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The Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa

Airplane Models

Dedicated to America’s military past, the mammoth Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa is a privately-funded collection of wartime memorabilia, stories and airplanes. It’s the kind of place you could spend days at, and still not see everything.

Warhawk-Air-Museum-in-Nampa

A few people had recommended a visit to the Warhawk Air Museum, but we just couldn’t get excited about it. I’ve never been too interested in military history and, as a German, Jürgen is naturally disinclined to the glorification of America’s fighting prowess. But the museum won us over completely. A collection of antiquated fighter planes joins memorabilia, uniforms, posters, photos, postcards, toys and even a recreation of the Berlin Wall within two hangars adjacent to the Nampa Municipal Airport. Ambitious, exhausting and utterly fascinating.

We were given a tour of the grounds by Sue Paul who, along with her husband, founded the museum in 1997. It’s a non-profit, and all of its treasures have been donated privately, from the pilot jackets to the planes themselves. The goal is the simple preservation of military history, with exhibits organized by conflict: the two World Wars predominate, but there’s a growing section dedicated to the Cold War.

The airplanes are the most impressive attractions in the museum, and not all of them are American. There’s a beautifully restored German Fokker DR-1 from WWI, gleaming blue with an Iron Cross stamped boldly on the tail, and the body of a Mig-17: the famous Russian fighter which caused our boys so much trouble during the Vietnam War.

Boise Bee

My favorite was the Boise Bee, flown by Idaho’s own Duane Beeson. During WWII, Beeson was one of America’s deadliest aces, but was taken prisoner after being shot down over Germany. Luckily, the Germans respected enemy pilots, and Beeson was treated well, returning home a highly-decorated hero after the war’s conclusion. He continued working for the Air Force in experimental flight labs, before suddenly developing a rapidly-growing brain tumor which killed him at the age of 26.

These kinds of stories abound in the Warhawk Air Museum. Every display includes at least one binder replete with photographs and stories from the war. So, you’re not just looking at the clothes of a particular soldier, but seeing his face, reading the love letters he sent to his sweetheart, learning about his family, his career, where he fought and how he died. Or whether he’s still alive.

Indeed, many soldiers honored here are still kicking, and they’ve found a friend in Nampa. The museum has recently kicked off the Veteran’s History Project, which endeavors to interview as many veterans as possible. Already, over a hundred former soldiers have sat down in front of the camera. Such a cool idea, giving these fighting men and women a place to record their experiences, before it’s too late. And you can tell they appreciate the chance — just watch the beginning of the interview with the personable Sgt. Frederick Hill, who’s so thrilled to share his story that he can hardly contain himself.

Nampa’s Warhawk Air Museum truly surprised us. The sheer amount of items on display and the amazing stories make it an absolute must-see for anyone, even those of us not normally interested in military history.

Location on our Idaho Map
Warhawk Air Museum – Website

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January 8, 2013 at 2:48 pm Comments (2)

Old Boise Penitentiary

Prison Break

A window into the not-so-distant and none-too-glorious past of America’s prison system, the Old Boise Penitentiary is probably the city’s most popular historical site. Up until a riot forced its closure in 1973, the Old Pen is where Idaho’s worst criminals came to serve their time, get shanked and wait for the gallows.

Old-Penitentiary-Boise

The prison opened in 1872 when Idaho was still a territory, and was in use for almost exactly 100 years. A stay here was no cakewalk. The Pen is as cold, cramped and harsh as morally tolerable: tiny cots packed two to a room, buckets instead of toilets, isolation holes and even an on-site gallows.

A self-guided tour leads you around the grounds, through the cell blocks, and into the recreation yards, the laundry room, and the bone-chilling isolation chambers. There are exhibits and historical information posted throughout the Old Pen, all of it fascinating. You can read about the more notorious inmates, and how they were executed. There’s a section about the female prisoners of the Pen, one about prison weapons, and a gallery of inmate tattoo art. Admirably, the Old Pen doesn’t shy away from stories which cast a negative light on the penitentiary system — we read about the racism of territorial Idaho, when a Chinese man was imprisoned for months on the charge of “an excessive appetite for chicken”.

