Lollapalousa

This past weekend I took a trip out to Hrafnstead, the residence of our good friends Rebekah and Forrest. They’re very different folk, but fun and interesting in their own ways.

Forrest is deceptively willowy strong, even-keeled, and grounded. He does blacksmithing and woodworking, helps with the animals, and has a day job. I could see him teaching yoga and quietly advocating peaceful co-existence.

Rebekah is physically powerful, boisterous, vocal and incredibly craft-oriented, and also has a day job. When most people want feta, they go to the grocery store. I wouldn’t put it past Rebekah to make her own feta–and it would be good. I could see her teaching drinking, and noisily advocating many things from natural fabrics to chickens.

Hrafnstead is near Princeton, Idaho (north of Moscow, pronounced MOSS-coe). If you don’t know much about Idaho, a good starting point is that north Idaho differs in many ways from the widest, southern part of the state. If north Idahoans perceive that you do not grasp this distinction, they consider it well worth their time to clarify for you. For one thing, north Idaho is mountainous and has a lot of timber, which is not true of southern Idaho; southern Idaho has most of the people, and is far more heavily influenced by the LDS church. In Rexburg, and many other towns, I’m pretty sure you couldn’t get elected dogcatcher if you weren’t Mormon.

Oh, my heck.

Princeton is solidly in north Idaho, in Latah (LAY-tah) County. Not far south of Latah County is Idaho County, which only has 12,000-odd people, and I’m pretty sure could hold Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

To get to Hrafnstead from where I live, it’s three hours’ driving. Most is through the Palouse (pa-LOOSE): Washington’s wheat country. Farms only look boring to those who do not understand what they’re seeing, because they paint and highlight the land in gorgeous colors. Now, granted, this is not Kansas, where most of the wheat country is fairly flat. The Palouse is hilly and its roads wind around and over many small hills, so it presents the sort of vistas Kansas rarely unrolls before the motorist. Right now, with the wheat high, is one of the prettiest times in the Palouse. Perhaps I can help you to absorb a bit more of what you see; if you are going to drive through it, you may as well like it, if we can arrange that.

After not quite an hour of freeway driving north toward Ritzville (which is not ritzy) and Spokane (which wishes it were ritzy), WA-26 heads east toward Colfax, WA, home of the state’s most infamous speed traps. However, its first portion takes you up a rocky depression called Washtucna Coulee, palisaded by black basalt outcrops, buttes, walls and fortifications. The land is thus because, some eleven thousand years ago, the Ice Age Floods backed sullenly up into the growing coulee as they filled ancient Lake Lewis (which covered much of the Palouse for a few days during each calamitous flood). This tore merry hell out of the basalt flows that dominated the region. Six hundred cubic miles is plenty to drink.

Like most Palouse towns, Washtucna itself isn’t very memorable; after you pass it, you enter the portion of Washington that makes it sixth in the nation in wheat production despite only a quarter (at most) of the state’s area cultivating the crop. Around and before you roll hills in several predominant colors, sometimes with splashy boundaries, sometimes firm: sepia/grey  for fallow land, the remnants of last year’s wheat stubble still visible. Sometimes the fields are striped, so that full crop fields lie right next to resting earth. Harvested fields are pale buff, fresh stubble with birds gleaning and gorging. Most people know the luscious deep golden amber color of ripe wheat, a hue radiating life, the color of an old $20 gold piece, but sometimes it’s still green and won’t be ready just yet. Often vehicle tracks and tramped-down areas make me wonder: I can see why someone might have had to drive out into the field at some point, but how and why did they mash down perfectly good crops? Those spots look like someone shoved a load of wood out of the truck, left it for a couple of days, then came and hauled it off again. It doesn’t look like some kids went out and did cookies or anything.

The prettiest (and probably most frustrating for farmers) are fields with a splattery mix of gold and green, right now mostly gold with green highlights. Imagine a woman with spring green hair, a mature mother whose hair has mostly turned golden rather than the conventional silver. Streaks and splashes of green show how her locks once looked; gold is its future and will eventually claim her entire mane. Or imagine that a painter set forth to describe wheaty hills, but painted the amber over the green, and in haste missed a number of spots. That is how parts of the Palouse look now. And yes, the Palouse is a woman, bearing life annually and tended with gentle admiration and care for her miracle of fertility and the giving of life. As you drive through, you admire her belly, and you may touch it in spots, but with respect.

Buildings here are nearly all farm structures, or the houses of those who tend farms. In most parts of the country, a big crimson barn or silo has little significance. Here, expect grey trim on that building, to symbolize locals’ allegiance to Washington State University in Pullman. In the Palouse, a deeply rusted roof that is still part silvery is a way to represent. WSU logos decorate mailboxes, silos, homes. Many locals are alumni, for in today’s agriculture, you do not know only what Grandpa, Dad and Uncle Vern taught you. You know those things, plus your degree in agronomy or animal husbandry. The nation’s agricultural bounties owe everything to the land grant universities, offering the application of current research and experimentation to the practical realities of agriculture, from soil conservation to making excellent cheese.

The locals are not readily hostile to outsiders. Most are friendly, even to outsiders wearing rival colors (in my case, purple and gold). At most, one should expect some friendly ribbing, essentially a test to see if you are a) jovial and friendly, or b) stuffy, fearful and condescending. I’ve tested this in a number of Palouse taverns, and like most places on earth, you don’t have trouble unless you brought it along and sought it out. More likely they will be very glad to talk football recruiting, coaching and upcoming season outlooks. Anyone from a very urban environment (say, Seattle) who gets a Deliverance vibe here is plain paranoid and silly. Wave to people, say howdy, be at ease. And if you stop in Dusty, WA, there’s no need to point out how aptly named the place is. I reckon they know it as well as anyone.

