Atomic Days

A Stricken Town Still Knows How to Party

Story and Photos by Stephen Henderson

Except for the 1970 sedan purring in front of the rec hall, Arco’s main street is silent.

“That engine’s a fresh-out-of-the-crate Corvette Triple-Z,” says the owner, Jed Mitchell. His is one of those rides with a trunk big enough to fit anything—or for that matter, anybody—and it just gleams. He lights up a cigarette and gives me an easy, creased smile, one he’s been working on for three-quarters of a century.

“When I met him he was my rough, hot biker,” Jed’s wife, Kathy, chimes in. “As the years went by and he lost his momentum, he had to have a hip replacement. So he went from motorcycles to old cars. I call ‘em his chick cars. I mean, the girls just have a fit!”

I’m here in Arco partly because when I was growing up, National Geographic and I were best friends. I always wanted to mimic its style and subjects in my own writing: the people, their culture, struggles, and triumphs. Weeks of digging for information on Arco hadn’t turned up very much material, so I decided to make my visit sooner than expected. The town’s annual cancer awareness benefit would be happening the next Saturday, when I hoped locals would be milling and willing to talk to a stranger like me. On the day, I grabbed my camera and a few lenses, packed the essentials in my car, and headed west.

The Mitchells tell me they retired recently from pipe-lining and gold-mining in faraway Alaska to Arco, a dot on the Idaho map that falls somewhere between Twin Falls and Idaho Falls. They’ve spent the last five of their forty-seven years together here, and they aren’t planning on leaving.

“When we moved here, we thought we were gonna be two old folks with no family, no anything,” says Kathy. “I swear we’d only been here two weeks and we started meeting people and it was like family.”

The family feeling here is palpable. At the end of each summer, Arco and her sister communities gather as one big family for the Atomic Days celebration, car shows included. It’s clear why Jed and Kathy would want to end up in this dusty town, of all places.

Following the World War II, the federal government began pumping millions of dollars into the Idaho National Laboratory—then known as the National Reactor Testing Station—an 890 square-mile patch of desert and sagebrush located roughly ten miles from Arco. Engineers and their families relocated to this town of a few blocks as the feds’ focus shifted from battle-proven nukes to more peaceful endeavors.

Fewer and fewer residents work out at INL or “the site” anymore, and the town is stricken. Most find employment working the land, bringing in alfalfa, barley, potatoes and corn. Walking off the main street into the Sawtooth Bar, you can feel a bygone era trying to cling to the present, old bottle caps creating word pictures on the yellow ceiling.

On July 17, 1955, Arco did have its day in the sun. The same day that Disneyland was inaugurated, the whole town was hooked up to the nuclear grid; it became the first city in the world to be lit entirely by nuclear power. The juice ran for about two hours. Luckily, those two hours have kept the tiny town on the map. But staying on the map is one thing; staying alive and on the map is quite another. In Arco, the population can’t keep up a tax base strong enough to sustain the community.

As kids anxiously wait for the water to be turned on at the giant blow-up water slide, the rest of the population mingles among vendors and booths at the annual Lost Rivers Cancer Aware-A-Bration, in Bottolfsen Park. Three years ago, cancer survivor Barbara Andersen decided to start the event to celebrate life and promote cancer awareness, and the town has responded. No surprise at all for the community that helped raise more than $24,000 in one day for a local car crash victim a few years back.

“It’s a nice thing to come play for free, eat for free, and get education on some health issues,” says Andersen, her two kids standing in oversized Aware-A-Bration T-shirts, obviously losing patience with their mom and her new friends; all of kid-dom is waiting for her to turn on the water.

Andersen’s husband, Trevor, who works as a heavy equipment operator at nearby INL, points to the giant white numbers on the mountain overlooking the town known as Number Hill. Each year, the senior class makes its way up the cliffs to dangle from tires, dip brooms in five-gallon buckets of paint, and mark their year on the rock, a tradition that began almost a century ago. Something about it is reminiscent of ancient Egypt; the mountain with its numbers looming over the town. “They’ve started using harnesses and safety equipment to get the job done, which is a good thing,” chuckles Trevor.

Making acquaintances is easy in a place where it seems like everyone is raising everyone else’s kids. After making my way through the line of heaping potato salad, dogs, and chips, I run into Michelle Holt, director of local economic development. Michelle understands what it’s like to operate on a shoestring budget. Butte County is eighty-seven percent government-owned land, the bulk of that ownership by the Department of Energy. “We have a huge amount of land that doesn’t generate any tax revenue, which affects the hospital, schools, everything,” she says. “We just do what we can and we get lean and mean.” It’s an ironic situation for a place whose peak population fifty years ago was essentially fueled by the same department.

Sheriff Wes Collins, tall and goateed, is standing a few steps away over a grill of blackening hot dogs. He removes his plastic serving glove to give my hand a firm shake. “Our budget is hurting,” he says. “We’ve taken a lot of different ideas from a lot of little counties who are going through some of the same things, trying to figure out ways to save money and still provide a service. It’s getting tough.” Despite the challenges—extracurriculars and other programs that are losing funding or being removed altogether—the young people, he says, are some of the best they’ve had in years.

We lift our eyes from the park to Number Hill. The sheriff says once they’ve hit a century, a date that’s fast approaching, he hopes the painting tradition will come to an end. I secretly hope it never stops. [/private]

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About Stephen Henderson

Stephen Henderson is an aspiring writer and communications student at BYU-Idaho. A native of the tidal region of Leonardtown, Maryland, he grew up with a love of the outdoors, music, and photography. He enjoys reading a good book, writing, and going on adventures with his wife, Sarah. Follow him @sphenhen.  

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