Turn Right for Jesus, Turn Left for Cannabis: Spanaway, Washington

I first heard a loud scream, followed by a bang behind Majestic Mobile Homes, a run-down trailer park taken over by squatters.

“Raccoons?” I asked a local girl as we stood around a late-night bonfire.

“Oh you thought it was an animal? That’s cute. My first instinct was a bum fight. We got a lot of tweakers.”

The girl ashed her cigarette.

Washington Majestic Mobile Homes

Welcome to Spanaway, Washington in Pierce County. The region is notorious for being the backdrop of many COPS episodes — a tout I’d heard more than once. Spanaway is a town where marijuana shops neighbor churches, women serve drive-thru coffee in lingerie, out-of-business VHS rental shops are on the main drag, the local high school mascot is a caricature of a Native American, and beer cans litter the side of the road. The local Wal-Mart sells American flag paraphernalia (made in China, of course) and you can buy fireworks at Ill Eagle Fireworks stand.

Washington Hike72

All set to the backdrop of being close to Mt. Rainier, incredible wildlife, millions of trees, streams, and lakes.

“Don’t ever walk into Wal-Mart after midnight. It turns into a scary place.” The same girl told me. When I searched for Spanaway crime news, most anecdotes came from Wal-Mart employees.

Spanaway was the first stop that my dad and I hit on our road trip from Sacramento to Washington. We packed the back of a rented pick-up truck with furniture to deliver to my uncle in Washington and planned to hit a few national parks and the Highway 1 on our way back down.

My dad is an opinionated person.

I am too.

Trapped together in a room, we’re sure to engage in our favorite family pastime: debating politics. On a car ride a few years ago, an argument got so heated that I wanted to jump out of the car, and I’m sure my dad would’ve left me for dead if I’d done so. Kidding. Kind of. So, obviously, when the idea of taking a trip from Sacramento to Washington came up, the thought of being stuck together for hours and hours made us both a little nervous.

Washington Mountain

But our fears of bickering with each other were eclipsed by the uneasiness that comes with learning that the local Wal-Mart often sells out of gun ammunition by 9 a.m.

Just a few hours before our arrival in Spanaway, we’d passed many signs petitioning for the State of Jefferson, a movement of rural Californians and Oregonians petitioning for their own state — they feel unrepresented by the big city slickers who harbor a strange phobia of horses and dirt.

Once we crossed into Oregon, billboards for pot shops, fast food chains, and churches appeared as if on a algorithmic rotation. This exit for Jesus. Next exit for recreational cannabis.

On one sharp turn on the freeway, a mattress we’d been transporting to my uncle’s house flew out of the back of our truck. We panicked and turned around as soon as we could but couldn’t find the mattress anywhere. We consulted the local highway patrol, who told us he’d seen the mattress and that it’d been stolen just five minutes after we lost it.

“It happens a lot around here… Things don’t last long on the side of the road. People are always ready to pick them up.”

I clung to the thought that the mattress would be used by young children, who usually slept shivering on a yellowed linoleum floor.

We stayed with my uncle in Spanaway for three days who works as a pastor and runs an advocacy non-profit.  He’s not into judging anyone, so his house is a refuge for those with blemished pasts. I got the feeling that he likes living somewhere with more personality and grit than a track-housed suburb.

I forget how it came up, but there was a story about how a local man had been banished from his local church because of a criminal record. To which my uncle commented, “You can’t ban someone from a church. That’s like banning a sick person from a hospital.” … “The people struggling are the ones who often need it most.”

Being from California where marijuana smoking still requires a medical card (albeit a fake one will do), I had to ask, “Does everyone smoke weed? Or  just a few people?”

“Oh god yes. Everyone smokes weed here.” One girl replied, “Sometimes the traffic light will be green — the car in front of you will just stay there. When they finally drive off, it’s always at a slow speed.”

Just a few years post-pot legalization, weed has become an industry akin to craft beer. The nuances between sativa and indica are discussed with the passion you’d hear from San Diegans and their micro-brews. In a few more years, I expect the sensationalism will die off. Until then, the industry is sailing along and making a pretty profit.

My dad and I hiked for miles down one of the area’s many trails. Properties with rusty cars and metal scraps hid behind the trees. A small dog ran outside his owner’s lot and onto the trail.

“The trees hide the mess.” We noted.

Washington Hike68 Washington Hike65 Washington Hike63 Washington Hike62

Mess  — or the only things that make this place interesting?

