What happened to Idaho?

When home doesn’t feel like home anymore
A photo of the Salmon River in Idaho.

I just got back from a visit to Idaho, doing some emotion-ladened disposition of my late mother’s lifetime of artwork. It’s a long drive from Nevada. Lots of empty roads and time for thinking, especially the last day’s drive on U.S. 95 along the Salmon River. The several decades of highway construction that transformed the old, WPA-era (Works Progress Administration) road into today’s highway coincided with my own career, which began in high school and ended not too long ago. It’s not the first time I made the trip, watching through the windshield as landmarks of work and life passed by. 

When I approached the town of Riggins, from where a much younger me and a few foolish friends embarked on an inner-tube float all the way to Slate Creek and survived, I saw the first of several signs, stenciled on plywood. It read “Get obscene material out of Riggins schools” or, as others popped up, “Get porn out of Riggins schools.”

A sign seen in Riggins, Idaho as taken and shared by reddit user u/SuperBooper91

Nothing original about this. People in various parts of the country have discovered all sorts of things about what schools are teaching and particularly what books their children might be allowed to read. But I’ll guarantee you there is no pornography among the materials or library books in Riggins schools. 

Nevertheless, Riggins has obviously not escaped the current cause celebre of right-wing culture warriors. Thanks to social media and political actors well-versed in its use, a “controversy” can be drummed up and spread with remarkable speed and thoroughness. That includes a little town on the bend where the Salmon River emerges from the central Idaho wilderness. 

I doubt that any young person in Riggins came home one day and told their parents, “Hey, there is pornography in the school library.” I don’t know, but more likely someone, not even a parent necessarily, saw or heard something somewhere about how schools were being infiltrated by critical race theory, advocates for LBGTQ+ rights, “woke” propagandists, or some worse menace. And once you start looking, there is no shortage of actors, from state legislators to crackpot websites, who will make sure you find it.

I grew up in southern Idaho, a really long time ago, so I get the signs. Back in the day they would have read “Impeach Earl Warren.” The conservative ideology was always a given, but it was just part of the mix. In the early 1960s, Idaho actually passed anti-segregation legislation predating national civil rights laws. We even had a liberal Democrat for a senator, although Frank Church knew better than to ever vote for any sort of gun control legislation. 

As we lived our lives — and by “we” I mean those of us who came of age in the ‘60s and turned it all, from music to politics to drugs to sex, on its head — we came to an accommodation with our circumstances.

We did not give up anything, or change what we were doing. But we created this sort of hybrid world, rural and Haight Ashbury, with an element of “cowboy,” and pinned it on the redneck face of our state. We then acted like it was something everyone could share. After all, who doesn’t want to be a cowboy, if only in your own mind? And maybe that aspiration, and the cowboy code that comes with it, could connect even the most disparate individuals. 

It was our way of owning where we lived, and where we had grown up. It was how we made telling somebody we were from Idaho intriguing, or even something they might envy. It was the time when the go-to bar in town was the Idaho Bar, where you listened to bands like Idaho Rose, and if you didn’t have a pickup truck, you wanted one. 

A friend of mine from those days wrote a novel about a cowboy from Stanley Basin, Idaho. Among other things, he tried getting over his broken heart by taking his six-gun and shooting out the moon. But in the end, he found himself opened to the world in ways he didn’t imagine possible. 

I don’t know if a book like that could be written now. The Idaho of today would suffocate it. 

There was a kernel of respect those of us who made music, or wrote poems, or spent our lives admiring and thinking about the beauty of Idaho had for the “Famous Potatoes” part of the state. Despite the disdain and even violence that came down on people because of something as trivial as long hair, you also believed the most provincial, prejudiced farmer would stop and help if you were broke down on the side of the road.

Such respect was never a two-way street, of course, but we settled for ambivalence.

That’s what’s gone. There is a big difference between “Impeach Earl Warren” and “Get Porn Out of Riggins Schools.” One states a simple objective which, once accomplished, settles it. The other demands you buy into a world in which we cannot trust our own schools, now or ever. It reflects a mean-spirited view always in search of a new enemy. It cannot tolerate ambivalence. It settles for nothing less than full-throated orthodoxy, and then some.

The “then some” is meanness, and there is no better example than the Idaho State Legislature. For the record, it’s currently composed of Republican super-majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives. Republicans have held the Governorship since 1995. It is a political body not content to make partisan policy, but one which will not rest until it adds one layer of gratuitous cruelty after another to its accomplishments. 

Transgender people are a special target. The Legislature has taken it upon itself to elevate pettiness into law. They have forbidden anyone from stating their true gender on their driver’s license or other official documents, and they have barred transgender people from sports. The latest in what one columnist called their “incessant legal persecution of transgender people, especially children,” culminated in a bill this year that would punish doctors with ten years in prison if they provided standard medical care to transgender children. 

And there is Idaho’s total ban on abortion. There are exceptions for rape and incest, but only if the victim, regardless of age or circumstance, has reported the act to the police. Another exception is as a life-saving measure, though experience has already shown that this only counts when the mother is at death’s door. Exceptions given, exceptions taken away.  

That is the basic law, but for good measure the Legislature decreed that not only is any medical provider who preforms an abortion committing a felony, but so is any woman who knowingly submits to the procedure. A first-of-its-kind law criminalized any adult who helps a minor obtain an abortion in another state without parental consent. That person can also be sued by a long list of relatives, who could then win a court-ordered bounty of thousands of dollars. The state’s attorney general offered an opinion, since disingenuously retracted, that doctors who do so much as offer information about abortion providers in other states can spend two to five years in prison.  

For something of a more random, pedestrian nature, the Bonneville County Republican County Central Committee recently featured Kyle Rittenhouse as speaker and celebrity guest of honor. Attendees not only listened to him claim the government is trying to take our guns away, but a select group of donors also joined Rittenhouse in “Trigger Time” at a local gun range. Someone also won an autographed Rugar AR-556, the same sort of semi-automatic weapon Rittenhouse brought to a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Wisconsin and used to kill two people. 

So what happened to Idaho? It’s pretty simple. The Idaho I mythologized has been wiped away, replaced by a gleeful, self-righteous contribution to a malignant cruelty that prescribes torture as treatment for pregnant women, forces girls to bear the children of their rapists, glorifies killers, and is afraid of books. 

Maybe that other Idaho only existed in novels. Could be. Memory plays tricks. But while I can remember the hard cases being cruel, I cannot for the life of me imagine even the hardest of them reveling in that cruelty. Cowboys wouldn’t do that, even if they could. 

Erich Obermayr, a contributor for the Sierra Nevada Ally, is an author, community activist, and career archaeologist specializing in sharing historical and archaeological research with the public. He writes about Nevada politics and social issues. He lives in Silver City, Nevada, with his wife. Support Erich’s work in the Sierra Nevada Ally here.

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent. Published essays further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.

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