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Monday, December 10, 2018  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Highway 95 From Top To Bottom, We Explore Idaho’s Famed Roadway

Cowgirls don’t giggle, they hoot.

I discovered that while sitting near a table full of ‘em at a Grangeville eatery. They might have ranged in age from 30 to 70, the oldest decked out in hot pink western wear. They talked relentlessly about rodeos.

When one gray-haired riding pro told a bawdy joke about cowboys, her lunchmates roared.

“Now, don’t go repeating that one,” she said as I stifled my own laugh.

There’s great cafe eavesdropping to be had along U.S. Highway 95, and folks worth listening to. There’s scenery to die for, or to die in. There’s history and industry.

But the tale of the trail that ties Idaho together is best told top to bottom.

Border country

As I begin my journey on an unusually cool summer morning, I ponder my two decades of driving Idaho’s U.S. 95. I’ve sung some white-knuckle blues on it; I’ve gawked at golden skies and giddy rapids.

But I’ve never reached the end of the 538-mile route.

What’s down there, anyway?

I do know there will be desert at the Oregon state line.

Maybe I could bottle this misty air and sell it down south to quench dusty noses. I’m half surprised that it’s not already sold at Eastport’s duty-free shop, along with the booze, snoose and trinkets.

Eastport is where Boundary County greets British Columbia. One hundred thousand cars, give or take, come through every year. The figure depends on the value of those loonies tucked in the pockets of Canadian tourists.

The number of trucks has steadily climbed, with 46,000 expected this year.

Cattle and swine pass through, mostly bound for slaughterhouses. Many trucks rattle southward empty, headed for California and Texas to fetch produce.

“Canadian truckers call it the salad route,” says U.S. Customs supervisor Keith Barnhart. “This is the road that feeds Calgary and Alberta.”

Up the sidewalk at the Canadian customs office, I begin to suspect that truckers have other names for U.S. 95. Asked about the road’s reputation, staffer Dave Flick responds:

“It stinks down there. It’s great up here.”

Heading south from Eastport means negotiating 25 mph curves. Today, a work crew is repairing a guard rail smashed by a potato truck. It was the fifth truck in two years to do that.

“Hash browns,” I think, wincing at the steep drop.

As the highway straightens a bit, I look up. A white-cloud icing is spread atop the chocolatey Cabinet Mountains. They say you can’t eat scenery. If you could, you’d be well-fed in Boundary County.

I pass landmarks. Copper Creek Falls. Good Grief Tavern. Mount Hall School. But what happened to the Three Mile Cafe? It’s disappeared from the intersection of U.S. Highway 2. Turns out, it’s going into the big, green-roofed store sprouting nearby.

The state may put the Panhandle’s first year-round rest area here. That would be progress. But Three Mile manager Slim Vanetten isn’t holding her breath. Just look at the North Hill, she says; they’ve been going to fix that for forever.

She means the twisting plunge into Bonners Ferry. Overturned swine trucks have earned it the nickname Pork Chop Hill.

The hill bottoms out on a new bridge spanning the broad Kootenai River.

South of Bonners, cars zoom along a good stretch of road. Then they abruptly slow for highway construction at Colburn. This project’s gone on approximately forever as workers discover the joy of building in a bog.

The vista of tan dirt gives way to a red and gray “We sell for less” sign. Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Burger King, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut. This could be anywhere.

It’s Sandpoint. Or, more accurately, its “suburb” of Ponderay.

I snake my way through town, sandwiched between a truck and a Saskatchewan sedan, and head toward the Long Bridge.

This bridge, I love. Pines in planters. Joggers. A breathless expanse of water.

Panhandle pathway

South of Sandpoint, the highway gets markedly easier to drive. Signs point to Garfield Bay Recreation Area, Harbor Marina. That road leads to my favorite rock-collecting beach. There’s the exit to Round Lake, a good place for perch.

I pass the Hoodoo Rest Area. It’s open only in the winter and is being considered for permanent closure. Drivers will miss it if they blink. It’s hidden by trees.

There’s no missing Silverwood Theme Park, with its new Grizzly rollercoaster. The ride’s intricate wooden supports look woven, like a giant basket.

New pavement here. It’s a good place to speed, or a bad one. State Police officer Jonelle Hessler once stopped a man who was zipping by at 104. “Was he drunk?” I asked her. “No, just from Montana and in a hurry.”

The trooper thinks most accidents are caused by inattention. Which makes me, as I approach Coeur d’Alene, an accident waiting to happen.

Starting where the corny grocery billboard says “Nibble an ear tonight,” I start tallying businesses on U.S. 95. There are doctors and drillers, carpets and cars, movies and motor homes, boots and boats and barbecue. What’s not here is coming: “Future Home of Fred Meyer.”

