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.
My father had taught me how to identify the old trails, as opposed to more recent trails and roads. The old trails have a U-shaped profile, because many of the wagons were pulled by a single horse. The wheels would wear ruts along the sides of the trail, but the center of the road was worn away to a similar degree by the hooves of the draft animal or those of a horseback rider. After the motor car was invented roads developed in a twin-rut configuration, where the wheels wore away at the edges of the road and nothing wore the middle down. This rut was one of the old trails, shaped like a U, and heading northeast from the vicinity of the lower end of Hutchinson Lake.
Nobody seems to have mapped the remains of the old trails in that area. I once spent a day at the Central Washington University library looking up old maps of Central Washington, laying out the pioneer routes from The Dalles to Wenatchee in my DeLorme topographical atlas. But I didn’t think to add the trails around Crab Creek. That was years later, anyway. It’s not easy to identify the origins of trails like this one, but I suspect it was pioneered by Sam himself, probably following pre-existing Indian trails from one waterhole to the next through this arid landscape. It probably led to the Rock Creek campground where Chief Moses and his tribe liked to gather for trading and racing. It may have been part of what became the Cariboo Trail, although that was frequented mostly by herds of livestock that wouldn’t have left such a definite trace. It was probably part of the Hudson’s Bay route to Fort Okanagan (I realize that the accepted spelling in today’s Washington differs, but that’s how they spelled it in the days of the fur trade). The army probably used this trail to access their forts around Wenatchee and Chelan, and possibly as one route towards the Spokane country. Some graduate student in history should do a thorough job researching the remains of such historic trails.
I saw what I was doing as a form of research when I was a teenager. I looked for significant artifacts, like a rusted nail, a bolt bent and corrupted with rust. Boards warped and blackened in the sun, perhaps with the remnants of square nails visible. A true prize would have been an intact glass jar or bottle, though I never found any. As I followed this trail to the north I only found one mysterious item and it took me a while to figure out what it was. Once I did, though, I was struck by a whole new world of speculation about the people who used this trail.
My eye caught a glimpse of something twisted an black partially buried in the soil alongside the trail. As I studied it, I decided it was probably sunbaked leather: perhaps a piece of harness or an old boot. I tugged it loose and brushed the dirt off. It was too wide for a piece of strapping, and it wasn’t shaped like a shoe. It didn’t even appear to be leather. It was too thick. It was twisted into a semi-sphere, like part of an eggshell. Then I recognized it. It was a coconut shell.
How did a coconut arrive along this old trail? It was far from the modern access road to the lake, and the only evidence of human endeavor near the thing was this trail. I remembered that the Hudson’s Bay Company ships routinely called at the Sandwich Islands, today’s Hawaii, on their way to Fort Vancouver. Was it too far-fetched to imagine that somebody brought a bag of coconuts along as they hauled supplies for the outposts north of Fort Okanagan? I was thrilled at the thought that I held in my hands tangible evidence of what had only been dry historical facts until that moment, the passage of fur traders towards the north. Right here.
It made me reflect on the day the shell was cast away. I could imagine a leather-clad man with a beard, sweating under a broiling sun. As the party he was with took a break on the banks of Crab Creek, he dug into his pouch to find that coconut. He broke open the top end to drink the milk. Then, as his horse dutifully followed the ones ahead, he dug away at the coconut meat, using his blade to cut out the stubborn bits. When it was empty, he casually tossed the shell to the side of the trail. Being nothing more than a piece of junk, that shell lay in the same spot, undisturbed by man and beast, baking black in the harsh desert sun, for about 150 years until I found it.
I looked around me. I was on a high, fairly level dusty plain rimmed with basalt cliffs on nearly every side. There were no obvious landmarks, not a trace of any human habitation, except for the streak of gravel on the access road about 120 feet away. I couldn’t see my brother. He was busy catching dinner. There was nobody to share this with. So I did what I often did with curiosities I encountered in the wild. I put it back for the next person to discover, wondering when that might be. Maybe another 150 years in the future?
My brother asked me what I found when we piled back into the car. Nothing but an old coconut, I told him.