The reasons for my father’s decision to abandon the Danielson Ranch on Crab Creek have never been entirely clear to me. I remember that when I asked him about it, he was very close lipped. Myself, I was ready to get away from the Central Washington weather by the time I went to college. No more of these sweltering iron-colored skies for months on end, Enough of these months of boringly gorgeous sunsets and clear nights so starry you could hike the hills without a flashlight even when there was no moon. My father lived in Glenwood long enough to marry and have children, but he moved back to Othello to take advantage of irrigation water from the Columbia Basin Project in the early 1950s.
I’m sure I’ll revisit the reasoning behind my father’s choice another time. But it’s the holiday season, and for me that always brings to mind my grandparents and their old home in the Glenwood valley of Klickitat County. These were the only grandparents I knew, since my father’s folks had both passed on by the time I could crawl. My mother’s parents seemed incredibly ancient from the very beginning, as if they were the living remnants of the rich family history they represented. And if I have any explanation for this urge to write down these stories, it probably ought to be blamed on my Grandfather Herman, who labored over his antique typewriter, one-eyed, pecking out the letters one by one and filling up pages of uneven type that eventually became several volumes of local and family history about life in Klickitat County. Recognizing his skills as a story teller and nurturing my own taste for history, I made it a point to find time to ask him questions whenever we visited, and I was richly rewarded with personal stories and the outlines of a family’s fortunes on the Washington frontier. I’ll be passing some of this on in later articles. I regret that I didn’t inherit more than a few of his marvelous old photographs, so I won’t be able to post clear copies of them to illustrate his tales. Most of the photographs I am publishing came from my father’s collection and were probably his own.
My favorite Christmases as a boy were those we had at Glenwood. Our home place outside Othello might get heavy frosts and the occasional dusting of snow, but Glenwood seemed like it always had a white Christmas. From my present-day perspective as a parent, I have to tip my hat to my own folks, who somehow managed to fit a family of eight, lunches, their luggage and piles of presents for each of them into a Ford Ranch Wagon. Then they put up with our arguing, pinching and punching for hours and hours as we negotiated the sometimes frightening roads along the route to Glenwood.
The drive could be wearisome even for an adult, Now imagine that you are the youngest of six children and your place is over the back seat, wedged in amongst the boxes and suitcases…no seat belts in that old car. And no air conditioning, either, unless you count the windows we could crank down. The swaying and fumes from the exhaust made me sick several times over the years, most memorably the time we decided to drive up by way of Bickleton and we stopped to picnic on tuna fish sandwiches and grape pop. But we won’t get into a description of what ensued.
Our trip began like a ride into town on Highway 26. We headed east until we reached the intersection at Othello. Here, a turn to the left took us into town on First Avenue, but a turn to the right was dramatic confirmation that we were going on a trip. It was always thrilling to make that right turn, even when I already knew where we were headed. Now began the tedious part of the trip, a long drive south to the intersection with Highway 24. That was followed by a westward journey, climbing over the shoulder of Saddle Mountain to enter the vast and empty Hanford Reservation. Here there were huge warning signs with flashing lights for emphasis: Restricted Government Area. All vehicles subject to search. No stopping. No taking pictures…the signs must have been effective deterrents, for I’ve never found a photograph of any of them!
Entering the Hanford Reservation was terrifying. With visions of soldiers with machine guns, low flying surveillance planes, the distant steam rising from mysterious white complexes barely visible down south, and Nike missiles in the silos on top of Saddle Mountain, this was a classic Cold War journey. Smooth slopes blanketed with steel gray sage brush led to the summit of the mountain on our right, our mountain, the same ridges we hiked on the other side. This was the forbidden side, where no one was allowed to go. Dirt covered bunkers clustered on the open flats beside the highway and mysterious paved roads led out into the sagebrush, going who knew where? Then there was the radiation. We knew it might be here, invisible, pernicious, dangerous. The barbed wire fences that lined the arrow-straight highway were hung with yellow and red radiation warning signs. What if there was an accident at one of the nuclear plants as we were passing by? Would we survive? What if the Russians were to attack? If our radiator boiled over or we had a flat tire, would we be arrested as spies?
