A Road Less Taken -- Highway 28 Travels To Wide Horizons And Lives Lived Differently

YOU MAKE TIME ON A TWO-LANE ROAD like Highway 28, a lost highway of sorts that cuts through Eastern Washington's Big Bend Country. It's flat, essentially straight and wide open, piercing miles of wheat fields and scrub brush, now and then passing rural skyscrapers called grain elevators.

It's colored a dusty beige, has no mountains and fewer residents than it would take to fill KeyArena. It parallels Interstate 90, the travel lane of choice to the south between Moses Lake and Spokane. Its wheat fields are grand and among the most productive in the world, but even those are overshadowed by the pretty Palouse to the southeast. The closest thing to a tourist attraction is something called the Scablands.

If this state is the other Washington, then the eastern half is the other, other Washington. The world along the lonely western end of 78-mile Highway 28 is the other, other, other Washington.

More obscure still is the stretch between Wilson Creek and Odessa, the big town at population 980. You might think, as you hurtle through that leg, that you can pretty much see it all while going 70 mph.

But if you took the time to peer over the wheat stalks you'd find industrious Hutterite colonies practicing old-world religion, pure communal living and modern farming. You'd find the state's smallest-and-getting-smaller incorporated town of Krupp, whose residents insist on calling it Marlin and hope the street lights stay on. You could view massive craters and basalt pillars etched by scalding lava and the most catastrophic floods to swamp the Earth, stone strewn so haphazardly that NASA tried out its rock-sniffing rover, Sojourner, here before sending it to Mars.

You'd learn the proud town of Odessa will finally get a sewer and once a year does the chicken dance. You'd meet third- and fourth-generation farmers who comb perfect fields with late-'90s farm equipment, reap early-'70s wheat prices and, for all their fretting, love the life.

This isn't Seattle. Thank God for that, they'll tell you. It dances to its own metronome rhythm. There's plenty out there. You just have to slow down to see it.

TURN SOUTH DOWN Ruff-Marlin Road and you'll pass miles of manicured fields and come upon a startling oasis of towering poplars in the distance. They mark a compound of orderly stacks of baled hay, a dairy barn, calf and pig pens, a horse corral, a tiny swimming pool, sprawling gardens, a long dining hall, apartment-style housing and a hulking metal shop with a fleet of equipment.

It is home of the Marlin Hutterites, population 97.

They have lived, worked and worshipped here since 1975, one of five colonies in Eastern Washington. They call themselves "the plain people," partly because of the way they dress, alike and simply. Women wear long, plaid dresses and scarves. Men wear colored shirts and black pants hitched by suspenders.

The married men wear beards and all but one has the same surname, Gross. Among themselves they speak their own Tyrol dialect, which is never written, but speak English with outsiders.

They are a strange mix of old and new. They shun conveniences - television or sedans - that don't help work or their colony thrive. They are skilled craftsmen and mechanics, but foremost they are large-scale, efficient farmers with the latest equipment. Work is at the very heart of their religion.

Fred Gross is the colony German teacher, a soft-spoken man with a hard job. Not only must he teach the children the language of the Hutterite Scriptures, but he must discipline and keep them busy.

Children are allowed to be foolish, but not selfish or disobedient. They cannot steal or hit. He is in charge of punishment, which could be kneeling in a corner, pulling weeds or getting "the strap."

He's driving a metal-blue former Air Force pickup along a dirt road with 11 kids, ages 4 to 14, in the back. A 10-year-old boy follows, driving a potato digger. Fred stops midway down one edge of a lush green field and the kids hop out.

There are seven girls and five boys, dressed like the adults in "the Hutterite costume," as Fred jokingly calls it. He and one of the younger boys slowly drive the digger down a 100-yard row, churning dirt and uprooting spuds.

