Walla Walla: Not Just a College Town

Harry Kelso, Columnist

Often times I wonder how many of us envisioned going to school in the southeast corner of Washington, especially when some of us openly yearn to be in a larger city. I certainly did not. I grew up in Massachusetts, in a small town with only half the population of Walla Walla. Yet here I am, as are you. We both know that Walla Walla is no glamorous city with half a million things to do on the weekend, yet we forge our own paths. We go to wheat fields and watch the sunset, or snag a one-dollar pastry from Olive after eight p.m. at night. But the beauty is in the community at large. Even if we hail from Walla Walla, we are students of Whitman. And the two are strongly interconnected. Therefore, we should get to know Walla Walla, and perhaps ourselves along the way.

Illustration by Eric Rannestad

One night, I learned a little of both. It was last December when a friend and I went downtown to the Marcus Whitman Hotel. We enjoyed their comfy lobby chairs and warming fire. It was in the middle of enjoying both those luxuries that a woman tapped us on the shoulder. She appeared cheery and bright, yet both of us were perplexed as we looked up at her. In her hand were two seasonal gift bags. We became ecstatic when she asked us to join her white elephant party (I always knew them as Yankee swaps). She and her lawyer friends had two extra presents and wanted to invite some strangers to make the swap complete. We felt like part of something bigger as we sat on that large couch. They joked how nice it felt to pretend the Marcus Whitman lobby was their living room. Immediately afterwards we introduced ourselves, and it was all laughter and surprises from there. The really tall and bearded lawyer let out a gasp of joy when he opened up a Mario backpack, and I went home with a Coca-Cola tumbler and a box of foreign chocolates. What Forrest Gump says about those boxes can certainly be applied to Walla Walla: You never know what you’re going to get. Come to think of it, it’s hard to imagine a friendly night like that in a big city.

While many of us may feel trapped without a car, we do have each other. Many of us stay on campus, or just off, for long periods of time; therefore, we might interact with one another more than students in the typical college. Yet it can certainly feel nice to go out for a walk along the Walla Walla streets. There is that poetry box north of campus, the little road off Alder that turns into a grape vineyard and the stupendous bird sanctuary at Pioneer Park. Walla Walla has many hidden surprises. You do not need to see it from the top of the Marcus Whitman or from a ride at the Walla Walla Fair to grasp how open and beautiful it all is. Just say hello to the friendly faces at Clark Arias Physical Therapy, or the people you meet on a cold December night. Only then will you know what belonging feels like.

Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “There’s a level of connectivity — that’s really what you want in life. You want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant. You want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you.” If that’s what we really want, than many citizens of Walla Walla have already found that. They invite you to white elephant parties, or enthusiastically ask how your studies are going, or maybe even give you a toy car and a drawing if you let them into your heart. If any of us at Whitman openly wonder why we are not somewhere else, than we have failed to open ourselves to Walla Walla. It is with this sobering thought that I realize I could not have envisioned feeling more connected to our home in southeast Washington, Walla Walla.