It seemed to take hours to travel the length of the mountain, but finally the highway turned abruptly left and began to drop down the face of a gravelly ridge to the place where pavement ended. There, at the bottom of the slope, the Columbia River flowed past a line of cars waiting on the banks for the little Vernita ferry to shunt them across. The ferry was simply a flat barge with room for a few cars and trucks, pushed across the river by a small tugboat with a single life ring lashed to its pilot house. If there were many cars on the road you could wait for a long time for your turn. Then there was the short ride over the river. People would climb out of their cars to feel the wind and watch the water. The highway south of the river seemed to go faster since there was more variety to the landscape. You swept past dying trees from the days when the McGees kept their ranch here, open borrow pits where gravel was scooped up to make the road, towering walls of rusty columnar basalt and distant hills that drew closer with every minute.But then we approached that final intersection, where military guards in white helmets and sidearms tended glassed-in booths beside barricades. Here Highway 24 veered off to the west towards Yakima. With relief we soon crossed the western boundary of the reservation, as if that made us any safer from radiation or foreign aggression. We threaded our way through the whalebacks of Rattlesnake Ridge, taking a left onto Highway 241 at the old stone Silver Dollar Cafe and heading south towards Sunnyside. We made this trip fairly frequently when we went to visit cousins who lived there. But this time we didn’t have time to stop for a visit. We still had hours to go.
With words you can fly across those miles. The reality was that I spent too many hours bouncing around in the back of that dusty pink station wagon. Past irrigation ditches, windbreaks, tented groves of trees shading prosperous farms, graveled roads and pavement, villages and homesteads, fields and bare mountainsides. Then we turned up Satus Creek, where we invariably ran into a line of slow traffic as freighters struggled to climb Satus Pass. Impatient children and slow traffic are a bad combination.
But it was usually on Satus Pass that we found our first snow, maybe in patches, or maybe coming down in light sprays. For me it was like a magical curtain between our everyday life in Othello and the enchantment of a Christmas in Glenwood. Now pines thickened against the red rock hills and on a ridge just before we reached Goldendale, there was the bald silver dome of an observatory. But there was still that last terrifying canyon to pass.
The Klickitat Canyon Road was a steep, one-lane seven-mile gravel trail notched into precipitous slopes that spilled into the river far below. We’d usually get there just before dusk. Miles away and hundreds of feet below us we could spot the headlights of approaching vehicles. When we met, both cars (or a truck meeting our car) had to drive as close to the edge as possible, taking advantage of whatever extra inches a wide spot in the highway might provide. We would nearly scrape each others’ mirrors off in passing.
Near the bottom of the grade we entered the oak woods, a swale of widely spaced broadleaf hardwoods with dry grass and tumbled boulders in between. It reminded me so much of the Bing Crosby movie of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court that I always imagined I might spot a knight beneath the trees. I never did, although we saw plenty of deer at various times, and once, a bear. We crossed the river on a narrow bridge, but my fear of falling wasn’t yet put aside. Through the trees flanking the road you could catch glimpses of the abrupt drop-off into the real Klickitat Canyon. It seemed all too possible for the car to slide off the icy roads and plummet over the cliffs.
Finally as darkness fell glimmers of distant light flashed through the deep pine woods. I’d try to figure out which of those houses might be the one that was waiting for us. The agony of the long trip would come to an end in a steamy kitchen with a huge oak table spread with ham, potatoes, salads, jello, beans and peaches. We’d find places to sleep on the couches in the front room where a huge Christmas tree glowed or in a trailer or the chilly bunkhouse. Tomorrow there would be snowball fights, barns and sheds to explore, old cars and trucks to play in, food and talk, my Grandpa’s interminable slide shows of trips to Yellowstone Park or Alaska, and finally…finally, Christmas presents.