Directions: Take I-90 east for 180 miles. Merge onto I-82 toward Yakima and take that for another 100 miles until you get to I-182 eastbound, take that toward Richland/Pasco. Exit at N Fourth Ave toward city center; turn right at Fourth Ave, right at W Court St, and left at N Seventh Ave.
When it comes to roll-of-the-dice road trips, the most colorful creatures are always the night owls. On last year's Stranger-sponsored small-town haul, I spent last call in a Soap Lake motel drinking with members of a Vietnam vet biker gang. This year my destination was Pasco, Washington, a speck in the Eastern Washington Tri-Cities trinity that includes Kennewick and Richland. The town boasts a 56.3 percent Hispanic population (much like the predominantly Mexican-American town of Mabton that Eli Sanders visited last week) and is bordered by rolling hills the color of California beach sand.
Nearby Two Rivers Park offers a picture-perfect portrait of summer. Go around sunset and you'll find large groups of Latino families grilling meat, kids in life jackets playing "Marco Polo," and teenagers locked in sloppy make-out sessions. With 104-degree weekends, though, it's hard not to feel the summer in this desert town of Sunday night rodeos and King Kong margaritas.
We stopped in Pasco with $200 at our disposal and 24 hours to cruise through a rural "blue city" that voted for Kerry in the last election—discovering that the colors that truly dominate Pasco are brown and gold.
Nowhere were those two hues more apparent than at a bar called Madrid's at 1:00 a.m. on a Saturday night. It stands on Pasco's main drag—a street filled with taco trucks, bridal shops, and Mexican restaurants—at the other end of town from Latino discos with names like Metropoly, the Tropicana, and the Golden Nugget. Earlier that evening at the Nugget, eight cop cars screeched up to apprehend one belligerent drunk. (As two passing locals explained of the situation, "Every time any little thing happens here, there are three, four, five cops. If someone was really dying tonight they'd be in trouble 'cause all the cops do is focus on stuff like this.")
There were no signs of the law at Madrid's, though, one of a couple "Irish" dives with green façades and shamrock signs. But there was seemingly only one patron with Irish relatives inside the bar—and she came with us. (Despite the décor, less than four percent of Pasco's residents are of Irish descent these days.) Like the town, Madrid's was filled with Latinos. Men were slugging back beers, some peering out from under cowboy hats, as fans blew warm air around the room. We sat at a picnic table next to an open Ms. Pac-Man game and next to an affable El Salvadorian fisherman named Mauro. He was wearing thick gold chains and told us about his upcoming departure to Alaska to haul in cod and extra cash. But leave it to a wiseass named Antonio—an aging Lou Diamond Phillips look-alike with a Geri curl, a fake Rolex, and three cell phones (one for "business," one for "legal business," and one for "other business")—to cut right to the chase. "What're you white people doing in this bar?" he asked jovially. Antonio suctioned himself to us for the rest of the night, dishing out a mix of local lore, offers of trips to his Cancun home, and warnings like, "If you write about my town I'll shoot you"—which, delivered after muchas cervezas, doesn't leave enough room between wisecrack and threat for comfort. It's also kind of tough to put your trust in a stranger pressuring you to allow him to help things "go all night" and who brags about doing blow with "Mexican authorities." But it was Antonio who explained Pasco's newest moniker—"We call it El Pasco. Like El Paso... and soon it will be El Kennewick and El Richland," he said. The nonwhite population would eventually change the name of the whole region, he added. It's going to become "Los Tri-Cities."
After we declined multiple afterparty offers, Antonio invited himself back to our place—the Airport Motel, a two-story skeleton of a rental residence (with a barren pool) across the street from the graffitied train cars. "That's the worst fucking motel in town," Antonio said in disbelief. "You come all the way here and that's where you stay? Come with me, I can get you a room at La Quinta!"
The Airport Motel wasn't our first choice. We would have preferred a room where "air conditioning" didn't mean an ancient wall hanging offering relief only to those within a foot of its cool wheeze. There was a Jehovah's Witness convention in Pasco the same night we were in town and the Witnesses had booked up rooms at all the hotels with water-filled pools and functioning air conditioners. So the Airport Hotel it was—although we never allowed Antonio to see more than the parking lot from his black SUV with the booming bass system.
Pasco's better motels weren't available for sleeping, but they were allegedly the center of some nightlife—at least that's what the Chevron attendants explained. The Red Lion's Grizzly Bar was supposedly the place to hit on weekends. We'd already been to a bar called Sneakers (population at 11:00 p.m.: six), where the bartender was selling two cars for $700—"As is," she reminded one patron—and the men's-room graffiti posed the rhetorical philosophical question: "Was [sic] the deal with black people?" So the Grizzly Bar it was—a garish, colored lights–flashing, hiphop-hard-rock-mashup–blasting dance club populated by the oddest assortment of people we saw all weekend. There were the two hangdogged marines (in uniform—do they have to wear all those medals off the clock, or does that just help them get laid?) and the sloppy drunk fortysomething who loved a man in uniform (but who, as we witnessed, wasn't against throwing a DJ some tongue either). And there was sloppy drunk's depressing friend, a railroad employee who comes to the Grizzly Bar once a month with sad-sack lines like, "I wish the whole bar had people just like you guys." There were the odd adult couples grinding their white asses into each other on the dance floor, and one goodtime crew—the leader of which was a 200-plus-pound woman slamming Coronas, shaking booty, and bouncing on the stomach of a passing-out thin blonde who'd obviously had one "sex on the beach" too many.
After watching a smiley Kevin Federline look-alike dry hump the bar's wooden namesake for way too long, though, it was time to tailgate to the next spot. Three thirtysomethings in the Red Lion parking lot informed us that the elusive late-night destination was called the Jungle, which was located "right next to Chuck E. Cheese's." Not knowing our Chuck from our IHOP in this town, we followed the ladies through a labyrinth of freeways to a two-story club in a nondescript strip mall where the décor was very Miami Vice and the cover was "$6 for regular entry and $12 for VIP." "What's a VIP?" I asked, and the bouncers explained the inflated price allowed you entry to the very special second floor, where you had the privilege of "your own bartender and bathroom." Since that also was the case (without the cover) at Sneakers earlier, we bailed on those velvet ropes, off to bars that smelled like "broken hearts and dirty socks," as my friend Kelly keenly observed.