There are over a dozen buildings to explore, and we started at the old cement cellblocks. The temperature dropped noticeably when we stepped inside. Some of the cells were open and we entered, imagining being locked up here. Terrifying. The newest cell block, built in 1954, held the Death Row inmates and had a gallows built into the second floor; the condemned would drop through a hole in the ground into a “swinging room” on the first floor. Convenient.

The prison was abandoned following riots in 1973, and the cells were left untouched. Even today, they look just as they did almost forty years ago, just a bit more weather-beaten. Many are still infused with the character of their last tenant, with artwork, decorations, or witticisms carved into the wall, some of them touching, some banal, and many profane.

The Old Pen is one of Boise’s top highlights; we spent hours there, making it well worth the $5 cost of entry.

Location on our Idaho Map

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January 6, 2013 at 9:11 am Comment (1)

Welcome to Boise

Great Hotels In Boise

With just a little over two weeks remaining of our 91 days in Idaho, we pulled into Boise. We had originally planned on using the capital as the base for our entire three-month stay, but decided Idaho was too big to be stationed in just one spot. So we went on a road-trip through the state, and left our exploration of Boise for the journey’s end. Did we save the best for last?

State-House-Idaho-Boise

Even by western standards, Boise has a young history. It was founded in 1834 as Fort Boise, 40 miles west of its present-day location. When silver was discovered in Bogus Basin, the fort was moved in order to act as a staging area for the booming Idaho City. Fort Boise soon became a thriving community in its own right, and was incorporated as a city in 1863. Although dwarfed in size by the northern city of Lewiston, and not nearly as influential as nearby Idaho City, Boise took the mantle the territorial capital in 1866 — a controversial move (or theft) that sent the Panhandle into a tizzy. Lewiston even threatened to secede from the territory and join Washington.

Boise’s capital coup isn’t the only thing controversial about it; there’s also the matter of its pronunciation. Idahoans say “Boise” differently than the rest of us. To most of America and the world, it’s boy-zee. But here, everyone uses the soft “s”: boy-see. The difference is unmistakable, and I suspect that locals are doing this deliberately so as to identify outsiders.

The name comes from the French for “the woods” (les bois), but the forests which impressed early Europeans have now been largely cleared away. Still, Boise is a remarkably green city. On our first day here, I saw a few deer grazing along the banks of the river, next to the Museum of Art. The city’s lively downtown centers around 8th Street and Idaho, with an expansive selection of restaurants and shops. There are more bikers and pedestrians than in most cities and, especially as home to Boise State University, the city feels young and vibrant. Boise is slimmer and better-looking than most cities of comparable size. It likes the great outdoors, and strolls along the river. It’s probably a fantastic kisser.

Boise frequently appears on lists like Outside Magazine’s “Best River Towns” or Forbes’ “Best Places to Raise a Family“. It’s not hard to understand why. Not only is there great culture within the city — concerts, museums, theater, dance, public art — but recreational activities abound in the near vicinity, from skiing to mountain climbing to whitewater rafting.

It didn’t take long for us to regret the fact that we had so little time to spend in Boise. Two weeks was nowhere near enough. Seeing the rest of Idaho was wonderful, and we probably made the right decision, but 91 days in Boise wouldn’t have been bad.

Location On Our Idaho Map

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January 3, 2013 at 4:40 pm Comments (3)

Philo Farnsworth – Rigby’s Favorite Son

Television History Book

Potatoes aren’t the only thing to spring from the fields of southeastern Idaho. In 1921, a brilliant young engineer had a “Eureka” moment that forever changed the world. While working on the family farm in Rigby, Philo Farnsworth figured out the principle of the image dissector, leading to his invention of the electronic television. He was fourteen years old at the time.

Dissector

The only son of a humble Idaho farming family, the future genius showed engineering prowess at an early age, repairing generators and charging his mom’s old hand-powered washing machine with an electric current. Young Philo was fascinated by electricity (a novel innovation in rural 1920s Idaho) and spent his time brainstorming its possible uses. One day while working in the field and contemplating the even, wavy rows of dirt, he realized how light waves could be manipulated into a series of lines to display images.

