Boise, Idaho: Big Skies and Colorful Characters

Idaho’s natural beauty is what makes novelist Anthony Doerr feel so much at home in Boise

Boise, says the author, is a study in paradoxes, a place "both rural and metropolitan, civilized and feral." (Glenn Oakley)
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I stand at the window, 7 in the morning, and watch snow drift across the backyard. Dawn is slow and pale. I drive my 4-year-old twin sons to preschool. The sky swirls; the roads are ribbons of slush. Fog washes between the upper stories of downtown Boise's few tall buildings.

We are passing the Hollywood Video at Broadway and Park when a doe comes skittering onto the road. The intersection is six lanes across and the Toyota in front of us flares its brake lights and 40 or 50 cars in all directions follow suit. We slide into a dangerous, slow-motion ballet. Behind the first doe come five more, radar-eared, panicky, dancing across the centerline.

A truck beside us grinds up onto the curb. A dozen cars behind us glide to a stop. No one, miraculously, appears to have crashed into anyone else.

My sons yell, "Deers, deers!" The six does reach the far side of Broadway and make several dazzling leaps into Julia Davis Park, the oldest of the string of city parks woven through the center of Boise. The deer pause for a moment, looking back, twitching their ears, exhaling vapor. Then they melt into the trees.

I breathe. The traffic realigns and creeps forward again.

Boise, contrary to the notions of Easterners I meet now and then, is not located in Indiana, Ohio or Iowa. More than 300 miles from Salt Lake City and 400 miles from Reno and Portland, Boise, Idaho, is arguably the most remote urban area in the Lower 48. The broad, sandy flood plain on which it is built forms an island in what some people still call the Sagebrush Ocean, thousands of square miles of balsamroot, sky and stillness in the Far West. Depending on the weather, Boise looks alternately silver or gold or beige or purple; after rain, it smells like menthol.

Boisé: in French it means wooded. Our nickname has long been the City of Trees, which sounds absurd to most visitors from, say, Indiana, Ohio or Iowa, whose towns' most pedestrian hardwoods dwarf all but Boise's biggest and oldest oaks. It's only when you approach the city by road, or better yet on foot, that you begin to understand how the appellations suit the place, how a thin belt of cottonwoods along a river might have looked almost supernaturally desirable to a traveler after hundreds of miles of unremitting high desert.

Imagine you're plodding through the summer of 1863, the year the city was founded. You're tired, you're thirsty, you've been passing for weeks through mountains that belong primarily to wildlife: grasshoppers the size of thumbs, anthills the size of pitchers' mounds, biblical herds of pronghorns raising dust clouds in the distance. Reefs of purple clouds gather above the horizon and the day's heat pumps off the basalt around you, and you come over a last bench to see a valley shimmering like some fabled oasis below you: a few orchards, a smattering of buildings, the silver braids of the Boise River. The 19th-century writer Mary Hallock Foote deemed Boise "the metropolis of the desert plains, the heaven of old teamsters and stage drivers crawling in at nightfall," and it's easy enough to picture. A few lights burn between the trees; a half-dozen spires of smoke rise into the dusk. The promise of rest, drink, shade—a haven, a refuge, a city of trees.

These days I can pedal past the densely built bungalows, Queen Annes and Tudor Revivals of Boise's North End into the 30 or so blocks that make up downtown Boise and eat dumplings made by Thai immigrants, buy a pair of jeans made in Guatemala and watch a Pedro Almodóvar film at an art house. Steeples rise here and there; the statehouse dome looms grandly against the backdrop of the foothills. Spend enough time in the hills, a friend who lived for several years in the Bitterroot Mountains told me, and Boise begins to feel like Paris.

But our city remains a place where we see moose tracks on the bike trails and bald eagles along the river and—once, in front of our neighbor's house—cougar prints in the snow. A dozen miles from my house I can stand in the foothills and experience the same graveyard quiet, the same desert indifference that trappers and the Shoshone and Bannock Indians knew. And beyond the foothills are lakes marked on maps only by their elevations, velvet hillsides, alpine meadows, ice caves, lava fields, roaming wolves, a last few herds of bighorn sheep. An hour from our driveway wild kokanee salmon still spawn in the creeks and migratory bull trout still grow to 20 pounds.


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