Sunday, May 18, 2014

Thoughts from the road: Ritzville and the Top Hat

In the middle of eastern Washington's wheat country is the town of Ritzville, all 1800 people of it.  Ritzville has one of my favorite motels, the Top Hat.  It's old school: located on the main highway in town, you park in front of your room.  It's gently shabby.  The vegetation is running wild, the  rooms are small, everything is in need of a coat of paint.  But it is clean, quiet and just $45 a night.  For that you get a mini-fridge, a microwave and a slightly malfunctioning TV.  I've spent three times that amount on a motel and enjoyed myself much less.

Ritzville is typical of rural towns.  It was a major shipping point for wheat in decades gone by, but time passed it by.  The interstate did what interstates do, passed the city just to the south and destroyed main street business and produced a litter of fast food places and modern hotels at the exit ramp.  The downtown of brick and stone buildings, built a hundred years ago with so much hope in an unlimited prosperous future, now often are empty.  There are no tourist attractions of note anywhere close.  This morning I walked down the street that is the old highway and didn't encounter a car for over five minutes.

The town is trying.  The historic buildings downtown have plaques  explaining their history.   The old depot has been restored as a museum and there is a well-kept little park with some public art.  A series of local festivals are still being done.  A surprising number of homes are well-maintained.  But many homes are run  down and the sense of slow decay and death being the inevitable future is hard to avoid.

The last time I stayed at the Top Hat the owner was trying to sell it.  He was ready to retire and his wife was ill.  They spent a lot of time chatting with me.  My curiosity about the hotel business he hoped was a the inquiry of a potential buyer and he offered to drop the price by $20,000 to increase my interest in it.  When I returned this year I was afraid the hotel would be shut, like the one two blocks down which is slowly being reclaimed by nature.

There are new owners now, full of energy for cleaning, painting and fixing.  But it is going to be an uphill battle.  If the hotel ran at 80% occupancy for the entire year they'd have a total revenue of no more than $150,000.  On that they'd have to pay heat, light, laundry, maintenance, insurance, taxes, cable and everything else and hope to have enough left over to pay themselves a living wage.  No one will ever stumble over this hotel, they'd find the ones at the interstate.  Few are brave enough now to try the local establishments.  Construction crews are a major source of business.

It's a relaxing place to stay.  I sit on the park bench outside my room on the covered walkway and watch the world, the clouds and the trains go by.   When that gets boring, I can walk the silent streets.

The peace and serenity of these small towns are palpable.   There is time and space to slow down, to unclutter your mind, to focus on what is important.  Emptiness can be a gift, and it's a gift we need and can use.  Fewer things to do mean you can practice attentiveness to the things you do encounter.

I used to think that the internet and UPS would save rural America.  If you can be equally connected to news, culture and entertainment regardless of where you are and anything can be sent to you overnight, why can't a business "insource" to rural America rather than outsources to the 3rd world?  Why wouldn't a group that needed to focus or a writer or artist wanting space and time to work be able to find the inexpensive life in a small (or more likely medium-sized) town work?  Put a call center or shipping point or assembly plant out here.  But it doesn't seem to be happening.

As much as I feel drawn to the peace and simpler life I know I could never live here.  The relentless conservativism would be wearing.  The county voted 66% for Mitt Romney and the same percentage for John McCain.   The perennial split is between geography and culture.  In Willa Cather's My Antonia, perhaps the premiere American novel of the prairie, the description of the land sky and weather is lyrical and deeply spiritual.  The little town is depicted as narrow, suspicious and disdainful of outsiders.  

Unfortunately, that is often the dilemma.   

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