We drove down into Walla Walla on Monday morning, Susanne napping in the passenger seat and me maneuvering through the Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascades. I set my barometer for driving endurance in college, where my parents’ house and the university were roughly four and a half hours apart. The corners of Washington State are about the same distance, so it doesn’t feel like too bad a stretch to get from point A to point B. Anything shorter than this is a breeze, anything longer and I start to feel like looking at asphalt is itself an exhausting prospect.
Susanne woke up somewhere in the midst of central Washington scrubland, and wondered where the trees had gone. Seriously, there are no trees unless a human being opted to insert one into the ground. One fuel up and three CDs-worth of iPod tunes later, we rolled into Walla Walla. The sun was bright on our shoulders; there was none of this sunlight scarcity one encounters on the “west side.” It was also a dozen degrees warmer, and I realized my layer of wool was just not needed.
We stopped for a couple of sandwiches at Graze and Susanne saw two students she knew. I had a warm hello from the owner. Walking down the street to our car, we smiled at another acquaintance. This is what people talk about enjoying in small towns. It did feel comforting to be a known entity, as opposed to the near-total anonymity I have in Seattle. But live anywhere long enough and that dissipates.
It does strike me that the east side-west side animosity in Washington is totally unnecessary. Easterners are bitter that all of the money goes to the western side of the state while things like roads fall apart and sewer systems burst. Western side people feel insulted that the conservatives on the eastern side mock their liberal values, and say they need the resources of the state because they live on the populous side.
I just want to say, read more Dr. Seuss, all of you. And try to get along.
Even within Walla Walla, the fight I named Octogate continues. Should the Pus stay or should it go go? In a downtown area with 40 percent of the storefronts vacant, that the city council would make a fuss with a business owner is beyond ridiculous to me. Several other store owners have posted signs calling to “save the endangered octopus,” and this is now the kind of political organizing I don’t think Wallyworld has seen since Olympia came along and took away the designation of state capitol from the town. Walla Walla does not suffer these infights quietly. The council and Mr. Catsiff, the owner, are marching ever so closer to a courthouse showdown. And the city’s insistence that the wordless mural is legally a “sign,” when so many other examples of oversized signage abound in town that they’ve not sought to eradicate, well, they look a bit more than just a mite disingenuous. Residents wonder out loud if the GOP-leaning council is just playing petty politics with the Democratic Party-registered owner.
Maybe they’re arguing amongst themselves because Walla Walla lends itself to frustration. I write this thinking of all those nights at 8:30 when we knew we’d missed the opportunity to go out to dinner because so many places close at 8. There’s that moment of frustration when one realizes there isn’t anywhere to go for that specifically sized baby product without an hour-long drive to the Tri-Cities, unless one caves in and goes to Wal*Mart, and under no circumstances will one deign to go into Wal*Mart. Or when there’s an accident on the one highway out of town, so one’s best option suddenly is to turn around and go home. These are the things that come up in conversation in Walla Walla that don’t come up in say, the small towns of Massachusetts, where resources are all within a 30 minute driving area.
Still, we appreciated the effortless parking availability, the lovely and affordable three bedroom house we’re going to occupy when we move back in January, and the genuine delight on our friends’ faces when we spent time with them on this visit. Scarcity does improve one’s sense of appreciation when a need is met.
I’m back in Seattle now, happy to have tall buildings and mountains and the Sound near me again. I can hear cities breathing in a way that I never sense in smaller towns, and I enjoy getting something out of their auras. But I can also appreciate the quiet.