I imagine beaming someone in from 20 or 30 years ago. Would they recognize any of this? This was once forest and farms. Look at the street names: Orchard, Prairie, Garden, Appleway.

The Interstate 90 exit. This is where those Canadian truckers disappear from U.S. 95.

Until the ‘70s, the highway itself disappeared in Coeur d’Alene. Motorists would catch up with it at the Spokane River bridge. They might have stopped in City Park to stare at the lake and anticipate, or dread, the drive ahead.

‘The worst stretch’

Ask most U.S. 95 veterans to name the highway’s toughest miles and they’ll say: “Between Coeur d’Alene and Moscow.”

It starts out promising enough. This morning the ducks glide placidly in Lake Coeur d’Alene’s Cougar Bay. Mica Hill, once a treacherous grade, is smooth and wide except for that bump from a nagging landslide.

It’s such a nice, smooth run downhill that Cpl. Hessler watches for speeders at the bottom.

But the highway soon gets narrow, shoulderless. This is where Jonelle Hessler, the mom, gets nervous driving her daughter to camp.

This sunny morning, the highway is fun - tailor-made for sports cars. Morbid thoughts of accidents are as out of place as coffee at a beer joint, which is exactly what I find at the Fighting Creek Bar.

Jean and Floyd Hamilton sip their java and talk about the nearby ranch where Jean has lived for 39 years. And about Mrs. Modine, who opened a Texaco station at this site in 1926, and how people long gathered around her pot-bellied stove.

What stories will be told about the 1990s origins of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Bingo?

The bingo hall sits quite intentionally near the intersection of Highway 58, which brings busloads of gamblers from Spokane. The average bingo player is a woman between 45 and 54 years old. Spring is the busiest time here.

“It’s after taxes,” says marketing director Laura Stensgar, “and the weather is just getting good.”

South of Worley, major road work is under way. I drive through the dust to Plummer, where I’m soon eating huckleberry pie at the Windmill Cafe. Retiree Lee Gomez sits on the next stool and brags about the view from his hilltop house. He asks: “Have you ever taken the Minaloosa Road?”

Nope. But I’ve always wondered what it’s like. So I head east on Highway 6, turn south onto Minaloosa, and discover a rolling farm road. Pines decorate the draws. Blissfully, I see not a single commercial sign. Before long, I’ve emerged on U.S. 95.

The next detour is one I’d planned. Despite that, I almost miss the turnoff onto Skyline Drive.

Instantly, I’m in the woods and Idaho’s least-known state park: the Mary Minerva McCroskey Memorial Reserve.

I wind seven miles up the 21-mile, ridgetop road. At the top I nap, listen to the wind and ponder Virgil McCroskey. He spent a fortune and much of a long life preserving this tribute to his mom. The state wasn’t sure it wanted his gift.

Back on 95, at the Potlatch junction, logging trucks are pulling onto the highway. Anyone who thinks the timber industry is fading away hasn’t driven this road.

For that matter, I wonder about all these people who tell me truckers avoid U.S. 95. Big rigs keep breathing down my bumper.

College town, and down

Crop dusters parked under a tree. Tractors on the roads, silos in the towns. Yep, this is farm country.

Wade Patterson grew up on a dairy farm a mile north of Moscow on old U.S. 95. That was before the highway department straightened out the road 45 years ago, angering farmers by taking chunks out of their fields.

Wade delivered milk in a Model T, starting at age 11. The road was bad. But then, he says, “If you have a few adversities, you’re better prepared for life.”

I’m prepared to eat. “Welcome to Downtown Moscow, a Pedestrian Priority Area.”

I stroll Main Street. Ah, red brick. A mineral shop, a comic book store, lounging college kids. A coffee house! (Gourmet beans are not among the charms of highway cafes.)

At the University of Idaho, evening shadows are deep under the trees on Greek Row. Windows above the arboretum reflect a red glow that bounces back again from the pond below.

Resolved to enjoy sunrise as much as sunset, I leave Moscow early and detour onto Old U.S. 95 Road. It’s seamless, signless pavement bordered by a billion stems of iridescent grass. I pass the prayerfully perfect Genesee Valley Lutheran Church before meeting up again with the “new” 95.

It’s time to descend the Lewiston Grade. The view from the overlook takes in Lewiston, Clarkston and the “Great Snake Lake” between them. The Port of Lewiston and Potlatch pulp mill loom on the banks of the Clearwater River.

Heading down the grade, my nose catches a whiff of the mill. “Eau de Lewiston.” But I’m paying closer attention to the brake lights of crawling trucks.

