Getting over Green
By Geraldine Mathias
“Atomic City isn’t exactly on the edge of the world,” Dwain Payne jokes, “but you can throw a beer can over it from here.” Seated on the corner stool of the bar he owns with Patsy, his wife of two years, he looks every inch the western barkeep. Wearing his ten-gallon straw hat, white hair peeking out the edges, a thick white mustache obscuring his grin, clad in blue western style shirt and jeans, he chats with my husband Jim and me about life in Atomic City. We are strangers to him and Patsy, yet they have welcomed us cordially after my explanation that I want to write about the town for IDAHO magazine. It’s ten in the morning and they have just opened the doors. Theirs is the only business in the desert town.
Located halfway between Blackfoot and Arco, it appears from Highway 26 about a mile away to be the set of a Western movie. The small collection of houses, boarded-up stores, and mostly unpaved streets makes it easy to imagine a posse riding through, brandishing six-shooters, leaving a trail of dust in its wake. The surrounding landscape is tinged with browns and the pale gray hues of sagebrush. The sparse trees are mostly junipers amid a few hardy deciduous elms or cottonwoods. Wallace Stegner would have appreciated the place. “If you’re going to live in the West,” the late novelist wrote, “you have to get over the color green.” That is what the twenty-five remaining residents of Atomic City have done. They live here because they like the desert atmosphere, the solitude, the deer wandering frequently into town, the view of the Lost River Range, and the ancient, coalesced lava domes—would-be volcanoes that never erupted—called Big Southern and the Twin Buttes, standing silently on the horizon.
In spite of what the name implies, there’s nothing space age about this southeastern Idaho town. Even so, “atomic” is appropriate, because in square miles and population, Atomic City is tiny, very tiny. According to the state’s website, only three other Idaho towns are smaller in population—Warm River, Clayton, and Drummond. But what Atomic City lacks in size, it makes up for in strong spirit and the quiet pace of life.