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.