I CREDIT THE PIG. It was that swine corralled in the livestock barn at the Klickitat County Fair that finally pushed Seattle from my mind. There I was dodging piles of manure and chubby 4-H kids and wondering if I’d ever get at the heart of Washington’s small towns, when I heard it. A snort. I turned. The pig looked up at me and, swear to god, locked eyes and refused to look away.
I had been comparing everything I saw on my tour of small towns—sidewalks, restaurants, coffee stands—to their equivalents in Seattle. But I could think of no Emerald City counterpart to this cloven-hoofed oinker. A few of the 4-H-ers noticed me photograph the animal with my cellphone and stomped across the barn in their cowboy boots for a better look. They giggled at the peculiar piggy staring down the man in a Banana Republic button-down and Adidas newly covered in cow shit.
I was going to like Goldendale.
The 3,760-person burg in the south-central part of the state was one of three Washington small towns I set out to explore. The others were Toppenish, on the edge of the Yakama Indian Reservation, and Tieton, a moribund farming community resuscitated by a handful of Seattle artists.
I credit the pig. But I suppose I should really credit Stephen Stout, Star Man of Goldendale, for showing me how to get my small town on. “Want to really see some local color?” he had asked at the astronomical observatory he’s manned for the past three decades. “Come to the opening night barbecue at the county fair.”
And so I followed Stout and his Jeep Cherokee down the mountain from the Goldendale Observatory and into town and to the fair grounds, where, before encountering Stare Pig, I heaped my plate with barbecued buffalo, tomato-and-cucumber salad, a baked potato, and a monster cob of sweet corn. Everything on my fork had been grown in Klickitat County, Stout explained, including the peaches in the cobbler we scarfed down while a fiddle and banjo duet serenaded the sun as it sunk to the horizon.
Soon it would be dark enough to climb back up the mountain and take in the night sky at the observatory, where I would learn the most important small-town lesson of all.
The U.S. Census Bureau defines 189 communities in Washington as “smaller cities, towns, and villages”—those with populations ranging from 1,000 to 6,000. Many have strange names like Chewelah and Lochsloy, so foreign to Seattleites they might as well be obscure outposts in the Canadian Yukon. The small towners vote differently than urbanites: Last November, those living in rural Washington, roughly 85 percent of the state’s territory, overwhelmingly voted “no” on marriage equality Referendum 71, which nonetheless passed due to a crush of support in Seattle. And rural Washingtonians earn significantly less than city dwellers; of the 39 counties in the state, King County is one of only six—all in relatively urban and suburban Western Washington—where the poverty level is below 10 percent, according to a 2008 study by the United States Department of Agriculture.
The contrast is even starker once you set foot in, say, Toppenish, as I did on a scorching 90-degree August day. Weighing in at slightly larger than what the Census Bureau defines as a small town, 9,000-person Toppenish is known, at least statewide, as Mural City USA, thanks to 73 paintings that depict the region’s history (Yakama Indians) and its economic (farming) and recreational (polo) proclivities.
But Mural City was eerily quiet—unless you count the country music wailing constantly from a loudspeaker outside City Hall and ricocheting off downtown’s brick buildings. The Yakama Nation Cultural Center, in the Indian reservation on the outskirts of town, was even quieter. The center’s museum dedicated to the history of local Native Americans, however, impressed. The first dioramas in my path—taxidermic bears and buffalo and costumed mannequins depicting various tribes—didn’t do much for me. But after a few displays, the museum got interesting. The large font on the walls announced, in no uncertain terms, that the U.S. government had lied to the Native Americans and duped them out of land. The unapologetic language left no doubt about the exhibit’s thesis: Never forget what happened to us.
In one of the last displays, a 1927 photo, two tribal elders, Chief Frank Seelatse and Chief Jimmy Noah Saluskin, scowled at the camera while standing in front of the U.S. Capitol. They looked like they wouldn’t be forgetting anything too soon.
Before leaving the cultural center, I stopped for a sandwich and coffee in the cafeteria, where I chatted with the waitress. “Who’s the most interesting person in town?” I asked. No one in Toppenish is more interesting than anyone else, she said. “They’re all interesting. And they all aren’t.”
Back in town, I was the only visitor at the Chamber of Commerce, where the sixtysomething woman behind the front desk, one of the few Caucasians I encountered in Toppenish, gabbed on the phone. Three minutes and 24 seconds expired—after I started counting—before she acknowledged me. Not that I wanted her to cut the call short. The gossip, a detailed thrashing of some local wretch, was juicy. “I went in and there were hot dogs and everything else all over the place,” she groaned. "She knows we’re having a reception in there.”