When the road builders modernized but steepened this grade in the ‘70s, they were responding to drivers’ desire to cut uphill travel time. Nobody gave much thought to dangerously fast downhill traffic.

Before long, a trucker lost his brakes and died. The engineers could find no other highway with exactly this problem, and were soon cutting new ground, so to speak, as they perfected the length and location of truck runaway ramps.

Chiefs, floods, nuns

As it leaves Lewiston and melds with U.S. 12, the highway evolves into freeway. It races through hills that the Indians read like constellations, full of legends. Here’s where Coyote threw a troublesome bear. There’s where Coyote slew a monster, from whose blood arose the Nez Perce Tribe.

Crossing the Clearwater, the highway parts company with U.S. 12. I drive through Lapwai, where Idaho’s first school was built to teach Indian children.

Signs offer espresso, fishing licenses. An old trailer advertises fireworks.

I’m quickly into Culdesac canyon, where raging Lapwai Creek gobbled up the highway last spring. There’s a construction delay. I snack, change shoes. I’m about to review my retirement plans when the flagger signals us forward.

Out of the canyon, U.S. 95 becomes a cruise-control road, aiming straight for Grangeville. I’ve driven this stretch in blinding snow, following the tracks of the car ahead of me, hoping the driver knew where he was going. It was the kind of weather in which the religiously inclined bargain with God.

Maybe that’s why my thoughts turn to St. Gertrude’s Monastery near Cottonwood. It’s another detour I’ve always wanted to take. The twin-spired landmark has a museum that gives new meaning to the word “eclectic.” Where else would you find a pipe acquired in a Shanghai opium den, a stuffed chamois and the first machine sold in this country that could multiply and divide?

When I reach Grangeville, talk is of the 1,700 lightning strikes that pounded north central Idaho a few days ago. This is a staging area for firefighters. Chalky green Forest Service vehicles prowl the roads.

South of Grangeville, I’m chugging up the mountain that’s modestly called White Bird Hill. It’s 4,245 feet at the summit.

Below is the battlefield where Nez Perce braves tangled with the cavalry in 1877 before taking their epic flight toward Canada.

Kids from Montana, also visiting the overlook, are debating who kicked whose butt in this battle.

“Mom, did we lose?” asks a little boy.

His grandpa replies. “Hmmph. Everybody loses in war.”

River country

The mighty Salmon River glimmers as I head for Riggins, Idaho’s Whitewater Capital. Rafts flit atop the current like bright water bugs. At Lucile, a popular river takeout, I start singing that Kenny Rogers song in spite of myself.

The Time Zone Bridge carries me into Mountain Time and into a noisy, baking-hot construction site.

The too-skinny, too-low bridge is a bottleneck on U.S. 95, keeping the biggest rigs from using the route. So the state’s going to replace it.

When the existing bridge was built in 1935, no one had to think about the effect on disappearing steelhead or multiplying recreationists. Site manager Dave Kuisti will be meeting with the dozen outfitters who operate from Riggins, a town squeezed into a canyon.

Just past Riggins is my favorite rest area. It’s along the Little Salmon River, where I stop to rinse the construction dust from my feet and plot impossible canoe routes through the low water.

Upstream, the same sparkling water rushes past the Pinehurst Resort. The charming cabins are owned by San Diego refugees Tim and Susan Englestad.

Tim wishes there weren’t rules against putting more signs on the highway to attract customers. I silently disagree, but love the perspective that this transplanted musician gives on local culture.

“You go this way (south) and it’s vintage rock and roll. You go this way (north), and it’s vintage country.”

Then he adds, with a chagrined grin: “Nobody in either direction likes anything new.”

South toward the sage

There can’t be a more beautiful meadow in the state than the one leading down to New Meadows, a town of 600 straddling the junction of U.S. 95 and U.S. 55.

When many Idahoans talk about Highway 95, they’re including the equally scenic and dangerous Highway 55, which jogs down through McCall and takes them to and from Boise. It sure seems unnatural for me to turn west instead of east here, in order to stay on U.S. 95.

I’m not out of the woods yet.

The hill-and-dale route takes me through Boise Cascade’s tree farm, through the middle of the Evergreen sawmill and into the Payette National Forest. Before long, the Weiser River is dancing alongside my car.

U.S. 95 serves as main street for the umpteenth town, this one Council.

A middle-aged cowboy limps up to the cash register at the Seven Devils Cafe. His friends razz him about whatever caused his injury. I hear him say: “I’ve done dumber things, but it’s been awhile.”

They’re all regulars here, chatting under the deer heads and the Hines Root Beer clock.

