Monday, October 22, 2007

"North" Idaho

The northern part of the State of Idaho is commonly referred to by its residents as "North Idaho", which seems quite normal when you hear it every day, until you start considering comparable sub-regions within other states. For example, I never hear people talking about “West” Washington or “South” California. I do hear about “Upstate” New York, but not “North” Virginia. However, there is a West Virginia, but that has been a separate state from the rest of Virginia since the 1860’s. Likewise, there is a North Carolina and a North Dakota. Perhaps “North” Idaho wants to secede from the rest of Idaho?

Perhaps geographic vastness along with exceptional isolation leads to this almost secessionary mentality, since people commonly do refer to West and East Texas as well. Although Idaho is not as large as Texas, its awkward shape does give it a degree of vastness, since there are about six hundred miles between Idaho's two extreme endpoints which are located near Priest Lake in the far North and Bear Lake on the Utah border.

North Idaho is separated from the rest of the state by the narrow and tortuous two lane highway, U.S. 95, that connects Coeur d‘Alene to just north of Boise before it veers off to the desolate parts of Eastern Oregon and Nevada. Or if you don’t want to brave that particular highway, you can drive to Spokane and follow a more circular route of interstates through Washington and Oregon to get to Southern Idaho. North Idaho is even more cut off from Eastern Idaho since the most direct route from the Panhandle (another common name for North Idaho) to Idaho Falls or Pocatello requires driving through Montana.

North Idaho is rather isolated from its capital city of Boise. In fact, according to Mapquest, Coeur d’Alene is closer to Olympia (Washington) and Helena (Montana) than it is to its own state capital at Boise. And if you use the Mapquest recommended route to Boise through Spokane and the Tri-Cities, then it is also closer to Salem (Oregon) and Victoria (British Columbia) as well and Edmonton (Alberta) is only slightly further away. In fact, when you fly to North Idaho, you generally arrive at the airport in Spokane, or perhaps Seattle or Portland, and then have to drive there.

North Idaho is a long sliver of land on the western edge of the Rocky Mountains between Washington and Montana that extends from just south of Coeur d'Alene to the Candian border. The area primarily consists of mountain ranges interupted by several lakes and a few open areas used for agriculture. The typical definition of what is “North” Idaho is usually the five northern counties of Kootenai, Benewah, Shoshone, Bonner, and Boundary. Moscow and Lewiston in the Palouse region might be Northern Idaho geographically, but are generally not accepted as a part of “North” Idaho proper. Since Idaho reflects the county on its license plates, you can immediately tell if someone is truly from North Idaho when you see a “K”, an “S”, or a “3B”, 7B”, or 9B” on their plate. Of course you do have to make sure that the “K” or “S” license plates are actually from Idaho instead of German plates for Cologne (Köln) or Stuttgart, which Americans often leave on cars that they have shipped home from Germany. And you also have to make sure that the plastic dealer bracket around the license plate references a local dealer and not one located somewhere like Anaheim or San Jose, because then you may have a Californian transplant masquerading as a North Idahoan!

The major population center of North Idaho is the fast growing urban sprawl around Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls that merges with the eastern end of the suburbanized Spokane Valley. Coeur d’Alene is not a very large city, but it has grown substantially in recent years, from a population of twenty thousand in 1980 to just over forty thousand in 2008. Much of this growth has been to the north and to the west towards Post Falls and Spokane. Post Falls has experienced even more dramatic growth in the last two or three decades, from about five thousand people in 1980 to almost thirty thousand in 2008. The Rathdrum prairie between Coeur d'Alene and the Washington state line used to be a vast expanse of grassland not all that long ago. Now it has been heavily impacted by housing developments, new shopping areas, dog racing tracks, and outlet malls.
Two other major regions in North Idaho are the Silver Valley to the east and the lumber towns of Sandpoint, Priest River, and Bonners Ferry to the north. The Silver Valley towns of Kellogg and Wallace exhibit more of a past mining heritage today, since the days of silver extraction from the Bunker Hill and Sunshine Mines that built all the mansions on Lake Coeur d’Alene or Spokane’s South Hill have passed. These communities are evolving into outdoors and tourist oriented centers. The same is true for the logging communities of Sandpoint, Priest River, and Bonners Ferry to the north and St. Maries to the south. This transformation is probably most dramatic in Sandpoint, which has shifted from a lakefront logging and railroad town to a destination resort on Lake Pend Oreille and at the base of the Schweitzer Mountain. Sandpoint is also the headquarters for the upscale Coldwater Creek company with stores all over the United States. The downtown has shifted from a typical small town Main Street with hardware and variety stores to an eclectic collection of coffee shops, ski and mountain bike shops, art galleries, and real estate offices that sell lakeside property.

