Pulp Fiction

What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Every once in a while you have to follow a strange urge to go somewhere you’ve never gone before. (And yes, I have been watching old Star Trek episodes, thanks to my friend Trevor’s announcement he was going to watch all of the original episodes—in order—this summer.)

Since we had some errands to run in Othello, I found a town southeast of Othello called Kahlotus where I’ve never been before. (Of course HM had been there before, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a town in Washington he’s never been to.)

On the way east on SR26, I insisted that we stop so I could get some photos of what was originally supposed to be a pulp tree farm. The trees likely will never be harvested because no company wants to drag their equipment clear out east of Othello, though, so there have been these two huge clumps of enormous cottonwood-hybrid trees looming over the highway for years.

Even driving by this place freaks me out. It’s like someone took a piece of the rain forest and plunked it down in the desert. Part of it is the fearful symmetry of the trees (with apologies to William Blake) that you can see above–I’m used to seeing it in orchards, but those trees aren’t this tall.

I’m not a good judge of things like this, but I bet these are at least four stories high. The sound dampening is also amazing. A few steps in to the “forest” and all you can hear is delighted birdsong and the burbling of the dripline…it feels like you’ve just walked through the back of the wardrobe into another world.

The trees have started to be uprooted by the wind, however. Since they’re fed by surface water all day long, they haven’t developed proper roots. So the whole “forest” leans slightly away from the prevailing winds (you can see the leaning in the photo below, as well as what happens to shallowly-rooted trees around here).

X marks the spot

Then it was off to Kahlotus, which German immigrants originally named Hardersburg. Got to love those Germans and their literal naming style (click here for a 1881 NYT article about German family names) as well as Washington’s place-naming insistence on using Native American terms whenever possible (even if the literal translation of those place names is the chamber of commerce’s worst nightmare).

According to Wiki, Kahlotus may mean “hole in the ground,”  but it more likely means “stinking water” or “bad water” thanks to the “highly alkaline water in the nearby lake.” (It’s not so “nearby” you can see it from town, though, even though the cemetery is somewhat optimistically named.)

An Eastern Kingbird at the "Lakeview" Cemetery overlooking Kahlotus

I understand the importance of honoring the culture of those who were here first, but Kahlotus isn’t the only name that seems a bit cringeworthy due to its unflinching honesty. Consider ‘Mattawa,’ which literally means, “where is it?”  All the good names must have been taken already by those west side towns: ‘Snoqualmie’ (moon people) and “Cle Elum’ (swift waters).

There are lot of similarities between the coulee geography in Kahlotus and the Smyrna Canyon just north of Mattawa. Spots on the Washtucna (“many springs”…I guess THEY lucked out) Coulee floor are so alkaline nothing will grow there, either.

Since HM and I are well-steeped in the finer points of small-town municipal government, the first thing we noticed while driving through Kahlotus proper were the recently paved roads, which we correctly surmised were funded through our state’s “pavement preservation” program for wretchedly poor small towns (like Kahlotus, and–perhaps not coincidentally–Mattawa).

Kahlotus reminds me a lot of Agra, Kansas—where my dad grew up, although Agra boasts 306 souls compared to Kahlotus’s 214. Both towns are over a hundred years old and their “downtowns” consist of more abandoned brick buildings and grain elevators than in-use structures.

Sometimes it’s hard not to wonder if people were just more ambitious decades ago.

West of Kahlotus

HM coaxed the Civic down an abandoned highway between Kahlotus and Connell, which was where we found these elevators. After ducking inside (and avoiding huge mounds of pigeon guano) we saw some license tickets posted on the wall and figured out these buildings have been out of use since 1989, although I would’ve guessed at least a decade more than that. One thing that surprised me was the lack of vandalism and overall “people sign” around the buildings. Other than a few shotgun shells and a couple pieces of garbage, the place looks like it’s seen more bovine than human traffic the last twenty years. HM said he thought he could pick out a cut where a spur rail line must have been (we did see some ties pushed off to the side). He also tried to mess with the settings on this thing, which looked for all the world to me like what a Goss press would look like if it was made out of wood (yes, I still have newsprint in my blood). HM thinks it was a grain separator.

Grain separator or old Goss press. You be the judge.

We had a hard time finding access to the Columbia Plateau Trail, which is the old Spokane, Portland & Seattle, Portland  railbed—just like the trail that runs through the Smyrna Canyon that’s part of the old Milwaukee line. HM correctly guessed while we were hunting for the trail that it was probably down in the canyon: “They don’t usually build railroads on the sides of mountains if they can help it.” Damn men are always so Vulcan about everything.

"It'd look more steampunk without the bird crap."

Just like the old Milwaukee railbed, the CPT is marked with forbidding signs that lead you to believe you’re not supposed to step foot on it. (I believe the DNR signs in Smyrna actually state you need a permit…instructions that are of course universally ignored.) But there is nothing like a little funny-looking California quail to make the trail look more inviting….

The CP trail through the Washtucna Coulee is also covered with forbidding-looking crushed riprap. Nothing you’d want to ride a horse or a bike on—very fast, anyway.

So after this little adventure, I think it’s probably fair to state with certainty that this is the first time that Star Trek, pulp cottonwoods, steampunk, and Kahlotus have ever been mentioned in the same blog post. Go where no one has gone before! I specialize in that kind of thing.

Just remember, you read it here first, folks.

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6 Comments

Filed under Posty post

6 responses to “Pulp Fiction

  1. This is a great entry — anything about abandoned places is interesting to me, and the pics of the trees are awesome. You make me want to strike out and check out some eastern-Colorado towns.

  2. Bridget

    Wow, especially amazing photos. We have abandoned grain elevators out this way (upper midwest-Great Lakes states, former grassland/prairie) too, but interesting to see in such an arid landscape, the scrub in the background. And those trees… A whole series on abandoned agricultural and forestry projects would be really interesting.

  3. L

    Thanks for the nice comments. I want to go back to the pulp trees to take some more photos and see what kind of birds are living in there.

  4. Laura Liptak

    I think that’s an Eastern Kingbird, not a Gray Jay

    • L

      I think you’re right, after looking at the photos. I’ve never seen one before and had to use a “bird wizard” to try to figure out what this guy was…according to the one I used there were no other “white tipped tail” black birds in WA.

  5. Wow you are absolutely amazing this is hilarious……I love the Star Trek referances because, while I will never admit to liking it at least not to Michael, I have been taking a liking to it. Darn sci-fi crud lol……Michael pretty much told me from the get go that eventually I would learn to love sci-fi and has gone so far as too tease me about it. I mean I do see how there is no woman who could stay married to the leitz/pusch/hopkins men without learning to live with and even learning to like sci-fi shows and movies.

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