Walla Walla and Waitsburg Washington

Tuesday, 30 July 2013 15:30
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I drove through an awful lot of thisBecause my trip was sorely lacking in alliterative destination names, this post is brought to you by the letter "W".


I arrived in the little town of Waitsburg, WA just before sunset, and drove the couple hundred yards between gettting to town and the location for my room for the night. That couple hundred yards also covered the entire downtown area, if that gives you any idea of the size of the town. 

Waitsburg (population 1,217) is in the middle a large chunk of Washinton's southeastern grain region (also styled as its wine region, but really it's all about the wheat). The bulk of the grain is dry farmed, which means no irrigation, making it one of the world's largest and most fertile dry farming regions. Couple that with the fact that both the Snake and Columbia rivers run right through the area and that almost all of the wheat is sold to Japan and Korea, and you've got relatively low growing costs due to not needing to irrigate, really low shipping costs as they're right down the river from big west coast ports that make for a quick trip to Asia, and a lot of very happy and wealthy farmers, since they can sell grain at market prices without the expenses that their farmer friends farther into the Great Plains would incur.

Endless amounts of this stuff The car, playing in the wheat

That being said, it's still very much a farming area, and almost everybody I saw lived very modestly. Waitsburg itself was was founded in 1865 on the combination of the railroad and the wheat, and it still operates in much the same way today. The downtown architecture is still largely unchanged from that period, making for a very quaint and cozy little town.

Downtown Waitsburg, WA
My hosts for the evening, Imbert and Karen, have a really lovely 1912 craftsman-style home right on Main Street, and I had the whole second floor to myself. Imbert was out doing a little gardening when I pulled up, and after he greeted me and I got my things up to the room, he mentioned that he and Karen would be at a downtown cafe just down the street from the house for dinner. I got cleaned up and then walked down and joined them for dinner. Both Imbert and Karen are journalists, and Imbert also runs the local paper for Waitsburg. Karen had recently left a public relations job with ExOfficio travel clothing (which my luggage is incidentally full of--it's good stuff).  We had a great chat about my trip, how they ended up in Waitsburg (part time; they split time between there and the Seattle area), and a variety of other things. The food was good too, although finding a cajun restaurant in downtown Waitsburg was a little odd (but in a good way).

After dinner, we walked back, and I grabbed a shower and turned in. My plan the next day was to explore Walla Walla (about 20 miles south) and maybe try some of the local Washington wines. Downtown Walla Walla (the city so nice they named it twice) dates from roughly the same period as Waitsburg, and it shares some similar architecture, although it's considerably larger. I made a quick pitstop at the local farmer's market for a little breakfast, then wandered around downtown for a bit. Similar to Astoria, the downtown area is slanted more toward attracting tourists than handling the everyday business of the locals. It was a rough balance between coffee shops, restaurants, wine tasting rooms, and gift shops, all easily walkable and very convenient.

Downtown Walla Walla Tasty and inexpensive. Walla Walla farmer's market. Let's go to the movies!

Unlike Napa and Paso Robles, the Oregon and Washington wine region tourism doesn't seem to be much about the actual wine 'estates' and vineyards. There isn't that 'destination winery' thing you get in the California regions, and instead most of the local experience seems to be through the tasting rooms, with the wineries themselves being pretty nondescript. There were a few tasting rooms where several wineries were represented, and several single-winery rooms along the downtown area. In general, they were all pretty good. I'd say the white varieties were better than their reds (although Oregon's Pinot Noirs were tasty), but overall I had a bunch of stuff that was OK and a few things that were quite good, but nothing that I could say was actually bad. 

Tasting some nice Washington State Merlot

I wandered around Walla Walla a bit more, but there wasn't too much to see outside of the downtown area, so around 4:30 in the afternoon I started making my way back toward Waitsburg to maybe try the other restaurant there. I got within about a mile and a half of town, when my trip took a turn for the exciting.

As I was cruising into town, I heard a thump from the left front wheel area, and the car sagged down several inches on that corner. That's never a good thing, so I managed to get it pulled over to the side of the road and got out to have a look. Somehow, and I'm still not sure how, , the nut that connected the lower ball joint to the rest of the suspension had failed. The cotter pin was sheared off, and after I walked back down the road a bit and actually found the nut, I could see that most of the threads were stripped out. Maybe the combination of an aftermarket ball joint, stiff front springs and swaybar, and some really rough roads over the past few weeks? Who knows. In any case, that's not really a part that's supposed to fail, so I wasn't carrying a spare. Time to get out the AAA card for the first time on the trip.

