You can’t say “Walla Walla” aloud and not feel a bit happier. Try it.
Though most of us haven’t given a thought to visiting this pleasingly alliterative town in southeastern Washington (population 32,000), increasingly visitors are driving the four hours from Seattle or Portland (the three destinations form an isosceles triangle) just to see what’s there. Many arrive with a smirk or low expectations, but leave with plans to return.
“Neither my wife or me had any ties to the area. We were just looking for a place outside Seattle, and just came and loved the small-town feel,” says David Marshall, whose Burwood Brewery opened in Walla Walla last month. “Plus, with all the wine around, it’s not a stretch to imagine beer here.”
It’s no joke about the wine. Walla Walla has more than 100 wineries (with a particular emphasis on reds), including a couple dozen tasting rooms that have transformed its downtown. But another area, a couple of miles east, may represent one of the most imaginative viniculture enterprises in the United States.
At “the Port,” referencing the Port of Walla Walla—an organization tasked with bringing economic development to the area—out-of-use WWII-era military buildings have been transformed into a village of local wineries. Architecturally speaking, the area is “nothing notable,” as one local coffee roaster put it. But it’s become the latest place to be.
During my visit this spring, I spontaneously stopped off at one such winery stretched along Cessna Avenue like an oversize mobile home with a huddled vineyard for a front yard. Inside I met Devin Stinger, a one-time Portlander who opened Adamant Cellars in 2006. No wine pro, I found it refreshing that he never said “fruit-forward” once and that he immediately got my reference when I said that Adamant is just a space bar click away from the British New Wave.
“Yes, of course, Adam Ant. I heard he played Tacoma not long ago,” Stinger said. “Maybe I should have taken him up some [wine].”
Wine pours, too, at the Gesa Power House Theatre, an imaginative reuse of a gas plant from the late 1800s, where visitors and locals sip side by side while watching dramatic productions or classical music on a stage patterned after London’s Blackfriars.
At a Walla Walla Chamber Music Festival performance, violinist Timothy Christie soberly alerted the audience to “capricious changes” and “challenging harmonic melodies” before launching into a Max Reger serenade. I straightened in my chair, but relaxed when a few people in the crowd clapped prematurely and Christie looked up from his violin only to remark, “That…is perfectly fine.”
Big-city tastes come refreshingly relaxed in Walla Walla, and that’s especially true as you walk around the historic downtown, block after block of 19th-century brick buildings rich with Victorian details—nearly all filled with shops.
On my early evening walk, I passed what looked to be a Depression-era candy shop, indie bookstores, couples sipping cocktails outside an Art Deco gas station turned lounge. Nearby a college student in a Cookie Monster-blue wig looped droning patterns from an electric violin (he seemed surprised when I dropped a dollar in his jar).
The next morning I stopped at a food stand selling bags of sweet onions, which have been part of the local fabric for over a century, for $5. The farmer running it told me her kids eat them like apples. “It sounds crazy ’til you’ve tried it.”
I didn’t. Instead I went for lunch at a worm ranch.
A couple of miles west of the town center, Dora’s Worm Ranch is Walla Walla’s favorite Mexican eatery. The part bait shop, part taquería—run by an Oaxacan immigrant—is really good, even if the oversize tacos and cups of wiggling worms are tallied at the same register.
The most popular name in Walla Walla is Whitman, making a prominent appearance in the town’s historic hotel and college. It refers to Marcus Whitman, an evangelical missionary who settled here with his wife.
The Whitmans had set up a mission in hopes of getting the native Cayuse tribe to trade their nomadic lives for farm work—and a heavy dose of the Bible. After a measles epidemic hit the Cayuse particularly hard (it’s said that six Cayuse died each day over a period of two months, while only one European settler succumbed), some Cayuse began to suspect the fiery preacher of poisoning their people. One night they attacked and murdered the Whitmans and ten others in 1847.
The bad press nearly insured the Cayuse, and the town’s namesake people, the Walla Walla, live in nearby reservations now. For years, the Whitman Mission National Historic site has recounted the tale, told largely from the missionaries’s point of view.
A knoll on the site, marked by a monument to Whitman, is an interesting place to reflect on the complicated story, and take in the full expanse of the Walla Walla valley—lightly cupped, like a wide saucer, with the Blue Hills dappled by the shadows of puffy clouds. There are farms here now, just as Marcus had long ago hoped, producing grapes, onions, peas. Even worms.
Celebrated travel writer Robert Reid is National Geographic’s Offbeat Observer. Follow him on Twitter at @reidontravel.