The cottonwoods stand out now, making the difference between the light green of the alder and billowy yellow of the cottonwood leaves obvious. We see this now as we scramble up the mossy rocks that lead to the bluffs overlooking the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River valley. I hold tight to my son’s hand, tell him to stay away from the edge as we look into the valley to see what we can see. My son has the idea to walk here today. He thinks we can see the slide from here. He has wanted to go for days, weeks even, but it has been rainy and clouds clung low to the hillsides. I tell him we need to wait for a clear day, a sunny day, a day we are sure to get a view. Our day comes finally a week into May. A half day from school and so hot it seems like summer – like we skipped ahead to a better time.
We last came here in January, on a clear day when snowy peaks stood out. The road itself was shaded and frosty and the water that always seems to run down the cliffs along the road was frozen into icicles. From the bluff we could see cows in their fields and friends’ houses across the way. Far below us, like a toy, was our house. Just upriver we could see the small black dots that are back channel sloughs of the river. The river itself was elusive as ever, twisting through the forested valley floor, coming out now and again in open fields and places where the channel is wide and braided. Further upriver we imagine we can see the small town of Darrington nestled between the green slopes of the valley.
The slide came silent and sudden, so quickly most didn’t even know what happened, or so we surmise. It’s what we tell ourselves because we want to believe the dead did not suffer in their dying. It happens while we are getting ready for spring break, packing clothes and loading skis and camping gear. It‘s a rare day of sunshine in a very wet March and feels like a celebration of sorts. My husband, son and are also waiting for my brother in law to arrive so my husband can help him with his taxes. Instead he calls to say there is a house in the road. Is this usual he asks? He doesn’t visit often. The road, he says, makes him nervous. He says he’s not sure how long the road might be closed. He’s not sure if he can make it today. As they talk a friend pulls in the driveway and says the road is closed. We hear sirens off in the distance. We think it is the usual tree and goo across the road thing. This has happened before – the road closed for brief periods when one or maybe a bundle of alders has slid into the road. The cleanup taking an hour or two – sometimes longer. We think it is at this place – the place known for its instability, and that has undergone a major shoring up project.
For days before the slide, weeks even, we notice the ooze of thick blue clay running in the ditch alongside the highway. There is a house for sale there. The last time we drive the road before the slide I tell my son, we should stop, walk back and take a look at the hillside, see where this ooze is coming from. We think this might be the house on the road. Empty, we say with relief. No one hurt. We won’t know for awhile that this has nothing to do with anything really. We won’t know for some time that the slide originated from the north side of the valley not the south like we assume, and is much bigger than our imaginations can invent. We will not know for some time that this is one of the worst natural disasters in Washington state history.
Today we start at the closed gate of a sporadically used logging road that leads to bluffy outcrops of rock. It is a steep but surprisingly well maintained road, considering the infrequent use. I tell my son I think there will be shade but there’s not. We’re not accustomed to the sun and heat yet, so we walk slowly and stop often.
My son takes my hand, holds onto it. What he wants to do is talk. This isn’t really his usual behavior, especially of late. What he wants to talk about is how quickly things change. What he wants to know is how fast is fast really and how quick is quick? It has been a little over a month since the landslide and I feel no closer to understanding much of anything than in those first hours and days. I am unsure how to talk about it with my son or husband or family or friends.
My son says many things changed, the whole valley changed. Yes, I say. We talk about the many ways it changed, the many people affected, not only in the small logging community we live in, but the communities on the other side of the slide, and all the friends and relatives of all the folks who died or lost their homes, all the rescue workers, and volunteers, all the people who live and work here. It changed all of us. In the blink of an eye, he says. And he stops and blinks his eyes, asks me to count how many seconds. We do this over and over until he says the blink of an eye seems too fast. I ask how he knows this. He shrugs his shoulders and continues walking.
