[Published in the Sep 2011 issue of Western Byways magazine. I submitted this story today for a travel writing contest–in the “Off the Beaten Path” category–so I thought I’d trot it out here as well.]
Perched in the Owyhee Mountains at the center of 250 once-active gold mines, Silver City is often referred to as a ghost town–but that’s not a description I recommend using within hearing of its residents. A determined handful, many of them descendants of original owners, still call the place home–though only a few of them year-round. In fact, the town, though dwindled from its boom population of 2500, has never died–which is perhaps why it escapes the touristy feel of abandoned ghost towns, filled with husks of buildings and apparent set-piece props left over from history. This town is still a live place–a place holding to a different way of living than most of us are accustomed to–and that in itself makes it worth a visit.
The road to Silver City remains impassable from November to June (those who dig in there during the winter make supply-runs by snow-machine), but for a summer trip by car it’s a mere 65 miles from Boise, roughly two hours’ drive-time with the rougher roads in the mountains.
Let me take a moment here to differentiate between drive-time and travel-time… If you get into your vehicle in Boise and diligently follow the directions to Silver City, you’ll be there in a little under two hours. That’s drive-time. My husband and I, however, both suffered from previous experiences as road-trip hostages (get-in-the-car-we’re-not-stopping-till-you-have-to-pee-and-maybe-not-then)–so we prefer to Stop along the way. We stop a LOT. We turn the car around to investigate whatever eye-catcher we just passed, we pick up rocks, we hike up hillsides, sit on tractors, chat with people, take pictures, nose our way down side roads, find things to eat… All in all, from the time we fuel up at our local Maverick (“Adventure’s first stop!”) until we pull into Silver City’s main road, we’ll probably spend seven or eight hours on inquisitive adventuring. That’s travel-time. We enjoy experiencing the places we travel. Best done, perhaps, on a motorcycle, with nothing between us and the road–but since we’re between bikes (my optimistic way of saying we don’t have one), a clunker car with windows rolled down serves perfectly well.
We’ve tossed our overnight bag in the back seat and we’re heading south from Nampa on Idaho 45–an open stretch of road bordered by farm-fields, some of them labeled (much to our amusement) with the names of their crops. I’m an Idaho-girl, born and bred, but my husband Keoni hails from Hawai’i, so I tease him that this is an educational trip–he knows sugar cane, but here we have sugar beets. As the highway slowly drops toward the plateaus lining the Snake River, we pass decorated ranch-gates, one of them topped by a metal silhouette of a cougar (he suggests that older, single women must work here), and a machinery workshop with a reader-board suggesting, “Honk if you love Jesus, text while driving if you want to see him soon.” We also spot several of the yellow-diamond caution signs featuring tractors, which put me in mind of the “Travel Bingo” game my sister and I played as kids. It was a scavenger hunt of sorts, setting us to look for items in an ascending hierarchy of difficulty. But the game must have been manufactured on the East Coast, because the easy level included things like a traffic clover-leaf (which we’d never laid eyes on), while the most difficult level included “covered wagon” and “outhouse”… Not a game designed for Idaho, where a “tractor crossing” sign is commonplace.
Hawks soar over the Snake River crossing at Walter’s Ferry, and we get out of the car to admire the geological stories evidenced in the volcanic mesas bounding the river, and in the smaller stones underfoot. Keoni enthuses over a rock that shows “at least five different events,” and turns up the blade of an old hay knife in the process. (We have a basket in the backseat which will gradually fill with his findings–he’s a delighted scavenger who sees treasure everywhere.) In the meantime, I borrow his hunting knife to dislodge a few dozen goatheads from the bottom of my shoes; I like my sandals without added traction, thank you.
Just past the river, we turn left onto Idaho 78, past Hemingway Butte (literary tribute, now a trailhead for desert dirt bikes), and call another halt at Melba’s Blue Canoe, a steakhouse-and-seafood house open Friday through Sunday. Painted boulders outline the gravel parking area with “petroglyphs” (hunters, animals, and of course paddlers) surrounding the blocky building with more merry petroglyph figures dancing against a cobalt-colored wall. The outside eating area–complete with family-style trestle tables, thatched shade, an outdoor grill and bar–puts me strangely in mind of the Florida Keys (I imagine Hemingway Butte moseying over for a taste of Key West), an impression compounded by a banner advertising the upcoming annual Crawdad Feed. I only need one glance at the menu: I’ll be having “Crawdads in a Canoe” (cheese-filled potato skins topped with seasoned tails).
