Table of Contents


General Introduction


Impressions of the North Cascades
Essays about a Northwest Landscape

Part II: Landscapes of Experience

The Biggest Fence in the West

Fence: "... a barrier intended to prevent escape or intrusion . . .

—dog-eared Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary

We live just out back of the biggest fence in the West—the North Cascade Mountains. Tucked into a 60-mile-long valley, surrounded by millions of acres of national forest and wilderness, we are connected to the outside world in winter by a couple of two-lane, winding country roads. In summer when the North Cascades Highway opens, there are three.

No stoplights, lines of headlights, or rows of porch lights intrude here. Out back of the Cascade fence we are cut off and in the dark, spellbound under the stars. "Intrusion" through the fence comes in the form of a lively tourist trade, with some seasonal and other limitations. And "escape"?

"We'd have left the valley a long time ago, but we never could get enough money together for bus fare out," locals are fond of saying. This is tongue-in-cheek, of course. There are no public buses in the valley—Jeanne

Community sections of this chapter are written by Jeaune Hardy. Wilderness sections are written by Jeff Hardy, her son.

Community: Five Towns

Over 100 years ago, writer Owen Wister called the Methow Valley "a smiling country." Local librarian Sally Portman, who also teaches skiing at Sun Mountain Lodge, wrote a book of local history and named it after his descriptive phrase, The Smiling Country.

It's a good name—but the fact is, if you look at a map you will see the valley is shaped more like a question mark than a smile. That seems appropriate. Making a living here has always been questionable. Getting through the winters is difficult. The growing season, often short on one end or the other, or both, has always been questionable.

About 4,000 people—1,500 or so living in our five little towns and the rest strewn all across hills and side valleys—take pride in being part of a small community, in knowing each other, in getting through tough times.

Fed by three rivers—the Methow, the Chewuch, and the Twisp—the valley winds its way down the length of the question mark. Directly north sits the mighty half-million-acre Pasayten Wilderness. East lies the rest of the 1,700,000-acre Okanogan National Forest. The Sawtooth/Chelan Wilderness is west of the valley. At the south end, the Columbia River rolls on by. The Methow is cut off physically and morally from any hint of urbanization.

The Cascades, visible from many valley vantage points, help define who we are. Even at its widest point—about a mile across—the valley is small enough that we know what is going on in our little world. At its narrowest, the valley is one road plus one river wide. It could easily become a cocoon, this little wrinkle scraped out by a passing, long-ago glacier. It could be all comforting views and narrow as a shoe box. However, the challenges of isolation, extreme weather, and lack of certain amenities shake us out of our comfort zones. The high Cascades looming just beyond—in all their beautiful, awesome ferocity—keep us informed of the size and power of the world beyond our mountain home.

Hu Blonk, late managing editor of the Wenatchee World, once explained why he spent so much time writing stories about Methow Valley people: "It's full of friends . . . and characters. I think it draws people who are independent individuals; who want a certain lifestyle." Part of that lifestyle for many residents is holding down three jobs in the summer and none in winter.

"You've got to be like the squirrels," Ted Hallowell, a Winthrop log truck driver and valley native explained. "Pack it away for the winter. Soon as a person figures that out, they've got it made. They can stay in the valley forever or until they decide to leave."

Jim Gerlach, an architect from California who settled here twenty years ago, put it this way: "It's a place of reckoning. It forces the best and worst out of people. The valley is such an incredibly difficult place to make a living; it's hard not to respect someone who's been here any amount of time. I'm not talking about people with independent incomes. Although they contribute stability to the economy, most have no understanding of what we have-nots have to deal with. What most who come here have to face is that there is no real security in life."

In accepting that fact, and finding strength in community, we find more safety than in bigger, more anonymous towns.

Wilderness: The King's Forest

Many years ago I stood on Slate Peak for the first time. Like the bow of a ship, the rocky top cuts into the Pasayten Wilderness heading toward the west and middle forks of the Pasayten River. These two drainages are at the heart of this landscape. Unable to take these huge U-shaped valleys in one glance, people come every day of the field season by carload and truckload, and stare. It may take several minutes for them to get to a point where mind and body together comprehend the scale of this immense scene and their hearts skip a beat. I've seen children throw their arms wildly about. I've seen well-dressed people sit down on a rock and forget their busy schedules. They're seeing the corridors of the gods, the entrance to the King's Forest. And like the King's Forest of mythology, magic awaits within. I knew, upon seeing this place, that I would have to go into the wilderness, too.

Unlike most wilderness, a trip from the Harts Pass area into the Pasayten is downhill. Eight-thousand-foot Slate Peak is host to trails leading into the North Cascade Crest north and south, Buckskin Ridge, and the Pasayten drainages. It is a wind-blasted point of rock, around which it often rains and snows uphill, the wind tearing off even the best-fitting cowboy hats, and pulling curses out of the most patient men. To begin and end journeys in such a place, journeys which venture into the ever milder climate of the Pasayten, where just the smell of the lupines can lull you to sleep on your horse, requires a shift in thinking. Often the most challenging part of the tour is your arrival and eventual return to the trailhead. Yet sometimes you'll rise up over the rocky backbone of Slate Pass and amidst the craggy peaks of the North Cascades the setting sun will be framed by the ears of your horse.

