Two routes cross at this desert community. One is ancient, the other modern.
Boaters use the the old course, drifting down the Columbia River where it is hemmed by rusty basalt walls 12 million years old.
Cross-state drivers take the new route, the air conditioning in their cars turned high as they cross the Columbia on Interstate 90’s steel span, halfway between Seattle and Spokane.
From his cliff-top home in Vantage, the community his family has owned - literally - for four generations, Bryan Stockdale watches 10,000 cars cross the bridge every day. On summer weekends, he sees hundreds of boats on the river.
Both corridors grow more crowded, and Stockdale speculates it is only a matter of time before travelers using them turn Vantage, population 100, into the next Tahoe.
“Come back and see me in five years,” said Stockdale, quiet, confident and polite at 32. “You can see it’s coming.”
Stockdale’s late father, Wayne, may have used the same words during the 1970s. Skyrocketing gas prices made central Washington a vacation alternative for Seattle residents who couldn’t afford California, Arizona or Montana.
Stockdale’s grandfather, Tom, may have said the words in the early ‘60s, when he predicted 5,000 people would live in Vantage by the end of the decade.
Workers building nearby Wanapum and Priest Rapids dams pushed the population to 2,500 during Tom Stockdale’s era. Developers wanted to build a resort and convention center in the town and put sternwheelers on the river.
The late T.J. Stockdale, might have used his great-grandson’s words when he bought the land that would become Vantage in 1935.
Drivers had little choice but to stop in the town. They had to cool their overworked car engines before climbing the steep grades on either side of the Columbia. Might as well buy a sandwich or a soda while they waited.
So far, each generation’s plans have fallen short. Workers finished the dams and left. Developers lost interest. The gas crisis ended and a new highway between Ellensburg and Tri-Cities siphoned I-90 traffic.
This time will be different, said Stockdale, who studied economics and finance at Pacific Lutheran University and started running the town in 1985.
Overcrowding in the Puget Sound region forces West-Siders farther from home for good boating.
Cle Elum, 47 miles west of Vantage, is a bedroom community for Seattle. Ellensburg farms are crowded by subdivisions.
“Seattle’s moving this way,” said Stockdale. “It doesn’t take a genius to see that if you just hang on for 10 years, things will pick up.”
Stockdale spends his days shuffling from chore to chore at businesses he inherited and others he bought: The KOA campground, the Wanapum Inn restaurant, Blustery’s drive-in restaurant, the Vantage motel, various rental houses.
“This is a tough place to make a living,” he said. “Our season is roughly three months and the rest of the year is negative cash flow.”
Nevertheless, Stockdale said he is content to live in Vantage with his wife and two daughters, even if his predictions fall short.
More than the lack of change, he fears too great a change. The steward of the family vision, he worries growth will come too quickly and change the town where there’s no need to lock car doors.
“There’s plenty of people that would like to see Vantage different than it is,” he said. “I’m not sure they know what they’re hoping for.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos Map of the Columbia River from north of Vantage to the Tri-Cities