The children silently begin stacking potatoes in piles every 10 feet, then fill white buckets and carry them to the truck, where Toby, a serious 14-year-old, dumps the buckets into sacks and hoists them onto the truck. One boy trips, spilling the potatoes he's carrying. He curses. Fred simply yells the boy's name, sending him scrambling to pick up the spuds.

The kids' harvest is for the colony dining room and cooler. Potatoes are the colony's top cash crop, and the real harvest is done with the latest equipment and stored in a $1.2 million potato garage, with computer-controlled cooling and moistening technology.

Fred digs up another row and watches the children clump and collect.

"The state is concerned about overworking children, but our children are already geniuses at finding ways to get out of work," he says with a dry humor that's as shared here as suspenders and scarves. "Our children love work. They are happiest when they're working. Harvest time is the best time."

The children are critical to the Hutterite future. They must embrace the work and religion and the communal sharing that keeps the colony spiritually and financially solvent.

The Hutterites don't recruit and rarely get members from the outside. They marry members from other colonies. The boys will likely never leave, unless it is to help start a new colony. When women get married, they almost always move to the husband's colony.

Hutterites are the oldest and largest communal Christian entity on the continent with an estimated population of about 40,000, all in the United States and Canada. The Marlin Hutterites came from Alberta.

They are Anabaptists who emerged from Europe's 16th-century Protestant Reformation and named themselves after Jacob Hutter, a leader burned at the stake in 1536. They moved to the U.S. in the 1870s. They are pacifists who have been persecuted throughout history for refusing to compromise their religion with others or fight in wars.

They have no rich or poor, no incentives to work other than to keep the system going. Everyone else depends on that, and it serves the religion's core tenet of "being in service of others."

That doesn't mean the Hutterites are all the same. Burly Martin Gross gets so excited explaining how he repairs Bibles that he bounces from end to end of his trailer workshop. George Gross stands in grease-smudged coveralls, looks north and wonders aloud: Where, if the equator represents summer and the North Pole winter, do you suppose the perfect in-between season resides? He guesses somewhere just over the Canadian border.

Jake Gross, the shop boss and assistant preacher, sits at the head of the table in the break room and says he misses the days when he just got his hands dirty. "Supervising work is more work than work!" he says.

Locals refer to these people, not always fondly, as "The Hoots." Some resent their success. Because they pay no wages, work together, and are particularly industrious, they can afford land other farmers can't, or at least are more willing to go into debt. Some outsiders gossip about how Hutterite teens play hooky, watch TV, pocket money from under-the-table jobs. The Hutterites simply say they are not perfect.

Joe Wollman, a shop foreman in nearby Odessa, left a colony 30 years ago when he was 20 and still struggles to explain why. The best part was being taken care of, he says, and that was the worst part, too.

Now a member of the Odessa School Board, he says the colonies need to push education harder because you learn only so much on the seat of a tractor, but he defends them from all other criticism.

"They work hard and don't hurt anyone. They take care of their own. What's wrong with that?"

CROSS HIGHWAY 28, drive three miles north into a canyon and you'll rumble over railroad tracks that created the towns strung along this route, and come to the sign: "Krupp - Town of Marlin."

It was incorporated as Krupp in 1911, christened by the Great Northern Railroad. Residents took exception to the name during World War I after hearing about Germany's Krupp munitions factory. They renamed their town Marlin after an early settler, but never got around to doing it officially.

Now they think it may be too late, that they may be too small to re-incorporate. They don't want to risk losing their street lights or the gas, liquor, motor-vehicle or other tax revenues doled out to cities by the state. Krupp (or Marlin) received about $9,000 last year; Seattle $145 million or so.

Marlin peaked at 106 in the 1920 census, and today, population 51, is the state's smallest incorporated town.

It looks smaller.

Shade trees planted in big old combine tires line the stubby business district. The houses sit to the west and north, hemmed in by steep canyon walls.