Council marks the edge of the forest, the start of farmland. The landscape reminds me of an elaborate setting for a toy train set. Mountains loom to the south and west.

Next stop is Cambridge, jumping off point for Hells Canyon and home to eight Snake River outfitters.

People from all over the world pass through here. Increasingly, North Idaho hunters come down to hunt chukars, says Jack Crolly, owner of the Hunters Inn.

More often, people from up north travel this way to get to Weiser, home of the National Old-time Fiddlers contest. I find some of their faces among the champions when I stop by the Fiddlers Hall of Fame.

Communities come close together now, linked by Cenex dealers and fruit stands that take food stamps. Payette, Fruitland, Parma.

Smoke billows on the horizon. They burn fields down here, too.

“Welcome to Wilder,” a sign says, “home of Gov. Phil Batt.”

The next one reads “rough road,” and it certainly is. You can’t accuse onion farmer Phil of pulling political strings to fix up the highway through his own town.

There’s Spanish on the radio near the end of Idaho’s U.S. 95; up at its top, I had tuned in the Canadian Broadcasting Co. But Boundary County has something in common with this place: hops, grown artfully on a maze of ropes and poles.

Hops and alfalfa give way to sagebrush. Rugged outcroppings of dark rock soar, or hunker down like bulldogs. This is Owyhee country, named for the Hawaiian trappers who disappeared in the nearby mountains in the early 1800s. Owyhee is an outdated spelling of Hawaii.

A speed limit of 65 doesn’t seem too fast out here.

Suddenly, I’m over the finish line. And it is a line, marking the start of Oregon’s perfect, black, new pavement. Just like up at Canada. I laugh out loud.

From here, the road leads to Winnemucca and Las Vegas. It’s 1,129 desert miles to the real end of U.S. 95, at the Mexican border.

I turn around, and stop at the Milepost 14 overlook. It’s compellingly quiet. The sun warms my legs. The dry wind carries a soft, sagey fragrance.

Hmmm. There might not be a demand here after all for my bottled, northern air.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 12 Color Photos; Staff illustration by Warren Huskey

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: (The numbered items in the following text correspond with the staff illustration by Warren Huskey, which is a map of the route of U.S. 95 in Idaho):

U.S. 95 TRIVIA 1. AT EASTPORT, 93,429 cars and 40,288 trucks crossed into the United States during 1995. Most were Canadians headed south for work, play or shopping. 2. KOOTENAI INDIANS set up informational roadblocks north and south of Bonners Ferry in 1974, asking drivers for a 10-cent toll. The “act of war” was aimed at the United States, from which the tiny tribe sought land and recognition. 3. THE MILE-LONG HIGHWAY BRIDGE south of Sandpoint is a replacement for what was the world’s longest wooden bridge. It crosses Idaho’s largest lake, Pend Oreille. 4. CRUNCHED CRITTERS are a hairy problem for U.S. 95 drivers. On a bad stretch from Silverwood theme park to Chilco, roadkill includes deer, elk, moose, bear and cougar. 5. WANNA GAMBLE? You can do it 365 days a year, 24 hours a day at the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s bingo hall. You can’t miss its rows of fluttering pennants. 6. GOTTA GO? The northernmost year-round rest area on the highway is just south of the Benewah-Latah county line. 7. DUST DUNES. That’s what the rolling hills of the Palouse farm country really are. 8. STAGECOACHES once kicked up dust along what’s now the Moscow-Lewiston stretch of Highway 95. 9. THE LEWISTON GRADE road was built in 1916, graveled in 1974. Before a 1977 upgrade, it had so many switchbacks that one square-mile section of land was nearly covered with highway. 10. FLOODING of Lapwai Creek in February 1996 shut down 12 miles of highway for a week near Culdesac. One trucker spends a night in jail for taking an illegal detour. 11. CAMAS PLANTS, a staple of the Native American diet, bloom in blue profusion on the prairie south of Grangeville. Best time to see color: mid-May. 12. WHITEBIRD HILL, named for a Nez Perce chief, was long notorious among north-south drivers. Road builders conquered its 4,245-foot summit in 1918, replacing a narrow trail with 22 miles of hairpin turns. It was upgraded in 1974. 13. THE ONLY STREET in Riggins is U.S. 95, which is traditionally closed down for a short rodeo parade on the first Sunday in May. 14. EXPLORERS in the Hunt-Aston expedition of 1810-12 followed the same route as U.S. 95 south of the Salmon River (starting at Riggins). 15. THE OCEAN stopped here. Up until 100 million years ago, the continent ended roughly along what is now U.S. Highways 95 and 55. 16. COUNCIL got its name because the valley here was a gathering place for tribes. When white settlers arrived in the late 1800s, the 52-mile trip to Weiser took two days. 17. THE DEEPEST GORGE in North America isn’t far from the highway as the eagle flies. But the quickest route to reach Hells Canyon is 55 miles long, heading east of Cambridge via Idaho Highway 71. 18. THE NATIONAL OLD-TIME FIDDLERS CONTEST put Weiser on the cultural map in 1963. 19. THE OREGON TRAIL passed through here. Westbound emigrants stopped at Old Fort Boise, five miles from Parma. 20. THE OREGON STATE LINE marks the start of the Idaho stretch of U.S. 95, which got its number designation in 1926. It was known as the North and South Highway when it opened