Excited, Philo ran down to the schoolhouse and drew a diagram on the chalkboard for his science teacher. It was the first sketch of a television device and although the teacher likely couldn’t understand a bit of it, he encouraged the boy to continue developing his idea. Philo did so, and in 1928 was ready to demonstrate the world’s first all-electronic television system to the press.

Philo’s innovations weren’t limited to the world of TV — he would go on to invent the baby incubator, and make essential contributions to radar, the electron microscope and infrared glasses. It’s surprising that the Mormon farm boy from Idaho never became a household name; he certainly deserves to be. TIME Magazine, in fact, named him as one of the most important people of the century.

We visited a museum dedicated to the young scientist in his hometown of Rigby, where we saw some of the original models of his television, read about his life, and gave ourselves headaches by trying to figure out his scientific diagrams. We also learned the story of how the RCA Corporation (which became NBC) first tried to hire Philo, and then shamelessly attempted to steal his invention as their own. The ensuing years of court cases and patent fights threatened Philo’s mental well-being, and even his place in history.

It’s baffling how unknown Philo Farnsworth is. We’re a country that regularly puts individual genius on a pedestal; consider the almost embarrassing fawning over Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. But here’s this kid who invents our favorite device ever and nobody knows his name. It’s something that should be corrected. Philo’s story is fascinating, and the chance to learn about his life is definitely worth a side-trip to Rigby.

Location on our Idaho Map

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December 8, 2012 at 10:50 am Comments (0)

Arco and Atomic City

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In 1955, tiny Arco won fame as the world’s first nuclear-powered city. Today, it mainly serves as a jumping-off point for excursions into the nearby Craters of the Moon National Monument. Arco is one of Idaho’s strangest little towns, although nearby Atomic City manages to be even stranger. And littler.

First-City-Atomic-Power

Besides the lava-scorched earth to the south and a range of mountains to the north which include both Idaho’s highest peak (Mt. Borah) and its most awesomely-named (Appendicitis Hill) the most striking feature of Arco is its “Hill of Numbers”. For decades, the senior classes of the local high school have been decorating the nearest mountain with the last two digits of their graduation year. Graffiti on a grand scale.

Arco’s story has been tied to nuclear power ever since our country started experimenting with it. The reason that the government chose this corner of eastern Idaho as one of its nuclear sandboxes is fairly self-evident. Remote and sparsely-populated, Arco is the kind of place that a nuclear accident might go unnoticed. Or at least under-reported. Case in point: did you know that the USA’s only fatal nuclear accident occurred in Arco, Idaho? In 1961, there was a core meltdown in the National Reactor Testing Station which killed three servicemen. [Uncle Sam clutches his chest in mock concern... "Oh, you didn't know about that?"]

Thirty miles to the southeast, Atomic City is even more closely associated to nuclear power than Arco. A ghost-town for all intents and purposes, Atomic City still clings to life with a bustling population of 29. We cruised slowly down the town’s only street and were vaguely creeped out. Although we didn’t see a soul, I was certain that radiation-scarred monsters were watching us hungrily from behind curtained windows, and refused to get out of the car. Jürgen chanced it, for a picture of a trailer that had been designed to look like a boombox.

Giant Idaho Radio
Jürgen, boom-box trailers are how the mutants lure you in!

Close by Atomic City is the Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I), a nuclear plant decommissioned in 1964 and today designated as a National Historic Landmark. The world’s first atomic-powered electricity was generated here and, during the summer, you can tour the interior of the plant. It’s supposed to be pretty cool, but we were visiting too late in the year to get inside. Frustrating. There was no one around, and I briefly considered opening a window, but I’m pretty sure that breaking into a nuclear reactor, even a decommissioned one, is the kind of thing that lands you in Guantanamo.

We contented ourselves with examining the prototype reactors from the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion project. This attempt to build nuclear-powered was a failure, abandoned in 1953, but it left behind some marvelous pieces of engineering to admire.

