It’s not that small towns out west aren’t enchanting. It’s that, to me, they don’t make sense. I see nothing but a jumble of disproportionality when it comes to small towns—very, very big and teeny-weeny-tiny—brand-spanking new and broken-down-dilapidated, an air of celebration and the darkness of despair—nothing in between.
It seems odd, rural disproportional-ism (yes, I made up the word, but I’m sticking with it), the idea of only exact opposites happening at the same time as a rule.
For example, in my experience, rural homes are habitually tiny and peeling, sagging at the roof, dried up, and parched. While parked out front are shiny new Ford and Chevy trucks with extended cabs and beds.
When it comes to portion size equality, the center of town isn’t much better. A thin stack of square buildings ranging from Art Deco to Seventies-Chic remain primarily empty and tethered together. They line either side of a wide-mouth Main Street, a street large enough for multiple traffic lanes, but with a single yellow dash down the middle instead.
Beyond the houses, trucks, and Main Street, vast flowing fields are stark against seemingly wiry and barbed farmers who tend the grain. And then there are the townsfolk.
People in small towns are incredibly suspicious folk. “Who the hell are you, and what the hell do you want?” glint in their eyes and seem perched on their lips towards any visitor not known.
They stand their ground, eyeing every unfamiliar car with disdain while searching the faces of intruders for any resemblance of someone they might know–as if every outsider can break their hearts. As if every stranger equals danger.
Last week my husband and I took a road trip to Blackfoot, Idaho, in the name of research for my Glenna project. Although, the strangeness of rural disproportional-ism began in Pocatello.
The distance from Salt Lake City, Utah to Pocatello, Idaho is 164 miles, a straight shot north along I-15. Pocatello isn’t where my Great-aunt Glenna lived, it is thirty miles south of Blackfoot, and it isn’t what I’d consider a super small town. Still, it has a similar history to the smaller, more rural areas nearby.
Bry and I stopped at a gas station to fill our Mini Cooper with gas, buy more water, and get a couple of Lottery Tickets (because, when in Rome). We then decided to visit the Bannock County Historical Museum in town to get a feel of the area and hopefully find some information about what life was like around the time Glenna was a child.
Bannock County Historical Museum sits on top of a bluff made out of shiny black volcanic rock. It is a modern-looking building with an angled roof and pitch, brown rock on the front, and small square windows above.
When we got inside, no one was at the front desk. We stood and waited a while until Bry saw a bell and a sign that directed us to ‘ring for service.’ He did.
“Yeah, I know,” a woman’s voice called from the bathroom, “I’m coming!”
After another few minutes, a toilet flushed, and a woman hurried behind the counter. She did not look us in the eye, even while we bought our museum tickets.
“Okay, now you’re going to want to start your tour at the Fort,” she said, pointing outside. “Weather ‘round here gets mercurial.”
“Did she say the weather gets mercurial?” Bry asked me as we walked back outside to the Fort.
“Yep. Very me’curious, huh?”
The Fort was a reconstructed Fur Trapper’s village with half a dozen structures made out of logs surrounded by a white stucco wall.
Inside, we saw collections of antiques, turn-of-the-century tools, handmade quilts, as well as a stuffed Grizzly bear (the size of a Great Dane) posed as if walking next to a smaller cub.
A plaque beneath the bears explained that the two were a four-year-old Momma Grizzly and her baby. The pair had escaped the Zoo and fled into the neighborhoods before they were shot, stuffed, and put on display.
“This is a real Grizzly bear?” I asked Bry, starring at its size. “It looks too small.”
There was no explanation as to why the bears were shot, but it felt odd. I know that Grizzlies are on the protected species list. I also know that when a bear is shot in a neighborhood, they are not afraid of humans and pose a threat.
However, how Pocatello is set up, the only way a bear and her cub can escape from the Zoo is through neighborhoods. And if the bears were raised in captivity, of course, they weren’t afraid of humans. Humans brought them food. So why hadn’t the bears been captured and returned to the Zoo, alive? It didn’t make sense.
Besides the shooting, I was also puzzled by the super small size of the Momma bear. Grizzlies, even four-year-old ones, are generally enormous. In 2018, in Wyoming, a wild Grizzly, fresh from hibernation, was slaughtering cattle on a nearby ranch. I suppose he was hangry.
The Grizzly was captured and euthanized. He turned out to be over ten feet tall and weighing around six hundred pounds—exceptionally massive, even for a Grizzly.
