"That is exactly what I need right now," I reply fervently. It's May 4th, and I'm fresh off the boat: I've just waved goodbye to a village worth of friends, including my newly-ex-sweetheart. I knew today was going to hurt. That doesn't make it hurt any less.
Now I've landed in Stehekin, a teeny town at the north end of Lake Chelan, where I'll be spending the weekend. I first heard about it over a year ago from a sailor friend:
Roscoe: You should come visit Steheekan.
Roscoe: It is an odd little mountain community. You either hike in for 2 days, or you drive 4 hours from [Bellingham], take a boat 4 hours up the river. And you have this pretty much self-contained little mountain community of probably less than 1000 people, spread around a place that looks astonishingly like Rivendell.
No phones, no newspapers less than 2 weeks old. Maybe 6 cars.
me: oh my gosh. this is definitely going on the list.
And now I'm finally seeing it for myself. I met my host, Hannah, while she was volunteering at Holden Village in February; we were across-the-hall neighbors in the dorm, and co-instigated a series of informal jam sessions for amateur musicians. When I learned she works summers in Stehekin, I was quick to invite myself up for a visit, and she was quick to say yes.
We spend the better part of this afternoon dinking around Hannah's brother's place, an old residence owned by the Park Service not far from the boat landing. It's a nice spot with a lovely view of the lake. In summer the mosquitoes get bad in these parts, except for right here in this yard, due to the massive bat population residing in the attic.
Hannah's brother Pat, a seasonal Park Service employee, is stringing battered large-bulb Xmas lights around the kitchen, and tries to get Hannah to help him. But her attention span, never long at the best of times, is completely blown by the Benadryl she took for a wasp sting. It also isn't helped by that brief surprise visit from her boyfriend earlier today (he came up from Holden with me, but went back again with the ferry). "I can't believe he was just here!" she yelps, missing yet another nonverbal cue for assistance. Pat rolls his eyes. I grin and pick up the end of the light string.
I don't mind; I've got nowhere else to be, and Hannah and Pat's feisty, affectionate banter is entertaining. The lights get put up eventually, with lots of singing, silliness, and snark. We're finally ready to head up the road to Hannah's place, but alas, the bike I'm borrowing from Pat needs air in the tires and the seat lowered for my short legs. Pat sighs and reaches for a wrench. "You're never gonna get out of here," he informs me, after Hannah wanders back inside to steal his corn chips.
But the bike is soon ready, and we finally leave Pat in peace and bike the couple of miles to Hannah's summer home, a tiny two bedroom apartment owned by her employer. We catch each other up on Holden/Stehekin gossip while digging up dandelions from the horse pasture behind her home.
After Holden's lingering snows, Stehekin is abruptly, alarmingly green. The whole time I'm there, the Indigo Girls song "Southland in the Springtime" keeps running through my head. With some tweaks to the lyrics, it's even appropriate:
And there's somethin' 'bout Stehekin in the springtime
Where the waters flow with confidence and reason
Though I'll miss her when I'm gone, it won't ever be too long
Till I'm home again to spend my favorite season
When God made me Oregonian, he was teasin'
There's no place like home, and none more pleasin'
Than Stehekin in the springtime.
After we clean the dandelion roots, we ride back to Pat's to roast them. Hannah cooks dinner, Pat builds a fire, and Pat's housemate does homework while bursting intermittently into random loud noises, perhaps to imply that no one can distract her from her studies, because she is the most distracting. As the sun goes down, my energy level does too, and I doze on the couch in the living room until Pat coaxes me out to the fire to play the banjo. When dinner is ready, Hannah, Pat, and I sit around the campfire eating, drinking, and making music together. Pat is another beginning banjo player, and Hannah's getting pretty good at the ukulele. We try our hand at "Wagon Wheel", "No Rain", and various other songs from Hannah's hand-scribbled song file. She's working on a Bob Dylan song that's new to me, but I like it:
I ain't looking to compete with you
Beat or cheat or mistreat you
Self defy you, classify you
Deny, defy, or crucify you
All I really wanna doooo...
