Home Alone

The badger snarled at the approaching truck.

The badger snarled at the approaching truck.

As the youngest of six children, I was rarely offered the opportunity to be by myself when I was growing up. It wasn’t until my older brothers and sisters began college that our little house started to provide nooks or rooms where I could be alone. For time alone, I hiked, but that wasn’t alone time either: the dog always had to come along. That I didn’t mind.

I wasn’t necessarily anti-social, I just liked to curl up in silence with a good book sometimes. Sometimes I wanted to be able to watch whatever I really wanted to watch on the television. Whatever KHQ in Spokane offered, that is. I was 16 years old before I got the chance to really be alone.

In August of 1970 my parents decided to take a brief a vacation. I don’t recall what the occasion was, maybe one of those trips they made to Seattle so they could attend a Seattle Symphony performance. One of the difficulties they faced in doing things like that is that someone still had to change the water, feed the horse and chickens, collect the eggs and water the garden. On this particular occasion I hastened to volunteer to take care of the place. I was 14, and I was the only child left at home. Somehow, my parents agreed that I should mind the farm all by myself.

How can I portray the boundless joy it gave me to be the master of my own farm? As I watched the station wagon leave a trail of drifting dust behind it, as it signaled left and headed west on Highway 26, I was filled with glee. There was nobody here to tell me what to do, to spy on me and to criticize me.

There had been, over the previous weeks, a few mysterious haystack fires that summer. An activist union calling itself the National Farmers Organization had been attempting to raise the price of hay. Some of the more militant activists among them targeted haystacks and hay trucks with sabotage or fire. The one word of advice my father had for me as he left was to keep an eye on our haystack. It was a wall of hay twenty feet high running along the lower edge of our alfalfa field, right next to the highway. My father’s admonition made me feel important, and I climbed into the 1948 Ford pickup to check on the haystack several times that day.

I checked the last time after darkness fell. The headlights of the truck cast a cone of visibility on the ruts of the access road. Tall grass grew right up to the edge of the road and the wheel ruts had a strip of grass between them, shorn to a constant height by the undercarriage of the pickup. As I wheeled onto this road the lights revealed a dark shape filling one of the ruts ahead of me. It moved. As I approached the badger turned to face me, a devilish face full of snarling teeth and white stripes at oblique angles. For a moment it looked like the badger intended to attack my truck, but then it turned to flee. Being a teenager, I did the most humane thing I could think of: I sped up and chased that badger down the ruts. It had no exit for a while, with dense walls of unbroken grass on both sides. The fat beast wobbled back and forth, glancing over its shoulder as I kept my distance from it. Finally it plunged into the ditch on the left side of the road. All was clear at the haystack.

That night was perhaps the spookiest night I ever spent. In the house alone, with total darkness beyond the plate glass windows, I heard every creak and pop of the dead wood as it cooled in the night. A breath of wind found gaps in the window frames, chilling the back of my neck. It was just me, the dog and the television in the dark. And on that television, Psycho. I squirmed in my seat. Suddenly the bathroom, across the dark hallway, seemed far too far away. The only light in the house was in the room I was in. I didn’t even want to raid the freezer for the ice cream I had planned on eating. Our freezer stood in the damp, cob-webbed basement, too much like a Hitchcock set to allow me to be brave. In fact, I didn’t move from the couch through the entire movie. And when it was over, time to go to bed, I developed a strategy for turning on lights in the next room before turning off the ones in the room I was leaving behind.

Well and good. Lights out in the living room and the television was off. I had the lights on in the bathroom. I closed and locked the door, although there was nobody else in the house. I peeled down my pants and sat down on the toilet. Instantly there was a deafening, inhuman shriek outside the window, the only lighted window in the house. I found myself screaming, squirming face down on the tiles of the floor. I scrambled into my parents’ room and snatched up my grandfather’s Winchester. In my haste, I left it unloaded. Trembling with fear I barricaded myself in the bathroom, slowly getting my breath back. I came up with a satisfactory explanation for the scream: my actions must have startled a visiting coyote. Still, I knew what terror there was in darkness. I had just watched Psycho.