I have spent most of my life in the region known as the Pacific Northwest, on both sides of the Cascades, and I am comfortable with the latte drinking, rainy, alternative, and outdoor oriented region with heavily forested mountains interrupted by periodic clearcuts, wheatfields, or areas of high desert. North Idaho is basically a more rural and conservative version of this regional culture that has been made famous by the Grunge scene of the 1990's and all the high livability scores that Seattle and Portland have been awarded over the years, which have basically led to increased housing costs, additional urban sprawl, and even worse traffic jams west of the Cascades.

North Idaho is generally clustered with Eastern Washington as the Inland Northwest or the "Inland Empire" centered on Spokane. Although this is a subregion of the greater Pacific Northwest, rivalries between Spokane and the "Coast" have led to a local media promotion of the Inland Northwest as a separate region. Nevertheless, the drizzly culture, the ubiquitous latte stands, and the fairly direct freeway routes across the Cascades to Seattle and Portland effectively binds the Inland Northwest, including North Idaho, to the coast. While US 95 is a narrow two lane highway that connects the Panhandle to Southern Idaho, I-90, North Idaho's true "main street", is a major freeway that connects the upper Midwest and Montana to the Idaho Panhandle before it continues on to Spokane and Seattle. This pattern is true with railroads as well, with the BNSF mainline from Chicago to Puget Sound passing through North Idaho while the northern spur of the Union Pacific's transcontinental line passes through Southern Idaho with no substantial north south connection anywhere near Idaho. Sandpoint is home to the entire state's only intercity railroad station, ever since Amtrak discontinued the Pioneer between Seattle and Denver via Boise in 1997. Amtrak's Seattle-Chicago Empire Builder stops in Sandpoint just after midnight, but this station only connects Sandpoint to stations in other states along the northern tier of the United States. Idaho has recently tried to address this east-west transport bias that undermines the state's unity by improving Highway 95, mostly by widening certain sections, adding passing lanes, or building bypasses around some of the more dangerous stretches . However, when I arrive in Coeur d'Alene from the north, I can see that the region's East-West orientation is still quite evident when most of the traffic on Highway 95 that has not already been siphoned off by Costco or Home Depot takes the westbound ramp onto I-90 towards Post Falls and Spokane, leaving just a trickle that continues south towards Moscow.

I have a hard time thinking of Boise, Pocatello, or Idaho Falls as being part of the Pacific Northwest since I think it is a bit of a stretch to include even Eastern Oregon, let alone the parts of Idaho that are adjacent to Utah, Nevada, or Wyoming. When I go to an Idaho statewide meeting, the majority of the people are generally from Southern Idaho. Their conversations about Sun Valley, the Sawtooth Mountains, or Boise sounds like references to a different state, especially since very little is said about Coeur d'Alene, Kellogg or Sandpoint. Of course this holds true for probably most any state, but as I already said, very few subregions of a state actually adopt a name that suggests their separation. The division of Idaho into two time zones says a lot. North Idaho, which is oriented towards the Pacific Northwest, is in the Pacific Time Zone along with the entire West Coast, whereas Boise, which seems to look more towards the Intermountain region of the West, is in the Mountain Time Zone, along with Denver and Salt Lake City.

And finally, what about the Idaho Potatoes? Aside from annoying references to Des Moines (Iowa), Cleveland (Ohio), and white separatists, it seems like most people think of potatoes when they think of Idaho. It is a trick of geography that Idaho as a whole is known as the Potato state, but most fresh potatoes in North Idaho grocery stores seemed to come from the Yakima Valley of Washington when I was livign there, probably because those areas were actually closer to us than the famous potato fields of southern Idaho. When I lived in North Idaho, the only Idaho potatoes I consumed were instant potato flakes that were processed in Pennsylvania or McDonalds french fries from JR Simplot, presumably produced for McDonalds in New York, Düsseldorf, or Shanghai as well as those in Idaho. This could also be big business at play, with all the Idaho potatoes being siphoned off by large frozen foods corporations while the more humble ones from Washington or Oregon were used to satisfy the more local demand for fresh potatoes. For all I know, they slice or bake Wapato (Washington) potatoes in Southern Idaho as well. Recently efforts have been made to actually distribute Idaho Potatoes to North Idaho, which might be a state wide initiative, a sign of desperation because of the new trend of low carb diets, or an environmental effort to distribute locally grown crops to reduce greenhouse emissions. Nevertheless, the "Famous Potatoes" statement on the license plates always seemed a bit out of place in the Panhandle, and some people have modified it by strategically positioning their registration decals over the last two syllables of "potatoes" to reflect one of North Idaho’s largest cash crops.

1 comment:

Mayda said...

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