Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Holden Village

“This counting of steps. This counting of scars
in the bark: the warty burl bulging low
on the trunk, the black-scratchings left
by the bear learning to climb. This counting
 of sleeps between this country & the next country
we call home.”
-“Bell”, Cecily Parks (read in Orion magazine my first afternoon in Holden Village)


I live in a village you cannot drive to--a village with no cell phone reception and one satellite phone used only for emergencies. A village with no grocery stores, no hospitals, no shopping malls, no restaurants, no liquor stores, no drug stores. A village that produces its own power using a hydroelectric plant. A village that receives its mail by boat. A village with one church, one school, one dining hall, one ice cream shop, one coffee cart, and one gift shop. A village edged by Cascade cliffs and wilderness areas so remote and well-preserved that the forestry service requires crews to clear trails using long saws rather than chain saws.

In Holden Village, you arrive by water. It’s a ritual: parking at Field’s Point landing, buying a ticket, boarding the boat. The first time I made the trip I camped in the parking lot with friends. We set up our tent on the asphalt and slept side-by-side on the pavement. We woke with oily skin and stiff backs and drove to the closest gas station we could find to buy donuts, granola bars, and individually packed bowls of cereal for breakfast. We washed our faces and brushed our teeth in the public restroom then funneled down to the dock with packs on our backs, duffels on our shoulders, and wheeled bags rolling behind us. We bought tickets at a booth set up beside the dock, tucking our ticket stubs into the safest pockets of our wallets. We snapped photos when we boarded the boat, climbed the ramp from the dock and then the stairs to the top deck. We sat in the open air, bundled in mittens and jackets and watched as the mountains went from sparse and scrappy to craggy and lush.

I arrived in Holden Village twelve days ago. I took a yellow school bus with the name “Honey” painted across the front up switchbacks for eleven miles from the boat landing at Lucerne. I sat next to a boy from Gabon who was headed to Holden Village as a guest singer in the gospel choir. We watched Lake Chelan disappear beneath switchbacks. We sat on green leather bus seats reading our respective novels until the bus stopped short of the village and the driver turned to give us details about the village.

Holden consists of a collection of lodges and chalets, a dining hall, a school, a library, and church. Some of the lodges serve dual purposes. For example: housing and laundry, housing and hike house, housing and nurse’s office. Each chalet has a flower box full of marigolds, a porch swing, and a flag.  From the place where the bus stopped I could see Chalet One’s Canadian flag, slumped in the still air.  My friend Ben sat on the Chalet One porch swing playing guitar with a pink-haired girl stooped beside him. The sun beamed off the mountain peaks behind Chalet Hill.  Villagers sat on the sloped grass near the Village Center waving.  Ron, a friend from last summer, greeted me with a button-shaped sign painted with the words “Rachael TA.” Later, when I arrived in my room I found a white card with the words “Welcome Back to Holden” written inside, propped on the desk beside my bed.


 Last year during my first few weeks in Washington, I kayaked the Puget Sound every night. I splashed through salt water, provoking the cove’s bio-luminescent phytoplankton to sparkle around the wake of my paddle. I paddled toward the mouth of Henderson Bay where moonlight-dappled Mount Rainier dominated the horizon. I waited for the water to still with my legs propped up on my kayak. I sat beneath the stars until my damp jeans sent me back shivering toward the dock. I climbed into my bed each night smelling of saltwater.

The view of Lower Lyman Lake, hiking down from Upper Lyman
Lake, 9/8/12

My first day in Holden Village I hiked twenty miles by myself. I woke at six, ate oatmeal in the dining hall, and bagged two sandwiches from the hiker bar. I carried a backpack with water, food, and field guides, and checked out at the village’s Hike House. I moved fast, covering the first five miles in less than an hour and a half.  I felt the swell of lactic acid rising in my calves. Sweat dampened my t-shirt. When I started up the switchbacks toward Lyman Lake and saw the shape and snow of Dumbbell Mountain come into clear view, I set down my pack and stopped to photograph the cliffs combing the blue sky. When I arrived at Lyman, I sat for a full twenty minutes, staring at the mountain lake’s Disney-blue water, before mounting the final miles to Cloudy Pass, switch-backing through wildflowers toward mountain ridges which traverse the Pacific Crest Trail at some of its prettiest points.  I listened to the screech of marmots, scrambled up rocky crests for views of Glacier Peak, and dropped to my stomach to photograph flowers recently sprung from the melt of high-country snow.