This is not a new "25% Lowrider" trend
I felt around in the dirt under the suspension a bit, and I could tell that the ball joint and all its important parts were intact and attached, so in theory if I could get all that reconnected I'd be back in business. Miraculously, there didn't seem to be any other damage. While that was technically fix-able at the roadside with some new hardware, I figured better safe than sorry and I should let the tow truck get it to a spot where I could work on it more easily and/or order parts if that turned out to be necessary, so I figured I'd take it back to Imbert's place and work on it in the driveway. I assumed I'd be there at least another day sorting it all out.

However, weird road trip events seem to have a knack for getting even weirder as they progress, and about 20 minutes into my wait for the tow, an older couple in a Toyota minivan pulled over, walked to the car, and started checking it out. "Wow, this really looks great," he said to his wife. "After seeing this, I think we should paint mine red, too."

Then he turned to me, asked what the trouble was, and I pointed at the definitely-not-in-good-shape left front wheel. "Looks like a suspension failure," I said. "I'm waiting on a tow."

He introduced himself as Gary Lowe, "The guy who put the Green Giant on the hill outside town."

"I've got one just like this. Well, not exactly like this; yours is in way better shape. But I've got a roadster, a '66 at home. Who'd you call for a tow?"

"Triple A," I said. "They were going to send a truck from Lightfoot's in Walla Walla, but they changed it a few minutes ago to Kyle's Towing in Dayton."

"So what are you going to do?" he asked.

"Well," I said, "I'm staying just up the road in Waitsburg, and I know of a couple places that'll overnight parts to me here, so I figured I'd get it towed over there then get underneath and see what's what. I'll probably be here another day or two by the looks of it."

"Tell you what," he said. "I know Kyle, I stored some cars with him. I have a wrecking yard in Texas, got a bunch of cars, got some of them here, too. You have Kyle tow you to my house, and if we can't get it fixed, maybe we can take some parts off my car for what you need and get you going again."

"Wow...that's really generous. I'm hoping I don't need too much for parts, though, it doesn't seem too bad under there...."

Abruptly, he said "Hey, there's Kyle now! Shoot, he's turning around; probably can't see your car behind my van. I'll go tell him what to do."

And with that, he jumped into the van and drove off down the road in search of Kyle. In a couple minutes, Kyle came back down the road toward me, driving a rollback wrecker. We chatted for a bit about how to get the car on the bed without dragging the wheel, as I didn't need an upper ball joint failure to go with my lower one, and I told him that it looked like the lower joint was OK and if we could get it re-seated, the car would probably roll. Kyle had the idea to flip the damaged nut over and use the threads in the castellated part (which still looked half decent) to hold it on at least temporarily. I broke out the Datsun jack and my tools, and we got that done in a few minutes at the roadside.

"Nice jack," he said. "That one is from back when they actually expected you to use the jack. New ones, I wouldn't even put my toe under the car on those."

Kyle getting the ball joint back in place temporarily
Once the car was back to rolling, it was easy to pull up onto the bed, and I jumped in the cab and we started driving to his tow shop in Dayton. At the time, I wasn't entirely sure where we were going--Triple A had probably told him to take it to Imbert's house since that was the address I gave them, and Gary may or may not have told him to take it to his house. Turned out we were doing neither, and going to Kyle's shop instead.

"I'm pretty sure I've got some hardware for that somewhere around the shop," he said. "We'll dig something up and get this back together so you can get going tonight."

"That," I said, "would be awesome. This year car still had SAE hardware, so that nut ought to be 1/2"-20...pretty good bet if you've got some stuff like this around, something will be that size."

We passed the rest of the time on the drive talking about the area and dry farming and how it was definitely better to be a farmer than a tow truck driver, and after about 15 minutes, we reached his shop in Dayton.

"We'll leave it on the flatbed for now," Kyle said. "Easier to work on. Give me that nut; I'll go see what I can find that's close."

