A year ago, we took off on a day trip to see our 25th piece of land in two months. We’d seen property perched on bluffs. Property at the base of cliffs with a history of mudslides. Property halfway down precipices held up only by morning glory and blackberries. Property on flood plains. Property on bogs. Property on mud flats. Property on river sloughs.
Property that had been on the market for a while. Property no one else wanted.
Property that was cheap. For good reason. Sure, you take a chance that you’ll be rolled up in a mud Stromboli after the mountainside decides to go surfing, but isn’t life full of risks? Why, houses have slid into Puget Sound in the expensive burbs of nearby Magnolia and Bainbridge. The mansions of Queen Anne are being held up by walls of fimo. The well-traveled Highway 99 viaduct (which MIM takes to work every day) is held together by toothpaste and hi-tech bungee cords. Trendy downtown Seattle condos are built on a mudflat that will liquefy in the next earthquake. When I worked in a downtown office building and told my brother The Agitator about my earthquake-preparedness kit, his response was that I would not need a kit, but he would need a shovel in order to dig me out.
So why not get the same risk for a fraction of the price?
Whether it was four hours away or a half-hour ferry jaunt away, we looked at acreage that filled the Man I Married with visions of orchards, writers’ retreats, cider press buildings, and space for the Little Monkey to roam without being told every third second to stop beatboxing.
The same properties filled me with visions of houses skidding down cliffs, houses pancaked under collapsing mountains, houses floating away.
The first property we saw that day last October had been on the market for three years and partially consisted of a ravine and half the width of a brook (read “raging river” come spring) running through it. The next property skulked on flat ground that was dry enough that day, and was also situated conveniently close to a few neighborly meth labs (no need for midnight pharmacy runs for decongestant when cold season hits).
“Maybe,” I said to the first one, as I held the Little Monkey back from the lip of the plunging ravine, strewn with tent scraps, soiled dungarees, and a runaway’s swollen diary (with one forlorn entry written in second person).
“Nope,” I said to the second one, which came with its own convenient RV returning to earth, from which I expected a window-shattering chemical explosion, if not a rabid dog and a shotgun barrel. “Keep driving,” I said before he’d set the hand brake.
On a back highway on the way home, MIM screeched to a stop, which is easier for him to execute than me, since he drives the automatic with both feet and is thus able to stomp on the gas and brake pedals at the same time. He pulled an illegal U-Turn and headed back down the road. He’d glimpsed nirvana: a For Sale sign lurking in the weeds, fronting an old barn that wasn’t exactly caving in but would require no ventilation system. He and the Little Monkey bushwhacked down the driveway remnants and disappeared. LM worried about snakes. I worried about needles. MIM never worried.
I stuck close to the car and looked around. Like all of the places we had visited on our search for affordable land, the area was beautiful. We live in a beautiful state, clotted with water and mountain vistas: water that tends to rise, mountains that tend to explode or collapse, all on ground that occasionally gets a wild hair and parties hardy on rock-and-roll.
The hundred-year-old barn, looking sturdy as an aged buffalo on failing knees, squatted on flat acreage: no cliffs in sight. No river in sight. A pleasant hill rolled pleasantly in the distance, and the highway, I knew, followed the path of a river that ran well on the other side of the road.
Met my requirements.
I could grow to like this place, though it wasn’t within spitting distance of a town. And I was starting to like the looks of anyplace that MIM would drive away to with LM every weekend, which also met all my requirements for a writer’s retreat (“Bye! See you tomorrow night!”).
Back on the highway, we passed a small cluster of buildings at a wide spot in the road: a boarded-up gas station; an old storefront; a church; a community center, but no single person in sight, much less a visible community of people. The odd name of the town came and went through the wind in our open windows.
MIM got home and did some intense internet digging but couldn’t find a listing for the barn. He surmised from aerial views that it was a vast piece of acreage far out of our price range. And being so far from any town, he felt it would be too easy for vagrants to break in and steal the priceless cider-making equipment he acquires off Craigslist, which we all know is at the top of the list of things to steal for the black market: The masses are plunking down top dollar for empty champagne bottles and suction pumps.
Besides, he liked the ravine property better, because it came with a Kathy Bates-ringer neighbor who could keep an eye on things, as well as an old machine shop loaded with rusty pulleys and hooks and cranks and oil stains, which is his version of what a used bookstore is to me.
The barn was forgotten.
Exactly six months later, on a Saturday night in March, I glanced up at a TV screen in a pub. “Oso mudslide,” read the headline, which blared itself over a map. Oso. I couldn’t quite place the name, but it nagged at me like a small canker on my tongue.
