A Trip to Sunnyside

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Have I mentioned how much I love location scouting? It’s one of my favorite things about writing novels. While working on my second book, Where Shadows Grow, I took a solo trip to central Washington state, crossing the Cascades and winding down into the agricultural communities of the Yakima Valley.

It’s been over a year since my trip, so I’m glad I took good notes (and over 200 pictures, many of very random-seeming things, like restaurant parking lots and giant teapots). Want to take a little journey over the mountains with me? Here are some journal excerpts and scenes from the small town of Sunnyside, Washington.

Scenic overlook in the Yakima Valley. A few pine trees, flat ground covered with golden-brown dry grass, and a sign in the distance pointing out the peaks of Mt Adams and Mt Rainier.

The Changing Landscape

Left Seattle one sunny September afternoon; navigated to I-90 and then I-82. The landscape began to look very different soon after I made it over the mountains. Changed from pine forest to golden hills, California style. From a distance they look like fuzzy caterpillars. Very inviting actually. Up close you can see the scrub and sagebrush. There are many farms, the occasional river.

Mural painted on the side of a building, showing green rolling pastures, a sunny sky, a silhouette of a cow, and the words, "Welcome to Sunnyside Washington."

Made it to the motel and put down my stuff before heading back out. I thought about walking, but quickly changed my mind – it was easily 90 degrees outside. A little too hot for this Seattleite who wilts in the heat! So I got back into the car and drove to the library.

There, I browsed the books and found several volumes of history, though these were (unsurprisingly) skewed towards the white settlers… which wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. But it sure felt good to be sitting in the AC, and not driving!

Page from a history book about Sunnyside. Headline: Farm & Ranch. Black and white photograph showing a farmer behind an apple tree laden with fruit and boxes of apples. Caption says, "Apple orchard near Sunnyside, circa 1920."
Apple orchard 100 years ago

That Was a Good Burrito

Went to Central Park next to kill some time before dinner. Walked through the nice soft grass, sat in the shade of a sprawling tree for a bit, then headed to El Mejor Taquito, where I ordered a giant burrito and a cold horchata that I ladled out from a big container.

Massive container of creamy golden horchata

I decided to take my meal back to Central Park. It was a very pleasant place to eat dinner, the perfect temperature in the shade. I sat at a picnic table with many inscriptions scratched into the green paint. I would’ve added “Nate & Gabriela” to it, if only I’d had a good carving implement.

Styrofoam cup on top of a green picnic table with lots of indecipherable letters carved into the green paint

The wind rippled the grass. An ice cream truck played “Swan Lake.” A couple nearby listened to Latinx music from their phone’s speakers. Kids ran around in the small play area. A teenage couple at another bench seemed oblivious to my presence, wrapped up in each other.

Central Park in Sunnyside, WA. Rolling grassy hills with large mature deciduous trees.

After eating, I popped back in the car and drove around the residential neighborhoods. The houses here are small and close together, box-like but still charming in their own way. Saw one with 3 or 4 random ears of corn growing by the door, looking out of place but also kind of cool.

View outside the motel room I stayed in. A small pool in the foreground surrounded by a black metal gate. A large parking lot with another motel building and a Mexican restaurant in the background.
View outside my motel room

Decided to head back to the motel since I was getting tired. There was no radio (if there were, I would’ve tuned right to KDNA!) but I turned on the TV, which was set to a station en español. I “watched” some newsy show and a dubbed version of Alvin and the Chipmunks, which was… interesting. But pretty soon I was ready for bed.

In the Morning

Didn’t sleep great. It was loud in the night – footsteps and doors slamming; someone laughing in the parking lot – and I kept having nightmares. Woke up feeling like my body had been pounded by a giant meat tenderizer, like it was full of perforations, a scream in my mouth and the word help! – but I opened my eyes and everything shifted back into place.

