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.