I slept soundly in spite of the incident. But when I rose in the morning and looked out the dining room window I was stunned to count at least nine columns of smoke rising from various places to the north in Grant County. I rushed outside to look at our haystack. No smoke, but there was a silver pickup parked on the edge of the highway close to the stack. I waited for it to leave before driving our old green pickup out to the haystack. I searched around the haystack but found nothing alarming.

As I fried up some eggs and bacon I realized I was looking forward to my parents’ return later that day.

Coconut

Sam Hutchinson looms over another man, possibly Hugh Dunlop in this photograph from an unidentified historical archive.

Sam Hutchinson looms over another man, possibly Hugh Dunlop in this photograph from an unidentified historical archive.

When my brothers were old enough to drive it wasn’t uncommon for several of us to pile into a car and head out into the Potholes to fish, swim or hike. We liked swimming in a certain hole in Hayes Creek. A favorite fishing spot was Hutchinson Lake, where red basalt cliffs rimmed the cool greenish waters. Even at that age, my father had told me plenty of stories about the Hutchinson brothers. My imagination placed old Sam Hutchinson on those clifftops, dressed in a black lawman’s cutaway coat and a flat-rimmed hat. Taller than seven feet, he once rode over those hills and lived in a cabin not far from where the lake is found.

Perhaps it was this image that inspired me to wander while my brother fished for those big trout that rarely got caught. I trudged out into the brush north of the lake looking for anything that might have been dropped by old Sam and he rode out one day. I found crushed and rusty tin cans, flaking apart. There were the remains of wire fencing smashed into the earth. Bits of purpled glass sparkled at me through the cheat grass. Then I found a rut. Continue reading

The Return of Martin Paroz

Soldier settlement homes were modest in size. State records of each of the homes are kept in WSU archives. Hanford, White Bluffs, and Hanford Nuclear Site Images (PC 104) Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections Washington State University Libraries Pullman, WA

Soldier settlement homes were modest in size. State records of each of the homes are kept in WSU archives. Hanford, White Bluffs, and Hanford Nuclear Site Images (PC 104)
Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections
Washington State University Libraries
Pullman, WA

Next month it will be one hundred years since the start of what became known as World War I, a misnomer that blinds many people to the far ranging conflicts practiced by men in earlier ages. And even though that particular war ended so long ago, each year in France and Belgium tons of unexploded ordinance from the First World War are exhumed from land where the battles were fought. Historian Alan Taylor recently published a sobering photo-history of the war in The Atlantic in which he shows the ravaged land, slowly being reclaimed by forests, where once villages stood until they were cratered out of existence. Sheep graze in unredeemed minefields; farmers plow up hand grenades and cannon shells.

Early in the war, governments of the British Commonwealth began planning for the return of their soldiers. Aware that the deluge of war-touched young men could not be ignored at the risk of destabilizing society, politicians began designing a program to reintegrate the soldiers through agriculture. Continue reading

Pahto

Mount Adams early in 1958, viewed from the foothills above Glenwood. Photograph by Walt Danielson.

Mount Adams early in 1958, viewed from the foothills above Glenwood. Photograph by Walt Danielson.

I climbed Mount Adams for the first time in 1957, when I was a year old. I had help. My parents corralled all six youngsters and, in caravan with my grandparents, they drove the axle-shattering dirt roads to Bird Creek Meadows, just below snowline on the shoulders of the great peak.  As proof of this visit, I offer the following pose, the portrait of an outdoors man as a very young man.

My father and I rest on a sandy bank at Bird Creek Meadows in 1957, when I was a year old.

My father and I rest on a rock on a sandy bank at Bird Creek Meadows in 1957, when I was a year old.