Location on our Idaho Map: Arco | Atomic City

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December 6, 2012 at 11:53 am Comments (9)

The Old Man and the Potato – Hemingway in Idaho

Ernest Hemingway’s Master Pieces

Ernest Hemingway might have gained fame for his escapades in Spain, Cuba, Italy and Africa, but the final years of his life were spent in Idaho. He first came to the Sun Valley region in 1939, and was a frequent summer visitor for years before buying a house and settling down permanently in 1959. But he didn’t stay for long; on July 2, 1961, he shot himself in the head in his Ketchum home.

Grave-of-Ernest-Hemingway

Like every American fascinated by foreign lands, I’ve read many of Hemingway’s novels, and considered myself fairly familiar with his life. But I had never known about his relationship with Idaho, nor the fact that he died here, until our visit to Sun Valley. When you think “Hemingway”, Idaho is certainly not the first place that springs to mind. But perhaps it should be. Hemingway loved it here; the nature, the skiing and the hunting all fit nicely into his concept of paradise.

Hemingway first arrived in Idaho on the invitation of Averell Harriman, who wanted to bring a bit of celebrity to his new ski resort. As a favored guest, Hemingway spent summers hunting and fishing, and throwing raucous parties in the Trail Creek Lodge with friends like Gary Cooper. He returned year after year, and during the troubled final years of his life, chose Ketchum as his home.

For a town of its size, being the resting place of America’s most famous novelist should be a huge deal, but classy Ketchum never overplays its hand. There’s a small memorial bust of Hemingway overlooking his beloved Trail Creek, and a couple pictures around town, but you could conceivably spend a week there without knowing that you’re in the same place that Hemingway lived and died. Even his grave in the town cemetery is an understated tribute. Just a flat plaque on the ground. When we visited, there was an old, weather-beaten copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls and a couple bottles of beer left on top of the grave in his memory.

When Sun Valley’s publicist Gene Van Guilder died in a hunting accident, Hemingway composed a eulogy about his friend’s appreciation for nature. But the verse was so lovely, and applied so well to Hemingway himself, that it’s been inscribed underneath his memorial bust at Trail Creek. It’s not hard to see what attracted the great man to Idaho, but let’s allow him to explain…

Best of all he loved the fall
The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods
Leaves floating on the trout streams
And above the hills
The high blue windless skies
Now he will be a part of them forever

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November 25, 2012 at 12:05 am Comment (1)

Sun Valley – America’s First Ski Resort

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Older than Vail, Jackson Hole, Aspen or Lake Tahoe, Sun Valley was America’s very first winter resort, hosting celebrities, families and skiing fanatics since 1936. We spent two autumn nights there, basking in its classic elegance.

Fall-Sun-Valley-Resort

In 1935, Averell Harriman, the owner of the Union Pacific Railroad, had a brilliant idea to increase ridership on his western trains. A ski resort! Harriman enlisted the Austrian Count Felix Schaffgotsch to scout for locations which were close by Union Pacific stations. Schaffgotsch considered sites in Colorado and Wyoming but it wasn’t until he arrived in a small, end-of-the-line community called Ketchum, Idaho, that he fell in love.

It’s not hard to see what caught the Count’s eye. The name “Sun Valley” was invented as a marketing ploy, but this part of central Idaho does see an unfair amount of sun. Aspen trees adorn the rolling mountains, which provide both capitvating scenery and excellent skiing. Harriman wasted no time in leaping on the opportunity. Construction projects moved quicker back in the 30s, and less than a year after being “discovered”, Sun Valley was ready for business.

Harriman shrewdly marketed his resort to celebrities, even going so far as to producing a film at the resort; Sun Valley Serenade is a fun light-weight musical that stars John Payne, Sonja Henie and a young Milton Berle, and plays repeatedly on channel 67 in all the lodge’s rooms. The most famous celebrities of the day spent their vacations here; Ernest Hemingway, Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, and the Kennedys were habitual guests. The resort’s reputation as a VIP-friendly escape hasn’t diminished throughout the years; today it’s common to see Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood on the slopes.

