Friday, November 5, 2010

Northwest Fall Road Trip: Scenic Southeast Washington

This is my second post about roadtripping east of the Cascades Mountains in Washington and Oregon.

Stretching from far northern California into southern British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest’s Cascade Mountains divide the region into strikingly different political and geographic areas:

Blue state/red state.

Rainy and green/arid and dry.

Moss and ferns/sagebrush and tumbleweeds.

This morning we’ve left the interstate and hit some back roads here on the dry side. Just a few miles outside Pasco, we’re driving down the two-lane State Route 124 past orchards heavy with fat red apples, yellowing rows of hops, and dusty brown hills that undulate and roll away to the distant horizon.

Yup, it’s wide open spaces.

When we near the small town of Waitsburg, about 20 miles north of Walla Walla, the highway passes close to several farms. Here in the Columbia Basin agriculture dominates.

We’re too early for lunch in Waitsburg (named one of the 10 coolest small towns in America in Budget Travel Magazine), so just spend an hour or so browsing the two-block main street. “Downtown” Waitsburg is a charming mix of historic two-story brick buildings circa 1880s and 1890s, many of which have been renovated. A gleaming contemporary art gallery and hip-looking Cajun and Etruscan restaurants are juxtaposed next to the old mercantile crammed full of fishing tackle, tools, and rescue cats.

This close to Washington’s burgeoning wine country, Waitsburg has been discovered in the last few years. One of the local men we meet tells us that a prominent wine critic has purchased one of the buildings up the street and is undertaking a renovation. As the economy picks up, look for more shops to open here. Plans are apparently in the works for a boutique hotel, coffee shop, a dance studio with a dancer-in-residence program, a distillery, a tavern featuring craft beer, and a wine-tasting room.

A gaggle of gray-haired men in animated conversation are clustered around an old farm contraption parked across the street from the Whoopemup Cafe. It just looks like an ancient assemblage of old wood and metal to me, but it’s cause for excitement for the guys. Apparently it’s an antique feed mill. (Whatever that is…I’m a city girl myself.)

“I grew up here and moved away, but came back when I retired and got the opportunity to live in the house I grew up in. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be,” says a one of the older men, balding and wearing faded jeans and a denim workshirt. “Southeast Washington is it. Waitsburg is a small town but we’re like family.” His friendly face and affable manner make us Seattle visitors feel welcome.

Within a few miles we pass through Dayton, another quaint small farm town, then drop into a draw and meander past grain silos, red barns framed by clusters of golden-leaved trees. Where the land isn’t ploughed and growing crops, it’s brown and dotted with sagebrush.

We follow the Snake River canyon along the historic route of the Lewis and Clark expedition into Clarkston (right across the river from Lewiston, Idaho – Lewis and Clark, get it?), where the Grande Ronde River flows into the Snake. After a stop at a mega new WalMart (camera problems) and tasty lunch of turkey-veggie wraps at quirky Hazel’s Good Eats in Clarkston, we head south on SR 129.

Just outside Asotin, the road quickly switchbacks up and up and up above and away from the river onto a plateau of golden grassy hills above the Grande Ronde River.

This sparsely populated area is the very southeastern most corner of Washington, and it feels remote. We’re in for a serendipitous surprise soon. Next blog post!

When You Go
Click here for a map of southeast Washington. Note that Waitsburg isn’t shown, but it is just a few miles southwest of Dayton.


Anonymous said...

You make me want to get in the car and go! Don't you stop in bookstores in these towns, though? I'd love to hear about some of the indies out that way.


jill said...

Hey Victoria,
I always go into bookstores wherever I find them! Didn't see any specifically, but did buy an old used National Geographic book in a small store in Waitsburg for $1. My bet is Walla Walla would be the place for a indie bookstore in SE WA.