Look at it just right, and the whole story of Spokane is along Sprague Avenue.
The sun rises over the Liberty Lake Golf Course and sets over the Airway Heights Corrections Center. It spends the day suspended over the lavish Davenport Hotel and the bustling bus plaza, little houses and dark dive bars, strip malls and the Deja Vu. In the shadow of Interstate 90, Sprague connects us from east to west and divides our north and south. It’s a place for lifers and the just-passing-throughs.
Like plenty in Spokane’s history, Sprague’s name was an attempt to lure the affection of others, a nod to a Northern Pacific executive who we hoped would run the railroad through town. Since then, Sprague has undergone a massive transformation from orchards and townships with booster names like “Opportunity” to an exhaust-belching thoroughfare to a serial killer’s hunting grounds and the butt of our jokes. Yet all along, something more has been there: A crooked, imperfect spine holding the whole city in place, carrying our successes alongside our failures, our past next to our future.
For this project, a team of 10 Inlander reporters split Sprague’s 17 miles, each assigned a different area to discover. Along the way, we walked both the dark corners and the bright spots, finding peaceful sleepers, acid trips, joy in an untamed field and rebirth at a wounded church. We listened and watched, taking note of the things you see on Sprague, the things you overhear and the things you just feel. This is a collection of what we found, a portrait of our city, a patchwork of weird.
— Heidi Groover, project editor
By Thom Caraway, Spokane Poet Laureate
Stoplights and asphalt.
Six lanes and turn lanes, suicide
lanes and more stoplights.
On one side of the street, veterans
holding signs, on the other, slick men
hawking cars. You see pot holes
and blown reds, meat markets
and pawn shops. Few streets
define a town, but we have a heart,
north from south. There’s nothing
you can’t sell, can’t buy,
seed and flesh, sustenance,
Blast-cut basalt, exposed hexagonal piers. The gravel that
remained—crushed and made into road. Out on the West Plains
—jack rabbits and coyotes, reminders of Spokane’s wilderness
past. High water table means spring ponds means ducks means
my father on his deck at sunup every morning, binoculars in one
hand, bird guide in the other, enthusiasm like a child as the
ducks return—teals, wood ducks, green-headed mallards. Some
call it quits, make his deep water pond their home forever. He
builds them shelter, keeps them fed all winter.
We travel so many roads and arterials—veins.
Always between here and there, every way
the way to someplace else.
Through industrial parks and the run-down.
Past everything we show out-of-towners. The Davenport,
the Bing and Fox. The city’s bright past and restored now.
It’s all Sprague.
On final approach, if you know the details to pick out, you’ll see
the whole sweep, asphalt shining and steaming in sun after rain,
the bright ribbon of our long heart, barrier and bridge. When you
land, you’ll know which way is home.
View this poem in its own page with audio here.
Beyond Hayford Road, at the far west terminus — on a stretch few realize still bears the moniker of a city’s defining street — Sprague Avenue first emerges from the wild, tall grass of the West Plains as a broad strip of gravel lot. Revving two-stroke engines cut the air as dozens of nearby dirt bikers lean into the banked curves winding through the Airway Motocross Park.
In the final race of the day, elementary-age riders buzz around the dirt track on 60cc motorcycles, catching pint-sized air off each jump. One rider brakes hard into a sharp turn and tumbles over. He quickly rights his bike and rejoins the race.
“Good job, buddy!” a woman shouts from the metal bleachers. “Good job!”
The riders gun their motorcycles through the last lap. Oil and exhaust carry on the wind as the announcer calls out each finisher. The scattered crowd cheers as the checkered flag welcomes the last rider. Nearby, Joshua Hitchens, a roofing contractor and lifelong rider, explains that he took ownership of the park in February.
“It’s just a dream job for me,” he says. “It just gets into your blood.”
Wearing short stubble and a beanie, Hitchens beams with pride looking out at the dirt tracks and gravel lot full of RVs. He says the first couple of months have taken a lot of work. He traded lazy days on his dirt bike for business paperwork, finances and the many hours spent smoothing the course with a tractor. Most nights, he says, he camps at the park to save commute time.
“It’s beyond a full-time job,” he says. “It’s a way of life, basically.”
A mother hands her weekend pass over to Hitchens. She does not plan to return on Sunday, saying: “I don’t think I can handle seeing my son crash again.”
Hitchens nods knowingly. He can rattle off the broken bones and injuries he has suffered over the years. But it’s in his blood. He sees racing as a family, a community of friendly competitors and thrill seekers. It’s a way to get kids off videogames and out into the world, taking risks — living free.
Young racers crowd around a trophy booth after the final event, checking their names against the day’s results. Cole Kelly, 15, of British Columbia, steps up in his shin-topping motorcycle boots and confirms wins in two different racing classes.
“It was awesome,” he says, a trophy in each hand. “I just went out there and did my thing.”
Kelly and the other racers wander back to the rows of RVs where their families have set upcamp for the night. The engines have gone quiet. Kids cruise by on BMXs. Dogs tug at leashes. And campfires catch light as everyone gathers round for dinner, the smoke rising out over the sun-bleached fields.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Hitchens says.
Ringed by razor wire and high-power spotlights, the medium-security Airway Heights Corrections Center rises from the edge of a new suburbia. Once isolated amid acres of open plain, the prison now has new housing developments butting up adjacent to its chain-link fencing. Northern Quest Resort & Casino shimmers from just across Sprague Avenue. A gas station operates to the east.
Associate superintendent Ron Haynes has worked at AHCC for nearly 20 years. He remembers the vast emptiness stretching far beyond the fences, back when just a handful of businesses lined nearby Highway 2.
“It’s really grown,” Haynes says of the West Plains. “Houses have come closer and closer to the institution.”
As development closes in, officials have erected a new perimeter fence to keep people from throwing contraband over to the inmates, Haynes says. Warning signs went up to deflect the occasional drunk strayed from the casino. But officials also try to be good neighbors.
One of just two Department of Corrections facilities in Eastern Washington, the other being Walla Walla, the Airway Heights institution houses approximately 2,150 offenders in minimum- and medium-security units. Rehabilitation programs put those inmates to work on facility maintenance, educational classes, job training and community service projects.
“Idle hands are the Devil’s playground,” he says, “so we try to keep them busy. … People think of prison as a negative place, but I think we do a lot of good things.”
While opportunities inside the prison may grow, the outside world continues to lean in, calling attention to the freedom beyond the gates. The casino lights glow bright against the night sky. And just out of sight, the roar of racing engines carries over the low rolling hills.
“You can hear it really well,” Haynes says. “It’s deafening.”
Cedar to Division
Around 9:35 am on a Tuesday in September 1992, Chris Lindholm got off the bus at the Greyhound station on West Sprague, saw a black man and a white woman waiting at a change machine, pulled a .38-caliber handgun and shot them five times. “I shot him first, then her, then him, then her, then him,” Lindholm said later, after he’d been tracked down in Colorado. “I tried to hit him three times and her twice. I don’t know how it turned out.”
