In October of 2000, my parents came up to Whitman for the very last parents’ weekend of my college career. On Saturday, instead of exploring the borough of Walla Walla (we’d exhausted that possibility during the previous three years) we drove out of town, pointing the car towards Dayton, WA. Dayton is a small town these days, but has a long and storied history (even for a west coast town). It was one of Lewis and Clark’s stops on their way back east in 1806. It’s real claim to fame was the Weinhard Brewery that the nephew of the Portland Weinhards’ founded there in the 1880’s. The money from that brewery caused a building boom for the last twenty years of the 19th century that left the town with a beautiful main street and a more grandiose spread of architecture that you would anticipate from a town smacked down in the middle of rural eastern Washington.
It’s an agriculturally flanked 35 minute drive from Walla Walla and that day was clear, skies were blue and the air temperature hovered right around 59 degrees. I don’t remember which car we took, or who did the driving, which is strange, because that’s the sort of thing that typically makes an impression in my memory. What I do remember is taking slow, arching corners lazily, without any sort of urgency, and watching as lone farm houses approached and retreated.
We drove into the main street and parked at a meter whose entire two hour window could be bought with a single quarter. Being that my parents and I are the people we are, the first place we stopped was the local Salvation Army (we just can’t help it). My dad went to look for old waffle irons (there weren’t any) while my mom checked out the 15 cent stuffed animals to see if any were worth taking home for the dog to destroy. I wandered to the back and was taken by an old blue bike. It was adult sized, but with all the features you’d expect to find on a kid’s bike, including molded plastic hand grips. It had only one speed and I wanted it to be mine. It was lacking a price, so I went to find a store employee. The guy I found was in his late 60’s and had a sense of humor. When I told him I was interested in the bike, he made a face and asked, “what do you want that thing for?” I didn’t have a good reason to off back other than the fact that I hadn’t had a bike since I was 11 and I thought it was time. He could see that my heart was set on it and asked how much I wanted to pay. Still a novice bargainer (this was before my summer in Indonesia) I offered $15. He countered with $8.50 and I said sold. My parents got a kick out the reverse bargaining and offered to pay.
We rolled out to the street, popped the bike into the car and went looking for lunch. It was mid afternoon and we had missed lunch at the Weinhard cafe, and so we reluctantly headed into the dark paneled bar just up and across from the thriftstore. An establishment for locals, we got a few looks pointed at us from the patrons to remind us we were strangers, but the staff were welcoming and helpful. Despite it’s sketchy beginnings, it turned out to be one of the best meals I’ve ever had. To this day I remember everything we ordered. My mom got a baked potato with sauteed veggies and melted cheese, my dad got a thick, mountainous burger and I got a bowl of beef stew that was deeply rich, with chunks of tomatoes and a hint of red wine.
That baked potato combo has become a staple in my family, although these days my mom replaced the melted cheddar with nonfat cottage cheese (she’s always fighting the cholesterol battle). I ate it for dinner last night as well a lunch today. It’s an deep tangle of carmelized onions, red peppers, mushrooms and broccoli, tumbled over a steaming potato and it will forever remind me of fall, in Dayton, in a dive bar, having lunch with my parents.