Idaho’s Highway 32

Highway 32 is one of my favorite stretches of road.

Its twenty-eight mile span connects the tiny town of Tetonia, ID (population 269) with the slightly larger community of Ashton, ID (population 1200). In other words, it’s in the middle of nowhere. Unless you need to drive from Jackson Hole, WY or Teton Valley, ID to West Yellowstone or Bozeman, MT, you may never find yourself on it.

Having at one point lived in Teton Valley, I’ve found myself on Highway 32 somewhat frequently over the years. It’s a two-lane road that meanders through fields of eastern Idaho’s two primary crops – seed potatoes and barley – and two “settlements”: Felt (population 93) and Drummond (population 16).

What distinguishes this stretch of asphalt from your average country road is the ubiquitous presence of the Tetons. The range’s mammoth mountains loom like giant guardians, creating an awesome backdrop along the highway’s eastern side. Like many mountain ranges, the Tetons can become more grandiose the further you get from them. As you both descend in altitude and travel northwest and away from the Grand Teton and its smaller siblings, these hunks of rock seem to become taller and more dramatic.

The first few times you drive this road, you’re likely to focus most of your attention on the show-stopping Teton views. But after you’ve driven it a few more times, you might find yourself fascinated by other things. On my most recent excursion, I was captivated by the seas of young green barley. The warm days and cool nights in this region are ideal for growing this grain, which is generally purchased by the local Anheuser-Busch breweries for making beer.

I love barley in the fall, when it dries into gorgeous straw-colored stalks. It crinkles in the wind and shows off its unique geometric arrangement of harvest-ready grains. But green barley has its own aesthetic appeal. As it undulates with air movement, it creates captivating visual effects – waves rippling through the seas of stems, glimmering light on an infinite variety of greens, the revelation of lines and patterns where tractor tires have broken the unity of color. Trying to capture these transient images can keep a photographer busy for a long time.

I also appreciate this road for its random assortment of agricultural storage structures. I’m a big fan of metal – especially corrugated metal.

Silos and grain elevators are primarily built from this material, and Highway 32 has a handful of great ones – largely due to its proximity to an old railroad (The railroad has been converted to a multiple use all-season trail; for more information on it, see my blogpost about the Ashton to Tetonia Rail Trail.) Set these structures against a backdrop of barley and mountains, and you’ve got a recipe for amazing pastoral vistas.

What you don’t experience on a summer Highway 32 drive is just how terrifying this road can be in the winter. While the presence of closure gates – if you notice them – at both ends of the road might tip you off to its potential peril, it’s more than likely that you’d never suspect this road to be one of Idaho’s most notoriously frightening winter drives. The same wind that animates the barley deposits feet and feet of snow across the roadbed in January. Highway 32 does get plowed, but the wind makes sure it doesn’t stay clear for long. It’s often closed for days at a time during the eastern Idaho’s long winters, and, even when it is open, the road tends to vanish into the surrounding landscape as snowdrifts and “ground blizzards” (swirling snow that hovers over the roadbed) attempt to reclaim the corridor for their own.

You also don’t experience the difficulty of life along this road. While barley and seed potato farming make for spectacular scenery, they don’t make for an easy lifestyle. Many of the farms along Highway 32 have been in families for generations, and as the tourist economy picks up in this area, the agricultural economy continues to struggle.

All it takes is a bad snow year, an overly rainy summer, or a little bit too much temperature fluctuation for an entire season’s worth of crops to be wiped out. Add to this the fact that these farmers can only leave their homes on snowmobiles for entire weeks in the winter, and it’s not difficult to picture the challenges that accompany this lifestyle.

But on a July day, as you speed around some fun tight corners brimmed by barley and steel gray silos, you don’t think about this. You just smile, put on some good music, and bask in the wonder.

 

 

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