By Iris Graville
Excerpt from Chapter One,
Hiking Naked—A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance
The Lady of the Lake glides to the dock as Captain Wilsey steers the boat’s white body, trimmed in crisp blue, within inches of the pilings. The aluminum gangplank squeaks and creaks into place, bridging the boat deck to the landing as The Lady’s passengers tromp across its grated metal in waffle-soled hiking boots.
Cliff and Cragg, two of the five Courtney brothers, lean against a massive cedar sign with its carved greeting, “Welcome to Stehekin.” Wally Winkel’s there, too, plus the Buckner sisters, Hobby and Bucky. I wonder how long it will take for them to think of us as Stehekinites instead of “tourists from the West Side.”
The Lady’s crew toss freight from the stern—backpacks, canvas mail sacks, hard plastic ice chests, cardboard boxes—bits of the world at the other end of 55-mile long Lake Chelan seeping into this Cascade Mountains valley in Central Washington.
We four—my husband, Jerry, and our two children and I—pile into the cab of Jerry’s grandfather’s 1952 GMC pick-up (it arrived in Stehekin ahead of us on a barge) and bounce along the only paved road in this remote village. The valley opens before me—Purple Point, Rainbow Falls, Harlequin Bridge, Company Creek just down the road; Horsehsoe Basin, Agnes Gorge, Sahale Glacier, and McGregor Mountain beckon. The early June breeze lifts the sappy, earthy scent of cottonwoods, Douglas fir, sage, and ponderosa pine. I take it all in—sights, sounds, and smells—and know that a part of me, perhaps from another lifetime, is home. Just a year earlier, the possibility of this arrival was only a fantasy.
~ ~ ~ ~
The first inkling had come five miles from Stevens Pass when I lost both FM and AM radio reception in the used, 1985 Ford Tempo diesel sedan that Jerry’s folks had helped us buy. That July night in 1993 was quiet along the deserted mountain roadway, but my mind wasn’t.
Part of me was dreading the deskful of communicable disease reports and the immunization clinic schedule that would fill the coming week. Another part of me was still in Stehekin with Jerry and our twins, Rachel and Matthew, in the A-frame log cabin we’d rented from Wally Winkel for the entire month of July.
Translated as “the way through,” Stehekin once was a passage-way for Skagit and Salish Indians. Later, highways were blasted through parts of the mountain range, but none of them ever made it to Stehekin. Today, it’s more like “the way away.” Most people get “uplake” on the Lady of the Lake, a commercial, passenger-only ferry that makes one trip daily in the summer; in the winter, The Lady sails only a few days a week. Others arrive in Stehekin by float plane, the hearty by hiking a full day over National Park and Forest Service trails. Telephone lines from the “downlake” world never made it to Stehekin, and there aren’t any cell towers, either. Most interaction among Stehekin’s eighty or so year-round residents takes place face-to-face. Contact with the rest of the world is by mail and now, for those who have satellite dishes, by e-mail. A single public telephone, for outgoing calls only, haltingly relays voices via satellite when communication is urgent.
For nearly ten years, Jerry and I had returned to Stehekin each summer for a week while his parents took care of the kids. Most years we tented at Harlequin Campground and often were the only ones camped there beside the icy Stehekin River. Sometimes we rented a cabin that included a vehicle so we could explore more of the valley. The quiet and the slowed pace calmed us. The 180 million-year-old glacier-carved peaks around Stehekin reawakened our sense of awe. Several of those years we made it back to Stehekin in the winter and took the kids with us. They loved the cross-country skiing and playing in the snow and didn’t seem to miss television, movie theaters, or other basics of city life.
While visiting in February 1993, we learned that Wally, a long-time Stehekin bachelor, rented out his late mother’s cabin at a reasonable monthly rate. Jerry and I reserved it for that July. When we returned, Rachel and Matthew had just finished fifth grade. Jerry was a sign language interpreter at a high school and had the summer off, too. By combining holidays, personal days, and vacation days, I was able to have most of the month off from my job as a public health nurse. Mine wasn’t a break for the entire summer, but the prospect of several weeks away from work had kept me going through some challenging days the previous winter and spring.
I had to return to work for a few days in the middle of our month-long holiday and made the trip home alone. I boarded The Lady around 2 p.m. for the 2-½-hour ride to the mid-point of Lake Chelan. The sky was clear, and the turquoise lake was flat calm. I picked up the Tempo where it had sat for two weeks in the sunny parking lot at the Fields’ Point boat landing. The car seats were hot and the interior smelled like stale popcorn. I rolled down the windows and turned on the radio to begin the three-hour drive home through ranch-land along the winding Wenatchee River road, over a mountain pass, and the last stretch on Interstate 5.