Wilderness: Pasayten

The Winthrop Forest Service trail crew maintains all the trails in our district of the Okanogan National Forest. Most of our time was spent within the borders of the Pasayten Wilderness. As a new member, I hadn't walked many miles with this crew before I realized that the stories I heard day in and day out were a continuous thread back to the frontier and beyond. The way we sat around the campfire in the evening, where the most intricate social grace might have been the way we threw another stick of wood on the coals, made me feel as if I had been there for generations. As soon as the glaciers retreated and the forests returned, I was there at the campfire warming myself, looking up at noises around me, listening to the stories of my ancestors. Even then I might have looked up at my favorite mule and wondered who might last longer. I might mourn the passing of this way of life or I might mourn the passing of the human race. Out in the wilderness there seemed to be little difference.

So I tried to open my eyes wider, laugh a little louder, drink a little deeper, and attempt to take in as much as my mind would hold for some purpose yet unknown. To put the ship in the bottle maybe, to preserve an entire wilderness, a large space into a small one. To continue the thread and keep us all connected to the world.

Community: Chickens for Eggs

People native to our valley display a deep sense of self-sufficiency. Local seamstress and historian Shirley Schade said, "The valley will provide. When I was a girl here, everyone had a cow for milk, cream, and butter; chickens for eggs and meat; and grew a cash crop for what few things we couldn't make ourselves. My dad grew potatoes. People have to learn to make their own way. "

The beauty of the place attracts a variety of modern settlers. Included in the population are a retired university president, a physics professor, a nationally known sculptor, a psychologist who worked in the penal system with serial killers, former seamen, a boatbuilder, a ship's cook, a New York ballerina, a cowboy poet, a retired railroad man, a well-known television weatherman, a retired college dean, a composer, an origami expert, a tae kwon do teacher, an Olympic skier—and the list goes on. A onetime employee for the Twisp Water Department remarked, "The best thing about the Methow is the people. There's a higher proportion of interesting and loving people here than anywhere else I've lived."

It's anybody's guess whether that is a fact or if it just seems so because we're seriously involved in each other's stories. Results are the same in either case. We are sold on the spirit of neighborly concern that helped the settlers here get through the steep and rocky times.

Wilderness: Flat Ground

Years from now, some linguist will translate the word wilderness to mean "no flat ground." Outside the wilderness, members of the Pasayten trail crew live in houses with smooth floors surrounded by flat yards and roadways. Their tables are level. Coffee doesn't spill. Every summer, the crew lives in a land of slopes and pitfalls, a Buster Keaton land of plenty. Sometimes it was so steep inside the cook tent that the pack boxes tipped and spilled cans out over the ground. Usually, a short bush or tree in the middle of the floor kept people tripping until it became so fixed in everyone's navigational database that they automatically negotiated around it. During bad rains, water ran across the floor in muddy streams. After a week, we automatically walked around stobs, points of rock, tent pegs, and guy wires. At night, groggy from sleep, directions to fixed points had to be said aloud to avoid tripping and falling. I remember many times talking my way to the outhouse: "OK, now step over this log and watch out for the branch coming up and the big step onto the rock and make the turn in the trail—" We fell all the time. After numerous spills you give in to the terrain and stop fighting it. Injuries to both person and pride come in trying too hard to avoid the inevitable. We would really beat out a camp after a couple of ten-day tours but never did the ground become flat, only more visible.

Ten days in and four days out. Interesting how the word wilderness changed our perspective. People in our valley community go out to the woods or the National Forest but they go into the wilderness or into the hills and back out to town. Over the summer, the Pasayten was our home and excursions took us out to the valley every two weeks. It always took us a day or two of our four-day weekend to get our civilization legs again. After 10 days walking in the hills, flat ground took some getting used to.

Community: Necessities

Settle in the Methow and forget the past. These mountains don't want to hear about your Ph.D. They want to know if you have basic winter survival skills. Methow Valley people joke about the folks with doctorates driving school buses—and happy to find the work—and physicists flipping burgers. Life gets down to essentials. As Joe Kitzman who works at the rental shop in Twisp put it, "A chain saw and a pickup truck are pretty much the necessities here."

"There should be places like this," another resident remarked. "I like the way the weather forces you to deal with your environment."

People understand the joy of testing their spirit for endurance. Having endured, they find they are at home in the world.

Nativeborn valleyites take a fierce pride in their roots. They own the history here—the history, that is, after the first white settlers arrived looking for good grazing land. Their parents and grandparents were in on the beginnings.

"Newcomers"—residents not born here—build their own histories, and give birth to new generations of valley natives.

Most-repeated stories of earlier days tend to center around weather, fires, local characters, rodeos, and other daring feats. People like the Kikendall brothers—who ran a dogsled supply route to the Azurite Mine in winter; Frances Lufkin and George Honey, America's first smokejumpers; and early mail carrier, U.E. Fries, who rode through deep snows and floodwaters to deliver mail between Malott and Winthrop for $6.60, round trip: these come to mind. It took unusual daring to constitute an adventure here when average citizens were dealing with snows that buried fence posts and drought that ate rivers dry.

One winter in the 1930s, Ed "Kike" Kikendall was taking a man to the Azurite when slides and "soft weather" forced them to hole up at Horse Heaven, halfway between base camp at Robinson Creek and the mine. Their major problem was food. As the story goes, Kike got a bent pin, pulled a bit of red yarn from his sock for bait and caught enough fish through a hole in the ice on the Methow River to keep them eating until they could move on.

