by Hank Leukart
May 22, 2006
Between the real and the imagined
Exploring a faux-Bavarian village in Washington State.
Local residents dance in lederhosen and dirndls during Leavenworth's annual Maifest festival. (view all Leavenworth, Washington photos)
EAVENWORTH, Wa. — There are a number of reasons that Peter Weir’s The Truman Show is an excellent film — it’s refreshingly original, high-concept, intelligent, and unpretentious — but one of my favorite aspects is its demonstration of the value of perspective. In the movie, Truman desperately wants to escape his hometown of Seahaven (filmed in real-life resort-town Seaside, Florida) because he “wants to be an explorer, like the Great Magellan.” He instinctively understands that he can’t comprehend the world without escaping and realizes that there’s something creepy about insular Seahaven.
Curiously, Seahaven has some similarities to real-life Leavenworth, a “Bavarian village” plopped in the middle of Washington State. Pioneers settled Leavenworth in 1890, which originally sat on land owned by the Yakima, Chinook, and Wenatchi Indian tribes. During the first half of the twentieth century, the town’s bustling logging industry fell apart when the Northern Railway Company rerouted its railroad. In the 1960s, city planners convinced residents to give the town a facelift, creating the illusion of a small Bavarian town in Leavenworth. The plan worked, and according to the town’s web site, more than one million people visit it each year.
Leavenworth’s sales pitch isn’t totally clear. There’s nothing organically Bavarian about the place — after all, Leavenworth lies over 6,400 miles west of Munich, the largest city in Bavaria (Germany’s southernmost state). Yet the town doesn’t sell itself as a theme park either; unlike vacation destinations like Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg, Ohio’s Hale Farm, and Massachusetts’s Plimoth Plantation, Leavenworth is not a huge stage filled with actors. Instead, it’s a town where real people live and work, surrounded by contrived Bavarian-style architecture and clothing. The people of Leavenworth seem more like Truman than the actors that populate Truman’s world.
Leavenworth sits in a no-man’s-land somewhere between genuine Bavaria and theme park. Certainly, most Leavenworth residents understand that the entire world isn’t a Bavarian village — but imagine growing up as a child in in the town. How old is a kid before he realizes that not every American town has a Das Sweet Shoppe on the corner of Edelweiss Weg and Park Strasse?
While this sounds a bit eerie, I suppose a bit of deception (both self and external) is a part of every person’s life. Many children grow up believing that Santa Clause exists, and even more grow up believing that their reality is reality. Privileged, privately-schooled New York children and poverty-stricken youth from rural Louisiana have little in common, yet both groups grow up with particularly skewed world views. Perhaps believing that the world is filled with Bavarian hat shops is less twisted than it seems at first thought. The teacher in The Truman Show who tells Truman, “You’re too late! There’s nothing left to explore,” totally misses the point. One of the things that makes world travel such an essential part of life is that it gives explorers a valuable perspective on the world and life — it’s less about discovery than it is about self-discovery. Classrooms, books, films, and TV shows help out, but there’s no substitute for experiencing foreign places and cultures firsthand in order for people to learn that their world isn’t the only world.
In Leavenworth, my travel companions and I had dinner at Andreas Keller Restaurant, which serves traditional German dishes, including weisswurst (a Bavarian veal sausage) and weinkraut (sauerkraut made with wine). When our charming waitress (what is it with traveling and waitresses?), dressed in traditional Bavarian garb, arrived at our table, we jokingly (and perhaps obnoxiously) asked her if Leavenworth High School too was “themed.” We wanted to know whether local students were required to wear lederhosen and dirndls to class and whether they had to turn in their English (or German?) papers using the town’s official Bavarian font. Not surprisingly, she informed us that this wasn’t the case. We were disappointed — while we suspected as much, it somehow broke Leavenworth’s magical spell on us.
In an era where travelers spend so much time seeking “authentic” experiences, Leavenworth’s popularity is somewhat of a mystery.
But there’s something sweet about living in a place where every day falls into the center of the continuum between the real and the imagined.