THE PERFECTLY PLEASANT PALOUSE
A golden glow covers the rolling hills. It is a gentle light, softly bathing the grasses and distant trees. Shadows fill the hollows as evening approaches and birdsong breaks the silence. A deer freezes into a statue, has a short staring contest with us, then bounds up the hill. The landscape is Tuscan in feel, but those aren't grapevines before us and we aren't jet lagged.
Gary and I are standing in a field, not north of Rome but south of Spokane, in the Palouse. It is a unique agricultural area spanning south-east Washington and north-west Idaho. It is one of the richest wheat and lentil growing areas in the world. The undulating hills are interspersed with small towns and dotted with old barns or crumbling flour mills. Long a destination for photographers, we intend to dawdle along the narrow roads with no planned route or particular agenda, taking in the rural flavour and photogenic landscape.
Gentle golden light
After following a portion of the Lewis and Clark Trail from the high altitude Lolo Pass, through rugged mountains and dense forest, we crest the bluff above Clarkston. Emerging into lush green fields under a vast canopy of blue sky, we instantly know we are in the Palouse. It is empty, quiet. The occasional tractor pitches at a forty-five degree angle along a furrowed hill. One third of the lentils in the United States are grown here and there is a Lentil Festival in August. Also farmed in the rich, silty soil are wheat, peas, barley, hay and canola. Many of the fields are vibrant spring time Irish green, while others are beginning to show the yellows of summer.
The view from Kamiak Butte of a crop duster flying over rolling fields
In order to appreciate the mosaic of colours, we head for higher ground. Kamiak Butte, bulging skyward and wearing a head crest of evergreens, provides a vantage point from which we watch the sunset. A bright yellow crop duster flies low over the patchwork of fields. California quail scuttle in the brush. Across from Kamiak is Steptoe Butte, our destination for photographing morning light. We slowly gain elevation on a road spiralling the Butte like the inside of a nautilus shell. From the top, there is a 360 degree view of farmland stretching to the horizon. Greens, tans, browns, and golds blend into a quilt of colours. Sculpted lines in the fields make up abstract compositions and we happily click our camera shutters.
A view from Steptoe Butte.
For made by humans art, we browse at the Dahmen Barn near Uniontown. It is a showcase of local artisans, featuring paintings, and ceramics, photography and fibre arts. As dust motes fly in the sunbeams, our footsteps echo against the rafters of the barn, which was built in 1935 for the Dahmen family. It is surrounded by a unique wheel fence.
Dahmen Barn and Wheel Fence
Over a thirty year period, the owner has placed wheels and gears from a wide assortment of wagons, machines and buggies. Each wheel, rusty and worn, apparently has a story and the fence, over 1000 wheels strong, curves across the fields.
The Wheel Fence at the Dahmen Barn has over 1000 wheels.
Tourist amenities are somewhat sparse in the area. We are based in Pullman, which is the home of Washington State University. The main street, as in most of the towns we dawdle through, is quiet. Each town has a worthy structure or two to see. Brick buildings and old Victorians, many dating from the early 1900s, abound. The Perkins House in Colfax was built in 1886 and is a reminder of the refined life in the American west. Shuttered store fronts, a reflection of the tough economic times, are all too common. But we are here for the landscapes and, when we meet three other photographers in a restaurant parking lot, we discover we are not alone. The three, from Seattle, the eastern US, and California are each leading a group photography workshop. On Steptoe Butte at sunrise, a photographer's favourite location, there could be a crowd.
Our dawdling continues. Gravel roads, unmarked ribbons around the hillocks, beckon. Falling down barns, the occasional horse, ancient grain mills, telephone wires, a cemetery - all are framed by brilliant green fields. A swath of orange poppies gives an eye-popping show of colour.
Palouse Barn and Horse
A friend's father once remarked that if nothing goes wrong on a trip, there won't be anything to talk about. His homespun farmer's wisdom could have sprung from this rural area but fortunately, it need not apply here. When nothing goes awry, when all is as fine and easy going as it is for us in the perfectly pleasant Palouse, that's worth telling too.
IF YOU GO:
The Palouse area is about 75 kilometers south of Spokane, Washington. Two choices for accommodations are the Best Western in Colfax or the Holiday Inn Express in Pullman.
Photos by Cullen Photos:
1. Gentle golden light. Photo by Karoline Cullen
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