Rural Tastefulness vs. Forced Urbanity

I want to offer an afterword on my visit to the Maryhill Museum on the Washington State side of the Columbia River. For those not up on the connection, we ducked away from our urban life over a briefly extended 4th of July holiday. Among other awesome rural and wilderness exploration, I could finally justify a visit to this hard to reach - and to characterize - museum. The hodgepodge there rates a qualifier-filled thumbs up. If you're close by, you really should check it out. But don't make a special trip - its honestly not that grand. I'll mention a few things to justify what might seem unduly harsh.

The surrounding hillsides are dotted with white wind farm turbines. They add a modern, idealistic charm to the otherwise hot and dusty shades of brownness - or greenishness, where an irrigation system has been employed to grow something. The Maryhill Museum features right at the entrance a collection of jewels, furniture and general whatnots from the Queen of Romania - it's overplayed payback from the founding of the museum and a real deadening factor to kick things off. My brief interactions with the staff were also occasionally a bummer. Here's where I'll play the scold in saying that none of us have to visit, so please try to be pleasant. With that snark out the chute, the Native American art struck me as a particular strength. It's delivered with well-researched support for the artistic and cultural differences between the nine regions of North American peoples - I learned a bunch and wanted more. Their Rodin collection (not just the sculpture - the dood could draw) and accompanying education it provides is wonderful. At long last, someone explained the essence of Balzac to me. Not that I went in looking for that.

In overview terms, the man behind the museum was Sam Hill (named it for his daughter, Mary, with no explanation offered for why its not the "Mary Hill Museum" instead). I wish he made for a better story. He's not even the one memorialized in the old line "what in the Sam Hill?" Basically, Sam was a railroad company lawyer from Minneapolis who made a boatload of cash and then took on "good road" for cars as his personal quest. Yes, promoting highways partly inspired him to build his mansion/museum way out in the Sam Hill part of the State. The fact that the money now keeping his museum running comes from wind power seems like an irony that's been lost on almost everyone. The weird combination of the original museum's poured concrete - quite unique back in that day, but now about as inspiring as a poured basement - and the new modernist wing and the sculpture gardens with new works from around the Northwest and all sorts of far less noteworthy works give the Maryhill the feel of shifting sand. It's almost like they're trying to make up for the fact that they're out in the middle of nowhere by being a little bit of everything to everyone. They don't want to be rural. But they surely aren't urban. So what are they? I think, at best, an invitation to debate something ephemeral.

To take in the full scope of this area's strangeness, visit the (fake) Stonehenge a few miles east. Look for Sam Hill's tomb as a challenge and tell me if you don't agree that it represents a particularly inglorious end for a man whose ego must have been huge. Better yet, stop at the Gunkel Orchards down in the Town of Maryhill for some tree fruit. I also really enjoyed the winding drive just north of the Columbia between White Salmon (where a stop for a juice and joe at 10 Speed Coffee Roasters was a particular fave) and Trout Lake. That stretch allowed me to think about real (and metaphorical) bridges between rural and urban sensibilities. Not as much as our stay at the Farmgate Homestead (just outside the awesome town of Trout Lake and within constant sight of Mt. Adams). That's a place we'll definitely visit again. Not just to cross it off some list of curiosities. Because it's awesome and we now know it.