One side of town amounts to five empty, mostly broken and bird-soiled buildings, two empty lots, a tumbleweed-cluttered basketball court and a prim post office with 30 active mailboxes. On the other side are a pasture, a tiny white church building that serves as City Hall and a matching garage just big enough to squeeze the town's 1956 fire truck inside.

One of the buildings, the old tavern, is being renovated by a Moses Lake family that acquired it for what amounts to a monthly mortgage payment in Seattle. They have no idea what they'll do with it, but they like the town so much they also bought two homes and two other lots.

The hub, at least during harvests, is the Central Washington Grain Growers' elevator. Mayor Tracy Lesser will hold the monthly council meeting there so they can hurry up, pay the bills and get back to work. One councilor works at the elevator and occasionally must excuse himself to go empty a truck.

"If being mayor took a whole lot of time I wouldn't do it, but someone has to make sure the bills are paid, things get done," says Lesser as he bounces along a hay field right in town in his vintage hay-stacking contraption. He's whipping around the field, steering with one hand and using the other to maneuver a lever that controls a scoop. It picks up bales and sends them into neat stacks on the back of the vehicle. He misses only one of 90 he aims for.

"We can't afford to do much anyway. There aren't any businesses left. As long as people will serve on the council and pitch in, we should be OK. We can't get much smaller."

He's 40 and has been mayor 16 years. As with anyone who serves in office here, he doesn't run, he volunteers. No position is ever contested, and 12 votes are about all you'd need.

Lesser's great-grandfather was one of the early German immigrants from the Volga who swarmed the area and broke the land from sagebrush and rock into one of the world's most productive wheat regions.

Lesser was born in this town and went to school here until they not only closed the school, but physically moved it to nearby Wilson Creek. He drives his hay machine past his cattle, the house he grew up in, and the bottom three steps of what once was a long walkway to the school. He stores his stacked hay bales where the baseball field once was.

He met his wife, Kitty, in high school. They live in a sturdy blue house, the former banker's place, a few hundred yards from Crab Creek.

The youngest of their three children is 6-month-old Stacia, named after an Odessa nurse who cared for one of their sons after a rattlesnake bit him in their front yard. That boy, 11-year-old Kyle, wants to be a fifth-generation farmer and boasts he can already drive a combine. His 14-year-old brother, Eric, says farming is boring and wants to be a geneticist.

Marlin has withered like a slow tire leak because there are only so many small towns a lonely highway can support, only so many hands needed on mechanized farms, and only so many people willing to drive 40 minutes to get groceries.

R.D. Thrall, 78, has lived here all his life and harvested wheat before passing the farm to his son. He served on just about every board and council around, but he sneaks a look at his longtime wife, Iva, and says: "I'm in charge of vacuuming now." They look out from the deck of their bright yellow rambler perched on a canyon wall above the scruffy downtown.

"We used to have two grocery stores, two hotels, a big hardware store, two lumber yards, a Ford garage, a blacksmith," he says. "We had stores on both sides of the road. This was a bustling place. What hurt was losing the school. We've been losing population for some time.

"Several people died in recent years. That didn't help."

The town burned down twice, but residents say the most exciting thing happened in 1971 when a bunch of hippies tried to stage a Woodstock-style festival, called "Sunrise 71," just over the canyon wall to the south. The tavern and store owners got excited, stocking up on beer, but the cops ran the longhairs off before the thing got going.

"No water up there," Thrall chuckles, "but a bunch of rattlers."

DEBBIE WEISHAAR IS tromping over hard-scrabble rocks known as the Scablands behind her farmhouse north of Odessa, casually pointing out likely rattlesnake nests as she goes.

She passes a massive granite boulder in the middle of basalt and guesses it was deposited by one of the monstrous ancient floods that roared through and carved out craters and coulees and sculpted formations. The Scablands start to the east and spread like gnarled fingers over hundreds of miles in irregular flows.

The Scablands is the closest Earth comes, say NASA scientists, to matching the Martian landscape of Ares Vallis.

