The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume II, Number 4, Pages 2-5
Fall, 1978

Wister's Washington

Robert B. Olafson

Robert Olafson is a professor of English at Eastern Washington University.

Although Medicine Bow, Wyoming held a special attraction for him and was made famous by his fiction, Owen Wister's life brought him to Washington State several times, where such places as Coulee City and the Methow River Valley were indelibly impressed on his mind in the late 1890's. Indeed, the entries in Owen Wister's Journal from October 11 through December 2, 1892 present a Dantesque journey, alternating between descriptions of types of Infernos (Coulee City, the Big Bend region) and Paradisos (the Methow Valley).

We know Owen Wister best as the author of The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902), the novel that created the cowboy as hero in our culture. If we have not read the novel, we have certainly seen the long running television series loosely based on it.

It was Owen Wister's particular knack of forming long lasting friendships that brought him to eastern Washington several times in the 1890's. Wister, on one trip, came to the Methow River near the present town of Winthrop to visit George Waring, a Harvard classmate, who had established a general store in the beautiful foothills of the North Cascades. The thirty-two year old Wister had kept in touch with George Waring - as he had with such classmates as Theodore Roosevelt, William Dean Howells, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and Henry Cabot Lodge.

This Easterner, Wister, had made his first trek west in 1885 at age twenty-five to Medicine Bow, Wyoming, where he sought and found good health in June of that year. At the start of this trip in Philadelphia, Wister began a diary that ended in fifteen journals of his many subsequent trips west. In these journals Wister reveals that he came to Washington at least three times, 1887, 1892 and 1898. On this last trip he spent a part of his honeymoon in the Methow Valley.

This essay examines the journal entries of 1892 about Washington - journal entries from manuscripts which were accidentally discovered in 1952, thirteen years after his death and a full sixty-five years after Owen Wister had placed them in an old desk drawer. (The journals are now at the University of Wyoming.) The particular journal entries I focus on have been published in Owen Wister Out West: His Journals and Letters ed. Fanny Kemble Wister (Chicago: 1958), pp.132-147.

 


"I must do this sorrowful region the justice to say that at sunset, for some heavenly moments,
it turned to Paradise. Even the deplorable country at Coulee City was transfigured and grew soft,
as veil after veil of purple light floated across it, melting the bareness into beauty."


 

Owen Wister's first entry is tabbed Ruby, October 11 [1892]; in it he describes Walla Walla where: " ... rain falls so seldom that when the wheat is sacked, they leave it in great piles lying out under the sky till it can all be shipped." To him the Palouse Indians are "much civilized, the squaws virtuous and the men pay their debts." Wister's first glimpse of the Snake river elicits this: "The river flows between vast bare hills, and is imposing but bleak and austere."

A few days later Wister views the Columbia river at Coulee City on October 19, and writes, "Then, three yards in front of you, you suddenly see down seven hundred feet into a black parched chasm that gashes the plain in two. There is no warning. A couple of steps shows you the whole unearthly thing at once. This is the Grand Coulee, about sixty-five miles long. The rock walls are sheer in some places, while in others you can make a descent and cross, even with a wagon. The botton has brush, desert, marsh, dead lakes, mosquitoes, and scorpions in it."

The next day, October 20th, Wister travels by stage to Bridgeport and then to Port Columbia. At Bridgeport he writes: "Here was the Columbia - a restless rapid river with rapid current, flowing among dismal hills. I thought of Stevenson [Robert Louis StevensonJ quoting the ballad at the leper's island as he rode away: 'The most distressful country that ever yet was seen.' The loneliness of Wyoming, even at its worst, has an attraction for me, and I have become attached to it, but this country chills the imagination of the heart."

At this point in his Journal, Wister, hardened as he was to the ways of the west, appears to be in a virtual state of psychological shock by his encounters with the geography of the Big Bend region - a landscape that is "treeless, shadeless, leafless, featureless, with one gaunt exception - the coulee ... "

 


"There is but one professional woman in the whole town, and from what I heard the men say, she
is a forlorn old wreck, so unsightly that even her monopoly brings no profit. In such a sordid community,
this fact shows stronger than anything else how poor and torpid existence can be."


 

How had Owen Wister come to this state of mind - a mental set which seems to evoke images similar to those described by Dante in The Inferno? On October 8 he had been "called" at 5:30 a.m. at the Hotel Spokane, had brushed his teeth "in the forlorn sunrise," had gulped a cup of coffee at the station and had departed with the train at 6: 10 a.m., "taking hard boiled eggs with me in a paper bag." Wister adds, "At noon I reached Coulee City and found to my dismay that there was no stage connection until Monday. This was Saturday, and Saturday's stage leaves at the usual hour of seven for Port Columbia and Ruby - my route. But all stages so manage that the passengers must spend the night at the Hotel Grand, and I was in for two nights and a day, with Saturday afternoon thrown into the bargain." At this point Wister's mind seems to reel toward paranoia: to make matters worse, he says, "They gave me a room - No. 9 - about the size of a spittoon ... " Our hero then must wash in the public trough and spend his time either "watching a game of poker that never ceased, or in wandering about the outside world." Some of Wister's descriptions of Coulee City life are evocative of Stephen Crane's famous short story "The Blue Hotel," written in 1898. But whereas Crane's story rises to a climax of violent death, Wister's descriptions just sort of peter out: "For Coulee is too dead even for much crime. The ceaseless poker game was a cheap one, and nobody got either drunk or dangerous. People have been killed there, I believe, but not often, most likely not lately. There is but one professional woman in the whole town, and from what I heard the men say, she is a forlorn old wreck, so unsightly that even her monopoly brings no profit. In such a sordid community, this fact shows stronger than anything else how poor and torpid existence can be."