The desert can seem deceptively empty–the Blue Canoe seems to stand all alone overlooking the river, but just a few minutes down the highway we’re pulling into Murphy, where we find the Owyhee County historical museum. It’s not a grandiose affair, but I’m a sucker for any bookstore with locally-authored histories, and there’s a certain romantic kitsch (if you discount the chicken-wire enclosure) to the yard full of rusted old-time farm implements. (The whetstones catch Keoni’s eye; I think he’d like to use one after I used his knife to dig around in my rubber sandal-soles.)
Once we leave Murphy behind, we won’t see another town until Silver City, so the Murphy General Store is a good stop to restock our drink cooler. Across the road, a single strip of asphalt comprises the Murphy Airport, where a large sign cautions against driving cars on the runway (an admonishment which brings to mind a similar sign at the airstrip in St. Andrews, Scotland–that one forbids driving golf balls on the runway)…
South of Murphy we turn off the state highway onto Ridge Road, which leads to a wonderfully-named network of rutted dirt roads (Ruby Junction, New York Summit, Old Stage Road, and of course Silver City Road). Gaining elevation, the landscape begins to jut out in stacked rock formations (some of which I can’t resist climbing up–and one of which challenges me to climb down its sheer backside on a retrieval operation after I discover my hiking-hat needs a chin-strap). Looking back across the Snake River plain, water-carved crevices wend downward; today’s backdrop to the river is a spread of distant smoke plumes, probably grass fires from last night’s lightning storm.
We haven’t gone too far up the mountain when we encounter another cautionary road sign, this one informing us that if we travel beyond this point, we are responsible for the cost of any search-and-rescue operation we might incur. They mean business; the sign cites the applicable section of Idaho code. A word here about vehicles–some guides insist that this road should only be attempted by four-wheel-drive, and indeed, a 4WD would do handily. Speaking for myself, though, I know Idaho roads and I know the limitations of my own vehicle, held together as it is in places with duct tape (classier than it sounds, I assure you–I found leopard-print duct tape at Target). I don’t mess around with the things that could get a person killed on a remote road (we have water, and granola bars, and a full tank of gas, and the array of tools we use regularly to coax the clunker back to action when it sulks), but from my perspective this isn’t a road that poses a threat–at least in summer.
We quickly learn to roll up the windows when a vehicle approaches from the other direction, in order to avoid choking on clouds of dust, and we validate our long-standing joke that our car’s color should be called “Idaho Dirt;” now completely caked with dry dust, it hasn’t changed color by a shade. The driver of a pilot car coming downhill rolls down her window to let us know how many trucks we can expect behind her (from the Silver Falcon Mine–the only remaining mine in operation), and goes on her way with a cheery wave. Game trails weave through the sagebrush on either side, as well as fun-and-games-trails posted for ATVers. We stop at a bridge to watch some modern-day gold-panners at work (using Tupperware!) where the streambed literally glitters with flakes of micah and reflected sunlight.
I called yesterday to see about a room at the Idaho Hotel, but we don’t actually know where we’re headed when we pass the sign welcoming us to Silver City and instructing us to report in with the watchman. Happily, it’s not difficult to find anything in Silver City, so a moment later we’re parking in front of the flag-bedecked white porch of the old hotel. The hotel opened in 1863, with additional sections added over the next few decades. Its tidy three-story clapboard front contrasts starkly with its backside view–dark weathered wood teetering five stories (built on a hill, the street-level front entrance opens onto a middle floor) with a crazed roofline of cobbled-together converging ridges. Pushing open the front door, we wander through a large wood-paneled foyer crowded with relics of earlier days and into an even larger dining-room-and-bar. There, framed by the heavy saloon mirror behind him, we find Roger, who owns and operates the hotel and “lives under the stairs” (not quite like Harry Potter).
Roger finds our reservation jotted in a notebook and steps over his dog Kodiak to show us upstairs to our room. The hotel is unapologetically old–not “decorated in period decor,” but furnished with pieces that have served here for a century and a half. It has boasted indoor plumbing (pumped-in spring water) since 1868; the shared bathroom down the hall now features the pump-flush toilet I’m accustomed to using on sailboats, and there’s a separate shower-room with guest towels folded on the shelves. No room key–unlike the enclosed and self-contained units we expect in modern motels, this hotel retains the feel of a European inn, where we are simply guests of the house.