Is, Baby, be friends with you.
It's only after a couple of games of Bananagrams that I finally give in to my exhaustion and ask Hannah if we can head back to her house so I can sleep. The housemate (whose name I don't have permission to use) has long since gone to bed, but Hannah and Pat show no signs of flagging. The moon has taken a while to appear (after all, it had to scale the mountainside first), but when it finally does, it's huge and brilliant, reflecting off the water like a spotlight. We ride our bikes back to Hannah's with headlamps, but we almost don't need them.
The next morning, Hannah and I drink tea made from the dandelion roots we roasted. It's pretty bad, we agree, but drinkable if you add enough honey. We ride over to Pat's, then paddle him downlake in a metal Park Service canoe, which we can't take out without a Park Service employee. The wind picks up when we're a good way out and, without much rowing experience under my belt, I find I'm not much use in getting us back. Pat cheerfully takes over my paddle and shouts nonsensical pseudo-sailor-babble while he and Hannah power us back to the landing.
Next on the agenda is a free kite-making class. Along with the other students, we spread out on the floor and divvy up supplies: pre-cut triangles of kraft paper, masking tape, wooden dowels, glue and paint and tissue paper for decoration. Pat's kite has fangs reminiscent of a ferocious fighter jet; he jokes about gluing ground-up glass to the string to bring down rival kites. Hannah's is splashed with bright stripes and glitter and, at the suggestion of a local child, features a fat orange carrot on the keel. My kite, inspired by yesterday's dandelion hunt, starts out with a collaged background made from torn pieces of tissue paper, but I run out of time and have to complete my design with paint. My art projects always do run into overtime, but in this case I'm pleased with the result anyway.
Afterward, we ride our bikes to the frisbee golf course, which looks to my uneducated eye like a wooded lot with a few frisbee golf targets scattered randomly around it. We play a round with Pat's housemate and the postman, who directs us around the course according to his best recollection. "I hate this game!" he says when he does poorly, and when he aims well, "I love this game!" I enjoy it a lot more myself when I realize that no one is keeping score.
On the way back to Hannah's house, I get a tour of the "Compactor", a trash and recycling dropoff site which also functions as Stuff-Swapping Central for Stehekinites. This is where Pat found the vintage holiday lights that now hang in his kitchen. We scour the racks of clothes and boxes of cast-offs, looking for undiscovered treasure.
I am particularly amused by the brand name of the cardboard and can crushers.
Then Hannah makes dinner for the four of us, and we play Scrabble (Pat wins) and Bananagrams. After the others have gone, Hannah and I sit around talking, drinking tea, and eating dark chocolate with green anise until 1:00 a.m. I've been tired for so long I don't even realize how late it is until Hannah mentions it.
* * *
I am visiting Stehekin at the perfect time: after the weather has turned gorgeous, but before it fills up with insects, tourists, and seasonal workers, and before my host is too busy with work to hang out with me all day. The mud flats on which we'll fly our kites will soon be under water, and the intense greens of the spring landscape will fade. Like Holden, Stehekin in summer is an entirely different world than it is in winter. When I visit in May, it's just beginning its annual transformation from a tiny, sleepy community with a population under 100 to a hotspot for vacationers from all over. Hannah describes Stehekin in summer as a nonstop round of parties, events, and adventures, but with plenty of space for solitude if you want it. It's easy to see what brings the crowds here: it's gorgeous and remote, though it reminds me less of Rivendell (which I always picture in a deciduous setting) and more of the Alps: a hiker's daydream and a photographer's paradise.
