This short article is for readers in other parts of the country who may be curious about a small city in the rural west.
Rural places are often thought of as far removed from the cultural sophistication of metropolitan areas, and they can be, but there are exceptions. We live in one of them. Seventeen years ago we moved to Walla Walla from the New York City area. It’s a city of a bit over 30,000 in rural eastern Washington. Sitting on the Oregon border, its a four hour drive to Portland down the scenic Columbia Gorge, and five hours plus to Seattle, except in winter when the pass might be closed. It’s only three hours to Spokane, but who wants to go to Spokane? We can always fly: three flights a day to Seattle. It lies against the relatively small Blue Mountains, and though surrounded by the high, but productive, desert of the intermountain west , its green valley is watered by dozens of creeks flowing toward the Columbia River. Friends in New York, and folks we met when we first moved here, wondered about the culture shock of moving from such a culturally active world capital to a small town in the rural American West.
In truth, culturally cosmopolitan life is not only possible in the rural West, it can be enjoyed in Walla Walla. Yes, we have farms, ranches, rodeos, county fairs, and pickup trucks by the hundreds. We also have three nationally respected colleges, a professional symphony orchestra celebrating it’s 150th year, a chamber music festival that attracts top talent from throughout the country, an active art community, several theater groups, and fine dining, along with burger joints and taco trucks. If chamber music is not your thing, how about a guitar festival, rock & roll festival, or any of a dozen or so local bands of gifted musicians. If, in your travels, you run across a magnificent piece of modern sculpture, chances are it was produced at the Walla Walla Foundry. The arts are big in Walla Walla.
Walla Walla, it’s a funny name, always gets a giggle. Some vaguely remember it from Bugs Bunny cartoons, goofy songs, and old vaudeville jokes. Others know about Walla Walla Sweet Onions. Anything else? With 150 wineries in the valley, its home to the finest premium wine produced anywhere in North America. As is sometimes heard around here, “Napa is for auto parts, Walla Walla is for wine.” What about produce? The valley produces produce in abundance. Some is exported, but most is consumed in the region, which means we feast on locally produced fruits and vegetables of the finest quality. For the carnivores among us, it’s up to you to choose. You can have the standard super market fare or, for a bit more, the best in locally grown and butchered meats where you can know the rancher and his or her livestock.
For all of that, it’s still a small city in the rural intermountain west. It’s unlikely you’ll pass through someday because we’re not on the Interstate. The Blue Mountains lack the visual appeal of the Rockies or Cascades, and besides, they’re accessible mostly by Forest Service roads not suitable for the average family car. Rush hour lasts about five minutes. A long wait at a stop sign might see five or six cars go by. Like any small city, its warts and weaknesses are visible to all. Not much is hidden. Rich and poor live in close proximity to one another. The usual distribution of generosity and parsimony, toleration and bigotry, wealth and poverty, beauty and ugliness, are all the more evident in small cities like Walla Walla. That includes its history. The grounds of old Fort Walla Walla are now a park and museum celebrating the pioneer history of the place. Not too far away, on the reservation of the united tribes of the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse Indians, is the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute celebrating the history and culture of the peoples from whom the pioneers took the land by force. What was done was done, both need to be remembered, both contribute to who we are today. The growing influence today is Hispanic, and that’s a good thing for who we will become tomorrow.
If you’re a dedicated big city person, Walla Walla is probably not for you. But if a little taste of almost everything the good life is supposed to be appeals to you, it could be the very best place to live. One caveat: as an immigrant from the coastal East I can safely say, if you want to come to America’s rural west, leave your big city attitude and expectations behind. It’s a sophisticated small city in the rural west, and that’s what it wants to remain.