Photo: B Brown/Shutterstock

There Aren’t Just White People in Idaho Falls?

by Josh Heller Sep 24, 2012
Joshua Heller catches sight of northwestern Mexico in Middle America.

I EXPECTED a place like Idaho Falls to be a homogenous bloc of overweight white people who are unabashedly voting for Mitt Romney. (Not because they are 1% billionaires, but because they know one of his cousins from a congregation of the Church of Latter Day Saints just outside Pocatello.) But upon arrival we discovered that not everybody was as pale as we’d predicted.

The hotel proprietor was the first person of color that I’d seen in weeks (not counting my girlfriend). We had been traveling through a part of the country that lacks the multiculturalism I’m used to in cities. The hotelier told us that he left India last decade for an MBA from the University of Utah. Since graduation he’d worked as a consultant all over the United States, but his favorite place was Salt Lake City.

Idaho Falls wasn’t that bad, but only because he could get to Salt Lake City in three hours. He’d just returned from a beer festival and knew that it sounded funny, but assured me that not everybody there is religious. Which I kind of understand, because Delta has their hub there, and I once read an essay in their in-flight magazine that tried to convince me that SLC isn’t boring anymore (i.e., Mormon leadership has made drinking more accessible).

I asked if there was anywhere good to eat or drink, back there in Idaho Falls.

“No. We go to Olive Garden.”

His brother looked at us from across the room. “At least it’s consistent.”

* * *
We walked across the street to a hamburger stand called Tom’s. A lone woman worked the dinner shift at the restaurant which looked like a pizzeria in a 1980s movie, but for some reason had Greek food on their menu. We ordered the souvlaki, some french fries, and a pitcher of beer. We turned toward the screen and watched an episode of America’s Got Talent. We understood how you could monetize a singing or magic career but were still confused about how one might turn their contortionism into a viable profession. You’d just have to take whatever job came your way, we figured. You’d have to be flexible.
If I didn’t make carnitas out of him, this hogzilla would make carnitas out of me.

The woman, who might otherwise be bored with her job, passed the time by asking questions to customers. She asked Swedes to show her what their Swedish money looks like. She asked us what football team we identify with. I told her I didn’t have a team, because the Rams and the Raiders left Los Angeles when I was very young. She said she was a Raiders fan. I gave myself an internal high-five for having a brief but convincing conversation about sports.

* * *
The next morning we woke up early for the continental breakfast, which was just several different kinds of sugared starches. Energized for another day in the Idaho Falls metropolitan area, we drove 20 minutes towards Yellowstone Bear World (which was 90 miles away from the National Park) because we wanted to stage photo shoots with fauna that we didn’t actually see when we were at the National Park. For $16 (per passenger) we bought our right to drive our vehicles (WINDOWS UP) past bison, elk, bears, and moose in what looked like a grassy city park.

After looping around the all-you-can-see bear and bison exhibit, we pulled into the petting zoo to watch people who’d paid $35 feed bear cubs with baby bottles. For only 25¢ my girlfriend fed the rainbow trout, and I pet a moose for free — the antlers were surprisingly furry. An opportunistic goat sat next to a food dispenser, waiting for some sap to put a quarter into it.

Across the park an ugly pig sauntered around. This creature was not adorable, and kind of scary. All of the Babe-induced sympathy I previously had for porkers was reversed. I imagined that if I didn’t make carnitas out of him, this hogzilla would make carnitas out of me. The gift shop touted huckleberry fudge, huckleberry syrup, and huckleberry taffy. We’d had been in the land of Bison Burgers, but now we’d arrived in the land of Huckleberry Everything.

* * *
We drove back on to the highway. A KIA Soul with Idaho Plates, 4U2Envy, zoomed past me. We’d run out of podcasts early on the roadtrip, and were sick of listening to the Blues Traveler cassette that we’d bought for 25¢ at a thrift store in Aberdeen. The airwaves of the heartland seem to be be dominated by pop, Christian, country, and rock stations that play a disproportionate amount of metal.

The fact that metal was being played on the radio surprised me. In urban centers commercial rock stations play an occasional Metallica song, but here every artist on the radio played commercially accessible hard rock or metal subgenre. I wondered if heavy metal gets played on commercial radio in Middle America because disaffected white youth have excessive rage towards their right-wing parents and conservative environs.

It was just another song about a horse named Jew.

Singers sang songs about the lovers they lost, the borders they crossed, and the memories of pastoral pueblos that they’d left behind in the morning fog of the sierras. We heard a song called “El Judio”, which means “The Jew.” As a Jew I wondered if I should be offended, so I asked a Mexican friend on Facebook if that song is racist. He said it was just a song about a race horse. It was just another song about a horse named Jew.

Another radio crooner sang about paletas, which made us crave popsicles because without air-conditioning or a functional driver’s side window we were melting inside of our car. Actually, we decided, a meal in an air-conditioned restaurant would be better than a popsicle in a steaming vehicle. Based on implications by the innkeeper that residents of Idaho Falls don’t have good taste in restaurants, we opted not to crowdsource our food options by Yelp. Luckily a commercial on the radio advertised a restaurant called El Sinaloense, toting the restaurant’s mariscos ricos.

We weren’t necessarily running to eat seafood in a land-locked state, but an advertisement for a Mexican restaurant on a Mexican station meant they probably served good Mexican food to a discerning clientele, aware that nothing on TacoTime’s entire menu resembles Mexican cuisine. Except maybe those nacho cheesy tater-tots.

This is the most effective strategy for finding good Mexican food in random places: throw out your Yelp, find a Mexican radio station, listen to the commercials, and go eat. If there aren’t any Mexican radio stations, there won’t be any good Mexican food (just admit defeat and head to the drive-thru for some nacho cheesy tater-tots.)

We sat down at a table facing a television. The mesero handed us menus, and was surprised that we spoke Spanish. He was from Chihuahua but the menu was from Sinaloa. I asked if he was “El Chihuahense del Sinaloense”. He did not understand my joke.

He offered us a Sidral Preparada, which was like a Michelada, with chiles and salt around the rim, but with apple soda instead of beer. It was unexpectedly pretty good. Our carnitas tortas were authentically delicious Mexican sandwiches, which I wouldn’t have guessed that you could find in Idaho, but would have quickly realized by the side of potato chips that came with the torta. (Idaho ♥ potatoes.)

We hit the road heading south towards an alleged Coldstone Creamery in Pocatello.

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