Police, who weren’t around to respond because of understaffing, initially said it was drug-related. It turned out to be more frighteningly senseless: Lindholm, who’d come from Texas to join white supremacists at Hayden Lake, had taken the victims for an interracial couple and decided they should die.
Both Tracee Raider, 19, and Miguel Legrada, 29, survived. But the shooting remained an unsettling escalation from the drugs, prostitution and miscellaneous crime that had become expected on the blocks around the bus terminal. By the early ’90s the depot was long past the shining promises of its opening in 1947, when it was considered the finest and most modern bus depot in the West. It had sparkling porcelain washrooms, a barbershop, a beauty parlor, a state-of-the-art restaurant. An ad proclaimed: “Every comfort imaginable.”
Not long after the shooting, the buses moved elsewhere. The building was later purchased by the Cowles company, and today exists for Spokesman-Review distribution and general storage. Mustard-colored paint peels from the tiled walls along the sidewalk, and tattered plastic covers the windows where passengers once watched for their buses and two people were once shot by the gumball machines.
Lindholm, sentenced to 24 years, remains in prison.
From the archives
How the historic hotel — shuttered in 1985 and dangerously close being bulldozed — was brought back to life.
On the block beyond the Plaza, where the scent of stale exhaust and cigarettes drops off into the silent canyon of the bank towers, the windows on the south side of Sprague are filled with children.
In the first window, toddlers play with bright toys beneath a garland pinned with drawings on paper plates; in the next, preschoolers lay out a trail of foam squares and wear serious expressions as they treat each other’s make-believe illnesses with all the technology of modern toy medicine.
But in the early afternoon, all is still. The children nap on tiny cots, with tiny hands and pudgy legs sprawled out beneath blankies, disarmingly unconcerned with the world beyond the glass. All eyes are closed, save those of one towhead baby in the far corner who stares back at a passerby with heavy eyelids.
It’s easy to imagine someone tempted to break the spell, to tap on the glass — but owner Pam Haley says they don’t have many problems. Building security keeps a close watch on the area. “People watch out for us,” she says.
He had wanted shrooms, but he’ll take what he can get. With a swirl of his wrist, the ice clinks in his all-but-empty glass of vodka and soda. It’s his sixth, maybe seventh since sometime after lunch. He already has his concert tickets, and the Arena doors open in just a couple of hours. That’s why he’s asked about the shrooms, but the bartender says she only has acid. That should do. He’ll take four, no… eight. So she slips a white tab of paper under his drink coaster. He passes a few $20 bills across the bar, all while grinning at his friend on the next barstool. Just a little longer, he says, then he’ll duck into the bathroom to piss and drop his first hit of acid. Let’s get this show started. (JJ)
Of all the cafes, florists, boutiques, barbershops, drugstores and other spots that have lined the downtown blocks of Sprague over the years, only one exists with the same location and name it carried a century ago: P.M. Jacoy’s at the northwest corner of Sprague and Washington.
P.M. Jacoy, known as Pete, opened a cigar shop in 1897 and moved to the current location in 1904. He sold cigars, candy bars, gum, playing cards, periodicals, fishing tackle and fruit, and when a fire gutted the building in 1939 he moved back in the following year with a bigger space and a modern soda fountain.
Behind the counter now is genial proprietor John Ko, who’s owned the store for 19 years with his wife, Jenny. The shop still does brisk business in cigarettes, candy bar and soda, as well as beer and assorted groceries. Many people stop in just looking for directions.
Ko chats about the weather with a burly man buying a bottle of Sprite and a handful of snacks.
“It’s nice, getting warmer.”
“Where I’m from, it’s already hot,” the man says.
He’s from North Carolina, working in Spokane, and he tells Ko about the time when he was young and worked in Nome for a season. He went to Anchorage, too, where his boss lived, and ended up winning $5,000 in a fishing derby. Ko listens and nods, and continues smiling behind the counter as the man exits the store.
The intersection of Sprague and Division, where the trains rumble overhead, is the site of Spokane’s single deadliest disaster. On a late afternoon in September 1890, at least 24 men died when more than 200 pounds of dynamite exploded too soon at the Northern Pacific railyard.
Now the corner is better known for its mural, a massive marmot face that scowls down at the passing traffic. The artist, Tom Quinn, calls it “grotesque.”
“Even I don’t think it looks like a marmot,” he says. “People would come by and say, ‘Is that a gorilla?’”
Quinn has other well-known murals around town — the Gonzaga mural that’s now in storage, the faded train murals in Hillyard, the Felts Field mural at the airport, the fish mural farther down Sprague — but the marmot mural was his first, painted in two weeks in June of 1993.
An underpass like that is a difficult place for a mural. “Greasy mud” and pigeon guano drips down, Quinn says. The relative privacy means people pee on the walls. Then there’s the vandalism, too — someone recently felt the need to leave a miniature graffito in the marmot’s nostril.
“I would love to repaint that sometime,” he says.
From the archives
In 2010, a “ghost bike” at Sprague and Division stood as a memorial to David Squires, who was killed in a collision there.
Division to Crestline
An orange BNSF locomotive, slow and immense, lurches across the overpass at Division Street, the gateway to East Sprague. Past this point, many consider the rest of Sprague a long, crumbling stretch of seedy motels, brazen prostitutes, abandoned strip malls and blacktop car lots. That is until you reach the sprawl of Spokane Valley — a whole different kind of horror.
But it all seems harmless enough from the patio of Jones Radiator.
One of Spokane’s earliest automotive shops, Jones Radiator re-opened in 2010 as a neighborhood pub. It provides a warm welcome to East Sprague, stocking a well-curated selection of beer taps and a reliable schedule of local musicians. It’s the kind of place bartenders go to drink.
A group of friends sip tallboys and critique the graffiti on the passing train cars, pointing out their favorites. They talk about people from high school, who still lives around here and which cheerleaders have kids. Do you remember Mindy?
“She’s a klepto when she drinks,” one observes. “It’s better than punching people in the face, I guess.”
Another train crosses the overpass, shrieking and stalling along the tracks as the sun settles down behind the city, silhouetting the skyline in golden light. Half-empty tallboys clunk off one another as they raise up their cans.
Within what appears to be a boarded-up storage building, a tiny, intricate world bustles with life. Lights flicker in 4-inch-tall houses. Miniature cars park outside miniature storefronts with fingernail-sized proprietors frozen, arms raised mid-wave. A tiny horn blasts as a model train locomotive pulls past on its way around the elaborate two-level, 41-by-48-foot display.
Mike Tietz, president of the River City Modelers club, says the display has more than 19 “scale” miles of HO-sized (1/87th scale) railroad track with a complicated network of circuits and switches controlling every inch of the layout. The system can run as many as 99 trains at once. It usually takes a single train at least 90 minutes to make one complete loop of the display.
“It operates exactly like a real railroad,” he says.
