July 15, 2008
I entered Idaho from the east, following State Hwy 34 out of Freedom, WY, along the Pioneer Historic Byway and through the scenic Caribou National Forest. From the flat farmland that made up the final stretch, I approached the fairly nondescript town of Soda Springs, ID, passing various industrial properties and scattered residences on the outskirts. Crossing railroad tracks, I made a left turn and found myself on the main drag, right in front of my destination.
I had driven past The Enders Hotel on previous trips, never giving it more than a passing glance. But a recent Internet search had turned up something that made me curious to take a closer look. A unique, inside view of the hotel was available through the perspective of Brandon Schrand, who had detailed his life growing up within its walls in his book, The Enders Hotel: A Memoir. The account of the authors life as a young boy, riding a tide of hotel ups and downs and watching a revolving door of colorful characters, won him the 2007 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. It sounded intriguing and it wasnt long before I felt the familiar tug inside that I get when I yearn to explore something a little more closely. What better way to get a feeling of the place, I decided, than to book a room, buy a copy of his book, and read it while staying there.
I checked in during the late afternoon, choosing a second floor room with a bath down the hall, a typical set-up for old hotels. As often is the case, the smaller rooms in historic hotels are a good bargain and this was no exception. My lodging rate for the night was $65, including a credit for breakfast the following morning.
The receptionist opened the hotels gift shop so that I could purchase a copy of the book. Though there were other guests on the third floor, I was fortunate to find myself the only one on the second, which allowed me the quiet and isolation to fall into the story I held in my hands. I grabbed a quick sandwich downstairs at the Geyser View Restaurant, lugged my overnight bag up the stairs, and settled in for an evening of reading.
From the very first page I found myself drawn into the story. This intriguing memoir sent me sliding through a time machine, landing firmly in the past. I could almost hear the author as a young boy, slipping through the halls. I vividly imagined the shot of a gun that had taken down a man in the bar downstairs. I felt the presence of previous guests and tenants in nearby hotel rooms or in apartments they had inhabited along the side of the hotel. When the wind rattled the door late at night, I could sense their spirits passing by.
I had the unique luxury of stepping into the story as I paused at passages and tiptoed down the halls to find the very spots the author described. Sometimes they were identical to what the pages painted. Other times the hotels restoration had changed their physical aspects. But in all cases, the sense of the story was almost tangible.
The Enders Hotel is deceiving from the outside, hiding as a typical older building lost amidst a main street that spans only a few blocks. A passing traveler would never guess that the inside holds a beautifully restored lobby boasting smooth, refinished banisters and pristine original lighting fixtures. Care has been taken to restore hallways and rooms with detail and authenticity. Furnished with antiques, its not difficult to imagine the hotel as it was when it first opened in 1917.
A museum occupies a good portion of the second floor, free of charge. Carefully arranged rooms present displays of early life in Soda Springs. Visitors can view old photographs of the town and its inhabitants, antique equipment for sewing, cooking and dentistry, with historical information accompanying each category. Sadly, at the time of my visit, a gun that belonged to the Sundance Kid had been recently stolen from the museum. But many other artifacts remain as reminders of the town in its early days.
I slept well, in spite of an eerie sensation that seemed to hover around me. As it is, the hotel has the reputation of being haunted, even without the additional insight I had gained from Schrand’s recollections. When morning arrived, I ventured downstairs again to the restaurant, this time for breakfast. Having read much of the book the night before, I looked around the eatery with a new familiarity. I could easily imagine the young author sitting at the counter, ordering an after-school snack and chatting with familiar waitresses. Though the cafe was renovated along with the hotel, I now saw it as it appeared decades ago.
I checked out reluctantly. This was a peaceful, economical and inspiring place for me. I could have stayed much longer. Perhaps I could have lived there, as Brandon Schrand did many years before.
Before leaving Soda Springs, I strolled over to the Soda Springs Geyser, a natural geyser that, now regulated by a timer, erupts every hour on the hour. Several others stopped by in time to see the hourly show. Situated right behind the hotel, the geysers location held stories from Schrand’s memoir, as well. A small building had served as a clubhouse for the author and a cemetery bordering the back of the geyser’s hill had been regular stomping grounds.
My visit to Soda Springs was a fascinating excursion into the past. The Enders Hotel stands as a testament to the hidden treasures that small towns hold. They say not to judge a book by its cover. I say not to judge a hotel by its façade.