As my body tired, my mind cleared.  Mountain ridges rose on either side of the trail where I trekked. I thought, one day I will ache for this landscape¬Ache. The thought felt as defined as something I’d read in the book.

I’ve hiked over sixty miles during my first twelve days in Holden Village. That doesn’t count the miles I run in the morning before breakfast or the two mile jogs to the Glacier Peak Wilderness area my friend Ben and I (sometimes) do at night after he gets off work. It doesn’t count the miles I trek back and forth across the village when I run errands or the short nature hikes I take with children at the school where I work. Those sixty miles are weekend hiking miles, covered over three long treks--all-day trips which tested my legs and back. Next weekend, when I backpack to Image Lake with friends, I’ll add forty more miles onto my mountain tally. I like to think I’m getting stronger--that by the end of my year here, I’ll move through the Cascades with the mountain-goat ease some of my co-workers exhibit.

Martin Ridge, 9/1/12
“I don’t know why I like hiking so much,” a friend said, during a hike on my third day in Holden, as we stood with our palms on our knees, breathing thin air, downing gulps of water from the bottles we carried on our backs. “It’s something masochistic. It can’t be just the views; we live in an age where I could stream this stuff on Youtube.”

We hiked Martin Ridge that day, bush-whacking and scrambling over 7,000 feet above the valley.  We felt the hardness of the landscape in our weathered hands and aching muscles.  We walked narrow paths bordered by scree slides.  Rocks skittered beneath our feet, highlighting our height above the valley.  We arrived back at Holden Village thirteen hours after we began our hike with sore backs, swollen knees, and cotton-dry mouths.  When we got within a half mile of Holden we flicked off our headlamps and let the lights from the lodges light our way into the village, leading us back to glasses of orange juice and leftover pie in the dining hall.


I’ve worked in the Holden Village School for five days. The entire village celebrated the first day of school with a parade that lasted most of the morning. A school bus with “La Paz” painted across the front picked up the school’s eleven students from their chalet homes that dot the hill less than a quarter mile from the building where they attend school. Villagers in costumes interrupted the bus with mock emergencies: A fire drill which required the students to exit the bus, a leaky toilet rigged to shoot water in the air while operations workers (men in their early twenties wearing jean shorts and tie-die) danced in circles around the road, and an ice cream shop blockade where employees in medieval costumes demanded students dance for milkshakes and free desert coupons. Our school staff—John, the high school teacher, Jeanne, the elementary school teacher, and me--blocked the bus with a “staff breakfast” of peanut butter sandwiches, coffee, and apples on a card table decorated with lavender in a vase and a checkered cloth. We feigned ignorance about school’s start before hitchhiking our way onto the school bus for a ride up to the second level of the Holden Mine. 

Operations workers (Tim and Taylor) interrupt the school bus
 with a plumbing disaster, tie-dye, and dance. 
I work with seven elementary school students and four high school students. I teach physical education and lead nature hikes. I organize writing activities (check out: my students' writing) and facilitate games. I teach first graders to write their numbers, lead songs, answer math questions and read out loud.  I see my students at meals and Vespers.  I nod at them from my porch swing and wave at them during my morning runs. Yesterday in the dining hall, a parent approached me, and asked about my weekend, “I haven’t seen you in a couple days,” she said. When I said I’d been camping and hiking, she shook her head, “I hear you run every morning before school, work all day, and every weekend you hike. I want your energy.”

I explain to her what my housemates already know: that the urge to hike and walk the valley comes not from a compulsion to move, exercise, or explore, but from the knowledge that soon the weather will make mountain travel impossible.  Two mornings ago, sparkles of snow sent my students barreling from their desks to the window, palming the pane glass while the first flakes fell. “One morning,” my housemate Jericho says, “You’ll wake up, and it’ll look like someone powdered the mountains with sugar.” Snow will cover the trails, making it difficult to move or navigate. We’ll trade our hiking boots for cross country skis and snowshoes, stoke our wood burning stoves and begin winter in the village.


