Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
With a few exceptions, we hadn’t been tied to the clock on this trip. But this day, we were seeing someone special who was expecting us at a certain time. Because we had to backtrack a bit for our first stop, we made sure we were up and out early. That’s easier when you don’t have a campsite to break down, and we pulled into Whitman Mission National Historic Site by nine.
Located a few miles west of Walla Walla, Waiilatpu, as it was known in 1847, was the site of a horrific attack. That year, five Cayuse murdered missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and nine of their fellow settlers. They also took between 49 and 53 hostages, including many children.
Before the massacre, missionaries and settlers had been following the Oregon Trail, entering the area in rapidly increasing numbers. The migration began in 1836 when Marcus and Narcissa, along with Reverend Henry and Eliza Spalding, made the long journey west from what is now the Midwest. The two couples were missionaries with ABCFM, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and these early pioneers helped establish the Oregon Trail. They were so early that Narcissa and Eliza were the first white women to make the transcontinental journey. Once they arrived in the area, the Spaldings founded a separate settlement and the Whitmans set up their mission in Waiilatpu.
The Whitmans tried to convert their new neighbors, the Cayuse, by teaching them the advantages of an agricultural lifestyle. That didn’t work out so well, but the missionaries kept trying. For more than a decade, Marcus and Narcissa ministered to the natives as well as to the increasing number of settlers following the path they helped forge. Then, in 1847, the Whitmans were slaughtered.
Indians killed innocent missionaries who were simply trying to help. At least, that’s how the story was told for more than a hundred years. While the massacre was unconscionable, there’s a backstory that has only recently become part of the official tale.
The influx of settlers to the area swelled quickly; in 1841 there were 25 pioneers, and by 1847, 5,000 people crossed through Waiilatpu. With these people came disease. It was bad enough that the settlers were taking over the tribes’ traditional lands and trying to change their way of life, but then measles struck, and more than 200 Cayuse, half the population, died. Because Marcus was a doctor, the Cayuse blamed him. They thought he was poisoning them.
This thought wasn’t entirely unbidden. The ABCFM was Protestant, and its representatives were often competing with Catholics for the souls of the natives. There was a rumor that Joe Lewis, a Catholic missionary, told the Cayuse that Dr. Whitman had been administering poison instead of medicine. Five members of the tribe believed that, and took revenge by killing their alleged poisoners.
The murders temporarily put a stop to the mad dash west on the Oregon Trail. For the next eight years the Cayuse Wars raged, but it was a losing battle for the natives. In 1848, Congress established the Oregon Territory in direct response to the murders, and by 1855 the tribes in the region had ceded most of their lands to the U.S. Government.
It’s only been since 2010 that a more balanced telling of this tragedy has played out. The site was originally preserved in 1936 as the Whitman Mission National Monument, a memorial to the slain Americans. It was redesignated a National Historic Site in 1962 and began emphasizing its historical importance as well as its status as a memorial, but it still focused on the Whitmans and pioneer life. Finally, in 2014, the park changed the entrance sign to reflect neutrality. Inside the museum, the exhibits now tell the stories of both the pioneers and the people who were already there.
History is told by the conquerors, but sometimes the conquerors evolve. We’d learned that at Little Bighorn, and it was reinforced at Whitman Mission.
There’s a park in Illinois called Starved Rock. It’s a land of canyons, caves, and waterfalls hidden in the prairie. When you’re driving on the Interstate you’d never know it’s there. You can look out across the plains and have no idea that there are steep drops and bluffs under that flat horizon.
Eastern Washington isn’t exactly flat, but coming upon Palouse Falls provides that same feeling of discovery.
This was another place that Jim’s dad had (strongly) suggested that we visit. We were nearing my father-in-law’s childhood home, and I knew when he said “go there,” we should go there. We parked in front of a tiny campground on a hill and approached a chain link fence, careful to stay clear of the edge after seeing signs warning us that four people had fallen to their deaths recently. I could see why. I wanted to get closer to the falls plummeting nearly two hundred feet over basalt cliffs. Near the plunge, a line of eroded rock resembled a row of skyscrapers. The layers of earth in the crater carved by glaciers were stacked like unmortared slabs, as if a mason hadn’t quite finished his job, and moss covered the wet stone at the bottom.