We try to make it into a math problem. Like how fast is a blink of an eye? Is it faster than the speed of the slide that we think traveled over 100 miles per hour? I say I think the slide traveled 100 miles an hour and went about a ½ mile distance. How fast is that? He looks for comparisons. We blink our eyes again over and over and squint out into the trees. We can’t see anything much here but the new tender leaves of the alder and cottonwood trees. My son gets distracted and pulls a sticky alder leaf off a tree. I take a cottonwood leaf and we compare. They seem much the same color, somewhere between green and yellow
In the days after the slide we say the names of the missing over and over in disbelief, as if they might return, as if we might learn none of this really happened. The number of missing changes daily, first thought to be just a few, then twenty or thirty before mushrooming into hundreds, then becoming forty three. Before and after pictures are posted in newspapers, charts and diagrams that show the plats of land, the number of houses, the length of road missing. In the days before the missing are confirmed dead, my son asks over and over about the kindergartner. Where is she? They rode the same bus from school every day. He has classmates who lost their homes and belongings. The librarian is dead. His teacher’s son is missing. My son asks over and over, have they found him? Maybe he escaped and is lost in the woods? Maybe he is trapped but alive like the dog, found in the rubble, days after.
My son says to forget the blinking and starts counting. One step is too quick, like the blink of an eye. He walks slowly up the hill. Counting as he walks. He stops and turns to me, says five is too much.
“Three steps,” he says. “And two blinks of an eye. That’s the time it took.”
I question his science, his method, but he holds firm. We take steps and blink. One, two, three steps and blink.
“Not much time to think,” I say. We take three steps and three steps again.
“What did you think in those steps?” I ask.
“Not much,” he says and then is quiet and steps again and again. “I don’t think there was time to run or be scared,” he says.
We do not go skiing or hiking or anywhere much during that spring break. We take a day and go see the swans and snow geese that visit a neighboring river delta. We eat dinner then slowly make our way back home. Most days are filled with trying to help where we can. My son walks a neighbor’s dog. We help sell raffle tickets to raise money. We visit often with friends. We hug most everyone we see. We hug people we would not normally hug. The town becomes crowded with cameras and reporters, first local, then national and international. The grocery store parking lot fills with satellite dishes and news trucks. A pop up shelter is erected on the lawn of the hotel, where interviews seem to happen all day long and into the evenings. There are ambulances and fire trucks from towns, cities and rural districts across three counties parked at the fire station. We take care of a sick friend. But whatever we do seems inadequate and inconsequential.
As the days continue, donations stack up in the community center. The Seahawks and Sounders players’ visit and play with the kids, serve a community dinner. Politicians visit so often they become people. There are nightly meetings at the community center crowded with senators and legislators and the heads of various public agencies. I point out the governor to my son as he talks at a community meeting, as he offers help. Later the president will visit the slide and meet with the town mayor. Church groups send Easter baskets, bags of goodies, little notes that say hope and love. Other schools send gifts to the kids in school. Banners and cards are hung in the school hallways. The Red Cross sets up in the community center and does things like bring therapy dogs into the classroom and kindly nudge folks to talk.
The search for the missing continues. Some are found and identified. The names of the first confirmed dead are read at a community meeting. It is unexpected and jarring. The elementary school teacher who is also a minister stands behind the mayor while he reads. She stands with her hands on his shoulder. His voice shakes. He hangs his head after, lets the arms of the minister wrap around him. They stand silent together and alone out on the gym floor. A friend touches my arm and points at my son. His head is bowed, eyes closed, lips moving. He is sitting in front of us, several rows down, in the front row, with his arms draped over the rails so he can see better the activity below.
Then the memorial services start. My son is confused by all the fellowship, at the memorials, at the community center meetings, with friends. He plays in the parking lot between the Red Cross and various donation trucks. We eat lunch and dinners at the community center, attend meetings, talk with friends. We go home late each evening to our cold house and get up early and leave because we cannot bear to be there much by ourselves. The road to our house is eerie and quiet, the closure just a quarter mile or so from our driveway and the start of the slide another three quarters of a mile down the road. At night, when we would usually hear the sound of traffic, there is silence.
We walk a little then stop again. It is really just a little bit over a mile to the viewpoint but the sun makes it feel longer. We find shade and sit down. We drink water and eat a bit of food. My son scoots closer and leans into me, takes my ponytail and plays with it, takes the hair band out and lays my hair flat against my back, tries to untangle the knots with his fingers.
“Something good always comes out of the bad,” he says. “I mean nothing is always just bad.”
I am hot and irritated. I have often been irritated lately. The robins hopping about the yard irritate. The forget-me-nots and bleeding hearts irritate. The new green of the trees, the young grass, the all of it, irritates.
