The Railroad put Ellensburg on the map, but water keeps her alive. Driving Interstate 90 east from Seattle you pass many ski resorts, hiking/biking trails, waterways and camping locations. At Snoqualmie Pass, you’ve crossed over the Cascade Mountain Range. Now on the eastern slope you descend into the Kittitas Valley. Hayfields, haystacks, and hay-bales as far as you can see. Hay is the crop of choice in this valley. Timothy Hay is a hearty hay variety. The farmers of the Kittitas Valley grow Timothy Hay. Timothy Hay is resistant to cold and drought and is favored by race horse breeders around the world due to it’s lower calorie content. Cattle, livestock and domesticated rabbits and guinea pigs prefer it as well. Drop on down to your local Petco. Try it yourself.
Why do preteen girls always insist on getting a pet guinea pig or hamster? I’m not sure young boys want a pet that’s essentially a rat. For Jennifer’s twelfth birthday, or maybe it was her eleventh or maybe her seventh, I really can’t remember. We got her a hamster, cage, wheel thing, and a mini bale of hay. The big birthday bash had a little less than a hundred youngsters running around our yard. Or so I recall. Lillian reminds me that the real number was four. Who ya gonna believe? Anyway, my job was to buy the animal and hide it until the end or the party. The end of the party when everyone expected a big surprise. I remember I had a small commuter car at the time. I left the hamster, the animal’s new house and Peloton exercise wheel in the back seat. I can still smell that little bale of hay. With cake-stained faces, a host of young girls waited for the penultimate gift. I ran to the car to retrieve the surprise. A cute little hamster for little girls to adore. But, what a surprise.
No mouse. Where’s the mouse? He’d chewed through the cardboard box. I searched the back seat, the front seat, nothing. A panic set in. I opened the trunk, lifted the hood, I crawled under the car. Nothing. With mouse box in hand I went back to the house and informed Jennifer’s mother. Then there was that look. That look. Lillian shot me one of those, you didn’t even buy it did you? — looks. She turned and quickly invented plan B, plan B saved the birthday party. If you’d asked the youngsters at the party, plan B seemed even better than plan A. But what about me!
What about me? Now I’ve got a rat loose somewhere in my car. I rat with little rat like claws ready to climb up the back of my neck as I pulled out of the driveway. Suddenly, my nice little car was transformed into a scene out of Steven King’s Cujo. Heroes die in his books. They actually die! For several months, at every stop light, I would turn and look in the back seat. Where was that damn rat?
All the haystacks and reading about hay brought back that memory. Now I’m going to be looking over my shoulder again. Thanks a lot.
Ellensburg is the County Seat of Kittitas County, and the downtown area looks like any modest sized town from the 1950s. No make that the 1920s, or better yet, try 1871. In the 1880s, the Northern Pacific Railway transformed the town. Its rapid growth earned Ellensburg a shot at becoming Washington’ State Capital. A fire in 1889 destroyed those plans as well as several of the town’s buildings.
Ellensburg was home to Brenden Adams, formerly the tallest teenager in the world at 7′8″. It was also the birthplace of Daryl Chapin, the physicist best known for co-inventing solar cells. These are two things you now can’t unlearn.
The life blood of Ellensburg and Kittitas Valley is water. Water from the Yakima River. The water from the reservoir above Ellensburg flows into the Yakima and is controlled for irrigation. Controlled so the hay farmers can produce their crop. The Yakima River is also a blue-ribbon trout fishery. I fished the Yakima for several days. The water seemed low. I was told lower than usual. This is the second year of a drought of Biblical proportions.
What is the Bureau of Reclamation? An agency under the Department of Interior, the USBR is responsible for water storage, supply, and hydroelectricity throughout the western United States. It supplies water to one in five farmers and 31 million people. It is the largest wholesaler of water in the United States. 60% of our vegetables and 25% of our fruit and nuts grow with the water supplied by the USBR. Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, I could go on and on. USBR is the second largest producer of hydroelectricity in the United States. Second only to the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Timothy Hay farmers of the Kittitas Valley and Yakima trout fishermen depend on the water managed by the USBR.
The Ellensburg Rodeo is the local institution. Every Labor Day since 1923 the rodeo has opened. Except in 1942 to 1944 due to World War II and again in 2020 because of the Pandemic. I guess asking a bull to put on a mask is a bit problematic. The Ellensburg Rodeo is the second largest rodeo in the Pacific Northwest. Second only to the Calgary Stampede. If my writing didn’t pay so well, I’d polish my calf roping skills. I could really use the $250,000 in prize money. I’d use my winnings to buy that farm Lillian has always wanted. Our cows would only eat Timothy Hay. Yes, Timothy Hay is a thing. If cows could talk, they’d tell you it’s got a sweet and fruity flavor with hints of huckleberry. It pairs well with stale cistern water. As we sit here on the banks of the Yakima River it’s going to be over 100 degrees. So hot our cows would produce pasteurized milk. Pasteurized straight from the udder. See, Global Warming isn’t all bad.
