June 22, 2014 in Features

Passing judgment: A driver’s-eye look at Spokane

Summer vacation season brings families driving by on I-90. Ever wonder what they’re thinking of us as they pass through?
Story By Paul Turner Illustration By Molly Quinn

There are plenty of things to do and see in and around this beautiful apple maggot quarantine area we call Spokane.

You know it. I know it.

And while there are no guarantees, many would agree that a pretty good life can be had here.

But have you ever tried to imagine what impression travelers get when passing through on Interstate 90? You know, Spokane as seen/imagined through the car window.

What answers arise if these weary road warriors ask themselves what it might be like to live here?

Sure, it’s unwise to judge a place by what you can glimpse from an interstate at 70 mph. But anecdotal evidence suggests that doesn’t stop countless Americans from doing precisely that during summer vacation season.

“Boone City? Oh, yeah. We went through there once. A wasteland.”

For many of us, the local view from I-90 is a blur of familiar scenes, a home movie rendered virtually invisible by repeated screenings. But what if you were a California-bound family from Minnesota or Wisconsin en route to Seattle first?

Let’s roll.

As you head toward Coeur d’Alene from the east, you would find yourself dropping down toward a shimmering lake and woodsy backdrops.

A sign says the next five exits are for Coeur d’Alene. But even as you wonder how to pronounce that, you would have to grant that it’s a place with a doggone scenic setting.

“Look, Honey, there’s a sign for ‘Forest information.’ Got any questions for the forest?”

“Yes, I’d like to ask if the schools here are decent and if housing is affordable.”

You would note signs for North Idaho College and the Kootenai County Fairgrounds. But mostly you would see trees lining the freeway, with occasional flashes of Coeur d’Alene peeking through.

Then signs for Sandpoint, Moscow, Silverwood, Canada. “Canada? How far north are we?”

Eventually a cluster of tall signs for family restaurants and motels appears. Interstate America. Coeur d’Alene remains a rumor mostly, but what you couldn’t see seemed pretty inviting.

“Doesn’t ‘Northwest Boulevard’ sound like the perfect street name for a place like this?”

Cruising toward Post Falls, the view gets a bit less arboreal and a bit more commercial.

A sign for a “Treaty Rock” historical site exit might invite backseat speculation about how long the pact lasted.

“Maybe until someone with deep pockets wanted zoning for a subdivision.”

Car dealerships. RV sales. Stores. You name it.

“Spokane Street” in half a mile. “Are we in Spokane already?”

Pawn shop. Houses. A church.

Sign for “University of Idaho Research Park.”

“Something to do with high-tech potatoes?”

Then bigger low-slung structures with indeterminate purposes.

Topographical ridges not far away remind travelers that this isn’t jagged peaks country but neither is it a return to Flat America.

Nothing about the passing scene shouts “major metro,” but neither does it look like Nowhereville.

Of course, it’s all relative.

Then the signs “Welcome to Washington” and “Entering Spokane County.”

No fanfare. Just a weigh station for trucks and a posted warning about transporting invasive aquatic species.

“Isn’t this a blue state?”


“But Idaho’s a red state?”

“Redder than red.”


Someone looking out the car window would see a river, auto dealerships, campaign signs in fields and warehouses. And more RVs for sale.

Soon after seeing a sign for the Spokane Valley Mall you might be aware that development along the interstate has gotten denser. And yet, it still feels like the outskirts of someplace.

You would have learned that you could buy a Mercedes, a Porsche or a Harley Davidson. Or a boat. Or rent office space.

Or visit the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum.

Perhaps you might not even notice the sprawling auto salvage yard behind the trees.

But at some point, someone westbound on I-90 would have to wonder. Where is Spokane? Am I going to see it?

Then, off in the distance beyond the Franz bread sign high atop a tall pole, there’s a downtown. It’s a fleeting vantage. But it’s there.

Now many of those zooming along on the interstate are no doubt oblivious to their surroundings. They’re thinking about all sorts of things that have nothing to do with Spokane.

But perhaps there are those who stare and wonder. What kind of place is this?

A sign for Thor and Freya could tickle a fan of Norse mythology.

Signs for “Riverfront Park” and “Spokane River Falls” sound intriguing. Don’t they?

Then the roadside endorsements of Spokane’s city status start to stack up in a hurry.

“Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.”

“Spokane Arena.”

“WSU and EWU at Riverpoint.”

Even the fact that you are now driving in between high walls instead of trees suggests a certain urban vibe.

Next exit: “Gonzaga University/Whitworth University.”

“Gonzaga is in Spokane? Don’t they play sports or something?”

Then, off to the right, you can see the top of two smokestacks. Then, beyond the Frankie Doodle’s sign, there is downtown Spokane.


To a 14-year-old girl from Milwaukee or a single mom from St. Paul, it might not seem like a precious repository of hopes and dreams. But what it does look like is the center of a slightly tired settlement that has been a city for a long time.

After all those miles of the Dakotas and Montana, Spokane is a little different. It’s a modest monument to the idea that a fair number of people once decided, “Yes, here. This is the place.”

OK, chances are some Seattle-bound travelers only notice the vintage Arby’s sign or First Presbyterian. Or nothing at all.

And if it takes a lofty skyline to impress you, Spokane’s not going to ring the bell.

But surely, with all the traffic on I-90 every hour of every day, there are at least a few passers-by who give our city the once-over and like what they see.

“Would I land a good job here? Would I make friends? Find true love?”

No telling, I suppose.

In any event, Spokane is already in the rear-view mirror a couple of minutes later.

But maybe at this very moment, some driver climbing the hill west of town is glancing back and taking a second look.

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