My housemates and I “warmed” our house two days ago.  Kari made pastries, Cecilia swept the floor, Jericho cleaned the downstairs, I made lemonade and a playlist and brought a tray of glasses from the dining hall.  We moved into our chalet two Saturdays ago, and figured it was high time we had a party. Our chalet, (Chalet Four) came with yellow and orange marigolds in our flower box and a rainbow flag on our porch. We have four bedrooms, a basement, a sunny kitchen, a laundry room, two bathrooms, and a living room with a wood burning stove and a window bench with a heater beneath it. My room has wood floors and wood paneling. My ceiling slants with the slope of the roof and bookshelves and storage hooks line two of my walls. My scarves hang in the hallway leading to my room; my frame backpack hangs on the hook beside my bed. I brought only a couple boxes, so everything decorating my dresser and hanging on my wall has significance and a story: The postcard my former housemate Anna sent me from a writers’ conference in Chicago last year, the picture of Teddy Roosevelt my brother gave me, the prayer flags I purchased at the Ten Thousand Villages store in Ames, Iowa before moving out of the apartment I shared with Anna to go west for the first time, the earring rack my mother made for me when I went to college, the colored-pen etching of a big cedar tree my friend Lauren drew after our first trip to the Hoh Rainforest, and the calendar my father designed out of photos he’d taken on family vacation (September=Bryce Canyon, my high school senior spring break trip.)

At our housewarming party, people from Holden Village and Stehekin gathered in our living room, perching on our couches and chairs and benches with baked goods and drinks. Friends took shifts touring bedrooms.  They admired our bookshelves, our wall hangings, and the quilts we’d chosen from the Village laundry. Unlike a “normal” house-warming where someone might notice the structure of the house, our Holden guests noted how we’d changed a chalet they already knew, how we’d made the space our own: different from the Richardson family who lived in our chalet last year and the visiting teaching staff who’d occupied the house during the summer.

Here we know the names of the mountains—Buckskin, Copper, Dumbbell, Bonanza. Here every staff member has a Polaroid posted in the dining hall with his or her name and job written in pen underneath.  Here we hold parties: weather-themed dances, pool tournaments, karaoke nights, and housewarmings.  Here we break for meals, for morning cake and coffee, for bus arrivals and bus departures.  Here we watch the sun set and rise on Cascade cliffs, sit out on sunny afternoons, and wake to mountain frost.

Last weekend, my housemates and I joked about how difficult it is to explain Holden Village—recounting conversations we’d all had trying to explain the strange place where we live. “Where is it?” “You take a ferry from Chelan to get there.” “Is it on an island?” “No it’s in the mountains--there are just no roads that go there.” “How do you get there from the ferry?” “You take a road.” “I thought you said there were no roads.” “The road has two dead ends.”

We laughed: Cecilia, Jericho, Kari and me.  Here we were, Cecilia: a Grinnell College grad who worked in D.C before moving to Holden, Kari: a Pacific North-westerner who spent her post-college years cooking in an upscale restaurant outside Seattle, Jericho: a Minnesota-native who's backpacked across India, and me: a writer from Detroit--belly-laughing so hard it hurt--drinking beer and tea and wine, sitting in our mountain chalet in a place so remote and off-the grid that Jericho's college friends are still not entirely convinced she hasn't joined a cult.

It’s a good life here in Holden Village. Today, I ran switchbacks while I watched rising sun orange mountain peaks, I ate pancakes topped with berries for breakfast, I read Old Turtle and The Lorax out loud to first graders in a loft above the library, I led elementary school students in poetry-writing beside Railroad Creek, I ate borscht and fresh baked bread for dinner then soaked in a hot tub while I watched the sun dip beneath Buckskin Mountain.  Tonight I'll return to my room.  I'll see my brother's pictures and my dad's calender and my mom's earring rack.  I'll see the card on my bookshelf with "Welcome Back to Holden" inside.  I'll sleep with my window open and my prayer flags from Ames, Iowa fluttering in wind.


  1. Rachael, I miss you and your writing and the conversations we had -- especially when we were the only two living on the West Coast! I'm so happy to hear/read the serenity in your voice as you speak of hiking and working with children in the Village and I look forward to more of these lovely updates.

    1. Oh man Liz, I miss you too. Send me anything your writing. I want to have as much of your writing voice as I can until I can once again hear your speaking voice. Maybe I can visit you in Bend if you move there when I get a couple days out of the village. :)

  2. I am envious. Especially of your roommates. I miss them! Give them all hugs from me, will you?

    FYI, I got a "blog has been removed" message at the "students' writing" link.

    1. Lindsey--they all say hello back. We miss you up here. You're well-loved in this village.

      Thanks for the heads up about the blog. It disappeared shortly after I created it. I tried to log into the Google account I created for the blog to find/fix it and Google had some security issue and wanted me to confirm my identity by sending in a code they sent me via text. Alas not the most effective account restoring method at Holden.

      Hope all is well for you! Sending good thoughts your way from the mountains.

  3. Thanks for reading about your life & work. Miss YOU!