We probably have half an hour left before the sun drops behind the mountain (the “first sunset,” Roger calls it, followed by several hours of ambient pre-dusk without direct sunlight), so we decide to stroll the streets around the hotel. Our Lady of Tears Catholic Church, a striking white in the low-angle light, perches on a rocky outcrop above us, closed until Father Gerald returns for its next monthly Mass. Just below it stands the schoolhouse, complete with bell, a notice on its door for the next meeting of the town’s planning & zoning committee. Orange-framed “no trespassing” signs on cabins and cottages serve as a reminder to daytrippers that these are not movie-set pieces, but people’s homes. Despite the neon notes and scattered ATVs (preferred in-town transport for residents navigating near-vertical streets), we note and appreciate the utter absence of power lines and phone lines.
When we return to the dining room, it has gained a few patrons–a couple from Oregon (staying in the room next to ours), a fellow stopping in for a drink after building a shed across the street, and a local EMT, who also drives the town’s brush-fire truck when campfires get out of hand at the campground up the hill. He enjoys wines but says he doesn’t know how to pick them, so he entrusts that job to Roger’s wife when she visits wineries for the hotel, and he stops here in the evenings to enjoy a glass of whatever she’s picked for him. Roger reappears with our hamburgers (plain fare, but tasty enough) and joins the conversation, which centers on the upcoming meeting of the town planning committee. He’s having trouble getting approval for his proposed paint job, and bemoans the difficulties of matching paint that’s 120 years old.
An hour later we excuse ourselves and climb the steep stairs to plunk ourselves down on the cushioned bench of the second-floor balcony, overlooking the main street and the steep mountainside opposite. Roger told us to watch for the deer that come down the mountain after dusk (particularly a cocky rascal of a four-point buck who doesn’t seem afraid of anyone), but unfortunately for us, wildlife don’t do “command performances,” and we don’t catch a glimpse of them.
The full moon, on the other hand, holds to its schedule and appears in all its solemn brilliance above the mountain several hours later. Silver City under the moon is more of a ghost town–not in the sense of seeming eerie or abandoned, but because its character of 150 years ago seems now to spring to the forefront. The mountain by moonlight is not a negligible bit of scenery, but a very solid presence, the stars undimmed by street lamps or any hint of electric light. The year 2011 and even the shadow-lumps which (before sunset) were cars and ATVs now take on the role of “ghost,” while Silver City itself, old and largely unchanged, stands revealed. Each cabin, rising from its clump of woods up the mountainside, endures serenely, having held its ground here for a century and a half. It’s the people and their trappings (motorized or otherwise) who are the transient ghosts here. People have built this, and maintained it, lived in it, loved it, restored it–but the place itself has a strength of its own.
We wake early, to the chill of a mountain morning where nothing in the world sounds better than a hot cup of coffee, so we bundle into our sweatshirts and venture into the dining room to see if anyone is stirring. Sure enough, the Oregon guest is building a fire in the wood stove, and Roger has just started the coffee perking.
Although Silver City was among the earliest towns in Idaho to benefit from electricity (via Swan Falls Dam), its only power sources since the 1940s have been generators or kerosene or (in the case of the hotel) solar power, so the guest rooms here are outfitted with a single-bulb electric light each. Last night when we settled down to read in bed, I teased Keoni that he (with his paperback book) was at a disadvantage with regard to lighting. I travel with iPad (all-in-one maps, navigator, notebook, recorder, backup camera, and of course a few novels), conveniently backlit for reading in dim light–but he retorted (noting the absence of electrical outlets) that at least his book wouldn’t need to be recharged in the morning. Touche!
This morning our biscuits & gravy take a while to appear, but placated by the hot mugs of coffee in hand, we take the time to browse the walls–a veritable library of historical photos, news clippings, and Silver City trivia. One loaded bookshelf hosts a collection of books (also for sale)–first-hand accounts of Silver City in its heyday–and reprinted copies of the Avalanche, a high-profile newsrag in its day, with offices just down the street.
We take a table by the window to eat breakfast, fascinated by the battalion of hummingbirds feeding a few inches away on the other side of the warped glass pane. And then the sun makes its appearance, infusing the room with a whole new character. The lace curtains glow cheerfully, the scarred wood gleams, the bottles behind the bar glint in a subdued rainbow–and we lean back to enjoy a third cup of coffee.