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On our roadtrip from Sacramento to Washington and back via the Oregon coastline, I never expected a blog post to bud from our few days Spanaway. For a chick who grew up in a surburban neighborhood of pearl clutchers, where the biggest scandal in my town was an incident involving underpants, this was certainly new for me. I’m not sure that I got a well-rounded view of Spanaway — as most residents I talked to disclosed that they’d love to leave someday — but it’s the only view I got.

What town stands out to you in an interesting way? 

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70 Responses

  1. John Rodgers says:

    Well that was really interesting, never been to Washington but Laurels brother lives in Seattle. Not what I would have thought about the area. On the plus side you did get out for walk in the countryside. I guess things can be a little bad everywhere these days.

  2. verushka says:

    Seems like an oddly interesting place. Always after midnight anywhere in the world you will find “interesting” characters out and about.

  3. Narrative is light and engaging! Nice post

  4. Joanna says:

    That was interesting and well written! I believe that our travels are not great because of the things we see but because of the ones we experience. I do believe that you need to understand and get a connection with a place through its people or its out-of-norm weirdness, like Walmart selling out of amo by 9 am.
    Joanna recently posted…Ghost stories of Poole, the most haunted town in DorsetMy Profile

  5. Shounak says:

    Well written ! .”Oh god yes. Everyone smokes weed here.” – wow – should rename the name to Weedtown !

  6. Ana says:

    Looks like your trip was so much fun with the scenic view around! Loved your pictures!
    Ana recently posted…6 Clever Travel-Inspired Home Décor IdeasMy Profile

  7. indrani says:

    Politics can have repercussions… 🙂 Very engaging read!
    Experience spices up our travel memories. Great pictures!

  8. Interesting read. I liked two things about the post very much. first, your title. thats Great ! Second, the last photograph. Its interesting to know that you actaully have a dress code to wear flouroscent orange ? AAh! 🙂 Loved your photographs and although I have never been to America I felt as if I was there with you through your narration 🙂
    Subhadrika Sen recently posted…Southport: To Do List for a Day TripMy Profile

  9. Blair Villanueva says:

    This is quite interesting like buying cannabis is like buying your tampon in a shop, hahaha. Great read!

  10. That sounds like an interesting town. I agree that it’s sad that someone would be banned from a church for having a criminal record! Unless it were child abuse and he needed to be kept away from kids by a court order, I don’t understand that. I don’t smoke pot myself, so I’m not sure I would need to visit Spanaway, but you got some good stories out of your trip!
    Stella the Travelerette recently posted…The Best Things to Do in St. Petersburg, RussiaMy Profile

  11. Dash the Map says:

    Your description of Washington reminds me of Amsterdam with all the references to pot. Although the scenery is much better.

  12. Paola says:

    It’s really interesting to read about your travel and your experiences. An other way to see US states from somebody else’s eyes and experience.
    Paola recently posted…Gothenburg and his green worldMy Profile

  13. Pier says:

    Haha your post definitely had the most eye-catching title I’ve read in a while! The juxtaposition and images included made it a really interesting read. The town seems intriguing too, thanks for sharing!

  14. Janine Good says:

    Great read! I need to do more USA exploring. I want to do a road trip in the next couple of years and will make sure to include Washington on my itinerary!

  15. Jenni says:

    The scenery is beautiful but as I travel so I don’t think I would like to visit here alone but would if I had a travel companion. Hope u had a safe journey in the end
    Jenni recently posted…35 Reasons to TravelMy Profile

  16. Roberta says:

    I loved your narration of the trip. I felt as if I was reading a fiction novel. I can’t believe this actually happens in real life!

  17. Elena says:

    I spent a year in Seattle and took a number of trips around Washington state. I was amazed to see the huge difference between the city and the outback. I never visited Spanaway, but I saw enough tiny towns (townships they called there?) that could be twin siblings of it. Nature is amazing and hiking for a day or a week is the best vacation one can think of in those parts of the state.

  18. Ami says:

    Funny indeed. I am sure it has left you memories for a lifetime but that is what makes travel so interesting. Quite a well-written piece

  19. Though I have never been to Spanaway, the description feels just like home down south. Especially in the beer cans and Wal-Mart part.. but really pretty much the whole description. haha.
    Judson L Moore recently posted…Lost or Stolen Passport? Stay Calm and Follow These Instructions.My Profile

  20. Tamshuk says:

    Spanaway sounds like a really interesting (and I must say a bit weird) place. Some of the stories in this post are quite amusing though with your dad. I would check out this place if and when I am in the states

  21. Christina says:

    What an interesting post about a small town in the USA. I have not heard about Spanaway before but somehow I think I will remember it. Good to know about the tip of not stopping at WalMart late at night. I wouldn’t have thought twice about that if we were on a road trip.
    Christina recently posted…Comment on How to Spend 48 hours in Bogota by tapir talesMy Profile

  22. Tom says:

    Oh, you need to go right back to that town, find an AirBnB, and park it for a week. You’ll probably get enough material for a second blog site. You may even recognize the mattress you are sleeping on.

