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“Among all the places that we go to but don’t look at properly or that leave us indifferent, a few occasionally stand out with an impact that overwhelms us and forces us to take heed. They possess a quality that might clumsily be called beauty….” Alain de Botton 

As our trip winds down and we approach home, I consider where we’ve been as if mapping our route across the northern states–Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota–and a return route from Minnesota across South Dakota and Wyoming, through Idaho, and tomorrow eastern Oregon. The trip is already settling around me in layers, of landscape and places that might surprise me later by coming to mind unexpectedly. For now, though it is a matter of comparisons, like the difference between rushing along the Interstate and the slower passage on two-lane highways where the landscape was mostly without the network of wires and pipelines, railroads, and industry that parallels the freeways, but also remembering the places we stayed, in Idaho, Lewiston and Idaho Falls; in Montana, Missoula and Jamestown; and remembering how we ended up in Winner, South Dakota because I wanted to see where land sales a century ago had tempted my ancestors to move and farm in that region. Of course, it will be hard to forget driving into Grand Teton National Park in late afternoon and late autumn and then crossing the steep Togwotee Pass (9,568 feet) in a line of cars as the sun was setting. And today, we drove Highway 20 across southern Idaho, taking a side trip to Atomic City which had an automobile race track and a hodge-podge of trailers and houses built after the 1960s but also some solid blocky buildings that belonged to the 1950s. I would have liked to buy a postcard, or order a cup of coffee, and spend some time musing over this place in southern Idaho, adjacent to the Idaho National Laboratory, that carries such a weighty name but there were no stores, gas stations, or cafes in Atomic City.

View at the southern edge of Atomic City, Idaho.

Alain de Botton considers what it is about a place that makes us take heed, a quality, he says “that might clumsily be called beauty.” I suspect though that there is something personal and related to our own imagination or experience that causes us to remember certain places while forgetting others.

The second place we visited today was Craters of the Moon National Monument, also along Highway 20 in southern Idaho. We were disappointed that the Idaho National Laboratory EBR-1 (nuclear) museum was closed for the season, but then pleased to see that the visitor center at Craters of the Moon National Monument was open. We picked up a map and drove the seven mile loop, stopping at the Devil’s Garden, the Inferno Cone, and the Spatter Cones. Although from a distance the landscape is a black rocky rubble, up close it has an exquisite beauty that can be viewed as a whole or appreciated as parts–the volcanic forces that created the landscape, the centuries needed for colonization by plants, the fragility of the rock formations, and the human history, of who crossed (or by-passed) this rugged landscape where beauty exists in even the tiniest bits of stone, mineralized surfaces glinting in the sun.

Crater of the Moon National Monument–lava flows, spatter cones, and antler bitterbrush.

Summit of Inferno Cone with Limber Pine.

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Alain de Botton. The Art Of Travel. Virgin Books (2002), p. 213.