Just as remarkable are the "short stories." A fellow who grew up in the valley described riding a mule over the hills on a full-moon night through deep, fresh powder snow. In every direction the mountains were visible; the temperature hung around zero. Powder snow parted like water at the bow of a ship, sending sparkling white waves off on either side of the trotting mule.

In a small community set among big mountains, the immediate is more noticeable by people who are attuned to the outdoors. The outdoors here is bigger than the indoors but is composed of a great many little things.

One spring not long ago, two men were hiking in the hills. It was a good year for the yellow balsamroot sunflowers, and the men encountered a natural bowl in the hills full of them. A small ravine ran down the mountain, out of the bowl, and it, too, was splattered with sunflowers. "It looked just like someone had filled that place with yellow paint and it had overflowed at that place and spilled down the hill," Dick Chavey said later—in one of several tellings of that story.

Wilderness: Camp

I can smell the mixture of sweat and leather and hear the "boys" stomp and blow, impatient for the trail and the pasture at the end of the day. I can see them round the corner and come into sight.

When the string came along, in the midst of a wilderness reverie, it was as if a three-ring circus had just planted itself in front of me. Moments before I was enjoying the subtle sights and sounds of the wilderness, the sensations that take time and patience to appreciate and understand. Then I was confronted with a hollering packer named Ellis, on a tall horse, regarding me with a carefully fashioned conservatism, hoping to offend. He was followed by six mules. Some were lions and some clowns: Dan was mad at Benny, Benny was mad at Betsy, Ellis was mad at Dan and everyone else was trying to stay out of the way. Mules dominated the view and, at a 1200-pound-apiece average, they commanded respect. They filled the air with smells, ground their teeth, chewed on trailside grass. When stopped, all the kinetic energy of forward movement now had to go somewhere, so they fidgeted, got revenge, scratched, and blew. Chains clinked back and forth and the boxes on their backs creaked. Everything was moving, smelling, and making noise.

When we arrived in camp, this time the abandoned Pasayten airstrip, there was no time to sit. The string was on our heels, but we stood for a few seconds and admired the strip and cabin, Tatoosh Buttes and Dot Mountain, while quietly saying to ourselves, "Man, it is good to be here again." Someone went to the corral and closed the bars to keep the stock in once we let them go for the evening. Others would break the string down while Ellis climbed down, stretched his legs, and said a few kind curses to Shane while he took the bridle off. The cursing began in earnest when we started removing top packs, boxes, mantie packs, coolers, and tools, as the boys fidgeted to get to the grass. After we put up their ropes, hanging them in neat coils on the saddles, they usually spent a short time at the hitch rail while the last were unpacked. The saddles came off. The mules, out of their halters first, would immediately roll in the dirt, stirring up clouds of dust. Horses got belled and hobbled and were also let go. We always took a short breather to watch them run for the pasture, tossing their heads back and galloping into a well-earned open space.

Then we turned to our camp, and hauled boxes into the cabin, undid mantie packs, and organized the tools under a tree. The cabin door scraped heavily open and closed across the floor. As we worked we opened a box or two to see if we happened on the candy bars, cookies, or crackers. Generally someone would ask about something specific like the radio batteries and the answer always came back the same: "It's in one of them boxes." There was no way then to get around rummaging through eight boxes to find what you needed.

Someone would start a fire in the cookstove and begin heating stuff on the Coleman stove, our "mountain microwave." People sneaked off to go set up a tent, lay out personal gear, swim, or watch the "cowboy TV"—stock and deer grazing in the pasture. There were always chores, too: fixing the water system, chopping kindling, feeding pellets and grain, but most of us just put a tape in the tape deck and sat around keeping the cook and each other company. There would be accounts of the day, the weather, problems that arose, and how much work was done. We might move on to the job at hand, or the tasks for the next day. Then we would start into the best part. Stories. Harassment. Laughing and bragging. There were the tellers and the listeners. I was an avid listener. Some of the more vindictive tellers would take advantage of my gullible nature and tell me a real whopper and I would take it all in. True or not, it was all great. Sometimes dinner was an intermission—only because the tellers might have too much of a mouthful on board to speak. The telling went on into the night. Sometimes it would move out by the fire. Sometimes it stayed around the dinner table. We would take breaks to check the boys or coax Shane, Ellis's tall horse, through the cabin with a pan of grain just to show he could do it. I rarely tired of the stories.

One well-meaning but committed bureaucrat once asked me why we worked so hard to make all those above us look good and I told him we did it for the glory. The glory, I explained, was the thrill of victory we felt at the completion of some task, something we felt transcended the common worries of promotion and wage. I showed him a picture of Ellis and me standing in a he-man pose on a huge stump we had rolled out of the trail. We could be heroes every day and get paid for it.

The experiences I had in seven years on the trail crew happened within this framework. We told stories in the evening, slept soundly, and awoke before dawn to catch the boys and saddle them. Mornings were all business as we turned our attention to the day ahead. We would have breakfast and hit the trail.

Wilderness: Cabin

I awoke under the dark square of canvas to a heavy thud. I peeked out, squinting in the morning sun, to see a huge mule standing over me. The boys were all around me as it had been snowing and they had taken shelter under the trees. I knocked the snow off my tarp before the sun started melting it. It wasn't quite warm enough to make me want to get out of my bag, but I did anyway and from the direction of the cabin I heard "Good morning, squire!" Ellis already had the fire going, the bacon and coffee started.

