The small town of Bliss, Idaho is “disappearing” — photographer Jon Horvath has created a capsule of life there


Feature · the arts

The small town of Bliss, Idaho is “disappearing” – a photographer has created a capsule of life there

Photographer Jon Horvath first visited Bliss by chance, but was struck by the small, remote desert town.

Bliss, Idaho sits on the curve of Interstate 84, which snakes around the small rural town heading north to the state capital of Boise, 85 miles away. When Milwaukee-based photographer Jon Horvath visited Bliss in the late summer of 2013, he was on a winding road trip after his relationship ended. At the time, about 300 people lived there, served by a small community church, K-12 public schools, cafeteria, post office, gas stations, motels and two bars.

“If you find yourself there … chances are it’s just filling up the gas tank, maybe grabbing a quick meal for dinner, but that’s probably about it,” Horvath explained in a phone call.

Buck Hall, a Bliss resident, told Horvath on his first visit that the town saw more regular visitors, but the photographer recalled that construction of the Interstate decades ago diverted traffic. Once a place to pass, Bliss became a place to pass – a touch of irony in an exit sign.

In the desert south of Bliss, Horvath saw local workers standing on the side of a burned-out roadside brush piled up in winter. “I was drawn to the fact that the act of scrapping and re-creation reflected some of the larger themes of the project,” Horvath said. Credit: Jon Horvath

Horvath wove photos of found arrows (pictured here to White Arrow Ranch, a private resort north of Bliss) throughout the book to represent misdirection or misdirection.

Horvath wove photos of found arrows (pictured here to White Arrow Ranch, a private resort north of Bliss) throughout the book to represent misdirection or misdirection. Credit: Jon Horvath

Oscar, a resident of Bliss Country Park, an RV and mobile home community, whom Horvath met briefly through a local pastor.

Oscar, a resident of Bliss Country Park, an RV and mobile home community, whom Horvath met briefly through a local pastor. Credit: Jon Horvath

“(Hall) summed up the state of the town,” Horvath recalled of this initial conversation. “His words were: ‘We’re a town of 300, and 299 when I die.’ (From Horvath’s photos of Bliss, a new truck stop has brought more jobs to the town, but the 2020 census reveals its population is now over 250. Buck Hall died in 2021, aged 75).

Horvath’s first image of Bliss only scratched its surface—capturing the expected images of blighted or empty spaces that contradicted the town’s name, he explained—but as he returned over the course of three years, drawn to the people he met there and their stories, a more complex work began to form.

Taking a photo of local resident Jarad hunting coyotes, he shows Horvath his gun.

Taking a photo of local resident Jarad hunting coyotes, he shows Horvath his gun. Credit: Jon Horvath

A dog named Fruit Snacks in the Outlaws and Angel's saloon. "I had a brief encounter with FS's owner, who wanted to show me the dog's ground teeth," Horvath explained.

A dog named Fruit Snacks in the Outlaws and Angel’s saloon. “I had a brief encounter with FS’s owner, who wanted to show me the dog’s ground teeth,” Horvath explained. Credit: Jon Horvath

In 1995, a C-130 Hercules transport plane crashed in the desert near Bliss, killing six people. "An Idaho state worker took me to the crash site and said visitors will come and pick up the loose pieces as a memorial gesture." Horvath explained about a composite photo of the collected remains.

In 1995, a C-130 Hercules transport plane crashed in the desert near Bliss, killing six people. “I was taken to the crash site by an Idaho state worker and visitors will come and collect the loose pieces as a memorial gesture,” Horvath explains of a composite photo of the collected remains. Credit: Jon Horvath

Now titled “This is Bliss,” Horvath’s work doesn’t follow the traditional documentary-style record of a place. Instead, black-and-white and color film stills, tintypes, archival images, ephemera, and scanned objects from Bliss form a kind of dreamlike time capsule.

