It's good to get out of Dodge sometimes, and for us city slicker types, that often translates into quality time spent in that vast rural area that is the Inland Northwest. The Spokane-Coeur d'Alene corridor is an anomalous island of urbanity amid expansive stretches of farmland, forest land, and sage-covered hills -- a point that's easy to forget when you're sitting in the Costco parking lot.
When you decide to venture out hither and yon, remember that small towns are communities in their own right, with a strong and proud identity of their own. Contrary to Gertrude Stein's sentiment, there is a "there" there, and the best way to be a considerate tourist is to approach the place and the people with respect. That goes for tourists everywhere, of course, but nowhere more so than in a small town. If you want to earn your merit badge in rural touring, keep these tips in mind as you visit your small town of choice:
1. Think you can blend in unnoticed? Fuggedaboudit! Ain't gonna happen. The locals will spot you before you cross the city limits. In a town of 200 or 500 or even 1,000 people, everybody knows everybody else and you can be sure they'll know you're not one of them. However, most small-town residents are happy to welcome a visitor with a genuine interest in the area.
2. Find a diner or cafe with lots of vehicles parked nearby and stop in for a bite. Pick up a copy of the local newspaper. Sit near the table full of older guys in feed caps. Ask a few questions and don't be afraid of sounding dumb. Strike up a conversation with the waitress. (You don't find a lot of waiters in small towns.)
3. Keep the hick jokes to a minimum. Leave them in the car. Better yet, leave them at home. Chances are good the locals have heard them all before anyway. They won't think you're clever.
4. Don't complain about the lack of a Starbucks. Most small towns now have at least one place to get an espresso, even if it's not the most ubiquitous brand. And if you can't imagine a day without a latte, then perhaps you need to seek out a broader slice of life.
Rather than simply touring through the windshield, get a taste of the town's genuine flavor by parking the car and walking around. Most small towns have some kind of big community festival during the summer months, and these are great ways to meet people and have some good old-fashioned fun along the way. The Washington Festivals and Events Association (www.wfea.org) tracks many such events around the state, and local chambers of commerce can give you more information than you'll ever need. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Dayton, Wash. All Wheels Weekend (June 17-19) and Festival of the Arts (June 25)
Dayton, located northeast of Walla Walla in Columbia County, has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years thanks to a community-wide effort to preserve and promote local history. The storefronts along Main Street give visitors a genuine downtown shopping experience, from upscale art galleries to historic Dingle's department store, purveyor of plumbing supplies, fine china, and everything in between. The Weinhard Hotel pampers guests with turn-of-the-century elegance right in the heart of downtown and makes a good base for exploring the nearby Walla Walla wineries. Dining options range from pub casual to the top-of-the line classic French cuisine of Patit Creek.
As if that weren't enough, Dayton hosts two festivals in June. For fans of vintage automobiles, All Wheels Weekend (June 17-19) is a great opportunity to check out the shiniest hunks of metal on the road. Friday night begins with the Presentation of Cars along Main Street and awards for the coolest cruisers in the crowd. In addition to the display of horsepower, there's a pancake breakfast, live music, a monster truck show at the fairgrounds, and a "drag" race that promises to be not exactly what you'd expect. The beautifully restored Liberty Theater holds a free screening of "Gone in Sixty Seconds" on Friday night and there's free admission to the Depot Museum all weekend.
The spirit shifts from wheels to art deals with the inaugural Festival of the Arts on Saturday, June 25. Artists will show and sell their wares in Flour Mill Park downtown and the day concludes with a "Back to the '50s" dinner dance. Wenaha Gallery hosts an artist reception in the afternoon, and there's plenty of live music and theater all weekend. Visit www.historicdayton.com for details.
Tekoa, Wash. Slippery Gulch Days, "Gettin' Down on the Farm" (June 17-18)
Celebrate the farming and ranching heritage of the Palouse by checking out Slippery Gulch Days (June 17-18). The annual rodeo begins Friday night at the Iron Horse Arena in Tekoa, and there will be a fun run, bed races, vendors, and fireworks as part of the weekend events. While you're in town, check out the schedule of performances and movies at the historic Tekoa Empire Theater on South Crosby Street (the main drag downtown); the Art Deco theater celebrates its 65th birthday this year. Tekoa is about 40 miles southeast of Spokane on Hwy. 27.
The Silver Valley The Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes and Noah Kellogg Days (Sept. 9-10)
In the heart of North Idaho's Silver Valley - formerly known as the Coeur d'Alene Mining District - lies the city of Kellogg, land of car lots, Alpine decor and Silver Mountain. Kellogg may be a tourist town now, but in its heyday it was a thriving mining camp and a center of the silver mining industry. Legend has it that in 1885, Noah Kellogg found a shiny galena ore outcropping in the mountains above the city that now bears his name, thanks to his wandering mule (always called a jackass in the story). That galena lode became the Bunker Hill and Sullivan mine, one of the richest mines in North Idaho.
To honor the city's humble beginnings, Kellogg hosts the Noah Kellogg Days every September. But there's no reason to wait that long to visit the Silver Valley. The 72-mile-long Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes runs from Mullan to Plummer; through the Silver Valley, the trail is paved and gently graded. For more adventurous bikers, the Route of the Hiawatha traverses the old Milwaukee Road rail passage along the Idaho-Montana border. Those who prefer activities of a different sort will enjoy the museums of Wallace celebrating that city's historic industries: mining, railroading and prostitution. Wallace holds its Huckleberry and Heritage Festivals on Aug. 19-21, and the Sixth Street Melodrama plans performances throughout July and August. Grab a burger at Wallace's 1313 Club Saloon, along with some of Carol's special fries -- tell them I said hey.
Cottonwood, Idaho Raspberry Festival (Aug. 7)
Cottonwood sits high on Idaho's Camas Prairie, southeast of Lewiston. On the first Sunday in August, the Historical Museum at St. Gertrude's hosts the annual Raspberry Festival on the grounds of the Benedictine Monastery of St. Gertrude and adjacent Prairie High School. Raspberry desserts, jams, mustard and vinegar are all for sale to benefit the museum, which is dedicated to the history of north-central Idaho. Live music, arts and crafts, a juried quilt show and tours of the monastery chapel draw more than 1,000 people to the event each year. Visit historicalmuseumatstgertrude.com for more informatioin.