It’s as if it should always rain now, it should be grey and gloomy and lifeless. Sometimes I’ll be driving the road into town or watching a baseball game or walking into the grocery store and see clouds out across the valley lift. And under the lifting I’ll see sun or a spark of color, a streak of rainbow shining down the flanks of the mountainside, spotlighting here or there a snowy peak, a clump of trees, or a place where one hillside folds into another, as if this valley was boundless in its beauty.
“What good can possibly come of this mudslide?” I say to my son. “I mean how can it be good to die or lose your house or people you love?” He lets go my hair.
“But the people are in a better place,” He ventures.
“What’s better than here?” I ask. My voice is rising and I see the almost panicked look on his face he gets when he thinks I’m getting angry. I know I should stop.
“What’s good about being swept away on a beautiful spring day when you least expect it?” I ask. “What’s better than being here in this valley with everyone you love? Is it better to be buried in mud and go to heaven and sit up there and watch us all down here,” I say. He looks at me.
“What in the world kind of good can come from being dead?” I add.
We are quiet and then I say, a little more calmly, that maybe there is a better place. Maybe there is a place where you get to be with your friends and family and live forever. Heaven, I say. Maybe there is a heaven. We have talked about all this before, we have talked about heaven and hell and reincarnation and karma. I’m no scholar or theologian but I tell him there are many beliefs about what happens after death. He once declared he liked the idea of reincarnation over heaven and hell, he likes the idea of having chances at getting things right. We’ve talked about what we’d like to come back as, what would be the worst, a dung beetle or an ant? How about a cockroach? What would be best? A bird maybe? A falcon?
I hand him the water bottle and he takes a drink. We get up and continue our walk to the viewpoint. We’re close now and scramble over the mossy rock cliffs to the edge. Across the way we see the whole big valley, we see the river and our house but not the slide. Our view is blocked by a hillside where the river makes a bend. We need to go higher to get the view we want. We need to go several switchbacks and another mile up. I know I don’t have the energy for this today and I’m relieved when my son says he doesn’t want to go higher. I’m relieved we can’t see the slide, not today, not yet.
Below us are patches of alder and cottonwood mixed in with the fir and cedars and hemlocks and here we can see clearly the difference between the alders and cottonwoods. We talk about which is green and which is more yellow. Then we sit quiet until my son says, “well it is good for the frogs.”
It’s true. It has been good for the frogs.
“Yes,” I say. “It is good for the frogs.”
We’ve started to hear them in the evenings. I say it’s true that while the slide destroyed habitat it also created something new for birds and frogs and other animals. And all the rain that contributed to the slide, that saturated the hillside, has probably been good for the frogs. The slide blocked the river and made a lake of sorts, a pond, where once tall trees stood. Where houses and a road went, there is a huge expanse of mud and water. Much of the water has receded naturally and some has been drained. The road is needed if the town is to survive but if left to itself, some kind of lake would probably remain, or at least a wetland. In any case it will become a lovely place again. Someday the wildlife will return and flourish, the river will eventually flow blue. My son and I sit quiet and look down into the valley. We watch the river meander, watch it wind its way down valley, as it has done for centuries, as if nothing out of the ordinary happened. Then we head home.
That evening, after dinner and dishes, after my husband and son go upstairs to read, I step outside. When I look up I see a sky crowded with stars. There is the scent of fresh cut grass and warm air touches my bare skin. A divine night for living. I marvel most at the frogs, their singing is a loud and boisterous chorus. Their chirps and burbles are thick as the stars overhead. Here we are – they seem to call. Here we are. They are louder than I ever remember them being.
Ordinarily, I love the first singing of frogs after a long winter, the tentative croaks that become a chorus. I love the first days when we leave the windows open. Here we are, is what the frogs seem to sing tonight. And it seems rude and unapologetic and tangled in grief. I think they should know to be quiet, they should know not to celebrate their living, their survival, their flourishing.
I stand and listen. I want to join in the singing, the chorus of the living. I want to seize their seeming joy, call out into the deep dark of our living. We’re here, I want to cry out. We’re here. We’re here where nothing is obvious but everything is changed and all that is understood is the continuing that sweeps us into living and away from whatever we were that day we scurried about, full of anticipation.
There is that place, that morning, that moment, that instant, when puffy white clouds hung in a fierce blue sky. When the librarian sipped her coffee. When a friend returned home for something forgotten. There, in that instant, our little world splintered and fell open. In three steps and two blinks of an eye, everything changed.