A dispatcher sits at a central computer and uses pre-planned manuscripts to manage train movements by individual operators. Trains often progress along real-world itineraries, going from coal mine to power plant or logging camp to timber mill. The display is meant to represent parts of Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Montana.
Many of the club’s 63 members once worked for regional railroads. John Langlot says he served as a brakeman for the Great Northern Railway. He now builds small replicas of the company’s trains. Retired engineers help build miniaturized bridges and electricians help wire switches.
“There’s something in this hobby for everyone,” he says.
From the archives
Why the high-profile spa bust in 2012 may have put more vulnerable women on the street.
A steady queue of oversized pickup trucks pulls into the Busty’s Top Espresso stand in the parking lot of the Bel-Air 7 Motel. The squat, brick motel advertises itself as “clean, spacious and very affordable” accommodations, boasting of its new bikini coffee stand along a stretch of Sprague where the “full-service” part might raise eyebrows. Guests stand on the balcony smoking.
News archives show a long history of drugs, prostitution and murder — all three on some nights. Authorities have raided meth operations and prostitution rings working out of the infamous motel. Dangerous fugitives have checked into the motel only to leave in handcuffs. In 2008, investigators arrested two guests after they had allegedly killed a man over $7.25.
In 2010, a 49-year-old woman died when a cigarette caught her bed on fire. In 2011, a suspected prostitute was beaten with a rock by her john. She was found bleeding out front. In 2012, police broke up an out-of-town prostitution ring.
“The motel features spacious and affordable rooms,” the Bel-Air advertises. “We offer monthly, weekly, and daily rates. … Call now to make reservations for a comfortable getaway at our motel.”
A heavy coat of dust obscures the window glass. Inside, religious relics and eclectic knickknacks yellow in the sun. A foot-tall Virgin Mary statue, arms outstretched, stands tilted on a short shelf. A business license hangs nearby, just underneath a framed photo of Jesus and a bloody crucifix. Plastic flowers cover a stout typewriter amid a collection of tea cups and orange extension cords. The neon sign reads: “Palm READINGS.” The entrance is boarded over. Who knows what the future holds?
The aged or defective can be saved. What once was worn can be renewed. At the center of the emerging International District, the Teen Challenge Thrift Store at the corner of Napa Street practices its own version of revival, selling second-hand goods and collectibles. Vintage furniture, worn paperbacks and vinyl records pack the shelves waiting for a triumphant comeback.
“Look at this,” a man says, passing a stack of VHS tapes.
East Sprague has started down its own path to renewal, with new restaurants and retail businesses opening in vacant storefronts. Spokane Cheesecakes posted a “Grand Opening” banner across its new location in the new Sprague Union Terrace mixed-use building. New furniture and appliance stores have joined the antique shops and tattoo parlors.
City leaders late last year pledged close to $5 million in “targeted investment” to help continue that momentum. The money will pay to patch streets and sidewalks. Some may go to rehabilitating historic buildings or public art.
At Teen Challenge, another man rifles through a cardboard box of trinkets priced at $5. He’s digging out bits of dingy, broken keepsakes, searching for some yet-unnoticed gem among the debris, in hopes of spotting that something worth saving.
From the archives
With hopes of making it more like South Perry, the city has selected this area of East Sprague for $5 million in spending on street and infrastructure improvements.
Crestline to Havana
No one speaks in the bingo hall. No one gets up. For a moment, all you can hear are the bingo balls bouncing inside the blower machine, trapped like fireflies in a jar. It’s a light pitter-patter of plastic against glass. Pop, pop, pop, pop.
It’s Saturday night and there’s a decent crowd at Spokane Youth Sports Association Bingo. Families, couples, men and women are hunched over paper bingo cards, ink daubers in hand, on long cafeteria-style tables. Black flashboards light up around the room when the caller reads the next bingo number.
Sharon Garcia, in a blue sweatshirt, blue sweatpants and white orthopedic shoes, sits across from her mother Vera Mitzimberg, wearing a peach blouse, peach pants and white tennies. They could be the same woman 20-some years apart: Same nose. Similar thin-rimmed glasses. Same assiduous inspection of their bingo cards.
They’ve come prepared for the next three hours. They’ve got five extra daubers in different colors. They’ve got food — Snack Pack puddings, Hostess cupcakes, Kraft singles, clementines, a sleeve of Ritz and Pepsis — packed in coordinating lunch bags bearing a pharmaceutical label.
“He’s calling too damn fast,” Mitzimberg mutters.
Garcia and Mitzimberg have been playing bingo here a couple of nights a month for the past 12 years. This is one of their favorite ways to spend time together. About a year ago, Garcia won big — $1,600 playing Powerball. They split the money like they always do when one of them wins.
“It’s something different. There’s nothing else for us to do,” Garcia says. “We’re not going to go to the bars and go dancing. Been there, done that.”
April 1 through the end of May is the busiest time of year for the gravestone business. In the winter months, four customers might walk through the store in a span of 30 days. In March, business picks up. By April, it doubles.
If there’s one thing owner John Tresko has learned about death, dying and grief, it’s this: “Memorials are for the living as much as they are for the deceased.”
It’s not that Tresko is hardened by it all, or that he doesn’t care. It took him four years to finish his own parents’ memorial. It’s 8 feet tall and 12 feet long — bigger and more elaborate than anything in the yard — and made of Wisconsin red granite. He’s a gruff and serious straight shooter, like Ron Swanson but with an even better mustache. He typically doesn’t ask his customers what happened, but inevitably it comes up, and he rarely knows what to say: “‘I’m sorry’ isn’t really, sometimes, what people want to hear because they hear it so much.”
Once, a couple came in to buy a stone for twins who’d died in the womb. Two names on a grave marker the size and shape of a shoebox with a teddy bear design.
“Something like that gets to you,” Tresko says. His eyes move to the display of children’s gravestones in the corner. One is engraved with an angel, hands folded in prayer. Another with a lamb. “The worst ones are children — and maybe that’s not the right way to think — but children are more hard to deal with.”
A Pawn Shop’s Manifesto as told to the Inlander:
We don’t give a loan on someone’s story.
I’ve prayed with people on the counter; I’ve cried with people on the counter; I’ve laughed with people on the counter. It’s a much more personable business than a bank.
We stay humble here. We know what it’s like to be on both sides of the counter. Nobody’s immune. We’re all in the same boat. We’re the same people — gee, besides the guys who come in here and can just squash us with their cars that cost more than our homes! But they’re still using us. They’re still in the shop borrowing money for whatever it is they need to do, whatever problem they’re trying to solve.
Medical is a big reason why people borrow money. You’ll hear about kids fighting cancer and the medical bills are crushing their families. Parents are making great money together. They have a nice home. They have multiple cars. They have two kids and one kid has cancer now. What happens? They have 20 years of accumulation in their home and the bank’s not going to give a loan for medical — ha, guarantee it.