Finally she hung up and greeted me. I’m interested in hearing about the murals, I said. She pulled out a map and pointed. The newest mural, number 73, which depicts the fruit harvest, is a must-see, I learned. “It’s on Washington, between Elm and Alder.” She pronounced it “ Warsh ington.”
I made my way to the center of town and, overheated, sat in front of City Hall. Alabama’s “Mountain Music” blared from the speaker and echoed around the block. Every once in a while the little city would come alive, as if someone had dropped a quarter in the slot of some unseen mechanism to animate the streets: Big-wheeled pickup trucks rumbled across the intersection and pedestrians darted in and out of the post office.
A cowboy-booted Native American in his late 50s, with dark braids spilling from the sides of a straw cowboy hat, walked bow-legged out of Gibbons Soda Fountain. He carried an ice cream cone. Ten minutes later I too walked out of Gibbons, rocky road in hand.
One thing rural Washington certainly has over Seattle: relaxed farming regulations. Sure, new ordinances allow city dwellers to raise chickens and goats, but Lori and Ruth Babcock tried that. The couple—both former employees of a small Seattle software company—lived in Columbia City and had kept chickens for years. In 2003 they graduated to raising goats—in Bellevue. The neighbors complained and county inspectors always seemed to find something wrong with the arrangement; either the chickens clucked too loudly or there were one too many goats.
Lori, 51, and Ruth, 52, heard murmurs about a farming community two and a half hours from Seattle and 15 miles northwest of Yakima. Tieton, once a flourishing agricultural city, had nearly closed up in 2005, before a group of Seattle-based artists and artisans, known collectively as Mighty Tieton, began buying up real estate and opening businesses.
Intent on creating a cheese company, Lori and Ruth bought a 21-acre spread overlooking the valley. (It reminded Ruth of her childhood farm in Wenatchee.) A year later, Tieton Farm and Creamery keeps dozens of goats, turkeys, chickens, and ducks, plus three cows and nine pigs. Ruth milks the grass-fed goats. Lori processes the milk in the creamery, the only permanent structure on the farm. The result: chevre, feta, and halloumi—cheeses so delicious that Lark on Capitol Hill serves them to discerning diners and PCC Markets stocks it at all locations.
“The Goat Goddesses.” That’s Ed Marquand’s term for the Babcocks. A Seattle book publisher and the force behind Tieton’s revival, Marquand originally came across the town while on a solo bike ride. He rolled over tiny thistles known as “goatheads” and punctured his tires, a mishap that forced him to pause long enough to see the potential in the town’s empty storefronts. Five years later Tieton, population 1,195, is still a sleepy village, just one town square comprised of Mexican restaurants, a diner, and Mighty Tieton’s enterprises—a bookstore, printing press, and art gallery. Marquand and his partner, Seattle lawyer Michael Longyear, converted an apple-distribution warehouse into a condo complex and another warehouse into artist studios, one of which they rent to Seattle sound-sculptor Trimpin.
The Babcocks have big plans, too. The goatherds recently put their three-bedroom Columbia City home on the market and plan to break ground for a bed-and-breakfast right on the farm. But for now life revolves around the cheese—and what to feed the goats. “Most people spend their time talking about the plots of TV shows,” Lori said. “Ruth and I talk all day long about the ways to grow the best grass.”
Stephen Stout also fled the city for small-town life. But it was stars, not livestock, that drew him in. Stout, a physicist, lived in the Seattle suburb of Mountlake Terrace in the 1970s and worked for an electronics company that manufactured boating equipment. On weekends he drove the three and a half hours to Goldendale to lose himself in the galaxy. He felt at home staring into the eyepiece of the 24.5-inch telescope, constructed in the mid-1960s by four amateur astronomers from Vancouver, Washington, who donated it to Goldendale.
In late 1980 the telescope builders called Stout. They needed a manager at the observatory. Weeks later, after the interview, Stout fidgeted in the observatory hallway, awaiting the verdict. Finally, one of the men, a Dutchman with a strong accent, poked his head out of the meeting room and said, “Mr. Stout, come in and be happy.” The date: January 20, 1981—the day the U.S. hostages were released from Iran, Stout likes to point out—the day he escaped city life forever.
Thirty years on, Stout, 63, serves as the observatory’s only full-time employee and the state park system’s only paid stargazer.
