“The task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but to think what nobody yet has thought about that which everybody sees.” —Arthur Schopenhauer
THERE ARE LANDSCAPES that move us and landscapes through which we simply move.
State Route 26 has always been considered one of the latter: a notoriously dull 133 miles between Vantage and Colfax that has for decades been the main transportation link between the West Side and Washington State University.
It’s the asphalt welcome mat for more than 10,000 WSU students who travel this highway between their homes in Western Washington and WSU, along with thousands of parents, alumni, and employees. They speed. They scan radio stations past ballgames, Mexican folk music, talk shows—anything to stay alert.
A few may chuckle at the folksy coincidence of a sign for a place called “Hay” followed by a sign for a place called “Dusty,” but for many the effect is lost amid the vast rural tedium.
Two years ago, WSU architecture professor Paul Hirzel and 13 of his students set out to improve the reputation of this much-maligned stretch of road. They researched and produced The SR 26 Gift Collection that included a guidebook, scenic postcards, posters, and a two-hour CD matching music to the scenery.
Since publication, the hardcover guidebook, Motion Pictures: A Portrait of an American Highway, has sold approximately 1,000 copies, and one Seattle bookstore can hardly keep the funky Eastern Washington postcards stocked. Spokane’s Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (formerly the Cheney Cowles Museum) recently asked the WSU School of Architecture to exhibit its perspectives of the Washington roadway in a January 2003 show.
The highway project began as an assignment to help budding architects recognize subtle beauty. Hirzel had wearied of hearing about Mount Rainier and Puget Sound while students complained there’s “nothing worth seeing” on the East Side. Most could name only two SR 26 landmarks, the Othello Rest Stop and the Pepto Pig, a smiling pink pig fashioned by a farmer out of a steel barrel. So Hirzel gave this assignment: “Upgrade a landscape viewed as ordinary to extraordinary stature by revealing its attributes in more creative venues.”
The students, many of whom bemoaned the boring highway, were skeptical at first.
“When we all started out we thought, ‘What are we going to find?’ By the time we got done, we were talking mile markers,” says Diana Wicklund, of Redmond, who worked on the project while a WSU student.
The result was Motion Pictures: A Portrait of an American Highway. It includes unusual stories, photos, statistics, geography, and a local and global history of roads. One master’s degree student went on to envision a motel for Dusty that featured projected Palouse-themed images on the side of the town’s massive grain elevators.
So just what does SR 26 have to offer? Maps show just a thin red stripe through vast white space, with tiny dots marking the handful of towns: Colfax, LaCrosse, Dusty, Washtucna, Othello, and Royal City, home of Washington’s largest golf ball.
But there’s much more, insist Hirzel and his students: two major north-south railways, the Palouse and Columbia rivers, the Saddleback Mountains, and a landscape formed by the cataclysmic Missoula Flood, for starters.
“You go from desert to scabland to ranching to wheat, and that’s just the tip of it,” says Wicklund.There are abandoned barns, dueling windmills, poplar trees that grow 15 feet a year. The smell of wheat, onions, mint. Love proclamations scrawled on roadcuts despite futile “Do Not Paint Rocks” signs. One WSU alum made an even grander gesture on a large spud shack east of Othello.
Farmer Orman Johnson is the third of four generations in his family to have attended WSU. Johnson spent $5,000 to have special crimson siding cut to spell “Go Cougs” in letters so large the message can be seen for miles.
SR 26 also has its share of nostalgic Americana: funky fruit stands, Sara’s Country Store in Hooper, blast-fromthe- past smalltown diners like the Dusty Cafe. A recent addition is “The Waving Lady” at Becky’s Burger’s in Colfax, a towering wooden cutout woman in a blue blouse and pink skirt. One arm cradles a basket of burgers while the other waves tirelessly to passersby, thanks to a motorized mechanism designed locally by a retired NASA engineer.
“We have college kids who come by here to have their pictures taken and guys who stop to see how her arm works,” says owner Becky Hovey. “She seems to be quite a hit.”
Whether she’s waving hello or goodbye depends on which direction you’re headed, since this is where SR 26 both begins and ends. Either way, she’s now part of what Hirzel calls “a 133-mile-long museum.”
“There is an appeal to this road that goes beyond the local people who are forced to drive it,” says Hirzel. “People like it when an underdog wins, it’s part of an American myth: You take something underappreciated, recognize it, and then celebrate it.”
Andrea Vogt is a Pullman-based freelancer who spent 2000-2001 lecturing and writing in Germany as a Fulbright scholar in journalism. Before that she worked as a staff writer at the Lewiston Morning Tribune and The Spokesman-Review.