Approaching from the west, you emerge from the rock-scarred desert of of central Washington and slowly start seeing red-barned postcard farms. Soon you’re surrounded by wheat ranches with steep rolling hills of fertile soil that define the area known as the Palouse.
Alfalfa green and golden wheat, chickpeas, lentils and barley mark some of the richest farmland to be found anywhere. Invisible settlements like Lacrosse, Hooper, Windust, Dusty and Hay are noted only by green signs pointing out over the hills.
Through it all is an undulating two-lane road. On that mid-August day it is alive with a procession of cars.
Crawl up the road from Colfax on the final climb to Pullman, and you realize many in these cars have Washington State University license plates — alumni like us, I suspect, returning to our alma mater. The term is Latin for “nourishing mother,” for this university must have provided each of us with something, something that causes us to return now with our fresh-faced sons and daughters, entrusting them to its care.
School of friends
My ride at WSU was a bit of a rough one. Things weren’t always smooth and perfect. But I met some of the kindest people in my life, some of my best friends.
It was at WSU that I learned that I could write — a career that carried me for a dozen successful years. I bought my first motorcycle, made some of my biggest mistakes and learned that I loved learning.
It was at WSU that I met my wife — which is the best thing that ever happened to me.
People who know me know I’m a fan of Washington State University. Not just a fan for the football team; for most of my life they have never been all that good, and I worked on game days and missed most of the home games while I was up there. I’m a fan of the university and the generous camaraderie that came with attending the cow college on the far side of the state — a university that most Seattle city folks looked down upon.
Things have changed in the past 30 years.
Wazzu, or else?
On that long drive up to deliver my daughter to her dorm, I wondered if it was the same welcoming place that could be trusted to nourish her mind and allow her to grow into her ambitions. I worried, too, that I emphasized WSU too much. I told the girls that even if they decide to go to college someplace else, I wouldn’t mind.
Yet, with Lindsay’s interest in agriculture and food science, it was hard to imagine a school better suited for her. She’s visited WSU several summers now for 4-H conferences, so she is more familiar with its culture and campus than most freshman arriving this week.
I have nothing but confidence in her.
Yet, I’m a dad, so I wonder and worry.
My ride to WSU was a rough one.
Growing up in the tiny town of Lyle, we didn’t have much in the way to help deciding which school to attend. The school guidance counselor was out after a bad car accident, so I took it upon myself to research colleges for my classmates. As a high school senior, I organized tours of the University of Oregon, Western Washington University, University of Puget Sound and the University of Washington.
I didn’t even know about WSU until the parents of one of my friends — Bill and Wendy Hamm — suggested I apply to the school where they had met. It had a good broadcast journalism program, they said. I was already working as a DJ in high school. So without much more research than that, I submitted an application.
Years ago, the old knock against WSU is that you only went there if you couldn’t get into a better school. However, I got accepted to Rutgers, Tulane and the University of Oregon. By then, however, I realized how much private and out-of-state colleges would cost to attend.
WSU was the least expensive and so I went there.
I knew barely anything about WSU.
In this age of the internet, it is hard to emphasize how difficult information was to come by 30 years ago. Research amounted to reading the glossy brochures that arrived in the mail. I had to pick out my dorm based on a map and a written description.
I had never seen the Palouse before that hot summer day when I loaded up my car and drove out of the Gorge into the desert guided only by an atlas and driven by a desire to leave my little town behind.
In the decades since, WSU has doubled in size and gained in academic prestige. The costs have gone up as well.
When I attended, however, Pullman seemed like a big small town. Unpretentious and friendly in the Eastern Washington way. I got lost and found my way. I got embarrassed, and learned that the only cure is to be the first one who laughs. I changed my major and changed it again. I dropped out for a semester and then found myself welcomed back with open arms.
At 18, you are technically an adult but your head is heavy with unearned confidence.
I worked my way through — sometimes three or four jobs — but you could do that back then. One of my side jobs was writing articles about the history of the school for state centennial celebrations. Researching and writing stories of these early days at a tiny agricultural college cemented my appreciation for this school.
A land grant school built on a cabbage patch, WSU’s earliest years were all plucky perseverance. The writings of the 13 students in that first class are infused with a can-do attitude and a spirit of “we are all in this together.” It was a spirit that still survived a century later when I was there.
These days WSU has campuses all over the state and a brand new medical school that will be turning out its first class of doctors soon. You can be a city Coug and never set foot on the Palouse.
Yet there is something about this landscape, this brick-built underdog campus far away from anything except endless examples of bountiful agriculture, that I love. It is a place that helped me become the person I am today.
Nexus of adult life
Each time I visit, I hate to leave it behind, for it is the nexus point of my adult life.
Alma mater, I am entrusting you now with my eldest daughter.
On the ride home, we stop to pick a few sunflowers growing on the side of the road, I ask Grace, my 15-year-old daughter if she thinks she’ll go to WSU, too.
“I don’t know, Dad!” she said. “I just want someplace I can take my horse!”