Although my current home lies much closer to Mount Baker, old Mount Adams has always held a dearer place in my heart. It’s prominence is due to the overwhelming presence it has in Glenwood, where my family arrived in 1882 as a band of uprooted Germans. My great-grandfather cleared a forested meadow and planted hay. His farm prospered and he gained prominence in his community, Continue reading

Cora Blake Endures

The wreck of the Cora Blake lies beneath the shallow waters of this Lake Whatcom bay.

The wreck of the Cora Blake lies beneath the shallow waters of this Lake Whatcom bay.

I have one of the most beautiful commutes in the country, I’m pretty sure. My drive is around fifteen miles long, winding through precipitous hills clad in dark and overgrown forests of hemlock, Douglas fir and Bigleaf Maple. Most of the route follows the south shore of Lake Whatcom on a road that is thinly traveled. The drive I make is a relatively recent road, though.

Since American settlers first visited this lake in the mid-1800s, boats were the favored mode of transportation. Native Americans taught the earliest settlers how to build shovel-nosed canoes made of a single hollowed-out cedar log. Row boats followed, then sailboats. The first of the steam-powered boats was launched in the late 1800s, and it contributed its muscle to burgeoning industries of coal-mining and the lumber trade.

By the early 1900s several steamboats traveled the twelve-mile length of Lake Whatcom, visiting docks of settlers and nascent communities along the way. Other steamboats dragged barges loaded with coal or with train cars loaded with coal. Still others nudged rafts of huge logs toward several lumber and shake mills that dotted the perimeter of the north end of the lake. Continue reading

The Ram’s Head

An intricate ram's head butt cap tipped me off that this was not an ordinary knife.

An intricate ram’s head butt cap tipped me off that this was not an ordinary knife.

Our cabin on the Sauk River has a functioning firwood floor, a used wood stove in one corner, resting on a pad of ceramic tiles, gaps in the logs where the light shines through, and around twenty lights of glass shattered by gunfire in a vandal’s rampage. There’s a bit more work to do to restore it to a comfortable condition, but it’s come a long way from the way it looked at this time last year. Then it was supported by rotting logs on irregular concrete shards. It had been infested by rats and bats and mice for several years.

I have to admit that I was unsure that we would ever make it habitable again, but when my wife asked me where I wanted to go in our trailer that summer, I opined that we really ought to fix up the cabin and make it our own private campground. She jumped at the opportunity.

The cabin early in the restoration process slopes on its gaping supports, aging log sections that were rotting in place.

The cabin early in the restoration process slopes on its gaping supports, aging log sections that were rotting in place.

We tore down counters, cupboards and flimsy walls. We dragged out the old rusty stove, the metal cabinets, the metal barstools bolted to the old sagging floor. We hired help to drag the old Monarch cookstove outside where we dumped out the rat’s nests that packed its interior. We hired others to cart away a huge pile of metal debris someone had dumped in the ferns across the driveway. We figured out how to support the upright log walls while we removed the rotten old foundations, if you could call them that. Continue reading

Landslide

Sandhill cranes frolic in the fields of the Danielson farm, with the Saddle Mountain cliffs looming over it. Photograph by Phyllis Danielson.

Sandhill cranes frolic in the fields of the Danielson farm, with the Saddle Mountain cliffs looming over it. Photograph by Phyllis Danielson.

The communities of Oso and Darrington were devastated by the recent landslide, in which around fifty houses and more than thirty people were annihilated in the space of a couple of minutes. It will be a long time before life can return to anything like it used to be, with Darrington’s main artery to the rest of the world cut off. Now commuters from Darrington have to head north, past our Sauk River cabin, to get to their jobs, shops and supplies. It takes a lot of time and gas. My son’s scout troop raised cash and supplies that we took to Darrington last weekend, and I’ve been watching the news about the landslide daily.

Pictures of the Oso landslide reminded me very much of the landslide my family and I used to climb around on when I was a kid. One of our favorite hikes was to the cliffs at the top of Saddle Mountain, where you can climb down to a ledge where sandstone exposures have been carved by the winds and graffito-ed by generations of local visitors. Continue reading