More fun than Deliverance!

Spend your summer vacation in Eastern Washington, an exotic locale where lakes are slippery, the Scablands surprising, and wheat farmers are smashing stuff for fun.
Crosscut archive image.

The Channeled Scablands of Eastern Washington. (<a href=''>Todd Petit</a> / Creative Commons)

Spend your summer vacation in Eastern Washington, an exotic locale where lakes are slippery, the Scablands surprising, and wheat farmers are smashing stuff for fun.

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.

The sport is growing in popularity throughout breadbasket states. Lind has a population of a little more than 500 souls, but the demolition derby had a crowd of thousands. The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about the combine smash-up phenomenon. They quoted a farmer saying, "Every farmer in the world at one point or another would like to drive his combine into a brick wall." And that brings us to the psychological aspect, which an outsider can't help but think about. Imagine all the hard work that goes into keeping these machines running and all the sewing and harvesting of all those neat little rows of grain on flat land day after day, year after year. It must feel good to just bust loose and turn the world upside down once a year. It's Mardi Gras in the Grain Belt.

If you're talking about the carbon footprint, a wheat combine demolition derby is hard to justify — I can't imagine how much fuel was burned up or how much exhaust I inhaled in a few hours. But there's a value in channeling a community's madness for the sake of maintaining sanity. The event reminded me of the Palio horse race of Siena, Italy, where a week of exotic ritual culminates in a 90-second horse race between neighborhoods that establishes the social order of the city for the next year. Riders fly around the central plaza on an uneven racecourse and whip each other with dried bull's penises. The intensity, violence, and thrill is unbelievable — but experts say such ritualized violence has kept the city civil for centuries. Not sure what Freud would say.

Author Sherman Alexie recently worried about the Sonics basketball team leaving Seattle because "I'm terrified my boys will no longer get to watch the Seattle Sonics professionally smash stuff." Well, the Sonics are gone, and perhaps a little of our civic sanity, but Sherman, if you and your boys want to make an annual pilgrimage to see guys — and women drivers, too — smash stuff, Lind, Wash., is your destination.

The miracle of Soap Lake

Heading homeward, we took Highway 28, which more or less parallels I-90 to the north, taking you through classic Eastern Washington farm towns like Davenport, Odessa, and Ephrata. This was wheat land settled and cultivated by the Volga Germans, who made sausage and used their sons to stanch holes in the irrigation dikes. Stolid people, indeed. It's austere but beautiful country and a stress-free alternative to the freeway.

Highway 28 is a great drive. Empty road, few other vehicles, nice small towns, and lots of birds — especially raptors and ravens, which look especially big in this landscape. We also encountered an enormous whirlwind that crossed the road ahead of us — much larger than a dust devil, but smaller than a tornado. It was the kind of apparition that told us we weren't in Seattle anymore.

We stopped along the road when my partner sighted an enormous flock of strange white birds on a lake. It was a place on Crab Creek, which is part of the Coulee Bird Corridor, a route that birdwatchers know about. You can see all the amazing cranes and swans that migrate along the Columbia, along with exotic ducks like the blue-billed Ruddy ducks that look as if a kid had colored them incorrectly. The white flock turned out to be hundreds of white California pelicans. When they took off, it was an airshow of snowy pterodactyls.

Further down the road, we came to the oasis known as Soap Lake, a mineral bath in the middle of dry country, a sort of badlands version of Baden Baden for the RV set. My partner was without her bathing suit, so we drove to Ephrata to find one and happily found a thrift store on the main drag. After a quick search, she found something that fit the bill. It cost a $1.38. Not only was it cheap and recycled, but we realized we could stretch our investment. After serving as an emergency swim suit, its fluorescent checkered pattern made is ideal as a back-up road flare.

Back in Soap Lake, no one worried about fashion. We found a great public beach — almost deserted — with showers and shelters. We got into our swimsuits and waded into the shallows of the medicinal lake, once thought to cure a hideous malady called Buerger's disease (luckily not Berger's disease), which can cause blood clots in your legs and result in amputation.

Despite being a hot day, Soap Lake felt as if it had an underground connection to Puget Sound. My grandfather might have been at home as he loved to swim in the frigid fjords of Norway. I'm not sure why people think these dips are refreshing. If someone, for example, asked me to lower my testicles into a martini glass filled with ice, I would not do it. However, I did wade into Soap Lake and if my testicles do not descend from my Pend Oreilles by early September, I will complain to the local visitor's bureau.

My partner had no such problem and in fact began swimming around happily, enjoying the unusual buoyancy. The water felt slimy, so too the ooze on the lake bottom, but I can report that I have yet to come down with Buerger's disease and still am in possession of my feet. Come to think of it, I have not contracted elephantiasis, or scrofula or even the bloody flux since my trip, so I can recommend the waters at the very least as a powerful preventative, enjoyable for those who have had the good fortune to be castrated first.

One last tip: shower thoroughly after you swim in Soap Lake, otherwise its curative natural chemical ingredients will dry on your scalp and body and cause itching.

From there, we headed home. Your own Eastern Washington adventures, unlike Paris', are merely a mountain range away. The memories will last longer than a Soap Lake rash.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.