While he went off in search of hardware, I got the car jacked back up and got the front wheel off so we could get at the suspension. In a couple minutes, Kyle came back out with a nut that was a little shorter than we were after, but close enough. As he started putting it back together, Gary pulled up in a solid but well-used '66 1600.

"I told him to bring you over to my place," he said. I told Gary what we'd found with the hardware and that the ball joint itself looked fine, so I probably wouldn't be needing parts.

"Good," he said. "Hey, while he does that, come have a look at my car. I've got some questions for you."

I went over to the car, and he popped the hood. The whole car was fairly dirty, the top was trashed, and there were some large chunks of the interior missing, but it was indeed a very solid, no-rust-in-the-rockers, matching numbers, original 1966 1600 Roadster, and actually a really good candidate for restoration.

Kyle installing the stand-in parts and Gary offering advice Gary's '66

"It's only got 40,000 original miles on it as far as I can tell," said Gary. "Picked it up for $500, figured I get it fixed up. Pretty excited to get on it again after seeing yours, too."

Under all the crud, it was actually a pretty nice car. I'd buy it myself as a restoration project if I'd come across it previously, as it was accident- and rust-free, and it sported a completely original numbers-matching drivetrain.

Kyle was wrapping up the re-connection of the ball joint with the new hardware, waving off any offers to help. As we took the car off the flatbed, I asked what I owed him, and he said "Nothing; it'd cost me more to write you a bill than what I did to it."

Gary chatted with Kyle briefly about various automotive things, then turned to me and said "Hey, follow me back to my house; it's just down the road. I want you to drive my car and tell me what you think." Since he'd been so helpful (and willing to sacrifice parts) and he seemed like a nice guy, I obliged, and once back at his house, we parked the cars side by side for some comparison. He hadn't had access to a complete car before, so his wife took a lot of pictures of various details on mine so he'd know what the original stuff looked like. We went for a quick ride in his car with me driving, and it drove pretty solid for such a tired example. It could use a clutch and some tires, but it accelerated and shifted well, and the brakes were good. I believed the 40,000 original miles claim. I also got to experience what stock front springs and a stock swaybar felt like again, and it was way, way cushier than my ride. Pre-trip, I had contemplated replacing my springs and bar with the stock units (I've got stiffer and shorter versions on mine), and in retrospect, that might have been a good idea. Granted, the car looks way cooler lowered a little and it does handle like a slot car on smooth roads, but I haven't been spending a lot of time on smooth roads. I may still do a swap later if I can work out the logistics.

When we got a little way up the road, he asked me to pull off next to an old barn and help him get one of his "other cars". He'd been wanting to drive it home, but needed a ride out there to come and get it. I pulled off and parked, and he opened up the barn door. Lo and behold, inside was a fully restored 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville right next to another '59 of the same type (this one needing some restoring). Next to that was a pristine 1985 Buick Grand National (the mean-looking black turbo version they sold back then), and next to that was a '34 Ford (needing a lot of restoration). The rest of the barn was filled with car parts and body sections of various types and vintages.

Getting the dust hosed off the Caddy
He fired up the Caddy and said "Close up the door after me, and I'll see you back at my house." I locked it up, jumped back in the Datsun, and followed him home.

"Tell you what," he said, "there's a pretty good pizza place downtown, how about we go get some dinner in the Cadillac?" That sounded good to me, so he let his wife know, and while she was getting ready, we went for a quick ride in my car, this time with him driving. He liked the look of the car being lower in the front, but I pointed out how much stiffer the ride was than his car, so he ruminated on that for a bit. He did very much like the swap to the five speed transmission though, so we talked a bit about what was required to get that done, and then motored back to his place again.

He hosed the barn dust off the Cadillac, then we all jumped in and went down to the pizza place via a short downtown tour of Dayton (county courthouse, original train station, statue of Sacajawea commemorating Lewis & Clark's trip through the town, and various other sites). The pizza was really good, and the conversation was fun, ranging from cars, to his other place in Texas, to the state of the US government, and pretty much every topic in between those. When it came time to go, he gave me the keys to the Caddy and told me to drive it back to his place. "Not every day you get to drive one of these things," he said. "Might as well take advantage of it."

