One could hardly be blamed for thinking of rainy Seattle when Washington state was mentioned, but the view all around me was as different as it could get. All the liquid precipitation fell west of the mountains, which was why the coast averaged over ten feet of rain a year while on this other side of the Cascade Range both the ground and the people were much dryer. Here in early fall there was plenty of sun, tons of fresh fruit, and a vast rolling countryside with lots of space for everyone.
But don’t visit in winter. . .
Due to the miracles of modern refrigeration and irrigation, this part of the country was pretty famous for growing a lot of food, but for that same reason, plus all the snow in the winter, it didn’t get many visitors. Amber waves of grain might sound poetic, but to the eye, and camera, they were pretty boring. Most tourists, like most residents, preferred to cluster with the seafood around Puget Sound.
I’d visited this part of the country only once before, during my collegiate sports career, and thought it was high time—whatever that means—to check it out when I wasn’t worried about soccer or Grinch-like soccer coaches. Once here I simply wandered around, going wherever the spirit took me, figuring I might end up somewhere in Montana or Wyoming before I got bored.
Problem was, I was already a little bored, after hours of the same landscape. Still, it would be different once I got to Idaho, since mountains are so much more fun.
But now, as the highway crested the hill, my eyes were filled with the panorama of Spokane, sprawling a lot more than anyone would have thought before seeing it. I’d read there were close to 200,000 inhabitants, but from the view it didn’t look like they were jammed into a small place, and after all it was the major metropolis of a pretty big area, stretching from the Cascades to the Rockies, which for some reason was called the Inland Empire, like there wasn’t already one of those in Southern California, neither of them having monarchs. . .
I sighed at the way my mind worked sometimes and looked for a hotel.
Other than a local college volleyball game, where I spent more time looking at a blonde on the visiting team’s bench, the eastern part of Washington state hadn’t thrilled me on my first day. The next morning brought me to the tourism office, which pushed a “finest old homes” tour that bored me in a hurry, but Manito Park had a Japanese garden where I enjoyed myself for a while, as well as a more formal garden—it had “formal” in the name, after all—with the kind of scenery that had me maxing out a couple of smallish memory cards, so I really couldn’t complain.
For a moment I thought about dropping all the way down to Oregon, thinking of all the shots I’d get of the fall foliage, a sharp contrast to what I was seeing now. The entire Palouse region, between the wooded hills surrounding Spokane to the Blue Mountains—nothing like the Australian version—was full of barren knolls, low but steep. The tourism guy had told me this was the best wheat-growing land in the world, and if it wasn’t just pure homerism then I had to wonder how bored a grad student must have been to think up that study.
Somehow I ended up at the Grand Coolie Dam, which was, as one might expect, the centerpiece of the Grand Coolie Area. Not worried that I’d be missing the “spectacular” laser light shows shown only during the summer, I just stood there and looked up at what had at one time been the largest concrete structure in the world. . . then shook my head and got busy shooting the lakes, which, according to the tourist propaganda, reached north almost to the Canadian border. Before the dam, the Columbia Basin was so barren locals said you had to prime yourself to spit, and jackrabbits had to carry canteens. Definitely hard to believe, the way things looked now, but all the scenes of irrigation sprinklers bubbling happily along and over the wheat, grapes, corn, potatoes, and other stuff I couldn’t identify now made sense.
Realizing I was feeling tired, I remembered something I’d read in the tourism propaganda and dug through the stash. There it was, Soap Lake. I tried really hard—and was only moderately successful—to ignore the part about them having the world’s largest lava lamp, concentrating on the spa of it all. The name of the place, they claimed, came from a local native term for “Healing Waters,” even though in one of the photos I could see the buildup of what really did look like soap right at the water’s edge. The tribes used the lake for healing purposes, even brought their animals, so I figured it was good enough for me. If one of the twenty-three minerals—or more likely a combo of them—in the water and mud didn’t work for me, it wouldn’t be from lack of trying.
A quick meal at a place with wi-fi brought me more info; although I was looking for a good massage spa, I kept getting sidetracked by the science. At least I learned a new word: meromictic, which meant the lake had two layers of water that never mixed. The first layer was over eighty feet of mineral water, while the second was mud, with a stronger mineral composition and concentrations of unusual substances and microscopic life forms. That caused some pause, as I didn’t want any kind of life forms, especially unusual ones, all over me, but then I figured I didn’t need the mud pack as much as the massage. Seeing there were only eleven meromictic lakes in the whole country, I filed that away for the next quirky road trip.
Then I really got excited at the end of the list of minerals present—sodium, chloride, carbonate, sulfate, bicarbonate, etc.—when I read it matched the contents of the water in the Baden-Baden spa in Germany! Having been there and enjoyed it, in fact was one of my fave places in all of Europe, I let out a little chortle as I wondered if this might be just as good a stop as that had been. . . but since I didn’t think I’d be running into any European supermodels here, I doubted it. The waitress looked at me a little funny, but I merely grinned, thinking this would be the highlight of her boring day.
Once there I found references to the lava lamp unavoidable, though I couldn’t help tsking at how some locals didn’t want it, thinking this icon of the 60s would inspire other cultural artifacts of the time, namely drugs and sex. On my trip across the state yesterday I’d passed through Moses Lake and found the description exactly like a friend had told me, and now realized she’d been dead on as to the “moral” aspects as well, though morality was hardly the word I’d use for it. No wonder Martha the Stewardess left this area.
Finally I was having the massage I’d promised myself, followed by a dip in the healing water. I wasn’t about to go for the whole works; the thought of those microscopic critters was still on my mind. Eventually I settled for the therapeutic mineral water bath, foot bath, and biofeedback, though I didn’t expect to need that any time soon. I almost gave in to my curiosity about the detoxifying infrared sauna, but somehow managed to rise above.