Idaho Falls to Salt Lake City

Saturday, 31 August 2013 15:30
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Lovely downtown Arco, IdahoI hopscotch across southeastern Idaho and see some pretty interesting stuff along the way.

This was a fairly short leg of the journey thus far, and it was intended as just a ‘bridge’ drive from Yellowstone to Salt Lake, where I had an invitation to stay with some fellow Roadster enthusiasts, but it turned out to be a lot more interesting than expected.

After leaving the rain and hail storms of Grand Teton, I decided to stay someplace with a hard roof for the night, so I continued through Jackson Hole and into Idaho Falls and grabbed a hotel.  There are actually falls in Idaho Falls, although they’re man-made.  Originally, the “falls” part of the name was in reference to a set of rapids just south of the bridge across the Snake River, but later a long dam was built for hydroelectric power which created a spillway and a set of ‘falls’. It’s very popular with the local geese.

Very brave geese in Idaho

Heading out of Idaho Falls the next morning, I didn’t really have anything in mind between there and Salt Lake, other than staying off the interstate. I saw “Craters of the Moon National Park” on the map, and I figured with a name like that I had to check it out, so I went off in that general direction. Not too far west of Idaho Falls, I entered the area of the Idaho National Laboratory, a large research and testing center specializing in nuclear reactor work. The part of the facility that I visited was “EBR-1” (‘Experimental Breeder Reactor 1’), and it was originally an extension of Argonne National Laboratory, which was formed to continue Enrico Fermi’s work at the University of Chicago to produce plutonium for the Manhattan Project in WWII.  INL also does a lot of work for the US Navy, and was the site of some of my brother’s early training in nuclear technology as part of his naval enlistment. 

Not a sign you see every day Helpful warnings on the entry door

EBR-1 is the first nuclear reactor in history used to generate electricity, but its main purpose was as a testing and experimental reactor to prove Fermi’s theories on ‘fuel breeding’, where a uranium-235 reaction is used to ‘convert’ natural uranium-238 into plutonium-239. To make a long story short, normal right-out-of-the-ground mined uranium has less than 1% of the 235 isotope that is useful as reactor fuel. However, if you start a reaction with it and it’s around some ‘natural’ U-238, the neutrons released will whack into those ‘natural’ atoms, ‘converting’ a substantial number of them to plutonium-239, which is fissile and can be used as reactor fuel—basically, a breeder reactor is capable of making more fuel than it consumes, which was Fermi’s theory, and is what EBR-1 proved out in actual conditions.

Anyway, it worked. The EBR-1 facility is now a national landmark, and it’s remarkably well preserved. Most of the interior items and devices (including the reactor containment vessel) are there to check out on a self-guided tour around the facility. A couple of the cooler things to see were the control room, which is exactly as last operated, and a part of the wall near the turbine that generated the first electricity where everybody present at that time signed their names. One of the first names on the wall is Dr. Walter Zinn, the man who started the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction. Pretty cool.  

First lightbulb lit with nuclear power Push in case of emergency Ironically half-illuminated signage. Turn the reactor back on.
The 'hot room', with remote manipulators and 39" thick windows An experimental USAF reactor for a nuclear powered bomber Top of the original EBR-1 containment vessel
The control room, back in the day Control room, today--pretty much unchanged Good to keep an eye on that

After geeking out on all the goodies and gadgets in EBR-1, I continued down the road to Arco, ID, the first city ever powered by atomic energy. This was also an offshoot of the Idaho/Argonne Labs programs, and was more for propaganda purposes than anything else, since they’d already proven that electrical generation was possible, but it was the Cold War and it was pretty important to everybody to one-up the Soviets whenever possible.

Arco is pretty run down now, but there’s some remnants left of its nuclear past, including the entire sail from the nuclear submarine USS Hawkbill, a Sturgeon-class sub. There was also an interesting hillside just outside town with two digit numbers all over it, which were the graduating years for the high school classes since 1920. Apparently it’s a tradition to climb up there and put your class year up there as a display of school spirit (not to mention climbing skill.)

City Hall, maybe? Not sure. Looks like Atomic Days were a hit The "Numbers Hill" with the graduating dates
The sail of the USS Hawkbill. Datsun for size reference. Join the Navy, See the World Memorials next to a Mark 14 torpedo

I left Arco and headed south to Craters of the Moon National Monument. Craters is a massive area of volcanic activity, similar to the Lassen park that I visited in northern California earlier in the trip. It’s got the most recent lava flows in the US (other than Kilauea in Hawaii, which is ongoing now), with some of the areas having erupted only 2000 years ago.

