Writing a memoir requires mining memories, and I did plenty of that during the 15+ years I worked on Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance. This year, I’m recalling vividly my family’s first Christmas in Stehekin, WA in 1994. The following excerpt and photographs will give you a glimpse of Christmas, Stehekin-style.
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“Roof-alanche!” Matt shouted as a slab of snow slid off the steep metal roof and thumped to the ground, creating a wall outside one of our living room windows.
“That’s what Mr. Scutt called it when the same thing happened at school the other day,” Rachel said.
For days we’d watched the layer of white that glazed the rooftop like cake icing grow deeper. Temperatures had seesawed between the single digits and the low teens and then crept up to the thirties, turning the snow into a wet, leaden coating. Now, with the window blocked by a curtain of white, our place looked like the Alaskan Eskimo houses Rachel had studied for her “Living Environment” assignment at school. Matt and Jerry bundled up in snow pants, boots, gloves, down vests, and hats and went to work digging out the snow. When daylight once again streamed through the window, Rachel joined them outside, all three of them piling snow into a dome shape to construct their version of an igloo.
We’d decided to make most of our Christmas gifts, both out of necessity (no malls in Stehekin) as well as a desire to simplify and personalize our presents. I sewed quilts and potholders. Rachel and I used our new skill carving linoleum blocks to create a dozen images that I printed and bound into calendars. Matt knitted hats and whittled miniature wooden black bears and cougars. Jerry sanded and glued dowels and bases for the wooden “Stehekin Slicer” bagel holder I’d designed. Stehekin might have insulated us from the Christmas shopping frenzy I’d witnessed when I was downlake, but just like everyone else, we were counting down the hours to the holidays.
The same fluctuating temperatures that had caused the roof-alanche earlier in the month challenged our hunt for a pine to cut for our Christmas tree. I thought back to years when the kids were little, squeezing between rows of stacked, compressed Douglas firs, blue spruces, and white pines in the lot at Seattle’s “Chubby and Tubby’s” hardware store on four-lane Aurora Avenue. This year, a hike through pristine, unplowed snow in a mountain valley just minutes from our home sounded blissful.
My vision of the tree search derived from watching too many Walt Disney films and episodes of “Little House on the Prairie” rather than the reality of propelling our knees and thighs through a mile of three-foot snow drifts coated with a layer of ice, the winter air chapping our cheeks. Sweat seeped from under my wool cap as I huffed to the first tree I came to.
“How about this one, guys?”
Jerry and the kids trudged yards ahead of me, pausing at a tree, rejecting it, and moving on to another.
“No,” Jerry shouted back over his shoulder, “I see some better ones up ahead.”
“But what’s wrong with this one?” I called out.
“Over here,” Matt said.
Just as I caught up with the three of them, I heard Jerry say, “It’s pretty, but I think it’s too big for the living room. Let’s keep looking.”
“What about the one we just passed?” Rachel asked. “It was nice and round.” Her rosy cheeks were coated with sweat, and every time she took a step I could see the marks of melted snow on her pants.
“Let’s just go a little further,” Jerry said. “I like trees that aren’t so bushy. It looks like there are some good ones not too far ahead.”
“Just remember, once we cut it, we have to haul it out,” I said.
“Dad, I’m getting tired,” Matt said.
“Come on,” Jerry said, “where’s your sense of adventure?”
“Da-a-ad,” the kids said in unison.
“Okay, okay. How about this one?”
“Great!” I shouted.
“Perfect,” said Rachel as Jerry took the first swing with his axe.
The trudge back to the Suburban was slower going than the way in as we jockeyed for handholds on the tree trunk and dragged it over the snow. “I never realized we had such different preferences for Christmas trees,” I said. “This one’s pretty, but I think I would have been just as happy with the one we saw when we first got here.”
“But that wouldn’t have made nearly as good a story, would it?” Jerry said.
Later, revived by warm showers, dry clothes, and mugs of steaming hot chocolate topped with whipped cream, we adorned our fresh tree with the ornaments and a string of lights I’d pulled out of storage. Finally, I was able to take in the splendor of the day and the satisfaction of the hard work we’d shared.
The next morning, Matt and I woke up before Rachel and Jerry to find another foot of fresh snow. I hadn’t imagined the quiet could become even quieter, but all sounds were muffled as gray clouds continued to dump fresh powder. I lit candles, Matt turned on the Christmas tree lights, and we slid a CD of Christmas music into the boom box. This was exactly what I’d hoped for in this season usually frantic with buying and consuming. I expected the mood would change when Jerry’s family arrived in a few days, but in the stillness of the morning, I savored the tranquility. Soon, the entire household was awake, and Jerry fired up the Suburban to drive the kids to school for their last day before the winter break.
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Much has changed for me and my family since that first Christmas in Stehekin, including a new home on a rural island, some gray hair, more facial hair, the addition of partners, a different dog (though I’m still wearing the same Sorrel boots). But our love for the Stehekin valley and its community has only grown deeper. Early next year, Matthew and his wife Jenn will add to the clan with the birth of a daughter (and our first grandchild). We look forward to telling her stories about our time in Stehekin and to introducing her to this place that shaped her dad, her aunt, and her grandparents.