The Palouse

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Why Eastern Washington:

The western part of the state of Washington is well-trodden. Even non-travelers go to Seattle and possibly some of the surrounding areas like the Olympic Peninsula or the nearby islands. However, 60% of the land in Washington is east of the Cascades and is relatively unknown to anyone outside of the Northwest. I had heard it was a desert, but really knew nothing about the topography, the people and the landscapes.

Trolling Kayak, I discovered cheap flights to Spokane, the largest city in Eastern Washington- a 5 hour drive east of Seattle. The flight up was actually direct with the return flight connecting through Seattle. After doing some research, I discovered that Washington State University was in Pullman only 90 minutes from Spokane and was having their homecoming the weekend I happened to choose. The usually struggling Cougars happened to be playing uncharacteristically well this year, so I figured this was my best shot at getting a great game day atmosphere I Pullman.

Originally I had planned to camp due to the lack of hotel options (cheap or otherwise) near Pullman, but a weather forecast of 40 degrees and rain forced me to get creative and completely reroute the trip. Instead of camping on Friday night in a town called Cheney and Saturday night in Pullman’s local RV park, I luckily found a cheap two-day RV rental in Moscow, Idaho just 8 miles out of Pullman.

The flight up was very easy and took about 2 hours. The guy next to me was extremely tattooed and was originally from Eastern Washington. He lives in LA and had to come up to Spokane for a wedding. He warned me that Eastern Washington has weird people and to be wary.

I got into the rental car and drove the 90 minutes into Moscow along a windy road. Eventually at 1:30 AM, I found the RV in the back of some guy’s house. The inside was really cold, but the host said that he put a space heater inside that would eventually help.

October 23, 2017: The Nez Perce and the Cougs

The next morning I awoke to discover that I arrive in the height of fall. A yellow tree towered over the RV. It was so beautiful!

Since the game wasn’t until 8pm, I had all day to explore. I headed south toward the town of Lewiston, Idaho. The road wound through rolling yellow and brown hills with no tall vegetation. This hilly region- called the Palouse- extends through a large portion of Eastern Washington and the central Idaho Panhandle.

45 minutes, later I reached the town of Lewiston, Idaho and its sister city Clarkston, Washington. As the nation’s furthest inland port, it is a regular stop for vessels sailing from the ocean up the Columbia and then the Snake. And yes, Lewis and Clark did sail through here.

Just east of Lewiston, the Clearwater River winds through a narrow gorge. A signpost noted that I had just entered the Nez Perce Reservation, although the presence of a casino and hand-painted signs were other giveaways. 8 minutes in, I reached the Nez Perce National Historic Park visitor center, run by the National Park Service.

Nez Perce National Historic Park is unusual in that there is no single big attraction to see. Rather, 38 scattered sites over 4 states comprise the park. The visitor center and adjacent historic village is the most popular part of the park and the largest of the 38 sites. In addition to a park movie telling tumultuous history of the Tribe, there is a small museum containing tribal artifacts. Originally, the Nez Perce tribe rules a huge territory containing the Palouse, most of the central Idaho Panhandle and the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana.

A series of treaties with the US Government shrunk their territory to less than 1/10th of what it used to be. Not all in the Tribe accepted this shrinkage. 90 were slain by the US government in a battle at Big Hole in Montana. Most notably, 700 Nez Perce lead by Chief Joseph attempted to flee to Canada and were pursued by the US Army for 1,170 miles. Just 40 miles from the Canadian border, Chief Joseph was cornered and forced to surrender.

¼ mile from the visitor center was the historic village of Spaulding, site of the Indian Missions and the Northern Idaho Indian Agency. During the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s, the US government tried to destroy the Nez Perce culture and language by forcing them into schools and allowing missionaries to spread Christianity.  Today the Nez Perce Reservation is about 90% white and mostly Christian, although there is a strong movement to restore the culture and language among the tribe’s 3,500-ish members.

5 minutes south of Spaulding was Lapwai, the capital of the Nez Perce Nation. The sign post called it Land of the Butterflies.

The town was very sleepy and had very little going on other than a local community center, a few churches, an art shop and a club run out of an old brick building. The grain co-op towered over the town. I decided to stop by the grocery store and noticed that they sold alcohol- a rarity on reservations due to the prevalence of alcoholism in Native populations. Outside, a man dressed like a cowboy parked his truck to go in. Peering into the passenger seat, I saw a huge headdress! I’m not going to call the community a sad one because I know nothing about their lifestyle and many towns offer much more than what meets the eye. However, I do think that we as a country (and I’m not sure how) need to do more to help these Native communities raise their standard of living to a level at least consistent with the surrounding towns.

Now nearing lunchtime, I drove through the winding hills of the Palouse into Pullman, home of Washington State University. With 30,000 residents (20,100 of them students), Pullman is a college town through and through. Add in approximately 4,000 faculty and staff members and that’s almost the entire town’s population. The median age in Pullman is 22.

Downtown Pullman is small and has 1 real block of shops that seemed dead. There appeared to be a few nice restaurants, but the only place really happening was the Cougar Country Drive-In, named for school’s Cougar mascot (there is going to be a theme here). Cougs is the shortened version of the name.

