People are spending less on summer vacations, some folks are staying home. A recent article in The Seattle Times carried this quote from a travel market analyst based in Cambridge, Mass., named Henry Harteveldt: "People will find creative ways to satisfy their wanderlust. They'll say, 'Guess what? Instead of going to Paris, let's go explore Eastern Washington.'"
Eastern Washington is no Paris, though it does have good wine and some French names, like Pend Oreille, which refers to the early inhabitants' custom of distending their ears with jewelry, a thing you mostly see on Capitol Hill nowadays. But as I found on a recent trip over the Cascades, there is fun and unexpected stuff to do on the dry side. With my low bank balance and lack of frequent flyer miles, it beats Paris because there is no other option.
A word of warning before you read further. Be aware that after one of my last trips to Eastern Washington, I so enraged one community with my reporting that they've invited me back for a "Deliverance"-style weekend to practice my, uh, pig-calling skills. So if you go East, better not tell them who sent you.
Two tickets to paradise
They say travel is about the people, but one of the great things about Eastern Washington is that there are no people, at least by Pugetopolis standards. Okanogan County is nearly the size of Connecticut but has fewer than 40,000 residents. Empty roads, dry coulees, vast amber waves of grain, no madding crowds, that's part of the appeal.
Up until a few years ago, the Seattle Seahawks sent their players to training camp in Cheney, a town outside Spokane. One reason: They couldn't get into trouble there. It was hot, remote, and there were few human distractions. Wives, girlfriends, entourages stayed at home, and were happy to do so. Cheney seems reasonably charmless for a university town — fitting for a prision, er, training camp, but we didn't investigate because we merely passed through on the way to nearby Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. This place is maybe 40 minutes outside Spokane, but you might as well be on another planet.
It sits in a geologic area called the Channeled Scablands, a name dreamed up by the Lesser Eastern Washington Tourism Bureau as a way to scare folks off. Who but a leper wants to holiday in a land of scabs? The term describes a landscape shaped by an enormous flood. Apparently, thousands of years ago, Montana was a giant bathtub of melted ice water, and then someone pulled the plug. Al Gore's ancestor wasn't around to stop the catastrophe, and the resulting Biblical splash scoured the landscape.
The Channeled Scablands sound like they should be hot, barren, and lifeless. Maybe in some places, but not here. When we visited in mid-June, it was lush and green with wildflowers amid Ponerdosa pine forests. It was in the 70s with blue skies and puffy white clouds so perfect they looked like they'd been drawn by first graders. They floated over marshes and lakes and the place was teeming with wildlife. Moose browse, though we didn't see any. But there were coyotes, ground squirrels, and chipmunks, plus the godzilla of squirrels, which turned out to be a chunky marmot.
The biggest attraction was the birds. We spent most of a day wandering the trails and looking at them — and this is not even the primo season for big migrations. We saw osprey, hawks, three kinds of swallows, ducks, and blackbirds of every description, orioles, nuthatches, kestrels, quail, sparrows, thrushes, kingbirds, sapsuckers ... According to a pamphlet, there are at least 199 species you can expect to find during the year, and a score of interesting strays that fly through occasionally. If you go, bring a good pair of binoculars.
There's a five-mile loop drive through the refuge and a small visitor's center. The walking is easy and the landscape entices you along. What stuck out, though: the solitude. We were there on a summer Sunday, and we had the giant preserve practically to ourselves. At times, it was as if some alien civilization had come along and built roads and bird blinds and bathrooms in a paradisiacal landscape, then departed for their home planet. Hats of to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Turnbull is a refuge, not just for wildlife.
Mardi Gras in the Grain Belt
A few days earlier, on my way to Spokane from Seattle, I stopped in Ritzville, just off of Interstate 90. It's a wonderfully preserved historic farm town on the railroad, with a restored Carnegie library, a main street with nice brick buildings, a metal sculpture of founder Philip Ritz brandishing a sheaf of wheat, and a store called Wild Flowers Quilt Shop and Liquor. Booze and sewing bees: the glue that binds.
I picked up a copy of the Ritzville Adams County Journal and saw that the nearby town of Lind was hosting it's 21st Annual Combine Demolition Derby in a couple of days. If you want exotic, folks, here it is. I cannot imagine a more politically incorrect way to have fun that doesn't involve killing or illegal sex. I speak as someone who comes from a city where failing to separate your recycling into the right bins is a death-penalty offense. Going to a Combine Demolition Derby was like an invitation to a place where people still have wicked, sinful, gas guzzling fun. The recycling could wait.
To get to the derby, I played hooky from the state Democratic Convention in Spokane, but I doubt I was the only one who ducked out after that umpteenth "point of order, Mr. Chairman." The Adams County delegation hadn't even answered the roll call, which means either they'd vamoosed early, too, or, more plausibly, there are no Democrats in Adams County.
Lind is a farm town stuck in one of the Channeled Scablands' channels. Outside of town was a converted rodeo ring that is now the arena for their annual afternoon of monster combine bumper cars. Farmers from all over the region bring their old wheat harvesters, paint them up and give them names like Purple People Eater, then drive into a ring and smash them into a half-dozen other combines. It's like watching mechanical sumo wrestlers bang metallic bellies. They continue, through many heats, until there's only one combine left crawling.
There is something completely shocking about seeing such big vehicles destroy each other, even if it's in slow-motion — they can't go more than about 15 mph. But the collisions are violent and the vehicles spray smoke and hydraulic fuel and blow tires until they can no longer attack, or crawl away. It has the thrill of rough play with your sandbox Tonka toys — only on a big-boy scale.
Funnily enough, while the combine demolition is the climax of the day, it's not the most exciting part of the derby. Pick-up trucks and grain trucks are also raced and demolished. They go faster, spraying the crowd with dust, sand, and gravel as they spin in tight circles around the track. The sun is hot, the air dusty, and if you sit close, you will leave dirty, maybe even nicked by debris. I was so shocked by the intensity, speed, and dirt — plus the sheer insanity of smashing up all this equipment — that I spent the first 20 minutes laughing like I was on a rollercoaster. I've never had a wilder ride standing still.
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