That story is something that happens all the time. It’s real; it’s everyday. If pawn shops weren’t there for those people, that would be an even scarier thought. I think the country would have collapsed long ago. I guarantee it, actually.
This whole country is built on borrowing and lending.
Havana to Thierman
Inside this boxy white truck, surrounded by a sea of parking lot, is Patty Ramirez’s American dream. When she moved from Guatemala a decade ago in search of a “better future,” Ramirez just knew she wanted to work. She never thought she’d find herself running her own business, a part of her brother-in-law’s little chain of taco trucks.
Ramirez doesn’t speak English, so a family friend’s teenage son, Marvin Garcia, is here to take orders and talk to customers. He asks her about her time here, her work and her family back home and then translates her answers for me. Her responses are never more than a few words long, and she smiles shyly. She likes to cook. She likes Spokane. And snow or shine, she says, “estamos aqui.” She has been working to get visas for the rest of her family back home. She misses them and that makes some days hard, she says.
Just a few weeks earlier, her 14-year-old son Daniel finally arrived. He stands, hands in his pockets, inside the truck as cars pass on the busy stretch of blacktop, in a rush to get to somewhere else. It’s beautiful here, he says for Garcia to translate, and peaceful.
He’s barely a verse into “Ring of Fire” when she sidles up behind him, slips her arms around his waist and starts to sing along. Alongside his flat voice, hers almost shakes the place.
“The taste of love is sweet. When hearts like ours meet. I fell for you like a child.”
“Mom and Dad, everybody!” hollers the DJ, leading the sparsely populated bar in applause.
Judy and Norman Kruger aren’t really Dan Neal’s parents, but in Friday night karaoke terms they’re damn close. For the last 10 years, the Krugers have been following Neal from bar to bar, starting at a tavern in Spangle, where they live. They love the way he works the crowd. Neal has mastered the morning radio DJ vibe here, hassling people to sign up and handing out cheesy door prizes — tonight a set of screwdrivers, a watch, a Scooby-Doo DVD.
This half of the Dragon Garden, the lounge with its entrance framed by red neon, is the kind of bar that can give any time of day the feel of the night. It’s dark enough that everyone looks a little younger, a little less tired. Egos are bigger; risks smaller. And there’s plenty of country music in the big white binder of karaoke songs. A girl in plaid belts out “Before He Cheats,” a twangy revenge story, like she knows the sentiment too well. A clean-cut guy in a neat black jacket and too much cologne does Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar.”
“We got winners, we got losers, chain smokers and boozers.”
Neal works days at a medical supply company. But that is nothing like this, watching singers crack smiles during the applause, filling in the gaps with his own moody performances, buying roses for the women at the bar.
“When they sing,” he says, “I want to make them feel like the most important person in the room.”
“It all sells,” she says, surrounded by lingerie on one side and a wall of pink and purple dildos on the other. But lately, certain products have been selling especially well. Handcuffs, black nylon rope, that sort of thing.
“Ever since 50 Shades of Grey,” she says. “They’re looking for light and friendly stuff, more the illusion of [bondage] than the actual is.”
Whatever it is, Alex Texmo is here to help. She’s built this business — a bright, clean, windowless sex shop — on polite, straightforward customer service and long-lasting relationships with people who trust her expertise.
Ms. Kitty’s is at once a vestige of the past and a testament to today. In the age of free online porn and nondescript packaging from Amazon, people still drive out here to buy three-for-$10 DVDs and get Texmo’s advice on vibrators. No matter how many ways we have to hide our indulgences, some shoppers still want to talk to a real person. These days, they’re not afraid to do it. Put all your sexual fantasies out in the open, Ms. Kitty’s seems to say, and they won’t feel anything but normal.
“It’s a different clientele now. It’s Sally housewife. It’s a lot more women,” says Texmo, 66, whose cropped gray hair and sensible tennis shoes make you feel ashamed of whatever expectations you had about what the owner of a sex shop on East Sprague would look like. Women are not only shopping here, Texmo says, but running other sex shops and product companies, nearly unheard of when she got into the business 30 years ago. (The sign out front boasts 28 years; she’ll have it changed for the store’s anniversary this summer.)
The work here is calm and predictable, she says. It hasn’t always been this way. Texmo has seen pickets and hostile zoning changes. “It won’t be safe to walk your dog,” one citizen told the Spokane Chronicle during an uproar over a new Ms. Kitty’s location on North Division in the ’80s. Someone set a bomb on the roof of that store; no one was hurt, but the shop didn’t last. In 1990, Texmo’s business partner, former priest John Bauer, pleaded guilty to producing and distributing child pornography. It was a shock for Texmo, who later took over ownership of the store. In a room now set aside for fetish supplies, Ms. Kitty’s used to have strippers and private booths where customers could watch the dancers or porn. When the law changed to prohibit doors on the booths, Texmo says she decided, “I don’t want to see that.” The last night women danced here was New Year’s Eve 1997.
Today, the store is quiet as a few afternoon customers trickle in.
“What’s the weather supposed to be like this week?” a man with a ponytail asks Texmo as he pays cash for three DVDs.
A middle-aged football-coach type, with a red jacket and baseball cap, walks in the back door and heads straight for the rope. Texmo glances at the security camera feed at her desk and says, matter-of-factly, of the man’s purchase: “A lot of rope.”
Thierman to Argonne
Pass the jagged border between Spokane and Spokane Valley, and there are cars in every direction.
Cars with shiny paint jobs arranged in long rows on big parking lots so they glitter just right in the afternoon sun. Most of them aren’t moving — they’re just-born, and they’re here on display like colorful, metallic birthday cakes, embellished with gigantic versions of children’s party decorations: red, white and blue plastic balloons, canvas flags and glittering banners that whip and click in the breeze from passing traffic. Inflatable people with goofy faces and orangutan arms lure grown adults to make giant purchases here.
This is Auto Row.
On this part of Sprague, there are promises of speed, of freedom, of open roads and sunsets in rear-view mirrors. Right here is where people come to dream, to indulge in these machines that have come to define cities just like this one across America — these big, sprawled-out places meant for wheels and gas, not bike lanes or walking paths. Inside a car we have space for more things, for our future children, the ability to press the accelerator down hard and feel like we’re in control of our own lives. Right here on Sprague, people from all around come to spend their money, and feel like contenders in the all-American race toward success.
You’ll have to go somewhere else for the luxury liners. Most of the cars on this lot have dings and scratches — imperfections, to say the least. On one pickup, a note has been scrawled on the glass window: DO NOT LOCK! This is a place to find a panel van, a truck, a PT Cruiser in a shade of yellow that can only be found inside dirty diapers.
They might not all be pretty, but the cars here run. For the customers at Union Gospel Mission Motors, that might be all that matters. The people who donate cars here do it because they believe in the cause. Union Gospel Mission provides food and shelter and spiritual guidance for the homeless. The car lot is one way to fund that mission.
