Steam hovers over the large, transparent pool at Burgdorf Hot Springs, 32 miles north of McCall, Idaho. It's a rainy morning, and we've opted for these primitive springs as the perfect way to kick off our vacation.
We've driven from town into the mountains, past quiet lakes still surrounded by snow, following rivers and creeks through corridors of spruce and fir to a lonely dirt lot. A wild-breed turkey has waddled over to greet us, followed by a caretaker who sports a tangled gray beard down to his sternum.
My twin 12-year-old sons, Dylan and Gabe, and my husband, John, and I are the only ones here. We soak in a vintage Idaho scene: horses grazing in the meadow beneath soft rain, cabins leaning into the tall grasses, the northern Rockies surrounding all of it.
The boys take turns balancing, surfer-style, on an old kayak someone left at water's edge, as John and I slowly sink into water heated by the earth to 113°, thinking, Yes, this is exactly the kind of luxury we had in mind.
I let out a sigh of relief. Because ― and here is my confession ― I expected, on this trip back to McCall, to be disappointed. Having read the press about McCall's big growth spurt brought on by the opening of Tamarack Resort in 2004, I expected to find my old beloved mountain town, two hours north of Boise, transformed into something fancy and generic. Despite Tamarack's recent financial woes, its development opened the flood-gates to sushi, spas, better cell phone coverage, and all the trappings of every other mountain resort town. I wondered and worried that McCall might not still be McCall.
THE LAKE, AND A RACE TO REMEMBER
I did not fall immediately in love with Idaho when I moved to Boise from Southern California in 1990, but my first visit to McCall sped up the process considerably. I had entered the McCall Mountain Triathlon, and as a friend and I made the drive from Boise into Idaho's central mountains, she prepped me, "It's gorgeous ― the forest, the lake, the mountains ― all of it … "
The race was small town. A hundred or so athletes picked up packets at Lardo's, a bar and burger joint. Just after dawn, we ran into the icy water of Payette Lake and submerged ourselves in beauty. Each time I reached for a breath, the sight of spectacular granite peaks over the water surprised me. The cycling leg took us along a ponderosa-lined road where I spotted whitetail deer among the trees. Then we ran on dirt trails until the course looped back toward town, where locals cheered us on from the backs of pickups. I didn't win. (Probably all that nature-ogling.) But my friend was right. I was smitten.
Eighteen years, two Idaho native sons, and dozens of McCall visits later, it's clear it was no passing crush.
The skies have cleared, and the boys and John and I lounge on the patio of Bistro 45, a locals' wine bar and cafe with a super-casual vibe and retro board games for the borrowing. It's one of a handful of restaurants in McCall's tiny downtown, a cluster of shops and hotels right on the lake and less than 2 miles from spectacular Ponderosa State Park. If anything has changed downtown, I think to myself, it's so subtle I don't mind at all.
When our sandwiches come, Gabe, who has heard my triathlon story a hundred times, suggests we do our own version. "Burgdorf counts as the swim," he says.
John says, "We should take the chairlift and bike down Tamarack mountain." I'm in. We'll top it all off with a river paddle, I suggest, as the third leg of the race. No one argues. We all carbo-load on grilled panini.
Next: The mountain