Sun-Valley-Resort-Pool-Tub

Sun Valley might be far away from major population centers, but the isolation works to its advantage, since there are never lift lines, nor crushing crowds. Harriman built his resort to last, with a timeless grace to the rooms and facilities. We spent some time in the outdoor pool, unchanged since 1936, and visited the wonderfully retro bowling alley. For a couple morning hours, I worked in one of the lobby’s plush lounge chairs next to the fireplace, with classical music playing in the background, and a member of the staff coming by occasionally to refill my coffee. It’s not hard to understand why 75% of the resort’s guests are return visitors.

The Sun Valley Lodge is impressive enough by itself, but the facilities and recreation opportunities in the village which surround it are even better. One of the country’s few year-round outdoor ice skating rinks. Heated sidewalks. An amphitheater built from the same stone as Rome’s Colosseum. 45 holes of golf. Some of the country’s best Nordic skiing. An Olympic-sized pool. A shooting range. Wintertime sleigh rides to the Trail Creek Lodge. Miles and miles of biking and hiking trails. Tennis courts. An opera house, for Christ’s sake.

But skiing is what most visitors come for. There are two mountains at the resort: Dollar and Bald Mountain. Dollar is known as one of the best learning hills in the world, with a number of easy slopes perfect for beginners. It’s also famous for having the world’s very first chairlift. Baldy is much bigger, with 66 runs and 12 lifts. In contrast to Dollar, the slopes here are no cakewalk; the steep, blue runs of Baldy would be black at most other resorts.

We were at Sun Valley a month before ski season kicks off, which was a little sad. The resort and its surrounding village were lovely during the autumn, with the Aspen trees changing colors on the hills, but winter must be something else. So we’ve vowed to return. We often make such promises to ourselves, but this is one I plan on keeping.

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Official Website: Sun Valley Resort
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November 23, 2012 at 11:50 pm Comment (1)

Basque Shepherds and Arborglyphs

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Our first morning in Sun Valley was rather appropriately spent in a sunny valley. We hiked through the Colorado Gulch just outside Hailey and into a grove of Aspen trees which feature arborglyphs: a unique form of graffiti left by Basque shepherds during their lonely days spent on the hills.

Fun-In-Idaho

The Basques began emigrating in the 1800s, due to financial troubles back home. The rolling landscape of south-central Idaho suited them, reminiscent of the hills in northern Spain, and they settled in nicely here. The men were honest and the women hard-working, and the newcomers were welcomed with open arms by Idahoans. Another wave of Basques arrived in the mid-20th century, fleeing the brutal anti-Basque policies of Francisco Franco. As a result, Idaho lays claim to America’s strongest population of people of Basque descent.

While in the Sun Valley, we had the opportunity to meet a couple of transplanted Basques, including Alberto Uranga, who came to America in 1968. Back in the Basque country, he had been a tuna fisherman, but in Idaho he was put to work tending sheep. Apparently, that’s just what Idaho believed Basques excelled at. Alberto is fluent in Basque, English and Spanish, and eventually left sheep for finance, founding a retirement investment firm in Boise. After finding out that Jürgen and I are based in Spain, he engaged us in conversation, boasting about the resurgent Real Sociedad soccer team, and bitterly recounting the story of his departure, which had been so rushed and chaotic that he didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to his father.

Tree Art

During the boring hours, days, and even weeks which they spent in the hills tending sheep, Sun Valley’s Basque shepherds left their mark on the land by carving into the Aspen trees. These markings are called arborglyphs and are now considered an important cultural relic. They take the form of names or phrases, in Basque and English, and sometimes drawings. A house, for instance, which reminded the artist of his home. Or the shapely curves of a buxom lady.

We took a gorgeous hike through Colorado Gulch to find some of the arborglyphs. The Aspen trees were in their autumnal glory, with leaves glowing yellow, and we hiked for about a mile into the hills before encountering some of the tree carvings. Nearby, was a modern-day shepherd’s trailer. The shepherd was nowhere to be found, out tending his flock, so we chanced a peek through the windows of his trailer. Very simple, just a bed, some canned food and a few empty soda cans. Nowadays, I suppose shepherds have cellphones to stay entertained and connected, but 50 years ago? I can’t even imagine how lonely it must have been.