In the cabin the rest of the trail crew were still groaning in their bunks. I stopped sleeping in the cabin because the rats and mice were too noisy for me to get a good night's sleep. They lived in the attic and we would bait them once in a while. I was nervous about looking up for fear that one really big one lived up there and was looking for revenge. Once, while I was eating spaghetti, a wilderness ranger pulled a revolver out of his duffel and blew a rat on top of the food cupboard almost in half with a buckshot load. I was still choking on my food when he carried its remains, still twitching, out the door. On another night, a rat got into the Coleman stove and was chewing on the spilled sauce and other leftovers inside. The sound of its teeth against the metal was annoying and eventually a guy off the crew got up, slammed the top shut and put the stove outside. I could still hear the rat trying to get out, so this wasn't much of an improvement.

Backbone Ridge above Doubtful Lake

Community: Porch Deer

"Only fools and newcomers predict Methow Valley weather," is probably the most often heard bit of local lore.

Methow Valley weather is like everyone else's. We just have more of it. Seven-year drought cycles, heavy snows, flooding, temperatures that vary from 110 above to 30 below zero occur in other places—but here all of this is stuffed into a tight area and so it's more intense. Or so it seems to us.

Roy Kumm of Winthrop has been keeping track of valley weather for sixty years now, having recorded its ups and downs for the United States Department of Commerce. It was Roy who discovered the pattern of Methow weather after long and careful study: there is no pattern. People ask him what an upcoming winter will be like. He grins and says, "I'll tell you next spring."

The only thing here as popular as a people story is a weather story.

Does Roy remember the big snow of 1935? Fifty-two inches of fine snow fell at Winthrop in about 27 hours. It was -5°F. "Fred Dammann over here," Roy said, "got up and found his back porch and shed full of deer." Full of deer?? "The snow was so powdery they couldn't get above it," he explained, "and they couldn't go through it without suffocating. So they took refuge on his porch."

Jay Stokes had a new automobile in 1968 when record-setting cold hit the valley. It was over fifty below in some places. Livestock died where they stood. Machinery froze. Orchards bit the dust. Jay, who owns a ranch on Beaver Creek, was working at the school back then. A fellow worker called and said his car wouldn't start. Jay offered to give him a ride. Hardly anyone made it to work that day, but Jay did. Shortly after that, several people talked about purchasing the same make of car. "What I didn't mention," Jay teased, "was that I got up every hour during that cold night and started it up to keep it from freezing!"

Out in what they used to call "back country" and now call "wilderness," there is a lot of weather, too. Back country packers tell about icicles hanging from bushes along the trail, ringing like glass chimes when they passed by on their way from somewhere to nowhere and back again.

Wilderness: Pasayten Weather

Probably the most interesting subject to people who live outdoors is the weather. In town, it starts conversations, then moves from this "small talk" on to the more important topic of your neighbors. But in the wilderness, the weather is big talk. There are few windows out of which you can watch the snowstorm develop and fall. No comfortable hearth will shelter you. But on the other hand, no wall will stand between you and the full celebration of a sunny day.

Humans, brain and body, resist working outside in the rain and snow. I have often heard farmers in the valley say, "He didn't have enough sense to come in out of the rain." I have never heard anyone in the woods say this. It's generally not an option. What we did instead was get wet and get used to it. The process of getting wet is like the process of dying (that is, denial, anger, grief, acceptance). On the back of a horse this is intensified. There is little else to think about while staring at the back of your horse's head. When the storm clouds boil you tell yourself it isn't going to rain and keep this story up even after the first drops hit the ground. Once, when the crew was coming out of Robinson Creek, I told myself this. When it began to pour, the rest of the string disappeared in the rain. My horse Skipper and I became isolated lifeforms in big country, wishing we were somewhere closer to the ranch, wishing the clouds had decided to open up at any other hour but this one. I cursed Earl* for his cruel behavior as the first drop of water worked its way through the seam in my cowboy hat and ran down the back of my neck. I continued cursing him as my chaps soaked through and my boots started filling with water. I grieved as each square inch of my body became soaked with cold water, fresh from 8,000 feet. But once completely soaked, a strange transformation took place. I felt peace, accepted this fate, and began to sing, succumbing, I suppose, to the shower effect. Skipper's ears turned back to listen and he blew the rain off his nose.

*Earl is the commonly used name in the wilderness for the god who oversees the weather. Ironically, John Miles is the first one I heard refer to Earl, and he claims that the National Outdoor Leadership School used it. But the trail crew adopted the term independently of John or me, probably out in the woods somewhere.

The mood was completely different in Andrews Creek, clearing deadfall from the right-of-way. It began to snow hard. We got on our horses and headed back to the Spanish Camp Cabin. As the miles ticked off we got wetter and wetter and no one felt like singing. My then-wife Laura eventually gave in—but not to singing. She had grown increasingly quiet and soon hunched over in her saddle a mile or so to the cabin. Duffy and I got on either side of her and after talking to her, determined we could make it to the cabin and get her warmed up. It was an intense mile back as both Duffy and I worked through in our minds the procedure of getting a fire. We made it to the cabin, got Laura into a sleeping bag with a cup of hot tea, and soon were all telling stories over dinner.

