North Central Washington

Letter from Okanogan County

(Reprinted with permission from Vic Bondi. Click here to read the letter on his website:

OR Read on:

The West is a horrible place. The land is unfit to till, dry and desiccated. It is filled with invidious beasts, rattlesnakes and scorpions and wolves with the worst humors, angry from the heat and ready to rip apart anything that stinks of weakness. The people that settled here were sociopaths, driven by lucre at its most filthy, murderers and rapists given to pious rationalizations. It was developed by robber barons and corrupt politicians and railroads and water corporations, all colonialists with gross imperial imaginations, happily slaughtering the indigenous peoples, clawing every glittering mineral from the earth, transforming forests to deserts and emptying fields and streams of everything living. That is the reality of the West.

So, naturally, we're all in love with it. Not much different than grandpa and Gunsmoke, even when we know the truth; even when we should know better: witness the popularity of Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, Robert Redford, and No Depression magazine.

Me, too. I can't get over the sky, a terrible blue, everywhere. It lords over you in the way in never does on the coast: expansive; oppressive; Western. You'll end; it won't. That is the implicit truth of every Western sky. It is final, and does not admit of argument.

Tonia and I drove east to meet it, over the Cascades. We passed through the green pale of the Methow valley, and stayed in the frontier town of Winthrop. We went to Okanogan and Ferry Counties, sprawling along the Canadian border, to see ghost towns. We traveled through the Colville Indian Reservation to the Grand Coulee Dam, and followed the old channel of the Columbia to Moses Lake. We returned by way of Cle Elem, Roslyn and Ronald, coal towns in the foothills of Snoqualmie Pass.

Nineteenth-century economists used to argue that the only real industries were mining and farming, which extracted the raw materials from which all other production began. It's a foundationalist argument, one that flattered the vanities of the Populists, busy reminding a rapidly industrializing America that real worth and virtue were--as in Jefferson's time--found in the land. We're a century away from such thinking now, in the age of the digital billionaire and correctional industry investor. But in Okanogan County, like Washington State generally, the last settled in the nation, the argument makes sense. They mined and farmed. Basic tasks, rooted in the land.

Most of them failed. Abandoned farms and mines dot the hillsides and slopes; gray wood, collapsing into fragments. They stand as stark reminders of something that somewhere in the collective unconscious of Americans we know, but refuse to readily admit: that in the land of opportunity, most people went broke.

Their stories are sad, and if we were more honest we'd call the West the land of heartbreak and disappointment. Farmers came west during the wet years; retreated east during the dry. The Conconully Dam of 1908 promised to make the desert bloom, but there was no rain. Leo Klessig arrived at Conconully in 1907. "I and many like me had a fine young orchard in the early bearing stage," he said, "dying before our eyes." In 1905 Thomas Blythe began a 15-year struggle to irrigate the Methlow valley near Twisp. He lost the battle, and it cost him his life's savings. A.A. Curtis defied the cattlemen in the Okanogan and decided to raise sheep. In 1901, the ranchers clubbed all 1,200 sheep to death and chased Curtis from the area.

Miners fared no better. For every prospector who hit it big, there were four placers who panned nothing but dirt. One miner of the day wrote his wife:

I have been humbugged. Gold is not as plentiful as we were led to believe, and it is ten times harder to work to get it than anyone could have imagined.

Even the prospectors who hit it big couldn't make good on their claim. The Dewitts brothers of Bodie found one of the best gold veins in the area, but they couldn't afford to process the ore. They sold out to the Wrigley Brothers, who took chewing gum capital and built a reduction mill that made a fortune.

The merchants who out of kindness or decency or mere greed grubstaked the miners lost everything, like W.W. Parry who founded the town of Tonasket. He went broke in 1910. Boosters sure their boomtown would end up the next Denver also had their hopes dashed. The leading men of Curlew were certain the Spokane and British Columbia railroad would put their town on the map; but the "hot air" railway (so nicknamed for continual undelivered promises) arrived late and in debt and today Curlew is a bar and a few old homes and a beautiful rail hotel that was rarely used.

Hard luck farmers ended up picking fruit and vegetables for the fortunate few. Prospectors finished their lives working long hours in company coal seams. Merchants and boosters wrapped up their careers clerking for the railroads or hiring out as day labor on Puget Sound steamers. Across the West, pioneers chased their dreams, only to discover they were phantoms.

There aren't ghost towns in the West. The West is a ghost town.

The cautionary tale of ghosts, the real story of the West is that it is played out; used up; abandoned. The beaver, bear and cougar are gone, and with them, the fur trade. The bunchgrass that fattened cattle in the 1860s is no more, overgrazed. The gold, silver and coal mines are empty. Timber companies eye the last strands of old growth forest eagerly. Even the great salmon, once the symbol of the Northwest, are endangered. It is almost as if the romance of the West were a story of self-destructive rapacity, with pioneers moving over the land like locusts devouring crops. As if we, in the West, were in the thrall of a collective suicide fantasy we call romantic.

Thirty years ago, the story of frontier failure and Western self-destruction didn't exist. Then the romance of the West was the story of civilization's heroic expansion west into an empty continent, over great adversity. But the story didn't hold up, and so today the "balanced" observer would note that while the romance of the West is the story of failure and despair, it is incidental to the central story of the West, which is the great narrative of perseverance and hope, of men like Guy Waring, who founded Winthrop on his second trip West, after he failed once and returned to Boston.