I indulged in the marvelous colors, gave the rural two-finger steering wheel wave to everyone, and dreaded Colfax. The route to Princeton through Colfax is particularly winding and irritating, with speed limits carefully crafted to create citation opportunities (particularly after turning onto WA-272 toward the actual town of Palouse). Forewarned and experienced, I snailed along at 2-3 mph under the limit no matter who was tailgating me. If everyone drove like me through Colfax, they’d have to lower the speed limits or enact taxes. As I approached Palouse (two miles shy of Idaho), the road took on a video game windingness. I slowed going up hills because I had zero idea what the road did on the other slope, and could live without rolling my truck in some guy’s wheat to create a new crop stomp.

Palouse, WA is only a couple miles shy of the Idaho line. In this region I began to see forests and foothills, increasing as one transitions to ID-6. Logging country. Bad place to wear your GUN CONFISCATION NOW t-shirt. Potlatch, Idaho was having its community day, whatever that may entail, and I cruised on through to Princeton before taking a right over the Palouse River. When the side road’s paving petered out, I knew I was back in the bush.

At first glance from outside, Hrafnstead was more like a county fair than a homestead. A warm welcome from R&F and at least a couple gallons of their home-squeezed cider, and I was rather renewed despite the heat. Considering I’d just done three hours in an un-air-conditioned truck on a hot July day in the Palouse, it wasn’t very hot up in the hills. I got the Hrafnstead tour, including textile workshop and technology center (first Samtron monitor I’ve seen in a decade), forge, various animal enclosures and barn (including guest room). As Rebekah is fond of saying, “this isn’t Martha Stewart Living.” And thank the gods.

Since I was basically not doing anything useful, Rebekah taught me how to card wool. All of it was under 21 and none of its fake IDs fooled me, so I did a good job. Then came a hearty dinner of potatoes (we were in Idaho), cheese pancake and grilled mutton. I had never before had mutton. Tasty, fairly chewy. A great dinner, then a couple hours of conversation and mead in front of a bonfire. Then Rebekah tried very hard to interest me in some comic videos and Game of Thrones, with mixed results. The best part of all of it was the company, their balance of ideas and keen intellects.

I headed up to the barn to sleep. The futon was very comfortable, though there are limited pathways among piles o’ textiles, and plumbing required improvisation. No matter; I conked out fast. Next morning, they don’t do coffee so I just drove into Potlatch for some, and we had a great breakfast on my return. Forrest made, and ate, at least twenty pancakes besides the ones Rebekah and I chowed on. If I ate that many on any consistent basis, I’d be watching out for Japanese harpoon guns. I think Forrest could eat forty and never gain a pound.

We then three-way disagreed completely on guns and gun control for a while (always a great sport in north Idaho), with barnyard sounds seeming to take my side on various aspects of the issue. It’s hard to imagine a more calm, hospitable retreat from the urban world than Hrafnstead, with its kindly hosts, backdrop of hard work to build self-reliance, homegrown/made refreshments and forested quiet.

Struck out for Kennewick by the same return path, and a dirty little secret of blogging is that this is how we help our brains remember all the details we wanted to write about. Especially older bloggers with questionable memories who need refreshers, or who want another try to come up with the right words. Go back the same way and re-prompt your deteriorating recall.

Thank you, Hrafnstead. Thanks, north Idaho. And thank you, Palouse, for the sort of color display too few people will take time to absorb. If you have ever had the urge to ask to touch the swollen belly of a woman great with child, you can grasp what is magical and mystical about this part of the world.

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4 thoughts on “Lollapalousa”

  1. Wow, J.K., what a lovely trip you just offered up! I absolutely love the Palouse belly, too, and could feel those hills, the fullness, in your fine writing. Maybe you even sited some crop circles, eh? 🙂 Congratulations on your carding of wool. You are a handy and loving guest.

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    1. Thank you kindly, Christi. It came of being caught between, in a way; hailing from a very agricultural state, having divided my dwindling days in Washington almost evenly between both sides of the Cascades, seeing the foibles of both with some detachment. I think what triggered me past ‘write or don’t write’ was seeing those fields mixed between green and mature, remembering paintings I had seen and thought fanciful, then realizing: no. This is what they were painting; it exists, briefly, in the right places. It was a most worthwhile trip and I felt better accepting warm hospitality because I managed to do something useful to help sustain the steading’s normal activities.

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  2. What an excellent post! 🙂 The areas of downed wheat are ‘blowdown’, sometimes when we get our boisterous Palouse winds, there will be areas in the wheat where the stalk folds over low to the ground, and it doesn’t get back up. You probably saw some vast fields of chickpeas on the way up, a lot of the farmers who contributed to the Pullman area becoming the Lentil-growing Capital of the world have gone over to growing the garbanzos. Understandable, because who the hell *really* likes lentils? Well, besides Forrest. To me, they taste like dirt; I’ll definitely eat hummus, though.Every fall once the combines go through the fields, I will often go out and glean, cutting the missed wheat stalks with a sickle, then binding them into sheaves, though I haven’t gotten around to threshing last year’s stuff for the most part. And last year I got quite a few chickpeas.
    Again, we were ecstatic to host you, and thank you for coming out; we’d have done a lot more energetically fun stuff if it hadn’t been so hot out. 🙂

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    1. So that’s what causes those spots that look like someone partied all night, then cleaned up the mess and left the wheat trashed. I had not known that many of the lentil farmers had switched over to hummus fodder, but it’s fair to guess that more people nationally eat hummus than daal (which can be good if done right). Thanks again for having me, and nothing we could do about the weather–we made the most of what it was.

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