My sister is moving here from a large city quite far away. In fact she’s bought a house and arrives this Friday. She’s moving from a beautiful city where the abundance of wealth effectively hides poverty from casual visitors, and neighborhoods of struggling families who work hard for modest incomes are in areas not frequented by tourists. I wonder what it will be like for her to live in a small city of the rural west. Small town living is different.
Here wealth and poverty are not so easily separated. The best neighborhoods are spotted with marginal housing, some of it looking pretty dilapidated. Poor neighborhoods are filling in with places being fixed up by families who have lived there a long time and don’t want to move. An abundance of post WWII houses, the ones “all made out of ticky-tacky” are all over the place. Scenic entrances to the city pass farm supply yards, a prison, and the usual stretch of fast food joints. It’s all mixed together. We have a couple of new gated developments, but I think most owners are from Seattle or Portland and don't know any better.
Two superb private colleges, and one of the best community colleges in the nation, provide a full spectrum of cultural life, including the “oldest continuing symphony orchestra west of the Mississippi.” Less than two miles away (everything is less than two miles away) are the fair and rodeo grounds that also accommodate the ever popular demolition derbies. Ranchers, farmers, vintners, wine makers, professors, physicians, tradesmen of every variety, and everyone else provide a quilt-like patchwork of social gatherings.
A ten minute drive in any direction will bring one into the country. The nearest larger urban area is fifty miles away, three sister cities whose collective attractiveness has yet to be discovered, but they do have a Costco. Getting to a “real” city means a long drive of three to five hours.
We love it, but we have had visitors who are uncertain on the way in from the airport, having arrived on one of our two or three flights a day, but where we have free parking, and the airport cop knows all the locals by sight if not by name. They came in on a seventy passenger plane flying low and slow over miles of almost treeless ranch and wheat land. Wilbur Avenue is our way home, but it muddles its way along trying to decide if it’s a new wide avenue or narrow bumpy county road as it passes what one daughter proclaimed to be the ugliest houses in America.
So why do we love it? The Blue Mountains, on whose flanks we live, are moments away. The steeply rolling landscape of the Palouse changes day by day. Eating as a “localvore” is not something new, it’s the way we eat. The symphony is superb, we park for free, and are home ten minutes after it gets out. Plays, lectures, and concerts are in such abundance that we cannot possibly go to all, or even most. The wine industry has sparked a restaurant renaissance. Clean jeans and a collared shirt are all that are required to be dressed up. It’s easy for strangers become acquaintances, and acquaintances to become friends. Like any place we have our share of crime, but locking the house or car doors can be a more casual thing. We are big enough to have two fine hospitals and one of the best paramedic staffed ambulance services anywhere.
This is not a Thomas Kincaid village or Disneyland Main Street. It’s real life, and I think it’s a good life.