Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Impressions of Walla Walla

My first impressions of the little middle-of-nowhere town that is home to world famous onions, a budding wine industry, and Whitman College were somewhat muddied by the unfortunate loss of a filling late on the night before my brother's college graduation. I was flossing my teeth when I felt a strange pop in my mouth, and soon saw a small, but quite hard white piece of something resembling plaster in the sink. Immediately I suspected that a filling had fallen out, and a quick rinse with water from the sink confirmed my suspicion in a thoroughly unpleasant way.

I wouldn't say getting water into the hole in my tooth from which my filling had been ejected was painful, but there was a kind of metallic hollowness in the sensation that frustrated me. Needless to say, the pleasure of attending graduation the next day, and eating what by all rights should have been a wonderful family meal thereafter was somewhat lessened by the presence of what seemed to me an increasingly sensitive and gaping void on the upper left hand side of my mouth.

Fortunately I was able to get to a dentist as soon as I returned to Palo Alto, but that doesn't change the strangeness and discomfort of the situation. Indeed - and before I talk about Walla Walla - there's something unsettling about any personal injury, and in an especially odd way, injuries to the teeth and mouth remind the injured of his or her own frailty. It is so easy to take for granted our seeming invincibility - that is, though we may ache or be sore from time to time, it is easy to play off such minor annoyance - in that, heretofore, most of us have existed and continue to exist in a more or less intact state continuously for as long as we can remember. I have no recollection of missing limbs or digits, or being unable to hear or see. Much less can I imagine being dead.

That might be silly to say, but I think it is silly only because it is so far from our consciousness most of the time. Something as simple as a missing filling, however, blows a hole in the entire facade. The seeming impenetrability of the body - and what is more impenetrable than the teeth, in particular? - melts away. Eating a strawberry, sipping on water, and even breathing hard send an echo of pain and, more disturbingly, incompleteness through the mouth. Where there should be me, there is nothing. And if something as trivial as a small missing filling can set off such a reaction, I cannot imagine what people who have lost fingers, or worse, must feel.

Anyway, that's a strange backdrop against which to discuss Walla Walla, Washington, but I mention it because it was a strange backdrop against which I encountered Walla Walla, Washington.

Walla Walla is certainly idyllic, despite the windy and cloudy weather during the weekend. The rolling hills and distant mountains reminded me of some combination of Northern California and New Mexico, the former because there was green everywhere, the latter because the mountains were actually mountains, and not hills masquerading as such. The outskirts of the town betrayed a mixture of old, industrial poverty and a modern almost production-free middle class suburb disconnected from any metropolis. Alongside the old decaying train that sat on unused tracks - a train, my brother informed me, that had not moved in his four years at Whitman - there were wineries and elaborate housing developments.

I suppose an economy based upon wine production is more industrial than some towns, or at least is some combination of industry and agriculture, but traveling into Walla Walla itself transforms the picture of a hardworking farm town into a small town American service economy. The Main Street is littered with wine tasting rooms, mechanics, and clothing shops, the only oddity being the overabundance of the former. Indeed, there are so many, and such upscale wine rooms that you would be forgiven for mistaking certain parts of Walla Walla for some chic Napa Valley getaway location populated by Silicon Valley millionaires. That Walla Walla has no such millionaires nearby - or, at least, hardly the same density as the Bay Area - makes the apparent success of the wine rooms all the stranger.

Walla Walla, for all the appearances of a self-sufficient land of wine and, I guess, tourism, is really organized around a single thing: Whitman College. That may be my biased perspective as well, given that I was in the city specifically to witness a graduation from the College, but its fortuitous location along the edge of the center of town, and its fairly substantial size make it an all-too-apparent part of the town's culture. Considering that the town has only some 30,000 residents, it is not surprising that even a small liberal arts college like Whitman makes up a significant piece of the fabric of the population.

But Whitman is more than just a collection of students in a town, it is the architectural framework around which the town is built. Arriving on Whitman's campus feels like arriving in the heart of Walla Walla, as if the town exists for the sake of the College. The buildings on the campus are like the Platonic forms of the buildings off campus, the perfect mirror for an imperfect world. The quaint Eastern Washington world of the town can only hope to aspire towards being like their collegiate neighbors. No wonder that, out of a town of only 30,000, there were seven graduates in my brother's class originally from Walla Walla, students undoubtedly enchanted by the magical city of continual youth, fresh ideas, parties, climbing walls, and enthusiastic learning that borders the old-American, red-neck agricultural world in which they had grown up.

Perhaps my truest glimpse of Walla Walla was had in leaving the town via the two-gate airport. I should say, the two "gates" were two doors approximately twenty feet from each other in the, for lack of a better word, terminal. My flight, at undoubtedly at the peak season for Walla Walla air travel, was one of two scheduled for Monday, both going to Seattle. Our 6:50 AM departure seems logical only because I imagine some wealthy Seattle businessmen who weekend in the Washington wine country, and can't bring themselves to drive the whole forty five minutes to Pasco each Monday morning.

Despite the early flight, what struck me as so perfectly small-town-America-meets-liberal-arts-college was the combination of passenger and security official that greeted my wife and I at the airport. We arrived plenty early - at about 5:45 - but were in line for security for some 20 or 30 minutes, thanks to a painfully slow checkpoint at which about one of every five passengers was pulled aside for a rigorous pat-down. The man in front of us was forced to pull out his iPad, a perfectly befuddling device to our security operators, for further inspection, even though Apple promises it is airport safe, and, as the man himself explained, he had been through security in Dallas, New York, San Francisco, and Denver without getting stopped before.

I have a theory that airport checkpoint rigor is inversely proportional to the size of the town in which the airport is located, and Walla Walla confirms this theory. But what was funny here was not the slowness of the checkpoint at 6:00 AM, with only one flight full of sleepy college graduation attendees, but rather the incongruity between the obviously conservative, God-fearing, gun-toting, true-blooded Americans running the checkpoint and the obviously liberal, iPad-toting, probably agnostic, New York Times reading, globally conscientious patrons of the airport. All of this was accentuated by a beautiful warning at the entrance to the security line about the American government's concern over whether Venezuelan airports were up to our security standards, as if anyone native to Walla Walla could name a single city in or person from Venezuela, let alone intend to travel there. I suppose the sign, then, was for the benefit of we world-traveling parents, friends, and siblings of the graduates.

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