By Richard Rapport
We left from the Methow Valley to drive again across the north central section of Washington state to visit Steptoe Butte, a peculiar land formation near the Montana border named for Edward Steptoe.
A 19th-century fort built nearby and its surrounding little community that sprang up known as “Steptoeville” adjoined the 3,612-foot butte initially called Pyramid Peak. In 1858, Lt. Col. Edward J. Steptoe and a battalion of 156 men were overrun there by a coalition of Nez Perce, Coeur d’Alene and Spokane Indians. From the top of Steptoe Butte, one can see for miles across the Palouse, and back as far as 1900.
South through Bridgeport and Coulee City, east across to Almira, Wilbur, Creston, Davenport, south again to Harrington and Sprague, and finally to the village of Steptoe. Back via Dusty, Gordon, Hooper to Washtukna, down a long dirt road that is gateway to Palouse Falls, then north via Kahlotus, Connell and Othello to Soap Lake.
Having visited these once vibrant little towns in the past, we longed to see them again. But we couldn’t because what we remembered of them is gone. Thomas Wolfe was right. The grain storage facility in Dusty seemed to say it all: Dusty Elevator.
I recalled the pharmacy where we stopped 25 years ago (then still featuring a long soda fountain counter fronted by red leatherette topped stools) as located in Wilbur, but it could have been Creston or Davenport. We never found it. Gone. In fact, at least half of the buildings in most all of these towns are boarded up. It was tough to find a place to eat that wasn’t a chain linked to something.
I had just finished reading J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” a mortifying story of the failure of life in rural Kentucky and Ohio when the economy tanked and the residents became hopeless, lost and addicted. Looking for a way out, these voters helped elect a man without qualities to be the U.S. President. One must be careful, of course, not to transpose smug, middle class, well-off-and-safe Seattle values to other places, but the similarity between the regions described by Vance and central Washington was striking.
When the basis of a place with a small economy vanishes, so does the place. Oh sure, there are still huge and prosperous-appearing wheat farms scattered over the Palouse, and maybe families continue to own a few of them. These operations seem well-funded and secure. And there are still elevators where the grain is stored.
But the small towns are empty: of businesses, people and hope. Thinking about it now, these failures seem to me to be a product of Amazon, Microsoft, the Internet in general, and other huge business that aggregate wealth. Place requires tending, says the great agrarian philosopher and writer Wendell Berry. So, smug values aside, the death of these places are valid complaints for the inhabitants. When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing left to lose.
Enter a man without qualities and his cadre of fools. The problems of the small communities from the century before will not be solved by slogans, proclamations and, more than anything else, not by whopping big lies. Even if it could be done, returning General Motors and Ford to Detroit and the rest of what’s left of Michigan–even leaving Flint, where I grew up, aside — won’t rekindle Washington state small towns any more than will trying to rebuild the unhealthy coal industry in Kentucky or the timber export business in the Pacific Northwest, all killed by greed and consolidation.
Pushing the money ever upward leaves a trail of dead communities in the wake that social engineering and politics won’t resurrect. They have to be reborn by hope and some means to a way of life, if not prosperity. We didn’t see those things on the trip across our agrarian state back to the century before.
Part-time Methow Valley resident Richard Rapport is a clinical professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and is the author of “Seattle’s Medic One: How We Don’t Die.”