I’ve been very fortunate to have visited many of the world’s great cities. Buenos Aires, Boston, Kiev, Merida, Bangkok, Paris. Even Seattle.
Regardless of having seen Pa-ree et al., I still always feel a thrill of anticipation passing the city limits sign of a small town, and I’ve encountered a lot of them while pursuing stories for this magazine over the last decade: Sunnyside, Neah Bay, Waterville, South Bend, Marblemount, Starbuck, Winona, and others equally euphonious. How did the town come to be? What are its people like? What surprises might wait in its architecture, history, cafés, or whimsy?
The deep red door on the little white church in Prosser. The experimental jet plane hanging from the ceiling of the café in Waterville. The wonderful camarones al diablo in Sunnyside. The windmill garden in Electric City.
Consider my latest adventure. After driving a couple of hours, I stop in Wilbur at Billy Burgers for an order of onion rings. While waiting, I get to talking with a gentleman somewhat older than I. His grandson, who is actually from Lind, attends WSU. He loves to hunt, says his grandfather. When he arrived on campus, he figured he’d show up at a shoot sponsored by the gun club. And amazed everyone by consistently shooting 25s. At least that’s what his grandfather says.
Later in Pepper Jack’s Bar and Grill in Grand Coulee, I ask the server (who is not the least bit ironic, nor does she think I need to know her name) what kind of wine they have. Cabernet, chardonnay, white zinfandel. Turns out the cab goes pretty well with the walleye (“best fish you ever tasted”), the canned green beans aren’t bad with a little Tabasco, and the French fries are truly the best I’ve had in a long while. Once the family next to me leaves, I have the place to myself.
The walls are filled with photos of dam construction and history, and the décor is frozen somewhere around 1963. The town outside the window is absolutely dead on a Thursday evening in early March.
But Grand Coulee was not always so still. If you listen carefully, you can just hear the shouts, music, and laughter of the town’s infamous B Street that grew up around the Grand Coulee dam construction. And much fainter, the music of children playing as their parents fish for salmon on the undammed Columbia.
Despite my best efforts, there are many Washington small towns that I have not yet visited. Aeneas, Bruce, Climax, Springdale, Yacolt. There is much to learn about and to report on these small towns sprinkled across the Washington landscape. And not just the towns, but also the spaces between, the dark spaces below as you fly east over the state at night.
Dark, but hardly empty. How full those spaces are, old ranches, native fishing spots, and of course the landscape itself, the biological, evolutionary, geological stories everywhere, illuminating the shortness of our time, the shallowness of our focus and understanding.
Tim Steury, Editor