A couple of hours into the drive, static started to drown out the music on the radio. No signals—not even from country western or Evangelical Christian stations—could penetrate the ragged rock ridges approaching the ski area at Stevens Pass. In the stillness of my solitary drive, I began to dream of spending an entire year in Stehekin. Like a favorite movie I’d watched on the VCR, I re-wound images of the previous visits to Stehekin and especially the past two weeks, picturing all of us riding our bicycles to the bakery for its famous cinnamon rolls, hiking to Rainbow Falls, playing community softball, reading Jurassic Park out loud, playing Trivial Pursuit and card games, and greeting the boat when it brought visitors, freight, and the mail to the Stehekin Landing.
I remembered, too, a hike Jerry and I had taken to Agnes Gorge earlier that month. While the kids stayed behind with other Stehekin children, swimming in Lake Chelan and riding bicycles the three miles between the bakery and the landing, Jerry and I had a day to ourselves in the forest. The warm, pine-scented air and flat, two-and-a-half mile trail loosened our knees and our dreams and washed away the fatigue of our busy urban lives. Along the way, we paused where the trail opens onto views of 8,000-foot-tall Agnes Mountain and inhaled slower and more deeply than we had in months. Stepping gingerly on rocks and fallen tree limbs to cross an icy stream running through the trail, we relished the escape from telephones and calendars.
As in years past, we began the hike fantasizing about living in Stehekin, wondering what it would be like without phones and television or radio reception; without a grocery store and a daily newspaper. We talked of sending the kids to Stehekin’s one-room school, with classmates of all ages from kindergarten through eighth grade and with the river and the forest as their playground. A school where reading and drawing, knitting and playing the recorder, writing and history and math and science were integrated with daily life.
We fantasized about rising each day in the mountains and living in synch with the seasons and the rhythms of the natural world. Jerry schemed about hikes into the backcountry whenever we wanted. I imagined nighttimes so dark and silent I could not only see the stars burst in the night sky but believed I could hear them as well. Even summer temperatures in the 80s and 90s seemed appealing, knowing that the glacier-fed Stehekin River would cool us in an instant.
Winding our way through the lush forest path, we reminisced about a visit to Stehekin during winter holidays and waking to three feet of fresh snow. We had followed our hosts’ advice in anticipation of the storm and had filled the bathtub with water, gathered up flashlights and candles, and loaded the box by the wood stove with firewood. When the accumulated snow broke power lines and cut off electricity for lights and the pump for the well, we smugly enjoyed reading by candlelight in our 70-degree cabin.
On this summer day, we followed a path at the end of the Agnes Trail down to a secluded spot where we could skinny dip in the arctic-like river with the gorge’s 15-foot waterfall as a backdrop. We whooped and giggled as the water prickled our sweaty skin. Within minutes, we scrambled out to dry our chilled bodies on sun-baked rocks. We slipped back into hiking clothes and boots and returned to the trail with more daydreams of abandoning city life.
Soon, my reflections shifted to my increasing dissatisfaction with my work. I had felt called to nursing while in high school, although I didn’t use that terminology at the time. Initially, I was fascinated by the workings of the body and the skills I learned to promote its healing and ease its pain. First in hospitals, and later in homes, I changed dressings, drew blood, monitored pulses and breathing, and instructed about medications, diets, and exercises to restore function. Later, I was drawn to public health. That was the safety net I wanted to be part of and where I saw that my work as a nurse would promote justice, especially for the poor and underserved. For many years I was passionate about preventing illness and injury, providing direct service to women and children, and shaping public policy to promote health.
Twenty years later, my fervor was waning. In the year before our July escape to Stehekin, I had moved into middle management. My job change was a way to distance myself from my caseload’s never-ending stream of pregnant teens and young women. I had grown weary of helping them deal with parenting complicated by poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence. These signals of burn-out accompanied me on the trail.
“I don’t know if I’m cut out to be a supervisor, especially in the communicable disease program,” I said. Puffs of brown dust swirled around the toes of my hiking boots.
“You’re a natural leader,” Jerry said.
“Maybe, but I’ve still got all this stuff to learn about tuberculosis, meningitis, pertussis. And immunizations for travelers.”
“You will. Just be patient with yourself.”
“I have to staff the clinics so we can be open when patients need us and at the same time be prepared for an illness outbreak that would mean we’d have to drop everything.”
“Have you talked to Jan about this?”
“Lots of times! She’s a great nursing director, but her hands are tied, too, with budget cuts…” My unfinished sentence bounced off the cedars and pines as we hiked on in silence long enough for me to unearth more dissatisfaction.
“Nobody is ever happy with what I do,” I said, gritting my teeth. “The staff want me to see more patients in the clinic so they’re not so overloaded, and the administration wants us all to do more and more and more with less and less money.” I breathed harder, my words tumbling out as I dodged gnarled tree roots and swerved around boulders jutting into the groomed trail. I could feel tears creeping into my throat. “But what terrifies me most is another outbreak like we had last year with E. coli,” I said.
“You’ll be able to handle it if that ever happens again,” Jerry said. His voice held the warmth and compassion I felt so often when I confided my insecurities to him.
