There’s been a promo for a radio documentary lately on WBUR. With the sort of mystical music they often play for backgrounds, it starts, “There used to be four more towns in Massachusetts than there are today…” and goes on to explain how four towns were drowned to create the Quabbin Resevoir.
My studied reply is: big deal.
OK, that’s not quite true. See, where I grew up, we were surrounded by ghost towns and towns drowned to make way for hyroelectric lakes created from glacial melt. On my way to Youth Symphoney/piano lessons/trumpet lessons/Seattle/the nearest grocery store, we would drive past Alder lake — one of the created lakes. In the fall, when they let the water levels get really, really low, you could look out into the middle of the lake and see where a tiny village had once stood. There were still telephone poles and train tracks. They basically cut down all the trees, moved the people and houses out, build a dam, and that was it. It could be eerie — even years and years later, you can still see all the stumps in their perfection. They assumed they’d rot pretty quickly but it turns out an excellent way to prevent the decomposition of fir stumps is to make it so they spend 50% of their time in water and 50% of the time out. By the time the water decomposers get started, they get killed by the dry. And vice versa.
I don’t know the name of that ghost town. Rather, I know it, but it’s forgotten. But there are other, even closer ghost towns to us. There is a transience to human habitation in the Northwest that doesn’t exist out here in New England, where everything has a storied past. Towns were built on railways, thrived as they logged the nearby timber, and left when all that was left was a yawning wasteland of stumps. My own town, the one I grew up in, was both on a lake and on the rail line. There was a time when it was a thriving place, with over 2000 residents. It’s not a sleepy quasi-retirement, quasi-logging community of 400. At the end of the road, known as Flynn Road to the local residents, no matter that on county maps it’s the blander “Mineral Creek Road”, there is the lost town of Flynn. One house sits there. There was a tragic death there once. A pastor committed suicide. Scandal.
Out deep into the woods, if you head towards Llad Pass, you will journey near what was once the town of Llad. If you didn’t know from stories, you would never know. The forests of the Northwest were populated and worked by whole immigrant communties — from the dying coal mines of West Virginia, to the stalwart miners of Wales. This town was Welsh. There was born there one Blodwyn Truitt, who had improbably red hair until the day she died. There is no more Welsh name than Blodwyn. (It pleases me that her grandchildren carry the Welsh tradition — Owen and Rhiannon? I can’t remember the girl’s name.) We once took Blodwyn’s directions to see the town. There were a few artifacts, but even those are probably not visible now.
If you spend enough time in the Northwest, you understand the frailty of the changes we make to the Earth. On Mt. Rainier there is a road called the West Side road. It was built during the depression, and goes from the Longmire entrance nearly to Mowich (it stops maybe 10 miles short?) The West Side road is subject to violent mud-bursts called Yokiloips (no way do I remember how to spell that), and after it was wiped out at Fish Creek a few times, they stopped rebuilding it. I remember driving up it with my parents after the last repair made. We were some of the last.
My mom and I hiked the West Side 4 times before we finally made it. We had to bug out three, and all three of those times, we ended up walking the long abandoned roads back to the West Side entrance. By long abandoned, I mean maybe 40 or 50 years. It was as though man had never build there. There were narrow paths in the underbrush, unusually flat. A strange flat area surrounded you. It took a long time and a little digging to unearth that underneath the moss and plants was the crumbling remnant of concrete road. In another 20 year, I bet it will be hard to see even that.
How frail humanity! If we were to disappear off the face of the earth, in the verdant Northwest our mark would be nearly gone in 100 years. Perhaps future archeologists would find traces of us, or maybe even those would be erased by the awesome power of living things. Perhaps a great civilization was built in the towering and rich mountains I so love, to disappear without a trace as we may someday.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Unless you happen to live half in the water, and half out.