Wenatchee, WA

The view of Wenatchee from the eastern bank of the Columbia River. (Credit: Oriana Schwindt)

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It is a truth universally unacknowledged that every parade is essentially the same.

Doesn’t matter if it’s the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or the Evanston Fourth of July Parade or the Washington State Apple Blossom Festival in Wenatchee, Washington (the Apple Capital of the World). There are, inevitably: floats, people who should not be on those floats, children trying to walk in a straight line, and, depending on the weather, copious sweat stains.

In Wenatchee, people start lining up their chairs along the route of the Stemilt Growers Grand Parade as much as a week in advance, and no one dares touch them. (Some eager beavers used to stake their claim a month in advance, but the city put the kibosh on that a little while back.) It is the biggest deal of the year in this town of 33,261.

Thousands line the streets of downtown Wenatchee for a 98-year-old tradition. (Credit: Oriana Schwindt)

The observation that all parades are the same doesn’t mean the one that serves as the apex of the Apple Blossom Festival isn’t a joyous celebration, or that the marchers’ pride in their floats is misplaced. Bands and community groups from all over the Pacific Northwest have joined together for the occasion for nearly a century. There are high school bands from right here in town, and from as far as Spokane right on the eastern edge of the state. Vendors flock to sell emu oil-infused* beauty products and wooden replicas of steel poleaxes and Indian tacos (which are apparently just your usual taco fillings on fried flatbread).

*Yes. According to the vendor from Yakima, WA, emu oil makes for a good ingredient in moisturizers for human skin. She isn’t the first person to notice this, but it makes for an eye-catching product pitch. Other health benefits of emu oil are… Well, it might be wise to wait for some more human testing before expecting it to cure your arthritis or diabetes.

The parade includes floats with themes like “Candyland,” and Volkswagen Beetles pulling wagons of papier-mâché elves, and something that might skirt the line of Middle Eastern appropriation with its theme of Aladdin. Fire trucks festooned with children blare by at a glacial pace. Other fruits attempt to gatecrash with floats touting the Marysville Strawberry Festival or some other township’s Peach Festival. None quite approach the elaborateness or reputation of the Apple Blossom Festival.

There is an Apple Blossom Queen and attendant court. The applicants, juniors and seniors in high school, are first weeded out by giving a big speech in front of peers and judges.

A young black woman named Julia about to head off to college says she signed up to give a speech because it’s just something you do around here, if you’re a high school girl. The theme they were to adhere to concerned the person in this wide world you would trade places with, to walk a mile in their shoes. Her speech, about empathy and the need to reach out to fellow students who might be different — tensions between white and Mexican-American students were running high, she says — didn’t take her any further in the competition. Those spots were reserved for speakers wanting to walk a mile in the shoes of people like Selena Gomez and Amy Poehler.

But Julia’s loss was not felt too keenly: The Apple Blossom Queen gets a scholarship (as do her princess attendants), but she is also the face of the festival, and as everything surrounding the festival and this office is taken very seriously, it also means the full glare of the limelight is upon one’s teenage self. One member of a recent court apparently got caught partying in her tiara, and had it taken from her.

The Wenatchee Valley Museum has an entire room dedicated to the past Apple Blossom courts, with photos of each class — generally monochromatic groups; thus Julia’s lack of surprise at not making it too far in the competition. All through the decades the women wear similar dresses, minus a very ’80s stretch, with a cape with a cartoonishly large collar resting on the Queen’s shoulders.

The Queen and members of the court smile and wave mechanically as they are borne down Orondo and Wenatchee Avenues during the parade, coming to life when stretches of their friends and family appear. It adds to the perception of them as dolls, an idea that first dawns when you see them stiff and made up and in prom-type gear, and is only strengthened when you spy the velvet-lined stands holding them up on the jouncing floats, leaving their hands free for that very specific wave.

A Latino man deftly handles his horse before it tramples your correspondent. (Credit: Oriana Schwindt)

There’s a sense of normalcy around the whole concept of the parade, a martial tradition that has seeped, as so much else from the Armed Forces has, into American culture.

In fact, it is impossible not to feel normal here in general, even if you tend to think of yourself as an aberration. Men drink beers and talk earnestly about their work and women troubles. Women talk about baby gender reveals and patients; one young woman complains about the onerous process to get her massage license. They do yoga and drink smoothies; they own RVs and go hiking around the Apple Loop Trail and eat out at the mostly non-chain restaurants. (There is an Applebee’s in the Apple Capital, which is slightly disappointing.) There’s a healthy, even thriving, middle class here.

There’s the agriculture portion of the economy, of course, the orchards outside of town, acres and acres of apple and pear and cherry trees that go right up to the edge of the mountains. Like Prineville down in Oregon, technically the Wenatchee Valley is a high desert climate, but the presence of the Columbia and other rivers supply ample irrigation. The orchards, blooming now in the shadow of the Cascades, furnish vast amounts of fruit to be plucked, bringing in huge numbers of migrant workers from Mexico and Latin America — some of whom stick around and put down roots. About 25 to 30 percent of Chelan County’s population is Latino now, according to the Wenatchee Valley Museum.