We must remember that Wister's lines were penned by a young man who had originally wanted to be a composer of classical music, who had toured Europe, who had even met the great Franz Lizst. Wister' cultured eye could measure the cost the frontier existence extracted from the inhabitants of this poor, primitive community.

Just, however, as Wister hits the depths of depression, he sees a sunset that bolsters his spirits. At Port Columbia, on his way to the Okanogon area he writes: "I must do this sorrowful region the justice to say that at sunset, for some heavenly moments, it turned to Paradise. Even the deplorable country at Coulee City was transfigured and grew soft, as veil after veil of purple light floated across it, melting the bareness into beauty."

The next day, Wister's journey from this Inferno to Paradise begins in earnest. The Journal entry dated October 21 appears to be Wister's brief encounter with Purgatory - symbolized in the dangerous crossings of the Columbia in the rope ferries and, perhaps, also symbolized in the bad jokes of the Hebrew drummers. Paradise is reached and earned in the entries of October 22 and 23. The three entries follow:

October 21. The stage we now took was an open one. I sat by my Coulee friend, the driver, anticipating a new Hebrew drummer who joined us here. But he was not inclined to dispute, and turned out a humorist of a low but successful order. We crossed the rapid Columbia at once, on a rope ferry that seemed to me rather unsafe. Entering the valley of the Okanogan we went some six miles and crossed that stream on another ferry equally unsafe. Last season in high water a rope snapped and instantly killed a driver.

The scenery greatly improved. Hills surrounded us, water and trees were always in sight. We passed some cabins and at one found a watermelon patch, where the Hebrews descended and brought some fruit just ripe and very cold, which we all ate en route. After nooning at Millott's, where we had a really decent meal, we passed the down stage. "Haf some gin?" sang out the humorous Hebrew to the driver, and held a flat bottle in the air, which was filled with water. I shall never forget the driver's expression of countenance. He pulled up and said, "Well I never do refuse." The bottle was handed him amid total silence, and I did not dare to meet anyone's eye. He uncorked it, looked at us, and said very kindly, "My regards, gentlemen!" and tipped the bottle well into his jaws, removed it slowly, and said, "I'll be son of a bitched!" in tones so utterly disconcerted that we all shouted for a minute. He recapped the bottle and drove. "That's one on me." he said, "but I'll fix somebody before sundown." This episode was worth ninety miles of stage, even in the Big Bend country. The humorist surprised us once again as we were near the journey's end. We picked up a venerable old man who was walking to Ruby, and the driver, feeling good-natured, offered him a lift. After he was seated among us and before any other word than "good day" had been exchanged, the drummer said, "And my friend, vat vas your views on the immortality of the cockroach?" Coming after Hotel Grand this seemed fine and timely.

 


[H]e...writes of "a signpost in the Big Bend that originally read '35 miles to Central Ferry,'
but travelers had successively added their impressions of the Big Bend: '45 miles to water,' '75 miles to wood;'
then a wit had finished, '2.5 miles to hell.'”


 

At Ruby I left the stage, which went on to Conconully, six miles. Ruby is an ungraded street on a steep hillside in a slit of a valley, quite beautifully situated. On one side of the street the houses are away up above the road, and steps descend from the saloons and stores at intervals. At the bottom of the town is the concentrator, to which travels the running flume along the hill above the housetops. When you are unused to it, the apparition of two black buckets passing each other in mid-air in a pine forest is startling. Of course these were what brought the quartz from the mouth of the tunnel above to the concentrator below. These buckets take their eccentric journey clean over the mountain.

October 22. Green, George Waring's stepson, and I on a buckboard and King, Waring's neighbor, on his horse ascended out of Ruby, and drove through the mountains all this fine day some thirty miles. Post tenebras lux. The miserable Big Bend desert and the company of Hebrew drummers now changed to excellent companions and most lovely scenery. Our course lay through plentiful woods, still green, and many little streams ran among them. We journeyed on, marking the hour of time with moderate pulls at the bottle, and by night arrived comfortably at a cabin where lives an old vagrant called "Arkansaw." We turned the horses loose, and Arkansaw hailed us cordially-from his cabin door. He looks about sixty-five, torn, ragged, rather Rip Van Winklish, with long and most unkempt hair hanging grizzled on his shoulders. For he is a fiddler, and considers that the proper way for an artist. We gave him plenty of whiskey, and he played to us till late, all sorts of old-fashioned airs and dances. He had fiddled his way across the continent and taken his lifetime to do so, had seen the days of Indians, buffalo, and the days in California, when for a night's fiddling in a mining camp his fee was $100, and he always got it. He was perfectly blithe-hearted and penniless, though by his stories, he must have handled millions.

October 23. At about eleven we drove up to George Waring's gate, in the rain. My huge journey was done, and I was glad indeed to see him and his new venture on the frontier. They had worked on a new flag to fly for me, a boar's head vert, on a white field [The emblem of the Porcellian Club, Harvard], but the weather was not for flying.

Wister's stay near Winthrop may have been heavenly in 1892, but he gets a final view of Hell on the journey out and writes of "a signpost in the Big Bend that originally read '35 miles to Central Ferry,' but travelers had successively added their impressions of the Big Bend: '45 miles to water,' '75 miles to wood;' then a wit had finished, '2.5 miles to hell.'”