Riding bikes everywhere is a lot of work for my out-of-shape body, and Pat's bike isn't really a good fit for my frame. I miss my foldie, stashed in the trunk of my car many miles away. Still, it's much better than no bike, and a bike is definitely the best way to see Stehekin. I quickly grow to appreciate the way the ride forces me to slow down and really be in this place, instead of using travel time as a prelude to the next destination. Traffic is a non-issue here; the rare car that passes gives us a wide berth and a friendly wave. We often pass deer which seem utterly unfazed by our proximity. As for me, I have to turn off the automatic alert that sounds in my brain the first few times I see them on the road (DEER! LOOK OUT! SLOW DOWN!). To a driver, deer mean danger, but to a cyclist, they're just fellow travelers.
Hannah tells me the bakery where she works functions as a sort of town square, a popular spot for locals to gather for gossip. Thus, she is always up on the latest dirt. She describes Stehekin as being ruled by two opposing factions: the Courtney family, which came out to homestead there in the early 1900s, and the Park Service. The bakery where Hannah works is owned by a Courtney, and her brother works for the Park Service, so she gets an interesting view of both sides. Later, when I cross-check this with Pat, he says the two factions actually get on fine locally; it's just the remote Park Service bureaucrats who clash with the Courtneys. Apparently the upper-level Park Service, careless of the residents' desires, has notions of turning Stehekin into a wilderness preserve. I take this, as intended, with a grain of salt; it sounds like an issue with no easy resolution.
* * *
ON Sunday, May 6th, Hannah and I ride to the mud flats to meet up with the other kite-makers for the flying portion of the class. We add grommets and crepe-paper tails, hook our kites to lengths of string wrapped round driftwood, and listen to an overview of proper technique, which we promptly forget. We crash our kites into the mud many times, patch them up with masking tape, and call the increasing raggedness of their appearance "character."
Good kite-flying technique, it turns out, doesn't involve running at all; the trick is to unwind all your string in a straight line, with the kite at the downwind end. Then you get someone to toss the kite into the air while you reel the string in quickly hand-over-hand, letting it back out slowly as the kite gets high enough to catch a puff of wind. Hannah and I help each other bring the "Sky Carrot" and "Dandy Flyer" aloft briefly, but the wind is light, and dwindles down to nothing just as we are getting the hang of it.
Pat gets distracted from kite-flying by a paraglider, brought along by a local named Bob. Pat straps on the gear and barrels down the beach while Bob yells "Run-run-run-run-run!" at him like a drill sergeant. There's not enough wind to lift him off the ground, of course, but the whole thing bellies up over his head quite impressively.
Hannah wanders off somewhere, and I'm trying to figure out how to re-launch my kite without her help when I spot a familiar figure approaching across the mud. It's Holden's newest Head Maverick, returning from a camping trip and preparing to head back downlake to the Village. We greet each other with absurd levels of enthusiasm, given that it's been less than 48 hours since we said goodbye, and talk each other's ears off until the kite workshop people come around to ask if I want to submit my kite to an exhibit in Stehekin's tiny art gallery. Of course I do; I tell Hannah she can keep it once the exhibit is taken down. The Maverick offers to take messages back to friends at Holden for us, and we scribble notes on miscellaneous scraps of paper while he eats lunch at the tiny restaurant by the landing.
We have a camping trip to get ready for, so after we wave goodbye to our surprise visitor, we run bike errands: visit the neighbors to borrow snowshoes, and stop by the farm to pick up honey and goat cheese. Karl, currently Stehekin's only farmer, comes down the tidy rows of growing things to greet us, smiling and barefooted. It looks like he does a lot with a little space and a short growing season. He's had a long time to refine his technique, having spent most of his life here. He tells us Stehekin has seen two big changes in his lifetime: the paving of the only road (in the '70s, I believe), and the internet. But because of tight restrictions on development in Stehekin, he says, "It'll never really change." I can't help but hope he's right.
