The Palouse: When Mongolia Is Out, Head West!

steptoe butte state park
Steptoe Butte State Park affords sweeping views of the Palouse. Donnie Sexton photos.

Road Tripping Through the Palouse – My Cure for the Pandemic Blues!

By Donnie Sexton

When the stay-at-home mandate due to Covid-19 went into effect in Montana, it seemed like the ideal time to tackle long-overdue housekeeping chores.

The Palouse: When Mongolia Is Out, Head West! 1I went through our basement – a catchall for everything mostly useless that I couldn’t bear to throw away, but finally said my goodbyes and moved the stuff to the garbage.

Then it was deep clean into every cupboard in the house.  I took breaks from cleaning to sort and edit thousands of images on my computer.

old trucks
The owners of this farm inherited a collection of old trucks from the father-in-law and proudly keep his tradition of displaying them on their property.

Fall Travel Plans?

As a human addicted to travel, I continued to research and make fall travel plans, looking forward to a September photo workshop in Mongolia.

rosalia rail bridge
The Rosalia Railroad Bridge, no longer in use, has been converted into a hiking / biking route as part of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail.

When Mongolia was postponed until 2021, I started to get downright restless, crabby, and frustrated.

Built in 1910, the Heidenreich Dairy Barn has been repurposed into a wedding and event venue under the new name of Palouse Knot Barn.
Built in 1910, the Heidenreich Dairy Barn has been repurposed into a wedding and event venue under the new name of Palouse Knot Barn.

I saw or (maybe just imagined) my cameras growing mold.  The need to be creative was eating away at my mind, so to avoid going bat sh%$t crazy, I made plans for a solo road trip.

The Palouse Awaits

The Palouse – a distinct geographic region of the northwestern United States, encompassing parts of north-central Idaho, southeastern Washington, and, by some definitions, parts of northeast Oregon

It had long been a destination I had wanted to explore.  The region is often the focus of photo workshops for its picture-postcard landscapes of rolling hills dotted with historic barns.

The Cedar Creek School is no longer in use.
The Cedar Creek School is no longer in use.

While waiting for both Washington and Idaho to open for visitors, I scoured the web for info and photos from the Palouse.  There was a plethora of advice on great locations for photography.  My favorite suggestion was to head down any gravel road and not be afraid of getting lost – a travel method I often used in Montana.

Withdrawal Pains from No Travel

For photographers, Steptoe Butte State Park is a highly prized destination for sunrise and sunset images.
For photographers, Steptoe Butte State Park is a highly prized destination for sunrise and sunset images.

My hubby knew I was dealing with withdrawal pains from lack of travel.  I had mentioned a potential road trip to the Palouse.  It was a Wednesday evening when I broke the news that I would be leaving in the morning on my road trip.

“Oh….ok…when will you be back?” he said.  “Not sure,” I replied,   “I’ll call you.”  Thursday morning, I packed the camera gear, road trip snacks, a few clothes, and headed West. By the time I reached Idaho, my agitated state of mind over current events was morphing into a sense of anticipation as to what I might discover on this road trip.

This granddaddy seen on a gravel road near the town of Rosalia still stands tall despite its wear and tear.
This granddaddy seen on a gravel road near the town of Rosalia still stands tall despite its wear and tear.

I felt like the cocoon I had been wrapped in for the last few months was unraveling and setting my creativity free.  The change of scenery was blissful.

A Room in Colfax

The cities of Pullman, Washington and Moscow, Idaho sit on the southern end of the Palouse, where plenty of accommodations were available.  But I opted for a room further north in Colfax, recommended as a central location for exploring the area.

This old barn provides a rich color contrast in a sea of green fields.
This old barn provides a rich color contrast in a sea of green fields.

When I checked into The Best Western Wheatland Inn, the desk clerk asked if I was there to photograph, and when I answered yes, she handed me some useful maps and brochures.

Where was only one location I had to check out, and that was Steptoe Butte State Park, the go-to spot for sweeping views of the Palouse.  This 3,612-foot hill was accessed by a road that wound around to a flat top, where the scenes in any direction were mind-blowing and the only place where I encountered a few other photo buffs.

The Horn School red gable barn is adorned with the American flag.
The Horn School red gable barn is adorned with the American flag.

Roaming and Wandering the Palouse

The next three days were all about roaming, wandering, and getting lost on any gravel road that caught my eye.  I chatted with a few farmers asking permission to photograph their barns and ended up gleaning more about this fertile land.  The small towns dotting the region felt like a throwback to the 1950s.  The only evidence of modern times was the few wind generators that I came across.

Hundreds of miles of gravel roads beg to be explored in the Palouse region of southeast Washington and southwest Idaho.
Hundreds of miles of gravel roads beg to be explored in the Palouse region of southeast Washington and southwest Idaho.

My road trip was in June when the canola fields were in full bloom, and the wheat was knee-high.  Every shade of green highlighted the area. The Palouse is calling me back in the harvest season when the landscape will bear golden hues.   My goal will be to travel new gravel and give myself an infusion of inspiration and creativity.

flour mill Oakesdale
The most notable structure in the town of Oakesdale is the JC Barron Flour Mill.
Colorful street art in the town of Colfax
Colorful street art in the town of Colfax
Much of what is grown in the agricultural region of Palouse is wheat and canola.
Much of what is grown in the agricultural region of Palouse is wheat and canola.
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