Tom Frederick swung hammers as a carpenter before he took a job shaking hands and passing keys to happy customers at UGM Motors. Today he explains car sales in a way that few others on this stretch of Sprague might describe it: “I found myself here. I think God presented an opportunity for me,” he says. “I love working here … doing God’s work.”
Maria O’Brien steps out from behind the counter inside her restaurant — the one painted in teal-and-peach-colored checkerboard, with the Mexican flag painted on the window that reads ¡Viva Mexico! — and points to the right half of the menu hanging above her head. That part of the menu is El Salvadoran food. That’s the food her family added to the menu when they bought this place three months ago. A few minutes later, she proudly brings out a plate of yucca frita that she just fried in the back, and a piping hot pupusa.
In a backward red baseball cap, her brother emerges from the kitchen only long enough to cue up a song that fills that tiny taqueria with music: C&C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now.”
Laura Orthouse lights a cigarette as she stands in her kitchen. “It’s fine. I like it,” she says of her tiny white cottage. There’s not much to say. Mostly, she just hears a constant hum of cars.
Orthouse’s home is strange because it’s the only one on the one-and-a-half-mile stretch between Argonne and Thierman. She likes that. It’s a little like living in the middle of a parking lot. It’s like she and her chihuahua Coco are hidden in plain sight.
As she’s walking out the door for work at the nearby Flying J Travel Plaza, she offhandedly mentions that her house is kind of a landmark, actually. How so? She types a Google search into her smartphone for Billy Tipton — the famous 20th century jazz musician who made his home in Spokane, and who was discovered to be biologically female after he died.
On her phone screen she enlarges an image of Billy Tipton’s Washington state driver’s license — one that says he was a male with blue eyes, who lived on East Sprague Avenue. Right here. This house. The last standing house on this entire section of road.
“I don’t know if he died here,” she says, smirking. “If I hear a piano or saxophone, I’m going to freak out.”
A blonde waitress in black hot pants and a skintight tank top mops the stage with a rag, taking extra care when it comes to wiping down the metallic stripper pole. When she’s done, she grabs her drink tray and scurries back to the bar to fill it with sodas.
A leggy woman wearing black glasses emerges on the stage in her underwear and platform heels, and begins writhing and crawling and spinning to what will be the first of several Eminem tracks she’ll take her clothes off to tonight.
By himself, in a seat by the stage, sits one heavyset, middle-aged man — balding, glasses, red button-down shirt, still tucked in, like he came here straight from work. A few minutes ago, he was sitting alone at the bar inside the nearly-silent Bronco Inn next door, sipping liquor and eyeing a Shark Tank episode on the TV. Right now, he’s casually watching Eminem Girl get naked in a way that suggests this won’t be the first time he’s seen her nipples.
The other girls working tonight hobble through the club awkwardly, looking like spindly-legged baby birds wading into water for the first time.
Eminem Girl crawls naked on all fours toward our man in the red shirt, motioning with a long, skinny finger for him to stand up. He complies. She grabs the back of his head and slowly presses his face between her breasts, moving from side to side, each nipple brushing the thick man’s cheeks again and again and again.
He casually sits back down again, an unaffected participant in the slowest motorboat in the history of all mankind.
Argonne to Bowdish
For now, this is just a field. Just eight acres of grass, uneven and untended, and one solitary tree.
The kite in the air, a patchwork of Technicolor, dips and rises, cartwheeling through the sky. It’s attached to a rod and reel held by a bearded father named Mike Loomis. His sweatshirt is splotched with paint and he’s lying back in the grass like Tom Sawyer at the fishin’ hole. His two kids are here too.
“It’s our weekend with our daddy,” says Makynzy, a 9-year-old with dashes of blue streaks in her hair. Makynzy rapidly rambles off the plot of a funny book she just got from the library, until Jack, her little brother, has something vital to say:
“Daaaad!” he yells frantically. “I’m finding a rock for you!”
The city of Spokane Valley can show you plenty of conceptual drawings with its future plans to extend Balfour Park through this property, to make it proper with manicured grass, a water feature, a vet memorial and an amphitheater.
But right now, this is park in its purest form. Open space. A place to fly a kite on a windy April day.
Hannibal Rising. A Danielle Steel romance novel, a James Patterson thriller, an Orson Scott Card paperback. A textbook titled Deviant Behavior, stamped with “Rolling Hills Academy, Temecula, CA.” A magazine, with a Norman Rockwell-style grandpa on the cover, called Good Old Days.
This is one more important piece of this empty field: There are 11 books in all, a seemingly random selection, tucked away in a tiny cedar box — from far away it looks like a large bird feeder with a latch and glass door. It’s a tiny library, one with no cards, late fees or stern librarians. Just an honor system. Take a book or leave a book.
In a sense, the box is a seed: It’s part of the “Little Free Library” campaign, planted here at the intended site of a full-fledged 30,000-foot Spokane County Public Library branch. It just needs funding. In an election last month, the Spokane County Library District missed the 60-percent threshold for the bond to finally build the thing. They can try again, but the whole idea comes with a due date: If the money can’t be found to build the library by 2017, the city of Spokane Valley will take back control of the land.
Across the street from this mostly vacant expanse of grass, on a mostly vacant expanse of cracked asphalt, a vacant expanse of gray concrete rises into the air. The yellow parking lines have peeled away, and the FIRE LANE signs are so faded they’re barely readable. Tree branches obscure the letters UNIVERSITY CITY.
Forty-nine years ago, the University City mall opened, with 29 stores and a parking lot for 1,500 cars. By 1980, the size of the complex had nearly doubled. But in 1997, Spokane Valley got a newer, shinier mall, one that seduced away University City’s prime tenant, J.C. Penney. It was hardly the only wound the old mall suffered, but it may have been the fatal one.
Drive up the parking ramp today, and see a second-story parking structure, once packed with Christmas shoppers, that now has only a row of dinged and rusted sheriff’s cruisers and a SWAT-style van with a D.A.R.E. sticker on it. Today, part of the mall has become a training center for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, with old stores used for obstacle courses and scenario rooms.
The surrounding shopping center has Rosauers and some fast-food joints, but make no mistake; this place is dominated by empty storefronts and NAI Black for-lease signs. Big red Dollar Store letters are piled up behind one window, and “Y.O.L.O.F.I.S.H.” is scrawled in the dust of what once was Hollywood Video.
You can’t talk about the struggles of Sprague without talking about Appleway.
Drive east, and as soon as you hit Thierman, you’ll be forced off Sprague onto Appleway. It’s nearly three miles of weeds, dirt lots, chain-link fences, railroad tracks, power lines and the back ends of buildings until you hit University, where Sprague finally starts running east again.
Blame Spokane County. To cut down on I-90 drive-time gridlock, it turned Sprague into a couplet with Appleway back in 2000. In less than a decade, the 34,000 cars zooming daily down Sprague slowed to a trickle of only 15,000. Businesses withered away with it. There was no going back. In 2011, the council gave Valley voters a chance to turn Sprague back into a two-way street, but with the specter of a longer commute time and higher taxes, 83 percent of voters didn’t just say no. They said “Hell, no!”
