On US-2, it’s just as you reach the end of the foothills that surround the northern Cascades, where the brown hills are burning to black. It’s just after you run out of orchards and leave the last of the boaters where the Wenatchee and Columbia rivers meet. It’s just after the last chance stop for Honeycrisp apples, Bartlett pears, and fresh cider, when you snug up next to the river and then climb up, up into wheat fields shaved down to stubble, stripes of harvest gold and earth brown. There, just over the hill, sits the home of the Waterville High Shockers (presumably one who stacks up wheat shocks, not someone with a taser).
It is, admittedly, the sleepiest possible time of the week--3:30 on a Sunday afternoon--but aside from two dogs waiting in a pickup outside the Family Grocery and two bikes dropped outside a storefront further down on Locust (the main street), there isn’t a single sign of life. The only businesses that appear to be open are the grocery story and the drive-thru espresso stand.
Waterville is the first of many towns like this that we’ll pass through as we head into eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota. Prettier than most, but dying all the same.
Flags flap in the breeze, the smell of fires burning miles away pungent even here. It all looks pretty and bucolic as you drive through, but stop and get out of your car and everything seems a little more grim.
The four blocks at the center of town are a National Historic District, but many of the windows are boarded up or dusty from disuse.
Every other storefront is for sale, the handwritten signs detailing the recent roof repairs, which fall just shy of begging. Despite the fact that a US highway has been steered through town in a zigzag, no one stops anywhere but the espresso hut.
We get all the way through town before turning around, belatedly deciding to walk a few blocks to stretch our road-weary legs.
As we stop at the intersection at the center of town to choose a direction to walk, a pick-up truck comes to an idling stop, waiting in case we decide to cross the street. We set off down the sidewalk just to get him to let off the brake and roll on past us. Annoyed that he was willing to stop and wait for us, we don’t make eye contact or wave him by, but stalk off down the street. We’ve grown up in small towns—we know how to behave—but we still have the vestiges of Vancouver on us. Still, I stand in the middle of the street to take a picture. There is no one coming or going. Standing in the road at the center of town, the horizon in all four directions is a wheat field.
As we walk around town we pass more real estate, homes for sale built in 1923 but not having been lived in for what looks like years, but it’s hard to tell. Two bedrooms, one bath for $79,900: “needs a little TLC.” Out back a shed has bleached down to bare wood and is leaning precariously. There isn’t a Home Depot or even a hardware store anywhere for miles—that price seems wildly optimistic. We round the corner and head back toward the car. On our way we come across a marquis that says “Vote For.”
Even to us, who have somewhat assiduously avoided the news for the last 10 days, this seems disinterested politics.
Friday morning we were walking a pebble beach in Sooke on Vancouver Island, skipping stones into the Pacific. We’ve driven our car onto three different boats in the past few days. But this afternoon we’ve reached the prairie. It feels good to be moving on, after a few days of water and sunsets and tall, thin pines.
It feels familiar, this landscape. If we were homesick yet this would make us feel better, this view that goes on forever.
But it still feels like we’re just getting started. We climb back in the car and press on to Spokane. Just out of town the road straightens out, a black and yellow ribbon unrolling into the horizon.