Directions: I-90 east to Ellensburg, then Hwy 82 to Sunnyside. At Sunnyside, take exit 67. Turn right off the exit ramp onto Midvale Rd. Turn left onto Alexander Rd. Turn right onto the Mabton Sunnyside Rd. Follow about 7 miles to Mabton (or, in the likely event that you get lost, turn back and ask for directions in Sunnyside).
My first trip to Mabton was almost two years ago. I was on assignment, under instructions from an East Coast newspaper to go there immediately and find the town's mad cow, and I arrived after dark, my front bumper listing. I had been trying to drive and read a map at the same time when, a few miles outside of Mabton, I collided with a pickup truck.
The truck's driver, it turned out, was a nice Mexican man who spoke little English. He seemed amused by my terrified apologies, and by the sorry state of my car relative to his. He took my information and drove off, down a dark road running between fields and a large Dairygold cheese processing plant, through night air that smelled strongly of cow shit. I never heard from him again.
I had figured I would stay at some motel in Mabton, but there was no such thing. I stopped near one of the town's two significant intersections and got out, the smell of cow shit now stronger. This was a big story, the first discovery of mad cow disease in the United States, and I expected to see evidence of other journalists. There was none, and I became worried. The only motion in town came from down the street: A door to a grim bar called the Silver Dollar opened and closed as thick-chested locals passed through. I considered walking in, imagining that the other reporters might be in there interviewing the farmers. And then I thought, What if they're not?
I got back in my car, headed for the highway, drove to the nearest Motel 6, and vowed to wake up early and re-enter Mabton in the daylight.
On my second trip to Mabton—this one a road trip—I again arrived in the dark. I had a different car (a rental this time), and I had a different assignment: In between enjoying Mabton's tourist attractions, if I could find them, I was to try to discern why a little town in the middle of deep red Yakima County had become so strongly Democratic. I also had a personal assignment: Go to the Silver Dollar after dark, you pussy.
Road trips have always been this way for me—a chance to change my mind, to get beyond an emotional sticking point, such as fear. There has always been a tension, though, between this self-centered aspect of road-tripping (the road-tripping-as-therapy aspect) and the reason I tell people I take road trips, the reason my editor told me I was taking this trip: to explore a new place and learn something about other people. I did plan to honor this less self-indulgent justification for my journey. After a visit to the Silver Dollar.
My traveling companion, Ryan, agreed that there is something inherently unnerving about arriving in a remote rural town at night, even one colored blue on voting maps. "There's so much invisible space," he said. "Which means there's so much possibility for crime."
And so few witnesses, I thought.
Ryan and I had earlier dropped our bags in nearby Sunnyside, at the Sunnyside Inn Bed and Breakfast, a place with an unspeakable number of "Home Sweet Home" touches. We tallied them up, the list reaching eight notebook pages. One stuffed bunny rabbit, one potpourri box (empty), a wicker fan with frilly lace fringe, two heart-shaped throw pillows, one chair pillow embroidered with "Home Sweet Home," and, most disturbingly, two fake flower arrangements, both with stuffed animals sitting in them (a kitten, a cow), animals that, when removed, revealed heavy-duty air fresheners hidden among the fake flower stems.
At the Buena Vista Mini Mart, not far from the bed and breakfast, I asked the cashier, an immigrant from Peru, whether it would be wise for two guys from Seattle to pay a visit to the Silver Dollar at such an hour (it was a little after 10:00 p.m.).
"One guy, no," he said. "Two guys, they probably won't mess with you. But stay back to back." He seemed serious. I reached for my wallet to pay for something, and as I was pulling it back around in front of me, I saw a giant grasshopper, the color of dried corn husks, perched on the back of my hand. I screamed and dropped my wallet, startling Ryan and amusing the cashier, who came out from behind the register to stomp on the Jurassic-sized insect. "We took care of that," he said, as if speaking to a frightened girl, which Ryan later informed me I had closely resembled.
Back in the car, we debated whether the cashier's two-guys-are-probably-safe rule applied to two gay guys, even if they were wearing their butchest clothes (jeans, plain T-shirts, sneakers). We also debated whether we had fooled him with our talk about wanting to look for chicks.
"You should have brought a bigger guy with you," Ryan suggested.
"What I should have brought," I said, "was a girl."
It was a Friday night, and from the outside, the Silver Dollar looked empty. Ryan pulled the car into a spot in front and declared that it would be too cowardly not to go in, too much a metaphor for the triumph of the Bud drinkers over the urbane. We stepped out of the car and into the warm night.
Inside the bar, Stevie Nicks was on the stereo, segueing into Fleetwood Mac. Ryan sat on a barstool, spreading his legs wide so they would not unconsciously cross. I took out my notebook (for protection) and told the bartender I was a reporter from Seattle. The bartender, a Mexican American named Augustin, was warm even if his other patrons were a bit cold, and he soon offered me a drink called the Mad Cow. "It kicks like a cow," he said. He poured Tequila, 151-proof rum, Kahlúa, and a splash of milk into a large glass and inserted a pink straw. I drank it quickly. The regulars looked at us suspiciously. Augustin said he had no idea why Mabton votes blue (though we found out the next day: Mabton, once all white, is now 90 percent Mexican American).
Ryan gave me a "Let's get out of here" look, and I sucked down the rest of my Mad Cow. We drove back to Sunnyside. I was feeling the "kick," and we were both feeling happy, the way people who survive Russian roulette are happy.
The Silver Dollar, repository of my worst imaginings about a small-town bar, no longer seemed as fearsome. Sure, it had been only a little less scary than I'd dreamed, but I had braved it, and now I was ready to return home, catharsis accomplished.
There remained, however, the matter of what I had been told to do: see a new place, learn about people other than myself. The next morning I drove the rental car back to Mabton to check out the Silver Dollar one last time in the daylight. I had run into Mexican Americans all along my routes to and through Mabton, and now there were some Mexican American kids hanging outside the bar, part of the born-in-America generation of nonwhite workers who are reshaping much of Eastern Washington and Mabton. I took their picture. They asked me my name, and what I was doing. I told them I was writing a story about their town, which it turned out was a lie—I was writing a story about myself. As I left, headed for a winery about 20 miles away, the kids trailed my car on their bikes, waving. I waved back, feeling the guilt of having learned less about the place I was in than I had about the insides of my mind. It was the guilt of a fun trip.