In my thirty years of fly-fishing, I’ve never fished from a boat. A small drift boat is the vehicle of choice for many an angler on the Yakima. Although hiring a guide is a bit expensive, it’s not my primary reason for never hiring a guide and a boat. I don’t have a drift boat, I’ll never get a drift boat, so why do it? Because you catch fish. I learned this after all these years. After three decades of wading, hiking, and catching very few fish, I decided, well – maybe I’ll try a boat.
So, I did. Nathan was my guide. He had a boat, brought all the gear, and even brought me lunch. I just brought a boatload of cash. Nathan grew up fishing the Yakima and knew the river like it was his family. Turns out, the Yakima and many of the best trout rivers in the west are very hard to fish from the banks. Overgrowth, private lands, and few if any access points make many rivers nearly impossible to fish from the shore. So, pay I did. And I caught fish. Thankfully I have a new book deal in the offering and its lucrative advance is a sure thing.
Nathan grew up in Ellensburg and graduated from Central Washington University. CWU adds a newness to Ellensburg and balances out the old hay farmers, and transplanted Seattleites. CWU is primarily a teaching college, yet Nathan graduated with a degree in Wildlife Management. Today he’s making good money as a fishing guide. Too good to do anything else. I spent the day fishing the Yakima from Nathan’s drift boat. Nathan helped improve my cast and taught me how to read the water. We talked about family, friends, and the weather, but just enough to be polite. We talked about fishing. We talked about fishing but only enough to be polite. We spent the day fishing.
About a mile off Main Street, along West University Way, is the Red Horse Diner. What a treat. It is pet friendly, kid friendly, family friendly. It’s an integral part of the community. The Red Horse Diner is also the Nodding Donkey Bar. Last night Sam sat at the bar with a few of the locals. He dreamt of tilting back a few brews and eyed that double cheeseburger I was having. He settled for most of my bacon and a sip or two of my water. The Red Horse is a favorite watering hole of touring bikers and local farmers. You don’t need to ride a Harley or drive a pickup truck to gain admittance to the Nodding Donkey. Showing up in our Ford F-250 Super Duty gained us a few nods of approval though.
I’ve never been much into motorcycles, but I can see the appeal. The freedom. The wind in your hair as you ride. Long gone from their heads, the wind does seem to ruffle the tuffs of hair on the back of the arms of far too many a rider. Growing old is a blessing and a curse. What’s that you say? The hair in my ears is cutting off my circulation. Why does there always seem to be a good-looking gal on the best bikes? Pick one up at your local Harley Dealer. They only come in Blonde. While motorcycles appeal to me, I just can’t get past all the leather. Old people in leather. The kind of leather outfits that makes you wonder if it’s just for motorcycle riding or is there more to the story? Sadly, my stories don’t go beyond PG-13. Please let your imagination take over where Lillian won’t allow mine to go.
On a previous visit, Christine was the only waitress for the outside area. About a dozen or so groups were enjoying themselves and waiting for the live entertainment. Someone who looked like a cross between Leon Redbone and Elvis Costello was warming up his banjo and harmonica. Christine is an attractive blonde with an easy smile. It was her first week on the job and she was working hard to learn the menu. A single mother of two, she had recently moved from Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island. Christine’s sister lives in Ellensburg, and it was good to get a little help raising her young girl and boy.
When we told Christine that we were taking our grandsons camping on Whidbey, she wrote down her favorite spots. Mt Erie where you can see all surrounding waters and islands of Puget Sound, and Double Bluff Beach for the kids to explore tide pools. Of course, if you drive south on Whidbey Island you need to stop in Coupeville for seafood. In the morning we ate breakfast once again at the Red Horse Diner. Sam sat in the booth next to Lillian. Shelby our waitress had just enough tattoos to say don’t mess with me. I’m glad Lillian and Sam were there to protect me. Shelby let Sam sit inside. Of course, she did. After all, he’s a trained “Therapy Dog.” Not really, but he does have a badge.
You may never have the occasion to spend time in Ellensburg or fish the Yakima. But chances are you will see a hayfield somewhere in your travels. There are five different types of hay grown in the US and Canada. If you do come upon a hayfield and can spare the time, you might inquire – is this Timothy Hay? Timothy Hay, so much better for horses and pet hamsters than alfalfa.