Weishaar walks along a 15-yard-long bedrock bridge and wanders into a crater about 15 yards deep and 40 yards in diameter.

She and her husband farm thousands of acres of wheat, but low prices and nagging uncertainty are prompting them to diversify. She's got 18 llamas, a couple of mules and an old wagon train that has tires instead of wheels. She wonders as she wanders. It's otherworldly out here all right, but would people pay for a tour of the Scablands? Would they hop aboard her husband's trail-dragger airplane for an aerial jaunt? Would they bump along in a mule-drawn wagon?

She lived on the ranch for 16 years before she even explored her oversized rock yard. It always seemed like nothing but, well, rocks.

"People kept telling us, `You have a paradise out there.' We'd say, `We do?' They'd say, `You gotta do something with it.' "

So she calls her business Paradise Llama Ranch.

Some townfolks are skeptical the Scablands, as unique as they are, will ever make a tourism splash. Asks one chain-smoking guy down at The Odessa Diner, "Now just how many rockhounds do you suppose there are?"

Odessa, 75 miles west of Spokane, hasn't exactly fulfilled its mission of attracting industry or tourists, either. It's a well-tended little town full of settler descendants but with fewer people than it had in the 1960s. There is one motel and just about everything but the one tavern closes at 7 on week nights. There is so little crime that false alarms and skateboarding kids fill the police blotter.

The town comes alive once a year during three days each September, with its Deutschefest, a festival celebrating its German heritage. Twenty thousand people come to listen to the Oom Pas & Mas band, crowd biergartens and do the chicken dance, a four-step maneuver that includes wing-flapping and degenerates into crouched rear-wiggling.

Don Walter's grandfather was one of the earliest settlers and wheat farmers, coming at the crest of the great emigration of Germans from Russia (the town is named after the Black Sea port) near the turn of the century. Walter left after high school, studied journalism, became Paris bureau chief for the military newspaper Stars & Stripes, then went to L.A. to work in public relations.

Now he's 74 and publisher, editor, reporter and typesetter of the 1,200-circulation hometown newspaper, The Odessa Record. Downtown's only activity on any given Tuesday night is in the Record's back shop, where Walter pastes up stories about pioneer history, family reunions, wheat prices and the sewer system he spent years editorializing for.

He is the town's biggest booster, and bought the historical red-brick bank building that holds his newspaper and his retail business where he sells flowers, espresso, knickknacks and wine.

"People in Odessa," he says, eyeing the full rack, "don't drink wine."

IF YOU ZIGZAG south from Odessa toward Interstate 90, you'll cruise on gravel roads that split a string of indistinguishable fields. You'll pass barns and grain elevators and come across another Hutterite colony, this one much smaller than the first: only 38 people, essentially an extended clan.

The Schoonover colony must be extra vigilant with the children because, unlike the Marlin colony, it hasn't been able to persuade a state-certified teacher to work there. So the children go to Odessa public school with all the uncertainties that brings.

Preacher Herb Walter doesn't like it. "They don't teach morality there," he says. "Just about anything goes, anything is all right (to do)."

Sara Hofer, a 50-year-old mother of four, thinks the world might be ready to learn more about the traditionally quiet Hutterites, and the Hutterites should be more willing to reach out. She wants to translate their sermons from German to English, which has rarely been done.

There's evidence inside her 10-year-old son's bedroom that Hutterites may be interested in the outside way as well. On a wall above his unmade bed is a giant poster of Mariner shortstop Alex Rodriguez.

In the last few miles from the colony to the interstate, you can stop at any intersection and see perfect fields with no one in them. You can stand in the middle of the road for 10 minutes and never get run over. Turn 360 degrees and you might not see a house. Listen and you may not hear a sound.

It is a landscape, like the people you meet here, that leans toward function and purpose. It's a big and wide-open place but its charms are subtle, the kind easily missed at 70 miles an hour.

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Harley Soltes is the magazine's staff photographer.