Later, Pat and his housemate come by the bakery to pick us up, and we drive several miles of winding, unpaved road until we're stopped short by a fallen tree. As we prepare to hike, I wonder what I'm getting myself into; I've done a little car camping, but this overnight backpacking thing is new to me, and my companions are all significantly younger and more physically active. Shouldering my glorified bookbag, I note uneasily that my companions all have serious frame packs.
I've been told our hike will be "a couple miles," so I'm expecting to walk about, y'know, two miles. In truth, it's at least four miles of fairly rough going: uneven terrain over a significant elevation gain, with mud and streams of runoff to get past, patches of snow that increase in size as we progress, and more fallen logs and debris on the trail. (Later in the season, tidying up the trails will fall to Pat and other Park Service trail crew.)
I chose the wrong footwear for this trek: my lightweight hiking boots are merely "water resistant," and my feet quickly get soggy and cold. I'm carrying my borrowed snowshoes in an over-the-shoulder bag that keeps sliding all over the place. In the latter part of the hike, I'm postholing shin-deep in snow-patches, until the irony finally gets to me and I stop to put on the darn snowshoes. The others soon do the same, though we clack over a lot of dry ground, and fallen logs become a significantly greater challenge.
The hike is beautiful, but the elevation is high, and my blood sugar is low, and it takes for-ev-er. At dusk we finally reach our destination: a one-room cabin owned by the Park Service. It has four bunks, two bear-safe food chests, a wood stove, a dining table and chairs, and an attached woodshed, but no electricity or plumbing. An outhouse sits nearby; the only running water is the torrent hurtling past, farther down the snowy slope.
Wet, chilled, and exhausted, I sit by uselessly while the others light lamps and start a fire to warm the place up. In a moment of pettiness, I snap something about how you should give a greenhorn some idea of what to expect before taking her on such an expedition. My companions are astonished when I explain I've never hiked in to a campsite before. "But you were at Holden!" they say, which confuses me: roughing it is purely optional for Holden staff. On some level I'm pleased that I do a good impression of a seasoned outdoorswoman, but it occurs to me now that I should make a habit of warning new adventure buddies that my adventurousness, in some areas, runs very shallow.
I continue to be useless and cranky (and ashamed of my outburst) while the others fix dinner, which, when ready, improves my mood immensely. We follow the meal with a rowdy game of Travel Scrabble (Hannah wins), and then I retire to bed, popping in earplugs as sleep insurance. The others stay up and chat a little while longer, but not much.
The next morning we feast on cinnamon french toast and eggs: it's Hannah's birthday, and this meal (and the entire camping trip) is a celebration of it. Before, during, and after breakfast, Pat plays "You Say It's Your Birthday" 24 times on his iPhone, and for each repetition, demands that Hannah recall the appropriate year of her life: where she lived, what she did, who she hung out with. I know, I know, that sounds incredibly obnoxious, but it's actually really fun to listen to her review her past at a rate of 2 minutes and 42 seconds per year, and to mentally compare her timeline to my own. I must say her first 24 years have been far more eventful than mine were.
Soon we are packing up, hitting the trail (easier now that I know what to expect, but still no cakewalk), and driving back to Hannah's. I pack up to leave, and Hannah and I ride bikes to the landing with my gear in tow. Incredibly, none of this is rushed; Hannah generously overestimated the time needed, so we have plenty to spare. At the landing, we cross paths with more Holden staff who happen to be passing through. They'll be joining me for the first part of the ferry ride downlake, then disembarking at Holden's port of Lucerne while I continue on to Chelan, where my car awaits, and hospitable friends are expecting me for dinner.
Hannah and Pat and his housemate wait with us on the dock for the ferry to leave; Hannah kills time by practicing juggling with one of the Holdenites. When we get on the boat, the three of them stand by to see us off, and as the dock grows small in the distance, Hannah runs down it to wave until I can't see her anymore. Later, I will conk out on a row of passenger seats below decks. The weekend's fun has been relentless, exhilarating, and exhausting, and it was, indeed, exactly what I needed.