In another log house was a mounted moose head which seemed twice as big as the adult Grizzly bear in the house next door.
“Me’curious, don’t you think?” I pointed out to Bry, “I would think a Grizzly would be bigger than a moose.”
Bry and I drove the thirty miles north to Blackfoot. The houses, the trucks, the fields, and Main Street were what I had expected.
We quickly found and drove to the Bingham County Historical Museum to read a sign on the door that said the museum was closed due to Covid. I hadn’t noticed anything about its closure online.
The sign said we could call and make a museum tour appointment. I called and left a message. No one called me back (even five days later!)
We then walked across the street to a building called The Bingham County Historical Society Archives, which was also closed due to Covid, and also gave tours by appointment only. I called the provided number and let the phone ring and ring.
A local woman approached us and asked us what we were doing. She was smiling at us, one of the only people who did during our entire trip. I told her we wanted to look up some archives of relatives. She wanted to know who my relatives were. I told her, but she didn’t know them.
“I called the number on the sign to make an appointment,” I said, “But nobody answered.”
“Yeah, no one would answer because no one’s there,” she told me.
Of course! It was the logic of shooting domesticated bears for not being afraid of humans!
Next, Bry and I drove to the edge of town, to State Hospital South. In my research, I had viewed photos of State Hospital South or S.H.S. The pictures made the place seem as if patients were going to a Liberal Arts College, not an insane asylum.
In old pictures, the campus began with a grand entrance to the property under a black iron arch planted between two white columns with South Idaho Sanitarium (later called State Hospital South) scrawled in the middle.
Oak trees lined a dirt road leading to a three-story, all-brick building with white gingerbread trim and a clocktower at the very top like a hat. Other pictures had the main building stucco white with fluted fascia, still three-stories and still wearing the clocktower hat. I believed it was the admissions building.
Beyond the admissions were the rest of the facilities, all brick, two-story rectangular structures laid out like the spokes of a wheel.
Woven in and out of the buildings leading to a wide-open plain was a carpet of lawn with expertly placed oaks, weeping willows, and pine trees—a perfect place to walk, wander and reflect. Maybe as a way to inspire the next great American novelist, the next Ayn Rand?
Bry and I drove to where google maps directed. We came upon a squat single-story white building with individual pitches like a giant rickrack embellishment hanging off the roof. In black lettering, across the side was State Hospital South. Looming in the distance is what I believe was the old surgical and treatments building—a giant white stucco edifice with curved rooflines reminiscent of a 1950s jukebox.
S.H.S. didn’t look like the old photographs I had seen online. The majestic collegiate-looking building and the black iron entrance gate and the white granite posts were all gone. Where the grand building with a top hat once stood was a new building.
Constructed in August 2020, the building is severely modern, with beige stacked rock columns supporting a covered car park jutting up at an angle like the winged door of a DeLorean. The building wears its name like a name tag, Syringa (in curling cursive), and Chalet (in simple print). Its newness stark against the white jukebox.
I hadn’t expected S.H.S. to look like the 1940s photos, but there was no resemblance to the hospital for which I have done so much research. It seemed like most of the buildings had been taken down over time, each replaced with the most modern style available. There was nothing cohesive about the place except the lawn linking everything together.
And then there was the once beautiful lawn.
Although much of the grass was spared, many baseball diamonds, the plates, a dugout, a tall gate to prevent rouge baseballs from tipping off the bat and flying in the wrong direction now stood.
On the day we visited, Little League summer games were going in the 100-degree weather.
Trucks, minivans, and S.U.V.s were parked under a canopy of old oaks that had once led to the outbuildings of the state hospital. I wondered if my Great-aunt Glenna had walked under these same trees if she had strolled across these very grounds eighty-one years ago? There was no sign now that anybody had.
As we drove by, the people watching the baseball games turned and watched us pass. They knew what we were—going around in a black and white Mini Coupe—we were not trustworthy. We weren’t from around there. We were strangers.
Once again, I was filled with the discomfort of disproportionality.
State Hospital South is still up and running. I was struck with the unnerving realization that as the hospital was housing people at their depths of despair (depressed, suicidal, drug addicts) were stuck inside, minor league baseball games were going on outside.
Could patients hear right outside their windows the cheers and boos of a crowd? What about the sound of a baseball hitting off a bat? Or the peeling of a whistle as an umpire indicated a safe slide into Home plate?
I don’t know, but the whole strangeness of the thing makes me shudder.