Subject: Palouse country

Treasuers lurk close to home, as I was reminded on a recent road trip from Eugene to Lewiston, Idaho, where I attended a high school reunion. I only lived in Lewiston for a year, having grown up in Los Altos, CA, & it is only in my more sensible years that I have come to appreciate the beauty of the Inland Empire landscape.

Southeast Washington, northeast Oregon & western Idaho present some of the most stunning geology in the US, beginning with Hells Canyon (deeper than the Grand Canyon), the Wallowa Muntains & Lake (called the Alps of the US), the Columbia River Gorge, the prairies south of Lewiston & the Palouse country between Walla Walla & Lewiston.

The Palouse is a high, dry plateau of ancient basalt flows with water-carved little canyons. No tourist destination, this, but some of the most beautiful country you can imagine if you go for lots of sky, stark dry hills & sweet creekbeds. The names evoke the Nez Perce legacy: Pataha, Walla Walla, Wallula, Alpowa. Lewis & Clark came thru here 200 years ago, & their diaries record their wonder at the huge vistas. Settled 150 years ago by pioneers arriving in the wake of Lewis & Clark, these glorious hills still maintain haunting images of Chief Joseph & his band's last efforts to stave off starvation, forced removal & eventual loss of their culture & identity.

The roads wind thru the creek bottoms, where alder & cottonwoods huddle protectively over the scant water source. It's a birder's paradise in these cool retreats & a few minutes stop will allow sightings of the birds hopping & skittling thru the cattails, willows & sarvis.

This time of year the hills will take your breath away: it's harvest season for the dry-land wheat. It's hot, usually about 105F; the sky is so blue it hurts to look up; the rolling fields are a study in subtle shades of gold, gold, & gold; & the already-plowed areas are soft browns & greys. Unlike Eskimo languages with words for all the different kinds of snow & ice, there aren't words in English for the different golds of the wheat fields. The hilltops are harvested first, so the bands of plowed earth extend for miles across the prairies. Next down are the strips currently under harvest, & finally are the mature fields with fat seed heads soughing in the ceaseless wind.

I came up out of one of the little canyons to find farmers at work: three combines staggered across a band of wheat, enveloped in a cloud of dirty gold as they whumped their way along. Following like so many tugs around a huge cargo vessel were the trucks collecting the harvested wheat & dashing off when laden. It was a ballet of hard work so lovely I had to stop, literally in the middle of the road (traffic? what traffic!) to watch.

By my reckoning, the Palouse in late summer is as enticing as fall foliage in the East, tho it will never be the same kind of tourist draw. But if you're ever up our way, take a a few days to explore the Palouse, the canyon, the prairies or the Wallowas. You won't regret it.

Gail In Eugene but never for long