It’s easy to see why he never left Goldendale. Sure, Main Street is a lonely stretch of blacktop flanked by a scattering of restaurants, bars, and shops. But, as I found at the county fair, the people welcome strangers. Deer pick through the overgrowth on the edge of town. Wind turbines dot the horizon, capturing one of Goldendale’s greatest resources. The constant breeze is one of two things Stout will admit to not liking about his adopted home. The other: light pollution. The observatory sits only a mile and a half from town and the lights negatively impact star visibility. “Unless there’s a power outage!” Stout exclaims. Then, crestfallen, “But Goldendale’s public utilities department is very quick and efficient.”
After I’d had my fill of the county fair, I corkscrewed back up the mountain, where the observatory dome rose above a copse of gnarled pine trees. I counted nine cars in the parking lot and creaked open the observatory door.
Stout greeted me just as his aide, Noble, a temporary summer employee, led 25 people out of the small theater. (I had seen Noble’s presentation earlier in the day—a witty script Stout wrote about the history of the facility and which includes a self-deprecating disquisition about how long Stout’s held the job of observatory keeper.)
In the round observation room, the telescope, big as a VW bug, poked out of the dome and toward the sky. Kids, parents, grandparents, teenagers on dates, middle-agers on dates—we all formed a line around the scope and one by one mounted a set of stairs to look through the eyepiece at the moon.
After the Sun, Jupiter ranks as the largest body in the solar system, Stout explained. Its gravitational pull is so strong that it has rescued life on Earth by diverting asteroids and comets headed our way. “Just about everything ends up on Jupiter—the solar system’s vacuum cleaner.” The crowd laughed.
“Let’s look at it,” he said. Noble adjusted the scope. We would be treated to a glimpse of the big planet along with four of its 63 known moons. I watched my fellow stargazers scale the steps and look. Their faces went slack in awe. The visitors had pilgrimed from all over the state, mostly from other small towns—Monroe, Mount Vernon, Cle Elum. They vote differently than Seattleites, yes. It didn’t matter. Not at the moment.
It was my turn. I climbed up to the telescope. Jupiter. A dime-size circle surrounded by four brilliant points of light, the moons—three on one side, one on the other.
Outside the observatory, at the bottom of the hill, Goldendale celebrated its biggest weekend of the year—visitors from around the county, rodeo queens, prize pigs. Fifty miles north lay Toppenish, with its murals and its hushed streets and Native Americans never forgetting. Farther north, in Tieton, the bleating of goats grew silent as two women dreamed of building a bed-and-breakfast. And much farther: big bright Seattle.
I stood at the telescope longer than I should have. It was greedy, I know. The people behind me fidgeted impatiently. In a few seconds I would descend the stairs, search my pockets in the dark parking lot for the keys, and point my car north. But for now I stared at those five celestial bodies. Especially the big one.
Wood-plank sidewalks, weatherworn buildings, false storefronts—if you didn’t know better you’d mistake Winthrop, in the Methow Valley, for an exquisitely preserved Old West outpost. But hold your horses, pardner, nearly all was erected within the past four decades, an attempt by city leaders in the early 1970s to—like Bavarian-themed Leavenworth a hundred miles to the south—attract tourists and rescue the erstwhile logging town from ruin. Not everything is faux Wild West, though. While we suspect the swinging doors inside Three Fingered Jack’s Saloon were added to make city slickers feel like Wyatt Earp, the bar happens to be the oldest legal saloon in the state. The staff serves up heaping helpings of jalapeño poppers (“Cowboy Breath Mints”) and meatloaf. Also, it makes us feel like Wyatt Earp.
You know the story by now. Woman writes vampire novel set in ubercloudy Forks, the book sells a bazillion copies, and, fast as a teenage werewolf de-shirts, the town gets famous. But what really makes this burg worth the trip is just how much it has embraced the Twilight lore. The Chamber of Commerce slakes tourists’ Twilight trilogy thirst with maps indicating where events in the books occur. Restaurant menus feature Stephenie Meyer–inspired fare (“Werewolf Burger”). And the hospital reserves a parking space for one of the fictional characters. But even if you don’t know your Team Edward from your A Team, Forks makes the perfect hub from which to launch recreational reconnaissance into the Olympic rain forest.
