left-rear door was sealed shut.
It became so dark that I switched on the high-beams. I think there were six warning lights glowing on the Pilot’s IP. I felt as lost as Robinson Crusoe’s cat and was swallowing the acidic bile of panic every couple minutes, contemplating how I’d fumbled into this monochromatic Black Mirror. I drove another 60 minutes—now 3.5 hours total—with road and weather conditions morphing from merely awful to approximately appalling. I crested a small hill and fetched up against maybe 250 cows standing inert, blocking passage. We—them, me—all expressed the same look of wonderment. I nudged the Pilot through the herd slowly—a kind of black-and-white parting of the Red Sea. I tell you, it is sobering to see an animal’s head as big as a microwave oven only two inches from your nose. Then I encountered a full-fledged Marlboro man in Carhartts, leather chaps, crap-splattered Stetson, and what looked like—I swear—an Hermès silk scarf around his neck.
“Am I near I-15?” I pleaded, revealing a few sharp misalignments in my psyche.
“Wow,” he responded as he casually scanned the Pilot, which by then was a massive molten fondue of mud. “You drove the whole thing, didn’t you?”
I’ve encountered such black-hole vortexes before. I once flew to Ottawa, Ontario, for instance, and rented a Dodge Charger mid-blizzard. I immediately got lost and wound up in Hull, Quebec—wrong side of the river, but close—where no human beings were on display. Nuclear winter, I thought. So I dashed into a McDonald’s, almost hugging the clerk, then asked, “Where’s Ottawa?”
Crickets, as they say. Her face was blue, as if she might be low on oxygen.
“Ottawa,” I repeated, using more volume. “It’s the capital of your country.”
She turned and said something in French to the staff, who all stared, fingers poised to tap out 9-1-1.
When you see “scenic” on a map, it does not necessarily mean it should be seen.“” ""