We travel a bit, and wherever we go people we meet want to know about the small city with the silly name where we live. So this is an article for readers who live far away from Walla Walla. If you’re a local you can ignore it. I’ve thought about writing it before, but never did. It came up again the other night when we were at a picnic sitting on the grass lawn of a local vineyard listening to exquisite chamber music performed by nationally known musicians who had donated their talents to help raise some money for the local free clinic serving those most in need. There we were, out in the rural west looking up at the mountains, eating out of picnic baskets and listening to Mozart while sipping fine wines. Maybe I should finally write that article.
The place has been occupied for thousands of years for good reason. It lies in a broad valley up against a range of small mountains, and is surrounded by the high desert of the intermountain west. Crisscrossed by dozens of creeks seeking their way to the Columbia River, it’s an oasis in otherwise dry country. When Europeans began to show up, it became a frontier fort and settlement for pioneers who had arrived on the Oregon Trail to farm land from which the resident Indians had been brutally removed. It prospered as a staging area for prospectors on their way to the gold fields in Idaho and Montana, selling them all the supplies they would need on their way out. An abundance of saloons and prostitutes relieved them of their take on the way back. By the late 19th century the main lines of the transcontinental railroad bypassed Walla Walla in favor of other routes, and the city’s growth came to a halt.
In the meantime, farmers had discovered the valley to be perfect for every kind of produce. Wheat grew with ease on the slopes of the mountains and surrounding hills. The introduction of hardy winter wheat proved that the high desert could also produce bountiful crops. There was plenty of timber in the mountains for all the building supplies one could want. Seventh Day Adventists started a college (Walla Walla College), so did the Congregational Church (Whitman College), and Catholic nuns established a hospital. Civilization had arrived. Twentieth century world wars revived the fort, and the local airport became an Army Air Force base, launching the town in new directions. About thirty years ago local vineyards and wineries, mostly home hobby operations, began to be noticed for producing some of the best in the Pacific Northwest. Today there are over 150 wineries producing the nation’s finest premier wines. Wine tourism arrived.
The little colleges matured into one of the region’s top private universities and one of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges. They were joined by a community college twice named best in the nation. Two hospitals offering every specialty serve the region. Downtown is flourishing. Fine dining abounds. So do beer and burger joints, and everything in between. The Walla Walla Symphony, the oldest symphony west of the Mississippi, is widely recognized for the quality of its work. The Walla Walla Chamber Music Festival brings in nationally known artists each year, as do the dance festival, guitar festival, jazz festival and more. It’s an odd place. Cosmopolitan, literate and sophisticated Walla Walla mixes comfortably with rodeos, pickups, farming, ranching, and rural western life Walla Walla. It’s still off the beaten track. It isn’t on the way to anywhere else. The closest Interstate is thirty miles away. There are three flights a day between here and Seattle. If you come here it’s because you want to come here. Well, except for the residents of the state pen just north of town, but that’s another story.
It’s not that we don’t have problems, we do, just like any other place. Average income tends to be on the low side, and it’s not easy for those at the bottom to find a decent place to live. The dominant white culture is giving way to a richer diversity in which the Hispanic community plays a major role. Old time conservatives are making way, reluctantly, for younger more liberal voters. Remnants of wild west behavior are reflected in the occasional dispute resolution with guns between hot tempered youth, often members of local gangs. The town’s reputation for generosity has begun to attract more homeless transients. They are issues common to many cities these days, but in Walla Walla the community is working through public and private means to address each of them. I’ve been impressed by younger generations of leadership taking over from the old boys network, and doing a good job of it.
Not everyone who comes likes it. It’s the rural west. The mountain are yours to enjoy, but the roads into them are rough forest service roads. The wild life up there is not tame. The high desert is dry. The sky is big. The horizon is many miles away. Whole Foods and Trader Joe are not here. The Snake and Columbia rivers are, but the marinas and parks along their banks cater to locals, not tourists. Gated communities exist, but we don’t like them. Although neighborhoods can seem segregated, the city is too small for integration not to dominate. Farm and ranch supply operations adorn the highways in and out of town. Some farmsteads have a lot of junk around them. If you come to stay, come to live into our way of life. It’s not the big city.
We came here sixteen years ago. I think we’ll stay.