It's 12:30 a.m. on a Sunday summer morning, and between the quiet hums of motorcycles zipping down Soap Lake's main drive, Jester is explaining the unspoken rules of his crew. We're sitting on white plastic lawn chairs in the parking lot of the Lake Motel--where $54 a night buys you three beds and a kitchenette next to the town's "cop," a uniformed mannequin in a cobwebbed old squad car that spooks speeders. In a tumbleweed-strewn town that wakes up to triple digits and only cools down after midnight, outdoor seating is a must, even if it's on blacktop at a motel with a drained swimming pool.
Jester heads a chapter of the Combat Vets International, a nomadic tribe bound together by a past they don't describe as much as accept. "No matter what you did then, it's okay now," he says, looking across at another vet, Old Timer, who looks like a silver-haired Nick Nolte. "We don't judge anyone. And when things get to be too much, you just ride." Sipping on a warm can of beer from the nearby gas station, I listen as they explain other various rules--that a woman shouldn't ask for a ride on another man's bike ("Unless you're one of my kids or over 70, that spot is reserved for me," explains one biker's wife); that, when it's finally time to break to get some sleep, everyone gets a hug ("We hug a lot here"). And I like it when Jester tells me that, like myself, he's ended up at Soap Lake's weekend motorcycle rally by accident.
I was supposed to be in Odessa, a town 40 miles east of Soap Lake on a two-lane highway that was lit up by rays of northern lights when we tried to get there. Odessa's single hotel was booked, and there was no way we were going to make another trip out there. Not when nearby Soap Lake advertised both a motorcycle rally (to raise money for "the world's largest lava lamp") and a lake with healing powers.
Next to its tourist activities, though, you can tell a lot more about a town by its dive bars and garage sales--and in both Soap Lake and neighboring Ephrata, everyone is a drinker and everything is for sale. These landscapes are littered with as many rusty trucks, refrigerators, ovens, and camper shells as they are with rolling blond hills and greasy scavenger crows. These are towns so hot that the spit in your mouth dries if you keep your jaws open too long, but it's never too hot to barter.
We stopped at a garage sale spread across an old warehouse lot, where a fortysomething man named Andy presented glassware and clothing next to two souped-up race cars with the words "God Knows!" stickered across the windshields. When Andy saw us taking photos of his prized vehicles, the grinning, leathery vendor asked if I'd noticed the detailing. He pointed to a photo of two young boys, Jake and Evan, barely adolescents, stickered on a nearby truck. "My son's in jail for murder," he explained as calmly as if he were pricing one of his oil paintings. Andy said his son and a friend were playing with another kid who fell out of a tree. "My son got scared and ran away and someone stabbed the other kid until he died," he said. With bail set at a million dollars, Andy's son is in jail awaiting trial, and Andy said he visits him every night. (We later found an article about two 13-year-old Ephrata boys named Jake and Evan who are being charged as adults for murder. It's a grizzly-sounding case: The third kid was clubbed and stabbed to death, the assault only ceasing when, according to the Seattle Times, "a knife blade broke off" in the victim's skull.) Andy sold me a pristine white fur coat for a dollar, and I hoped his son hadn't really committed that crime more than I hoped the heat in my car wouldn't melt the lining of the jacket.
Like Andy's belief in God, there are moments at Soap Lake where all faith seems to be with a higher power. For those who believe in the medicinal powers of Soap Lake, hope comes in the silty-smooth, sulfur-scented mud that people rub on their legs. It's easy to imagine the lake's waters as magical, too, as they're majestically framed by rust-colored rocks that would seem out of place anywhere other than Arizona.
To Brent Blake and John Glassco, hope for Soap Lake comes in the form of a giant lava lamp. Specifically, a lava lamp 60-plus feet high with a diameter of over 18 feet. We didn't meet Blake and Glassco, but their grand scheme to revitalize the town's slumped economy not only hung in the air, it hung from a brick building, in the form of a large vinyl poster depicting a red cylindrical spaceship landing in the middle of Small Town, USA. According to giantlavalamp.com, the pair hopes to make good on the statement "Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Seattle has the Space Needle, and Soap Lake has the World's largest Lava Lamp!" and reenergize the town and the tourist trade that died off after WWII vets stopped flocking to the lake's magic mud.
Only it takes a lot of money to make a giant lava lamp. The exact amount varied depending on which local we questioned, but they all laughed when we brought it up. "I don't know, I've never seen it," grinned one gas station attendant when I asked when the giant blobs of yellow wax would be hovering in red oil. "It's just something they're trying to do to get people to come here." Near Andy's garage sale, a group of tented vendors made up a "flea market," where one seller had various shapes and sizes of lava lamps boxed next to beaded body jewelry. "I've been hearing about that lava lamp for three years now and I've never seen any of it," he said with a chuckle. "It's good for business, though. We sell a lot of lava lamps." Down the driveway a bit, a chatty resident named Charlotte was in the used-oven and advice business. She didn't care about the lamp, but she did tell us that tablets made from Soap Lake minerals helped her lose 240 pounds.
We decided it was time for a swim.
Locals will warn you that Soap Lake will make you itch (we overheard one father, showering his son in the public bathrooms, warn: "Be sure to get your crotch real good. That water'll make you burn like hell...") but compared to most Washington mountain runoff, the water is more like a cool bath after a sunburn, the aloe balm to the desert heat baking everywhere but in the water. And sure, there are other lakes up Highway 17 boasting water that won't trigger your gag reflex if you accidentally swallow some on a breaststroke--but none of them have bikers, flea markets, or fantasies of oversized novelty items towering over the town. All of which made both the desert landscape and the people at Soap Lake more enchanting (albeit in a David Lynch kind of way) than the rest, even if the bugs at the water's edge sometimes stuck to our legs like we were made out of flypaper.
Soap Lake, WA
Upcoming Events: Soap Lake Pig Run & Feed (August 13-15)
Directions: I-90 east for about 150 miles; take Exit 151, toward WA-284 Ephrata/Soap Lake; continue through Ephrata for five miles; turn left onto Hwy 17 (Daisy Ave); take to Main St.