Asotin to Pasco
- Distance: 151 miles
- Routes: SR 129, SR 12
- Estimated Driving time: 3 hours
This tour follows the route of an old Indian trail from the confluence of the turbulent Clearwater River and the silt-laden Snake to the junction of the Snake with the Columbia, about 100 miles west of the Idaho Line. Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark followed this trail on their return journey in 1806, and Captain Benjamin Bonneville approximated it in 1834–35.
Most of the region is sparsely populated. Strung along the highway at widely spaced intervals are several small cities and numerous towns, often little more than a cluster of dwellings around a service station, a grain elevator or two, and a general store and post office combined. Some of these are ghosts of settlements that 60 years ago echoed with the crack of stagecoach whips and the creak of wheels, as heavily loaded wagon trains moved at a turtle’s pace toward the mines. From these towns, too, rattled the Conestoga wagons of settlers headed for the lands north of the Snake River. The settlements that survived now serve as distributing points or railroad junctions and supply the tourist with hamburgers, beer, and cigarettes, or with car gasoline and oil.
On this rolling plateau between the Snake River and the Blue Mountains, the colonizing efforts of two Nations met: the one old and experienced in the art of conquest and settlement; the other aggressive in its youth, convinced of its manifest destiny. Down the Snake to the Columbia River, fur traders of the Hudson’s Bay and North West companies guided their canoes to old Fort Walla Walla, at Wallula, whose site is today marked by a few foundation stones. Following the traders came missionaries, whose first attempt to establish a permanent settlement ended in the tragedy of Waiilatpu. Still traceable along stream beds and mountain slopes are old trails, first trod by Indians and later worn deep by the feet of thousands of prospectors who rushed from one area to another, as rumors spread of Eldorados on lonesome creeks and rivers.
Geologic formations here are unusually interesting. Violent upheavals of the earth’s crust spread successive layers of lava over this region, and when these movements ceased, water began to sculpt deep canyons, and wind to shape the rough terrain into rolling hills and narrow valleys. The tour skirts the south bank of the Snake River, with its precipitous walls, for a short distance and then climbs steadily around the steep hillsides, whose rocky slopes, exposed along the narrow shelf of the roadbed, change from bright vermillion to brownish-black as the highway winds upward. Cattle and sheep forage on the hillsides, parched brown except for a brief interlude in early spring, when the warm winds sweep up the Columbia River and, almost simultaneously with the melting of the snow, bring forth a carpet of grass and flowers.
Beyond the summit of the grade, the route zigzags through arable benchlands, where small farms and orchard tracts alternate with extensive wheat acreages and fields of peas, beans, tomatoes, corn, and asparagus. To the south rise the Blue Mountains, shrouded in smoky haze in summer or sharply outlined on clear midwinter days.
West of Walla Walla fertile fields give way to nearly level sagebrush barrens. Bordering the highway are shifting hummocks of sand, corrugated by the brisk, steady wind that whips dry tumbleweeds across the waste and piles them in gullies and abandoned irrigation ditches or against deserted farmhouses. In midsummer the heat waves shimmer over the sand dunes and the oily surface of the road. Little wild life is seen: now and then a hawk soars far overhead, or a raven—black scavenger of the wastelands—sits red-eyed on a rocky promontory. Occasionally a coyote, a gray shadow, slips over the horizon, or a jackrabbit springs from beneath the brush like a coil released, and races across the hills. For 15 miles the highway runs northwest, parallel to the Columbia, and then at the confluence of this river and the Snake swings over a long steel bridge into Pasco.