  23. Floyd says:

    As a resident of Spanaway, this article caught my attention! Spanaway is so often overlooked in comparison to other towns and cities of the area, and I totally understand that it may not have the same draw (residents aren’t exaggerating much when they talk about some of the town’s seedier aspects) so it was great to see something ritten that acknowledges both negative AND positive aspects of the place. Thanks for writing the most engaging (as well as accurate) article on Spanaway I’ve seen yet!

  24. Alberto says:

    That looks like an interesting and peculiar place 🙂
    I’ve never been to Washington before but I’ve heard the scenery is great, hopefully I can make it someday!

  25. Liana says:

    I love reading you Chantae, you’re genuine and it’s always so engaging. There are so many places I’ve never heard about but because the US are so huge, I guess that’s why. Now, on the core of your travel, I couldn’t believe people are buying bullets that early in the morning. In Europe we don’t have this “own your gun” policy, so for me, it’s always something exhuberating or at least, I think it doesn’t have to be allowed. I feel like when everyone is smoking weed, it means, not that it’s something you should obs do, but maybe because people are bored right? Reason why they all want to leave asap!

    • Chantae says:

      Thanks Liana 🙂 Yes, I agree that the boredom probably has a ton to do with the weed consumption — just like most places in the world with not much to do tend to draw to substance use. After moving overseas I’ve heard more sides to the gun ownership debate and it’s def a fascinating element of the US!

  26. Thank you so much for this important information! We are moving to this area next summer. What do you think the best area for a family would be?

  27. Aditi says:

    I love the way you’ve written here, consider writing for adventure shows!! Also, how is traveling with your dad? My dad and I have done one trip together and it was long conversations about life and a lot of wine!

  28. Morgan says:

    Awesome! It sounds like you guys had a great trip and really learned a lot about how locals are living since legalization has happened. Nice work! Thanks so much for sharing a bit of the experience with us!

  29. larissa says:

    Wow! It is definitely crazy to gain some insight into what seems like just a regular town. I think it is interesting that it is so close to the beautiful mountains and yet the town is something straight out of a movie! Thanks so much for sharing!

  30. Christina says:

    Your photographs turned out beautifully. Your viewpoint that the sensationalism of marijuana use will die off, as it did with alcohol, was an interesting thought, which is probably shared by others as well.

  31. Brian says:

    Absolutely beautiful pictures! Washington looks like a gorgeous state. I really hope to visit one day! Thanks for sharing.

  32. Christina says:

    The comments about the weed use were funny. Although, the idea that many people are affected as they drive and react to traffic lights is a little less lighthearted in nature.

  33. BNikos says:

    Thanks for trip around Washington, the driving in legal states seems to be a bit of an issue. I think Colorado has reported a lot more traffic accidents, how true this all is, who knows right? Some strains are heavy duty and people should not attempt driving after smoking or eating it! 🙂
    Take care, nice blog.

  34. McKenzie says:

    Sounds like such an interesting place to visit! I had never heard of Spanaway and its many eccentricities. Thank you for sharing!

  35. James says:

    A very bubbly post, Chantae! Loved reading it. Just one suggestion, you could’ve included some photos of weed or weed smokers.

  36. Ryan says:

    Wow what an interesting story! I love your comparison of how weed has become an industry akin to craft beer, because the craft beer industry has really grown a lot over the pass couple of years and I can only imagine if marijuana got the same attention as craft beer did here in the east coast.

  37. Charles Langford says:

    So is it better now Washington Majestic. My son is desperate to find a place to park his travel trailer and is in tears that he will lose his kids as the cops said never to show his face or trailer in the Tacoma Graham Spanaway area.

  38. Hayden says:

    I find it extremely interesting how you compare weed to craft beer. Depending on where you are in the country will dictate what type of weed you can run into, a lot like craft beer. Very interesting article.

  39. Selene Strong says:

    Wow, great post! Definitely sounds like and interesting and weird place. Definitely good to get out of the normal and explore. Thanks for sharing!

  40. Jonathan says:

    It’s crazy how diverse Washington is. Thanks for sharing.

  1. October 11, 2016

    […] the mattress catastrophe and spending a few nights in a town known for its tweakers, my dad and I hiked a few miles in Mt. Rainier National Park before looping down the Highway 101 […]

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