My teenage hometown lures and beckons me back. This summer my forty-year high school class reunion adds pull to home. It took my family twelve hours to drive from Utah to Okanogan, Washington. Each of those hours separates me farther from my current harried world. I sit still as familiar sagebrush-speckled hills glide by my window. In early evening my family pulls into my parents’ dirt driveway and nostalgia washes over my brain. The old white barn sits waiting in the same place with Dad’s tractor parked next to it, ready to pull up a tree stump. Wind chimes tinkle as they sway from tree branches.
As would be expected from the name of the town of Okanogan, there are many Native Americans in the area. The Colville Indian Reservation takes up much of Okanogan County.
This is the place I call home. When my family moved to Okanogan, I was a young teenager dreading the change. The home we moved into started out as several “pickers’ cabins.” Apple pickers in the area threw up shanty cabins for temporary residence during picking season. The cabins are roughly the size of three parking stalls in a row. I started out instantly disliking Okanogan, though I had mixed feelings of excitement for something new. Mostly, I didn’t want to be here where the jobs available comprised of picking apples. It didn’t seem very exciting or progressive.
With the aid of hydraulic jacks, the small cabins were lifted and placed over a formed basement. A roof was built on top of the conglomeration of structures. Mom and Dad have lived in Okanogan for forty-five years and over time their house has evolved. There have been additions and renovations both on the main floor and in the basement. It has become a beloved cozy corner of my world. The damp dirt and concrete smell of that basement wrap around me gently where, as a teen, I escaped from my siblings or parents. New inner stirrings emerged into young girl dreams in that place, where boys became central to my thoughts. Just like me, my children like the smell of Grandma and Grandpa’s basement. The area is always cool and quiet. Maybe the charm of that peaceful space has something to do with the chaos swirling around in our world. We grasp onto places of tranquility.
Mom and Dad wanted to make room for visiting children and grandchildren so they framed in a couple of bedrooms down in the basement, adding a waterbed to the largest room. This was back when waterbeds were in. There was always an argument among the children over who got to sleep on the waterbed. After years of that bed resting down there, it only took an enormous nest of spiders in the gap between the bedframe and the waterbed bladder to change the children’s minds about that bed. It became the place they said they were not sleeping. Ever. But the attraction to downstairs always remained. Maybe it was simply the smell combined with the peace it inspired. Even now when I smell someplace dank and musty, home floods my mind. It propels me back to that basement where much of my time was spent dreaming of boys, wanting them to like me and worrying they didn’t. I would plop myself down on the cold vinyl couch, the cracked texture crunching as I would swoon to the voices of “Bread” on the record player.
As I became comfortable with where we lived, I noticed that outdoors brought its own kind of serenity. I would periodically venture out from the basement to discover the land around our home as a gray sea of aromatic sagebrush. Harsh winters and sparse rain in the summer is the ideal environment for the unseemly looking brush which radiates a perpetually pungent smell—unless it is under a foot of snow. The land looks dead. Sagebrush, though living, looks dead. When I walk through the fields around my home, the sagebrush branches scratch my legs. Near the end of summer, the sagebrush looks the same as it did at the beginning of spring, but there is the added element of tumbleweed scattered by an occasional breeze. It is a scene out of an old western movie, tumbleweeds scattering around the city cemetery. A hike through the land, dotted with the wicked plants, brings a discovery. Hidden in the desolation are various live critters. Rabbits zip away as I approach. I’ve never encountered a skunk but their scent testifies they are there hidden from view. Squashed bodies of dead rattlesnakes litter the road.
Much of the area looks this way, but it is also graced with the beauty of fruit orchards. Rows and rows of apple trees stand guard like sentinel armies. Cherry trees replace many of the apple trees. There is a stark contrast between the orchards and the sagebrush land.
I marvel at the patchwork scene on the ground below me when I’m flying with my father. He is an airplane mechanic and would fly the small Cessna planes he’d rebuilt. Once in a while he would take me for a ride.