Duffy and I once rode up over Topaz Mountain where it started snowing so hard I could barely see him a horse-length away. In the midst of this, the radio cracked to life and a new wilderness ranger, one ridge over, called into the office:

"Winthrop, this is 60 Hoffman."

"This is Winthrop."

"Winthrop, I'm on Coleman Ridge and it appears to be snowing here."

Winthrop didn't know quite what to say to that but through the snow out in front of me I heard Duffy mutter, "It does have that appearance, doesn't it?"

There's an outhouse at Hart's Pass that has a tall ventilation chimney on it with a steeple point, like a church. We call it St. Earl's. And before heading into the woods we would often worship there. We would pray for better weather than on the last trip we had. Once, at the Pasayten airstrip, I heard Ellis say into a snowstorm, "It's going to clear up." To which Duffy replied, "Yep. Clear up to our ass and still snowing." "Clear and still" became our preferred way to describe the current conditions over the radio.

Good weather for the crew was when it was blowing and cold or maybe raining like a cow peeing on a flat rock. Bad weather was when the sky was blue. We used to curse the big, blue clouds. I think this is the same psychology the French use when they say it is good luck to step in a pile of dog poop on the sidewalk. You might as well make the bad good, because a fair dose of the bad is coming your way. It's a little deception we put ourselves through which seems to work. Much of what we did in the woods was uncomfortable, but we developed our abilities to make the bad into good—spinning gold out of straw—and made it worth the effort.

Community: The Robbery

There was a bank robbery once in our little valley. It took place in the 1950s and was written up in the newspapers. The robber came to town wearing a Hawaiian shirt and stood on the street corner drinking beer before robbing the tiny Twisp bank. Everyone noticed him and knew he wasn't local. They also noticed when he drove up the Twisp River road waving a fistful of money: he'd forgotten to bring a sack to the crime.

People thought it was a joke.

When the thief got to the end of the road, he set the car on fire and then proceeded into the Sawtooth Range wearing tennis shoes and light clothing. He headed in the general direction of Lake Chelan. No one could figure out how he survived—but they were waiting for him when he stumbled out, half dead, on the other side. He was arrested and went to jail—which was something of a relief after what he'd been through. He told Hu Blonk he'd wanted enough money to buy a sailboat.

There are really no good escape routes out of the valley out back of the biggest fence in the West.

Wilderness: Traplines

As the day faded, I followed an old trapline along the middle fork of the Pasayten River. The valley bottom was already in the shadows of the ridges and the air was cooling fast. Nothing stirred in the lodgepole pine and spruce except the beep-beep of a nuthatch. I began by walking out from camp in concentric circles looking for signs of the old trail. An older worker, Jim, explained that the trapline followed the west side of the river to where a trapper's cabin sat. I clambered over downed spruce, jumped across old creek beds, and skirted around an occasional doghair lodgepole thicket so dense I had to squeeze between the trees. But I found no sign of the trail.

Traplines generally followed practical routes along streams and rivers where the wildlife was most abundant. Often overgrown and invisible, the lines can be traced by watching for blazes in trees, logs cut to clear the right-of-way, and an occasional tin can nailed to a tree, in which bait was once stored. I eventually found the old trail by walking along the route I would have taken to go along the river. I found a blaze first and then a tread. After three decades of neglect, the trail was in surprisingly good shape and soon I was able to walk along easily and reflect on the people who once had followed it.

The middle fork of the Pasayten River was territory for a family named Tuttle. Two of the cabins they'd built and used in their trapping business were still standing: Three Forks Cabin, now home to a large white rat, named Moby by one of the rangers, and Silver Creek Cabin which I hoped to find on this day. The trail connected the cabins, one near each end of the middle fork, and then went south to civilization. The last trapping the Tuttle family did here was in the late 1940s, probably 1948 or 1949 according to a reliable packer. They brought in their gear during the summer and then wintered over in the cabins. They brought two horses along in October or November: one was slaughtered for food and the other for trap bait when the weather turned cold. They trapped up and down the river. They would go out for one resupply during a hard freeze or after snow swept out the slide chutes. I once saw an old black-and-white photo of a couple—Tuttles, perhaps, or McKinneys—the woman dressed in a man's clothing and hat, looking rough, framed by a backdrop of fur.

The main trail was moved long ago to the east side of the river, probably because it melted out earlier in the spring. Many trails were moved or abandoned due to snow. But this trail I was following in the late fall evening appeared to have maintained itself. It followed a bench of evenly spaced lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, and grass, very similar to an area up north called the Enchanted Forest where we expect, at any time, to hear the quiet laughter of little people among the lupines.

Just when I thought I must have passed it, the cabin appeared in an opening above the trail with a carved sign near it: "Silver Creek Cabin." The ridge beam had partially collapsed from a heavy snow but otherwise held old lines. It was a one-house ghost town far from any railroad. What does a room in the wilderness do once its occupants have left for good? It melts into the ground, log by log, for spiders and mice.