But a couple other factors have combined to boost the local economy. The centrality of Wenatchee’s location makes it ideal for conventions that bring entities from both Seattle at the state’s western end and Spokane from the very east. It’s sunny here about 300 days a year. And the presence of abundant — read: cheap — hydroelectric power makes it attractive to a number of groups that have need of such.

Confluence Health is here, a sort of healthcare conglomerate that operates about a dozen clinics and the 198-bed Central Washington Hospital. Because of their reputation for, as one resident puts it, “putting the ‘care’ back in healthcare,” retirees are settling in droves, as well as young professionals to staff the centers. As the retirees age, so, too, are some of their children coming to the area to take care of them.

The tech sector has swooped in, though not because Wenatchee is exceptionally close to any of the big hitters or is a hotbed for insipid apps that manage your social calendar. The area is apparently ideal for data mining, thanks again to the dirt-cheap hydroelectric power that comes from the dams on the Columbia River. Bitcoin miners, in particular, have been setting up their hardware in data facilities and pay pennies on the dollar to keep the machinery running. The companies that play host to bitcoin mining hardware keep their locations close to the vest, for fear of discovery. But the Chelan Country Public Utility District is no longer playing ball and supplying these outfits limitless power after a couple of incidents in the last few years that resulted in fires or fire-prone situations, denying requests for 1 megawatt or more of power.

Pybus Marketplace, with its statue of settler E.T. Pybus. (Credit: Oriana Schwindt)

The opening of Pybus Marketplace, which turned the bones of a rusting steelworks into a sort of boutique indoor mall with corrugated steel roofing (for a cool $12 million), has been a boon to small businesses and locals who crave visits to cheesemongers and sellers of small-batch olive oil. A couple of men discuss a recent Bigfoot sighting — or rather, recent Bigfoot tracks. “Five-foot stride,” one says, while the other nods with appreciation. Other locals confirm that the large bipedal creature’s existence is not up for debate, around here.

Linda is a volunteer at Pybus, an almost impossibly kind, corpulent woman in her 60s or so. We discuss how the town has or hasn’t changed. “Well you know, this used to be a deeply conservative area,” she says. This is rather an understatement.

Chelan County went to George W. Bush with 63.9 percent in 2000. A motorcycle shop has your standard “2nd Amendment Freedom or Death” decals in its window. An elementary school in East Wenatchee bears the name of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Some families with deep roots in the town nevertheless come from Southern stock; their great-great-granddaddy moved out here after they lost the War. The reason isn’t really discussed much.

But the political composition is becoming a bit more purple: In 2016, Donald Trump won the county, but with 54.3 percent of the vote, to Hillary Clinton’s 39 percent. (Gary Johnson took 4.5 percent, here.) And progressives are speaking up — the Women’s March in January was a big turning point, according to Linda and others, attracting almost 2,000 people. “People are starting to come out of the closet, so to speak, politically,” Linda explains.

She attributes part of the change to the gradual position shift of the local newspaper, the Wenatchee World; and to younger folks returning home after living in different places, bringing different ideas with them.

She herself left the area as a young person before making her way back to raise her family here. “All kids want to leave home,” she says sagely. “They all think there’s nothing to do.” They may have a bit of a point in Wenatchee — this is the kind of town in which you have to double-check if a business is open on Sunday. But much of the local culture revolves around outdoor sports. The Cascades rear up just to the west, and even the foothills are big enough to be dubbed mountains and provide ample skiing and hiking and other assorted activities that require footwear you have to break in. The Columbia River and Lake Chelan play host to plenty of boats and tubers in the summer. The prodigal children of Wenatchee look to the earth itself to amuse themselves.

Horse handlers make their way down the parade route in Wenatchee, with the flags of the USA, Washington State, and Mexico. (Credit: Oriana Schwindt)

Another factor is the burgeoning Latino population that is integrating into the larger community. You see Latino families all along the parade route, mostly decked out in Seahawks gear, and even within the parade itself, representing the cowboy spirit with deft horse handling — the best part of the whole affair — and a killer mariachi band float. (At the festival, you’re near as like to hear Spanish as English, or a mixture of both.) You see the culinary impact, with the Mexican and Peruvian restaurants dotting the main drags. (Not for nothing, the Taco Loco taqueria near the southern end of town has the best green chili pork your correspondent has ever tasted.)

Pains of the growing variety do exist. Not everyone leads a middle-class lifestyle, and the booming housing market is performing its usual squeeze on renters. The business development along the Columbia River waterfront means pushing out the homeless men and women who have set up camp there; some have resorted to living on the steep banks just above water level. The previously mentioned tensions between Mexican-American and white high schoolers are real — though Wenatchee resident Jacob, who graduated from high school on the eastern side of the river four years ago, cautions against reading too much into that, saying, “Yes there were cliques of races on both sides, but we all knew each other well enough.” The young black woman shrugs in the face of the community’s whiteness and says standing out has only made her stronger — and with only a handful of black students, their problems tend to shrink in the face of issues involving more people.