“I’m not so sure,” I said. “Now I know why it’s called middle management. I’m the one stuck in the middle. I dread going back.”
“I know what you mean,” Jerry said. “I sure was ready for this break from interpreting.” Normally even-tempered and pragmatic about the challenges of his job, Jerry talked of his growing disillusionment with his work. “I don’t mind being invisible in the classroom,” he said. “When I’m doing my job well, the teachers and hearing students ignore me. But I know if I weren’t there, the deaf kids wouldn’t be able to be in those classrooms. Lately, though, I feel like we interpreters are invisible to the administration. They don’t get how vital we are to these kids’ education.”
For years, both of us had viewed our work as service to the world, and that we had been led to it by God. Away from it, though, we questioned if we were making any difference and if the demands on our time and our emotions were worth it.
As the hike progressed, my questioning and complaining felt like pleas to God for guidance. Were my thoughts of moving to Stehekin an escape? Or was I sensing a nudge to seek a life more balanced between inward and outward action? If we ever did that, would we be turning our backs on the injustices we felt God called us to work on?
This year, the questions seemed to be demanding some new answers. But, just as had happened on hikes in previous years, our return trek back to the trailhead brought with it doubts and excuses and claims that our fantasies about living in Stehekin wouldn’t work.
“It’s exciting to think about moving here,” I said, “but honestly, I don’t think I could survive without hearing Bob Edwards’s voice on ‘Morning Edition’ each day when I wake up.”
“Yeah, I know you need your daily hit of NPR,” Jerry said.
“And I think it would be hard to get along without a phone and a grocery store.”
“Plenty of people here manage just fine doing all their business by mail,” Jerry reminded me. “And you’ve been to potlucks here and seen the spreads of food. Seems to me the locals do all right mailing their grocery lists to Safeway and getting their orders delivered on the boat. We could do that, too.”
“Hmm, yeah,” I said.
We walked in quiet companionship, the kind that comes after fifteen years of marriage. Once again, hiking with Jerry in the rugged beauty of the wilderness, I was unburdened of doubts about my competence and whether I was making any difference in the world. As the sound of the Agnes Gorge waterfall faded, the thought of moving to a place where there were no nursing jobs, an appealing possibility at the start of the hike, filled me with anxiety by the end. Who would I be if I weren’t a nurse?
“I don’t imagine the kids would want to leave their friends and all the activities at school,” Jerry said, a little further down the trail. “They’re not big into shopping or going to movies, but they do enjoy soccer and baseball and watching ‘The Cosby Show.’ How would they do without team sports? And television?” And then came the biggest roadblock of all. “Besides, how would we support ourselves?”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I muttered, “but it’s fun to think about.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Which is just what I was doing on that drive back to Bellingham. The further I drove west, the fainter became the scent of dry pine needles. Moist air crept in my slightly opened window as the Ford’s diesel engine haltingly crept up toward Stevens Pass. Though I was far, now, from the chill of Lake Chelan and the spicy sweet butteriness of the bakery’s cinnamon rolls, I was imagining my family and I making Stehekin our home for at least a year.
The sun was fading and stars were awakening. Occasional headlights appeared in my rearview mirror, probably city folks heading home after a weekend of hiking; periodically a semi’s bright lights would blink as it headed east. My heart rate quickened and my mind raced with ideas about quitting my job and renting our house out. Every time I thought to myself, this is crazy, I felt a presence, urging me along, and stripping away obstacles. It was as if clarity was coming to me out of the silence of the empty highway.
It wasn’t that I heard a booming, God-like voice speaking to me, but I sensed a wisdom there with me, opening me to a vision of how things could be. The energy that was compelling me seemed to be coming from a different level of awareness than my usual rational, pragmatic approach to making decisions. This seemed like what my Quaker practice calls a “leading,” and that night I was feeling led as surely as the highway routing me over the mountain pass.
By the time I got home a few hours later, I had a plan thought out. Even if God was leading me, I couldn’t set aside my usual systematic, organizational style. Before I went to bed, I filled two pages with ideas about taking a leave of absence, becoming a freelance nurse consultant, advertising in Quaker circles for renters for our house, and applying for a loan to finance our sabbatical.
The next morning, I included just three sentences about my thoughts on the drive home in a letter to Jerry and the kids: I had lots of time to fantasize about living in Stehekin. I think we should talk more about how we might swing it for seventh and eighth grade! Anyway, it helped me cover the miles and to be able to face going to work this morning. I put the sales pitch in an envelope, addressed it to Jerry Graville, General Delivery, Stehekin, WA 98852 and dropped it in the mail on my way to work the next morning; I didn’t want to chance the realities of my “downlake” life eroding my dream before my return “uplake” in a week.
I just hoped that Don, the Stehekin postmaster, would get word to Jerry that there was a letter for him.
Copyright Graville 2011