Ate breakfast and got ready, then caught up in the journal. I checked out of the motel and headed back downtown to scope out restaurant parking lots. (Okay, that probably seems pretty random, but will make more sense once you read WSG.) Felt very strange being the ONLY person out walking… nothing open, no one around…

Empty parking lot behind a row of boxy buildings beneath a very blue sky.
Parking lot behind a row of shops

After walking around a while and finding some good parking lot contenders, I got back in the car and went to Goodwill, but it was a small room filled with much desperation and I left quickly.

Orange Dumpster overflowing with cardboard boxes next to a discarded wooden pallet and a bright yellow fire hydrant, with brown flat land behind them, and a stripe of green farmland and dusty brown hills in the distance.
Dumpster near Goodwill

Apples & Teapots

My next stop was El Colima restaurant, where there was a big family eating lunch together… and me. I ordered two bean pupusas with avocado and a small piña agua fresca, which was very sweet but refreshing and pulpy. The pupusas were AMAZING even though I had to wait a bit while they were freshly made. I certainly stuck out there, the white lady eating a massive meal alone, but omg I loved every bite.

Freshly-made bean-filled pupusas, sliced avocados, 3 different moles, chips and salsa, cabbage slaw, and pineapple agua fresca.
Freshly-made bean-filled pupusas, sliced avocados, 3 different moles, chips and salsa, cabbage slaw, and pineapple agua fresca. YUM.

After I stuffed my face, it was time to get back on the road. I drove past lots of farms. Corn, asparagus (probably), grapes, apples, hops… and cows. When I finally got to my destination, a U-pick apple orchard, and found parking (it was quite the place to be!), I grabbed a box and hiked out to the orchard. It smelled of cows and the sun was very hot – glad I brought my hat!

The author in a big floppy sun hat in sunglasses, surrounded by apple trees

The apples just dripped off the trees, they were so abundant. I picked slowly, trying to choose the reddest Honeycrisps, and twist them from their stems carefully so as not to cause a chain reaction and drop a ton of apples on the ground.

Trees full of red honeycrisp apples

It didn’t take me long to fill a 25-lb box. Which I then had to carry all the way back to the car. I stopped a few times to rest my arms and take photos of the endless rows of apple trees.

Long rows of apple trees separated by grassy walkways, underneath a bright blue sky

On my way back home, I stopped in Zillah (which, incidentally, was the original name of a character in the book, who is now known as Zennia) to take photos of a quirky historic landmark: a gas station shaped like a teapot! Sadly, I wasn’t able to work this particular location into the book, but it was still an interesting, and picturesque, diversion.

A very cute circular white building with a red roof, teapot handle and spout, with two vintage red gas pumps in the foreground.

Book Research Can Be Quite Delicious

As you can tell, a lot of my research involves eating food! I also sought out specific locations mentioned in the book, with an eye towards gathering details (it’s all about the details for me!), and chatted with the locals whenever I could.

But there’s also an intangible aspect to this kind of research. It’s about trying to soak up the feeling of a place – which, truth be told, is hard to do in such a short trip. Plus, my experience always filters through my own consciousness… so when writing about it later, I needed to think about how my characters would perceive it. Which details would they notice? What kinds of emotions would it stir up in them? Would they enjoy the horchata as much as I did? (The answer to that one is a definite yes.)

In any case, I’m really glad to have gotten a taste of what it’s like on the other side of the mountains. And now, when you read WSG, you’ll be able to mentally picture some of the real-life locations featured in the book.

Your Thoughts

Have you ever gone on a solo travel adventure? What inspired you to visit that specific place? If you’re a writer, what do you pay attention to most when you’re researching locations?

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Justice Manha

    Road tripping is the best!! Never done one solo but it sounds very, very cool. I’ve done one plane trip by myself and that was enlightening. Maybe it was en(f)lightening? 😀

    1. Alanna Peterson

      Ha, enflightening is a good way to describe it! 😉 I did enjoy my solo trip. It was kind of freeing to be away from the family (I doubt they would’ve been too thrilled with my parking lot reconnaissance, lol) but I also really wanted to share everything with them. Still was a very worthwhile and enjoyable experience. Would recommend!

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