Mudslides are a dime a dozen in this neck of the woods, so I went back to my Manhattan, and then my friend and I flitted tipsily off to see Othello. Drinks and plays about other times, other places, when, on a back highway, little more than an hour’s drive from my house, a bucolic town—in a halcyon valley, once nestling beside a gentle slope along a meandering river—was buried under 90,000 cubic yards of mud and debris, which engulfed 49 homes and other structures in less than three minutes.
Oso: the safe barn.
Oso: the deadliest mudslide in U.S. history.
The pleasant hill I’d noticed had simply, instantly, collapsed.
The 43rd and last body was recovered four months later from under 18 feet of earth and debris.
Half a year after the slide, we left Granite Falls, headed north for Concrete: stable names conjuring solid foundations a person could have confidence in. We were looking at buildings in both towns. I had realized that MIM’s search for land is the housewife’s version of retail therapy, but his mall is the entire state.
A friend with us that day knew the back route instead of taking the freeway. We needed no convincing on a clear, early autumn day for a drive through scenic foothills.
From Granite Falls, we turned right, then left. Then left, then right. Then right at the T, left at the next T, and right at the next T. With a lot of zigging and zagging inbetween. MIM kept two fingers on the wheel at all times.
I felt queasy, though usually I have a stomach of steel except when it comes to a mix of large cocktails, fried oysters, and dark bars that hide the state of the kitchen. But with the last right, we finally hit a straight and pleasant old highway.
And then I saw it: the barn.
Still standing. Staring off into the distance at a hill no longer there.
I had wondered about that barn, chewing its cud on the safest-looking property we’d looked at, in an area where it looked like no disaster would touch, other than stampeding sheep and a banjo player snapping a string.
The slide had dammed the river at its base, obliterating a square mile of land, including the highway and everything on both sides of it.
Just up the road from the barn, we came to a standstill for road construction at the lip of the mudslide’s reach. It had taken over two months to scrape the highway clean and reopen it as an unpaved gravel road. But today the road had closed again to stage queues of 18-wheeler flatbed trucks, each bearing one church-sized concrete girder—barriers that for all their sheer size and weight looked pathetically hopeless in the face of what had been a soggy-Pompeii, instantly halting life. “Tragedy” and “disaster” and “catastrophe” are overused words, constantly appended to hiccups of fate or picayune manmade crises—but in this case, any words were insufficient for the scope of destruction and for man’s trivial attempts to withstand the next unpredictable Zeus tantrum with flimsy slabs of cement.
The tiny, tinny beeps of vehicles backing into place made little dent in the gouged silence of a yawning mountainside, and signified nothing but our insignificance.
Cars that day could travel one way at a time along a power company’s access road. We skirted the south lip of the slide, swathed in dust as we crept along through the trees in the long snake of cars, baking in the heat. It felt wrong to roll up the windows and turn on the a/c.
“When will we see the mudslide?” the Little Monkey asked every two and a half seconds. “Is that it?”
“You’ll know it when you see it,” I answered.
And we rounded a bend, and we did.
The hillside had dropped its jaw open like a nutcracker, disgorging itself into a square-mile swath that was 30 to 70 feet deep in mud and splinters that once were houses and trees.
But all I could see were people in living room armchairs on a peaceful Saturday morning, smothered. Drivers on the highway, radio on, smothered. The cable TV guy, the electrician, the plumber, at work early on a weekend for a nurse’s new house, smothered. The wife, the grandmother, the infant daughter. The longtime-married couples, the just-engaged couple. The family dog.
The rescue dogs, the rescue workers.
Then there was the tree. A single trunk stretching skyward in the midst of a cataclysm that had felled everything else around it.
And at the top of that tree: the stars and stripes. And one speck of a human, in a hardhat, making his way across the lunar terrain.
And in the front seat I cried, but did not let the Little Monkey know. For him we remain as staunch as that flag, now flying from the top of the tree instead of at half-mast.
The tree. That barn. Oh, that barn.
What surely should perish, survives. What looks unstable stands strong.
What should be stable, collapses: a mountain, a birth family. What should be safe becomes dangerous.
What forces transpired to save one tree in a wasteland? To leave that grandfatherly barn unscathed, just down the road? What forces transpired to put one cross-eyed, klutzy boy in our path when 9,999 other children in this state at any given time need homes after their biological parents have failed them? How can a young person continue to stand tall amidst the wreckage? How can we predict what is safe and what is not?
There’s only one thing I know for sure: I bet that barn could be had for a song now.