Ask anyone to name the most literary city in Washington State, and nine times out of ten they’ll choose Seattle, an emerald city sparkling with renown bookstores (Elliott Bay, Third Place Books), coffee shops (Caffe Vita, Vivace), and a literary center that draws famous writers from around the country for popular reading series (Richard Hugo House). The tenth person will likely choose one of the West Side’s small literary havens like Port Townsend, home to poetry publisher Copper Canyon Press and the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, or Whidbey Island, which houses the all-women literary residency Hedgebrook.
Mention Yakima, Washington, and you’ll likely receive a “Huh? What’s a Yakima?” in response. For anyone living in the Pacific Northwest who has heard of the small city with a population under 100,000, they associate Yakima with agriculture. You want the best cherries and apples? Visit Yakima. Interested in a wine tour or hop festival, the Valley offers dozens of wineries and breweries. What the city is less known for, unless you are a diehard fan of the dirty realism movement that arose in American literature in the late twentieth century, is its usage as a setting in countless Raymond Carver stories.
There is a reason Raymond Carver drew so heavily from the town he grew up in: the dry desert heat and small town mentality helps Yakima lend itself as a setting for broken marriages, rampant alcoholism, and unfulfilled lives. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (also a Yakima resident) once said of Yakima, “I do not envy those whose introduction to nature was lush meadows, lakes, and swamps where life abounds. The desert hills of Yakima had a poverty that sharpened perception.” That poverty of land—the dust, the brown landscape—makes its way into many of Carvers stories.
Raymond Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, but his family relocated to Yakima when Carver was three because his dad took a job as a saw filer for the Cascade Lumber Company. He passed his childhood and teenage years in Yakima, working part-time jobs and meeting his future wife Maryann, while also taking a creative writing correspondence course. He, Maryann, and their daughter left Yakima when Carver was twenty and moved to Paradise, California. Through the struggles, hard work, and eventual literary success that marked the rest of Carver’s life, he would not live in Yakima again, but having spent nearly two decades in the “Palm Springs of Washington” left a lasting effect both on his writing and Carver on the city.
Where to Fish
An active outdoorsman, Carver visited the Yakima Valley’s many outdoor attractions, including Sportsman Park, Wenas Lake, Athanum Creek, and Bachelor Creek. As a child, he hunted ducks and geese and fished with his father in the Valley wilderness. The short story “Nobody Said Anything,” which appeared in his first major short story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, tells of a young boy from a troubled home playing hooky from school so he can fish in a nearby creek at the end of Sixteenth Avenue near the Yakima Air Terminal.
The waters that cut across the Valley and into the Cascade Range figure into many more of his stories. The story “Pastoral” (published in Furious Seasons and Other Stories and later as “The Cabin” in Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories) features a husband estranged from his wife fishing in a river in the Cascades, likely the Tieton or Naches Rivers. The undercurrent of violence that appears in “Pastoral” and “Nobody Said Anything” are brought to the surface in two stories from Carver’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In “So Much Water So Close To Home,” a wife is frightened to learn her husband and his friends discovered a woman’s dead body floating in the Naches River during their annual fishing trip and did not report the incident until the end of the trip. In “Tell the Women We’re Going,” the male protagonist watches his friend brutally attack two female hikers. The peaceful setting, with the Naches River “a strip of aluminum foil,” bears witness to the unspeakable act of violence.
Where to Pay Homage
The struggling Carver family moved many times around Yakima during Carver’s childhood. Their first home was a rented house on South 15th Street, across from the Central Washington Fairgrounds, that had an outdoor toilet. As a joke, neighborhood kids would often carry the toilet out of the yard and leave it next to the road or in someone else’s yard.
Carver attended Yakima Senior High School, now renamed Davis High School. He married wife Maryann at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, the oldest church in Yakima. He took some classes at Yakima Community College. His daughter Christine was born in Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital, where Carver’s depressed father C.R. was also a patient in the hospital’s psychiatric ward. All of these buildings remain standing and open.
His impoverished and troubled childhood found its way into much of Carver’s writing, most directly in the essay “My Father’s Life.”
Where to Drink
Walk down the sparse Yakima Avenue, with its empty buildings that years ago held the Yakima Mall, full of long forgotten chain stores like Sam Goodie and K-B Toys n’ Hobby, and look for the red-clad hunter pointing his rifle to the sky above a sign advertising “Cigars.” This is Sports Center, the best dive bar in Yakima, a drinking establishment built in 1908 that Raymond Carver used to frequent.
Sports Center’s storied history includes gambling and prostitution. Now it is one of the more interesting Yakima hotspots, alternative and less offensively glossy than some of the new cocktail bars popping up downtown. Here you can drink beer, play pool, and let the kitschy Americana décor transport you back to 1968 when the iconic red hunter sign was first installed. In a display case near the Yakima Avenue entrance to the bar is a small shrine to Carver: a few pictures, poems, and a bibliography.
Various books and websites dedicated to haunted locales claim Sports Center is restless with the spirits of old patrons, including Raymond Carver. It is, in a way, just as Yakima is haunted by his presence here. Ask some of the few remaining locals who knew Carver as a kid, and they’ll remember him as Ray, the young small town boy long before he became Raymond, the troubled writer and man. The poem “In the Year 2020” is one of the measly artifacts of Carver’s life adorning the wall in Sports Center (hardly much tribute to a Guggenheim fellow, O. Henry prize winner, and inductee into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters). The poem is a reflection on years passed and friends lost: “Friends, I do love you, it’s true. / And I hope I’m lucky enough, privileged enough, / to live on and bear witness.” Raymond Carver is the old friend from Yakima’s youth—wild, unpredictable, and maybe a little reckless, but a friend you want around nonetheless. He tells the best stories and knows where to buy the cheapest booze. Now that he is gone, we feel it like so much other loss this town has experienced. “For the survivor there has to be something / to look forward to. Growing old, / losing everything and everybody.”
Kait Heacock is a book publicist by day and writer by all the rest of the time. She grew up in the same city as her literary idol, Raymond Carver. She hopes this means something. Read more from her at kaitgetslit.com.