Time was, Spokane Valley had a sweeping plan to transform both streets. University City was supposed to become a true city center for the center-less valley. It took six years of planning, a fortune in consultant fees and was intended to last for 30 years, but finally in October 2009, the Sprague Appleway Revitalization Plan — SARP — took effect. It would use zoning to mold and constrain the valley, forcing certain types of growth in some areas, restricting it in others.
But then a new city council stormed city hall and smashed the mold to pieces. The new crowd had campaigned nearly entirely on a promise to rid the city of SARP, which they saw as handcuffing the free market’s invisible hand. They kept that promise.
There’s still hope that Sprague will rise again. As Spokane Valley looks for a new spot for City Hall, Mayor Dean Grafos has said he’d prefer a site at University City across from Balfour Park. Just because the city council ditched SARP doesn’t mean they’ve given up on the revitalization of Sprague.
In a simple amateur video filmed for last year’s campaign, Spokane Valley Councilman Ed Pace stands outside the cardboard-covered doors of University City, wind blowing through his white hair. “I hate the word blight,” Pace says, spitting out the word. “This place is an opportunity just waiting for something to happen.”
From the archives
The plan to transform Spokane Valley took six years and $1 million to create. Then, in 2010, a new city council set out to kill it.
Bowdish to Evergreen
This billboard soars just across Sprague from the Valley’s seat of power, the building housing offices for the city’s leaders and state Sen. Mike Padden. On the other side of the sign is a question — “Who Is Jesus?” — with the same phone number. A block further east stands another billboard telling passersby: “Fluoridation is Public Health Quackery!”
Walk in here, with the countless hookahs, vaporizers and bongs (excuse me, water pipes) of all shape and size, with curves and color, and you realize it isn’t just about puffin’ until you’re out of your gourd. There is art, culture, even fetishism — why else would customers come back? Really, how many tobacco water pipes does one household need?
In some ways, Tiffany Anderson, 26, is an unlikely manager of the place. She used to work at the Target on Sprague and Evergreen — “After the holiday season, I realized it wasn’t for me” — and landed this gig through a friend. Nevermind she had finished a program to become a chemical dependency counselor.
“Ironic, huh?” she says with a laugh.
She likes the work. Her schedule is 9 to 5, and owners are quick to thank her. “It has its ups and downs,” she admits, adding without irony, “but more ups than downs.”
The store is expanding into the empty business next door, knocking down a wall and adding staff, but Anderson says it’s business as usual, despite the state’s legalization of pot. Bongs are still “water pipes.”
That’s not to say the culture — or how people puff — isn’t changing.
“Dabbing is the new craze,” Anderson says. “As they call it: A little dab will do ya.”
A dab is a cannabis concentrate — often in the form of wax or an oil — that is heated and inhaled. It’s gained notoriety for two reasons: 1. Amateur scientists trying to create the concentrate by themselves have been known to inadvertently blow shit up. 2. Dabbing gets you super-super high.
Anderson demonstrates how to assemble a rig for dabbing. Buyer beware: “I’m telling you, it’s like NyQuil,” she says. “Don’t make plans.”
Three people — a rosy-cheeked couple in their 50s and a single guy wearing a four-day beard and a Seahawks cap — are sitting at the corner of the bar. ESPN is replaying the day’s best homers. The guy with his wife pushes a plastic basket, the type you’d fill with hot French fries, toward the bartender. The basket is filled with ripped-up paper — pull tabs, and no winners. “We’re done,” the man says, sipping from a can of Coors Light. “Unlucky tonight.”
The Hawks fan picks up the conversation. Says his luck is always mixed. Up and down. But as long as it evens out, it’s entertainment, he says. Then he launches into a story he had heard from the bartender. It goes about like this:
The other night, this pregnant woman comes in, she’s drinking and she decides to play the pull tabs. Right away, she wins 200 bucks. She keeps drinking and partying.
The fan looks away from ESPN, to the couple, to show his disapproval. Then continues.
The woman plays again. This time, she wins 500 bucks. And you know what tip she gave at the end of the night? On $700? Twenty bucks. Can you believe that? ... I always give 15 percent when I win. That’s my rule.
The couple agree that after scoring $700, the least the drunk pregnant woman could have done was peel a hundred from off the top for the bartender. Have some class, at least.
The fan checks his watch. 7:15. Almost time to go to Dave’s Bar and Grill, two doors down, where you can get a sirloin steak, fries and salad for $6.99 after 8 pm. He orders another Michelob Ultra. The clack-clack of pool balls ricocheting across felt can be heard from the tables lining the far wall, where three men are splitting a pitcher. Shoehorned between the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum and Peters Hardware, Ichabod’s changes according to the hour: blue collars and gray hairs after work, tattooed men in white tanktops closer to midnight. Within about a block, there are no fewer than three check cashing businesses.
After the couple settles up and heads back out to Sprague, now glowing with headlights, I tell the Hawks fan I work as a reporter and ask what he does. “As little as possible,” he says humorlessly.
He doesn’t elaborate and turns back to the TV.
X-Khan chin-nods at passersby, hoping to draw eye contact, hoping you’ll stop for a moment so he can fan out CDs in his hand and tell you about all the hits he’s getting on YouTube. He’s got a video cued up on his smartphone. Titled “Win Some, Lose Some,” it’s a tribute to Tupac. “One hundred and twenty-nine thousand hits,” he says, in case you don’t believe him.
X-Khan (aka Milton Farrar) is a transplant from Connecticut. He moved to Spokane Valley, following his younger brothers who are also into the local music scene. There’s talk of building their own studio and label. “This is an up-and-coming young town,” X-Khan says. “It’s on the verge of being a good hip hop town.”
Like with many performers, it’s not always clear where fact ends and myth begins. Especially when he says things like this: “I’m an urban legend around here. Winning over people one by one.”
Back East, X-Khan says he spent some time at Rutgers, started developing a fanbase (in part, he says, for sounding like DMX) and, over the years, worked about 50 odd jobs. Today, though, he’s just walking Sprague. He was in a car wreck last summer and is still coping with pain.
“That’s my main motivation,” he says, “to come out here and walk and keep walking. … I keep walking and following my physical therapy — that’s what’s going to get me through.”
Just then, a kid in black shorts and a black hoodie shouts at X-Khan from across the parking lot.
“How you doing? Still at it?”
“I’m still at it,” he answers, “All day.”
X-Khan turns to me, proudly. “Local celeb. That’s me.”
Evergreen to Conklin
In an unassuming strip mall that blends in with the bland commercial scenery stretching toward the rising hills of Liberty Lake, Black Wolf Gaming Center is a videogamers’ paradise: dark, cool and lit by little else than the glow of blinking LED console lights and rows of flat-screen TVs.
