Following in the news the fires east of the Cascades this summer, like most, my heart sunk imagining the devastation and thinking of the people whose homes and lives were being destroyed along with the fragile environment of central Washington. I imagined it burned beyond recognition. Dramatic photos showed all consuming flames engulfing trees and everything in their path. I didn’t want to go east again, I wanted to remember it the ‘way it was.”
But the economies of the towns that lost so much to the fires, including tourist income this summer and last summer, are dependent on people coming again. I changed my mind and we headed east over the North Cascade highway, a trip we had not taken in many years, and which brought back memories of previous trips, the first ones long before Mike and I were married.
When I moved back to Washington in my late 20s I assumed I’d be backpacking and hiking and doing all those wonderful outdoor recreational activities the Northwest environment beckons one to do. A busy life ‘homesteading’, including the daily routine of a milk cow, gardening, and a full time job, left little playtime. Then the health challenges started – 3 years of mononucleosis, followed by a ruptured disk in my neck, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. Early in life I began to grieve the life I’d dreamed of but seemingly wasn’t going to have.
But I would not give up my desire to be in the mountains. I discovered the Cascades offered many opportunities for ‘climbing high’ without having to backpack and hike. I took my troublesome body to the Cascades and fell in love. I got to know the passes, those high places one could soak up sub-alpine air and silence. I found Forest Service campgrounds, which, week days and ‘off season’ would often be empty, and along with Pan, my sweet collie compainion, we created our own mountain adventures.
Though our recent trip over the North Cascades brought back fond memories of previous trips, the views, the silence, the mountain air all seemed as exhilarating and awesome as the first time I drove that extraordinary highway, when it was younger and so was I! (officially opened as a highway in 1972, the Department of Highways provides a timeline of this historic, remarkable route here: North Cascade Highway.)
Once on the ‘east side’, we soaked up, as folks living on the ‘wet and woodsy’ side do, the open sky, pine forests, and vast views of what I call ‘naked mountains’, the ones where you can see the lay of the land because the vegetation is relatively sparse.
There was no evidence of recent fires around Winthrop, where we watched the super-moon lunar eclipse, drove the godawful road to Hart’s pass, (that’s another story! Built in 1909 and not seemingly improved since!), and enjoyed blue skies, crisp air, warm days and the vivid reds, yellows and golds of fall color tucked in amongst the seasonally browned autumn hillsides and pine tree stands.
Then we drove south through the beautiful Methow Valley and saw the erratic path of fire, as forgiving as it was destructive. Hillsides and mountainsides as far as the eye could see had standing burned pine trees. In places the fire burned down to the road leaving black sticks where roadside brush once stood. But most remarkable was where it burned to the edge of homesteads and stopped…stopped at houses, the edges of yards still green with grass, the edges of orchards, whose trees often showed stress, with some outer trees scorched, but were still standing in their orderly rows of green. Looking at the scorched hillsides there would be patches of green, sometimes a few trees, other times a whole area, where the fire, for reasons only fire understands, went around, leaving behind live pine trees to give birth to the next generation.
Those oases of green, the islands of human habitat left untouched, were mostly due to heroic efforts of firefighters and homeowners. One can only imagine the thoughts and emotions of literally fighting an inferno to save home and hearth, your own or someone else’s. Signs of gratitude are posted every where thanking the firefighters, whose endless efforts over the past months resulted in people being able to move forward and go on with their lives. Of course there were homes lost, and tragically the lives of three firefighters. There is no consolation for those losses. But the sights of what was spared, either by human effort, or some strange design of Nature, is quite moving.
As we continued our trip, after a night in Leavenworth, we were treated to the most vivid of autumn color going over Stevens Pass. I said to Mike “We all revel in this show of color, but it’s the color of death, leaves drying up and dying”. Chuckling at my funky pessimism (fueled by my poor sleep and debilitating foot, ankle and knee pain that dominated our otherwise delightful mini-vacation), he replied, “They aren’t dying, they’re storing up energy for the coming spring.”
I replied, “They are letting go.”
Of course I know falling leaves are part of the cycle of life, the cycle I thought of throughout our drive through the Methow Valley. I imagined the hills ‘greening’ up in the spring, wild flowers blooming amongst the burn. Outside Chelan we saw thousands of tiny pine trees on the hillsides of an old burn. There are always signs, some immediate, many subtle, of Nature’s restoration of life.
Nature, in the form of animals and plants, does not ‘think’ of these things, it does not doubt, it just ‘knows’ it to be so. The tiny pine seedling does not lament the dry, burned hillside around it, or the decades ahead before it becomes a tall, stately, ponderosa pine, it grows in the ‘faith’ that what it needs will be provided.