This piece was written a little over year ago, in June 2016, and originally published in an abridged version on July 15th, 2016 in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Then, it was published in its full-length form on The Odyssey Online August 16th, 2016.
Once in a Palouse Sunset
by Brent Atkinson
On first instinct, I would say my love affair with Pullman and the Palouse began during my freshman year of college at Washington State University (Go Cougs!) However, upon deeper reflection, it goes back way further than that.
Although I lived in the countryside north of Pasco, Washington from the age of 2 until I graduated from high school and shipped off for college, my story began on the Palouse. I was born in Moscow, Idaho at Gritman Memorial Hospital on June 23, 1992. I wasn’t the only one in my family born on the Palouse though; my mother, father and older sister were all born in Moscow, Idaho as well, at the very same Gritman Memorial Hospital, as well as other family members of mine. So, you could say my family’s bloodlines run pretty deep in the Palouse.
I don’t consciously remember much, if anything I can actually recall, before moving to Pasco as a toddler, so my childhood memories are entrenched in the Columbia Basin, and whenever I pass Connell and drive past the desert bluffs in the north Pasco countryside, I do feel that warm feeling that can only be described as “home”.
Photo: Desert landscape near Washtucna, WA
However, there is something different about the Palouse; a feeling that while Pasco might be home to my childhood memories and closest friends, the Palouse is my home. I don’t know if everyone at some point in their lives creates an indescribable relationship with a certain area or place that can make their heart skip a beat, but I know there are people who do understand that feeling, and you lucky people truly know what Dorothy meant when she said: There’s no place like home.
Since moving back to Pullman from Kennewick about eight months ago, I’ve been feeling a bit down, and a little lonely. Not that I don’t have plenty of family and friends who I love and who love me, because I do, but everyone knows what it can be like to feel lonely, even if you’re in middle of a crowd.
I’m one of those people that’s struggled with that feeling my whole life, a feeling of mild-isolation from others, feeling like a bit of an outcast at times, a “one man wolf-pack” as Alan from “The Hangover” would characterize it.
Nonetheless, my romance with Pullman and the Palouse has been evolving since childhood. As a kid I visited the area often with my family, considering I have grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins that still live on the Palouse and in northern Idaho, and throughout my childhood, this area was associated with good times. Camping, family reunions and family vacations; the Palouse is the gateway to much of my childhood fun and nostalgia.
Photo: St. Joe River, near Avery, ID
Then college rolled around, and it was my first time living in Pullman, and like many college kids when they first come to Pullman, I got the true “Coug” experience. Crazy walks home from parties and bars, alcohol-blurred nights with my friends. Some good memories, some bad, and LOTS of bad decisions. For a while, I thought that this was the Pullman experience and that the party life is why I loved Pullman so much.
I would go home to the Tri-Cities to hang out with my best friends from high school and brag about tales of nights that stretched into the early morning, doing and seeing crazy things at parties and in the streets, attending rowdy Cougar football tailgates and games, tales of heartbreak either inflicted upon me or that I inflicted upon others.
Not to mention the sexual experiences that ranged anywhere from enlightening and awakening to downright shameful and depressing. Nonetheless, it was all part of the learning process; making mistakes and trying to learn from them, and trying not to repeat the same mistakes too often.
Photo: WSU mascot Butch waiving the Cougar flag at a Martin Stadium home football game.
While I look back on college with very fond, albeit at times a little dazed and cloudy memories, I know now that that experience was not my true Pullman experience. That was all part of coming of age, a process I’m still heavily in the midst of.
That, was college. (Party on, Wazzu!)
However, now that I’ve officially stepped into the wondrous world of adulting, Pullman has changed for me, and these past 9 months since moving back to the area have been a bit of a roller coaster, a roller coaster that at times has seemed to be completely void of other riders, me sitting smack dab in the middle of the line of cars, no one in front of me, and no one behind, riding out the peaks and valleys, and trying to be patient with this irrational desire for instant gratification so many of us millennials have today in the 21st century.
