We convince a young frenchman that sub-zero is an appropriate temperature for an Idaho outing.
A glittering cold settled stiffly across Idaho calls for our annual trek to flout the frigid air in bathing suits and bare feet.
Five cars parked in the snow across the Payette River from Kirkham Campground is more than we usually see on cold days. I hope there’s room for us in the hot pools.
With us today is Alexis (pronounced uh-LEX-ee), an exchange student from Brittany, the westernmost region of France. He lives along the Laïta River in the small, cobble street town of Quimperlé where his mom runs a hotel and his dad a restaurant.
He is here with Rotary Youth Exchange, the same program that took our daughter Kayla to Brazil for the 2014–2015 school year. The Exchange places students with three families during their stay. We are his second host family.
“It’s only about 100 meters,” I told Alexis earlier, describing how far we’d have to walk to the hot springs from the Jeep. No need to dress too warm. (He believed me.)
Yelps and laughter mask our quick realization that 12°F (-11°C) isn’t nearly as pleasant as the 30°F or so we had in Boise. Halfway across the campground we see many visitors have settled for a soak in the dirt pools along the hillside up here. That’s a relief. We’re sure to find space in the hot seeps along the river.
Brenna pushed the flout-the-cold idea a little too far with flip-flops. She fights to hold back tears as we thread our way along the narrow snow path to the far end of the campground.
Steam settling constantly into ice makes a tricky descent to the river’s edge. Brenna is lucky to get a lift.
“Was it warm?” I asked a boy in jest who was running ahead of his family, leaving as we arrived.
“Sort of,” he answered, sounding disappointed. I wonder if they didn’t venture beyond the first pool. It’s the most eye-catching, fed by a waterfall above large slabs, but not so warm.
We climb slowly with hands and feet over ice encrusted boulders to reach the second pool, our favorite. A slightly scruffy, middle-aged man wearing a fedora, oval glasses and trunks glances up to smile as we settle in around him. We chat a moment and learn his Slavic accent is Polish, a fun coincidence since Kayla is visiting her boyfriend in Poland right now.
“Drive safe,” he says, standing to depart after several minutes discussing Poland and kids.
I have never been able to find much history about Kirkham Hot Springs, such as who it’s named after or when it became popular. I’ve only seen a blurb saying it was enjoyed by workers from the nearby Banner gold mine in the 1870s¹ (which may sound old until you consider the area of Alexis’ hometown was settled a thousand years ago).
Idaho State Historical Society Reference Series, “A Guide to Nineteenth Century Idaho Resorts and Recreation Areas” (Apr 1995): history.idaho.gov/…/1088
“This isn’t as deep as it used to be,” I notice. “The kids were able to float here before.” Now it’s hard to find a place to sit submerged.
Brenna and I decide to reconnoiter the next pool over after its five occupants begin to leave. I don’t remember it being much but maybe it’s gained what this one lost.
Sure enough — warmer and deeper.
“Come on over,” I call. “I had to kick this guy out but it’s cool,” I say of one guy still gathering his stuff. He laughs. Soon we’re settled into new digs.
Experiences seem clearest, strongest when surrounded by their opposite – sweet against sour, hot among cold, rest after exertion, calm amidst the storm.
I think that’s true not only of experiences but of ideas and beliefs. You won’t know much of your own convictions if you don’t indulge honest opposition. Ideas and experiences alike grow dull without contrast, without contention, without an occasional dunk in cold water.
Brenna and Alexis have become fast friends, perhaps because each is without their natural siblings. She has been excited since we arrived to show him the tiny pool and waterfall above the others that in the past has been her private play area.
The ladies stay behind while Alexis and I explore the farthest pool and test the limits of our cold water endurance.
I encourage Alexis to recover from his venture into the frigid river with a hot shower. He doesn’t seem impressed.
The more tastes we learn to appreciate, the more likely we are to find pleasure in any given meal. Conversely, the fewer tastes we’re willing to try or tolerate, the more likely we are to be disappointed at the table.
I am glad our kids have been able to experience the world beyond their predilections, Kayla in Brazil and Poland, Laura in Japan and now a bit of France in our lives. We have more room for happiness when we cultivate understanding and empathy against our natural tendency to remain among the familiar.
I think it’s no coincidence that narrow, inflexible perspectives are held by those who seem the most frustrated, the most unhappy. To them, the world is a table filled with bitter and dangerous dishes.
It is a pleasure to see our favorite activities through Alexis’ eyes. He’s never had snow and cold like this in Brittany, let alone faced it with bare skin.
It is nearly dark when we begin to gather our things to depart. It will be hard to climb over icy rocks if we wait much longer.
We make our way carefully back up to the campground then hustle through the snow to the Jeep. Our hair and swimsuits are frozen solid by the time I start the engine. What fun!
“Look, zero degrees fahrenheit,” (-18°C) I say to Alexis when I notice it on the dash as we climb the grade above Lowman. He makes a French noise that I assume means he’s impressed.
We are glad to see Trudy’s Kitchen still lit in the otherwise silent darkness of Idaho City. Alexis laughs as he notices various French references on the menu.
“What is ‘au jus’?”
“What is ‘french dip’?”
“What is ‘à la mode’?”
He doesn’t need to ask about french fries. He knows what the words mean, of course, just not our odd way of using them.
“We do not have this in France” is his item-by-item retort to our explanations. I alert our waitress to the discrepancies. She’s suitably impressed.