Loose in the Palouse

Palouse Falls

For a Seattle urbanist, wide open spaces can be intimidating. Yet I was drawn to the Palouse with its sensuous undulating hills of golden wheat cut by jagged ravines that reveal eons of history. Farmers thrive here in spite of the isolation, maybe because of it. Thresher machines were moving slowly across the fields, a pale whisp of dust trailing their whirling blades.

Our visit, though brief, was well timed during the harvest. The wheat glowed in the evening light and radiated new warmth with the morning sun. Dayton, near Walla Walla, was our destination and the Weinhard Hotel our retreat. This old brick hotel sits right on the main drag so we made sure to reserve two rooms at the back. Last time we stayed in a beautiful room up front….and heard every truck passing though the night to Lewiston, Idaho. Four poster beds are not everyone’s first choice, yet for us it added a touch of old world comfort.

Who knew that General Mills had a Jolly Green Giant asparagus canning factory here? That is until they moved the whole production to Peru, and left a lot of folks unemployed. The move was encouraged by the US to displace the drug trade, with USAID supporting the development of asparagus production.

The Giant ancient petroglyph is maintained by a few devoted fans but some in the valley would rather wipe the image off the rock face, given how they were screwed by General Mills. At one time up to 1000 migrant workers came up for the sessional production, with their kids enrolling in schools, and the families helping to support the community. Nada now.

Biking up along the local waterway, we noticed pro and con signs regarding the Touchet River Trail. Apparently some land owners are not too keen on those “recreationists” riding through their property between Dayton and Waitsburg. We tried to pedal lightly over the ground.

The Liberty Theater was playing In The Heights. We made it in time for the afternoon matinee. Though under new ownership, this small theater maintains a lovely atmosphere. The ticket taker is also the food vendor, and the show greeter giving her brief review of the movie and announcing family events in the near future. This was our first time attending a show in a movie theater since the start of COVID. Not to worry, all precautions were taken. Seating was spaced out and all wore masks inside.

Now whether the viewers could relate to anything on the screen was another question. Washington Heights in New York City is a world apart from the Palouse. I lived in Manhattan’s upper west side so was somewhat familiar with the landscape and not so disoriented but with all the singing and dancing, it was hard to suspend one’s disbelief.

Two bar/burger joints offered a fair selection for dinner on one night, but we headed into Walla Walla and reserved outdoor seating at Passatempo Taverna owned by Jim German, who used to run a bar in Waitsburg. He set up this restaurant with help from Mike Easton who owns the Corvo restaurant in Seattle. This latter spot was so hard to get into for lunch that I would wait until 15 minutes before closing (@ 3 p.m.), checking from my perch in City Hall to see if the line had dwindled. Pasta was great.

At 99 degrees, the shade of the outdoor dining was appreciated, as well as the mister that cooled the skin. Until they turned it off because most of the mist was drifting inside. It was a relief when they responded to my request to mist us again.

One museum not to miss it the Fort Walla Walla Museum. It is reminiscent of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, though without the big donors and impressionist artworks. Old buildings have been restored and located together in a village lay-out, with log homes, a jail, tiny school house, doctor’s office and more. The focus in on the settlers, with some indoor displays recognizing the local tribes. But wheat farming is a big element of the displays.

Thirty (plastic) Mule team pulling a thresher.

The mules were watching my every move.

We headed to the Palouse Falls through very dry country, hoping no brush fires started along the route. Around Yakima we had just skirted a brush fire along the highway. Smoke tinted the morning sun.

Palouse Falls is spectacular…but my advice is to seek out morning light or perhaps a cool evening visit is more comfortable. It was so hot even the marmots were stretched out on the little shaded ground nearby, looking like mini bear skin rugs in the Palouse dust. One smart marmot was grazing in green grass under the spray of a rotating sprinkler.

About Whittoons

Cartoonist, and community organizer who has covered the globe as a doodlebugger, gandydancer, supernumerary steward, Able Bodied Seaman, Wireman, monkey man, Night Baker and dishwasher, Hobo, hitchhiker and husband.
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