On a Saturday night just before 10, there’s a couple hunching over an arcade game along the wall near the door. A few guys wander in to play pool, but the place is fairly empty other than two employees hanging out behind a counter and a group of teens playing Halo.
“It’s usually a lot busier than this on a Saturday,” says Raelynn Lopez, a petite woman in a beanie with colorful tattoos down her left arm, as she sets a giant three-ring binder holding Black Wolf’s game library on the glass countertop.
Lopez, 24, opened Black Wolf about a year ago. Most Saturdays, she says, the pool tables are packed, and the club usually hosts a LAN party (with Halo or Call of Duty) or a gaming tournament — the following weekend is a Smash Brothers tourney — until the wee hours of the morning.
The location off Sprague wasn’t her first choice for the gaming club, modeled after an arcade in Seattle she’d been to, but her dad owns the property, so it made sense. Even though it’s tucked in off the street behind a mattress store and a gym, she says there are still plenty of curious walk-ins (the club offers play-by-the-hour rates and memberships), and its members come from all over to hang out and play. There’s no alcohol served, just candy and energy drinks. Customers are fine with that, she says, adding, “even if you’re older, sometimes you want to go somewhere that’s not a bar.”
Tyler “Panda” Johnson has been coming here just about every day since he won an Injustice tournament last year. A gamer since he got his first Nintendo Game Boy at 3, Panda, now 18, says he likes being able to play here with friends rather than sit alone at home in front of a computer screen.
Panda, who got the nickname because he usually wears a panda hat, describes himself as a broad spectrum gamer and has played all the games in Black Wolf’s library.
“Anyone who comes in, I’ll play with them,” he says.
Behind him, the Halo team is hard at battle, leaning forward in their chairs, thumbs gripped white over the controls. In between issuing commands to his teammates, one player takes a deep breath and says, “Remember, it’s just a game.”
A faded sign on the facade reads “Serving Spokane Since 1974,” but the teal-awninged building is an empty shell.
It’s been about a year and a half since Evergreen Pet Shop’s controversial closing — its cats, dogs, rats, birds, reptiles and turtles are all long gone. The community raged over rumors that its owners, shut down by the state for owing back taxes, simply abandoned the animals inside. Many displayed signs of neglect, but pet-loving good samaritans stepped in to offer them homes.
Now, beyond the front windows coated with a thin film of dust and grime, there’s just a dusty cement floor. Crisp, brown skeletons of weeds grow under the windows. Below the pet shop’s street-facing sign of two parrots on a branch, the letters that haven’t blown away yet on the reader board spell out a cryptic message: “$ 5 BAG OPEN 10.”
When Burr and Edythe Allen moved from Iowa to Spokane in 1913, they stopped a ways out from the city and bought a 10-acre spread of land to farm and plant an orchard. The next year, they erected a two-story house with a big front porch along “The Appleway,” the main road through the valley east of Spokane, named so for the exuberant, blossoming apple orchards spreading out around it.
A century later, the two-story white house sits much closer to the widened five-lane road. Cars whiz by instead of clopping, horse-drawn buggies and wagons. Obscured behind an enormous conifer in the front yard, the house seems all but forgotten. Plywood boards cover the windows to keep out thieves, but most of the copper was ripped out of the home earlier this year, says their grandson Allen Hartung, who grew up on the property and has strived to keep it in the family. He hopes to fully restore it someday, but economic woes have kept him from doing more than keeping it intact and protected.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Why don’t you sell that?’” Hartung says. “My answer is, I can’t get anything for it. If it doesn’t have value to anyone else, it has more value to me. I guess I’m kind of sentimental about it. I had a happy youth on that spread.”
Hartung was born in Spokane in 1940. He lived with his younger brother and parents in a little pink, aluminum-sided house on the east edge of the property. He remembers sitting on the porch swing of Grandma’s house, looking out at a vastly different view of Sprague. Directly across the street now is Sprague & Sullivan Storage, but Hartung remembers it being cantaloupe fields. He and his brother and their friends would sneak out at night to eat ripe cantaloupe fresh off the vine.
He remembers the Stanke family had a house to the east — now Savemore Building Supply. Down on the northwest corner of Sprague and Conklin was the Dilley Barbershop. Hartung remembers riding his bike to school, and afterward going fishing at Shelley Lake just south of home. He remembers how hard his mother Dorothy worked in her flower garden. This spring, her daffodils bloom out back.
The Hartung house is the oldest still-standing home that Spokane Valley Heritage Museum’s Jayne Singleton knows of along the far east stretch of Sprague past the museum.
“Absolutely it’s unique. Most homes along it were torn down or relocated to different areas during the transition from a rural area to an urban area,” Singleton says. “It is certainly worthy of preservation — there aren’t many historical buildings left in the Valley on Sprague.”
Conklin to Barker
Either you’re one of the 779 current members, you’re a guest of a member or you’re a friend of the band playing for a dance there; otherwise, you’re probably not getting into the boxy, yellow Spokane Valley Eagles building. Like speakeasies nearly a century ago, there’s a doorbell that guests must ring to be buzzed in after a quick name check. This vetting process keeps trouble out.
“As a single senior individual I feel comfortable here,” says Donna Ford, who joined the Aerie in 2005. She’s not the only single senior at tonight’s dance who holds that view. Other ladies espouse the party line as well. People here are like family.
“You should have been here at the beginning tonight when we get here for dinner,” says Shari Sheets, in between dance numbers. “It takes us at least a half an hour until anyone sits down. We’re all just hugging one another.”
Under the twisted streamers and disco ball, the dance floor is a sea of well-coiffed hairdos and cowboy hats. On this Friday evening, the Desert Rose Band, a country cover act, has the Spokane Valley Eagles packed, and supportive blue T-shirts splashed with the band’s logo dot the room.
Ford, 72, is the Eagles’ bookkeeper, but tonight she’s not working. She’s here to enjoy her fish fry dinner with family and friends and kick back on the dance floor to the “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.”
At a nearby table, Bob Smith holds court. He’s quick to smile and flirt, especially after a couple of sips from his red wine. His friends, including Sheets and her husband Ernie, sit around the long table watching couples, all in their 40s or older, two-stepping by.
“Old people can dance too,” says Smith, who makes a point to dance with all the ladies that he can.
The fluffy-haired woman with the thunderous voice wants to read her fortune to the folks clad in church clothes at her table, but the rest of the patrons at King’s Restaurant — the lone restaurant on this patch of Sprague between Conklin and Barker — hear her too.
“If you continually give, you will continually have,” she reads with a snort after cracking her fortune cookie. “Can I get an amen?!”
People nod in agreement as they finish their platters of stir-fried rice, juicy meat and thick noodles.
It’s the part of Sprague where one can get detached from the road without even knowing. Just a slight curve to the left and poof, you’re on Appleway. Here at the intersection of Corbin and Sprague, you’ll have to turn right if you want to stay on Sprague.