Staff research by Julie Titone, Illustration by Warren Huskey Sources include: “Roadside Geology of Idaho,” “Idaho for the Curious,” “Idaho’s Highway History, 1863-1975,” Idaho Department of Transportation, U.S. Customs, Idaho Fish and Game Department.

This sidebar appeared with the story: (The numbered items in the following text correspond with the staff illustration by Warren Huskey, which is a map of the route of U.S. 95 in Idaho):

U.S. 95 TRIVIA 1. AT EASTPORT, 93,429 cars and 40,288 trucks crossed into the United States during 1995. Most were Canadians headed south for work, play or shopping. 2. KOOTENAI INDIANS set up informational roadblocks north and south of Bonners Ferry in 1974, asking drivers for a 10-cent toll. The “act of war” was aimed at the United States, from which the tiny tribe sought land and recognition. 3. THE MILE-LONG HIGHWAY BRIDGE south of Sandpoint is a replacement for what was the world’s longest wooden bridge. It crosses Idaho’s largest lake, Pend Oreille. 4. CRUNCHED CRITTERS are a hairy problem for U.S. 95 drivers. On a bad stretch from Silverwood theme park to Chilco, roadkill includes deer, elk, moose, bear and cougar. 5. WANNA GAMBLE? You can do it 365 days a year, 24 hours a day at the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s bingo hall. You can’t miss its rows of fluttering pennants. 6. GOTTA GO? The northernmost year-round rest area on the highway is just south of the Benewah-Latah county line. 7. DUST DUNES. That’s what the rolling hills of the Palouse farm country really are. 8. STAGECOACHES once kicked up dust along what’s now the Moscow-Lewiston stretch of Highway 95. 9. THE LEWISTON GRADE road was built in 1916, graveled in 1974. Before a 1977 upgrade, it had so many switchbacks that one square-mile section of land was nearly covered with highway. 10. FLOODING of Lapwai Creek in February 1996 shut down 12 miles of highway for a week near Culdesac. One trucker spends a night in jail for taking an illegal detour. 11. CAMAS PLANTS, a staple of the Native American diet, bloom in blue profusion on the prairie south of Grangeville. Best time to see color: mid-May. 12. WHITEBIRD HILL, named for a Nez Perce chief, was long notorious among north-south drivers. Road builders conquered its 4,245-foot summit in 1918, replacing a narrow trail with 22 miles of hairpin turns. It was upgraded in 1974. 13. THE ONLY STREET in Riggins is U.S. 95, which is traditionally closed down for a short rodeo parade on the first Sunday in May. 14. EXPLORERS in the Hunt-Aston expedition of 1810-12 followed the same route as U.S. 95 south of the Salmon River (starting at Riggins). 15. THE OCEAN stopped here. Up until 100 million years ago, the continent ended roughly along what is now U.S. Highways 95 and 55. 16. COUNCIL got its name because the valley here was a gathering place for tribes. When white settlers arrived in the late 1800s, the 52-mile trip to Weiser took two days. 17. THE DEEPEST GORGE in North America isn’t far from the highway as the eagle flies. But the quickest route to reach Hells Canyon is 55 miles long, heading east of Cambridge via Idaho Highway 71. 18. THE NATIONAL OLD-TIME FIDDLERS CONTEST put Weiser on the cultural map in 1963. 19. THE OREGON TRAIL passed through here. Westbound emigrants stopped at Old Fort Boise, five miles from Parma. 20. THE OREGON STATE LINE marks the start of the Idaho stretch of U.S. 95, which got its number designation in 1926. It was known as the North and South Highway when it opened

Staff research by Julie Titone, Illustration by Warren Huskey Sources include: “Roadside Geology of Idaho,” “Idaho for the Curious,” “Idaho’s Highway History, 1863-1975,” Idaho Department of Transportation, U.S. Customs, Idaho Fish and Game Department.

 

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