Have you ever been obsessed by a childhood memory? The summer of 1952, my mother brought my brothers and sister to live near the upper end of Lake Chelan, a 55-mile-long reservoir often less than a mile wide, that flows into the Columbia River in Washington State. As a child, the wet pine and mountain earth smell seared into my memory. Recently, my wife Patti and I went back to visit.
We drove to Chelan, a small town approximately 50 miles north of Wenatchee, spent the night in a hotel and early next morning boarded Lady of the Lake, a 285 passenger ferry that carried us to our destination, Stehekin, a small town at the head of the lake where we checked into our lodge. On the trip up-lake, as we neared where I thought we'd lived, I tried to spot the old house. I remembered the cove, but a 5-year-old's geographical perspective is much different than an adult's.
Early our first morning in Stehekin, I set out on the seven-mile hike to our old homestead. I discovered a 7-foot Ponderosa pine walking-stick near the Lake Shore Trail sign, apparently left by an earlier hiker. Staff in hand, I set off. Across the lake, rising sun sparkled on snow still tucked at high altitudes, the mountain scene reflected in the aqua water. Robins fluttered about on their incessant hunt; hummingbirds and bees flitted through blossomed plants. Ponderosa pines towered above, many scarred by fires, new growth rising beneath them. Vanilla-scented sap wept from charred bark, warmed by the sun. My hand was soon sticky with sap from the walking stick. I took a break on a high promontory and watched cloudbanks pile high on the ridge behind me as the wind kicked up dust on the powdery trail.
Distant thunder prompted me to move on, down into a cold gully where snow-melt flowed. This shaded spot was a different eco-system. Pink monkey flowers hovered over the rivulet. Wide-leaf maples and other broadleaf trees flourished here in this mountain cleft, carved deep by eons of natural erosion. I waded the creek and began my assent, following the zigzag trail up. Farther from the lodge, the trail was less traveled. Knee-high bushes heavy with Oregon grapes that looked like blueberries bordered the trail - an important food for local bears, I'd been told. I approached a rock fence that paralleled the trail, bleached cedar posts protruding from the stones. Closer, I saw it was an abandoned homestead where somebody had spent thousands of hours building four enclosing stone walls (about the size of a soccer field) to shelter an orchard. The relic reminded me of a crumbling French fort and cemetery I'd seen many years before deep in the U Minh Forest in Vietnam. There, lush tropic growth had overtaken the moss-covered headstones; the moist climate crumbling packed mud walls. Here, on this semi-arid mountainside, naked stone dully reflected sun - trees roots snaked into rocky soil. One apple tree remained, a stunted apple high in the branches. How had that blossom gotten pollinated? What happened to the person who tried to carve this niche in such an inhospitable place?
Storm clouds rolled over the ridge, and I hurried along the trail. I didn't hear it, but the twitching tail grabbed my attention and I jumped back. A rattlesnake slithered off the trail. I followed him as I slipped my camera from the pouch. The snake moved through dense undergrowth - for a moment I lost him - toward a charred blow-down Douglas fir. I stepped back and moved to the other side of the log where I spotted him, coiled, tail high, tongue hissing. I snapped a few pictures and moved on. Rain kicked tiny dust puffs on the trail.
Lightening struck close, wind picked up and a torrential downpour drenched me. Rain stung the back of my neck as hail bounced on the bare gray rock face I was passing. I crouched in the shelter of an ancient Ponderosa. At the lodge, there was a stump face, the rings dated back to, I think Ponce de Leon, the 1400s. This tree that sheltered me dwarfed that trunk. The storm passed as suddenly as it had blown in, and I continued along. I jumped aside, spooked, but it was only a twisted, snake-shaped limb.
My senses were heightened. Perhaps it's an adrenaline rush from the snake encounter. Or the reawakened image of the old fort. Or the monsoon-like rain with only hail ricocheting. But as I walked the now damp path I was aware of the wet fireweed drooped over the trail, hiding possible threats. I began pushing my stick along ahead of me. Flowers glowed. Yellow arrowleaf balsamroot seemed brighter than before. (I've read that the Okanagan people smoked the dried leaves before trappers carried tobacco west). And the lupines - small blue flowers that seemed to grow out of rocks. I passed through a recent burn area; fireweed - one of the first plants to sprout after a burn - blanketed the mountain through scarred trunks to the summit and down into lapping waves, bees thick among the delicate purple flowers. Climbing over fallen tree trunks blocking the path, I poked my stick beneath them before I stepped up, then leapt clear on the far side. The sun was out, hot now, the trail steaming.
I took another break, looking out over the lake, heavy after-rain scent flooding over me, and again, as I always think when in a remote area, that we humans really are insignificant. The water and the ice-shrouded mountains and the fire were here before us and will be long after. And I felt the urge to just walk up the mountain and be absorbed.
On another high point, I looked down on the cove that sheltered our house so many years ago. I saw a long barge dock. I remember the barge dock; Henry, our neighbor, threw me off the end into frigid water, teaching me how to swim. Just down lake I spotted a brown house nestled in the trees. It must be a new home - I remembered ours being closer to the dock. I followed the trail down the mountain, around to the barge dock. Yes, this was ours; the trail to Henry's house, up the mountain to a pristine meadow valley, was right where I visualized it - but no house. I climbed the steep slope near the dock to a level area and found a section of rusted pipe and recalled how melt water was piped down the mountain from Fish Creek to our house. This must have been the spot, but where was the foundation - the stone foundation and wide front steps? For an hour I wandered, poking about in the needle-covered sand and rock but found nothing. I walked the forest toward the brown house I'd spotted earlier.
Stepping onto a trail, I spotted the house around a curve and recognized it - the stone foundation, the screened-in upstairs sleeping area. But it had been changed, updated. The massive front yard pines were gone. I called out, alerting the owners; no answer. I knocked on the door; no answer. I wrote a note and tucked it in the door jam. I walked around the front of the house. The steps were gone (I remembered the steps because I slid down them on my face when I was 5.) A new foundation had covered the old. I walked to the edge of the yard, sat on the split rail fence and looked down to the lake - a sheer 40-foot drop with a small stone dock at the bottom. I remembered my brothers and me fishing with our Gabby Hayes fishing rigs there. It was Fmuda melancholy afternoon, enveloped in pine and mountain earth smell.
Shuffling through needle beds I was a little boy again, playing in the forest with my brothers, hiding from my mother, skipping rocks out into the lake, bathing in the chilly water, waves lapping over my head. Through the trees, down lake, I saw Lady of the Lake steaming my way. I'd planned to wave her down and catch a ride back but decided to stay in this moment and hike back.
Wendell and Patti Affield of Bemidji drove to the Lake Chelan area in July. Wendell took the hike to his childhood home solo as Patti was laid up with a pulled muscle.