Wednesday, June 17, 2009

So Much More than Potatoes!

This is my first trip to Idaho, and I am loving it! Not only is it a beautiful state with friendly people, but it also has a number of surprise attractions for the Technical Tourist.

Tired of driving, we pulled into the tiny town of Challis. Showing no signs of sustainable economic activity (not enough agriculture, clearly not a tourist destination, no factory infrastructure), we were puzzled as to why there were a dozen motels lining the main road. Of course, when there is no outward sign of industry, look underground. The bartender at our motel confirmed our suspicions – mining! But not just any old mine, this is the only molybdenum mine in North America. Who doesn’t love moly?

Thomas Creek does offer tours of the mine. Our bartender (who also drives the fuel truck up there sometimes) gave us the phone number of the guard station, but everyone in town suggested we just drive up to the mine. Unfortunately, when we arrived all of the managers were in a meeting and no one could give the authorization to get us in. Better luck next time.

Continuing our drive south, by noon I was getting peckish, and forced my dad to pull over in the town of Arco. Another grand surprise. As the sign outside city hall proudly proclaims, Arco was the first city to be lit by atomic energy. We went inside to find out more information and discovered the front desk staff leafing through the archives of the local newspaper, the Arco Advertiser. Arco is celebrating its centennial this year, and they are busy putting together a cd of the town’s history.

The exceptionally friendly staff told us all about EBR-1, the experimental breeder reactor down the road a few miles, and encouraged us to take a tour. They also urged us to return to Arco in a few weeks to celebrate Atomic Days, their annual town celebration. I’m tempted.

How can the technical tourist refuse an invitation to see the first experimental breeder reactor? Of course I knew the basic history of the Manhattan Project and the reactor at the University of Chicago, but I had no idea that Idaho played such a big part in researching the use of atomic energy. Idaho National Labs is clearly still doing some interesting research, but the Department of Energy clearly wishes to confine tourists to its historic work.

My final Idaho surprise came after a disappointing trip to the Hagermen Fossil Pits (Don’t get your hopes up. There are no fossils to see.) On a whim, we turned off the road to see the National Fish Hatchery. I was surprised to discover we weren’t the only tourists viewing the fish hatchery on a random Tuesday afternoon. I was even more surprised to learn that their visitation rate would make most museums jealous. And I was even more surprised to find out that 75% of the stocked trout in the US is grown in the high plains of Idaho. It takes about 11 months to grow a fish. They had just shipped out all of their stock, and they ship all over the country. Now, every time I see a truck on the highway, I wonder if it is full of fish.

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