Do so and Sprague becomes residential: not one brightly lit car wash or used auto joint in sight. Ramblers with immaculate lawns line the road. There’s a nursery. It’s 13 miles from downtown Spokane to this Greenacres neighborhood, but it feels like the country out here.
Go back and stand at the corner intersection facing west, and there’s Greenacres Elementary and Relics, an adorable repurposed vintage furniture and collectables store, on the right. To the left, a huge billboard reads: “Jesus: You’re on his mind.”
Even though it’s been around for more than 40 years, there’s a sense of freshness at Greenacres Baptist Church: Freshly mowed grass, a fresh white sanctuary and a fresh-faced pastor new to the parish.
The congregation is small in number but mighty in resilience. Before Rev. Andrew Fouche took over, this was the church whose founding pastor, Wayne Scott Creach, was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy in 2010. The healing process is ongoing.
Fouche has been at the parish just two weeks, and he already has big plans. This sunshine-soaked Sunday, he’s preaching on finding and serving the heart of the community, his new community.
“The church has been through a lot in the past few years,” Fouche says later.
This is the sort of church where men still wear suits, women bright dresses. There’s an occasional “amen” from the audience during the sermon. The congregation pulls from all over Liberty Lake, Otis Orchards (where Fouche has lived since 2007 with his wife and kids), Spokane Valley and even Post Falls.
Spokane Valley has no shortage of churches, and just down the road from Greenacres Baptist is Valley Real Life, one of the area’s larger churches. Through the Awana kids ministry outreach, the upcoming Vacation Bible School and more, Fouche says he’s eager to reach out, to maintain his church as a vessel for change in a growing neighborhood.
“The goal is to have a good reputation with those outside of the community and be a blessing to the community,” Fouche says. “We want to love the people all around us even if they don’t believe the same as us. We’re going to speak what we believe, but in a way that strengthens rather than causes divide.”
From the archives
“Dad didn’t go out there thinking it was an officer. Dad went out there thinking he had a thief out there.”
Barker to the End
There’s nothing much to see on Sprague here as it beelines through its most rural expanse. The homes remind you to beware of dogs, and pickup trucks are the vehicle of choice. But you won’t miss the Spokane Gun Club, whose sign boasts of its existence since 1892.
This is true, but they didn’t come to this sprawling ranch near Greenacres until 1949. They’ve hosted shooting tournaments there since. The 1980 Inland Empire Handicap tournament was halted when the sky went dark with ash from Mt. St. Helens. The plaque for that tournament lists Mt. St. Helens as the winner for 1980.
These days, you can stop by on pretty much any weekend and find the place hopping, the region’s sportsmen shooting skeet with mountain views in the background.
Sprague disappears for a few miles but returns to form the southern border of Liberty Lake. The city, not the lake.
Liberty Lake is a town with just shy of 8,000 residents, but 45 holes of well-maintained golf course. You can see this 177-people-per-hole ratio alive in Liberty Lake as the electric-powered carts slog not only along the side of the fairways, but also on the shoulder of the road.
In Liberty Lake, a city only 13 years old, it’s perfectly legal to do this. You just have to be 16 and have a driver’s license. You don’t need to be headed to play golf, as evidenced by an older couple trucking down the side of Sprague sans clubs or golfing equipment on a warm Friday afternoon last month.
You can’t, however, get loaded on post-18th-hole Coors Lights, then drive your cart home. Ben Rowe learned that the hard way last August when he tried to weave his way home through parking lots after drinking with buddies. It was the third golf-cart DUI in the young city’s history.
Todd Harper pilots his cart along the front side of Liberty Lake Golf Course, waving to an older couple striding down Sprague on the other side of the fence.
“That’s my mom and dad right there,” says Harper, as his parents wave back.
They’ve lived just up the street, near the entrance to the golf course, since the late 1970s. Harper grew up with the golf course out his front window. Now, as the superintendent, he’s charged with keeping the course green and functioning. When his family relocated to this stretch of Sprague from Spokane, there were only a few other housing developments, but the golf course already had been in play since 1958.
Harper started golfing the course at age 10, working on the links at 14 or 15 — he can’t quite remember. He raked the bunkers, cut the holes and mowed the rough. He kept coming back, except for one year when he opted for a job with the sewer district.
“If you stick around a place long enough, well… ” he says, trailing off into a laugh.
When MeadowWood Golf Course opened across the street in 1988, he worked over there. After graduating from Washington State, Harper again headed back to the golf courses.
Driving along the cart paths, Harper waves to the retirees getting their holes in and points out all the changes he oversaw when the course was revamped between 2008 and 2010.
“I grew up playing this golf course and learned how to play the game on this golf course, so to be the superintendent when it was changed, I had mixed feelings. It was like changing your backyard,” says Harper, now 45.
He parks on the side of the tee box for the 18th hole and approaches the foursome sizing up the pin 330 yards away.
“We called it the goat ranch,” one of them says. “And it was only five bucks.”
“You guys probably snuck on anyway,” says Harper.
Bob Kropp, who’s lived in nearby Otis Orchards for more than 30 years, crushes a drive that lands in the middle of the fairway.
“You’d get off the freeway here and there was nothing. There was a cabin that sold Aplets and Cotlets. No gas station, no grocery store. Nothing,” says Kropp.
The fourth of the foursome knocks his shot into the water. The three others laugh, but Harper just hops back in his cart. On the way back to the clubhouse, he points at the grass lining the fairway. It’s supposed to all be Kentucky bluegrass, but there’s some poa annua sneaking into the mix and this drives him nuts.
When the course was redone, Harper saw every blade of grass torn up. Tee boxes were reset to keep slices and hooks from landing in front yards or smashing through windshields. Greens were adjusted and water features added. But none of that would have mattered if Harper couldn’t get the grass to grow.
“There were a lot of those times when I was nervous. It’s a little different to grow grass than to maintain it.”
The grass did grow. The course got harder, but it looked a hell of a lot better.
“Golfers seem to enjoy more challenges, even if they’re not good,” says Harper.
You’d miss the end of Sprague Avenue if you weren’t looking for it. You descend a hill and veer to the right, and then you’re on Neyland Avenue, flanked by a handful of aging single-wides on one side and a tree-heavy set of condos appropriately called The Woodlands on the other. You’re no longer in the city of Liberty Lake, even though, a half mile later, Liberty Lake itself comes into view.
At the point where Sprague disappears, there’s a duplex with a crisp American flag flying from a pole in the immaculately kept yard. There’s no sign telling you that you’ve reached the end of Sprague, a stretch of road that, depending on the stretch you’re on, can be vibrant or vacant, glamorous or gritty.
Sometimes it feels like the city fathers were short on asphalt when building Sprague and had to pave it with desperation instead. But out here — where everything is green and houses are spaced with suburban comfort — the road ends far from where those fathers could have ever seen it reaching. ♦
Traveling by car, golf cart, dirt bike and miniature train.
Traveling by car, golf cart, dirt bike and miniature train.