Inscribed on the door is a sketchy journal of its visitors dating from the Depression to the late 1970s. I recognized one of the later authors and read the inscription:

Sheela McLean, September 17, 1977.
5 years wilderness ranger

Other names were penciled in the weathered door, mostly McKinneys and Tuttles, dated in the 1940s. Inside were three low bunks with dirt below them to conserve floor material. For decades a raised earth hearth quietly supported an old, rusting sheepherder's stove, a "mountain microwave," as the trail crew called them. The only light came from a small, four-paned window, and the dark-cave quality which must have been comforting when the northern storms blew down feet of snow and deeper cold now gave it a crawling-skin, get-out-of-here feeling. I stayed in only long enough to survey the situation. The fire had been out too long now and only imagination could bring some life back to the little place.

On the return trip, I thought about the people who had occupied the cabin, whose existence must have been much closer to the realities from which we have so brilliantly insulated ourselves with brick, glass, and cement. How close to the bone life must have been lived, and how clear a body's decisions, living in a 16-by-20-foot space, 12 miles of snowshoeing away from another person living under the same conditions. Similar thoughts followed me back until I began hearing my own lively trail camp and melted back into its everyday life.

Community: Sheela

Sheela McLean was the first woman wilderness ranger here. She worked alone for five years in the Pasayten. One of the things that was amazing to her, she said, was how attuned you became to what was out there. "Your ears grow extremely sensitive," she recalled. "Once a friend went with me on a trip. Two things happened. I could hear a horse party coming four or five minutes before she could. The other thing is there would be tracks in a trail I could see, but I'd have to outline them before my friend could pick them out of the mishmosh on the trail."

There were experiences with wildlife: the delight in seeing a line of little ducks following their mama, diving under a half-submerged log and popping up, one by one, on the other side—and the fascination of locking gazes with a cougar.

"There was a presence there," she said. "There's a presence there when I look into your eyes. It was exactly the same with the cougar."

The strangest experience she had out there was after she'd spent a long time in the wilderness, then headed back to school without a break to readjust to civilization. The next day she went to class, sat down, looked at the professor—and couldn't understand a word he was saying! He may as well have been speaking Greek.

"It took a couple of days to get my gears shifted," she said, laughing.

Community: Vicki's Cougar

There are people who move to the valley who want to change it to suit their needs. There are more people who come here who want to keep it from changing. There are people whose families have lived in the valley all the generations it's been settled, like Sheela. We are all thrown together into a pretty small space and expected to behave ourselves.

Generally, people do.

Even those with widely differing viewpoints can sit down together at the Winthrop Barn for a benefit dinner and enjoy friendly conversation. The reason for this is simple: we all know each other, and are connected by marriage, or work, or a bit of history shared, or membership in the same organizations. Living in close proximity we know the person we are rude to this week is going to be the one who pulls us out of a ditch next week. It works better, being courteous.

Vicki Nordness, a home health care nurse, lives way to heck and gone up a mountain road that eats four-wheel-drive rigs for breakfast in February. A couple of winters ago, she was out walking with her dogs and heard a commotion. A pack of dogs with radio collars had treed a cougar a short distance off her property. Soon hunters roared up on snowmobiles and there ensued a polite but heartfelt conversation regarding the fate of the cougar.

They were a local family who'd been hunting here for generations. At the time, Vicki had lived in the valley about ten years. The men began walking up toward the treed cat, and Vicki, desperate, blurted out, "I'll give you 500 dollars for that cougar!" The men stopped. There was a muttered "Oh, lady... " and a bit of mumbling as these mountain men considered this passionate, delicate-looking but strong-willed woman. They took some video shots of the cat, finally, and left. They refused to take any money.

In talking about the incident later, Vicki made it clear she respected those men; they just saw things differently than she did. The incident illustrates the presence of wide contrasts among valley people—where old traditions and new ways meet.

They all went their separate ways, unchanged perhaps—even the cougar that Vicki nearly bought. But something unusual had taken place.

Wilderness: Ellis

When Ellis was a kid, the wilderness packers of those days would bring him into the woods and, wide-eyed, he would take it all in. The wilderness made him feel big while, with a twist of perspective, it made the adults in the group feel small. The packers told Ellis they were going to Soda Creek where he could expect to get a soda or milkshake at the Soda Creek Fountain. Of course, he was disappointed to find that his leg was being pulled—the closest soda fountain was probably 30 miles away. It's hard to picture Ellis as a kid.

I've never seen him scared, even when the mules were all tangled on a steep rock face and threatening to jump. He calmly jumped into the middle of them and untangled the mess. I would have my pocketknife in my hand but he wouldn't even cut a rope. He untied each animal in turn, spoke calmly to them, and soothed us all. He told me once that he hid behind the couch when the flying monkeys appears in The Wizard of Oz. It's hard to put it all together sometimes.

Ellis's hands were beaten up from countless ropes jerked to an acceptable tightness. When the ropes were right, the packs didn't just stay on the animal, they balanced, causing a minimum of friction on the mule's back. That was important because if the mule wasn't comfortable, the packer wasn't either. He could tell if something was wrong even from the back of his horse. He watched their ears. When all is well, the long mule ears flop back and forth in a rhythm matching the string's pace. They keep tabs on all the sounds around them in a lazy, rambling way. If something is bothering them, one or two ears will remain stationary or, if it's really nasty, stay pinned back. There could be a fight in progress, a threat like a bear or a bees' nest, or a pack not riding right. In these latter cases I would often see Ellis, from my vantage point at the rear of the string, fidget in his seat and never get quite comfortable. He would turn as much as he could, his horse would cant to the side while walking down the trail, so he could watch the packs—or, more aptly, the rings on the decker saddles to see if they were riding dead center. We'd stop and adjust when necessary and when all the packs were riding right and all the fights were fought, we'd settle in for a long, comfortable ride.

