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I describe my hometown, Walla Walla, Washington, as "the center of the universe, where gravity works right," because for me, it sits in the center of MY universe, and I know the place well enough that I can anticipate gravity's fickle fluctuations. Others, perhaps poisoned by early exposure to Looney Tunes cartoons, consider Walla Walla a joke location, good for a giggle and little else.

In spite of my heart-felt conviction, I began plotting my escape from this lovely little valley well before my seventeenth birthday, and I've been largely successful in my efforts to find other places to live, if not set down even remotely permanent-feeling roots. I have, instead, lived most of my adult life as a non-resident evangelist for the place I could not bear to live.

Walla Walla never pretended to be a land of opportunity. If one inherited well and the commodity markets remained stabile, it provided a fine context for a fine life for the few. If survival depended upon access to upward mobility, the place compares poorly with almost any other. Income inequality has thrived here since the eighteen fifties.

The founding fathers, mercantilists and ranchers, locked down the real estate and commerce before railroad barons could move in, and when the railroad barons arrived, they were sternly advised to route their gold-dern iron horse well South or West, away from this valley, to prevent its corrupting influence. The Interstate Highway System was similarly shunned.

By the seventies, the merchants' fortunes began evaporating and commodity markets stalled, and this once stately place found Main Street increasingly populated with consignment shops and To Let signs. That's when I left the first time.

When I met The Muse, I explained that I'd grown up on a Walt Disney set, a comment she didn't understand until we visited the place. "He actually grew up on Pleasant Street," she'd explain to the skeptical. It's true!

The Muse and I moved here in 2001, bought a big old house, and settled into the good life which was shortly thereafter disrupted again when 9/11 complicated business travel and the tech bubble burst again. Our banker welcomed us, explaining that we were the type of people the valley needed, people who made their money elsewhere and spent it here. We eventually went bust, The Muse found a real job, and we relocated to the other Washington, becoming evangelists again for the one place we'd rather be but could not quite figure out how to live in. We didn't lose the house, and The Muse's son and family live there now, for now.

The Grand Otter, eighteen last month, has her sights set anywhere but here, just like her grandfather before here. Across the heartland, the primary export has for the last three generations and counting, been the kids, who move away for school and can never quite manage to return again. The lure of a thriving wage and rewarding career remains strong, though the places these so-called farm kids relocate to can't hold a candle to the places they hail from. They, too, live the Hometown Paradox, a life spent identifying with a place they cannot live, pining after a lifestyle few can afford, trading a certain simplicity for over-crowded freeway commutes and ready access to a Trader Joe's. It's not a fair trade, but a completely reasonable one.

At retirement, many do return to find the old home place changed from the way they always remembered it. For Walla Walla, a wine boom happened. Now, Main Street displays tasting rooms and cute crap shops, with fondly remembered neighborhood corner grocery stores subsumed by a stinking peripheral Walmart and a derelict failed attempt at a suburban shopping mall; real estate even less affordable than in the good old days, though it seemed plenty unaffordable even then.

The Muse and I visit now and then, bumping into valiant old friends who managed what we only briefly managed to do. They bucked the odds, swallowed whatever the place required, and managed a fine life right here. Some even got rich, but no richer than they started out, having been born in the center of the universe where gravity works right. For us, just the knowledge of the place will have to do us for now, grateful that The Otter will always carry this infection with her, too.

©2016 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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