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November 15, 2012 at 3:20 am Comments (5)

Colgate Licks

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For the 70 miles between Lowell and Powell, Highway 12 cuts through the Clearwater National Forest: a beautiful stretch of driving, but one without any towns, services or other people. The only time we got out of the car was to visit Colgate Licks: an open glade in the forest whose sodium-rich rocks attract wildlife of the licking sort.

Colgate-Lick-Fire-2012

There’s a short hiking loop around Colgate Licks, which takes you into the woods and allows you to sneak up on the rocks, in the hopes of catching some wildlife off-guard. Elk, deer and antelope are the most frequent visitors of the area, though we didn’t see any animals; just some tracks. Still, the walk was beautiful, through clusters of red cedar and lodgepole pine.

One thing we did spot in the area was a wildfire, raging just across the Lochsa River. It was so close that we could actually see flames, although the situation seemed to be well under control by a group of firefighters based out of the Powell Ranger Station. Of course, since Powell is my last name, I felt an immediate kinship for all these brave men and women — in fact, I felt like I should be their leader. Chief Ranger Powell of the Powell Ranger Station has a nice ring. Too bad fire scares the piss out of me.

Powell-Ranger

Colgate Licks has a tragic story behind its name. In 1893, William Carlin, son of a US General, organized a hunting party and hired George Colgate as their cook. The men went off into the woods in search of elk and grizzlies, and eventually became completely lost. Mr. Colgate had the double misfortune of (a) falling sick and (b) being a lowly cook. Carlin and his friends abandoned him in the woods to die alone, which he did. His remains weren’t found until nearly a year later.

A grisly story for a beautiful area. Luckily, today you’re in no danger of getting lost on the Colgate Licks trail, which can be completed in less than a half-hour.

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Smoky Tree
Spot Light Idaho
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November 6, 2012 at 6:54 pm Comments (0)

The Heart of the Monster

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Throughout history, most civilizations have had a legend to explain the origins of life. Whether it’s Adam and Eve, the romantic dalliances of Zeus, or the sun god Inti rising from the depths of Lake Titicaca, humans seem to have an innate need to explain our presence on earth. And the Nez Perce are no different. Their creation legend is a bit more colorful than most, and occurred at a geological formation they called The Heart of the Monster.

Hear Of The Monster

We listened to an audio recording of the story while seated at the hill outside Kamiah, just off Highway 12. I’m paraphrasing from memory here, but it goes something like this:

The Heart of the Monster

Noble and clever Coyote was distraught that all the creatures were being consumed by a great and terrible Monster, as big as a mountain. So, one day, he gave himself a thorough bath and dressed himself as to look appetizing to the Monster. He called out: “Hey, don’t I look yummy?! Why don’t you gobble me up?!” Which the Monster promptly did.

Coyote marched down the Monster’s cavernous throat and encountered Grizzly Bear along the way, who growled menacingly at him. Coyote hollered, “So you want to be aggressive to me, huh?”, and then kicked Grizzly Bear in the snout, which is why grizzlies have flat noses.

Duly chastened, Grizzly Bear marched along with Coyote down the throat of the Monster, and they encountered Rattlesnake, who hissed menacingly at them. Coyote hollered, “So you want to be aggressive to us, huh?”, and then he stomped Rattlesnake on his head, which is why rattlesnakes have flat heads.

Upon finding the Heart of the Monster, Coyote took out a set of knives and began cutting. The heart was so immense that the knives kept breaking. When the last knife broke, Coyote ripped the heart out with his bare hands. The Monster immediately died and the animals escaped out of all his holes … and I do mean all his holes. Unlucky Muskrat chose to flee out the anus, which closed at the last minute and trapped him by his tail. Coyote had to pull Muskrat out, and this is why Muskrats have flat tails.

Coyote now got to work carving up the Monster, and threw his various parts across the land. In each spot where a body part landed, a different tribe sprang up. The Blackfeet, the Coeur d’Alene, the Shoshone. But the Heart of the Monster was left where it lay, and here arose the Nez Perce.

Not a bad legend! But of course, I’ve always been partial to stories which involve a muskrat trapped in a giant’s butt.

Location on our Idaho Map

-Read About The Nez Perce!


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November 6, 2012 at 3:37 pm Comment (1)

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