But thirty years from now that story won't hold up, and it won't because the romance of the West is the narrative of glorious self-destruction, and we will know this thirty years from now when the hole in the sky burns yellow the last irrigated, irradiated, insecticide-laden crops of the Columbia Plateau and betrays every fantasy we had about Western progress. And we would know this today if we were more honest, because everywhere in the empty West is another story, a different narrative, and you can ignore it only so long as you ignore the names of Western places: Tonasket; Twisp; Methow; Okanogan; Seattle. Because the history of native Americans is unlike the history of Western Americans in one crucial regard: they didn't destroy themselves.

Maybe they didn't because they didn't have a romance of the West. There was no grand narrative into which they would fling their lives, no destiny they knew, somehow, would end the same, like all destinies in the West, across the long span of Western writing and Western lying, be they Greek heroes or knight errands or Napoleon or Billy the Kid: rise and fall, and mostly fall. The hero dies from self-inflicted wounds, from hubris; the West dies by its own hand, from greed and arrogant stupidity. It is implicit in fiction and romance and the mythology we call history, and the white men of the nineteenth century bent their lives in conformity to it: their manifest destiny was to go West and make their fortune or die trying. So die they did, leaving the empty West, with nothing left to live on.

But only after they destroyed the Indians. Across Washington state, as across the West generally, are the stories of white men whose ferocity and brutality informed by the romance of the West, by the grand narrative of expansion and conquest, by their manifest destiny--were so frighteningly intense that anyone with even a glimmer of objectivity would wonder when all that viciousness would turn upon itself, when the mentality of the West would turn upon the West. Men like Colonel George Wright, who settled the Yakima "problem" in the 1858 with this ultimatum:

You must come to me with your arms, and with your women and children, and everything you have, and lay them at my feet ... If you do not do this, war will be made on you this year and the next, and until all your natives shall be exterminated.

And followed it by murdering Chief Owhi and the Indians who sued for peace, and by slaughtering 700 Palouse horses and reducing that tribe to poverty.

Wright's story could be dismissed as exceptional, except it happened again and again: in the person of Major Robert Garnett of Fort Simcoe, who "punished" the Palouse in 1858; with the acts of calvarymen volunteers, who murdered two elderly men and 15 Nisqually women and children fishing near Eatonville in 1856; in the fury of the mob that hanged Chief Leschi of the Nisqually in 1858; in the justice meted out to Chief Skolaskin of the Sanpoil and Nespelem who was sent to Alcatraz; in the claim jumpers who seized the lands of Chief Aeneas of the Okanogan; in the edict that rendered the Colville Reservation inviolate until white men found gold on it, a fate it shared with the Moses-Columbia Reservation. It is implicit in this tale of Western romance, taken from the Ruby City Miner in 1891. It is a news report about the lynching of an Indian near Conconully:

Last Thursday morning twenty horsemen galloped through Ruby, the soft white snow muffling the sound of their horses' hooves and the slumber of the camp was not disturbed by their movements. Death was in their hearts and they sped remorselessly onward.

The romance of West is also found in the irony of the Wanapum plaque at the freeway overlook near Vantage, on the Columbia, which notes that the Wanapum were a religious people who lived peaceably in the area, and never took up arms against whites. They were consequently denied all land claims and never settled on reservations. They are now extinct.

And then there is Chief Joseph. The story of the Nez Perce chieftain is well known; in fact was well known in his day, probably because it hewed to a narrative whites could understand, the Other by which they often rationalized their own acts: a peaceful man forced to war. It wasn't really true; Chief Joseph wasn't a war chief, and the military victories he is often credited with belonged to other chiefs, like Looking Glass. But Chief Joseph was also famed for his eloquence and oratory, and probably, at some level, for his ability to understand the romance of the West, a romance built on words, on a narrative of rise and fall and manifest destiny, words by which people organize their lives and their ambitions, all of which ends up played out, used up, and come to nothing:

Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father's grave. They do not pay for my horses and cattle. Good words do not give me back my children. ... I am tired of talk that comes to nothing.

Chief Joseph could hardly know that the romance of the West is its preoccupation with its own self-destruction; he could hardly know that the words by which the West orders its life, the narrative to which it conforms has this basic, secret, goal. He could not know it any more than most of the people enthralled by the romance of the West, by its grandeur, which only the red men knew how to live within, which to whites is always the grandeur of a wasteland that wastes lives. But he knew enough to know that the words of the West carry a fundamental self-deception, and that in the mouths of whites, all that talk comes to nothing. Because when you strip away all the bullshit and cant about the glorious West, nothing was what it was directed towards in the first place.

Chief Joseph is buried in Nespelem, on the Colville Reservation, where he was forced to live the last years of his life. The gravesite is not marked by any sign; you have to search through the impoverished town to find it. It is behind a thin wire fence on a hillside filled for the most part with unmarked graves, with small mounds of dirt that rise from the desert floor. There is a marker on the grave, with a carved visage of the young Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain, facing the Wallowa Valley in Oregon, from which he was chased, and never allowed to return. Exiled forever, in a grave beneath the only tree on the hill, a sickly willow, with most of its branches dead.

Copyright 1998 by Vic Bondi. All rights reserved.

Note in proof: Joseph's remains were returned to his native land in the early 2000s and there is a very nice monument to him in Nespelem now. - gw