There are two stories that tell the power of these falls better than I can.
In the first story, in 1984 a utility proposed a dam upstream. The hydroelectricity generated would have provided about a third of the power for the county and would have reduced taxes significantly. But, it would also have destroyed the falls.
The people said no.
The second story involves a bunch of kids. In 2013, students at Washtucna Elementary School thought that Palouse Falls should be the official state waterfall. They proposed this idea to House Representative Joe Schmick when he visited their school. He said, “OK. Write a bill.” They did. In December of that year, Representative Schmick presented House Bill 2119 to the Washington State Legislature. It passed unanimously.
The Senate had a couple of fuddy-duddies, but the bill still passed with a 46 to 3 majority. On March 18, 2014, Governor Jay Inslee signed it into law, and Palouse Falls became Washington’s official state waterfall.
Eastern Washington is a land of abundance. It’s a land known for wheat, and I was about to meet a local wheat farmer known around the world for his innovative farming techniques.
He’s also family.
I’d heard stories about Uncle John and his wheat. I’d baked bread with his wheat. I knew that he was a no-till farmer, and I’d been told that he would talk your ear off about farming, if you let him. When we first started planning a visit to see him he offered to take us on a tour, and other family members asked us “are you sure? You’ll be out there for hours!”
We were sure, we were out there for hours, and I could have spent more time listening to this passionate, driven man.
When we pulled up to the 1909 barn near Colfax, Washington, we didn’t know what to expect. Uncle John’s wife was the aunt who had passed away not three weeks before. We let him lead, and he greeted us effusively. We loaded into his truck and he took us through his fields. They’d been his father’s fields – Jim’s grandfather’s – and had been split up among the siblings. Over time some of the fields left the family, but gradually Uncle John got them back, and now he farms 4,000 acres. Knowing that you don’t ask farmers how many acres, I was surprised he told us. It wasn’t just because we’re family; Uncle John is that open.
I sat in front and Uncle John paused now and then to turn in his seat so he could see both of us. He’d point out the soft white wheat, red wheat, Northern Spring wheat. He talked about worms. A lot. “We’ve got worm castings ten feet deep!” he exclaimed. “Worms are nature’s plows!” We drove past the shack where his cousin was born.
He drove the dirt road through fields of canola, pointing at the yellow flowers. “That’s fuel,” he said. “I burn it in my truck.” I got out and the exhaust smelled like french fries. We drove past corn fields. “Corn is like music, man.” You can’t grow corn in Washington because the soil wasn’t up to it, yet there they were, rows of ears in between wheat, canola, and garbanzo beans. “This is like exploring space,” he said, “or the bottom of the ocean. We don’t know what we don’t know. We’re just getting started.”
Uncle John tours the world to teach no-till farming, and he’ll be at it as long as he can. “Retire? You nuts?” he said. “I’ve been waiting my whole life to see this.”
We followed the rutted road back to the farmhouse built by Jim’s great-grandfather and toured the century-plus old home. After a quick stop to meet Jim’s other aunt and her ornery alpacas, Uncle John, Jim’s aunt, and the two of us drove into Colfax for Chinese. It was a one-stoplight, twoChinese-restaurant type of town. We ate at Eddy’s, their favorite. The food and the company were so good I forgot to take a single picture.
Reluctantly, we said goodbye. We had one more place to visit and we were cutting it close. We’d been told that Steptoe Butte offered the best view in this part of the state, and if we missed it, well, we’d regret it. It was nearly nine when we approached the quartzite island and Jim drove as fast as he dared up the rocky one-lane road. We circled around and up the peak, higher and higher as the sun dipped lower and lower. When we got to the top, all that was left was a horizon-length streak of fuschia with a bright ball of yellow in the center.
Jim drove in the dark to Loon Lake, about an hour north of Spokane. My brother- and sister-in-law own a home on the side of a mountain and we plugged the address into the GPS. It took us the long way around. Asphalt became black gravel and then it was rough ruts in the steep slope. Street signs were painted boards nailed to poles. Finally, after what seemed like hours, we found it.
We collapsed into a bed in a room in a cabin filled with family. Jim’s parents, his sister, her husband – they were all there. His family was mine, and it felt like home.