The old school fast food restaurant was packed with fans in Maroon. Everyone was wearing some sort of Cougar apparel. I ordered the Cougar special: a burger topped with ham and cheese.

I then headed over to campus, located about a mile from downtown Pullman. The buildings were pretty, but nothing spectacular. The most popular attraction on campus is Ferdinand’s Creamery. Since WSU is located in the middle of farmland, they are known for their Agricultural department (the school’s original name was Washington Agricultural). Ferdinand’s is the school’s creamery and makes both ice cream and cheese. They are known statewide for their Cougar Gold cheese- a unique type of cheddar. Normally, Ferdinand’s is only open on weekdays, but they have special hours on home football game days- the exact hours depend on the time of the game.

I arrived at 1pm right after they opened and the line was out the door and down the block. I ended up waiting about 40 minutes in line, but noticed that the line got much longer as I moved through. I ordered the Apple Cup ice cream (named for the annual football match between WSU and the University of Washington) and a bag of Cougar Gold cheese. The cheese must be laced with something because I downed the bag and the ice cream in about 3 minutes.

Nearby, I noticed that the WSU basketball team was having an open practice. I watched the team scrimmage itself. In the concourse of the arena were mementos to the perennially underperforming WSU basketball team. My favorite was a plaque highlighting their NIT tournament berth from 1992.

With very little else to do on campus until gametime, I pretended to be a high school senior and signed up for an official admissions tour. The admissions “presentation” lasted all of 10 minutes and focused on the fact that Pullman is “in the middle of nowhere” and that the students have the ability to and do create their own fun.

After the presentation, I was led on a group tour of campus. I asked the tour guide why she chose WSU and she said “because Cougs help Cougs”, meaning the community is strong both in Pullman and after graduation. She said that sports are a huge deal in Pullman because there is little else to do. Everyone goes the games. Half the student body has football season tickets and by rule have to attend at least 7 home games to renew.

By the end of the tour, it was getting rainy and cold, so I decided to head to a bar and drink the cold away. The most popular bar in Pullman is called…The Coug. The bar was pretty gross and had vulgar writing all over the walls, but it was packed and the atmosphere was fantastic! My favorite message said “I Came, I Saw, I Couged.” Also, for some reason every bar in Pullman has had its men’s restroom sign stolen.

I went to two more spots: a bar called Valhalla and a tailgate in the indoor practice field (very similar to the University of Oregon) before heading into the stadium. The rain had really picked up and the temperature was around 42 degrees. The student section took up a whole third of the stadium and was completely full despite the horrible weather.

At 7:45, the game kicked off between the Cougs and the Colorado Buffalos. The student section had a great atmosphere and was conveniently positioned between the band and the cheerleaders. Everyone stood the entire time so it was easy to find a good spot. My one gripe is the fight song where the crowd spells out “WASHINGTON STATE COUGS”. Way too long.

By halftime, it had rained a half-inch and my clothes were soaked. Luckily the rain was beginning to mellow down. To warm up, I bought some mac & cheese made with Cougar Gold.  The entire student section left at halftime-very few dressed properly- and I was able to easily walk up to the first row. With 8 minutes left, it became obvious that the Cougs were going to win so I headed back to the car, drove the 10 minutes back to Idaho and went to bed in the RV.

October 22, 2017: Palouse Falls

The next morning, I got breakfast in the beautiful town of Moscow. Moscow, like Pullman, has about 30,000 residents but only 12,000 students, so there are more real people to build a town. As a result, the town of Moscow is considerably nicer than Pullman. They have a beautiful Main Street lined with bars and nice restaurants.

The University of Idaho’s campus is just to the west of town. The buildings here were historic-looking and beautiful. While most of the buildings were closed, I was able to sneak into the Kibbie Dome, the indoor football stadium.

I then drove west past Pullman and through the Palouse. The short golden hills kept appearing, the road kept winding and for 2 hours I passed through exactly 1 town with more than 126 people.

Twice, I crossed the Snake River. The second time, I reached the confluence with the Palouse River at a place called Lyons Ferry. The scenery here was otherworldly.

Just a few miles up the Palouse River from Lyons Ferry, I headed onto a dirt road which led to Palouse Fall State Park, home of the 200 ft tall Palouse Falls. While Washington has many many waterfalls, Palouse Falls happens to be the official state waterfall.

After taking in the view from the top of the cliff, I walked around and down to a lower narrow clifftop for an epic view. It was so pretty.

It was now lunchtime, but there were no restaurants anywhere near the Falls. The closest town with food was in Washtunca- 17 miles away. There, I stopped at Sonny’s Tavern, the only place in town and the only restaurant in an hour radius.  Luckily, the place turned out to be spectacular. I had their 50-year old recipe for fried chicken. Highly recommended.  I also overheard some interesting conversations. Apparently the hunting here is awesome because it is very easy to spot the animals without tree cover.

I then drove the 90 minutes back to the Spokane Airport and boarded the flight out.

Final Thoughts:

The Palouse really surprised me. Not only did I not expect to see the strange rolling plains landscape, but I also could not believe how few people lived there and how few towns there were. Pullman at 33,000 residents is the largest town! While I had a lot of fun I do not see any need to go back to this specific area. Luckily, Eastern Washington and the Inland Northwest have a lot of other places to see!


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