There’s that middle-class resistance to the abolition of the capitalistic carrot, too. Younger residents in the Apple Blossom Festival’s beer tent grumble about the rapacious qualities exhibited by the 1 percent, but the suggestion that we tax the motherfuckers within a dollar of their life is met with a slightly uncomfortable shrug. An older woman at bingo at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall trusts in the universe to settle the matter: “There’ll come a day when they just won’t have that money anymore,” she says.

***

There is no joy in bingo.

There is no happiness in the collection of one’s winnings, the stamping of that last square. “Bingo” is declared with a certain accusatory tone, as though daring someone to challenge the speaker.

It is Friday night, May 5 — Cinco de Mayo, typically being celebrated face down in a pool of some diabetes-inducing tequila delivery system by people my age — and instead of swilling margaritas or watching the Classy Chassis parade of old vehicles down East Wenatchee, your correspondent is in the VFW hall, learning exactly how complex the game of bingo — “game” is really not the correct word here, with its connotations of gaiety — is.

Outside, magic hour is happening, the sun finally coming through the ragged clouds left over from last night’s home-shattering thunderstorm and lighting the mountains up in presumably beautiful fashion, possibly glaring off the snowy peaks nearby. There is no magic in this windowless, wood-paneled room.

The sign outside advertising bingo night called out, for some reason, some plucking of a particular string, whether heart or one of those sub-quantum ones whose songs may make up our universe. This call was not to be ignored.

Inside, it’s just shy of “cramped,” with long heavy-duty plastic tables mashed together in two rooms that have the same dingy blue carpet as every old building you’ve ever been in. An old vet manning the table with the cards looks around with Vaudevillian shock when called “Sir.” “Who, me?” he says. “That was my dad!”

A couple dozen people — all older, a mix of white and Latino men and women — have gathered here to play what appears to be a slightly more elaborate lottery where you can’t get up to pee for fear of missing something. They spend anywhere from $15 to upwards of $70, trying for pots that, this evening, can get up to $700. No one wins more than a hundred or so.

The full run takes around two hours and forty minutes, but it lacks the same feeling of interminability as a DC Comics movie of the same length. Even so, a little after the intermission — and yes, there is a 10-minute intermission — you can feel a restlessness in the thick air. A machine whirls the benumbered balls around, and except for the woman calling out those numbers and letters and the white noise of the machine, the only sounds are the thump, thump, thump of the bingo markers blotting square after square, the occasional grim declaration of “Bingo.” The markers are brought in special cloth totes, all colors of the Crayola rainbow, by the regular bingoers.

As for why they play, there isn’t much time for chitchat. But there is a sense that there is something more at work here than the need to socialize, or the need to win money. As Neil Gaiman says in his novel American Gods, people gamble in order to lose money, not to win. Unlike the lottery, you do your losing here amid other people, most of whom are losing, just like you. But perhaps more importantly: At the end of the day, the money not won goes not to some shitbag mega-casino owner in Vegas but to the VFW, or to your church, or to some other community group in need.

Your correspondent is shepherded through this first foray into the bingdom by a woman in her late 60s or early 70s, possessed of the sort of ideal bulk for a grandmother (or, in this case, great-grandmother). She was the oldest of eight; now she has six grandkids and two great-grandkids. She shows pictures — from Instagram and Snapchat — of two of her granddaughters, one of whom, she tells me, is gay. The word comes out like she doesn’t use it so often, or like she read it in a book and has never actually said it before, is she saying it right? The background photo of her phone is a cross.

She is enthusiastic in her support of my cards (another misnomer, these are thin sheets of paper it’s a minor miracle the markers don’t bleed through), and stolen chitchat reveals a woman who loves her family. She has lived here most of her life. That means she was here in the early and mid-90s, then, your correspondent ventures, when the — “Fires? Awful,” she interrupts, perhaps knowing what was going to be brought up.

“No,” I say, near a whisper. “The Satanic pedophilia witchhunt.”

She turtles immediately. “I don’t know anything about that,” she says. “They have some wiccans up in Leavenworth. But I don’t know about that.”

The reaction is odd: I’m referring to what was, for a long time, the biggest story in the state, and a national story as well. Forty-three adults were arrested in the 1994 investigation of a Satanic pedophilia ring, and 18 of them went to prison. The problem was that the investigation was the product of ’90s Satanic panic that manifested in an investigator willing developmentally disabled foster children into some truly ghastly accusations against their parents and Pentecostal church. Most of the convictions were overturned or vacated, eventually, and some of the adults won large settlements from the city and county. There is no way this woman doesn’t know the story.

Your correspondent has, somewhat presciently, left this query to the end of the bingo session, which left us both a little poorer. She offers a warm hug as we leave anyway.

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