We decided to give in to Montana’s evident obsession with all things huckleberry, and so, after packing up the tent, started our day with breakfast in Hungry Horse’s The Huckleberry Patch. I partook of huckleberry coffee (surprisingly good), along with some huckleberry pancakes, before we set off west towards the Idaho panhandle.
The Centre of the Universe
Ever since we had started researching the trip, one destination we had been determined to fit in was Wallace, Idaho: the self-proclaimed Centre of the Universe.
The mayor of the town of Wallace gave his town this designation in 2004 after a row with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over lead sulphite in the town’s water and soil. The EPA stated that if the townspeople could not prove that the lead sulphite was naturally occurring, they would treat it as dangerous. Irritated, Mayor Ron Garitone adopted the same probabilistic logic as the EPA, claiming that as nobody could prove that Wallace wasn’t the Centre of the Universe, it must therefore be so. Hence this:
We were expecting a rather down-at-heel place, perhaps – a past-its-best mining town with a taste for the surreal and attention seeking – but Wallace was surprisingly lovely: a rather genteel version of the Wild West set in a picturesque valley between pine forests. And, in the middle of the intersection, we discovered the famous Centre of the Universe plaque.
Oasis Bordello Museum
From there, it was off to the Oasis Bordello Museum. This is surely a one-off: when one of the century-old local brothels was busted in 1988 and the madam, Ginger, and the prostitutes had to flee, the rooms were left entirely as they had been, down to the dishes in the sink. Eventually, a local couple bought the building and decided to operate it as a museum, keeping the upstairs exactly as it had been when the brothel was busted – making the time lapse part of the attraction.
We had a great guided tour with a few other curious visitors. You visit the girls’ rooms and the communal areas, and we were told stories about how prostitution worked at Oasis Rooms. Customers paid $15 for eight minutes of sex (which was the standard time limit, although other services were available). Ginger, a former prostitute herself, seems to have been an astute businesswoman, with a taste for elaborate wigs and Atari games – her room felt like a 1980s version of Miss Hannigan’s gin-soaked lair in Annie.
Apparently most of the information has been provided by former prostitutes who worked here, many of whom have visited to ensure that the tour is accurate! In the mining days the business was widely tolerated, with the authorities willing to turn a blind eye to the activities of Ginger and her fellow brothel madames. Ginger had an extensive list of local businesses, from the plumber to the locksmith, on the wall, and apparently the house bought the city a police car in 1982!
It was a fascinating tour, both to learn about prostitution in the west and to step into a Stranger Things-esque time-warp, with Charles and Di on the front pages of Hello! and Atari cartridges strewn around. Unfortunately you’re not allowed to take photos, but I definitely recommend heading up for a tour if you’re anywhere near the weird and wonderful town of Wallace.
Smoke and tumbleweed
After a really good Mexican lunch at Red Light Garage (which also boasted the ‘best huckleberry shake in the west’), we continued west, where I-90 widened to become a rather unloveable interstate as we headed into Washington. As we drove, we could see two great clouds of smoke on the horizon; a quick Google revealed that two forest fires had erupted in the past couple of days in the state.
We’d decided that, to maximise our time in Seattle but get cheaper accommodation, we would drive as far as Ellensburg, a small town west of the city. As we got closer, the wind whipped up – not good for the fires, which we’d now left behind – and, to our surprise, big bundles of tumbleweed started to drift onto the interstate. Somehow I’d never thought of tumbleweed as being an actual thing, but there it was, great balls of it, floating towards us. Didn’t manage to catch a good pic, but it was quite a surreal end to the day.
Highlights: The weirdness of Wallace – I can now say I’ve visited a brothel museum. 80s everything.
Lowlights: Seeing parts of eastern Washington on fire.