Drive time 3 hours, 30 minutes Sleep Miller Tree Inn Bed and Breakfast, 654 E Division St, 360-374-6806; millertreeinn.com Eat Pacific Pizza, 870 S Forks Ave, 360-374-2626
So named when a Spanish-American War veteran bought a chunk of real estate on the banks of the Columbia River in 1900 and christened it after his favorite city in the Philippines, Pateros is a haven for jet skiers who zigzag the lake. But you don’t have to be a Sea-Doo pilot to enjoy this lush spot on the otherwise sun-baked plains of Central Washington. It helps, however, if you have a sweet tooth. A top attraction is Sweet River Bakery—ironically, in a former dentist’s office—which, in addition to warm breads made from local ingredients, traffics in tooth-enamel-fighting biscotti. And Pateros hosts the annual Apple Pie Jamboree (the third weekend of July) with a parade around the town’s tiny blocks and a celebration of (what else?) apple pie. What could be more small-town America than that?
Drive time 3 hours, 30 minutes Sleep Lake Pateros Motor Inn, 115 S Lakeshore Dr, Pateros, 509-923-2203; lakepaterosmotorinn.com Eat Sweet River Bakery, 203 Pateros Mall, Pateros, 509-923-2151; sweetriverbakery.com
In Roslyn, you can have it both ways. The former coal-mining village in the Cascades—so frontier-looking that it doubled as fictional Cicely, Alaska, on the 1990s TV show Northern Exposure —claims small-town status in all the right ways: century-old buildings still in use, early-model pickup trucks, and no-nonsense locals who like to tie one on at the Brick, the longest continuously open tavern in the state. Unlike in so many bucolic burgs, however, you can take all that in and enjoy luxurious accommodations, thanks to Suncadia Resort, two miles away. Rest your dogs in a suite that rivals the Four Seasons, tuck into a steak at Swiftwater Cellars, or putt around on one of three golf courses, and you’ll forget that you’re in a city with a population barely larger than a Starbucks line. Then roll back to “Cicely” and get rural. Moose moseying down Main Street not guaranteed. But possible.
Drive time 1 hour, 30 minutes Sleep Suncadia Resort, 3600 Suncadia Trail, Cle Elum, 509-649-6400; suncadiaresort.com Eat The Brick, 100 W Pennsylvania Ave, Roslyn, 509-649-2643
This Victorian-era port village on Whidbey Island is frozen in time—by order of Congress. Part of the Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, the hamlet comprises more than 50 preserved buildings. Pad along the creaky wooden sidewalks and study the oldest house in town—indeed, one of the oldest houses in the state—the home of Captain Thomas Coupe, built in 1854. Or spy the Sedge Building, 1871, whose owner, a mortician, is rumored to have found the grim reaper’s visits to the island so infrequent that he tossed his embalming gear and opened a furniture shop instead. Too bad for the undertaker that the Oystercatcher restaurant’s chocolate and caramel gateau (so delicious you’ll want thirds!) had yet to hit the isle. But before flirting with death by cake, be sure to gobble some Penn Cove mussels, the restaurant’s specialty, and the bounty upon which Coupeville’s early fortunes—and all those awesomely preserved buildings—were built.
Snoqualmie Falls, the 268-foot waterfall so stunning it practically brings highway traffic to a halt, may be the money shot, but the real payoff in this onetime sawmill town resides on Railroad Avenue, a mile away. That’s where you’ll find Isadora’s Cafe—a local crafts purveyor, cafe, and gossip hub all rolled into one. Across the street sits the former train depot (built in 1890) turned train treasury, the Northwest Railway Museum. The steam engines on display are fun to look at, but for the whole Casey Jones experience opt for the museum’s four-mile rail ride to the town of North Bend and back. The view out the train window will look familiar. David Lynch filmed his creepy Twin Peaks TV series in the area, which included, of course, that cascading money shot.
Waitsburg looks like the set of a 1950s movie about rural life—red barns, lush barley fields, farmers in overalls steering John Deeres along Highway 12. But the village 20 miles north of Walla Walla is no act. Wheat still reigns in this community, as it has for the past century. It’s just that out-of-towners—particularly of the foodie persuasion—have tweaked the small-town script. Five years ago a trio of Seattle restaurateurs opened the Cajun-inspired Whoopemup Hollow Café. Across the street another Seattle expat set up a high-end cocktail bar, Jimgermanbar. Vintners followed with tasting rooms. The blend of agrarian culture and fine dining has attracted second-home buyers from the city—and hotels and art galleries are on the way—yet Waitsburg, for now, has dodged the dreaded G-word. It’s not gentrified when tractors still roll down the main street.