Having grown up on a farm, Ellis knew to take care of the animals first. It didn't matter how hungry he was, or how tired. They must be fed and unsaddled before we could think of our meal. Sometimes if we were really aching we would tear through a pack box as it came off an animal and eat a found candy bar while we worked.

We mostly enjoyed the work, even in the worst situations, something we learned from him. One terrible, rainy day, he made a big deal of his fine new hat soaking through before mine. We laughed at the storm. We told the story in the evening after dinner by the fire. He laughed and laughed. I once asked him if anyone had broken his heart and he replied, "No, but I've broken my own a time or two."

Community: Small Happenings

In our communities, events are something we do. Depending on the nature of what's happening, we generally split roles, fifty-fifty. Half put it on, and the other half go watch. Or half play and the other fifty percent cheer them on.

In winter, when the pace settles down after the North Cascades Highway is closed by decree of Earl, the weather god, our entertainment is truly homegrown. Highway crews put up the sign, "Highway 20 closed 17 miles west of Winthrop," south of Twisp. The irrigation ditches are shut off and we all start promising each other we'll have lunch together soon. Most of the tourists have gone; things are quiet. Someone will start a new club, or a new project, or an annual event.

The Priscilla Club, whose stated aim is to not have an aim, has been meeting for several generations of valley women. The music association puts on their annual Keyboard Confections—a piano concert plus desserts. Some of us take advantage of the cross-country ski trails or downhill skiing up on the Loup Loup Pass. There are Grange potlucks, dances, shows at the art gallery, lectures at the high school. Usually each of these is a labor of love of one determined individual.

The yearly "Freeze Yer Buns Run" in Twisp in January was the inspiration of Howard Day, who noticed there weren't any races regionally in the dead of winter. Howard kept the run going long enough that it became an institution, with five or six hundred participants doing pre-race calisthenics to keep from freezing in place and wearing long johns under their Hawaiian shirts and hula skirts. It is the most color we see from November through March.

First prize is always a trip to Hawaii for two. Pearl Clark walks the 2-miler every year. Pearl is ninety-something now and still going for a ticket out of here for a mid-winter gander at palm-lined golden beaches. "I have a feeling I might win this year!" she cackles.

There are events and memories connected to the weather.

The night of dress rehearsal for "The Music Man," put on by our local theater group, it was snowing heavily. Halfway through, the power went out. Within a short time, dozens of candles were produced from somewhere, and the show went on. It was magical. Somehow the candlelight raised a spirit of joy that made the dress rehearsal more memorable than the actual play. Ten years later, people still refer to it as a highlight in recent valley history.

The difference between watching a Broadway play and seeing one put on by our community theater is the difference between eating corn on the cob you bought at Safeway and having it right from the garden you planted, nurtured, and are now—by the grace of the corn goddess—harvesting. Both are good, but there is something about an exchange of winks and hugs between cast and audience that adds to the flavor of theater.

When the Washington State Cattlemen's Association had their annual meeting in Okanogan, in the next valley over where the association was born long, long ago, they decided to ride into town—like old times.

"Dad always had a good saddle horse," said Morrie Stokes, "and we'd prefer that to the automobiles in those days."

The Stokes family has been ranching here for almost 100 years. Vic Stokes, Morrie's brother, is active in the association—as their father, Jay, was years back. "A horse didn't get stuck on an unpaved, muddy road," Morrie pointed out, "and if you met up with someone you could ride along together and visit. Can't do that in a car!"

Okanogan, the county seat, was a natural choice for a cattlemen's ride-in. It's pretty near the only place left where you can do that. "Can't ride into Everett," Vic noted, "or Spokane."

Human and natural events occur in closer proximity in mountain country. An avalanche seals off the highway for another two weeks in spring—causing merchants to echo the trail crew's philosophical cursing of old Earl. The last big flood, in 1948, tore out a riverbank at Carlton and toppled the new Methodist Church into the Methow River and carried it off. There are people who are still upset about it, too. Drought earlier in the century drove people off their dry-land farms, changing the course of family histories.

Outside events have limited effect here. It is a matter of local pride that the Great Depression didn't change life in the valley a great deal. People never had much cash before, and they didn't have much then. Since everyone was in the same situation, they didn't consider themselves poor. So they weren't. Today the communities are still largely free of social expectations. A former Twisp business owner put it this way: "The Methow is freedom from conforming trends. People tend to do that in a city. Here we don't fall in line with that—the 'in' fashions, the 'in' places to go. Our values are more functional than frivolous."

The biggest events are memorable. It is memorable to be participating in an activity with 600 people you know, including the performers and organizers. It is a way of belonging that is unique to a small valley in an immense mountain range, far from worldly distractions.

May Ann Yakabi, who works at the Winthrop Post Office, echoed our feelings a few years back when she said, "I'm not a religious person, but going outside here is a religious experience for me. Looking at the trees, the clouds, the mountains—you can't lie to them. They know what is true. You can't get that connection to the land in a city. It's so beautiful you stand there with your jaw open!"

"It makes you want to be a better person," she concluded.