During his time there, Horvath discovered a different way to tell a story about the American West. Rather than the expansive photographic explorations of the region by photographers like Robert Adams or Stephen Shore, “This is Bliss” mostly covers a small area—about a mile—that Horvath kept returning to, peeling back the layers of the town.

Horvath met Eldon Thompson (pictured, far right), and was introduced as him "Bliss's oldest remaining resident," in 2014 "I met him at a local cemetery, where he was watering the flowers on his grave," Horvath recalled.  Thompson has died since Horvath's last visit to town.

Horvath met Eldon Thompson (pictured right), who was introduced as “Bliss’s oldest remaining resident” in 2014. “I met him at a local cemetery where he was watering the flowers on his grave.” Horvath recalled. Thompson has died since Horvath’s last visit to town. Credit: Jon Horvath

Bliss prom queen and king Jessica and Brandon, photographed in their school's gymnasium in 2014.

Bliss prom queen and king Jessica and Brandon, photographed in their school’s gymnasium in 2014. Credit: Jon Horvath

“There’s a macro level to the work that was looking at the longer, deeper history of the region,” Horvath said, “and some of the stories we tell as Americans.”

Happiness may be a small mark on the map, but it’s been part of much bigger stories: It’s on the Oregon Trail, a path for settlers to expand the West through the rush of Manifest Destiny. As Horvath points out, it’s near where stunt biker Evel Knievel attempted (and failed) to jump the Snake River Canyon in 1974. And later in life it was the home of author JD Salinger’s friend Holden Bowler, who named Salinger’s famous “Catcher in the Rye” protagonist Holden Caulfield.

“There are all these myth-making events within our history that have had a presence in this town,” Horvath said.

But there’s also what Horvath calls a ‘micro thread’ in the narrative, from the residents’ lives to their quest to rediscover what their ‘wholeness’ might be.” did”.

Horvath worked to capture a sense of place and mood around Bliss, and was drawn to this scene between the two trucks for its visual excitement.

Horvath worked to capture a sense of place and mood around Bliss, and was drawn to this scene between the two trucks for its visual excitement. Credit: Jon Horvath

At White Arrow Ranch, owner Ron has built the infrastructure of the farm by hand, Horvath said.

At White Arrow Ranch, owner Ron has built the infrastructure of the farm by hand, Horvath said. Credit: Jon Horvath

Some of his experiences at Bliss are fictional, Horvath said, like the time he was served by a bartender named Cinderella. Hall once instructed him to drive to a cliff by moonlight and find a rock formation recorded in local legend as the rugged profile of a Native American chief; Horvath did so and took a photo, which has become a postcard printed to accompany the book.

On one visit, he went to a nearby cemetery, which had only six plots, marked with crooked white wooden crosses and a faded sign engraved with “Chinese Memorial Cemetery.” A historical pamphlet Horvath bought at a local gas station says the grounds hold the bodies of 16 migrant railroad workers who died in an 1883 explosion and were buried together, though that total is disputed.
A memorial to the victims of a car accident.  Horvath said a server at the Oxbow Cafe recommended taking a picture of the site because the crash victims were friends from high school.

A memorial to the victims of a car accident. Horvath said a server at the Oxbow Cafe recommended taking a picture of the site because the crash victims were friends from high school. Credit: Jon Horvath

All our stories and memories form a place, however imperfect. Horvath is not a historian, so as he gathered anecdotes and records from Bliss, he said he accepted them all, verified or not, as part of the town’s archives. “I liked the idea that I would meet Buck Hall on the side of the road, and he’s (telling) me stories,” he added. “Are they true? Aren’t they true? Maybe in another universe it would matter.”

Fittingly, at the end of “This is Bliss,” Horvath wrote a short piece of fiction based on her experiences there.

“Either we embellish or we take liberties, or we bring them one of our own inventions,” he said.

This is happiness,” is available now from Yoffy Press and FW:Books.

Image above: Buck Hall reflected on the hood of Horvath’s car.