Friday, August 1, 2008

Rocky Mountain Gateway

The western border of the Northwest is the Pacific Ocean. And just as surely, the eastern side is flanked by the Rocky Mountains. And once you get into the top right corner of Washington State, you know you’re at the Gateway to the Rockies. Mountains get sharper and ponderosa pines sweep up slopes, whispering in the wind and filling it with their pungent scent. This is the true west, real cowboy and Indian country.
In Spokane, Stevens, Ferry, and Pend Oreille Counties you can just feel the Rockies out there to the east. Roosevelt Lake wraps around the south and east sides of Ferry County. The county is filled, in large part, by the Colville Indian Reservation. State Highway 21 takes you up and through it and into the Colville National Forest and the towns of Republic, Malo, and Curlew. The sturdy core of life in these laid-back little western communities hasn’t changed much since the days when they are settled. Across the lake Kettle Falls and Colville are handsome and lively, inland northwest towns with museums and interpretive centers that present great insight into early settlement and Indian life. The basketry, rawhide clothing, and beadwork of the Colville’s and the Spokane’s are high on the list of great art.
Pend Oreille County, bisected by the Pend Oreille River is a haven for wilderness lovers and dominated by two National Forests. And Spokane County from the excellent ski slopes of Mount Spokane down to the town of Latah, which is at the north end of the Palouse, has a wide breadth of terrain and dozens of recreational opportunities.
The city of Spokane is an excellent place to visit first on an exploration trip of the Gateway to the Rockies. This handsomely laid-out and wealthy city comes by its moniker “Capitol of the Inland Empire” for good reason. And still, Spokane is one of Washington’s best kept secrets. But visit once and you’ll be in on a secret that you’ll find impossible to keep. Be certain not to miss the newly opened Museum of Arts and Culture for an excellent overview of life in this opulent and generous land.
From the rushing steams and piney forests to the north, to the civic vigor of Spokane, this northeast corner of Washington State is indeed a golden gateway to yet another part of the Golden West.


Visitors to Spokane are inevitably struck by two things: First there is the city’s extraordinary beauty; secondly, you don’t need to be there long, or meet many residents, before you realize that Spokanites are madly in love with their city. In that way, it’s something like New York, Paris, and San Francisco. Talk to anyone on the street about their city and you’ll walk away with a bent ear at the very least. And little wonder. The biggest city between Seattle and Minneapolis, this jewel of a metropolis has a gorgeous natural setting, handsome architecture, a great river running through it, and a civic spirit that “makes it happen” with a lovable rambunctiousness.
Consider Expo 1974. Spokane was the smallest city ever to stage a world’s fair. The city threw itself into a frenzy of state-of-the-art construction, and then went on to host a world-class event. And when t was over, no one heaved a sigh of relief and coasted. Nope, Spokane turned its fair site into 100 acre Riverfront Park. Here rolling lawns, play areas, sculpture, Spokane Falls, the Opera House and Convention Center, share a home with the Looff Carousel. If you want to test your equestrian skills you can hop on one of 54 horses, a tiger or a giraffe and be spun back to the elegance and gayety of 1909 when the carousel was built. There’s even a brass ring to catch, but it’s a stretch.
And above it all in Riverfront Park, the 157 foot, 1902 Clocktower stands impeccably restored. The clock is hand-wound every Monday. This clock and the tower that house it are a legacy of the railroad era, when locomotives huffed and puffed across America and those heading west, across the northern tier of states, stopped in Spokane.
The Clocktower may be the city’s tallest piece of history, but Spokane’s architectural heritage reaches back to the 19th century. Stroll the downtown business and retail core. The Crescent Building, built in 1898 is now a consortium of stores with a food court and full-service restaurants. The city’s old steam plant, built around 1916, now bustles with diners and gift shops. The 1914 Davenport Hotel, designed by famed architect Kirtland Cutter, is so exquisitely resorted, marbled and gilded that Louis XIV would feel quite at home. The 1931 Fox Theater is a good example of Art Deco style. And up the slopes that surround Spokane, the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist, started in 1925, is fine example of the English Gothic style.
The biggest jewel in the old neighborhood called Browne’s Addition, is Patsy Clark’s Mansion. Irish immigrant and silver baron, Patrick “Patsy” Clark, had this 26 room house built in 1895 by Kirtland Cutter. The noted architect was given “carte blanche”, as Tiffany stained glass windows, lighting fixtures and marble and onyx fireplaces attest. It now houses one of the finest restaurants you’ll find anywhere. From Patsy’s dream house, up to the ancient trees, lilacs, and swatch of lawn in Manito Park, you’ll feel that you are stepping into a city that has made good living a way of life from its very beginnings.
To peer into the glory of this, the Capital of the Inland Northwest, visit the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. From Indian basketry to 19th and 20th century decorative arts and on to contemporary paintings, the goal of this lavish and newly expanded museum is to collect, preserve, and interpret the region’s history. The museum was recently named an affiliate of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution, giving it access to even more world-class exhibits as well as educational and research programs.
From downtown Spokane, the 37 mile long Spokane River Centennial Trail connects Riverfront Park to Riverside State Park. This 10.000 acre preserve is filled with towering conifers, lava cliffs and rushing waters. It’s only a 15 minute ride by car. A similar distance outside town is Cat Tales. This is one of America’s few accredited zoological training facilities where dozens of lions, tigers, lynx and other endangered species have been rescued and given home.
Ambling along the back roads around Spokane, don’t miss Arbor Crest Wine Cellars. Headquartered in Cliff House, 450 feet above the Spokane River, the 1924 mansion was built by inventor and eccentric Royal Riblet – inventor of the square wheeled tractor and the Riblet tramway – a precursor to the gondola ski lift. While many of Riblet’s inventions have been pretty much forgotten, his grand house, 4 acres of gardens, 76 acres of grounds, and the delicious wines that come from them, live on with vigor.
Don’t just pass through Spokane. Settle in and stay awhile. It is a pivotal point for an extended vacation. Great travel adventures radiate from Spokane like spokes from the hub of a wheel. Within 50 miles of the city there are 76 lakes. Drive south to the undulating farmland of the Palouse or the Snake River and its awesomely deep Hells Canyon. To the east and north, Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint, Priest Lake, and the wilderness of the Idaho Panhandle await you. Due north, you can visit British Columbia. Go west and you’re in the high, dry and breathtakingly beautiful Okanogan.
Spokane is said to mean “Children of the Sun” in the local Salish dialect. This is no misnomer. You can count on 260 days of sunshine, annually, in this city of nearly 195.000 with a metropolitan area of 418.000. A century ago, settlers were drawn to this place with the promise of an opulent future in the form of timber, agriculture, silver, railroads, and magnificent stretches of land. But what will draw you is much less complicated. It’s the promise of what is now, simply, Spokane. And like the Spokanites, you’ll fall madly in love with their city too.

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