The landscape was weird and fantastic and amazing to contemplate the sheer quantities of lava that came out of the rifts. It didn’t have the quantity of lava tubes that Lassen had, but the few that it did have were huge, and I had a good time wandering around inside. In one cave/tube, it was cold enough for there still to be ice in there, and in another, I had one of the weirdest and coolest experiences of the trip so far. I hiked in to the end of one of the deeper caves, and to get the full effect, I sat down on a rock and turned my light off. It was pitch black, and perfectly silent with the exception of the intermittent noise of water drops falling from the roof of the cave. I sat and listened for a while and let my eyes adjust to the dark, and suddenly there was a brief but pretty energetic earth tremor (you California folks would recognize it). In a second, the noise in the cave went from almost silent to the sound of the shortest rainstorm ever, as every drop of water hanging from the ceiling shook off and hit the floor. It was completely silent for a few minutes after that, but then the slow dripping resumed. Slightly damp, I made my way back out of the cave and continued hiking around the lava fields.

A path through part of the lava fields Tourists on one of the cinder cones Closer look at some of the lava rock
Another cinder cone, with a bit of foliage I got a permit, naturally This was way hotter 2000 years ago
Like Lassen, there wasn't much babysitting Entrance to one of the larger lava tubes Inside the lava tube
Looking back toward the cave entrance Cool lava formations in the caves ("Pahoehoe" lava) Ice in the desert in August.


Leaving Craters, I went through several small Idaho towns on my way to Salt Lake, and then spent some time on I-15 south getting to my destination. It was pretty odd to see big signs that said “I-15 South—Las Vegas”, and a good reminder of why the car likes two lane backroads better than eight lane interstates, but I made it to West Jordan, UT, home of my Roadster host, Kyle.

Over-the-shoulder sunset, southeastern Idaho someplace

Kyle is the proud owner of two 67-1/2 2000s, one fully restored, and one just starting on its restoration process. He let me park in his garage, and after chatting with him and his wife for a bit, we all hit the sack, as I had gotten there a bit later than expected.

The next morning, we got up and had some breakfast, then went down to the local auto store to pick up some oil for an oil change. Kyle was kind enough to let me use his garage and tools to get the car off the floor and get the oil changed, as well as look around underneath for any signs of problems. Things looked pretty good, other than my rear main seal leak starting to get leakier…I may end up having to do something about that before I get home, but I’ll keep an eye on it. Same with the now-familiar transmission noises; they’re getting a little noisier, so I may have to get on that shortly.

Changing my oil in Kyle's garage

After the car geeking was done, we all went to a local sandwich shop called Moochies, who advertised “authentic Philly cheesesteaks”, and was coincidentally my second “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” restaurant stop. I had the meatballs rather than the cheesesteak, but they were pretty darn good.

Kyle let me drive his car back to his house, as I hadn’t driven a 2000 before, and his had the full motor treatment, with the Solex carbs and the ‘B’ cam and all the goodies. It was definitely a lot stronger than my car, and you could really feel it get up on the cam over about 3000RPM. I wasn’t really looking for more power before, but now I think it might be fun to have something a little more interesting under the hood…we’ll see after this trip.

After saying my farewells, I headed over to the Salt Lake airport, where I picked up my friend Chris Wessels, who’d be joining me for the trip through Colorado for the next few days. It’s my first passenger of the trip, and he’ll definitely be testing the limits of the amount of passenger and cargo we can get into that car, as he’s 6’7” (2 meters) tall and will have his own stuff to carry.  Should be interesting, for sure.

Next stop: Guided tour of Colorado


#1 lectacave 2013-09-04 14:32
Absolutely fascinating. So many great shots, but that pic of the control room back in the day really got me! Were you terrified when that tremor happened? So cool. I am particularly fond of this post! I also require a permit.
#2 cmfisher4 2013-09-04 17:41
Ah, my old stomping grounds. Thanks for putting the "shout out" in for me. That link is a picture of the prototype that I went to, also (there were three of them out there). It didn't have water in the basin when I was there, though. Spent a lot of time exploring those lava flows, though usually by myself so was never brave enough to venture into the caves. Great memories!
#3 Sizzles 2013-09-04 20:13
Wikipedia says SCRAM possibly stands for Safety Control Rod Axe Man. I think I'll go around the shop tomorrow and start putting new labels on all of our E-Stop buttons...
#4 admin 2013-09-04 21:09
Wikipedia says SCRAM possibly stands for Safety Control Rod Axe Man.
That's what the story was there...apparen tly when Zinn and Fermi were working on the pile at the University of Chicago, they had the control rods suspended on a piece of rope and a guy stationed up on a balcony with an axe to cut the rope if the reaction started getting away. Nobody seems to know whether or not that's for real or just a story, but I like it. :-)
#5 laceytrynn 2013-09-05 10:14
I love lava tubes! Nice to see where you used to work, cmfisher4!
#6 cmfisher4 2013-09-06 18:16
Another interesting piece of history that you drove past (as long as you took Rt 20 out of Idaho Falls), was the SL-1 site. This was about 1/2 to 1 mile before the main gate to the INL on Rt 20 (several miles before Atomic City). This was the site of the first deaths caused by a fully functional nuclear reactor (Army...they weren't too bright). You can read more about it here: It was always a little spooky driving by this place EVERY DAY on my way to work. A gentle reminder.

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