Impressions of the North
Essays about a Northwest Landscape
Part II: Landscapes of
The Biggest Fence in the West
JEANNE HARDY & JEFF HARDY
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
Westthe 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
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 namebut 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
About 4,000 people1,500
or so living in our five little towns and the rest strewn all across
hills and side valleystake pride in being part of a small community,
in knowing each other, in getting through tough times.
Fed by three riversthe Methow, the Chewuch, and
the Twispthe 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 pointabout a
mile acrossthe 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 beyondin all their
beautiful, awesome ferocitykeep 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
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 skierand 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
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.
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 busesand happy to find the
workand 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
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 herethe 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 herebuild
their own histories, and give birth to new generations of valley
Most-repeated stories of earlier days tend to center
around weather, fires, local characters, rodeos, and other daring
feats. People like the Kikendall brotherswho 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
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 laterin one of several tellings of that
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
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
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
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
intermissiononly 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.
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.
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
placesbut 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
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 inbut 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
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 goodspinning gold
out of strawand 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 survivedbut they were waiting for him when he
stumbled out, half dead, on the other side. He was arrested and went to
jailwhich 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.
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 coupleTuttles,
perhaps, or McKinneysthe 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.
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
sideand 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 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 professorand 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
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
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 peoplewhere old
traditions and new ways meet.
They all went their separate ways,
unchanged perhapseven the cougar that Vicki nearly bought. But something unusual had taken
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 pulledthe 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 packsor, 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
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 Confectionsa 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
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
There are events and memories connected to the
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 nowby the grace of the corn
goddessharvesting. 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
townlike 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
associationas 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 springcausing 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
thatthe '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
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 mountainsyou 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
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
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 cherishedand 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
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 beyondfrom 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
"Want some gum?"
"No thanks, I always forget to chew."
"How'd you get across the creek without getting your
"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 placesometime during those
yearsbecame 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