Coyote Mountain, an attraction for my sister Sherri, lies beyond our home. Sherri and our neighbor friend would spend time up on that mountain with their horses, pretending to herd the cattle that roamed up there. Sometimes snakes on Coyote Mountain spooked the horses, but the coyotes kept their distance. At dusk, you could hear them howling. All of that sagebrush is a natural habitat for the coyote, and there were plenty of those beasts out there. They never did come down to town, but you knew they were there. My brothers wandered the mountain and would periodically traipse home showing off their finds of a skull or bones from Coyote Mountain.
The house I grew up in is about half a mile from the city cemetery. The creepiness of the place from younger years has all but evaporated. Old tombstones poke up from the ground sending shivers through young visitors. When I’m home I enjoy strolling to the small graveyard and walking laps around it. Mom and Dad’s teen grandkids like to walk to the cemetery at night and scare each other. After dark, the old headstones remind me of horror movie scenes, though the place is inviting during the day. I try to discourage the grandkids from venturing to the cemetery because, unfortunately, at night the cemetery becomes a den of iniquity. Liquor bottles and condoms are sometimes strewn among the headstones.
By contrast, the townsfolk flock out to the happy, bustling farmer’s market every Saturday during the summer. The nearly 100-degree dry heat doesn’t seem to discourage many. Local vendors hope to sell their produce and wares. A middle-aged woman adorned in stark make-up has a booth filled with every colorful homemade beaded jewelry and bobble you can imagine. She explains that she has crafted a new design of foot bracelets to wear as a slipper. Sitting at the edge of her stool with a gaudy foot bracelet on, she unleashes her smile, waving her foot back and forth attempting to attract customers. Her behavior seems childish, but people don’t seem to mind. The market brings in the locals, including the Colville Indian population, who run many of the booths at the market.
Family members who visit my hometown see it as a backward hick place. I used to feel the same way. Lately my views have changed. Back home in Utah, life is at a frenzied pace. There is constant chiming on my phone, alerting me to meetings I need to attend or e-mails I need to respond to. The grass is too high; there are too many weeds in the flower bed; I have a visitor coming to stay and no clean sheets; the children need to be signed up for school last week. I chose that lifestyle, but Okanogan brings rest and focus to me. I always have a desire to go back to Utah and slow the breakneck pace down after spending time with Mom and Dad in Okanogan. The people in my past represent a time I want to hang on to. The tranquility enfolding Okanogan is refreshing.
Utah’s population is escalating rapidly. The population growth in Okanogan has had a very slow climb, but is now leveling off. I suppose that’s why the place feels the same as it did forty years ago. Residents have a casual manner and a lack of obsession with appearance. In a society fixated on beauty, it is refreshing to have a town where looks are irrelevant. Driving down the freeway from Salt Lake City to Provo, the billboards are plastered with advertisements of every kind of surgery possible to perfect our bodies. Okanogan billboards tend to showcase things like county fairs and farm equipment.
The land and its inhabitants are intertwined and intimately connected. Many of the faces I associate with Okanogan are the same through time, age etching their features. These people work hard. They conquer the land, producing fruit from a space that would seem daunting to most. There is a sense of camaraderie out in the orchards and when people bump into each other in Walmart. The land and the people are one. This became obvious to me as I think back on flying with Dad over the land he loves, the ocean of sagebrush below us.
As we drive back to Utah, the hum of busy begins to get louder. I start thinking about the huge to-do list I have waiting for me. My college classes I’m finishing up didn’t get any more done while I was away. Housework and the children’s sports don’t rest. My husband and I have phone messages stacked up. When we pull into the driveway it’s as if home shouts, asking us why we took so long and when are we going to get back to all we need to do. My husband and I look at each other wondering when we can head back to Okanogan.
Julie married her college sweetheart. Together they brought eleven children into the world, creating a swirling, exciting, busy life. Until recently, her schooling was put on the back burner. She is working on her bachelor's degree through BYU with an emphasis in writing.
This is Julie’s first publication.