It’s appropriate, I think, for me to write on the topic of place. For the past four years I’ve been bouncing around, constantly defining and redefining my environment and sense of home. My last move was across the world. A year spent working and traveling in the Southern Hemisphere. When I got back to Portland I wasn’t yet sure of my footing. So I did what any uncertain wanderer does: found a way to get back out on the road. My escape came in the form of a summer gig working for a food booth that traveled to small town festivals and fairs. The Craigslist ad promised weeks of travel at a time. It was something I’d never done before, something completely different. I was on board.
The work was easy, the hours were long, the RV was cramped. At first we didn’t travel far; outer Portland towns like Canby, McMinnville, and Salem. It was more of a social experiment than an experience of place. I’ll admit I was a little judgmental, approaching many things with a very urban attitude. It wasn’t until we drove north that I started to pay more attention to the journey, to take in the details every step of the way. I was too far away to do anything but evaluate my surroundings independently from what I already knew.
Our first stop in Washington was Waterville; for me nothing more than a small highlighted block on a Google map. From Portland we headed north and after about three hours made a turn to the east. I’d spent much of this time in the lounge chair of the RV with my headphones in, stretched out staring at the trees and the blue sky out the window, or curled up reading and dozing. But as we continued east I noticed a change in the landscape. We were driving over Snoqualmie Pass, somewhere I’d never been despite growing up in the Pacific NW. The road started to snake upwards and angular mountains lined the highway creating steep-sided canyons. I noted most vividly the haze of smoke from nearby wildfires thick like a wall.
When we got to the fairgrounds the air outside hit like another wall; hot, dry, like the smoke was creating a vacuum, sucking away the moisture. I squinted in the hazy sun and took in the surroundings. Not much to speak of. Gently rolling hills of stubby post-harvest wheat added to the feeling that everything there was dried up. I shaded my eyes and asked no one in particular, “Where are we, again?”
It’s a little ironic that my first impression of Waterville was that it was dried up. The town was actually founded because of water. In 1883, a man named Stephen Boise placed a claim on a high plateau and built a cabin. Later he dug a well that produced water. A lot of water. The only water around for miles. That water not only led to the development of the town but later convinced commissioners that Waterville should be the Douglas County Seat; a designation it still holds to this day. It was quickly identified as a farming region and after attempts at cattle and potatoes, wheat prospered as the primary crop. Now, at about 1200 people, it’s a very small town but remains a healthy farming community. The commercial district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and every year it hosts the North Central Washington Fair, which is touted as a premier event in the region.
We set up in a small kitchen reserved for us on-site so it was quicker than normal. Following our post-prep tradition, we all hopped in the van to go find something to eat. On the nearly empty main street we found our diner destination closed because of the fair. We chose a small restaurant instead, because it was open and nearby, one of few alternatives. Our waitress apologized for the plastic cups and flatware and the paper plates. “It’s just easier this way when the fair is in town,” she kindly explained. I still had a hard time believing that the next day thousands of people would start flocking to this tiny town for a simple country fair. When we stepped back outside the world seemed to be on mute. I found myself drawn in by that quiet sense of calm.
Later that evening I got restless in the RV and decided to go for a walk. After a slow meander around the fairgrounds I walked a path north alongside the road; one of many set in a large grid. When I reached the first intersection I looked both ways in the dimming light. Only one car was visible a ways off, coming in on a dirt road, kicking up a trail of dust. Other than the hum of the fair being set up behind me it was completely still. Other than the distant line of transmission towers there were only two colors ahead of me; the smoke-tinted haze of sky and the spanning curves of tan.
It turned out that the North Central Washington Fair really is one of the premier events in the region. It’s been happening in one form or another since 1889. Not only are there the standard rides and animals, there’s also a rodeo with horse racing and Indian Relay (a complex bareback race that involves one rider and three horses). Thousands of people really do (and did) flock to the small fairgrounds. The feeling of calm broke open to allow for moms with strollers, 4-H kids, gossiping teenagers, and dads in camouflage work jackets.
Those that came to the kitchen were talkative. Many told me that the towns they lived in didn’t have food like ours, that they looked forward to the simple teriyaki menu every year. A young Native American with a number pinned to his blue plaid shirt told me he’d just finished second place in his Indian Relay. I could tell he was tired but full of adrenaline, barely able to focus long enough to place an order. While I was getting breakfast one morning I saw a cowboy lumber by – tanned face, leather boots, worn jeans and jacket, a gray handlebar mustache, and classic hat. There was a cigarette dangling from his limp lower lip. Somehow he made this look so graceful.
Somewhere along the line I became entranced by this particular small town; intrigued by the isolation and obscurity. I imagined the people that could live in such a place must feel grounded in their small sliver of the world. Whether this was true or not, it created a sense of nostalgia for something I’m not sure I’ve ever even had: a realization that, even though I love Portland, I am still searching for my place in the world and likely have a long way to go before I find it.
After four long days we packed up the van and trailer and left Waterville. We had to set up our booth at another fair in another small town that night. We were two thirds of the way through a 17 hour work day, but I still took the time to notice the snaking canyons, the angular mountains. The smoke had cleared and it was a dark night. I didn’t really know where we were going, but I was moving forward, so I was on my way.
Ginger Duncan is a writer of poetry, flash fiction, and creative non-fiction. A native Oregonian, she lives and works in Portland, but always has her eye out for a new adventure.