During this time, I’ve realized how much more Pullman has to offer outside of the drinking and the partying, and that my heart isn’t parked on a bar stool at Valhalla Bar and Grill (although I do love Valhalla, don’t get me wrong), but it’s linked with some type of intangible that the Palouse has to offer for me personally, an intangible that I have not been able to define, and probably never will.
In recent months especially, I’ve been missing my family and friends back home in the Tri-Cities, and it’s been a bit difficult to stay positive about my decision to move away from them all back to Pullman in an attempt to chase my version of the American dream.
While I’ve been feeling a bit like a deserter and wondering at times if I’ve made the right decision, it’s nights like a few Fridays ago that not only help put in perspective why I’m here, but also remind me why my heart pulled me back to this beautiful, simple, breathtaking, complex place I can now truly call home.
I stepped onto my small apartment balcony around 8:30 p.m. and saw clouds painted in the sky above the ridge to the northwest. Like some type of tie-dye cotton candy, the northwestern sides of the clouds were emblazoned in red and orange; while the backside of the clouds opposite the sun turned to a deep blue. Hardly thinking about it, I quickly threw on a pair of shoes, grabbed my keys and phone, and walked out the door and up the hill from my apartment.
First off, while I don’t always give it the credit it deserves, my specific location in Pullman is prime. Located out in the furthest-reaching corner of what is affectionately referred to in Pullman as “Apartment Land,” rolling wheat fields crawl right up to my proverbial backdoor.
Up the hill from my apartment is a small WSU-maintained ecological reserve named Magpie Forest, a 14-acre endangered remnant of the Palouse Prairie. In other words, I live within close walking distance of one of the very few remaining slivers of the 4,000 square miles that make up the Palouse Prairie that has not been developed for either agricultural or urban use, more or less in its “natural habitat”.
That’s pretty damn cool.
Anyways, that evening as I walked up the hill to catch a glimpse of the dying sunset, I noticed something else: I wasn’t the only one.
People stood out on their decks basking in the sunset, cars drove up to the northern-most point the dead-end road would allow them to and cut off their engines, people walking their dogs looked upward, a couple wrapped in each other’s arms had eyes only for Mother Nature’s painting in the sky, and people standing outside their townhouses, arms folded, stared at the sky as well, paying no mind to the guy pumping up the hill trying not to miss the vantage point I was hoping to get to before the rolling hills swallowed up the sun.
They paid me no mind because they all knew what I was doing: I was trying to capture my best version of that moment, one of those moments that don’t come along every day. A moment that won’t make the news since it isn’t violent, sexy, sensational, or outrageous. A moment that means something different to everyone.
We were all just trying to make that beautiful gift the cosmos was giving us last a little longer in our minds and our hearts.
When I reached my destination, I got to that perfect spot out on the prairie-grass laden knoll east of Magpie Forest and snapped a few pictures with my Galaxy and shipped off those Snaps to virtually share my experience with my friends and family 150 miles away. My Mom replied back to one of my snaps saying “You’re making us homesick!”, referring to herself and my Dad watching my Snaps together, recalling their own fond memories of the Palouse, where their romance had blossomed, and where they had started their family.
As the sun sidled off over the ridges in the distance, the other people cleared out, and I was once again left alone, standing on that grassy knoll, surveying the landscape. Pullman in the western valley below basked in the bit of remaining glow from the sun that still spilled over the hills. Kamiak Butte, to the north, was back-dropped by an equally bright, albeit fading, pinkish-orange sky.
Then, for the first time since leaving my apartment, I looked back to the east toward Moscow Mountain. A dark, ominous cloud was dumping rain on the mountain, a scene that was in stark contrast to the bright, heart-aching views to the north and the west that were slowly dying.
For just a moment, my heart sped up, and I scratched an itch on my neck that was never there to scratch in the first place. I inhaled the cool, fresh, early-summer air and looked back over my shoulder one last time. Then, with a strange and foreign grin on my face, I started my trek back home.