The gym at the Twisp community center was dark and crowded the night they handed out awards for the young people's book review contest. On stage, children performed between each prize being handed out. The crowd, as usual, was made up of people of all ages. A very small person was doing a fast crawl through a forest of standing-room-only legs.

People were keeping an eye on the little ones. Children are a priority in our little valley.

Beginning music students one-noted their way through Christmas songs on the piano, while proud parents, grandparents, neighbors, teachers, friends, and cousins watched. Many of us had come from cities where children are not as cherished—and have only a few people looking out for them.

Finally, the music teacher began to play Bach's Ave Maria. At the back of the gym, a young mother started to waltz holding her baby. The two pirouetted, dipped, stepped to the music. People turned to look, and smiled. "Ave Maria ... full of grace." Mother and child, laughing, at perfect ease in a friendly place. Our place. Dancing.

Suddenly, my eyes were full of tears.

Wilderness: The Bells

Years from now, I see myself back in the Pasayten Wilderness standing in a high meadow on Tatoosh Buttes. In sight are all the peaks of the western Pasayten Wilderness and beyond—from Jack Mountain to Mount Baker. A warm breeze blows and the scent of the flowers makes me sleepy, and in the quietness, I am brought back by a faint sound which at first seems to be a far-off songbird or cicada. Thinking I must have dreamed it, my attention wanes and drifts again but as it does, the wind changes and there it is again, this time very clear: the sound of the Swiss bell and the string.

Three miles an hour is the average speed for a horse, packer, and six head of mules loaded with an eight-person camp. We sat at Oregon Creek on the west fork one day and made some calculations while eating from our sack lunches. "Any time now," someone said. We listened and, as sure as trees make a sound when they fall, we heard the faint dinga of the Swiss bell on the tail mule of Ellis's string. We packed up and headed down the trail.

Walking at a good clip a person can travel about 4 miles an hour, and this is what we did. But nothing is as steady as a packer and his mule string in the second half of its day. All the packs are adjusted and the animals have settled into the pace that will get them to the grass at the end of the trip. The packer listens to the bell, occasionally checks the loads, and watches the scenery go by. He might sing a few bars of "God Must Be a Cowboy at Heart." He might doze a little.

Ahead of the string, we cleared the trail. There were rocks to kick and logs to cut and clear. We worked leapfrog fashion: two cut a log while two others went ahead to the next one. We threw another log out and when it settled into the brush beside the trail, we listened, our hearts pounding in our ears. Pretending to be angry, a squirrel chattered and squeaked. Then the quiet but steady ring of the bell filtered through the lodgepole pine. There would be no time to pause for a drink.

Ellis would invariably stop to chat with us "hippie backpackers" while we adjusted loads, ate sandwiches, predicted the weather. Then he would give the command, "Boys?"—a warning to the mules that they were going. As the bell faded into the distance, the whole experience would linger like the tracks in the trail.

This was how, dressed in work jeans, flannel shirts, and boots, we spent our days. With sweat-soaked red bandannas tied around our foreheads, we were range hardened and often covered with dirt and pitch. I would look down at my gloved hands in wonder and be seized by a sudden urge to jump up on a log and make the hills echo. I became, as we all did, one of the trail crew. Within the boundaries of this wilderness, no job was too big.

When we were far enough ahead of the string, the crew members became individuals again.

"What'd you do over the weekend?"

"I went to Seattle. I was scared to death the whole time. I had to call Gretchen in Bothell to come and save me."

"Have you been there before?"

"Nope. Closest I'd been was Wenatchee a couple of times. Otherwise, haven't been out of the county."

"What classes you taking in school?"

"Conversational German and statistics."

"All feet are the same. It's the only German I know."

"Want some gum?"

"No thanks, I always forget to chew."

"How'd you get across the creek without getting your boots wet?"

"Jack laid down in it and I walked on him."

The college students would talk over ideas, explorations into subjects one notch below the meaning of life. One person on the crew knew nearly all there was to know about the state of Delaware (the highest point in the state: 442 feet). Another crew member liked to rock snags back and forth until they fell to the ground. Once part of the crew split off and sang "Sentimental Journey" in three-part harmony. I sometimes walked alone and settled into a pace. With my body occupied by travel, my mind roamed freely. Time disappeared. I wouldn't become aware of my surroundings until I rounded the first of the last three bends to the airstrip. Surprised at where life had brought me, I would feel intensely alive.

The bells are fading from the wilderness as the mules, one by one, are being sold. I work at the ranger station now, mapping the areas I once walked or rode. From time to time, I manage to get out into backcountry.

One day I will be alone again in a high meadow on Tatoosh Buttes remembering the bells. If I listen carefully enough, anywhere within the Pasayten, I can hear their steady ring fade into the distance. The sound and the place—sometime during those years—became a part of the same memory.

JEANNE HARDY is a humorist and writer whose essays appear in local, state, and national publications. She is contributing editor, cartoonist, and feature writer for Crone Chronicles; feature writer for Ruralite Magazine; and publisher of three monthly newsletters full of warmth and humor: The Spotted Chicken Report, Methow Valley People, and Birdy's Circle. She lives in Twisp, next door to her son Jeff.

JEFF HARDY works for the Forest Service, grows garlic on his farm in Twisp, and looks for opportunities to teach an environmental ethic.

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North Cascades Conservation Council
P.O. Box 95980
Seattle, WA 98145-2980