Getting out of the Datsun and into a giant vintage Cadillac was definitely a study in contrasts, as the Caddy was more than twice the size of the Datsun, and it felt it. It was a lot of fun though, and I got to play with all of the power accessories (windows, etc.) and get a functional tour of the interior while piloting the giant beast back to his place.

Once we got back to his house and parked the Cadillac, we traded numbers and contact info, and I thanked him for all the help and told him to give me a call if he needed any help with finding parts or any other info for his car.

Back in Waitsburg the next morning, Karen interviewed me for a human interest story for the local paper, and Imbert got a couple of photos with me and the car. I'll put a link to the article here when they send it to me, but it was fun having the road trip briefly being a local paper-worthy story.

My destination for the day after that was Palouse Falls, a semi-remote waterfall cutting through the central Washington volcanic desert geology. Originally, I had just planned to make it a pit stop and then find a place to camp for the night, but once I started hiking around the area, I decided to find a trail down to the pond at the bottom of the falls, where I'd heard you could go swimming if you could get down there.

The falls are situated in a small state park, with the only really developed part being the small fenced area near the parking lot that overlooks the falls from high above. There are trails that take you along the river and eventually down to the falls themselves, but they are makeshift at best, and definitely not put there by the state parks department. I followed the most likely looking path up river a bit, where it got around a large basalt butte before turning back downriver to the top of the falls. There was some great geologic features from where the river had cut the gorge as well as some some cool wildlife, including red tailed hawks, deer, and a lot of cliff swallows.

Palouse Falls, from the observation point Upper river area above the falls

Once I was at the top of the falls, I could see the trail down around the base of the butte and finally down to the pond. It looked a little dodgy in spots, but overall not too bad, and I figured I probably wouldn't get another opportunity to swim in a giant volcanic desert waterfall anytime soon, so off I went. The falls were impressive, but not at a period of high flow, since it's relatively late in the summer and there's no meltoff going on. They get pretty spectactular during a big melt, though, with more than ten times the normal volume going over the top.

Basalt formations above the falls the start of the trail down to the pond The falls, as seen from the bottom

The trail was more solid than it looked other than the last bit down to the falls, but with some judicious butt/boot sliding it wasn't bad. I was prety sweaty and dusty after that, so going for a swim with the trout that were crusing around in the pond was just the ticket. I tried to get the camera set up to take some automatic pictures, but the only one that turned out to be even vaguely in focus was of me standing up to walk back and see if the camera was working. Still, there's me and the waterfall, which is pretty cool. I saw out underneath it a few times, which apparently only works really well in Hawaiian Tropic commercials. Actually being under a waterfall that big is like standing under a fire hose...it doesn't push you under or anything, but it's not exactly a relaxing experience--being next to it is way better.

Looking back up at the trail to get to the bottom Turning back to see if the camera is working...better than no picture Cliff Swallow nests under the rock overhangs Scenery along the hike (yes, more columnar basalt)

After my swim, I hiked back out to the parking area and got the car, then drove over to a nearby area that was designated OK for camping, where I spent the evening. Next stop: Wapato, WA, the Yakima Valley area (where produce and fruit abound), and Mount Rainier.


#1 lectacave 2013-08-01 06:23
First, glad you're ok. 2: Wow, I do believe you were the best thing to happen to Gary Lowe in a long time! What good fortune you had to have a guy like that (and Kyle too of course) come along! Do you think he'll let me have that Datsun for, say, $600? Seriously.
#2 laceytrynn 2013-08-01 07:45
I love this entry, so much bizarre-but-won derful human interaction! I know that feeling of being on the side of the road with your broken car thinking, "now what?" and then having an unexpectedly amazing rescue...
#3 sk8rchk 2013-08-01 08:06
I love the way the universe connects all of you car geeks. Awesome day!
#4 Mom 2013-08-01 08:30
Walla Walla, Waitsburg, Wapato...say that three times fast !! Amazing experience for you, and those guys. Could do without the knowledge of the trip up the Palouse Falls. Be careful !
#5 danabart 2013-08-01 12:57
I dig the Caddy. American Graffiti style, I think the AG example was a '61. You need a hat like Gary's.
#6 chickline1 2013-08-04 12:20
You know your writing is still eloquent. I love reading your adventures! and listen to mom, and be careful!, (but not too much)

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