Once upon a time, Walla Walla had political importance. It was the site of incorporation for Washington State, a real pioneering town with horse-driven wagons and farmers, a small jail—still in service—and a few men who counted as the moneymakers and power brokers, like Dr. Baker, Stephen Boyer, and Judge William Langford, who oversaw the transition from territory to county. While industrial pressure led to the flooding of the actual Walla Walla Fort, now trapped at the bottom of the Columbia River in Wallula, much of the original western outpost feel remains today.
Maybe that’s not too terribly challenging, as many of these old buildings are only 100 years old, give or a take a few years. But memory often fades faster than brick, and still the townspeople hold on dearly to Walla Walla’s roots as a farming town and hub of land title deals.
I had cause to walk into the Baker Boyer Bank this week, to deliver a letter, which in itself is rather old school, as far as getting papers from one place to another goes. I suppose it wasn’t as throwback as if I’d sent it on the Pony Express, but my point here is that I’d never ventured inside the offices above the bank before.
I questioned my temporal whereabouts. Glossy, dark trim on the doors that ran along the corridors, off-white linoleum with flecks of black and gold, frosted glass windows to the entrance of every business, many with old-style “Will Return By” signs, I half-expected Don Draper to greet me in suit and fedora. Even the commercial interests represented here smacked of the mid-20th Century—a Certified Public Accountant, a tourism chamber, one law office with a two-partner name, and then, around the corner on the sixth floor, my destination. I turned over my paperwork, and headed back to the slow Otis elevator, marveling at the view of the city from my perch.
The city has a point, starting from just about its center and running north-northwest, where all of the streets are at a 45-degree angle from the rest of the grid. Then there’s an uneven climb over to the east where the topography begins to rise at the foot of the Blue Mountains, which on this day, were freed from the frequent mass of clouds that gets snagged at their collective apex. Even though we haven’t had rain in many days, most of the residential lawns are green because people are careful about watering at night or 6 in the morning.
Six floors up, the drug and gang problems that have stepped up their violence in Walla Walla aren’t so apparent, nor are the potholes that surface because the sewer infrastructure is leaking all over town. Still evident, however, is our isolation from the rest of the state and country, as farmlands and vineyards surround the city’s outlying areas and the nearest towns all have populations of less than 8,000 people.
Physical isolation aside we find ourselves concerned with how that rest of everything affects us—Walla Walla’s unemployment is a tick or two higher than the national average, worn For Sale signs sit out front of houses that went on the market more than a year ago, and this spring’s cold storms have wreaked the productivity out of the soil, ruining the strawberry, cherry, and wheat crops.
Back in the tiny lobby of the Baker Boyer building, I came upon an older man in blue jeans and red suspenders, holding a dingy, once-red baseball cap. He studied the directory on the wall. When he saw me, he asked if I could help him find which office he needed. I happened to know that it wasn’t in this building, but was situated on the next downtown block, so we walked together. He told me he couldn’t remember a time when so much of his wheat fields were unusable, and I gave him my honest sympathy.
“Farmers make do,” he said, running his thick thumbs along the underside of his suspenders as we waited for the pedestrian light to give us egress. I wondered for a moment when glowing pedestrians and red “do not walk” hands showed up on these corners.
“That they do,” I said. I thought of my grandfather Ronald, dragging his wife and children all over North America wherever the farms were productive: Saskatchewan, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Alberta, and other places on the prairie and the plain.
I wished him well; he shook my hand, completely enveloping it in his because we had such a size disparity. He said he’d look forward to hearing the fireworks from his house. If a farmer looking at his bleakest year in 30 years can appreciate Independence Day festivities, maybe the rest of us can, too.