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Small Town Obsessions: Centralia, Washington

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“Did you see anything interesting on the way down?” We were standing in the driveway at our destination, 300 miles south of Seattle. Husband and I started to laugh.

Centralia is a little place about halfway between Seattle and Portland. If you spend anytime hauling yourself up and down the I-5 corridor, you know it as the place with the outlet mall on the side of the freeway. This is a poor first impression of Centralia. If you don’t need discount underwear or yet another ceramic baking dish, you might think there’s little reason to stop here.

The town is better introduced from the Amtrak station. Through the train window, you see the edge of Centralia’s attractive mostly restored old downtown. I have thought to myself many a time that I would like to get off the train for a few hours. It would be pleasant to have a wander and maybe a bite to eat to break up the journey. From the train, Centralia looks, well, cute is as good a word as any.

I always try to go into the town center when making a road trip stop. I avoid the chain restaurants and diners and fast food joints clustered around the off ramps. Downtown Centralia is just a few miles from the exit for the outlet malls. Five minutes brings you to more character than you can imagine.

The first sign of wacky is right on the arterial in to downtown. I was driving and tried not to rubberneck. “You’ll be wanting to go back and see that.” said husband. I could only see the fence—a jumble of Styrofoam packing, odd bits of lumber and badminton rackets—from the car as we rolled by. “Coffee first, crackpot out of control yard on the way back out,” I replied.

The woman behind the espresso counter at Centralia Perk was what I think you’d call well preserved. Over fifty, surely, tanned, very fit, blonde, dressed in a pink halter dress, and matching slides. We did a little eavesdropping on the conversation that was taking place with her only other customer. It was about weight lifting. “Working out working out working out,” is what I heard, the skinny guy in aviator glasses clearly chatting to impress.

When it was our turn, I asked about the building. “Yep, it used to be a bank,” she said, coming out from behind the counter to hand me a photo. “It was the grandest building in town once. Lost all the dental molding in the big earthquake. The city wants to give me 100,000 to repair it, but where am I supposed to get the other million dollars?” She owns the entire building and lives upstairs in what must be quite grand quarters. The bank itself is now stuffed to bursting with “antiques”—every inch of the place that isn’t espresso counter is covered in vintage clothing, tattered books, fiesta tableware, kitchen appliances from the 50s … you know the stuff. Later, husband suggested that she was a former body building champion. It adds up.

Caffeinated, we headed back to the car, but I was forced to park again immediately because of the sign that said “Hawaiian” in big letters. The tanned proprietor, a coin collector (the place sells coins and Hawaiian shirts) stood behind the counter. A woman, his daughter, his wife, perhaps, next to him, baseball cap, sweatshirt, maybe mid-forties, maybe not.

“I thought I had some Hawaiian shirts,” I said. “I was wrong.” The place was filled to the ceiling with racks and racks and racks of aloha wear, the cheap stuff at ten bucks each on the floor racks, the better ones up high. It was impossible to see what they had, there were so many. Grandson wandered out from a back room. “Can I have some gold?” he said, to the old guy. “NO you can not HAVE some gold,” was the reply.

“That little ukulele in the case up front … ” I started to say.

“Not for sale.”

We talked ukes for a little while. The gent didn’t play, but the woman’s brother does, “Though he’s more of a fiddle player.” I tried to see if there was a shirt I needed, but I was too overwhelmed by the quantity. I snapped a couple of photos. “Look, we’ve got the red, white and blue Hawaiian shirts in the front window for the upcoming forth of July…” said the woman, as she left the store with the little guy in tow, maybe off to get some lunch.

Final stop, RichArt’s Art Yard. This is what happens when you get an idea about something and then, you let it go out of control. You start by gluing weirdly shaped pieces of Styrofoam packing to your fence. Then you think, what if I put some Styrofoam balls on the ends of some wires, sticking up all over the place? What if I hung all these old gears like a wind chime? What if I took this plastic garden chair and this stray shopping cart and this old combat helmet and these bent up yards of rebar and, and, and, and, and, … it just goes on and on. It’s unstoppable.

We were too early in the day to get the tour; the Art Yard opens at one. We wandered around the perimeter snapping photos. The dog, who was the same weathered white and gray as the house, barked at us. I peeked through open places in the fence at composite sculpture of human figures and hanging lengths of chain.

Visually, I was full up. We got back in the car and pointed ourselves south. Did we see anything interesting on our way down? Boy howdy.


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