Defining Idaho

The definition is elusive. Idaho has a million and a half people, slightly more than a third of whom live in or around Boise (BOY-see, not BOY-zee). North Idaho has its own identity. Idaho is only something like 25% LDS, but in parts of southern Idaho you couldn’t get elected dogcatcher without a Temple Recommend. It’s famous for preppers, gun fanatics, precious metal trading and potatoes (even the license plates announce this). Many of you have only heard of Idaho, never really been there. What defines it?

One must resist, as always, the tendency to generalize too much on a small sample base, but I’ve spent the past month arranging business with Idahoans, meeting them, having them knock on my door, and otherwise getting a feel. What defines Idaho, in my observation so far?

Rawboned. Your typical Idahoan is spare, rugged and inured to economic and environmental hardship. These are a tough people. Life in Idaho can be physically challenging, and I think it tends to run out those who can’t handle that. I’m not thinking this is a big retirement state, although Boise’s climate is just a shade harsher than that of southeastern Washington. That of other parts (Idaho is the nation’s 14th largest state) can be much harsher. I’m talking Montana harsh, and Montana harsh can sneak up on you and end your life.

Unguarded. Idahoans do not anticipate that people will gratuitously do them wrong just because they can. I have seen many examples of this and it seems representative, from driving habits to knocking on my door. Many places are this way, but Idaho seems a bit more so: people seem to assume the good. I’ve been around much of the state over the years (you cannot really head east from Washington without passing through Idaho). There is a certain refreshing goodwill to it all. A good example might be the seller of our house, whose financing went pear-shaped thanks to US Bank’s mishandling. Could we have kicked her out at closing? Sure, but since we did not need to, we did not. We didn’t need the house for a couple more days, and some discussion with others confirmed that we had followed basic custom by not being insistent when we did not need to. Needless hardassery in human relations is just not the way here, that being counter to a live-and-let-live way of life. Surely there are exceptions, but they are neither approved nor embraced at large.

Friendly. Everywhere I have been in Idaho–even the parts where being a jackass can get your head run through a wall, like Sandpoint–I have generally found friendly people. Consider this: if you have followed the blog for a while, you probably read of my pitiful efforts to buy champagne in Rexburg. This is a town that exists mostly for BYU-Idaho, where something like 95% of the population isn’t supposed to drink at all. That didn’t stop people from helping us figure out where we could buy champagne (and there is no poorer selection of it outside Saudi Arabia). People treated us helpfully even after this glaringly obvious self-identification as outsiders. And I did find the champagne (kicking myself really hard for not buying it in Salt Lake when I had the chance for a better selection). I see this even in Boise, the state’s largest city. If you need help, people tend to offer it, whether or not it might agree with their own world views.

Characters. Idaho has lots. I am already meeting them. And since I qualify as one, and am encountering warm reactions to my quirkiness, it’s hard for me to escape a feeling that Idaho is used to characters, and kind of likes them, unless they are the type who call the cops every time someone is having fun, or who yell at kids (metaphorically) to get off the lawn. I would suggest that Idaho leans toward embracing characters, especially those who seem not to be overly guarded, and who show some evidence of a tolerant attitude (it being expected that there will also be other, very different characters, and if one wishes to be embraced, one has to plan to do some embracing).

Let’s be intellectually honest about inherent biases: I can’t say that much of the above isn’t true for observers who go to any place with a reasonably open mind and sense of goodwill. Perhaps it is. But it does seem to come freely and easily in Idaho.

I think we’re going to like this. I think we can fit in, and find our way here.

Basic education: Idaho’s nickname is ‘The Gem State,’ for the wide variety of precious stones found here. The motto is Esto perpetua (Let it be forever). I have no idea what they mean by that. It was the 43rd state (1890). The state song is Here We Have Idaho, which I’m not sure anyone can sing; it beats Washington, My Home, which I can attest that nearly no Washingtonians know, but shrivels compared to Kansas’s Home on the Range. The state bird is the Rocky Mountain Bluebird. The tree is the White Pine (also known as the Western White Pine), which in my lumber mill days we called the ‘Idaho pine’ and had to sort out from the Ponderosa Pine which was the mill’s focus. I told them from ponderosa by the lighter wood and the purplish knots, in contrast to the rusty brown of ponderosa knots. The flower is the Syringa (sah-RIN-gah), a broad white flower that grows from a big bush somewhat like a rhododendron (Washington’s state flower). Idaho’s state fish is the cutthroat trout.

My thinking is we could plant a couple bushes of syringa out back, without hurting anything, and it might be kind of nice.

Howdy, Idaho. Thanks for taking us in.

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4 thoughts on “Defining Idaho”

  1. I thought you might have gotten carried away by some kind of karmic reflection (seeing in the state qualities that are an effortless part of your own persona), so I was glad to see this paragraph: “Let’s be intellectually honest about inherent biases: I can’t say that much of the above isn’t true for observers who go to any place with a reasonably open mind and sense of goodwill. Perhaps it is. But it does seem to come freely and easily in Idaho.” Now that I live in Oklahoma, I’ll gladly attest that some places don’t have to be open-minded to be friendly or cosmopolitan to embrace quirky characters.

    Good luck to you in your new digs, J.K.

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    1. Thanks, Mike. That was on my mind as I wrote: how much of this applies to people, simply, reacting to one’s personality? The answer I came up with was: at least some of it, for sure, but I don’t think all. At least, not as I contrasted Idaho with some other places I’ve spent some time. I didn’t know you’d moved to Oklahoma, but hopefully you’ll like it there!

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