When I poke my head into the kitchen to ask Roger about settling our bill, I get sidetracked exclaiming over his magnificent cast-iron cook-stove (which probably weighs more than our car, and which I can’t imagine hauling up the mountain by wagon). He proudly clears it of home-made pies so I can photograph it, then (like a small boy with a secret) tells me mysteriously to meet him at the bottom of the stairs, and promptly disappears around a corner. I’m intrigued–he has been pleasant and accommodating, but not talkative, perhaps a little shy behind his tidy white beard–so we dutifully circle around to the staircase, brimming with curiosity. Roger pops out of a closed doorway like the White Rabbit, swings it wide, and ushers us into his parlor.
Any museum curator would be jealous, truly. And so would any storyteller–Roger is a regular raconteur now that he’s got the bit in his teeth. When people left Silver City, it was often because they didn’t have the funds to stay–and consequently didn’t have the resources to ship things back down the mountain–so most of the furnishings that have arrived in Silver City over the last 150 years have stayed here. This is the story of his elegant piano, and the intricately carved poker table (complete with a cash-slot in its green felt top, and a safe built-in underneath). He tells stories about the town’s characters, pulling out old photos from a pile on the sideboard, and shows us some treasures he’s added to the collection himself. “I’m an eBay addict,” he confesses, handing me a tiny silver spoon bearing an etched engraving of his hotel.
And the oddly-shaped horseshoes leaning against the hallway wall? “Snow cleats for the horses.”
Walking around town, we try to match the existing buildings with the period photos we saw in the hotel. Some still bear the signage of their last use (the meat market, the barber shop, the brewing vat, the Silver Slipper Saloon, the stone wall of the jail with its iron-barred window), but we haven’t figured out which might be the assay office, the Chinese laundry, the bath house… Many of these buildings still have original furnishings inside, and the drug store, it turns out, also belongs to Roger–he wonders if we’d like him to unlock it for us. With all respect to Father Gerald–is the Pope Catholic?
He bought the drug store contents-and-all, and it’s another museum-in-the-making. (“I’m a sucker for old things,” he grins. Pointing my thumb at Keoni, who has 20 years on me, I say “Me too.”) I’m astounded by what has been left behind here–a well-worn dentist’s chair, a prototype asthma inhaler, x-ray machine, a full array of medical instruments, a glass-front cabinet full of unopened medicines (“The newest one in there is 1903,” he tells me) wooden crates from Anheiser Busch and a Pacific Coast Tea Garden, glass bottles and kerosene lamps and advertising posters for McDonald Chocolate and Bromo-Seltzer (a sedative tonic removed from American markets in the 1900s due to its toxicity)…
We make one last stop at the cemetery, a poignant snapshot of Silver City’s life cycle. The number of marble headstones bear testament to the success of the mountain’s mines–and the number of denizens whose lives are measured in days or months bear witness to the hard realities of trying to survive here.
Always interested in a new road, we head out of town toward Jordan Valley rather than retracing our route to Murphy. Along the rutted road we spy occasional campers–not REI gearheads, but archers and gold-panners and ATVers with leather rifle-cases strapped behind. Slag heaps mar the mountain at intervals–avalanches of white rock against the dark volcanic reds and browns, as if the mountain had bled profusely down its side. Eventually the landscape opens up into wider panoramas–cattle and fields and farms with stone outbuildings. The town of Jordan Valley (named for Mike Jordan, the “trail-finder of the Owyhees”) dealt for decades in sheep, and its population of Basque sheepherders has left its mark on the community. The graceful stone Catholic Church was largely Basque-built, and you can still eat family-style at the Old Basque Inn.
The last leg of our drive could rival a day at the Farmer’s Market. Idaho 55 takes us by the Ste. Chapelle and Fujishin wineries, and farmers are selling sweet corn out of their front yards along the road. One hand-written sign advertises “Fresh Corn and Elotes,” so of course we stop to find out what elotes are. Corn-on-the-cob, as it turns out–boiled in the husk and served with salt, chili, butter, and seasoned sour cream. Fresh fruit stands abound along the roadside, and as the fragrance of mint fields wafts us toward town, we realize our picnic basket is fuller than when we left home. Which leaves us with just one question–where shall we go next? We have a lot of Idaho highway left to explore…